In July 1969, Maureen O’Hara left the set of How Do I Love Thee? for a whirlwind flight around the world with her husband, Capt. Charles F. Blair. The trip, Charlie’s last before he retired as a senior pilot for Pan Am, would take them from New York to Germany, India, Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan, Hawaii and San Francisco. “I got to live the adventures I’d only acted out on the Fox and Universal lots,” she gushed.
Until she fell in love with Charlie, Maureen had put all her passion into her work. “My first ambition was to be the No. 1 actress in the world,” confessed the Dublin-born performer, who became a star going toe-to-toe with Hollywood heavyweights Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and John Wayne, her five-time costar. Unlike most of her female contemporaries, Maureen did her own stunts. “I was proficient with the sword. I was a fine talent with a bullwhip. I could take a cigarette out of your mouth and toss it in the air and catch it,” she boasted.
But when it came to affairs of the heart, the flame-haired, green-eyed beauty had rotten luck — until Charlie changed her everything. They would have only a decade together, and his death under mysterious circumstances would haunt Maureen, but she called their marriage “the best time of my life.”
The pair met on the London set of The Forbidden Street in 1947, but didn’t get together romantically until two decades later when Maureen’s brother set them up on a friendly dinner date in Los Angeles. “We talked about our lives. His children … were going to school with my daughter,” Maureen remembers about that night. Afterward, “he started calling me every time he came into town.”
Despite playing strong women in the movies, Maureen had only known heartbreak at the hands of unscrupulous men. At age 19, British film producer George H. Brown tricked her into a marriage that she refused to consummate. A devout Catholic, Maureen obtained an annulment and “went from there to the boat for the United States of America.”
But a new country didn’t bring Maureen better luck. She realized her second marriage to director Will Price in 1941 was a mistake almost immediately. “He was an alcoholic who beat her. He even punched her once when she was pregnant,” Aubrey Malone, author of Maureen O’Hara: The Biography, tells Closer. The Quiet Man star, who gave birth to their daughter Bronwyn in 1944, tried to make the marriage work for years. She finally obtained a divorce 1953.
Charlie, a pioneering aviator who had risen to brigadier general in the Air Force, was among the first men to treat Maureen well. His proposal of marriage in 1968 came as a surprise, but it felt right. “Both were handsome, charismatic, tough, bold and larger-than-life,” John Nicoletti, co-author of Maureen’s memoir ’Tis Herself, tells Closer. “They were a perfect match.”
After production wrapped on Big Jake, Maureen’s last pairing with John Wayne, she stopped making movies to be with Charlie full-time. “He didn’t want me to work,” she said. “He wanted me to be with him. And I enjoyed being with him. And I’d had it. I’d been working in the theater since I was 6. That’s a long career.”
The couple relocated to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where Charlie owned Antilles Air Boats, which ferried passengers between the islands. “Maureen lived a life out of the spotlight for the first time in her adult life — and she loved it. There was no Hollywood fuss,” says Nicoletti. “She learned the aviation business from the ground up. He called her his ‘Queen of the Sky.’”
In 1978, the plane Charlie was flying crashed near St. Thomas, killing him and three passengers. Maureen, then 58, was in Ireland when she received the news. “I was hysterical when I heard about it,” she admitted. “[But] Charlie’s mother said to me on the phone, ‘Stop that nonsense. He died the way he would have wanted to.’”
Though her words brought a degree of comfort, Maureen remained suspicious about the cause of the accident. “My phone rang … three times it was three different voices saying, ‘Will you please give us the true story of the assassination of Gen. Charles Blair?’” Maureen recalled, adding that she reached out to friends in the U.S. government, who urged her to let it go. “Something happened. [Charlie] was a general in the Air Force. He had a lot to do with the small nukes,” Maureen said of her suspicions. “And so I have lived with that all these years.”
But she would not let the airline company her husband founded in 1963 with one plane and five employees die with him. “I couldn’t let Charlie down,” said Maureen, who became Antilles Air Boats CEO and president. “The airline had to continue to be a success.”
Maureen also returned to acting, her first love, playing John Candy’s mother in 1991’s Only the Lonely, but she never found another man who could compete with Charlie for her heart. When she passed away in 2015 at age 95, she was buried next to her husband at Arlington National Cemetery. “I think God has blessed me,” Maureen said. “I’ve had a wonderful life.”
—Reporting by Katie Bruno
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