It is funny what celebrity death can do... both to the public and to the deceased. The masses were so distraught after Rudy Valentino's death that at least a couple of the broken hearts tried to take their own lives as well. The tragedies of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, instead of ending their time on earth, brought them eternal life and the love of devoted fans. Yet, sometimes, despite one's fame, to die is to die. Such is the sad case of Carole Landis, who despite her bright light, her profound beauty, and the fanatic adulation she received during her lifetime, is now remembered-- if at all-- as a sad and balled-up corpse on the bathroom floor. After she took her own life in order to ease her wounded heart, the world was left in shocked silence. Slowly, she became all but forgotten outside the halls of Hollywood's macabre trivia. The time has come to unearth her and give her the respect and embrace she always wanted but was forever denied. As the anniversary of her death approaches on July Fourth, it seems befitting to dedicate our most patriotic month to the woman who, in her life, was America's favorite patriot. Carole Landis, God shed his grace on thee...
Just as mysterious and saddening as her end was her beginning. Frances Lillian Ridste was the youngest of five children born to Clara Zentek and Alfred Ridste of Wisconsin in 1919. Yet, from the beginning there was controversy, including a debate as to just who her real father was. While the family was temporarily living in Montana-- due to Alfred's job with the railroad-- Clara met farmer Charles Fenner and, it is assumed, had an affair with him. Since Alfred obtained a divorce from Clara not long after Frances's birth, credence can be given to the rumor. Clara wed Charles after her first divorce, but that union would only last 17 months. Thus, Carole inherited two absent fathers and an equally absent mother, who was forced to spend most of her days working to feed and clothe herself and her 4 children (one of whom, Jerry, had tragically already died). Carole was often left to her own devices: both to entertain herself and to fend for herself. Her childhood lacked the innocence that every youth is owed, but she never belly-ached about it. In fact, her fortitude and her selflessness were well-honed qualities that she would carry with her into adulthood, where their repercussions would eventually and vengefully take hold. A naturally friendly, light-hearted, and popular child, Carole was laid-back and easy-going. After the family moved to San Bernardino, CA, she enjoyed the pleasures of going to school and socializing, excelling at both. She could easily chat with the girls, despite their jealousy over her growing beauty-- which her sweet demeanor rendered non-threatening-- but she preferred to play sports with the boys. Athleticism was always a major part of her life, and the glamorous gowns and delicate figure that she showcased in her later film roles would eclipse a tom-boy's energetic and shapely body. In her youth, the only "dangerous curves" Carole concerned herself with had to do with softball.
Feisty and independent, Carole would survive many tragedies and mature rapidly as a result. She lost another brother, Lewis, when he was accidentally shot at the kitchen table while playing with a neighbor's gun. After her mother suffered a ruptured appendix, Carole, despite being the youngest member of the household, was the only child who neither panicked nor cried. She did what she always did and "got to gettin'." Nonetheless, the scars of these early experiences increased in her a need for escape. One option for relief was through the movies, of which she very quickly became enamored. Singing was also a talent she indulged in, possessing a beautiful voice to match her gorgeous physical features. It was this latter beauty that led to another possibility of escape: men. At 14, she passed for 21, and the fellas noticed, especially after she started winning beauty competitions (for which she had to lie about her age to enter). Luckily, Carole was completely lacking in vanity, and saw this all as a fun joke. She was more focused on creating the first powder-puff football team at her school, (though the Principal didn't go for it because it was "unwomanly"). Then, at the age of 15, she met 18-year-old Irving Wheeler and fell in love. He offered her a life away from her increasingly dependent mother, and more importantly a life of their own. Carole took the bate, and the two eloped on January 14, 1934, though the marriage was soon annulled when both sets of parents found out. Defiantly, Carole wed Wheeler again, whose intentions were more physical than emotional, only to walk out on him by September of the same year. It would not be her last tumultuous relationship.
The self-starter herein made her first big move: to San Francisco. Still only fifteen, she left school, her family, and all of her friends behind and travelled to the city that was known for its artistry and culture. She hoped to make a name there for herself as a singer. She did. First, she changed her name, taking "Carole" from one of her favorite actresses, Carole Lombard, and "Landis" from baseball commissioner (of course) Kennesaw Mountain Landis. Many have alleged that Carole spent her early days in San Francisco as a call-girl, but these seem to be nothing more than slanderous rumors cooked up by a jealous and unforgiving world. In truth, Carole had no time to engage in this type of vocation, because almost as soon as she stepped off the train, she marched into the famous St. Francis Hotel and asked the manager for a job. When he heard her sing, he was stunned and gratified to hire her on the spot. By working the smaller St. Francis bar, Carole was soon scooped up by the "Carl Ravazza Orchestra," and after enjoying a great deal of success and adulation, she possessed enough confidence to give Hollywood a go. In 1936, now seventeen, Carole was primed to take the industry by storm, though she would have to edit her age again to do so. With the same fearless determination and zestful work ethic that she had shown in San Francisco, Carole made the rounds to different studios and obtained numerous extra jobs until being offered a contract.
Her first big break came when she was cast in the special effects, B-movie triumph One Million B.C, in which she outmaneuvered dinosaurs in scant clothing alongside costar Victor Mature. It was her athleticism that won her the role. D.W. Griffith himself was brought on board to help cast the film initially, and he hand-picked Carole because, as he put it, "She's the only [girl] who knows how to run." Soon, she was using her natural talent and knack for both comedy and drama to climb the popularity polls in films like Turnabout, in which she plays a man in the body of a woman, I Wake Up Screaming, in which she plays Betty Grable's morally questionable, murdered sister, and A Scandal in Paris, in which she plays such a sexy and devious villainess that she literally sets the screen on fire. Her beauty made her a prime candidate for some of the most popular pin-up photos of the day, though some of hers didn't make it to print due to censorship-- not because they were naughty, but because she was too well endowed. In fact, she became the first "sweater girl," before contemporary Lana Turner took the title. She was so innocently provocative that at least one particular photographer warned her before a shoot, "For God's sakes, don't inhale!" to try to diminish the appearance of her... gifts. Though Carole thought all of this objectification was a lark, she went along with it, simply because she was easy-going; not because she put stock in her sexual appeal. It wasn't until they tried to label her as the "ping" girl that she completely rebelled. She wanted to be a great actress and studied Bette Davis's performances with an eager ferocity, hoping to lend the same depth to her own roles. Sadly, because of her beauty, she was rarely afforded the privilege. Yet, she remained popular, especially among her contemporaries who constantly became smitten by her kindness and conviviality. She counted Patsy Kelly, Cesar Romero, "Mousie" Lewis, and Burgess Meredith as close friends. Even the most temperamental actors found safety in Carole's presence; she just had one of those auras that put people at ease.
All was not rosy, however. Carole's private life, if not her career, was always a failure. After finally obtaining a divorce from first husband Irving Wheeler, she then married and was divorced from Willis Hunt. She too was in a damaging relationship with Busby Berkeley and an abusive one with Pat DiCicco. Her many gentlemen friends led to rumors that Carole was just another of the many young women sleeping her way to the top. Yet, there is hardly any woman in Hollywood untainted by such a rumor, nor many who are completely innocent of it. Los Angeles doesn't breed angels. Though Carole was free-spirited and far from prudish, the assumption that she was, for lack of a better phrasing, a "studio whore," is unfounded and unfair. This is evidenced by that fact that she was able to make a legitimate career for herself, whereas so many women were simply used and discarded. It is, however, reasonable to assume that she did use the Hollywood game to her advantage, as many did, at least until she achieved enough power to extricate herself from the misogynistic system. It is generally accepted that she was one of the many ingenues Darryl F. Zanuck used for his own pleasure, but she eventually either grew tired of or outgrew this accepted station, and uttered the unfathomable word, "No." Consequently, this led to her casting in silly supporting roles beneath her talent, a tactic for Zanuck's vengeance. Ironically, the thing that saved her was WWII. Just as Carole's desire to please and bring joy to others had pulled her into a life in the entertainment business, so too did her big heart drive her to become the war effort's number one hero-- at the time above and beyond even Bob Hope or Jack Benny. Her tireless efforts in entertaining the troops at home and abroad made her America's Sweetheart and favorite patriot. Due to this, her popularity boomed, particularly after she penned a novel of her war experiences, Four Jills and a Jeep. Zanuck was begrudgingly forced to produce a film version-- albeit a Hollywoodized one-- starring herself and her three female compatriots, who were also worthy of much praise, Kay Francis, Mitzi Mayfair, and Martha Raye.
The war changed Carole. Seeing brave men fight and die, befriending them and then losing them, and witnessing first hand the terrors of war, awakened in her a deeper knowledge of herself. No more did the glitz and glamour of stardom matter to her, not that it ever did much anyway. Now she wanted something more meaningful and fulfilling in her life. Most particularly, she yearned for a love that would lend her life gravity and comfort. She sought to attain this goal by wedding a soldier whom she met in England, Thomas Wallace. However, after their whirlwind, mid-battle courtship and wedding, the two returned to American soil and realized that they had little in common. Tommy had married her to fulfill a dream-- to wed a movie star-- only to realize that a determined woman with a career was far too belittling to his own masculinity. Carole's pipe dreams again went up in flames. After Tommy broke her heart, she moved on quickly and wed businessman Horace Schmidlapp, though that marriage too was not to last. The construction of her happy home was thus based on rocky soil. Love is found, not manufactured. The fighter in her believed a little elbow grease and work would create the life she wanted, but in reality she could never really build with anyone the love that she was looking for.
Then, she met Rex Harrison. Handsome, educated, talented, (and married), he wooed her quickly and efficiently. The only trouble was that, besides the Missus, Rex had a dark side. His feelings for Carole were superficial and sexual where hers were deep and emotional. Finding herself lost and unhappy in her career after the war, which left her feeling undernourished and useless, Rex became her all. Making movies, and bad movies at that, was a far cry from the deeply fulfilling humanitarian efforts she had offered up in Europe and Africa. She trucked along, never revealing her inner pains, remaining the devoted and beloved friend every one knew and loved, but inside she was crumbling. There is speculation that Carole tried to end her life more than once but had always been stopped before the mortal damage was done. These attempts, if true, were cries for help from a woman who was unable to articulate her own weaknesses; who knew only how to serve others and not take selfishly from them. The ability she had to push past her pain, slowly but surely crept up on her and reached a climax with hurricane Rex. Finally, tired of being used, of always being the other woman, Carole confronted Rex after a Fourth of July party that she had hosted. It is assumed that the two quarreled and the relationship was abruptly ended. That night, Carole packed all of Rex's belongings, photos, and memorabilia into a bag and left them by the mailbox at Ronald Culver's house, where Rex was staying. Then, she drove home, swallowed 30-50 Seconal tablets, and was not found until the next morning when a stunned Rex appeared before her maid and said, "I think she's dead." He, coincidentally, ran from the scene after the discovery. The eternal image of Carole now is that of a girl in a pretty summer outfit, lying on the floor in a ball, her arms frozen in an awkward, bent position. This posture suggests that she was trying to raise herself back up. She would not make it. Carole Landis: dead at 29 years of age on July 4, 1948.
This sad, tragic tale is like so many in Hollywood, but is perhaps the most tragic because of the girl it involves. Of all the tormented souls wandering La La Land, or those who are immersed in their own demons, Carole seemed on the outside to be the least likely of its victims. Strong, vibrant, endearing, sensitive, giving, sweet... She was beloved by everyone in the community, save for those salacious studio wives who enjoyed spreading slanderous rumors about her. For her corpse and not her film work to be more remembered, for treacherous lies to be recalled and passed on and not her good deeds and selflessness, is the height of shamefulness. In every role she played, Carole brightened even the dullest of duds. She stole every show, not through effort, but from pure, unadulterated charisma and charm. She was the girl-next-door every service man in America fell in love with, and the compassionate lady every soul-sister wanted to give a big ol' hug. Yet, she forever remained apart. In her youth, she was the "other" child, and later, she became the pretty girl in Hollywood who, no matter how surrounded she was by people, was always alone. You cannot invent love, you can either give it or receive it. Too much of Carole's nature was in the giving and not the receiving, until she gave all that she had and was left with nothing. Her offerings to us, her remaining films, are cold comfort to a world who at one time idolized her and now only sits in ignorance. But, for the precious few who do recognize the true jewel that she was, her entertaining films and performances shall have to suffice.