Famed actress Greer Garson was born Eileen Evelyn Greer Garson in London, England, on September 29, 1904. She was the only daughter of George Garson, a London clerk, and Nina Nancy Sophia Greer. Her father died in 1906. She attended East Ham Secondary School in London and the prestigious University of London, where she graduated with a B.A. and with honors in English in 1926. Though family members suggested that she might enter the teaching field, Garson had ambitions to become an actress. She did postgraduate work and studied French theater at Grenoble University in France in 1927.
From 1927 to 1931 she worked at an advertising agency in London where she met another aspiring actor, George Sanders, who later starred in such films as The Gay Falcon and The Saint. She joined the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in late 1931 and made her stage debut in 1932. In just a few short years she landed starring roles in a number of West End productions on the London stage. During one of her productions, she caught the eye of MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer, who was desperate to find a leading lady to revitalize his studio with the impending departures of Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo. Garson signed with MGM in 1937.
Garson’s first Hollywood production, Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), won her an Academy Award nomination. This began a remarkable run of five more Oscar nominations during the first half of the 1940s for her leading roles in Blossums in the Dust (1941), Mrs. Miniver (1942), Madame Curie (1943), Mrs. Parkington (1944), and The Valley of Decision (1945). In 1942 she earned her only Oscar for playing the title role in Mrs. Miniver. Her portrayal of a British homemaker on the home front during World War II was a particular favorite of Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Her remarks upon accepting the Oscar remain the longest recorded acceptance speech (5.5 minutes in length) in the Academy’s history, which afterward prompted organizers to place a cap on them. After her role in Madame Curie, which featured the popular pairing of Garson with actor Walter Pidgeon, she was pictured on the cover of Time magazine. Garson was honored as Hollywood’s most popular star in polls within the United States and throughout the world in 1944.
Her star was waning, however, by the later 1940s. During the 1950s her movie efforts were regarded mostly with disappointment. Garson negotiated the end of her contract with MGM in 1953 after playing a small role in the blockbuster production of Julius Ceasar. She made occasional television performances and in 1958 made her Broadway debut in Auntie Mame. Garson’s portrayal of Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1960 movie Sunrise at Campobello earned her a final Oscar nomination.
Garson’s first marriage, to Edward Snelson in 1933, ended in divorce in 1940. In 1943 she married Richard Ney, who had played her son in Mrs. Miniver; the couple divorced in 1947. Garson's third and final marriage, this time to Texas millionaire oil executive and rancher E. E. “Buddy” Fogelson, occurred on July 15, 1949. The union lasted nearly forty years and only ended with Fogelson’s death from Parkinson’s disease in 1987. It was Fogelson who brought Garson to Texas, and she remained connected to Dallas for the rest of her life, although she split her time between Los Angeles and the ranch they shared near Pecos, New Mexico. Garson retired from acting permanently in 1980.
During these years Garson was a generous financier and benefactor to the arts, with Dallas being the recipient of many of her greatest contributions. Garson donated millions of dollars to Southern Methodist University in Dallas and funded the Greer Garson Theatre (part of the Meadows School of the Arts) which opened in 1992. The theater features a 366-seat classical thrust stage, which bears a striking resemblance to the Globe Theater in London. SMU holds many of Garson's papers and personal effects, which were donated to the university’s Jake and Nancy Hamon Library. In recognition for her contributions to the arts in Dallas, Garson received the prestigious TACA/Neiman-Marcus Silver Cup Award. The Meadows School of the Arts awarded her their Medal of Distinction. Garson also established an endowment for theater student awards at the College of Santa Fe (now Santa Fe University of Art and Design) in New Mexico, and the Greer Garson Theatre Center on that campus was dedicated in her honor. Garson received the Women’s International Center (WIC) Living Legacy Award in 1990, and in 1993 she received another honor when Queen Elizabeth II named her Commander of the British Empire.
Fogelson and Garson prized education and the advancement of the arts and sciences, establishing multiple endowments and donatives to Southern Methodist University, Texas Christian University, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, and the University of Texas Health Science Center. Garson was joined by Fogelson in establishing the E.E. Fogelson and Greer Garson Fogelson Charitable Foundation, which sought to fund a variety of causes, including the creation of the Folgelson Honors Forum at Fogelson’s alma mater, Texas Christian University, through a $1 million dollar donation. In 2010 the Fogelson Honors Forum was in its twelfth year and had engaged some of America’s most sought-after speakers, including Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Governor Jeb Bush, Ben Stein, David McCullough, and Doris Kearns Goodwin. In honor of her husband’s memory, Garson also established the endowed E. E. Fogelson and Greer Garson Fogelson Distinguished Chair in Urology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School and the Distinguished Chair in Medical Research at the University of Texas Health Science Center.
Because of her late husband's fight with Parkinson's, Garson had a strong desire to use her name and celebrity status to kindle public awareness of various medical conditions that needed the support of the community in order to make advancements and/or breakthroughs that could only be facilitated through research dollars. By the early 1990s, Garson, a valiant spokeswoman, championed these initiatives at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, Texas. The Texas Health Presbyterian Foundation’s most recognized fund-raising event is the annual Greer Garson Gala, a signature event that seeks to raise money and support for programs and services of the hospital. Garson was a zealous healthcare advocate and vociferous supporter of medical research, healthcare, and education.
On April 6, 1996, at Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, Texas, Greer Garson passed away in the company of her close friend, pianist Van Cliburn. She was buried at the Sparkman Hillcrest Memorial Park in Dallas. Garson's epitaph on her gravestone is a testament to her legacy:
A Dignified Lady of Grace and Beauty
Her Wit, Charm and Talent
Thrilled the World and Touched
All Who Knew Her.