Linda Darnell: “A Sweeter Girl Never Lived”
“At thirty-two, I can see tell-tale marks in the mirror, but the ravages of time no longer terrify me. I am told that when surface beauty is gone, the real woman emerges.” —Linda Darnell
She never lived long enough for her beauty to fade. But a real woman—and a real actress—did emerge, and deserve to be remembered.
Linda Darnell had a stage mother straight out of Gypsy. A monstrous woman who dominated her fearful family, Mama Pearl first pushed her daughter onto the pageant and modeling circuit when she was just 11, fudging her age by two or three years. And of course she sent the shy girl to drama and diction classes. “She didn’t stand out particularly, except that she was so sweet and considerate,” recalled one teacher. “But her mother was right behind her everywhere she went.” In 1937, at a local Dallas pageant, Darnell was discovered by a 20th Century Fox scout and sent straight to California—only to be shipped back home when the studio discovered she was 14.
Undaunted, Pearl then entered Linda in RKO’s “Gateway to Hollywood” contest, which dangled a short-term contract as first prize. She used Linda’s victory as leverage with Fox, which signed the girl as soon as she was free from her brief RKO stint. Now a whopping 15 years old, Darnell once again headed for Hollywood, with her pet rooster under one arm and her mother tightly grasping the other—never letting go until she was banned from the studio lot several years later.
“Mother really shoved me along, spotting me in one contest after another,” Darnell later recalled. “I had no great talent, and I didn’t want to be a movie star particularly. But Mother had always wanted it for herself, and I guess she attained it through me.”
In less than a year, Darnell snagged her first starring role, in 1939’s Day-Time Wife. “Despite her apparent youth, [Darnell] turns in an outstanding performance when playing with popular players,” cooed one reviewer. No less an authority than Life magazine, sounding creepily eugenic, dubbed her “the most physically perfect girl in Hollywood.”
Utterly un-self-conscious and natural, the 16-year-old held her own with old pros like Tyrone Power and Warren William before she would have been old enough to date them. And when she occasionally froze up, Power deliberately blew his lines to take the pressure off her. Their easy, playful chemistry was so strong that they were quickly cast in three more films: Brigham Young, the most expensive movie Fox had ever made; the box office sensation The Mark of Zorro; and Blood and Sand, which a confident Darryl Zanuck premiered uncut, without previews, at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in 1941. Years later, the hard-bitten Henry Hathaway, who directed Darnell in Brigham Young, recalled wistfully, “A sweeter girl never lived.”
Offscreen, her life was running less smoothly. Perhaps seeking a stronger father figure than the one she’d grown up with (a mild-mannered postal worker steamrolled by Pearl), the 19-year-old eloped with Peverell Marley, a cameraman 23 years her senior, much to the horror of her friends. Marley drank heavily and after a while, his impressionable bride—needing a release from the pressures of the studio and her increasingly unhinged mother—picked up the habit, which would eventually prove disastrous. The couple adopted a baby, Lola, whom Darnell doted on; pictures of her with her daughter provide the only glimpse of real happiness she seems to have ever known.
The married Zanuck, who had pursued the actress without success, was furious about her elopement and quickly turned his attentions to other proteges. And just months after Pearl Harbor, her favorite co-star, Power, joined the Marines. With her career suddenly adrift, Darnell threw herself into the war effort, selling bonds, working for the Red Cross, and taking frequent shifts at the Hollywood Canteen. She also studied to become a nurse’s aide, and with her best friend, Ann Miller, ran a daycare center for women working at the war plants.
In 1944, Look magazine, on the hunt for popular wartime pin-ups, named Darnell one of the “Four Most Beautiful Women in Hollywood,” along with Ingrid Bergman, Hedy Lamarr and Gene Tierney. Quick to capitalize on the publicity, Fox loaned her out at a premium to Douglas Sirk for Summer Storm. “For eighteen months I did nothing in pictures—I pleaded for something to do, but nothing happened,” she told a reporter. “The character in the Chekov film is a wild sort of she-devil, which any actress would go miles to play. She’s devil mostly—at times angelic—and perfectly fascinating to interpret. I’m counting on my Russian girl to give me a new start.” Ah, yes, a new start. At 21.
Darnell followed up with another bad-girl role in Fallen Angel for Otto Preminger, whom she found “terrifying.” But her fabulous reviews in the noir classic must have soothed her nerves, and she seemed to have found her stride again. A year later, she won the coveted lead in Forever Amber, based on Kathleen Winsor’s wildly popular bodice-ripper. “My first seven years in Hollywood were a series of discouraging struggles for me,” she recalled at a press conference for the film. “For a while it looked as though the ‘Darnell versus Hollywood’ tussle was going to find Darnell coming out second best. The next seven years aren’t going to be the same.”
For the most part, they were much worse.
On Forever Amber, Darnell was again paired with the tyrannical Preminger. She had dieted strenuously for the corset-heavy costume drama, and twice collapsed on the set from hunger as well as nervous exhaustion. And for all the misery she endured, the film fell short of its massive hype: while audiences cheered, the critics mostly yawned, and the film didn’t give Darnell the boost, either in confidence or in clout, that she’d hoped for.
Meanwhile, her marriage to Marley, never all that sturdy to start with, was unraveling; in 1948, they separated for the first time. Alone, afraid and drinking more heavily, Darnell drifted into an affair with the married writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz—her first, his fifteenth or so.
During one of the lowest points in her life, Darnell made two of her finest films.
In Unfaithfully Yours, produced, written and directed by Preston Sturges, she’s the wife of an egocentric orchestra conductor (Rex Harrison) who concocts an elaborate revenge fantasy when he suspects she’s cheating on him. She’s so gasp-inducingly gorgeous, you’re almost distracted from how fabulously funny she is—a Sturges heroine who throws away her lines with the ease of a Colbert or a Stanwyck.
Ironically, given Darnell’s situation with Mankiewicz, the movie’s release was delayed after actress Carole Landis took her own life when Harrison, then married to Lilli Palmer, ended their affair. When the film finally did open, audiences and critics rejected its dark, offbeat humor, though it’s since been embraced as Sturges’s last great film.
In 1949’s A Letter to Three Wives, written and directed by Mankiewicz, Darnell earned the best reviews of her life. As Lora Mae Finney, a social-climbing beauty who’s literally from the wrong side of the tracks—the whole house shakes whenever a train roars by—she’s hard-edged, touching and hilarious. She gets some of the best lines in a flawless script, and casually belts every one of them into the stands.
Determined to marry Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas), who owns the department store where she and half the town work, Lora Mae wangles a late-night meeting to discuss a promotion, though both she and Porter know it’s a prelude to something more. As she sweeps into the kitchen before the date, her mother’s friend Sadie (Thelma Ritter), who deems her dress much too simple, asks, “Doncha think you should wear something with beads?” And Lora Mae replies matter-of-factly, “Ma, what I got don’t need beads.” She’s not vain, just realistic—but she thinks she’s savvier than she is. She plans to snag Porter by playing the naif, but soon discovers just how out far of her depth, and genuinely innocent, she really is.
That Darnell wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar for her performance was criminal; they should have just dispensed with the ceremony and mailed the thing to her house.
Off the set, Darnell’s life was growing more desperate. In January 1949, she sued former business manager Cy Tanner for fraud, claiming he’d stolen thousands of dollars from her over the years; he eventually went to prison but never repaid a dime. The following year, Marley essentially extorted $125,000—just about all the money his wife had—in return for a quiet divorce with no mention of Mankiewicz. Having broken her own code of honor to steer clear of married men, she had paid dearly for loving and protecting a man who had given her little in return.
Still only 27, Darnell had seen too much and been used too often—and, astonishingly, was already on the downside of both her career and her life. “I’d crammed thirty years into ten,” she recalled ruefully. “I missed out on my girlhood, the fun, little things that now seem important.”
For his part, Mankiewicz never publicly acknowledged their affair; in his memoirs, he referred to Darnell only as “a lovely girl with very terrifying personal problems.” (Which were something of a specialty of his: among his previous paramours was a deeply troubled 20-year-old Judy Garland.)
Her last memorable film, in 1950, was Mankiewicz’s No Way Out, with Richard Widmark as a vicious, racist criminal and Sidney Poitier as the doctor who must tend to him. Always her own harshest critic, she called the groundbreaking social drama “the only good picture I ever made.”
As the studio system began to collapse, so did Darnell’s film career; Fox dropped her contract in 1952. She freelanced for a while, with little success. “I thought in a little while I’d get offers from other studios, but not many came along,” she said, more out of confusion than bitterness. “The only thing I knew how to do was be a movie star. No one expects to last forever in this business. You know that sooner or later the studio’s going to let you go. But who wants to be retired at twenty-nine?”
So she turned to television and then the stage, where, to the surprise of skeptics, she thrived in plays as farflung as The Children’s Hour, Critic’s Choice and A Roomful of Roses. In 1956, she took on the daunting role of the compassionate teacher in a Miami production of Robert Anderson’s controversial Tea and Sympathy, opposite a 20-year-old Burt Reynolds. “I’m scared stiff [about the play],” she confided to local reporters. “But this marvelous, magic world of live theater is one of the high spots of my life.” The Miami Herald called it a “sensitive, absorbing presentation” in which “Miss Darnell gives the role a new dimension.”
While TV and theater parts paid the basic bills, she was still forced to give up the last remnant of her film success: in 1962, her modest Hollywood house was foreclosed upon. But even in her darkest days, she was so kind and thoughtful that she went through all the rooms before she left, taping the correct keys to each door, to make things easier on the new owner. (Her reward? The man who bought the house parked in the driveway, blocking the shaken actress’s exit, while shrieking, “I want to meet Linda Darnell!”)
Throughout her last years, Darnell continued to work sporadically. In the spring of 1965, while preparing for a play near Chicago, she stayed at the home of her friend and former secretary, Jeanne Curtis, one of many former Fox staffers who still adored her. Late one night, she turned on the television only to find her 17-year-old self staring back at her in Star Dust, her second big film.
Not long after drifting off to sleep, she was jolted awake by the smell of smoke and the sounds of panic: the house was on fire. While Curtis, her husband and her daughter leapt to safety from a second-floor window, Darnell, too terrified to jump, tried to escape through a downstairs door. But a neighbor had run over and smashed a back window with a shovel, and the inrushing air fed the fire and spread the flames throughout the first floor. Darnell, who had a lifelong fear of fire, was found crouched behind the sofa, burned over almost 90 percent of her body.
She died at the hospital two days later, regaining consciousness only once, briefly, when Lola arrived at her bedside. She was 41 years old. Contrary to persistent rumors, she had not fallen asleep while smoking, nor had she been drinking. She had nothing to do with starting the awful blaze that claimed her life.
In her last interview, just a few weeks before she was killed, Darnell reflected on her chaotic, disappointing career and her efforts to give Lola the kind of home and security she never had. “Life has been rough on me,” she confided. “I hope it doesn’t end in tragedy.”
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