Film star and sculptor who became an Irish citizen
Obituary: Marjorie Steele-FitzGibbon’s third marriage led her to Ireland and discovery of her talent for sculpture
Her rise from humble origins to Hollywood fame and marriages to a millionaire, an English actor of film and stage, and an Irish-American writer, is the stuff of romantic fiction
Born: August 27th, 1930
Died: January 20th, 2018
Artist Dr Marjorie Steele-FitzGibbon, an American-born and naturalised Irish citizen, enjoyed success in three creative professions: Hollywood film star, stage actor, and artist in both painting and sculpture. She married three times and was the mother of four children and one step-child. Such a remarkable profile had at its root the drive that convinced her that “she could walk through walls”.
She was the second-eldest of four daughters of her second-generation Swedish immigrant mother, Ora, and salesman father, Jack Steele, whose mother was a native American. Her rise from humble origins living in “an honest-to-God log cabin” in Reno, Nevada, to Hollywood fame and marriage to a millionaire and subsequent marriages to an English actor of film and stage, and an Irish-American writer, is the stuff of romantic fiction. Yet her talents, striking beauty and sheer grit did not shield her from domestic tragedy, premature deaths and an inherited temperamental imbalance, all of which she faced with integrity and courage.
Confidence of youth
When she was 18 years old, Marjorie Steele, dressed in homemade yet elegant clothes, left her then home in a poor suburb of San Francisco with all that drive and confidence of youth and headed for Los Angeles. There her creativity found direction and opportunity: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for painting, and the Actors Lab for stage-craft, where she won a scholarship.
She also took a part-time job as a cigarette girl in Ciro’s Nightclub on Sunset Strip where a regular patron, the multimillionaire film-producer playboy Huntington Hartford, was dazzled by her fresh beauty amid all the glitz. Much to the chagrin of his date, film actress Lana Turner, he bought all her cigarettes – although he didn’t even smoke. They married a year later, in 1949, she an impressionable 19-year-old – “she was mad for him” – he an older, more worldly-wise thirty-nine. The “Cinderella wedding” offered rich pickings to the paparazzi and provoked snide comments by the art critics as Marjorie rose from acclaimed stage-actress in Tennessee Williams’s New York production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) to movie star. When on tour with a mixed-race crew Marjorie challenged Actors’ Equity to change a racially biased law regarding separate accommodation by defying the ban herself.
The glamorous couple played host to Hollywood celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor and Natalie Wood, yet Marjorie confided that while they were “all very interesting, they were just people”. Influenced by his artist wife, “Hart” channelled his wealth into promoting the arts by establishing an arts colony near Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles.
Marjorie relocated her parents to an impressive ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains; yet, despite his dream come true, her father took his own life, an act which had repercussions for his family.
The marriage lasted seven years until Marjorie filed for divorce, when Huntington’s old, philandering ways resurfaced. They had two children, John and Catherine. The drug-related death of her daughter at 28 was a profound sorrow for Marjorie. She always acknowledged her love for “Hart” and her indebtedness to him for educating her and encouraging her creativity. They divorced in 1960.
Through “the best divorce lawyer”, Marjorie met her second husband, the handsome actor of television and film fame, Dudley Sutton – the gay biker in Leatherboys (1964) – with whom she had a whirlwind romance. They married in 1961, entailing Marjorie’s renunciation of her considerable alimony. They had a son, Peter, with whom Marjorie later lived until being hospitalised in 2017. Marjorie, no longer acting, socialised with many of his famous theatrical colleagues such as Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, John Hurt and the director Joan Littlewood.
Marjorie went for rehabilitation to an exclusive London health farm and there she met another housemate and fellow American, Constantine Fitzgibbon, the former husband of the food writer Theodora Fitzgibbon. Constantine’s brilliant mind captivated her. Summing up her previous romantic life, Marjorie described herself as “a self-destructive fool”.
Another divorce and marriage ensued. Marjorie was Constantine’s fourth and last wife and he her third husband. Constantine was a writer of Anglo-Irish extraction. They had a daughter, Oonagh. He also adopted Marjorie’s son, Peter. After a short spell in west Cork, the family lived in Killiney in south Co Dublin, and then in the city.
Honeymooning in Greece ,the stunning classical sculptures there were the catalyst that drew her into sculpture and prompted her to wonder why she had wasted so much time working in two dimensions. Thus began a prolific period of artistic renewal which her great friend Micheál Mac Liammóir, describing her many sculpted heads of Irish literati, said: “Ms Fitzgibbon was born to do what she had done; fill the room with uncannily living persons.”
She first exhibited at The Brown Thomas Gallery in Dublin in 1970 and soon cultivated a reputation as one of “the foremost exponents of traditional sculpture in Ireland achieving an authentic, formal likeness in the treatment of her subjects”. (Myles Campbell, Sculpture 1600-2000, 2014)
Her public works beloved of Dubliners include her iconic, larger-than-life-size statue of James Joyce in North Earl Street and a bust of the author in St Stephen’s Green facing Joyce’s alma mater, Newman House. Visitors to RTÉ are reminded of the charismatic presenter Eamon Andrews by her life-size statue in the foyer.
Dr Marjorie Steele-Fitzgibbon is survived by her daughter, Oonagh Brault, sons Jack and Peter Fitzgibbon, step-son Francis Fitzgibbon, grandchildren Hannagh and Niamh Jacobsen, and her ex-husband Dudley Sutton.