Hollywood history is full of tragic stories, but that of Carole Landis (above) is more tragic than most. She was beautiful, friendly, gentle-hearted, popular, talented and smart. She was also a tomboy, liked men and having a good time, yet was naive and easily manipulated. And what Hollywood was never short of was manipulators. All in all she had a lot going for her, yet this gorgeous woman found it necessary to take her own life at 29. And she took it over her love for a famous man who was universally disliked, even detested, throughout the acting community in two countries; over a man who appeared utterly indifferent to her death.
She was born Frances Ridste in Fairchild, Wisconsin in 1919. Her father deserted his family early on, so they headed to San Bernardino, California. At fifteen, Frances rebelled, ran away from home and eloped with a 19 year-old writer she barely knew. A month later they parted, but inexplicably decided to marry again later. The second time did not work much better than the first (it just lasted longer), and her husband sued for divorce a few years later, naming Hollywood choreographer (and all-round lecher) Busby Berkeley as co-respondent. By then Frances had become Carole Landis. She chose Carole because she adored Carole Lombard, and she chose Landis because of the baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis. She adored baseball as well. Her first taste of success was in San Francisco as a lounge singer – and she was good. Stories that she may have traded sex for work are probably true, but she was a fine singer whose ability was never utilized in her movies, more’s the pity.
On the Carroll – Levis Hour radio show
In 1936 she decided to try her luck in Hollywood, her introduction to the industry being one of 250 girls auditioning for a dozen ‘newcomer’ spots in a Busby Berkeley musical. Sleazy Busby’s ‘auditions’ followed a set procedure. A selection of the twenty prettiest dancers was made, then each girl was interviewed separately. ‘Raise your skirt’, was his opening gambit. ‘Oh, I need to see more than that’, came next. Eventually, the greatly humiliated girl would be standing in front of him with her skirt over her head. He would then advise her that she already had the job; that the ‘skirt thing’ was just his little joke.
Busby Berkeley at his peak
If he really fancied a girl he would promise her a line of dialogue as well. It was always a throwaway line, anyway, one that he knew would never make the final cut, but it generally got him laid. Carole probably fell for it. Most did. Apparently, Berkeley managed to land her a contract with Warners, so it seems she was probably pretty cooperative one way or the other. The upshot was that between 1937 and 1938 she appeared in no fewer than twenty-nine films, mostly for Warners, although she was also loaned out to MGM now and then.
Darryl F Zanuck
Studio wives, a vindictive bunch of hypocrites in general, most of whom had slept their way into their marriages in the first place, bitterly resented the starlets who tried similar tactics with their husbands. At Warners they banded together to make life difficult for Carole. As far as they were concerned, she got far too much work for a newcomer. She had to be trading sexual favours for work with their spouses. Everyone knew she was Darryl Zanuck’s 4 o’clock girl. Almost every afternoon at that time she would enter his private office for their thirty-minute ‘session’. There were plenty of other girls doing the same thing at Warners, at every studio for that matter, but for some reason Carole bore the brunt of the criticism. Of all the steady stream of girls that swapped sex for roles, only she was labelled the ‘studio whore’.
The ‘Ping Girl’
In 1940, Hal Roach’s publicity man nicknamed her ‘The Ping Girl’, an idiotic name that men at the time identified with. ‘Ping’ was a slang word for a male erection in those days. How brilliant. Although Zanuck singled out three of his up and coming stars for special ‘grooming’, those girls being Gene Tierney, Anne Baxter and Carole, it was Landis who bore the brunt of his amorous intentions. That aside, half the problem the wives had with Carole was her popularity. The crews loved her because she was always cheerful, said hello to everyone, and often did kindnesses for people she barely knew. She was genuine, in an industry where that was a rare quality indeed.
Carole around 1941
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Carole was soon signed up for USO duty in whatever theatre of war saw American servicemen in action. Over the next three years she devoted more of her time to USO touring than any other entertainer in the entire war, much of it spent close to front line action. In 1944 alone she flew over 100,000 miles around the Pacific battle zone. Along the way she contracted malaria, amoebic dysentery, pneumonia and endured severe ulcers that affected her for the rest of her short life. Her fellow performers said she rarely complained and worked tirelessly, singing and mugging on a hundred stages in front of thousands of adoring GIs.
Four Jills in a Jeep (1944) Carole at left.
In 1944, the multi-talented Carole wrote a book about her touring with the USO during the war. It was called Four Jills in a Jeep and was made into a successful movie. She starred in it and was terrific. By 1947, however, her career had stalled. Worse than that, she had fallen head over heels for a married man, a man that most people detested. Rex Harrison was married to actress Lili Palmer and lived just two miles from Carole’s place. Like Zanuck and others, he used her for sex. Carole, on the other hand, hoped their relationship would end up in marriage.
Rex Harrison & Lilli Palmer
The tabloids were all over the affair, Walter Winchell even going so far as to name both parties, and to predict Carole would soon marry Harrison once his divorce came through. He had no intention of divorcing Palmer, least of all for the notorious Miss Landis. By July 4, 1948 it must have finally dawned on Carole that Harrison was just using her. She had a private dinner with him that evening, he left; she put all her photos and letters from him into a small case, and deposited it outside the front gate of a mutual friend, Roland Culver. She then returned home, swallowed a handful of Seconal, and died on her bathroom floor. She was 29.
Officially, Carole’s maid discovered her body next morning, although stories circulated that Harrison found her, rang Zanuck, and was removed from the scene before the police were eventually called. No-one seems to have any proof of this, however. Nobody seems to know what happened to the case containing the evidence of their affair either. The general consensus is that Culver gave it to Harrison and he burned the contents.
Photographs of Carole’s body curled up on the bathroom floor were splashed over the front pages of just about every paper in America. I see no point in reproducing those photographs here. Her truly sad suicide note was printed in full. It read:
Dearest Mommie, I’m sorry, really sorry to put you through this. But there
is no way to avoid it. I love you darling. You have been the most wonderful
Mom ever. Everything goes to you. Look in the files, and there is a will that
decrees everything. Goodbye my angel. Pray for me. Your Baby.
A second note was for the maid; the gentle-hearted Carole poignantly reminding her to take the kitten to the vet to get its sore paw attended to.
This had been Carole’s fourth suicide attempt. The previous three always left messages that she was taking sleeping pills, and her pals had always intervened in time. Maybe, this time, she forgot it was a holiday weekend and that everyone was away. Maybe she just didn’t care anymore.
Throughout the movie community Harrison’s apparent indifference to her death was condemned. The Hollywood Reporter was especially scathing: We don’t remember an actor…who has breached so many rules of good taste…the wonder of the whole thing is that he hasn’t had his face smashed by now.’ Harrison returned home at once to England. In 1980, his fourth wife, Rachel Roberts, would take her life as well.
Shortly before her death
Carole Landis had her faults, but who hasn’t? She deserved to be treated better than this. As so often happens, the history books portray her as a tramp rather than a victim, glossing over the behaviour of the denizens of the studio system who used their positions of power to undermine the morals of so many wide-eyed, naïve hopefuls like her. The cruellest cut of all saw her fall for one of these creeps. She was referring to him when she wrote:
‘A man can be an absolute heel and a woman, knowing it, can still be madly in love with him.’
Footnote: If you are interested in learning more about Carole, there exists a beautiful website: www.CaroleLandis.net that has some wonderful photographs, a detailed history, and even has a voice recording made by her just two days before she died. The site is run by Elizabeth and Tammy, the latter being Carole’s niece. I thoroughly recommend the site.