Munson in a publicity photo c. 1930s
Owena Elizabeth Wolcott
June 16, 1903
Portland, Oregon, U.S.
|Died||February 11, 1955
New York City, U.S.
|Cause of death||Suicide by barbiturate overdose|
(m. 1926; div. 1931)
Stewart McDonald (m. 1941–1947)
Munson was born Owena Elizabeth 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 a musical, but all the numbers were removed prior to release owing to the public's distaste for musicals, which had virtually saturated the cinema in 1929-30. Munson appeared the next year in The 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 both West and 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." She is buried at Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, NY. Munson posthumously received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located on the north side of the 6200 block of Hollywood Boulevard.
|1928||The Head of the Family||Uncredited|
|1930||Going Wild||Ruth Howard|
|1931||The Hot Heiress||Juliette|
|1931||Five Star Final||Kitty Carmody|
|1938||His Exciting Night||Anne Baker|
|1939||Scandal Sheet||Kitty Mulhane|
|1939||Legion of Lost Flyers||Martha Wilson|
|1939||Gone with the Wind||Belle Watling|
|1939||The Big Guy||Mary Whitlock|
|1940||Wagons Westward||Julie O'Conover|
|1941||Lady from Louisiana||Julie Mirbeau|
|1941||Wild Geese Calling||Clarabella|
|1941||The Shanghai Gesture||'Mother' Gin Sling|
|1942||Drums of the Congo||Dr. Ann Montgomery|
|1945||The Cheaters||Florie Watson|
|1947||The Red House||Mrs. Storm|
- "Ona Munson". The Los Angeles Times. Hollywood Star Walk of Fame. Retrieved December 29, 2015.
- Stephens, Chuck. "A Face in the Crowd: Ona Munson". Film Comment. Retrieved January 6, 2016.
- Jewell, Richard B. (2012). "7". RKO Radio Pictures: A Titan Is Born (1 ed.). London: University of California Press. p. 153. ISBN 0-520-27179-3.
- "(photo caption)" (PDF). Radio and Television Mirror. 13 (3): 41. January 1940. Retrieved 16 February 2015.
- 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.
- Wilson, Scott. Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3d ed.: 2 (Kindle Locations 33897-33898). McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. Kindle Edition.
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