What Happened to Carole Landis?

Carole Landis

My sophomore year of high school I had one of the best teachers I’ve ever had during my student career.

Her name was Leslie Pierce and she taught honors English. We read a lot of really boring books like “The Scarlett Letter” or “Ethan Frome,” but she somehow made them exciting and read like a day time soap opera.

I remember Ms. Pierce drooling over Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby and Daniel Day-Lewis in The Crucible, turning the TV around during the steamy parts of the film Ethan Frome and playing us a silly rap of “The Raven.”

Her motto was “Carpe Diem”–seize the day. She would have her students stand on their desks like they did in Dead Poets Society.  Ms. Pierce once was a dancer and excitedly talked to me when I wore my “Oklahoma” shirt after seeing the play at the Peace Center.  There were also humorous stories told about jack rabbits pelting her car as she drove through Indiana and the time she thought it would be a good idea to cut her eyelashes.

She was a crazy, intelligent, fun and interesting woman who genuinely loved English and her students. And in October 2005, Ms. Pierce killed herself. I found out during marching band practice and just pretended to play my clarinet because I was crying so much.

Ms. Pierce didn’t show up to school one day and the assistant principal and school police officer went to her home and found her. It came as a great shock and her students, including myself, were inconsolable. I still tear up when I think about it and other times I swear I see her when I’m at the store or downtown.

I tell this story because I’d like to draw a parallel to actress Carole Landis.

Carole Landis

Miss Landis was a vibrant, beautiful young star in the late 1930s and ’40s, starring in films like Topper Returns with Roland Young, Moon Over Miami alongside Betty Grable, and Four Jills In a Jeep, a film based on a book she wrote about her exploits entertaining troops during World War II.  Landis was friendly, well-liked and traveled overseas during WWII.

Unexpectedly, Landis was found dead at 4 a.m. on July 5, 1948.  It was ruled suicide by overdose of sleeping pills, but her family isn’t convinced.

Carole Landis was discovered in her apartment after a big 4th of the July party followed by an intimate dinner with Rex Harrison. Harrison and Landis had been involved in a wildly known extra-marital affair. At the time, Harrison was married to actress Lilli Palmer. Landis and Harrison had broken up and recently gotten back together around the time of the party.

On the Official Carole Landis Website, run by her great-niece, the Landis family is convinced that Rex Harrisonmurdered her to avoid scandal surrounding the affair they’d been having. “Aunt Carole’s death has haunted my family for 62 years and knowing Rex Harrison never paid for what he did only makes it worse. We may never know the truth about her death but we do know that the official version just doesn’t make sense.”

Here are a few reasons the Landis family suspects murdered:

•Landis selling war bonds

•Carole was happy and friendly. This means she couldn’t have depression like people say.

•Carole was dating actor Turhan Bey after her affair with Rex Harrison ended. They say Harrison was the one who came back to her to rekindle the romance.

•Harrison couldn’t/wouldn’t divorce his wife for Carole Landis.

•The Landis family doesn’t think Carole would have a large, expensive 4th of July party if she was planning on killing herself. Carole was quoted as saying that she had never been happier.

•Carole had made a few suicide attempts in the past but the website describes them as “attention grabbing” for publicity and family. These suicide attempts were supposedly Carole’s version of a temper tantrum.

• Rex Harrison was the last person with Carole and the first one to find her body.

• Rex Harrison apparently lied to and paid the police and told them he was just friends with Carole.

• Newspaper clippings in years following wrote about new evidence, but police dismissed it and Carole’s police record is missing.

• Esther Williams said Lilli Palmer, Rex’s wife, “lied” in her autobiography regarding the event.

The problem with all of these explanations is that I can think of a dozen reasons why they aren’t true.

For example:

•Saying Carole was happy and friendly to her friends doesn’t mean she wasn’t inwardly depressed. Look at my description of Ms. Pierce.

•Actor Turhan Bey was a ladies’ man and dated everyone. Singling him out as Landis’s boyfriend is silly, particularly in studio-era Hollywood, where actors and actresses were frequently set up on dates for premieres or publicity (i.e. June Allyson and Van Johnson, Tab Hunter and Natalie Wood).

• Claiming that a divorce would ruin Harrison’s career is an interesting speculation, granted that many actors were married and divorced frequently in Hollywood. Harrison did eventually divorce his wife Lilli Palmer to marry Kay Kendall.

•Dismissing suicide attempts as “attention grabbers” is ridiculous. I think that is the biggest warning sign of all. Even if a suicide attempt is to gain attention, the fact that it was even tried means there is some sort of problem.

•Landis looking beautiful in a Dole ad

• In regards to the 4th of July part, it’s possible that she spent so much money on a party with her friends because it was her way of saying goodbye. Carole may have “never been happier” because she knew her troubles were over.

• As far as Rex Harrison lying, being the first to find Carole and her police record missing, I don’t know. There may be explanations to this either way. It’s possible her studio bought the police record to avoid scandal. In quotes by Esther Williams below, Harrison’s lies were constructed by studio publicity agents and he was most likely told to say these things.

•Esther Williams did discuss the incident in her autobiography “The Million Dollar Mermaid,” but she doesn’t exactly say that Lilli lied. Williams discusses being at Palmer’s house waiting for Rex to come home to discuss business with him. The two women talked until 2 a.m. but he never returned so Williams went home:

“His (Rex Harrison) affair with Carole Landis was the worst-kept secret in Hollywood. The gossip columnists referred to them as the ‘English star whose name begins with an H and the local glamour girl whose name begins with L.’ Glamour girl was putting it mildly-Landis was not exactly a paragon of virtue….At the age of twenty-nine she was already a waning starlet who was separated from her fourth husband….

The following morning the scandal broke-Miss L was dead. Carole Landis had committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. The newspapers conjectured that she became despond because Rex Harrison had told her their affair was over. There was some factual underpinning for this speculation-Rex was leaving Hollywood for New York to appear as Henry VIII in the new play “Anne of the Thousand Days”….

Lilli knew, as I did, that Rex must have been with Carole the night of the suicide…Lilli knew that her husband had been having an affair, but she kept her head high through the maelstrom that followed…She answered questions from the press and stood by him through the coroner’s inquest…The two of them denied that there was any romantic relationship with Landis at all. Rex and Carole were just ‘good friends’…” (pp. 164-165).

Williams tells how the studio created an alibi for Harrison and Palmer the weekend Landis died and Palmer does discuss the matter in her autobiography “Change Lobsters and Dance.”  Studios were very powerful during the era and could quickly cover something up if they felt the need to.

Before reading this website, I had never heard claims Landis was murdered. Robert Osborne has even said that Landis committed suicide, as did LIFE magazine.

Lovely Carole

If you look at the website, it discusses the special relationship she had with her sisters and mother, shows pictures of her grand niece wearing Landis’s jewelry and short bios of Landis’s relatives dead and living.

Maybe I would also take the murder claim more seriously if I didn’t wonder if the family or other parties were trying to somehow capitalize off Carole Landis with their grief.

I also feel the family might not fully accept suicide as a possibility because of the stigma of it, particularly during the 1940s.

However, the only two people who truly know the truth are dead.

I understand missing a loved one, but I think it is time to let Carole Landis rest. Harping on old memories of her death and how it happened isn’t helping anyone.

Instead of the curious way she died, why not remember the joy she brought to film audiences and servicemen?