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Ona Munson in The Red House, her last film
June 16, 1903
Portland, Oregon, U.S.
|Died||February 11, 1955
New York City, New York, U.S.
Early life and career
Munson was born Owena Wolcott in Portland, Oregon. She first came to fame on Broadway as the singing and dancing ingenue in the original production of No, No, Nanette. From this, Munson had a very successful stage and radio career in the 1930s in New York. She introduced the song "You're the Cream in My Coffee" in the 1927 Broadway musical Hold Everything.
Her first starring role was in a Warner Brothers talkie called Going Wild (1930). Originally this film was intended as musical but all the numbers were removed prior to release due to the public's distaste for musicals which had virtually saturated the cinema in 1929-1930. Munson appeared the next year in a musical comedy called Hot Heiress in which she sings several songs along with her co-star Ben Lyon. She also starred in Broadminded (1931) and Five Star Final (1931). She briefly retired from the screen, only to return in 1938.
When David O. Selznick was casting his production Gone with the Wind, he first announced that Mae West was to play Belle, but this was a publicity stunt. Tallulah Bankhead refused the role as too small. Munson herself was the antithesis of the voluptuous Belle: freckled and of slight build.
Munson’s career was stalemated by the acclaim of Gone with the Wind; for the remainder of her career, she was typecast in similar roles. Two years later, she played a huge role as another madam, albeit a Chinese one, in Josef von Sternberg's film noir The Shanghai Gesture. Her last film was The Red House, released in 1947.
She was married three times, to actor and director Edward Buzzell in 1926, to Stewart McDonald in 1941, and designer Eugene Berman in 1949. These have been termed "lavender" marriages, in that they were intended to conceal her bisexuality and her affairs with women, including filmmaker Dorothy Arzner and playwright Mercedes de Acosta. Munson has been listed as a member of a group called the "sewing circle", a clique of lesbians organized by actress Alla Nazimova.
In 1955, plagued by ill health, she committed suicide at the age of 51 with an overdose of barbiturates in her apartment in New York. A note found next to her deathbed read, "This is the only way I know to be free again...Please don't follow me."
- Harbin, Billy J., Kim Marra and Robert A. Schanke (2005). The Gay & Lesbian Theatrical Legacy: A Biographical Dictionary of Major Figures in American Stage History in the Pre-Stonewall Era. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. p. 297. ISBN 0-472-09858-6.
- Madsen, Axel (1995). The Sewing Circle: Hollywood's Greatest Secret: Female Stars Who Loved Other Women. New York: Birch Lane Press. pp. 14–15. ISBN 978-1559722759.