Agnes Robertson Moorehead was born on December, 6th, 1900 in Clinton, Massachusetts to Presbyterian Minister John Henderson Moorehead and former singer Mildred McCauley. As a child, Agnes’ acting ambitions grew strong as the family moved to St. Louis, Missouri. Her mother and father approved of her ambitions and Agnes joined the chorus of the St. Louis Municipal Opera Company. Minister Moorehead, however, insisted that Agnes was had a formal education to coincide with her ambitions.
In 1918, Agnes graduated from Central High School in St. Louis. By 1923, Agnes had earned a bachelor’s degree with a major in biology from Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio where she acted in college plays on the side. Her education continued as she also obtained an honorary doctorate in literature from Muskingum and served a year on the board of trustees.
The Moorehead family then moved to Reedsburg, Wisconsin where Agnes taught for five years at a school in Soldier’s Grove while she earned a master’s degree in English and public speaking at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She further pursued her studies at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts from which she graduated with honors in 1929.
In the early days of her acting career, Agnes was frequently unemployed and went hungry. She would later recall a streak of four days where she went without food, but found that it taught her the value of a dollar. After finding work in radio, Moorehead steadied herself and found that radio offered her valuable experience in developing her voice and a variety of characters.
In 1937, Agnes met Orson Welles as she became a member of Mercury Theatre Group and added to her resume radio shows The Shadow and War of The Worlds. After Mr. Welles moved the theatre group to Hollywood, Agnes made her film debut in Citizen Kane and appeared in Journey Into Fear and The Magnificent Ambersons. She received a New York film critic’s award and an Academy award nomination for the performance.
Agnes had joined MGM by the 1940’s with a $6,000 a week contract and a clause stating she was still allowed to perform radio shows. MGM had refused these Requests in the past, stating the actors didn’t have the knowledge or the taste of the judgment to appear on the right sort of show.
During the 1940’s and 1950’s Agnes became one of the most demanded radio actresses, eventually introduced in her show Suspense as the first lady of suspense. She continued to work in film and appear on stages across the country.
Moorehead’s most well known role would come in 1964 when she signed on for the part of Endora in Bewitched. Her appearances were negotiated to every eight out of twelve episodes so that there was still time to pursue other options. Although she received six Emmy nominations and gained recognition, Agnes repeatedly reminded viewers that she had already had a long and distinguished career. “I’ve been in movies and played theater from coast to coast, so I was quite well known before Bewitched, and I don’t particularly want to be identified as a witch.” Agnes enjoyed the role and the cast, yet she thought the show was not breathtaking.
Moorehead’s private life seemed just as colorful as her career. In 1930, she married John Griffith Lee. They adopted a son, Sean, in 1949, and despite rumors of the legality of the adoption, the couple raised him until he ran away from home. Lee and Moorehead divorced in 1952, and in 1954 she married actor Robert Gist who she also later divorced in 1958. In the years after her death, rumors that Moorehead was gay had surfaced and were continually denied by those close to her.
On April 30th, 1974, at age 73, Agnes died of uterine cancer in Rochester, Minnesota just two years after the end of Bewitched. Many thought her cancer was due to her work on the 1956 movie, The Conqueror, which was shot near a nuclear test site. Ninety of the 220 cast and crew members who worked on the picture later contracted cancer.
As well as being an astonishing talent, Agnes Moorehead was very generous. She willed her Emmy award to Muskingum College, her Ohio estate to Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, and her professional scripts, paperwork, Christmas Cards and scrapbooks to the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research at the Wisconsin Historical Society. She is remembered today as her work still airs on television stations such as Nick at Nite and Turner Classic Movies.