The Sad 1959 Death Of Edmund Gwenn From Miracle On 34th Street

Actor Edmund Gwenn strolled through the grounds of the brand new Motion Picture Hospital in Woodland Hills, a Los Angeles neighborhood, during its dedication. The facility, which officially opened on April 18, 1948, was next to the Motion Picture Country House, a retirement home, and both were for those in the Hollywood film industry who were "old and infirm and those down on their luck," according to the Motion Picture & Television Fund and the Los Angeles Evening Citizen News.

Gwenn had just won an Oscar for his beloved role as Kris Kringle in "Miracle on 34th Street" and while he was in his 70s, he was still in demand as an actor, per the Associated Press. But just 11 years later, he would find himself living at the Country House and in need of the hospital, having become one of Hollywood's actors who were aged, infirm, and down on their luck. He died on September 6, 1959, of pneumonia after a stroke. Before that, Gwenn had a crippling case of arthritis.

A long career

By the time Edmund Gwenn came to Hollywood in 1935 when he was in his 50s, he'd already had a distinguished career as a British stage actor, according to "The Encyclopedia of Hollywood Film Actors: From the Silent Era to 1965." This included a succession of roles in several of George Bernard Shaw's plays, for which the cantankerous playwright had handpicked Gwenn, per The Los Angeles Times. He had also starred in many British films, and continued his streak in America, bouncing between Broadway and Hollywood, where he worked with such iconic filmmakers as Alfred Hitchcock and fellow actors including Katharine Hepburn and Frederick March.

By the 1950s, Gwenn's career was winding down in part due to his arthritis. In 1955, during the filming of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Trouble With Harry," Gwenn suffered terribly from the disease that affected his acting, according to "Hitchcock and the Censors." His final film was a Spanish production from 1956 called "Rocket From Calabuch," which didn't get wide distribution in the U.S. That same year, his arthritis required him to use a wheelchair, per The Los Angeles Times. Even so, in 1957, he appeared on two television shows with his final role being on "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," per IMDb. For more than 60 years, Edmund Gwenn had made his life as an actor.

His final words?

Edmund Gwenn was born in London on September 26, 1877. He left home at 17 after being disinherited by his father over his career choice, per The Los Angeles Times. Before Gwenn had turned 20, he was working with George Bernard Shaw. But by the late 1950s, Gwenn was too ill to act and found himself in financial trouble, per "Lemmon: A Biography." Gwenn's best friend, George Seaton, who had directed him in his Oscar-winning role in "Miracle On 34th Street," got him to move into the Motion Picture Country House. While there, Gwenn had a stroke. 

In what is possibly an apocryphal story, Seaton came to see his old friend. Gwenn told Seaton he was dying and that it was "awful" and "frightening" and that he didn't like it. "Yes, old friend, I guess dying can be very hard," Seaton responded. "Yes, but not as hard as playing comedy," Gwenn said before taking his final breath. He was a few weeks shy of 82.

Gwenn's body was cremated and placed in an urn that ended up in the storage vault at Chapel of the Pines Crematory in Los Angeles, per Hollywood Graveyard. Filmmaker Arthur Dark and researcher Jessica Wahl discovered the urn in March 2023. A GoFundMe campaign raised enough money to have Gwenn's ashes interred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. They've scheduled a public memorial and interment ceremony for Gwenn on December 3, 2023, more than 60 years after his death.