Greer Garson Biography

Greer Garson’s warmth, charm and elegant intelligence made one of the most beloved actresses of the classic move era.

She was born Eileen Evelyn Greer Garson in Manor Park, Essex (now Greater London) England in 1904 the only child of George Garson and Nancy “Nina” Sophia Greer (who died in 1958). 

George Garson (1865-1906), although born in London, had Scottish roots.  He worked as a clerk. Sadly, when Greer was two years old he died during an appendectomy.  After her husband’s death Nina supported herself and Eileen by managing townhouses that she and her husband owned.

Eileen proved to be a sickly child.  She spent most of her first winters in bed, passing the time byGreer Garson reading and studying.   She spent the summers at her grandparent’s place in Ireland.

In 1921, Eileen entered the King's College London where she remained for five years earning degrees in French and 18th century literature.  Then it was off to France where she did post-graduate work at the University of Grenoble

“I did not go to Grenoble with a definite scholastic aim in mind. I went–for the first time in my life–to major in fun, and a very happy year it proved to be; fruitful too, in fun and color and romance and companionship, if not in any solid additions to my academic credits,” she said.

While in France, she dove into a swimming pool seriously injuring her lumbar vertebrae in her spine.  She was forced to cut her stay in France short.  She returned to London where a chiropractor was able to heal the damage. 

Although at one point Eileen had wanted to be a teacher, she found herself working in the research library for the Lintas advertising agency in London.  She also started acting in local theatre productions.

Future actor George Sanders also worked at Lintas:

“I never lacked for excuses to wander into the office of that gorgeous redhead where I could feast my eyes on her and enjoy her brilliant conversation,” recalled Sanders.

Eileen coaxed Sanders into joining her theatre group.

In January 1932 she started performing in the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.  Her first stage performance was as an American Jewish tenement girl in Street Scene. 

Greer GarsonAround this time, she was being courted by Edward Alec Abbott Snelson.  On the advice of family and friends and despite the fact that she did not love him, Eileen married Snelson (1904-1992) on September 28th 1933.

They honeymooned in Germany.  It didn’t take Greer long to discover he was jealous, overly-possessive man.  In total she was with Snelson for five days.  She flew back to London and he went to India where he had some business to attend to.  She asked for a divorce, but he refused.

She made her London stage debut in 1934 performing in The Tempest.  It was for the billing of The Tempest that she officially changed her name from “Eileen” Garson to “Greer” Garson.

After two years of working for the Birmingham Repertory Theatre a bad bout of pneumonia forced them to terminate her contract.

After she recovered, she then won a part in a London play called The Golden Arrow with Laurence Olivier. 

She also appeared in BBC’s early experimental television service.  Among other productions she starred in a 30-minute version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night with Dorothy Black – which was to be the first time one of Shakespeare’s play was ever performed on TV.

In 1937, MGM head Louis B. Mayer while visiting London he saw Greer perform in the play Old Music.  He was immediately taken with Greer and quickly offered her seven-year contract.  However Greer wasn’t interested in a film career because she felt she did not photograph well.  The money and having an opportunity to move to California which offered her mother a more agreeable climate though changed her mind and she signed with Mayer.

On November 16, 1937, Greer and her mother set sail for America.

For a year and a half no major roles came her way.  She didn’t work at all in films as Greer refused to act in small bit parts.  She was finally given the lead in the film Dramatic School (1938), but she had an horse riding accident and she reinjured her back.  Luise Rainer got the part instead.Greer Garson

She was then offered the role of Kathy Chipping in James Hilton’s Goodbye Mr. Chips. Even though it was a relatively small part, she decided to do it.  Filmed in England, her role in Goodbye Mr. Chips won Greer her first Oscar nomination (Vivien Leigh won the Oscar that year for her performance in Gone with the Wind).

Also in 1939, she starred in the Remember? a minor comedy alongside Robert Taylor, Lew Ayres and Billy Burke.

In 1940, Greer starred in Pride and Prejudice.  It proved to be her breakthrough role.  No one seemed to notice that Greer, at 36 years of age, was playing the role of a 20-year-old.

On May 8th, 1940 she finally received her divorce from Snelson.

In 1941, she starred in two films When Ladies Meet with Joan Crawford and Robert Taylor and Blossoms in the Dust (filmed in Technicolor) with Walter Pidgeon.  In Blossoms in the Dust, the audience got to see Greer’s flaming red hair.  The film was the biography of Edna Gladney who founded an orphanage in Fort Worth, Texas.

Her next film Mrs. Miniver received 12 Academy Award nominations - winning six: best picture, best actress (Greer, of course) best supporting actress (Teresa Wright), best director (William Wyler), best cinematography and best screenplay.

It broke box-office records. President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill labelled the film a great morale booster and urged people to go see it.

When accepting her Oscar, Greer spoke for five minutes and 30 seconds.  Because of Greer's speech, the Academy implemented a time limit for speeches.

During the filming she fell in love with and soon married the actor who played her son Richard Ney (1915-2004).  He was 28, Greer was 39.  The studio was fearful that the public would not react well to their union, but it didn’t hurt the picture’s box office appeal.

Greer GarsonNext up was Random Harvest, which like Goodbye Mr. Chips was based on a James Hilton novel.  Her co-star was Ronald Coleman.  In it Greer performed a song and dance number.  Random Harvest received seven Academy Award nominations in total (Greer was not nominated).

She did receive best actress nominations for her next three pictures Madame Curie (1943) with Walter Pidgeon; Mrs. Parkington (1944) also with Walter Pidgeon and The Valley of Decision (1945) with Gregory Peck.  This gave her five consecutive best actress nominations tying her with Bette Davis (1939-1942) -- a record that still stands today.

Greer was then partnered with Clark Gable for his first film back from serving in World War II.  The tag line for 1945’s Adventure was Gable’s back and Garson’s got him”.  The film however flopped with both critics and at the box office.  Greer and Gable seemed to lack chemistry and the film received mixed reviews.

On September 25, 1947 she divorced Richard NeyGreer claimed he called her a “has-been”, belittled her age and physical abused her during their marriage.

The quality of Greer’s movies and her popularity (along with MGM’s popularity) dipped after World War II. The public’s taste in movies was changing. Big lavish films were no longer in vogue.  MGM decided to focus on message pictures that focused on social issues.  Women’s pictures (Greer’s specialty) were no longer their top priority.

In 1947, she starred in Desire Me with Robert Mitchum.  The production was stress-filled as Mitchum did not get along with director George Cukor who as a result was replaced by three more directors (Jack Conway, Mervyn LeRoy, Victor Saville).  The film was not a success.  No director wanted his name attached to it and it became the first MGM film released without a director credit. 

During the Desire Me filming, Greer and co-star Richard Hart were swept thirty feet along the shoreline by huge wave.  They both suffered cuts and bruises and narrowly missed being swept out to sea. 

Her next film was the delightful comedy Julia Misbehaves (1948) with Walter Pidgeon, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Lawford and Cesar Romero.

It was during the Julia Misbehaves filming that she met Elijan “Buddy” Fogelson (1900-1987).  They were married July 15th, 1949 shortly after Greer finished filming That Forsyte Woman (1949) where she co-starred with Errol Flynn (with whom she got along famously).

Happily married to Buddy, acting became less of a priority for Greer.

In 1950, Greer starred in a sequel to Mrs. Miniver (1942) called The Miniver Story.  It did poorly at the box-office and received less-than-enthusiastic reviews.  (Missing from the sequel was ex-husband Richard Ney who Greer had no interest in making another film with.)

In 1951, she became an American citizen.Greer Garson

The highlight of Greer’s film work in the 50’s was Julius Caesar (1953) which starred Marlon Brando in the title role.

Her MGM contract expired in 1954.  In 1958, she replaced Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame on Broadway.

In 1960, she received her seventh and final Oscar nomination for Sunrise at Campobello (she lost to Liz Taylor who won for her role in Butterfield 8).  Greer played Eleanor Roosevelt.  Ralph Bellamy played Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In 1965, the first Greer Garson Theatre was opened on the campus of the College of Santa Fe in New MexicoGreer and her husband donated the money for its construction.

In 1966, she starred in The Singing Nun as Mother Prioress.  She made her last theatre-released film in 1967 when she co-starred with Fred MacMurray in The Happiest Millionaire.  In 1968, she narrated the children’s TV special The Little Drummer Boy.

Over the next years she did some television work including the movie Little Woman (1978) and a guest appearance on The Love Boat.

Greer supported numerous civic and benevolent causes.  She received honorary degrees at various universities (and was named an adjunct professor at two universities).

In 1980, she suffered a minor stroke.  In 1982, her husband Buddy was diagnosed with Parkington’s disease.  He passed away in 1987. 

In 1988, Greer suffered another heart attack and went in for quadruple bi-pass surgery.  In 1990, she received the Women’s International Center (WIC) Living Legacy award.

In 1993 the second Greer Garson Theatre was opened at the Meadows School of Arts at Southern Methodist University.  Unfortunately, Greer was too frail to attend the dedication ceremony.

Greer Garson died from heart failure in Dallas on April 6th, 1996 at the age of 91.  She’s interred at Sparkman-Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery.

- T.J. (webmaster)

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