Linda Darnell was just a regular girl from Texas, but most importantly, she was just a girl. Scooped up by Twentieth-Century Fox when she was just 15-years-old, her adolescent, romanticizing mind would become both awestruck at her good fortune and dumbfounded at the illusion it turned out to be. Her dream-come-true turned out to be a malfunctioning nightmare that clipped her young life short after robbing her of her youthful innocence. Linda Darnell was a beautiful, fresh creature forced into an environment that didn't suit her naivete nor cater to her vulnerabilities. Like a tortoise without a shell, she would come to seek refuge where she could find it: in her work, in her dreams, in alcohol, in denial... But nothing could protect her from her own violent fate-- when the living Hell of her life and torment came to claim her, suffocating forever the little girl hopes that had promised a castle in the sky and brought her instead face to face with the Big Bad Wolf. But shed no tears for this casualty: she was a tougher cookie than you think...
How is it that we all start out on the same end of this yellow brick road, but wind up in different places? A great many on their travels decide to turn around, for "there's no place like home." Others get lost in the seductive poppy fields; others' routes are cut short by their own personal wicked witch. Very few make it to the Emerald City. Linda was one of those who thought she had arrived only to realize that she had landed somewhere else. The "witch" of her life, as is too often the case, was her mother. Oh, mother... What a complicated relationship. The love and support of good parenting seems to be at the backbone of nearly every success story, while every Hollywood victim seems to be plagued by the lack of it. For every Ginger Rogers there are a dozen like Harlow, Lake, Flynn, Bow, and Gilbert. So it was that Linda by bad fortune was born to Maggie Pearl Brown. This is not to say that Pearl was a wholly bad parent, bereft of maternal instinct, nor that she did not truly love her children. Certainly, the woman had her good qualities. Her flaw, however, was a fatal one in that she projected all of her own dreams and desires onto her daughter Linda's back. What she failed to accomplish for herself, she vowed to vicariously triumph through her second born-- the most beautiful of her children, the most talented, and also the one most like herself. To understand the life of Linda, you have to understand Pearl.
Pearl was the daughter of Mary York and Thomas Gaugh Brown. Her father passed on his half-Cherokee blood to his tempestuous daughter, whose restless unruly spirit yearned for an exciting life outside Clifton, TN. A beautiful young woman, she enjoyed and craved attention, but was loathe to settle down in the conventional way and start a home and family like the other girls. Inside her beat the heart of a wild thing, and her "otherness" shirked convention and jumped into the arms of Lawrence Ketroe after her father's untimely passing. At 14, she was married, and soon she had birthed two children: Richard and Evelyn. Larry's ambitions were ill defined, and after the family ran out of cash, Larry ran out on them. Her dreams dashed, Pearl now found herself a lone mother of two living in Texas. But the grief that resulted from her youthful impetuosity was coupled with an iron will. For all her faults, she wanted to provide for her children-- she may be temporarily beaten, but broken she was not. Forced to put Richard and Evelyn in temporary care at an orphanage, Pearl went into a rage when she learned that they had been adopted by new parents and were forever out of her reach. Here, the last tether of tenderness in her heart seemed to snap. Completely alone, Pearl obsessively embraced religion to keep her sanity. Her luck changed when she made the acquaintance of a bashful and soft-spoken postman, Calvin Roy Darnell. Intoxicated by her energy, he married her. The two moved into a modest house in Oak Cliff and had four children together: Undeen, Monetta, Monte, and son Calvin, Jr. (In an ironic twist, Pearl also discovered her two eldest children, Richard and Evelyn, living mere blocks away). At first, Pearl put more focus into pretty, eldest daughter Undeen, hoping that through dancing and elocution classes the younger party could finish what her mother had started. Undeen was not an entertainer, however, and proved both un-gifted and unwilling in the realm of performance. But Monetta, who was born with her mother's same dark, intense features, too seemed to inherit her eager gift for the stage.
The question remains, did Monetta truly want to become a star, or was she brainwashed from her earliest memories to think that was what she wanted? A natural talent, Monetta's soft beauty and amiable nature made her easy prey for Pearl's ambitions. While Linda would inherit a temper to match her mother's, it was not as intense nor as frequent in its eruption. Monetta was "sweet" and well-liked whereas her mother was erratic, or as son Calvin put it, a "fire-breathing dragon." Monetta did not argue Pearl's wishes, wanting to please her and hoping that in doing so she could earn the love and affection that she had always craved. Monetta was thus crafted into a sensitive soldier: obedient, focused, and constantly stressed. So adamant was she that she had to become a movie star that she never stopped to ask if that was what she truly wanted. She found little time to play with the kids at her school, where she was well-liked but a bit ostracized for her impeccable appearance, far too mature for her years. Most of her time was spent at home, studying, learning piano, performing skits, or cavorting with the multiple animals that were housed with her family: chickens, turtles, rabbits, etc. It was a wild life, indeed. Monetta proved a model student who balanced her good grades with daydreams of stardom. She began performing in talent shows, usually singing "Alice Blue Gown," modeling, dancing, and even performing in some minor theaterical productions. As she was only a young-un when she really started making the rounds, she was coached by Pearl to tell judges that she was older. Despite her self-effacing nature, Monetta could be determined, which is what caught the attention of scout Ivan Kahn. Charmed by Monetta, he was shocked to learn that she was only 14! A screen test was scheduled, and though Fox was interested, Monetta's age posed a problem: too young for an ingenue, too old for child roles.
Undeterred, Monetta diligently kept in touch with Fox while concurrently landing a short-term contract at RKO for their "Gateway to Hollywood Contest." The competition intrigued Darryl F. Zanuck, who decided that he wanted Monetta at Fox after all, with a couple of stipulations-- she change her name to Linda, and she leave the finagling Pearl behind. By now convinced that this was her own dream and determined to escape Pearl's clutches, the new "Linda Darnell" made no objections and made her big debut in Hotel for Women. Life was good. Living with Undeen in her early Hollywood days, Linda quickly became accustomed to the long hours, publicity gamuts, and the art of film acting. Suddenly, the little Texan girl was being cast in films opposite her crush Tyrone Power: Daytime Wife, Brigham Young, The Mark of Zorro, and Blood and Sand. In most of her early roles, she portrayed the young, virginal figure-- American as apple pie and sweet as candy. Yet, the flash was not enough to alter her sensibilities. Linda did not become a party girl, but preferred to stay at home and read or prep for the next day's work. Still a teen, Linda may have been intoxicated by the freedom-- something that she had never experienced under Pearl's control-- but she was still impressionable and uncertain on her own. Since her parents' marriage was long since one in name only, and Calvin had preferred life outside the home, Linda too was longing for the paternal figure she'd never really had. For this reason, she quickly fell under the spell of the attentive cinematographer, Pev Marley. With a 22 year age difference, few in the community saw it coming when they eloped on April 18, 1943.
Pev provided the shoulder Linda needed to cry on, the support system that bulked up her confidence, and the sounding board that advised her in her career. Despite this, the marriage was a rocky one. With Linda's insecurity and tender age, arguments and misunderstandings were imminent, and Linda's personal pain was only deepened when she discovered that she could not bear children. The result, adopting daughter Lola, brought some light into her life, but constant threats of divorce and reconciliations made her private life a hazard, especially after she moved her entire family out to California and had to contend with Pearl's jealousy and constant implications of ingratitude. Ironically, Linda's career was soaring. Growing sick of her sweet girl roles, she turned the tables by showing up as grown woman with an edge in films like Summer Storm and her greatest triumph A Letter to Three Wives-- which incidentally ignited a passionate affair between herself and director Joseph L. Manckiewicz. She hoped the hot and heavy film adaptation Forever Amber would be her true star-making turn, but it failed to draw in the expected business. A success it was; a legend of filmmaking it was not. The experience nearly killed her, as she was on a strenuous diet that induced multiple collapses on the set. Her unfortunate crutch during times of woe was the bottle, a habit taught her by her husband. Under the influence, the normally kind and sweet-natured Linda became angry, unmanageable, and filthy of tongue. As her marriage finally crumbled, Linda found herself on her own once again, especially after her contract with Fox was cancelled-- a result of the new-fangled invention known as television that was picking off stars one by one. Suddenly, the phone stopped ringing, parts were few and far between, and Linda was left to face herself for the first time.
Having grown up on dreams of film and then later on film sets, life outside the movies was unfathomable. Suffering too much too soon, Linda had developed into a lost child of sorts. She was raised as an adult and had matured into a disconcerted infant. Once a star, she was already out of work at 28. Linda took jobs in television and found herself to be a natural actress on the stage-- an experience she found more gratifying than any of her film work-- and she too sought comfort in love, marrying twice more to Phillip Liebmann and Merle Roy Robertson-- both unsuccessful. To cleanse her soul, she devoted herself to charity, opening up "The Girls Town of Italy" and working with "The Kidney Foundation," but it did not salve the pain of her own disintegrating relationship with her daughter Lola nor the pain of discovery that her long time lover's latest film-- The Barefoot Contessa, which Mankiewicz had penned for her-- had gone to Ava Gardner and not herself. Unsuccessfully freelancing, Linda landed roles here and there, but after Zero Hour! in 1957, she would be off the big screen for seven years. Stage roles and nightclub acts became the main sources of her income. After her third marriage collapsed, she tried to commit suicide multiple times via overdose, but was fortunately saved. Her home and belongings were auctioned off, and Linda was right back where she started: nowhere. Linda suffered through a bout of alopecia areata, the death of first husband Pev-- with whom she had remained friendly-- and unemployment, but still she would accept help from no one. She was determined to build herself back up on her own terms, as she had never done before. The process strangely brought her closer to Lola, and friends started seeing the sweet girl that they had always known re-emerging from a cocoon of bitterness and cynicism, which for years had become her only protection.
Life seemed to be turning in the right direction again when Linda was cast in a cameo role in Black Spurs, and she was a hit with the cast and crew-- all who delighted in working with a legend who was as kind and down to earth as they had always imagined. Staying with longtime friend Jeanne Curtis in April of '65, Linda was determined to fix her finances and get back on track. Late on the night of the 8th, she saw that Star Dust, one of her earliest films, was playing on Television. As a lark, the group, including Jeanne's daughter Patty, sat watching the film, then everyone went off to bed-- except for Linda, who as always was suffering from insomnia. Some time in the night, the house caught fire. The three women were able to reach each other, and through the smoke and flames Jeanne managed to get Patty out an upstairs window, but when she turned behind her for Linda, her friend had disappeared. Jeanne made it outside and waited for the appearance of her friend, but Linda's charred body would not emerge until the fire department arrived and barely saved her life. With ninety percent of her body covered in burns, Linda held on for thirty-three hours as friends and well-wishers flooded her room with flowers. At 2:20pm on April 10, 1965, Linda Darnell made her final exit at the age of forty-one. The news was kept from Pearl, who passed on less than a year later.
A shooting star is here and gone, seen only by a lucky few before it disappears into the dark recesses of space. So too was Linda's short life a "blink and you'll miss it" affair; her stardom a phenomenon so brief that attempting to catch it out of the corner of one's eye is certain to result in a sort of existential whiplash. Too much of Linda's life was built upon a fable-- a dream that stardom would bring her happiness and fulfilment. Hollywood became a religion to her, one she practiced devoutly, until her faith was pulled out from under her by time, circumstance, and perhaps simply the cruel hands of fate. In her later years, though still young years, Linda would for the first time discover herself as a human being, question her desires, and attempt to clean up the mess that a lifetime of delusions had made. Just as she started to embark on her second chance adventure, all hope was snuffed out. Luckily, Linda did not fade away with her last breaths. Her memory is still cherished by those who knew her-- friends like Ann Miller who recall the friendly, old-fashioned girl with a love of animals and a generous spirit. The innocent girl who was tread upon and manipulated by a corrupt business too remains gorgeous and unaltered in the films that gave her the only peace she ever knew. Whether one prefers the doe-eyed Linda or the femme fatale, her films are there to satisfy. With the best of her left on the silver screen, even the savage ending of her life cannot tarnish what we hold dear. As Keats said, "A thing of beauty is a joy forever./ Its loveliness increases; it will never/ Pass into nothingness." And so it is that Linda's "Star Dust" lingers, and we remain mesmerized.