Australia’s Sweetheart

 ABOUT THE BOOK

A star-studded and stranger-than-fiction slice of Forgotten Australia, Australia’s Sweetheart is the first biography of Mary Maguire. After becoming a teen film star at home in the mid-1930s, Mary set off to find fame and fortune in Hollywood.

There she signed with Warner Bros., became the toast of tinsel town and starred in films with Ronald Reagan and Peter Lorre. After defecting to 20th Century Fox, Mary went to London and sought better dramatic roles. But, with war approaching, her life followed a tumultuous trajectory.

From the Bodyline series and the Golden Age of Hollywood to the London Blitz and intrigues of English fascists, this is a true story with the twists and turns of a classic movie melodrama.

Australia’s Sweetheart is based on five years’ intensive research in Australia, the US and UK, which included work in our National Film & Sound Archive, the Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox archives in Los Angeles and the British Film Institute archives in London. It’s also informed by never-before-published interviews with Mary’s friends and family members.

PROLOGUE

19 August 1936 

Australia’s Sweetheart is leaving for Hollywood and the Sydney pier is crowded with people who’ve come to watch her set sail on the Mariposa. Standing on the promenade deck of the mighty white liner, Mary Maguire waves to the multitude five storeys below. There are two thousand people down there on Darling Harbour’s Wharf 1A. Most are seeing off family and friends. But many are fans of Australia’s newest movie star. Trying not to sob like she did yesterday at her Brisbane farewell, the ravenhaired seventeen-year-old smiles for everyone braving this winter morning to wave and shout best wishes. 

The ship’s whistle gives two blasts, then there’s the cry of “All visitors ashore!” The boys from The Sun, Truth and the Sydney Morning Herald take their final pictures of Mary. She tries to look composed in her black fur coat as she clutches a floral bouquet and poses beside a lifebuoy on the railing. Raising a gloved hand in a farewell wave, wind whipping her hair every which way, she laughs as the flashbulbs pop and the Fox Movietone newsreel camera whirs. After wishing her good luck, the reporters, photographers and cameramen go ashore. 

Mary has a last round of hugs and handshakes with some of the friends and film colleagues who have just put on a huge cocktail party for her in the ship’s ballroom. When they’ve left she stands with her father, Mick, at a railing lined with other passengers. Stewards hand out rolls of coloured streamers, and the Maguires and their fellow passengers rain these down on the well-wishers below. Within seconds a dazzling paper rainbow connects ship to shore. 

It’s 10.57 a.m.: just three minutes until they begin their voyage. A tiny part of Mary wishes she could get off the boat. Go back home. Go back to the way things were. Go back to a life where she’s not always the centre of attention and always expected to smile even if she feels like crying. Just for a day. 

But Mary chides herself for such an ungrateful thought. Upon boarding the Mariposa she signed many autographs for excited young Australian girls. She knows they can’t expect much more from life than school and shop or secretarial work for a few years before they marry and become their mothers. Any of them would kill to be in her shoes: adored, beautiful, wealthy and setting sail for even greater fame and fortune. Mary knows she has a duty to be happy. She isn’t just living her dream – she’s living all of their dreams. 

“The most famous girl in Australia” and “The envy of many a girl in Australia”: they’re phrases the newspapers have used to describe her. Mary can’t deny how lucky she is; just like she can’t help the hurt in her heart. Mother, sisters, best friends: this morning they’re more than six hundred miles away in Brisbane. Although making movies has meant such separation before, this is very different because soon the people Mary loves most will be more than seven thousand miles distant. There’s no way of knowing when she’ll see them again – any more than she knows what really awaits her on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. 

At least Mary has her dad. Big, tough Mick: blue eyes twinkling as he smiles proudly; he’s well padded these days but still dapper in his three-piece suit. He may no longer be a welterweight champion, yet with him in her corner everything will be fine. Surely.

Moments before eleven o’clock, the Mariposa’s whistle sounds three times. The hawser lines are tossed off deck, the boat’s engines rumble and its twin stacks belch smoke. This is it. She’s really leaving. It seems like just yesterday she was Peggy Maguire, Brisbane convent girl, destined only to see Hollywood glamour from her seat in the local picture palace. 

As the wharf band strikes up “Aloha ‘Oe”, which translates to “Farewell to Thee”, passengers and well-wishers sing along and whisper its haunting refrain, “Until we meet again”. Tugboats help the big liner away from shore. It’s a marvellous and melancholy spectacle as thousands of colourful streamers strain and then snap, symbolising all the ties broken by this departure. 

The Mariposa rounds Miller’s Point and slides beneath the mighty arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Gaining speed, saluted by honking ferries, the ship steams eastwards as Mary takes a last look at this city. While it was never really home like Melbourne or Brisbane, Sydney holds a place in her heart because it was where she was first considered for Hollywood. 

Swell deepening, air saltier with sea spray, the ship surges past Sydney Heads and into the open ocean. Mary is leaving Australia behind for the first time. As the cliffs and beaches recede in the ocean haze, it’s far from clear what her life will be like when she next sees these shores. Countless hopeful young women wash out in Hollywood every year. She might become one of them. She may have been better off staying a big fish in a small pond. But if she does make it in America, then the next time she sees Australia she might be a star as big as . . . 

Janet Gaynor? Helen Hayes? Luise Rainer? Maureen O’Sullivan? Thinking of these goddesses conjures a reverie of shiny limousine doors held open at gala premieres as searchlights sweep the sky above Grauman’s Chinese Theater and – 

The cries of the dozens of seagulls following the boat shatter any reverie. Australia has slipped out of sight behind the liner. Unable to know that she will never again lay eyes on the country of her birth, Mary seeks out the luxury of the Mariposa and starts counting down the days until she takes on Hollywood.

Australia’s Sweetheart is published by Hachette Australia. It’s available at QBD, Dymocks and Booktopia, and available in all independent book stores and Big W.

Mary’s last leading role was in An Englishman’s Home, which depicted the Nazi invasion of England. It was released weeks after the war began.
In 1939, with WWII just weeks away, Mary, suffering TB, married fascist Robert Gordon Canning. After the war, he made headlines with his unrepentant Nazism. By then Mary was long gone, having married an unsung American war hero.
In time, the Australian media became less interested in Mary Maguire, and more interested in “The Marrying Maguires” — her four sisters, who used her contacts to marry aristocrats and millionaires.