Partner Marjorie Main
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Spring Dell Byington (October 17, 1886 – September 7, 1971) was an American actress. A number of Hollywood historians have claimed that Byington was a lesbian. Actress Marjorie Main's biographer Michelle Vogel has noted that Main and Byington were reported widely as having had a long-term relationship. When asked about Byington's sexual orientation, Main observed: "It's true, she didn't have much use for men." It has been said Byington had a romantic relationship with Maude Adams.
Byington's career included a seven-year run on radio and television as the star of December Bride. She was a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract player who appeared in films from the 1930s to the 1960s. Byington received a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Penelope Sycamore in You Can't Take It with You (1938).
Byington was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the daughter of Edwin Lee Byington, an educator and superintendent of schools in Colorado, and his wife Helene Maud Cleghorn. She had a younger sister, Helene Kimball Byington. Her father died in 1891, and her mother sent her younger daughter to live with her grandparents in Port Hope, Ontario, while Spring remained with relatives in Denver. Helene Byington moved to Boston and enrolled in the Boston University School of Medicine, where she graduated in 1896. She then returned to Denver and opened a practice with her classmate, Dr. Mary Ford.
Byington performed occasionally in amateur shows as a student, graduating from North High School in 1904. She soon became a professional actress with the Elitch Garden Stock Company. When their mother died in 1907, Byington and Helene were legally adopted by their aunt Margaret Eddy. Byington stated in a 1949 interview that she briefly tried newspaper reporting. However, since she was already of legal age, she decided to start her acting career in New York City, saying that she enjoyed it, and, "I can't do anything else very well."
In 1903, Byington had joined a repertory company, Belasco De Mille Company of New York, that was touring Buenos Aires, Argentina. Among the plays that she performed in Buenos Aires was Dr. Morris, written by Dr. Alberto del Solar. Between 1903 and 1916, the company performed American plays, translated into Spanish and Portuguese in Argentina and Brazil.
In 1909, Spring Byington married Roy Chandler, the manager of the theater troupe with which she worked in Buenos Aires. They remained there until 1916, when Spring returned to New York to give birth to her first daughter, Phyllis Helene. Her second daughter, Lois Irene, was born in 1917. The couple divorced about 1920. Between then and the mid-1930s, she devoted her time to developing her career.
Upon returning to New York, Byington divided her time between working in Manhattan and staying with her daughters. Her daughters were living with friends J. Allen and Lois Babcock, in Leonardsville Village, New York, who were taking care of them while Byington worked in the city. She began touring in 1919 with a production of The Bird of Paradise, which brought the Hawaiian culture to the mainland, and in 1921 began work with the Stuart Walker Company, for which she played roles in Mr. Pim Passes By, The Ruined Lady, and Rollo's Wild Oats, among others. This connection landed her a role in her first Broadway performance in 1924, George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly's Beggar on Horseback which ran for six months. She renewed the role in March and April 1925, and continued on Broadway with an additional 18 productions in the ten years from 1925 to 1935. These included roles in Kaufman and Moss Hart's Once in a Lifetime, Rachel Crothers's When Ladies Meet, and Dawn Powell's Jig Saw.
In her last years on Broadway, Byington began work in films. The first was a short film titled Papa's Slay Ride (1930), where she played the role of Mama, and the second role, and better known, was in Little Women (1933) as Marmee, with Katharine Hepburn as her daughter Jo. For MGM, she played Midshipman Roger Byam's (Franchot Tone) mother in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). She became a household name during The Jones Family series of films, and continued as a character actress in Hollywood for several years. Byington was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for You Can't Take it with You (1938), which was won by Fay Bainter for Jezebel (in which Byington also had a role as antebellum society matron, Mrs. Kendrick).
In the late 1930s, Byington was engaged to be married to an Argentine industrialist. Following an engagement of a few years and several months, he died unexpectedly. Following this, she devoted her life to her career and family.
During World War II, Byington worked in radio, and decided to continue working in this medium, as her film career began to decline after the war. In 1952, she joined CBS Radio to become the lead role of the widowed Lily Ruskin, in the sitcom December Bride. In 1954, the television company Desilu Productions produced a pilot of the show for a sitcom, also starring Byington. The pilot was successful, and the new hit sitcom aired in its first two seasons immediately following I Love Lucy. December Bride broadcast 111 episodes through 1959.
In August 1955, Byington began taking flying lessons in Glendale, California, but the studio made her stop because of insurance problems.
In January 1957, she testified in the trial of the Sica brothers as a character witness in behalf of DaLonne Cooper, who was a friend and the script supervisor for December Bride.
Byington guest-starred as herself in the CBS sitcom Dennis the Menace, starring Jay North, in the episode titled Dennis' Birthday (1961), with character actor Vaughn Taylor also appearing in this segment.
From 1961 to 1963, Byington was cast as the wise, matronly housekeeper, Daisy Cooper, in the NBC Western series Laramie, starring John Smith and Robert Fuller. On Laramie, Daisy serves as a surrogate grandmother to orphaned Mike Williams, played by the child actor Dennis Holmes.
After Laramie, Byington guest-starred as Mrs. Jolly on Dennis Weaver's NBC sitcom, Kentucky Jones, and as wealthy J. Pauline Spaghetti in an episode of Batman in 1966. Her penultimate role before her death from cancer was in 1967, as Larry Hagman's mother on NBC's I Dream of Jeannie. Her final role was in 1968 as Mother General on ABC's The Flying Nun, starring Sally Field.
Byington spoke some Spanish, which she learned during the time spent with her husband in Buenos Aires; and she studied Brazilian Portuguese in her later years. In July 1958, she confided to reporter Hazel Johnson that she had acquired a "small coffee plantation" in Brazil the month before and was learning Portuguese. "Miss Byington explained that she first listens to a 'conditioning record' before she goes to sleep. An hour later, her Portuguese lessons automatically begin feeding into her pillow by means of a small speaker."
Byington was fascinated by metaphysics and science fiction novels, including George Orwell's 1984. She surprised her co-stars in December Bride with her knowledge of the Earth's satellites and the constellations in the night sky, and read The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
On September 7, 1971, Byington died of cancer at her home in the Hollywood Hills. At her request, her body was donated to medical research.
For her contributions to the film and television industries, Byington has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: a motion pictures star at 6507 Hollywood Boulevard, and a television star at 6231 Hollywood Boulevard./a>
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