Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Great Conversion Stories: Susan Hayward
By John Janaro (’85)
Susan Hayward was one of Hollywood’s top movie stars of the 1950s. Her real-life story has some dramatic parallels with her most notable screen roles in her rise to fame and struggle with alcohol abuse and a broken marriage. This personal drama, however, also became an unusual road that led her to the Catholic Church.
She was born Edythe Marrenner in 1917 in Brooklyn, the youngest of three children in a family of Irish and Swedish ancestry and nominally protestant religion. Growing up poor in the Depression era, Edythe was drawn to movies and acting from childhood. Her innate talent grew along with her relentless ambition and brilliant red hair, and at age eighteen she traveled to California to audition for Gone with the Wind. Though she did not get the part of Scarlett O’Hara, her auditions were impressive enough that she got her first studio contract and her new Hollywood name, “Susan Hayward.” Before long, the talented young actress was establishing herself with significantly larger movie roles during the war years. In 1943, she became pregnant with twins by actor Jess Barker, and the studio required her to marry him in order to preserve her contract.
Thus, her first marriage began and was sustained for ten years by her ambition as an actress. Behind the scenes, however, the couple fought constantly—often fueled by alcohol—and they divorced in 1954. By then, Susan was one of the world’s biggest movie stars, but her personal life was falling to pieces and she attempted suicide the following year. The inhuman pressures of celebrity life were crushing her.
In the midst of all this, she met Eaton Chalkley, a Virginia-born lawyer who owned a ranch in Carrollton, Georgia. Eaton himself was divorced from his Catholic wife. But during his unhappy married life, Eaton had converted to the Catholic faith out of real conviction in 1940. Perhaps civil divorce and his busy work schedule cooled his own fervor over time. He and Susan fell in love and contracted a civil marriage in 1957. She moved to Georgia, and for the next nine years they were devoted to one another. Susan loved Eaton as she had never loved anyone before, and he brought much stability to her life. But Eaton found himself increasingly conflicted as a Catholic living in what he knew was an invalid “remarriage” after divorce. Deprived of the sacraments, Eaton nevertheless continued praying. He took Susan to Rome in pilgrimage where, among other things, she met Father Daniel McGuire. He donated land from his ranch to build a new church in Carrollton, where he attended Mass daily.
Despite his deepening piety, there did not seem to be any way to regularize their relationship. Nevertheless, God found ways to write straight with these crooked lines in the end. In 1965, Eaton fell gravely ill with hepatitis, and was reconciled to the Church. In the weeks prior to his death he received the sacraments with great devotion, and he counseled his precious friend Susan Hayward to follow his example. After his death, Susan contacted Father McGuire, now a pastor in Pittsburgh, and six months later she was baptized and received into the Catholic Church.
The final years of Susan Hayward’s life were not without difficulties, but she remained a practicing Catholic until her own death in 1975. She is buried next Eaton in the churchyard of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Carrollton, Georgia.