“My Sweetheart, today is your birthday. There is so much to say that I am not going to attempt to use words and paper and pencil. I think you know how I feel about our separation – and the war which caused it – and my prayers and hopes for our future.”
Thus begins a letter sent from the Department of National Defense in Ottawa, Canada to an address in Los Angeles, California. The author was Hollywood director and screenwriter John Farrow, who was wishing his wife, actress Maureen O’Sullivan, a happy birthday. Despite the challenges of distance and wartime censorship, the pair continuously worked to maintain regular contact on all topics, both good and ill.
We have highlighted the life and career of Farrow in a previous post, but his relationship with O’Sullivan was but one of many topics covered. The Australian-born director and Irish-born actress married in 1936. They welcomed their first child, Michael, three years later in 1939. Almost immediately after his birth, the couple and their newborn experienced several years of separation and long-distance communication.
In August of that year, O’Sullivan traveled to the United Kingdom to film her latest feature. Unfortunately, the clouds of war were gathering on the Continent, and she soon found herself trapped in Britain. Her husband frantically sought safe passage for her return home. Both Farrow and MGM Studios worked to secure a flight or ship back for the actress, but passage was difficult as the uncertainties of the new conflict produced repeated cancellations. Ahead of one of the many canceled return trips, Farrow wrote to his wife:
“This letter is arriving by the plane that is bringing you back. To use the local vernacular – am I glad. I never realized before how much of a part you play in my life. In fact you are my life and I am thoroughly miserable without you.”
In the same letter, however, Farrow tells his wife that he wishes to heed the call to service. He would find an opportunity to follow this call, after O’Sullivan managed to return in late September. With the US not yet involved in the conflict and himself being a British subject, Farrow traveled to Vancouver in November 1939 to enlist in the Royal Canadian Navy. O’Sullivan remained behind in Los Angeles, taking care of their infant son and continuing her acting career.
In the coming years, Farrow would move around during his assignments with both the Canadian and British navies. He was stationed at various times in Ottawa, Nova Scotia, and Trinidad. Despite where he headed, his wife wrote to him frequently:
“My Dearest, what a wonderful treat I received last night. Two letters from my sweetheart….I can tell you I enjoyed every word. And after I finished reading them do you know what I did? I took all your letters, now a lovely big heap, and read through them too.”
While O’Sullivan and Michael did manage to visit him – during one visit, John warned Maureen that she may be swamped by fans – the couple maintained most of their contact long-distance during his service. In addition to notes of affection, Farrow discussed his take on wartime events, O’Sullivan’s contract negotiations with the studio, and even explained the importance of mothers to young Michael. However, for Farrow, the most “wonderful tonic” for his melancholy at being apart happened to be his wife’s voice during their weekly phone calls:
“My sweetheart, wasn’t it fun to talk together. But for so long! I forget to reverse the charges so probably a month’s pay will go to the phone company. We are extravagant and must really discipline ourselves to a limit of say – 10 minutes. Yes? But anyway I have no regrets. It was so nice.”
Farrow would continue his service with the Canadian and British navies until he was invalided due to a contraction of typhus fever in January 1942. Throughout the remaining war years, he would be intermittently called back to service, while working on such wartime features as 1942’s Wake Island. A film for which Farrow received an Oscar nomination for direction.
While the separation of the war years weighed heavily on the couple, O’Sullivan and Farrow would remain married until his passing in 1963. They had seven children together over the following years, and remained active in both Hollywood and Catholic circles.
O’Sullivan, who donated the John Farrow Papers to the CUA Archives in 1978, kept the letters her husband sent her during the war years. Nestled between materials on his film career and involvement in religious societies, the wartime correspondence with his wife highlights a personal side of the famed director’s life that mattered deeply to him.