Like Shelby, he told Garden and Gun, Susan's diabetes meant bearing kids could be life-threatening: "But she wanted a child, she went ahead and had a child, and then, sure enough, her metabolism started to fail—circulatory system, kidneys, the whole thing. It was much grimmer than I portrayed in the play."
Initially he intended to write a short story, in part to share with his nephew one day to explain what happened to his mom. But a few pages in, he felt he wasn't accurately capturing the women's dialogue, so he switched course. Within 10 days, he'd scribbled out an entire play.
2. The names were also based on a true story.
It's been 30 years since Steel Magnolias, the play that inspired the iconic film by the same name, opened off-Broadway. In the decades since its debut at New York's WPA Theatre, the script has spawned countless stage renditions across the country and abroad, including a 2005 Broadway run starring Delta Burke and Rebecca Gayheart, and TV adaptations like the 2012 Lifetime movie starring Queen Latifah and Alfre Woodard. Its playwright, Robert Harling, a Tulane University Law School grad who shunned his degree in favor of relocating to New York City to become an actor, never imagined it would see the light of day. "I thought somebody would find it in a drawer when they were throwing out my stuff after I was dead," he says. "I had no illusions or delusions of grandeur."
Harling on the stage set of \’steel magnolias\' with constance shulman (l) and rosemary prinz, 1987.Getty Images
Harling grew up in Natchitoches, Louisiana, the oldest settlement from the Louisiana Purchase, with two younger siblings. He wrote the play after his sister, Susan, died from complications of type 1 diabetes. He'd been in New York for eight years at that point, a period during which Susan had married and decided to start a family, despite doctors' concerns that doing so could seriously jeopardize her health. Shortly after giving birth to a baby boy in 1983, Susan's circulatory system and kidneys began to fail. A kidney transplant from her mother, and dialysis, did little to help. She died during minor surgery in 1985, at the age of 33. Afraid his two-year-old nephew would never know who his mother was, Harling started writing. "All I wanted to do was have somebody remember her," he says.
"I always thought the women in my community were so witty and clever," he says. "In a lot of ways, they talked in bumper stickers."
He started the tale as a short story—"that lasted about half a morning"—before switching to dialogue, a format he felt more comfortable with as an actor. Later, when he told a friend who worked as a receptionist at a talent agency what he'd been up to, she passed it on to an agent.
Julia Roberts as Shelby and Sally Field as M\’lynn in \'steel magnolias\'Getty Images
The play wasn't originally intended as a comedy. As Harling's friend Margo Martindale, of Million Dollar Baby and August: Osage County fame, whom he wrote the role of Truvy for, recently reminded him, prior to opening night, they envisioned the story as a tragedy. "It wasn't until audiences came in and started responding to the way the women talked and how wonderful the actresses were that we realized, I guess this is funny—until it's not," Harling recalls.
Unlike the film, the play features an all-female cast, portraying characters Harling modeled after his mom's friends as he remembered them from his childhood. "I always thought the women in my community were so witty and clever," he says. "It was like a witty one-upmanship [between them]. In a lot of ways, they talked in bumper stickers." He worried that the real-life Ouiser, a character defined by her cranky and brutally honest nature, would recognize herself and take offense, but as women from his hometown began to see the play, "They all said they were Ouiser." During casting for the film, when director Herbert Ross offered Shirley MacLaine first choice of any part except M'Lynn or Shelby, she immediately wanted "the really bitchy one."
"People would like to feel they were the person who always had the snappy comeback and would always speak the truth," says Harling. "I think honesty is becoming a much more admired quality as the years go by."
The metaphor of "steel magnolia" isn't expounded upon in the play or film, though Harling says the juxtaposition of strength and fragility is apt for Southern women. "My mother would always say to handle magnolia blossoms carefully because they bruise so easily. You think of this flower that is so delicate and has to be handled with care, but is actually made of much stronger stuff."
Despite his talent for capturing the essence of ladies below the Mason-Dixon line, Harling says he's no authority. "I don't think anybody can be. That's part of their mystique and their allure, the fact that [Southern women] are completely unpredictable and undefinable."
Joan Rivers, center, backstage with the original cast of \’steel magnolias\' including margo martindale (third from left).Getty Images
These days, Harling splits his time between Manhattan and Natchitoches, where he bought and renovated a circa-1830 Creole cottage, a house he'd wanted since he was a kid and finally got five years after writing the play. In many ways, Harling has done for his hometown what Chip and Joanna Gaines have done for Waco, Texas. Once Steel Magnolias the film began shooting on location in Natchitoches in 1988, tourism grew exponentially. People wanted to see the houses where movie stars like Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Daryl Hannah, and Dolly Parton had stayed during their time there. To this day, Steel Magnolias-themed B&Bs and tours are still going strong. "My sister would love the idea that people are coming to her beloved hometown because of her story," says Harling.
Harling at an event in New York City, 2006
But what about Harling's ultimate goal, to help his sister leave an impact on her son? Harling's longtime friend Shirley MacLaine believes the play was channeled by Susan, and he tends to agree. "It's my sister's story, I just happen to be the one who wrote it down." The extended family was careful not to push that story on Susan's son, now in his mid-30s, leaving it, instead, for him to discover on his own time. "He knew she was so special that it took the biggest star in the world to play her," says Harling. "It took Julia Roberts to interpret the personality of his mother."
"That's part of their mystique and their allure, the fact that [Southern women] are completely unpredictable and undefinable."
Three decades of Steel Magnolias have been bookmarked by incredible experiences for Harling, who says the play's longevity points its universal themes. He recently returned from a trip to Europe where he watched a French production. "People were laughing and being moved by this story of this small town in Louisiana," he says.
Speaking over the phone from his Louisiana property, Harling comments on the large magnolia tree in his yard: there's a single blossom left, despite it being the middle of July. "They usually don't last this long."
What is the meaning behind Steel Magnolias?
steel magnolia (plural steel magnolias) (chiefly Southern US) A woman who exemplifies both traditional femininity and an uncommon fortitude.
Why did Shelby cut her hair in Steel Magnolias?
When Shelby has given birth, she decides to have her long hair cut off “to make things as simple as possible”. But when she sees herself in the mirror without her long locks, she starts to cry, knowing she has left behind part of her pre-motherhood self and must now be sensible, with a sensible hair-do to match.
What disease did Shelby have in Steel Magnolias?
It's the 1989 film in which Julia Roberts plays Shelby, a young woman with type 1 diabetes, who's dealing with family stresses alongside complications in the U.S. South. There's the famous scene in the beauty parlor, where Shelby has a low blood sugar while getting her hair prettied up before her wedding.
What is a famous line in Steel Magnolias?
Shelby: I would rather have thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.