By Robert Weast
In 1939, the only movie theater in Clinton proudly headlined its marquee — “Clinton’s own Peggy Moran in ‘Ninotchka’ with Greta Garbo” — to celebrate the native daughter’s small role in a comedy set in the Soviet Union that would receive four Academy Award nominations. Peggy Moran was a cigarette girl in that year’s famous film. It was one of many roles that she played in movies from 1938 to 1943.
Iowa native Mary Jeanette Moran, a.k.a. Peggy Moran, was born on Oct. 23, 1918, in Clinton, an eastern Iowa town on the Mississippi River. Peggy recalled, “I was a holy terror until the age 4, when I reached the age of reason.” She liked to play “make believe” as a very young girl. Her parents, Earl and Louise Moran, were high achievers; Louise was a dancer in the famous Denishawn Dance Company and her father — a native of Belle Plaine — was an excellent, first-rate illustrator for posters and art deco pin up calendars. Most notable among those who posed for him was an aspiring actress who later became known as Marilyn Monroe.
To become a star, to be one in that constellation of big movie stars, was the goal of countless wannabe starlets who descended on Hollywood, hoping to break into the big time galaxy of the silver screen. They hoped that some talent scout would spot them by their good looks as they waitressed, soda jerked, or car hopped. Others went to central casting, hoping to get even a brief, nameless, walk-on part. Studios always had some openings for these uncredited actors and they lined up for a break just to appear in some movie as an extra. The key to success for many was to secure an agent.
To become an actress had always been in the blood of Peggy. In the early 1920s, the Morans moved to Los Angeles, Calif. On a lark, Peggy and her mother visited a famous psychic, even though they didn’t really believe that anyone could foretell the future. Upon seeing young six-year-old Peggy, the mystic put his hand on her chin and said, “Ah, an actress.” That planted the seed and spark. “As a child I believed him. So from that time on I thought I was going to grow up and be an actress,” she said.