Susannah York, along with Julie Christie and Sarah Miles, were the hottest things on the British movie scene during the 1960s. Blond, sexy, with striking blue eyes, she stole the hearts of a legion of men both in Britain and across the pond.
Susannah Yolande Fletcher was born into a British Middle-class family in London, Chelsea on the 9th January 1938. Her father was a merchant banker and her mother the daughter of a diplomat. When she was six years old her parents divorced and after the divorce she saw very little of her father. Her mother met and married a Scottish business man and they moved to one of the remotest parts of Scotland, after which she saw nothing of her father. She was a spirited teenager who managed to get herself expelled from school when she was thirteen years old, for skinny dipping at midnight in the school’s swimming pool. As a young girl, she developed a passion for acting and as soon as it became possible she enrolled at the Royal Academy for Dramatic Arts (RADA) .
It was whilst at RADA that she was spotted by a Hollywood talent scout who offered her first film role staring opposite Alex Guinness, in ‘Tunes of Glory’, which launched her film career in 1960. After that she played opposite many other British leading men such as Albert Finny in ‘Tom Jones’ and Kenneth Moore and alongside many actresses including Jane Fonda in ‘They shoot Horses Don’t They’ for which she received an Oscar nomination and actually won a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award. She also worked with Glenda Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor. In 1960 she married Michael Wells whom she met at RADA, an event which captured the headlines of almost every newspaper in Britain. The marriage produced a son and a daughter, however it ended in divorce sixteen years later.
After the birth of her children, her acting career took a back seat after she decided to focus on motherhood and by 1990, her film career had all but disappeared. Influenced by her role as a mother of young children, in 1973 and 1975 she wrote two children’s books. The first was called ‘In Search of the Unicorn’ and ‘Larks Castle’. When her children were grown and no longer need her attention she returned to acting, but in a much reduced capacity, mainly appearing in small theatre productions, touring with the theatre company in Britain and abroad. Here, she discovered that she had a talent for writing and directing, which she put to good use.
Susannah was noted for having a volatile temper and had a tendency at times to lash out if sufficiently riled. A good example of this was when she punched the film director John Huston after he made a sarcastic remark about Montgomery Clift’s hearing disability in her presence. She was also an activist keen to speak up for the downtrodden and worked tirelessly for numerous charitable causes such as ‘The campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’ (CND). She was also a very vocal campaigner against the destruction of the rain-forest and Israel’s possession of the nuclear bomb.
Her last film roles was as Superman’s mother in ‘Superman’ 1978 ‘Superman II’ 1980 and ‘Superman IV 1987. However, the performance she is likely to be best remembered for is her portrayal of Childie, a lesbian in the X-rated film version of ‘The Killing of Sister George’, released in 1969. The film was very sexually explicit, which caused it to be banned in numerous locations. However, the role gave her an opportunity to shed her demure English Rose image to emerge as a versatile and talented actress.
Susannah York had a glittering career which spanned fifty years, in film, television and theater. Susannah fell victim to Bone Marrow Cancer and died on the 16th January 2011, six day after her 72nd birthday. She is survived by two grand-children, a daughter and a son who was with her when she died. On reporting her death to the media, he said that his mother’s death was both quick and painless.