Jane Wyman was born Sarah Jane Mayfield in St. Joseph, Missouri to Manning, a laborer, and Hope, an office assistant. In 1921, her parents divorced and one year later her father died unexpectedly from pneumonia at the age of 27. After her father’s death, her mother moved to Cleveland, leaving Sarah Jane to be raised by her neighbors Emma and Richard Fulks, the chief of detectives in St. Jospeh. The Fulks unofficially adopted Sarah Jane and she took their last name in their honor. In 1928, she briefly moved to California with Emma Fulks. They returned to Missouri and by 1930 Sarah Jane had begun a career as a radio singer. She called herself Jane Durrell and added years to her birth date so that she could legally work.
At age 15, Jane dropped out of high school and moved to Hollywood, where she worked odd jobs before obtaining small roles in several films. When she was 19, she changed her name to Jane Wyman and became a contract player at Warner Brothers. Her big break came in 1945 when she was cast in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. It was after this movie that she was finally recognized as a serious and respected actress. In 1946, she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for The Yearling. Two years later she won the Academy Award for her role as a deaf-mute rape victim in the movie Johnny Belinda. She was the first person in the sound era to win an acting Oscar without ever speaking a line of dialogue. As an Oscar-winning actress, Wyman had the ability to choose higher-profile roles. She worked with such directors as Alfred Hitchcock and Frank Capra and garnered two more Oscar nominations.
Wyman starred in her final big screen movie, How to Commit Marriage, in 1969. She made numerous appearances on television — including a role producing and hosting her own anthology series, The Jane Wyman Theater— but remained in semi-retirement for most of the 1970s. She made a huge career comeback in 1981 when she was cast as the scheming matriarch Angela Channing on the primetime soap opera Falcon Crest. The series ran until 1990. During that time, Jane was nominated for five Soap Opera Digest awards and for two Golden Globes. She won the Golden Globe in 1984 for Best Performance by an Actress in a TV series. After Falcon Crest, Wyman made one appearance on the television show Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, before retiring from acting permanently.
Jane Wyman was married five times, twice to Fox film studio musical director and vocal coach Fred Karger. Most notably, Wyman was the first wife of the future President of the United States, Ronald Reagan. They met when they costarred in the 1938 film Brother Rat and were married on January 26, 1940. They had one daughter, Maureen, and adopted one son, Michael. They also had a daughter named Christine, who was born four months premature and died a day after her birth. The couple divorced in 1949, before Reagan had run for public office. Neither person spoke publicly about their relationship after the divorce. Wyman remains the only person to have won an Oscar and married a future U.S. President.
Wyman long suffered from both arthritis and diabetes. She was a great philanthropist for the arthritis cause. She served as chairperson for the Arthritis Foundation for several years and ran annual telethons for the foundation for 20 years. Jane Wyman lived many of her later years in seclusion due to her declining health. She died at the age of 90 in her home in Rancho Mirage, California. She was said to have died in her sleep from natural causes.