While researching the Queen of Tots pageant at the Infants Home of Brooklyn, I stumbled upon a photo of Hollywood icon Carole Landis crowning one of the young queens.
Queen Crowns Queen, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1954.
I could have Googled her and gotten an immediate summary of her life and work, but that's not how we roll at the Brooklyn Collection. I went downstairs into our archive to see if I could find a small envelope with her name on it amidst the myriad of file cabinets. Lo and behold, I am not the only person who has taken an interest in Ms. Landis. I found a whole mess of clippings from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle relating to her life. As I started to lay the clippings out on my desk a seemingly familiar story started to take shape.
Young girl takes a leap of faith at age sixteen and heads to the big city in search of fame and fortune.
Didn't I see this movie?
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 6, 1945.
"Carole Landis was stage-struck at the age of 7 and never got over it. She waited until she was 16 before she took any definite steps about her career. Then, with insufficient funds to take her to New York, and judging the competition in Hollywood to be too tough, she went to San Francisco and haunted the night clubs in search of work" (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 4, 1945). Eventually Landis would make it as a singer in San Francisco and, with $100 and a prayer, she headed to Hollywood. As of 1945 she had become a fashion icon with weekly write-ups detailing her style choices (she was a big fan of blue velvet, but aren't we all?), appeared in three Westerns with John Wayne, and caused a national uproar (pun intended) with her role as a member of the gentle Shell People clan in One Million B.C. (a movie that would see a 1960s remake with Raquel Welch in her iconic leather bikini). She would go on to star in over 30 films, appearing uncredited in many more.
One Million B.C., Theatrical Release Poster, United Artists, 1940.
There was a really stellar review of One Million B.C. in The New York Times which gave viewers permission to enjoy the film in all of its improbable glory.
In the first place, anthropological research has incontrovertibly shown that whatever life existed on this cooling earth 1,000,000 years ago bore absolutely no resemblance to homo sapiens of the lower orders - and certainly not to the peculiarly cultivated and distinctly Caucasian cave men and cave women who love about with such charming grace and poise... But what of it? What if the cave men didn't have such nicely barbed beards and the cave ladies didn't look as though they had just visited the beauty parlor? [The director] didn't start out to tell the literal story of creation - and any homo who thinks he did is just a sapiens. (The New York Times, May 5, 1940)
Let's be real. Everybody likes dinosaur movies.
Like many celebrities of the past and present, Landis used her fame to promote social causes both at home and abroad. In addition to crowning the Queen of Tots in 1944 she attended Jewish Day during the Brooklyn Week for the Blind.
Aid the Blind, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 9, 1946.
She also took her winning smile and signature blonde hair on a four-and-a-half month tour of various American camps during WWII. "Our boys over there who are not in the front lines," she reported, "want nothing more than to get there as soon as possible, to get a whack at the enemy" (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 5 1943).
Good Medicine, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 14 1942
Something For The Boys, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 30, 1944.
Landis' public persona was not simply one of patriotism and great hair, however. Taking a page out of the book of one of her contemporaries, Elizabeth Taylor, Landis had a bit of a storied love life. In 1934, at the age of 15, Landis married Irving Wheeler. The marriage lasted all of 25 days.
In 1940 she married yacht broker Willis Hunt Jr. Apparently Mr. Hunt "was 'inhuman,' called her 'a fool,' was rude to her film friends and attempted to interfere with her movie career" (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 1, 1941). Needless to say, that one ended in divorce.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 21, 1941.
In 1942 she was engaged to Gene Markey, a screenwriter, producer, and Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy but the engagement was called off.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 31, 1942.
Her third marriage, to Maj. Tom Wallace in 1944, did happen, however, it just didn't happen for long. They divorced within the year. Her fourth and final marriage was to film producer W. Horace Schmidlapp in 1945. Upon marrying Mr. Schmidlapp, Landis was asked by a reporter if the marriage was her fourth. " 'Need we go into that?' Miss Landis said in a very happy voice. 'It's my only marriage as far as I am concerned.' " (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 9, 1945). By 1948 Landis had filed for divorce from Mr. Schmidlapp.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 9, 1945.
Had circumstances been different Carole Landis might have given Elizabeth Taylor, who was married eight times, a run for her money. Alas, due to a tragic turn of events this was not to be so. On July 5th, 1948, at the age of 29, Carole Landis was found dead in her home. "Coroner B.H. Brown gave four empty sleeping tablet bottles to County Toxicologist R.J. Abernathy for analysis, along with two loose capsules and a small white pill found in an envelope clutched in the actress' hand... Propped against a huge cologne bottle was a note, on her personal stationary, addressed to 'Dearest Mommie.' It read: '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... everything goes to you. Look in the files and there is a will... Goodby [sic] my angel, pray for me. Your baby.' " (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 6, 1948).
In the following days rumors began to surface of an unrequited love affair between Carole Landis and British heartthrob Rex Harrison (who had six marriages of his own). Harrison, with his wife at his side, refuted the rumors.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 7, 1948.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 9, 1948.
A Hollywood rumor is not so easily quelled. When Harrison and his wife arrived at Landis' funeral the crowd, complete with movie stars, makeup artists, and prominent Hollywood elite, let out a collective gasp. Harrison, the last person to see Landis alive, insisted that she seemed upbeat and happy when they parted ways on the evening of her death.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 6, 1946.
Even in death Landis was a trendsetter. When her body was found "her head was pillowed on a brown leather jewel case and her long hair fell casually to the round neckline of her white lace blouse. Her gold-sandaled feet were tucked under her unmussed blue-and-white checked skirt" (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 6, 1948). At her funeral her "body lay under a gold covering in the coffin, dressed in an evening gown spattered with multi-colored sequin butterflies" (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 11, 1948). "
"The bishop said Carole 'was a regular trouper. I don't think the Almighty God will judge her too harshly'." (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 11, 1948).
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 6, 1946.
I'm inclined to agree with the bishop.