Eileen Evelyn Greer Garson, motion picture actress best known as Greer Garson, is born on September 29, 1904 in Manor Park, London, England. Her classic beauty and screen persona of elegance, poise, and maternal virtue make her one of the most popular and admired Hollywood stars of the World War II era.
Garson often claims to have been born in County Down, Ireland, where her grandparents lived and which she happily visited as a child, but she is, in fact, born and raised in London. Although she wanted to study acting, she wins a scholarship to the University of London and her practical-minded family encourage her to pursue a teaching career. After graduating with honours, she works briefly for Encyclopædia Britannica and a London advertising firm but continually tries to get her foot into a backstage door.
In 1932 Garson makes her debut with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, playing a middle-aged schoolteacher in Elmer Rice’s Street Scene. Later that year she tours in George Bernard Shaw’s Too True to Be Good, billing herself as Greer, a maternal family name, for the first time. She soon establishes herself as a popular ingenue and leading lady in London’s West End. In 1938 Louis B. Mayer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), catches her performance in Old Music and signs her to a contract with his studio.
After suffering through a discouraging first year in Hollywood, Garson returns to England to film the small role of Mrs. Chips in MGM’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). She receives her first Oscar nomination for the role but loses to Vivien Leigh for Gone with the Wind. Her portrayal of the beloved schoolteacher’s charming wife endears her to the American public and sets her career in motion. It is the first in a series of roles in which she plays women of great loyalty, refinement, and wifely or motherly strength.
Garson’s other significant films of the period include Pride and Prejudice (1940), Blossoms in the Dust (1941), her first appearance with her frequent costar Walter Pidgeon, Random Harvest (1942), and Madame Curie (1943). The film that cements her reputation and image, however, is Mrs. Miniver (1942). Filmed during World War II and tailor-made for the times, Mrs. Miniver extolls the strength and spirit of the British home front and is one of the year’s biggest hits. Her grace-under-pressure portrayal of a courageous wife and mother, the personification of British fortitude, not only wins her an Academy Award but is credited with bolstering American support for the war.
Following the war Garson’s career falters. The public rejects her attempts to reforge her image to that of a more fun-loving, less noble heroine in such films as Adventure (1945) and Julia Misbehaves (1948). During the 1950s she appears in several unexceptional films and television dramas and stars on Broadway in Auntie Mame. Her remarkably convincing portrayal of Eleanor Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello (1960) is widely praised and earns her a seventh Oscar nomination, but she performs only occasionally thereafter, devoting most of her time to philanthropic causes, including the endowment of scholarships for theatre students at Southern Methodist University in University Park, Texas and the construction of a campus theatre.
Garson spends her final years occupying a penthouse suite at the Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas. She dies there from heart failure on April 6, 1996 at the age of 91. She is interred beside her husband in the Sparkman-Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery in Dallas.