There are a multitude of beautiful blonde actresses who died far too soon by their own hand in the 40’s and 50’s. Carole Landis was one of them. In many ways her personal history reminds me of Marilyn. So did her beautiful, platinum blonde looks. She was both a sex symbol and a respected actress but this didn’t bring her emotional fulfillment.
Landis was born Frances Lillian Mary Ridste in Fairchild (appropriate) Wisconsin. Her mother Clara was a Polish farmer’s daughter (you know that sexy stereotype), and her father was a “drifting railroad mechanic”, whatever that meant. Landis was the youngest of five children, two of whom died in childhood. Her early years were filled with poverty and sexual abuse at the hands of many of the “uncles” who were sexually involved with her mother. At the age of 15, Landis dropped out of school. In order to escape her family, in January 1934, 15-year-old Landis married her 19-year-old neighbor, Irving Wheeler, but the marriage was annulled in February 1934. 30 days. Celebrity marriages. They never last. However Landis remarried Wheeler in August but they divorced again in 1939 after Landis became romantically involved with a man named Busby Berkeley. She started out as a hula dancer in a San Francisco nightclub and later sang with a dance band. She bleached her hair blonde and changed her name to “Carole Landis” after her favorite actress, Carole Lombard. After saving $100 she moved to Hollywood.
Her 1937 film debut was as an extra in A Star is Born. She also appeared in what was then known as horse operas, western films filled with silly clichés. Like Marilyn, she posed for hundreds of
cheesecake photographs. When she finally appeared as a cave girl in One Million B.C. she became an overnight star. A press agent nicknamed her “The Ping Girl” (because “she makes you purr”). I have no idea how ping and purr are connected. Landis appeared in several good films in the early ’40s. She was usually the second female lead. Like Marilyn, Landis’s own voice was considered good enough to be used in her roles, and this was during a time when most actresses’ voices were dubbed.She also starred in films with Betty Grable. Landis landed a contract with 20th century fox and became sexually involved with Darryl Zanuck in order to further her career. Not surprisingly when Landis ended her relationship with Zanuck, her career suffered and she was assigned roles in second-rate films, also known as B-movies. A B-movie is made with a much cheaper budget than an A-list film. It seldom features any major performers and is usually panned by critics. It was a definite step down for Landis and her career never recovered.
In 1940 she married yacht broker Willis Hunt Jr., a man she called “sarcastic” and left after two months. Two years later, she met an Army Air Corps captain named Thomas Wallace in London, and married him in a church ceremony; they divorced a couple of years later. Landis wanted to have children but, like Marilyn, was unable to conceive due to endometriosis. With such poor luck in her marriages, it’s probably just a well.
Landis, like Marilyn, entertained soldiers in the South Pacific.She traveled more than 100,000 miles during the war and spent more time visiting troops than any other actress. Landis became a popular pin-up with servicemen during WWII. She worked on Broadway and there she met Jacqueline Susann the novelist who wrote Valley of the Dolls. Reportedly, they became involved in a lesbian affair. Susanne reportedly told some friends “how sensuous it was when they stroked and kissed each other’s breasts.” if that was true, it was likely the young Landis was experimenting rather than being fully bisexual or lesbian, and in 1945, Landis married a Broadway producer. Only three years later, in 1948, her career was in decline and her marriage collapsed. She became romantically involved with married actor Rex Harrison and was crushed when he wouldn’t divorce his gorgeous wife for her. Unable to cope, she committed suicide in her home at 1465 Capri Drive by taking an overdose of Seconal. She had spent her final night alive with Harrison. She was 29.
Marilyn too, suffered emotionally due to her inability to have children and her many failed marriages. Her career began to disintegrate during the filming of Something’s Got to Give when she was fired for absenteeism. Her devastation over JFK and his refusal to divorce Jackie to marry her, resulting in her suicide, are an eerie echo Landis’ own death..The early trauma of sexual abuse was something neither woman would ever overcome, setting the stage (pun) for the later traumatic experiences both women would experience.Of course, the possibility of murder instead of suicide circulated about Landis for years and of course (you guessed it) the killer was Rex Harrison. Landis’ surviving family state he murdered her to avoid scandal surrounding the affair they had been having. Ridiculous. Everyone knew about the affair. Harrison usually flouted convention and was unconcerned about the media’s reaction.
The last weekend of her life was July 4th. Landis threw a successful holiday party and many guests attended. Her niece contends that “She was in a bubbly and radiant mood that 4th of July weekend. Not one friend said that she was down and depressed. She even said she had “never been happier”. Now, if she had stayed in the house, secluded herself from friends, and put on a fake smile it would be a different story. She was a great actress but by no means could you pull it off that well.“ Marilyn too was reported to be “radiant and happy” in the last days of her life. She had repaired her relationship with Fox and was to begin re-filming that Monday under very different work conditions. She had every reason to live, yet in her mind, she had none. This type of contradictory emotional affect is typical of people who have planned their suicides. They know that soon the pain will end. This is the knowledge that gives them a tragic buoyancy in their last hours. Harrison did share some responsibility for Landis’ death. He found her while she was still alive, albeit with a weak pulse. Worried about more public scandal for both of their sake, he wasted half an hour looking through her address book for her doctor’s phone number. This strange behaviour isn’t so odd to understand in the atmosphere of 1940s Hollywood. Any scandal was reputation and career-threatening; Harrison probably acted in good faith, believing Landis would recover.