In 1993’s hit Sleepless in Seattle, a romance-starved woman played by Meg Ryan weeps nosily while watching Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant in An Affair to Remember. “Those were the days when people knew how to be in love!” she sobs.
That scene helped a lot of people rediscover the beauty and talent of Deborah, whose versatile career spanned 50 years and earned her six Best Actress Oscar nominations. “She relished the challenge of playing complicated women,” her daughter Francesca Shrapnel exclusively tells Closer.
The Glasgow, Scotland-born beauty spent her formative years studying ballet, but switched to drama when she grew too tall to become a prima ballerina. While performing in a play for British troops during World War II, Deborah met Royal Air Force squadron leader Anthony Bartley. The couple married within a year and moved to California after Deborah was offered a contract by MGM. “I’m sure Hollywood was a thrilling change from gray postwar London,” Francesca says. “She adored the climate.”
But, in time, Deborah realized that she didn’t love the studio system, which pigeonholed her as an actress. “People always think I’m the epitome of the English gentlewoman, which just goes to show that things are never quite what they seem,” said Deborah, who took a huge chance by breaking her contract to pursue the role of Karen, a disillusioned U.S. Army wife engaged in a torrid affair in From Here to Eternity. “There has to be a lady in Hollywood, but someone else can hold the lamp now,” Deborah said. “I’ve abdicated.”
The gambit worked. From Here to Eternity became one of the 10 highest-grossing films of the 1950s and earned Deborah an Oscar nomination. It ushered in the peak years of her career: She played Anna, the governess in The King and I, an Australian shepherd’s wife in The Sundowners, and a woman who falls for Cary Grant’s charms on a transatlantic voyage in An Affair to Remember.
HER LATER YEARS
Divorced from her first husband in 1959, Deborah married author Peter Viertel in 1960. Hollywood’s turn toward films showing explicit violence and nudity didn’t appeal to the actress, so she began spending more time in Switzerland and occasionally resurfaced for roles on Broadway or in London’s West End. “She was actually quite shy and a rather private person,” says her daughter. “By 1960, she was very happy to make her new home halfway up a mountain in Switzerland.”
Deborah was, however, delighted when Sleepless in Seattle’s mention of An Affair to Remember reignited interest in one of her favorite movies. “I’m almost hysterical at the thought of making people cry with joy 30-odd years after Cary and I did our stuff,” Deborah, who passed away in 2007, gushed. “I think I understand what women see in the movie. There is a sweetness that is appealing and far removed from today’s crudities.”