Carole Landis was the Marilyn Monroe of the 1940s – faux-blonde and with a figure to die for. Both actresses made the most of their physical assets and were prepared to sleep around in pursuit of their careers as well as love. Marilyn lived to age 36. Carole never even made it to her thirties. In both cases there are rumours of foul play.
Marilyn has become a screen legend, a byword for sexuality. Carole has been forgotten by all but a handful of diehard fans. That’s partly because she lacked Marilyn’s on-screen charisma though she won plenty of favourable reviews from the critics. It’s also because the films in which she was cast rarely if ever rise above the mediocre.
But Carole’s life had all the elements of the kind of movie in which she would have aspired to star – ambition, adventure, setbacks, scandal and ultimately tragedy. Let’s retrace her steps, traveling back in time from her death to her birth and see if there are any clues along the way as to why things turned out how they did. Be aware, what follows is a personal take based various books and articles.
Monday 5 July 1948 – a corpse
Fannie Mae Bolden, Carole’s maid, arrives for work. She has a sense of foreboding:
On my way up to the house I had an awful feeling. Something told me that something was wrong. … I went on in and the table was full of food and dishes from when they had dined that night of the fourth of July. I cleared up everything and went into the living room. All her cameras and diaries and portfolios were on the table and I dusted them all off.
At about 11:30, Rex Harrison calls to speak to Carole. Fannie Mae tells him that Carole is still asleep. He tries again around 15:00 and when he hears that she’s still not up, he gets worried and comes around to see what’s up.
He goes upstairs and finds Carole curled up on the floor by the doorway of her bathroom, her head resting on a jewellery box. She’s wearing a dirndl skirt, frilly white blouse and gold sandals. Her arms are bent under her body as if she’s been trying to get up. Nearby are four empty sleeping-tablet bottles. She’s been dead for about 12 hours. On her dressing table is a short note:
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. And that applies to all our family. I love each and every one of them dearly. Everything goes to you. Look in the files, and there is a will which decrees everything. Good bye, my angel. Pray for me. Your baby.
Fannie Mae goes to a neighbour’s house for help and and they call the police, who arrive at around 16:00. According to her testimony, “Rex didn’t call anybody. He didn’t call the coroner, the police, or anyone. He just walked out.”
Sunday 4 July 1948 – the end of the affair
The previous day, Carole has some friends around for lunch and a pool party. Later that evening, she has dinner at home with Rex Harrison, with whom she has been having an affair. He tells her about his plans to accept an offer to star in Anne of the Thousand Days on Broadway. On a professional level, he likes the idea of getting back into the theatre. On a personal level, he’s worried that his relationship with Carole is getting out of hand. So this is an ideal pretext for leaving her and Hollywood for a while and building bridges with his wife, Lilli Palmer, who is pretty sick of his infidelity and all the gossip.
He leaves Carole alone in her house around 21:30. Worried that she’s taken the news badly, he phones her sometime after 01:30 from his home. But she’s in a terrible state and nothing he says can calm her down.
She puts the photos, correspondence and other mementoes of their relationship into a bag and drives over to the house of Rex’s friend, Roland Culver. It’s just a few blocks away. She leaves the package in the driveway and returns home. She has a few drinks and takes a handful of the highly addictive red Seconal sleeping pills she’s been prescribed. Lupe Velez used the drug to commit suicide four years previously.
At some point, whether before or after the overdose, Carole tries to call several friends but the phone rings and rings; no one answers. Marguerite Haymes does pick up Carole’s message but decides it’s too late to call back. By about 03:00 Carole is dead.
Meanwhile, when Nan, Roland Culver’s wife, discovers Carole’s package, she has it taken to Rex “under cover of darkness”. He places it in his fireplace and burns the lot.
1946–1948 – looking for love
After the adrenalin and excitement of her exertions to support the US war effort, Carole needs a new focus for her life. That focus is W Horace Schmidlapp, scion of a wealthy Cincinnati family who has made a career as a Broadway producer. Carole gives up her Hollywood apartment, puts the fixtures and furnishings up for auction and heads East. The couple get hitched on 8 December 1945 and honeymoon in Cuba. In accordance with his wishes and to be with her new husband, Carole puts her career on the back burner for a year.
That October, she has to spend about ten days in hospital – perhaps to get treatment for an infection she picked up during her Pacific trip, or possibly as a result of a suicide attempt. Either way, Carole ends up feeling pretty low and dispirited. Neither her marriage nor her career seems to be going anywhere.
When, back in Hollywood, she meets and falls for Rex Harrison in the early months of 1947, hope and optimism return and her spirits rise. That autumn, they travel separately to England – he to film Escape, she to film Brass Monkey. Her husband is scheduled to join her but never turns up. Their marriage really is falling apart.
Rex returns to Hollywood towards the end of January 1948. Carole joins him at the beginning of March, after completing work on another film. Although it’s a topic of Tinseltown gossip, their affair remains unknown to the general public. That all changes on 16 March when Walter Winchell spills the beans in his widely read column. Deep red blushes all round for Rex, Carole and their spouses.
Less than a week later, Carole initiates divorce proceedings. She’s no stranger to affairs but is convinced that this is different. Roy Moseley, his biographer, suggests that “Carole’s obsession with Rex was extreme and she took numerous photographs of him. … These pictures were then put on display so that the house resembled a shrine to her lover.”
Rex, on the other hand, has the wind put up him by Darryl Zanuck, head of Carole’s old studio, 20th Century-Fox, and other Hollywood insiders who insist on reminding him of Carole’s less-than-spotless reputation. He decides that the situation has got out of hand and it’s time to put a bit of distance between himself and Carole, at least for the time being. That opportunity on Broadway is just the ticket.
1942–1945 – war and romance
These turn out some of the most fulfilling years of Carole’s life. According to Walter Winchell:
No actress is doing more for the war effort than Carole Landis, who, in addition to her defense work, also makes personal appearances at camps. … Carole, probably more than any other actress in the movie capital, is bending every spare moment to the war effort…
She’s tireless and selfless. Twice she auctions her own property, including a $1,500 opal ring, for the war-bond drive. During a trip to the South Pacific she contracts what appears to be a malignant form of amoebic dysentery that will recur intermittently in the years that follow, sometimes requiring hospital treatment.
Two illustrations – one small, the other large – must suffice to illustrate her efforts…
On 4 May 1942 a sailor at Pearl Harbor writes a letter to Command Performance, the wartime radio programme broadcast exclusively to the military overseas. It’s to ask Carole Landis to “step up to the microphone and sigh. That’s all brother, just sigh!” And so on 11 June, Carole does just that. And the sigh becomes a a signature of her wartime performances.
In late October that year, Carole leaves Los Angeles with The Jills, the only all-female group to entertain soldiers overseas during World War II. The other members are actress Kay Francis, comedienne Martha Raye and dancer Mitzi Mayfair. In 1943, TIME magazine call their four-month trip, including nearly two months in North Africa where they more than once come under shelling and bombardment, “easily the biggest war-front entertainment hit of World War II.” It involves working six days a week and often giving several shows a day. It can be exhilarating but it’s also tough:
We had a wonderful time everywhere overseas. But it was hard. For five months we never gave less than five shows a day. It was too cold to sleep nights and there wasn’t water enough to take a bath. We bathed and shampooed in cold water – there was no hot. I had to do my own washing. And I ate more sand and fog than food. I was hairdresser for the gang; at that we didn’t look too bad.
Their exploits are turned into a (rather bad by all accounts) movie by 20th Century-Fox, and Carole uses the film’s title, The Four Jills, as the title for her partly ghost-written account of her adventures.
Carole being Carole, the trip wouldn’t be complete without a love affair. In London, she meets Air Force captain Thomas Cherry Wallace. Within weeks, they’re married. It’s just the story the movie magazines back home lap up. But by January 1944, just a year later, there are rumours that Carole and Tommy are having problems. On 1 October, Carole tells the press that her marriage is over. It’s a typical, short-lived wartime affair.
Around this time, Carole accepts a role in a new Broadway musical. Among the cast, she gets to know Jacqueline Susann, according to whom the two become lovers. Jacqueline will go on to set publishing records in the 1960s with a string of novels including Valley of the Dolls and The Love Machine. More immediately, she introduces Carole to W Horace Schmidlapp, who will become her final husband.
1937–1941 – Carole Landis edges her way to stardom
Carole Landis arrives in Hollywood around January 1937 with just $150 of savings in her pocket. She rents a cheap flat and looks for work but it’s a struggle. Then she catches the eye of Busby Berkeley, renowned for the splashy dance sequences he designs for the flamboyant musicals that have been wowing Depression‐weary filmgoers.
He’s so smitten with Carole that he not only helps her to land a contract with Warner Brothers but also proposes to her. But engagement never turns into marriage. His mother is against it – she’s heard rumours about Carole’s past and may have discovered that Carole is still a married woman. But not for long. She’s granted a divorce decree in March 1938 (the divorce will come through just over two years later). Meanwhile, she persuades her mother to sell her house and come and share her “homey apartment house in an unfashionable section of Hollywood.”
At Warners, Carole spends more of her time posing for cheesecake shots than making movies. In her own words, “I couldn’t act for sour apples … so all I was used for was ‘leg art’ publicity.” She sticks around until May 1938 and then moves to Republic Pictures.
1940 is an eventful year for her. Finally she gets her big break as Loana, the buckskin-clad lead cave-girl in Hal Roach’s box-office hit One Million B.C.. She’s the 1940s predecessor of Raquel Welch’s prehistoric sex bomb. And as soon as her divorce comes through, she rushes headlong into marriage with yacht broker Willis Hunt Jr. Within a couple of months, she files suit for divorce on the customary grounds of “extreme mental cruelty”.
Carole already has a reputation for being seen out with many if not most of Hollywood’s eligible bachelors, and during 1941 movie magazines refer to her as Tinseltown’s “most-dated starlet.” That year she also moves again, this time to 20th Century-Fox, where she falls prey to studio boss Darryl Zanuck, a notoriously voracious sexual predator. Initially things go well and she lands roles playing opposite Betty Grable in Moon Over Miami and I Wake Up Screaming. But when she tells Zanuck she’s had enough of him, she’s relegated to roles in B-movies. Could that be just a coincidence?
Then, with the entry of the US into World War II, Carole Landis finds a new sense of purpose.
1919–1936 – Frances Ridste becomes Carole Landis
Carole is born on New Year’s Day 1919, the youngest of five children. Her father, Alfred Ridste, is a drifting railway mechanic who abandons the family shortly after she’s born. Her mother, Clara, is a Polish farmer’s daughter who struggles to support herself and her children. They christen their daughter Frances.
When Frances is four, the family moves to San Bernardino, California. The following year, tragedy strikes. In the course of a card game with friends, her eleven-year-old brother Lewis is accidentally shot and killed.
Frances is more interested in boys and in earning a bit of money than in her studies. Her teachers would characterize her as a “bad girl.” Age 15 and still a schoolgirl, she elopes with Irving Wheeler, “a nice-looking boy of 19 who had a crew haircut, a jaloppy [sic], and a terrific ‘line.’ I liked the way he danced and also the idea of being a married woman.” as she recalls in I Am Carole Landis, an article for the August 1943 issue of Life Story.
The pair pretend to be going off on a hike, get into the “jalopy” and drive 200 miles to the border town of Yuma, Arizona, where, giving their ages as 18 and 21, they get hitched. When they return, Frances’ mother is having none of it and has the marriage annulled… only for the couple to get married all over again later the same year, this time with the permission of Frances’ father. They move into a one-room apartment but after just three weeks she walks out on him.
Age 16, Frances drops out of school at the first opportunity and sets off for San Francisco in search of freedom, adventure and stardom. She lives from hand to mouth, traipsing from one nightclub to another until she gets a job performing three shows a night in a skimpy hula outfit at the Royal Hawaiian. She carries on working there until she finds a full-time job at the Rio Del Mar. She has fond memories of this period of her life:
I sang twice a night and slept the rest of the time when I wasn’t lying on the beach. If I make a million bucks a week in pictures I still wouldn’t have a better life than that.
It’s around now that she changes her name – Frances Ridste becomes Carole (after Carole Lombard) Landis. It’s rumoured that she supplements her income by working as a prostitute. There’s no evidence for this but it’s also difficult to disprove. The likelihood is that Carole has a more relaxed attitude to sex than girls are supposed to have in pre-World War II America. She’s a good-time girl, not averse to sleeping around and perhaps accepting the occasion gift.
What are we to make of it all?
Carole Landis had a lot going for her. She was beautiful, generous and fun. She had the chutzpah required to brazen it out and break into Hollywood. But she was temperamentally unsuited to surviving there. She was naïve, impulsive and brittle. She was too eager to please, while under the surface she was vulnerable and worried about rejection. And she was prone to quite marked ups and downs. She might have been verging on bipolar.
Carole wanted, or thought she wanted, more than anything else to “have a very wonderful marriage and children whom I may love and make a fuss over long after the movies are gone.”
Unfortunately it turned out that she was incapable of having children. She also proved incapable of sustaining a long-term relationship. Not that it would have been easy for her. Her wartime husband was probably typical of many of the men she dated when he complained, “I’ve had enough of being the guy Carole Landis married.”
Truth is that she played the field in an era when that was just not what girls were supposed to do. According to her biographer Eric Lawrence Gans, she had at least 79 attested escorts and it’s unlikely that the list ends there. Her exploits seem to have started in her San Francisco days and she never abandoned her casual attitude to sex. As word got around, it undermined her chances of success both professionally and personally.
It cannot have helped that men found her amazing curves irresistible. Here’s how director William Witney describes his first encounter with Carole. The year is 1939 and he’s at a party:
A car pulled into the driveway and a couple got out and walked across the lawn toward us. Ralph greeted the man … [who] introduced us to the girl, Carole Landis. She was wearing a simple silk dress that clung to one of the most beautiful bodies I’d ever seen. When I got around to seeing if the body had a head, which it did, it was as spectacular as the body. … Carole was an actress trying to break into pictures. She also played a damn good game of badminton and mixed easily with our crowd, proving that she had to have a sense of humor to go along with her beauty.
Carole’s life might have been different had she managed to settle down with one of her more mature suitors – someone who could have influenced her career as well as providing stability in her personal life. Cedric Gibbons, Dolores del Rio’s ex, courted her for a while. He was head of MGM’s art department and the designer of the Oscar statue but he ended up marrying Hazel Brooks. Carole was also seen out with screenwriter Gene Markey – Hedy Lamarr’s husband from 1939–41.
By 1948, it was becoming clear that Carole’s career as a movie star was going nowhere. She still had offers but she was running out of road and she’d failed to land a starring role in any really great films. Why? She seems to have just accepted pretty much whatever the studios threw at her. That might have been partly because she didn’t have strong views or any kind of strategy, and partly because she needed to keep the money coming in to support herself and her mother.
Thwarted in her career and her private life, she must have dreaded growing old and losing the physical attraction on which she may well have felt her whole life depended. However deluded, she seems to have regarded the fickle Rex Harrison – sexy Rexy as he was known for his philandering ways – as the love of her life. When he turned her down, her life fell apart and she could no longer face the future.
And what of the circumstances surrounding Carole Landis’ death? Rex Harrison was clearly worried, suspected the worst and wanted to avoid being implicated. Fannie Mae, her maid, and Florence Wasson, her neighbour, said they saw a second note. Florence claimed it was just a memo Carole wrote about taking her cat to the vet. However, Lilli Palmer later admitted that a police officer found a personal love-note from Carole to Rex, which she paid him $500 to destroy.
There’s also a rumour that the cause of Carole’s death was not suicide – that to get Rex out of a hole she was murdered. Whatever you conclude, the whole thing stinks.
Want to know more about Carole Landis?
There are lots of accounts of Carole Landis’ death on the Internet, rather fewer of her life. Much the best resource is the tribute to Carole created by her niece and a long-time fan. It includes much original material including rare photos, scans of documents and articles from contemporary movie magazines.
Several biographies have been published. The one used as the primary source for what you’ve read here is Carole Landis: A Most Beautiful Girl by Eric Gans.