It was like a Hollywood romance come true ... the moment they met, on the set of the comedy movie The Moon's Our Home, it was obvious to onlookers that they had fallen deeply in love. It couldn't have happened to two nicer people. Matinee idol Henry Fonda was lonely and bitter after an acrimonious divorce. So was his co-star Margaret Sullavan. Soon they were inseparable and gossip columnists were predicting a spring marriage. Only one thing cast a shadow on their happiness. They had already married and divorced each other! Until The Moon's Our Home they hadn't spoken for two years. When they previously met, Margaret Sullavan had poured iced water over Fonda's head after he had accused her of being tight with money. But now, in the summer of 1936, things seemed very different. It was as though the years had rolled back to 1930 when they had first met in Harvard University Theatre Club. It had been a passionate courtship, a quiet wedding and four months later it was all over. Later, Fonda was to remember: "It got to the point when we were at each other constantly, screaming arguing and fighting."
Shortly after the divorce, Sullavan made The Good Fairy for Universal. She was so wilful that director William Wyler hauled her out in front of the entire cast and crew and declared: "You have demoralised me, disrupted the schedule and caused the picture to need 12 weeks' shooting instead of seven. You should be ashamed of yourself." Then he took her out to dinner and a week later they were married.
Two years later they were divorced... and a year later Margaret Sullavan made The Moon's Our Home with Henry Fonda. All the bitterness and recriminations seemed centuries away. Thrown together on location in the ski lodges of Lake Tahoe they found that the feelings they once had for each other had miraculously returned. When they returned to Hollywood to finish the movie the relationship had grown serious enough for them to house-hunt together and talk about a second marriage. Then suddenly it was all over. Fonda recalled: "We were at a country club dance and I cut in on another girl. That triggered it. Sullavan was furious. She wouldn't even let me take her home.
"The next time I saw her was on the set and she told me: 'This is a mistake, Hank. This thing between us is not going to work.' She was smart enough to realise that we couldn't make it happen again."
A few months later Henry Fonda married Frances Brokaw, but he never forgot Margaret Sullavan. Both women came to similar tragic ends — Frances committed suicide in a mental home in 1950. By now, Margaret had married her agent Leland Hayward and gave birth to a daughter, Bridget. "Happy married life has changed her completely," said a friend. "She is much calmer, softer and completely domesticated. Then Bridget died and Margaret Sullavan returned to Hollywood to lose herself in her work. She was being acclaimed as an even better actress than before. One critic wrote: "This obstinate little star has gone against the Hollywood traditions but nevertheless gained her goal."
Once again things started to go spectacularly wrong. Her marriage failed, men fought over her with their fists, studios banned her, she broke contracts and made countless enemies. Then she met and married Kenneth Wagg, an Englishman, and settled in an expensive Hollywood suburb. Would she at last find lasting happiness? Apparently not. The novelty of a settled life soon palled and yet another marriage was soon in trouble. She was offered the lead in the provincial tour of a new play in 1960 and left Hollywood — this time for ever.
Henry Fonda heard the news when he switched on an early morning radio bulletin. Margaret Sullavan was dead at 49 and suicide was suspected. Apparently she had been unable to sleep properly for weeks and had obtained sleeping tablets from a doctor. No one ever knew whether the overdose was deliberate or accidental and for Henry Fonda it was merely academic.