BROADWAY: Missed Cues

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Even after a coroner's verdict of accidental death, show business gossip ran on. The overdose of barbiturates that killed Actress Margaret Sullavan (TIME, Jan. 11) fitted too neatly into a pattern of eccentric behavior: departure from a Broadway show because of "ill health," the TV performance canceled at the last moment because she did not "feel up to the part." But last week it was Margaret who released a tragic explanation of her behavior. By leaving her temporal bones (which include the inner and middle ear) to the cause of medical research on deafness, she gave away a secret that she had lived and suffered with for more than a decade: Actress Sullavan had gradually grown hard of hearing.

Maggie Sullavan's difficulty probably existed for a great deal longer than she was willing to admit. "It didn't seem to affect her at home," says her husband, Kenneth Wagg. "Most people take years before they finally tell themselves or a doctor that they're getting deaf," says famed Ear Surgeon Julius Lempert, to whom Maggie went for help early in 1948, By that time she had lost 40% of the hearing in her left ear, 35% of the hearing in her right. "Deafness," says Dr. Lempert, "was the explanation of her often strange behavior." It made her apprehensive about missing cues, says he. "Consciously or unconsciously, she developed that deep voice in order to hear what she was saying." Combined with her unpredictable tensions, the problems caused by her increasing deafness pushed tired nerves to the painful edge of endurance.

Dr. Lempert's delicate fenestration operation, which opens a new window through which sound can be communicated to the inner ear (TIME, April 1, 1940), restored the left ear to 80% hearing. But though the right ear grew slowly worse, Maggie kept her secret from all but a few close friends. Then, two years ago, she went to Dr. Greydon Boyd, had a different type of operation. This was an effort to jar loose the locked bones of her right ear. While she worked on her last show, Sweet Love Remember'd, Maggie Sullavan was still sitting out the waiting period which would determine the operation's permanent success. Her plans for the future, insists Dr. Lempert, were not those of a woman bent on suicide. The very fact that she died with a script of Sweet Love Remember'd beside her suggests, says he, that she was still fighting against her deafness. "She was probably trying to memorize lines of the other characters so she wouldn't be caught missing a cue."