Continuing my exploration of the past through my grandmother’s photographs, I found a second picture of one of my uncles in his WWII Army uniform. [Still no sign of the straw hat, however!] This photo is identical to one I found yesterday, only in a slightly different frame. Since I’d already scanned the picture there was no reason to look at it further except, removing yesterday’s picture from its frame sent me on a voyage of discovery to learn about the life and times of Peter Lawford. [See Never Argue With Serendipity] Who might be lying beneath this photo, not having seen the light-of-day since 1942? It was worth a look.
This time I found the lovely and talented Miss Linda Darnell. With lips and nails a color that could only be “Jungle Red” and plenty of decolletage she was the epitome of the 40’s movie star.
Born Monetta Eloyse Darnell on October 16, 1923 in Dallas Texas, her name was changed to ‘Linda’ by Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox.
Her mother was the embodiment of the ‘stage mother’. Darnell herself once commented: “Mother really shoved me along, spotting me in one contest after another. 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.”
Darnell was a model by the age of 11 and was acting on the stage by the age of 13. In 1936, she entered The Dallas Little Theater and was cast in the southwestern première of Murder in the Cathedral.
In 1937, a talent scout for 20th Century Fox invited her to Hollywood for a screen test. Originally rejected by film studios for being too young, she was nonetheless under contract to 20th Century Fox and living in her own apartment in Hollywood by April 1939. She was 15. She became one of the few actresses under the age of 16 to appear in ‘leading lady’ roles in films.
In many ways Darnell’s career was both the prototype of a star in Hollywood’s studio system and a cautionary tale of it’s darker side.
“At first, everything was like a fairy tale coming true. I stepped into a fabulous land where, overnight, I was a movie star. In pictures you’re built up by everyone. On the set, in the publicity office, wherever you go, everyone says you’re wonderful. It gives you a false sense of security. You waltz through a role, and everywhere you hear that you are beautiful and lovely, a natural-born actress. You believe what people around you say.”
She made her first film in 1939 at the age of 16 and appeared in more than 40 more over the next 18 yrs. Many of her films were forgettable but they also included; Forever Amber, A Letter to 3 Wives, Brigham Young, Blood and Sand, The Song of Bernadette, Anna and the King of Siam, Fallen Angel, and My Darling Clementine.
Her career faltered because she refused to respond to Darryl F. Zanuck’s advances. Instead, she contributed to war effort, working for the Red Cross, selling war bonds, and she was a regular at the Hollywood Canteen. Because Zanuck had lost interest in her, she was overlooked for most film roles that suited her. After the end of her studio-contract days she had an active career in television.
Notorious for her unstable personal life, Darnell struggled with alcoholism and a series of unsuccessful relationships. She dated Mickey Rooney, Kay Kyser, Eddie Albert, George Montgomery and Jackie Cooper. She married and divorced 3 times. She also had very high-profile extramarital affairs with Howard Hughes and Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
After her second marriage ended in divorce she was quoted as saying; “ 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. My only regret will be that I could not have begun it earlier – that so many years have been ruined because I was considered beautiful.”
Her love/hate relationship with her own beauty was a theme throughout her career. At 22 Life magazine stated that Darnell was “the most physically perfect girl in Hollywood”. She was named one of the four most beautiful women in Hollywood, along with Hedy Lamarr, Ingrid Bergman and Gene Tierney in a 1944 edition of Look magazine. But Darnell was frustrated by critics only praising her beauty rather than her acting abilities. She was twice considered a strong contender for an Academy Award for her performances in A Letter to Three Wives and Fallen Angel but the recognition was not forthcoming.
Darnell died on April 10, 1965 from burns she received in a house fire. She was 41.