Acting Up: Mercedes McCambridge and Sister Mary Leola Oliver

Mercedes McCambridge pictured with Sister Mary Leola Oliver, B.V.M., in front of her awards.

The large majority of students at what is now Loyola University Chicago walk around the Mundelein Center for the Fine and Performing Arts without realizing its former significance as a Catholic women’s college, let alone the former training grounds of an Academy Award and Golden Globe-winning actress.  Indeed, the main building of what was once Mundelein College had a rich legacy of teaching students the fine and performing arts, including one such alumna, Mercedes McCambridge. McCambridge received formal acting training from Sister Mary Leola Oliver, B.V.M., who not only served as her teacher, but as a lifelong mentor in shaping her career as an actress.

This summer, my colleague Jenny Clay and I have been working on creating a web portal to showcase media featuring the reflections of Mundelein College alumnae, faculty, and staff from their time at the school.  As part of the research for this project, I had the opportunity to listen to an oral history that McCambridge recorded herself where she reminisced about the impact that Sister Mary Leola had on her.

McCambridge was born in the Chicago area in Joliet, Illinois in 1916.  She attended high school at St. Thomas Apostle School run by the Dominican Sisters on the South Side of Chicago.  The sisters wanted her to attend Rosary College (now Dominican University), where she spent her first year. Following an examination with Mundelein College instructor Sister Mary Leola, she entered the college after her freshman year.  

McCambridge recalls how sister demanded the best from her students as someone who knew theater inside and out.  The petite instructor with sparkling eyes and notes pinned to her blouse was an actress herself who had pride in Mundelein College.  Sister stressed the importance of diction and body movement in acting. She also knew everything about stage design. If sister saw herself in a particular role in a play had she been a student, she would make the student’s time in that position extremely difficult.  

Students Margaret Cleary (left) and Mercedes McCambridge perform as Genesius and Pappaea in The Comedian.

Sister Mary Leola came up with the concept of the Mundelein College Verse Speaking Choir.  Editors of the Chicago Daily News and Chicago Tribune would come up to campus, and were impressed by the choir.  NBC Radio heard about the group, inviting them to record one of their poems into microphones.  NBC signed the choir into a year contract with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. McCambridge, in particular, received a five year contract with the company as a result of her involvement in the Verse Speaking Choir.

Mercedes McCambridge posing for a radio stock picture for NBC.

McCambridge explains how her fame only grew from there.  She played roles in theater, film, and radio. The Chicago Tribune wrote that she was the best non-traditional interpreter of Shakespeare.  She claims her success not to be attributed to herself, but rather to sister.  When McCambridge won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in All the King’s Men, she sent the award to sister at Holy Family School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who had it on display at a local theater.

Mercedes McCambridge closes her oral history, owing her career to Sister Mary Leola Oliver.  Sister not only changed her life through Mundelein College, but made her life as an actress. McCambridge signs off by saying, “Thanks sister, Mundelein, God, and the listener.”

 

More information about Mercedes McCambridge is available online through the Loyola University Libraries Digital Special Collections or in person through a visit to the Loyola University Chicago Women and Leadership Archives to view her papers.


Nathan Ellstrand served as a summer staff at the Women and Leadership Archives during the summer of 2018.  He is a third year PhD student in United States History, interested in twentieth century U.S. political history with connections to Latin America.  Away from campus, Nathan enjoys eating (he’s a foodie!), traveling and riding his bike.

 


Loyola University Chicago’s Women and Leadership Archives Blog is designed to provide a positive environment for the Loyola community to discuss important issues and ideas. Differences of opinion are encouraged. We invite comments in response to posts and ask that you write in a civil and respectful manner. All comments will be screened for tone and content and must include the first and last name of the author and a valid email address. The appearance of comments on the blog does not imply the University’s endorsement or acceptance of views expressed.


Women and Leadership Archives Summer Reading List

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A Mundelein College student picking out books from the library in Piper Hall.

We at the Women and Leadership Archives love summer reading.  If you’re like us, see below for a summer reading list inspired by the WLA’s collections!

For the movie-goersAll the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. This Pulitzer Prize winning novel tells the story of southern lawyer Willie Stark and his transformation from an idealistic man of the people to a corrupt politician who pays a high price in his pursuit of power. This loosely fictionalized account of Governor Huey Long of Louisiana boasts two movie adaptations. The first, released in 1949, features actress Mercedes McCambridge—whose personal papers are held in the Women and Leadership Archives! In her collection there is an original script of the film, movie stills, and newspaper clippings describing her Oscar-award winning performance as Sadie Burke.

Collections: Mercedes McCambridge Papers

For the time-travelersMundelein Voices: The Women’s College Experience edited by Anne M. Harrington and Prudence Moylan.

Founded in 1929 by the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mundelein College offered its all-female student body a comprehensive and rigorous Catholic liberal arts education. But Mundelein College, despite being run by nuns, had its share of hijinks! Readers can fully immerse themselves into the goings-on of the student body, and see what it was really like to be a Mundelein student, by reading this anthology of essays. I highly recommend the chapter by Joan Frances Crowley, B.V.M on her eight-year tenure as the director (then dean) of residence life. Anyone that has lived in a dorm will appreciate Crowley’s retelling of what it was like to live on-campus during the 1960s.

Collections: Mundelein College Collection

Joan Frances Crowley, B.V.M Papers

For the thrill-seekersRed Spy Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth Bentley by Kathryn S. Olmstead

Fans of John Le Carré (of Tinker Tailor Solder Spy fame) will love the fascinating life story of Communist Party and Soviet Union defector Elizabeth Bentley—called the “Red Spy Queen” by tabloids and newspapers in the late 1940s. Interestingly enough, Elizabeth Bentley actually worked as a professor of Political Science at Mundelin College from 1949-1950. Imagine having a spy for a teacher!

Collections: Mundelein College Collection

Marjorie Rowbottom Frisbee Papers

For my fellow feministsTidal Wave: How Women Changed America at Century’s End by Sara M. Evans

Historian Sara Evans is an authority on the subject of women’s history and their continued journey to equality. Her first book Born for Liberty (1989) is a comprehensive look at the history of women from the sixteenth century to modern times. In Tidal Wave, Evans establishes the essential foundation necessary to introduce readers to the histories of second and third wave feminism and their lasting importance to the present day. The Women and Leadership Archives holds numerous records of artists, academics, women’s groups, and writers that can add additional context to this groundbreaking time in women’s history.

Collections:  Feminism in Chicago: Connie Kiosse

Feminist Forum Records

SisterSerpents Records

For the scientistsHeadstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World by Rachel Swaby

This quick colorful book is for anyone who is curious about women’s contributions to the sciences. Divided into disciplines, this encyclopedic book provides brief entries about notable female doctors, biologists, environmentalists, mathematicians, astronomers, inventors; the list goes on and on! When you’re done, feel free to check out some of the WLA’s collections about women scientists

Collections: Mundelein College Collection—Sister Therese Langerbeck Files

Miram P Cooney, CSC., Papers

Alice Bourke Hayes, PhD., Papers

Katherine DeLage Taft

For the mischief-makersThe Trouble with Angels by Jane Trahey

Originally entitled Life with Mother Superior, this fictionalized memoir by Mundelein Alumnae Jane Trahey describes the shenanigans of two rebellious young women attending a Catholic all girls boarding school. The book was made into a feature film in 1966 starring Hayley Mills as the main troublemaker Mary Clancy and Rosalind Russell as the domineering Mother Superior. If you can get your hands on this book (it’s out of print), you’re in for a light-hearted, nostalgic comedy perfect for laying out pool-side.

Collections: Mundelein College Collection – Jane Trahey Files

For the hopeless romanticsLetters from Home – Kristina McMorris

Sometimes all you want from a good summer read is a juicy historical romance novel. Based in Chicago during World War II, this love story highlights a couple whose only way to communicate with one another is through letters. To add a Shakespearean twist, the main character, Liz Stephens, falls in love with her pen pal while pretending to be someone else! If love letters are your thing, come in and look at the Mollie Leiber West Collection. The WLA holds scores of letters from Mollie to her husband Carl Leiber when they were separated by WWII. Their own tragic love story is not unlike one you would read in an especially romantic novel!

Collections: Mollie Leiber West Papers

 


 

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Ellen is a Graduate Assistant at the WLA and is in the first year of her M.A in Public History at Loyola University Chicago. Before moving to Chicago, Ellen was a Kindergarten teacher in Louisiana. She enjoys brunch, procedural dramas, and pugs.

 


Loyola University Chicago’s Women and Leadership Archives Blog is designed to provide a positive environment for the Loyola community to discuss important issues and ideas. Differences of opinion are encouraged. We invite comments in response to posts and ask that you write in a civil and respectful manner. All comments will be screened for tone and content and must include the first and last name of the author and a valid email address. The appearance of comments on the blog does not imply the University’s endorsement or acceptance of views expressed.