May McAvoy - Silent Star of July, 1998

by Kally Mavromatis

May McAvoy was one of the few actresses in Hollywood to have had a most interesting and varied career. Bucking the system, she had a successful career freelancing, working with nearly every studio and some of the best directors in Hollywood.

May was born September 18, 1901 in New York at the family brownstone on 41st Street and Park Avenue. The family business was a large livery stable that her father and paternal grandfather owned and operated on the block now occupied by the Waldorf-Astoria.

While watching a friend rehearse at a vaudeville theatre, May was approached by a talent scout for Fox. Although she declined the scouts offer -- after all, May's mother wanted her to be a teacher -- May found herself intrigued with the possibility of performing. After receiving her mother's blessing, May began modeling, and her first job was a commercial for Domino Sugar. Encouraged by fellow hopeful Martha Mansfield, May took some photos and began making the rounds of the New York studios. She began as an extra on Hate and I´ll Say So (1918), which led to a small part in To Hell With the Kaiser! (1918).

Her success led to small roles in Norma Talmadge and Florence Reed films, and between 1919 and 1920 made several movies with J. Stuart Blackton. In 1920 she starred with Lionel Barrymore in The Devil´s Garden, which led to her getting cast as the lead in Sentimental Tommy (1921). May had originally been turned down for the lead, but when Faire Binney proved inadequate won the part. It was the role that made her a star.

Her performance led to a contract with Paramount, and in 1922 May arrived in Hollywood, starting work at the Realart Studio along with Bebe Daniels and Mary Miles Minter. Eventually she was "promoted" to the Paramount lot, where she met lifelong friend Lois Wilson.

She made many films for Paramount, including Kick In (1922) directed by George Fitzmaurice, and under the direction of William Desmond Taylor made The Top of New York (1922). Such was her popularity that in 1923 May became the only film actress to reign as queen of the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena. May continued to work with some of Hollywood's best, including Only 38 (1923) directed by William deMille and starring with Wallace Reid in Clarence (1923).

Her career briefly stalled when she refused a part requiring partial nudity for Cecil B. DeMille, and the studio stopped giving her roles. Even though she was loaned out to Thomas Ince for Her Reputation (1923), May shrewdly bought out her contract and began freelancing. Ironically she returned to Paramount to make West of the Water Tower, filmed at the Famous Players studio back in NY and The Enchanted Cottage 1924 in New Jersey. May's career continued to flourish with roles in The Mad Whirl (1924) for Universal; The Bedroom Window (1924) again directed by William deMille, Tarnish (1924) for Sam Goldwyn; Three Women (1924) for Ernst Lubitsch at Warner Brothers; Tessie (1925), and independent production; and Lady Windermere´s Fan (1925) again for Lubitsch. By this time May was one of the highest-paid actresses, making 3,000 a week.

May continued her screen successes, replacing Gertrude Olmstead in Ben-Hur (1926) as Esther, and starring in The Road to Glory (1926) directed by Howard Hawks. She continued to star for the big Hollywood studios with roles in My Old Dutch at Universal; The Savage at First National; and The Fire Brigade (1927) at Metro. In 1927 she signed with Warner Brothers, making Irish Hearts with Jason Robards Sr., and If I Were Single with Conrad Nagel and a young Myrna Loy. May also became part of film history, starring opposite Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927) but with no speaking parts. She did speak, however, in Warner's fourth part-talkie The Lion and the Mouse (1928) again working with Lionel Barrymore. May also starred in England's first all-talkie The Terror (1928).

In 1929 May retired from the screen to marry Maurice Cleary, Vice-President and Treasurer of United Artists. An aviator, Cleary eventually became an executive at Lockheed, and once her only child, Patrick, was in school, May returned to MGM from 1940 until the mid-fifties as a bit player. Widowed in 1973, May died April 26, 1984.

Photos of May McAvoy
Glen Pringle /
Kally Mavromatis /
Copyright © 1998 by Glen Pringle and Kally Mavromatis
ISSN 1329-4431