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The woman who was nearly Bond: the turbulent life of Susan Hayward

Towards the end of his increasingly hapless term as Labour leader, decided, for reasons best known to himself, to weigh into a British cultural debate that occupies far more time than it truly merits: who was going to be cast as the next James Bond. Miliband’s choice was an off-kilter one. After an encounter with the actress Rosamund Pike, the possibly star-struck politician announced. “I think she’s a great British actress, she’d make a great Bond,” he declared, before calling for 007 to have a change of sex. “This is 2015, I think we can move with the times.”

Miliband’s intervention was no more successful than his leadership of the party. Pike herself sighed: “there’s nothing really about the James Bond character as written by Ian Fleming that resembles a woman.” and asked “why should a woman get sort of sloppy seconds?” She has several allies. , all-powerful Bond producer, has repeatedly said that Bond will never be played by a woman as long as she is in charge. As she said in 2020: “James Bond can be of any colour, but he is male.”

In the of the actors considered to play Bond, there is one who would have been a considerable surprise. of Bond’s creator Ian Fleming reveals that, when it came to casting the role, the producer Gregory Ratoff, who owned the screen rights before his death in 1960, had been frustrated with the options available in the late Fifties.

Although he was enthusiastic about Richard Burton (“I think that [he] would be by far the best James Bond”), a paucity of suitable stars to play the suave secret agent meant that Ratoff had to look outside the box, to James Stewart (“if can slightly anglicise his accent”) to, of all people, , then an Oscar-winner for her 1958 film I Want To Live!.

Susan Hayward in 1940
Susan Hayward in 1940.Credit: Getty

This might seem a truly bizarre idea, but according to screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, it reflected Ratoff’s contempt for the material. As he said to Variety in 2012: “Frankly, we thought [Bond] was kind of unbelievable and as I recall, even kind of stupid. So Gregory thought the solution was to make Bond a woman, ‘Jane Bond’ if you will.”

It remains unclear as to whether Hayward was ever approached for the part, but it seems unlikely that Fleming – who retained a veto over casting – would have approved her. In any case, after the likes of Patrick McGoohan and Cary Grant rejected the role (or were rejected for it), was cast and his Bond remains iconic.

Yet Hayward’s own life and career were arguably even more dramatic than 007’s adventures. Had she played a gender-flipped Bond, it would only have been one chapter in an existence that saw her face triumph, disappointment, tragedy and disaster in the course of her relatively short life. Although she claimed her birthday was June 30 1919, it is more likely that she was born two years earlier. Not a vast disparity, but in the age-obsessed world of Golden Age Hollywood, even those couple of years could make the difference between being cast in a leading role and being left out on the scrap heap.

Susan Hayward with Clark Gable, in 1955
Susan Hayward with Clark Gable, in 1955. Credit: Alamy

She was born Edythe Marrener in Brooklyn, and was hit by a car at the age of eight, leaving her with a slight limp, which she turned into an advantage. Her distinctive hip swivel became part of her screen persona.

Changing her name to Susan Hayward at the suggestion of a talent agent, and rejoicing in the award of ‘Most Dramatic’ from her high school class, the flame-haired actress began a modelling career in 1937, and unsuccessfully auditioned for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in along with half of Hollywood.

At first, she seemed stuck in unchallenging ingenue roles in films with titles like Young and Willing and Reap the Wild Wind, in which she starred opposite John Wayne for the first time. Then came the more challenging part of an alcoholic nightclub singer, loosely based on Bing Crosby’s wife Dixie Lee, in 1947’s Smash-Up, for which she was nominated for her first Oscar.

Susan Hayward, circa 1949
Susan Hayward, circa 1949. Credit: Moviepix

Twentieth Century Fox began casting her in everything from the Biblical epic David and Bathsheba, opposite Gregory Peck, to the musical biopic With a Song in My Heart, in which she played the real-life performer Jane Froman.

She was now seen as such an asset to Fox that one executive called her “our most valuable player”. The studio certainly put their money where their optimism lay. They publicly estimated that they had invested around $12.5 million in Hayward’s pictures, or around a quarter of their annual production budget. She was voted “the most beautiful girl in the world” by the discerning members of the American Beautician Congress, and she and Wayne were declared the world’s favourite actors of 1952 by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

Susan Hayward in Valley of the Dolls
Susan Hayward in Valley of the Dolls. Credit: Alamy

This stellar career was nearly undone by a particularly nasty and public divorce in 1955 from the actor Jess Barker, who she had been married to since 1944. Hayward testified to Barker’s abusive and violent behaviour in the divorce court, in an attempt to gain custody of their twin sons. She was successful, being awarded both custody and over a million dollars in joint assets. Yet the publicity and stress of the case led to her attempting suicide via an overdose of sleeping pills. Hayward thankfully regretted her decision and called her mother in a state of panic, leading to her being carried out of her California home by police who had kicked the door down. Photographs of her in a hospital blanket, looking wan and fragile, were duly splashed all over the newspapers.

Soon after recovering. Hayward was found in the bedroom of another actor, Donald Barry, by Barry’s girlfriend Jil Jarmyn. Hayward attacked Jarmyn after a row broke out and she was insulted. She defused the controversy with a quip: “Being Irish, this infuriated me.”

Susan Hayward with John Wayne in The Conqueror
Susan Hayward with John Wayne in The Conqueror. Credit: Alamy

She remarried the lawyer Floyd Eaton Chalkley in 1957, but not before filming the previous year. Not only did the critically mauled Genghis Khan epic star Wayne in Yellowface, it was unfortunately filmed in Utah, downwind of Nevada’s nuclear test sites. Around half the cast and crew, including Hayward and Wayne, developed cancer. It has often been suggested that their presence in this highly radioactive area may have been to blame.

Yet she bounced back with her Oscar-winning performance in 1958’s I Want To Live, in which she gave a highly sympathetic account of the convinced murder Barbara ‘Bloody Babs’ Graham. The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther said of watching her on screen: “Anyone who could sit through this ordeal without shivering and shuddering is made of stone”.

She continued to act, and in 1964 clashed with Bette Davis on the set of Where Love Has Gone (at one point ripping off her wig and throwing it at Davis while yelling “You disgusting old bitch!”). But marriage to Chalkley took precedence over the comparatively undistinguished roles that she was offered in her forties, and beyond. As Ratoff mused about casting her as James Bond, she took on fewer jobs, and the only later performance of hers with any cut-through was in 1967’s camp extravaganza Valley of the Dolls, in which she played the ruthless Hollywood diva Helen Lawson. Yet by then, Chalkley had died unexpectedly in Rome in 1966, and Hayward lost interest in acting. Instead she became a devout Catholic faith. muknSrXIUso

She was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1972, and, after it spread, died on March 14 1975, at the age of 57. Wayne would die four years later; 46 people who worked on The Conquerer would eventually be felled by cancer.

Hayward’s last couple of roles were either small parts in undistinguished pictures, such as the William Holden western The Revengers, or the lead in made-for-TV films such as Say Goodbye, Maggie Cole, in which she played a doctor who befriends a dying girl. By then, she had already established herself as a true Hollywood great – but one not without her eccentricities. For example, she liked to sign her contracts at precisely 2.47am, following the advice of the ‘Gregarious Aquarius’ Carroll Righter, the so-called “astrologer to the stars”.

Yet she retained a down-to-earth sensibility that served her well throughout all the many twists of her life. As she once remarked, “I never dreamed this could happen to a girl from Brooklyn.” Would she have made a good James – or rather, Jane –… Bond? Probably not. She was, after all, American.