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Obituaries

Peggy Conklin, 96; Shone on Broadway

March 28, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Peggy Conklin, the pert "girl next door" actress from the 1930s through the 1950s who fared far better on Broadway than in Hollywood, has died at the age of 96.

Conklin died March 18 at her home in Naples, Fla., of causes associated with aging.

During her three-decade career, she appeared in two dozen major plays, most of them on Broadway, including the leading female role of Gabby Maple in Robert Sherwood's "Petrified Forest" opposite Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart. The 1935 production helped make Bogart a major star.

Unlike Bogart, Conklin did not find great success in Hollywood. She made only five movies, all in the 1930s. The film history book "They Had Faces Then" had this assessment:

"Peggy Conklin had a particularly unsatisfying screen career. She made almost no impact at all in such pretty good movies as 'The President Vanishes' and 'The Devil Is a Sissy.' "

Her other films were "One Way Ticket," "Her Master's Voice" and "Having a Wonderful Time" in which she was outshone by Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball and Eve Arden.

Margaret Eleanor Conklin was born in suburban Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., and reared in poverty by a single mother and, after her mother's death when Conklin was 12, two aunts. After graduating from high school, she decided she wanted to be an actress and moved to New York City to study dancing.

Conklin made her Broadway debut in the chorus line of "Treasure Girl" in 1928 and quickly graduated to comedic and dramatic leading roles.

Among her best-known assignments were portraying Prudence Kirkland, who loves a Hessian soldier in 1933's "The Pursuit of Happiness"; Ellen Murray, who has liberal ideas of love in "Yes, My Darling Daughter" in 1937; Mrs. North, half of the durable husband and wife detective team in "Mr. and Mrs. North" in 1941; and Flo Owens, the discombobulated mother in William Inge's 1953 "Picnic," co-starring Paul Newman.

The actress also made appearances on radio and television, particularly in programs that presented classic plays, such as "Pride and Prejudice."

In 1941, when Conklin was riding high in "Mr. and Mrs. North," The Times described her in a feature article: "She is the archetype of that great American institution, the Girl Next Door -- the childhood sweetheart, the girl whose hair is always a little awry from dashing around; who is enthusiastic rather than sophisticated; who wears sweaters for sweaters and not for Hollywood purposes; and the girl you'd like to spend the rest of your life with rather than just date a couple of times."

Advertising executive James D. Thompson did spend his life with her, after they were introduced at Sunday dinner. They were married from Aug. 7, 1935, until his death in 1998.

Conklin is survived by their daughter, Antonia West, of Stroud, Gloucestershire, England; a son, Michael Thompson, of Redwood City, Calif.; and three grandchildren.

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