Highlights of a Life
“I like acting. I’m a writer because I married a writer and it’s nice to be able to do two things.”
– Mary Orr, Canton Repository, June 5, 1955
Mary Orr was born December 21, 1912, in Brooklyn, New York, but her family moved to 1819 Market Ave. N in Canton, Ohio, in 1926. Her father, Chester Andrew Orr, was the president of the Union Metal Manufacturing Company.
Mary attended McKinley and Lehman high schools in Canton, but she finally graduated from Ward Belmont finishing school in Nashville, Tennessee. From there Mary moved on to college at Syracuse University, but left after two years to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. Once Mary Orr arrived in New York, like many other Ohioana Authors, she found it difficult to leave.
But unlike many other Ohioana Authors, it wasn’t the literary community in New York that attracted Mary Orr as much as the Broadway stage. In fact, when Mary began her acting career she had not yet published a single story. She made her stage debut in “Chrysalis” for the Theatre Guild in New York. Quick to follow were roles in “Bachelor Born” in 1938, “Of Mice and Men” in 1939, and “Jupiter Laughs,” in 1940.
The 1940 Broadway production of “Jupiter Laughs” was directed by Reginald Denham, a British-born director and playwright. He and Mary Orr became acquainted during the production, and they began collaborating on writing scripts for theater plays. In 1944 Orr and Denham published the co-written play “Wallflower,” which premiered on Broadway at the Cort Theatre in January. Even after writing a play, Mary couldn’t escape from acting in it, taking one of the smaller parts in the original cast. “Wallflower” would be purchased by Warner Brothers and made into a successful motion picture starring Joyce Reynolds and Robert Hutton in 1948.
“Wallflower” was the first of many plays to be co-written by Mary Orr and Reginald Denham – “Dark Hammock” was produced on Broadway late in 1944, and “Round Trip” premiered on Broadway in 1945. But the couple’s collaboration went further than script writing. In 1947, Orr and Denham married and moved to 100 Central Park South.
Also in 1947, Mary Orr published her first short story (written independently of her husband) in Cosmopolitan magazine. “The Wisdom of Eve” is about a seasoned Broadway actress who tries to help a young fledgling, and the latter connives and stabs as many backs as necessary to rise to the top of the heap. The satire was based on an actual incident which happened to actress Elizabeth Bergner in Berlin, Germany. Bergner is the basis for Margo Channing, the aging actress, and several other characters also have real-life inspiration.
The Canton Repository, December 3, 1950, reveals, however, that “Contrary to rumors that the ambitious Eve [character] is based upon a real actress, Miss Orr explains that she is a combination of many understudies she has known. ‘As unscrupulous as she is, I am even willing to admit that there is a touch of myself in her, too… I remember when I understudied Claire Luce in ‘Of Mice and Men,’ (one of my first jobs), I would have been perfectly ready to cut her throat for a chance to play Lucy’s wife.
“‘As for the dramatic critic,’ Miss Orr adds, ‘seeing that my future still depends on the opinions expressed by eight gentlemen who follow that acrimonious profession, my lips are sealed.’”
Immediately after its publication in Cosmopolitan, “The Wisdom of Eve” was offered to Hollywood in the hope of a movie sale. Unfortunately, Orr said, it was “turned down by every film company, including 20th Century Fox!”
In 1949, Mary continued, “after the story had been published in magazines all over the globe and probably forgotten by everybody but myself, I rewrote it as a radio play and sold it to the National Broadcasting Co. It, too, was titled ‘The Wisdom of Eve.’ It was broadcast from coast to coast on a program called ‘Radio City Playhouse.’ Now that I had a dramatized version of the story and its ‘live’ possibilities became apparent, one film company woke up – 20th Century Fox!”
At the time, Hollywood was known to pay as little as $500 for the rights to stories, and Mary Orr thought this film would be made on a small scale, without big name actors, much like “Wallflower.” She was paid somewhere between $1,000 and $10,000 for the rights, with a quarter of that going to NBC.
The resulting movie, “All About Eve,” was not produced on a small budget, however, nor was it void of big-name stars. Bette Davis played the aging actress Margo Channing, and Anne Baxter played Eve Harrington. The 1950 film was noted for its witty dialogue and nominated for 14 Academy Awards. It landed six Oscars: director Joseph L. Mankiewicz won for direction and screenplay; George Sanders and Celeste Holm picked up best-supporting Oscars; and the film was chosen Best Picture.
Although 20th Century Fox’s eastern office promised Mary Orr screen credit, the western office didn’t make good on the agreement, and her name appeared nowhere on the film. In trying to explain the omission, Mary guessed: “For the last few decades, it has been the delight of Broadway to lampoon Hollywood unmercifully. ‘Eve’ was Hollywood’s chance to strike back. But if it were publicly acknowledged that the basic idea for the satire originated in the mind of a Broadway actress and playwright, then the impression of Hollywood’s brilliance at knifing Broadway in the back would be dissipated.
“I should like to make it quite clear,” Miss Orr said, “that I have no chips on my shoulder whatsoever. I was perfectly happy to accept the money and conditions under which I sold it at the time, and I consider myself extremely fortunate that one of Hollywood’s most brilliant men has handled the story so cleverly and built it into such an outstanding picture.”
Still, Mary couldn’t help but add, “It is an ironic contrast that I received $75,000 for [the film adaptation of] my successful Broadway play, ‘Wallflower,’ and full credit, yet that was only made into a small B picture with no famous names in it.”
Mary Orr finally got a bit of credit for “All About Eve” when Random House decided to publish a book version of the film scenario late in 1950. At first they offered her a flat $500 for the rights, plus a casual reference to her authorship in the preface, to be written by Mankiewicz. But this time, Mary didn’t settle so easily. The final terms gave her one third of the book’s royalties, plus full credit on the title page.
Meanwhile, in 1950, another Orr-Denham comedy, “The Platinum Set,” premiered in England and then in New York on the West End. The couple collaborated on “Sweet Peril” (produced in 1952) and “Be Your Age” (produced in 1953), along with about 40 television dramatic scripts produced by Columbia Broadcasting or NBC. Mary continued to publish short stories in women’s magazines, while acting in radio plays, on television, and on the stage in “Sherlock Holmes,” 1953, and “The Desperate Hours,” 1955.
In 1956, Mary Orr published her first novel, Diamond in the Sky. According to the Canton Repository, August 26, 1956, it took her six months to write the first version of the 120,000-word novel. “I enjoyed writing the novel so much more than short stories,” she said, “because it gives the writer greater scope.”
Diamond in the Sky details the entire process involved in the production of a Broadway play. “From the play’s conception in the mind of its author to the notices which greet it following opening night, [Orr] describes each step of the production through the point of view of the individuals involved in it,” writes Anne Ross, in her 1956 review of the book for the Herald Tribune. “Her technical knowledge is great, and she has more than the usual information on scenic problems, lighting and staging difficulties. She has in no way written an introspective novel, and her characters are not much more than types. But her story does much to illuminate a process which has been described many times, but which never fails to be interesting.”
In 1964, Mary Orr and Reginald Denham undertook an Australian and New Zealand tour of the play “Never Too Late,” in which Orr starred and Denham directed. The two published a book about the experience, Footlights and Feathers: A Logbook of a Theatrical Tour Down Under, in 1967.
The couple would collaborate again in 1967 on the play, Minor Murder, and in 1982 on Dead Giveaway: A Play of Suspense. But after the publication of her first novel, Mary wrote more on her own. She published three more novels and five more short plays as the sole author, before her death in New York on September 22, 2006.