Muriel Teresa Wright was born on October 27, 1918 in Harlem, New York City, the daughter of Martha (née Espy) and Arthur Hendricksen Wright, an insurance agent. Her parents separated when she was young. She grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey, where she attended Columbia High School. After seeing Helen Hayes star in Victoria Regina at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York City in 1936, Wright took an interest in acting and began playing leading roles in school plays.
She earned a scholarship to the Wharf Theater in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she was an apprentice for two summers. Following her high school graduation in 1938, she went to New York, changed her name to "Teresa Wright", and was hired as understudy to Dorothy McGuire and Martha Scott for the role of Emily in Thornton Wilder's stage production of Our Town at Henry Miller's Theatre. She took over the role when Scott left for Hollywood to film the on-screen version of the play.
In autumn 1939, Wright began a two-year appearance in the stage play Life with Father, playing the role of Mary Skinner. It was there that she was discovered by Samuel Goldwyn, who came to see her in the show she had been appearing in for almost a year. Goldwyn would later recall his first encounter with her backstage:
Miss Wright was seated at her dressing table, and looked for all the world like a little girl experimenting with her mother's cosmetics. I had discovered in her from the first sight, you might say, an unaffected genuineness and appeal.
Goldwyn immediately hired the young actress for the role of Bette Davis' daughter in the 1941 adaptation of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, signing her to a five-year Hollywood contract with the Goldwyn Studios. Asserting her seriousness as an actress, Wright insisted her contract contain unique clauses by Hollywood standards:
The aforementioned Teresa Wright shall not be required to pose for photographs in a bathing suit unless she is in the water. Neither may she be photographed running on the beach with her hair flying in the wind. Nor may she pose in any of the following situations: In shorts, playing with a cocker spaniel; digging in a garden; whipping up a meal; attired in firecrackers and holding skyrockets for the Fourth of July; looking insinuatingly at a turkey for Thanksgiving; wearing a bunny cap with long ears for Easter; twinkling on prop snow in a skiing outfit while a fan blows her scarf; assuming an athletic stance while pretending to hit something with a bow and arrow.
In 1941, Wright was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her film début in The Little Foxes. The following year, she was nominated again, this time for Best Actress for The Pride of the Yankees, in which she played opposite Gary Cooper as the wife of Lou Gehrig. That same year, she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as the daughter-in-law of Greer Garson's character in Mrs. Miniver. Wright is one of only nine players who have been nominated in both categories in the same year. Her three Academy Award nominations and one Academy Award in her first three films remains a rare accomplishment. She remains the only performer to have received Academy Award nominations for her first three films.
In 1943, Wright appeared in the acclaimed Universal film Shadow of a Doubt, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, playing an innocent young woman who discovers her beloved uncle (played by Joseph Cotten) is a serial murderer. Hitchcock thought Wright was one of the most intelligent actors he had worked with, and through his direction brought out her vivacity, warmth, and youthful idealism—characteristics uncommon in Hitchcock's heroines. In 1946, Wright delivered another notable performance in William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, an award-winning film about the adjustments of servicemen returning home after World War II. Critic James Agee praised her performance in The Nation:
This new performance of hers, entirely lacking in big scenes, tricks, or obstreperousness—one can hardly think of it as acting—seems to me one of the wisest and most beautiful pieces of work I have seen in years. If the picture had none of the hundreds of other things it has to recommend it, I could watch it a dozen times over for that personality and its mastery alone.
Four years later, she would appear in another story of war veterans, Fred Zinnemann's The Men (1950), which starred Marlon Brando in his film début. In 1947, Wright appeared in the western Pursued opposite Robert Mitchum. The moody "Freudian western" was written by her first husband Niven Busch. The following year, she starred with David Niven, Farley Granger, and Evelyn Keyes in Enchantment, a story of two generations of lovers in parallel romances. Wright received glowing reviews for her performance. Newsweek commented, "Miss Wright, one of the screen's finest, glows as the Cinderella who captivated three men." And The New York Times concluded, "Teresa Wright plays with that breathless, bright-eyed rapture which she so remarkably commands."
In December 1948, after rebelling against the studio system that brought her fame, Teresa Wright had a public falling out with Samuel Goldwyn, which resulted in the cancellation of Wright's contract with his studio. In a statement published in The New York Times, Goldwyn cited as reasons her refusal to publicize the film Enchantment, and her being "uncooperative" and refusing to "follow reasonable instructions". In her written response, Wright denied Goldwyn's charges and expressed no regret over losing her $5,000 per week contract.
I would like to say that I never refused to perform the services required of me; I was unable to perform them because of ill health. I accept Mr. Goldwyn's termination of my contract without protest—in fact, with relief. The types of contracts standardized in the motion picture industry between players and producers are archaic in form and absurd in concept. I am determined never to set my name to another one ... I have worked for Mr. Goldwyn seven years because I consider him a great producer, and he has paid me well, but in the future I shall gladly work for less if by doing so I can retain my hold upon the common decencies without which the most glorified job becomes intolerable.
Years later, in an interview with The New York Post, Wright recalled, "I was going to be Joan of Arc, and all I proved was that I was an actress who would work for less money." For her next film, The Men (1950), instead of the $125,000 she had once commanded, she received $20,000.
In the 1950s, Wright appeared in several unsuccessful films, including The Capture (1950), Something to Live For (1952), California Conquest (1952), The Steel Trap (1952), Count the Hours (1953), The Actress (1953), and Track of the Cat (1954) opposite Robert Mitchum again. Despite the poor box-office showing of these films, Wright was usually praised for her performances. Toward the end of the decade, Wright began to work more frequently in television and theatre. She received Emmy Award nominations for her performances in the Playhouse 90 original television version of The Miracle Worker (1957) and in the Breck Sunday Showcase feature The Margaret Bourke-White Story (1960). In 1955 she played Doris Walker in The 20th Century-Fox Hour remake of the 1947 classic film, Miracle on 34th Street, opposite MacDonald Carey and Thomas Mitchell.
On February 8, 1960, Wright was inducted to the Hollywood Walk of Fame with two stars: one for motion pictures at 1658 Vine Street and one for television at 6405 Hollywood Boulevard.
In the 1960s, Wright returned to the New York stage appearing in three plays: Mary, Mary (1962) at the Helen Hayes Theatre in the role of Mary McKellaway, I Never Sang for My Father (1968) at the Longacre Theatre in the role of Alice, and Who's Happy Now? (1969) at the Village South Theatre in the role of Mary Hallen. During this period, she also toured throughout the United States in stage productions of Mary, Mary (1962), Tchin-Tchin (1963) in the role of Pamela Pew-Picket, and The Locksmith (1965) in the role of Katherine Butler Hathaway. In addition to her stage work, Wright made numerous television appearances throughout the decade, including episodes for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1964) on CBS, Bonanza (1964) on NBC, The Defenders (1964, 1965) on CBS, and CBS Playhouse (1969).
In 1975, Wright appeared in the Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman, and in 1980, appeared in the revival of Mornings at Seven, for which she won a Drama Desk Award as a member of the Outstanding Ensemble Performance. In 1989, she received her third Emmy Award nomination for her performance in the CBS drama series Dolphin Cove.
Wright's later film appearances included a major role in Somewhere in Time (1980), the role of the grandmother in The Good Mother (1988) with Diane Keaton, and the role of Miss Birdie in John Grisham's The Rainmaker (1997), directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
In her last decade, Wright lived quietly in her New England home in the town of Bridgewater, Connecticut, in Litchfield County, appearing occasionally at film festivals and forums and at events associated with the New York Yankees. In 1996, she reminisced about Alfred Hitchcock at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and in 2003, she appeared on the Academy Awards show in a segment honoring previous Oscar-winners.
Teresa Wright died on March 6, 2005, of a heart attack at Yale-New Haven Hospital in Connecticut at the age of 86. She is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven.
Wright was married to writer Niven Busch from 1942 to 1952. They had two children: a son, Niven Terence Busch born December 2, 1944, and daughter, Mary Kelly Busch born September 12, 1947. She married playwright Robert Anderson in 1959. They were divorced in 1978, but maintained a close relationship until the end of her life.
She has two grandchildren, one of whom, Jonah Smith, helped produce Darren Aronofsky's films Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000). In 1998, Smith accompanied his grandmother to Yankee Stadium when she was invited to throw the ceremonial first pitch. It was her first visit to the stadium. Her appearance in Pride of the Yankees had sparked an interest in baseball and led her to become a Yankees fan. After Wright died in 2005, in honor of her heartfelt performance in that film, when the roll call of former Yankees who had passed on was announced at Old Timer's Day on July 5, 2005, her name was read out among all the ballplayers and other members of the Yankees family.
A Girl's Got To Breathe: The Life of Teresa Wright, by Donald Spoto, was published in February 2016. The author, a close friend of Wright for over 30 years, was given exclusive access to Wright's papers and correspondence by her family. Publishers Weekly (Dec. 7, 2015) called the biography "an engaging and intimate portrait." Library Journal (Feb. 1, 2016) also praised the book as "an affectionate tribute to a shamefully neglected talent."