The Astonishing Life and Tragic Death of Carole Landis

Early Years

Frances Lillian Mary Ridste was born in Fairchild. Wisconsin on New Year’s Day in 1919. Shortly after her birth her father, a railroad mechanic, abandoned her family. Her mother, Clara, soon remarried but by April 1921 this union ended as well.
In 1923, Clara packed up her five children and headed west, settling in San Bernardino, California. When Frances turned 15 years old, she made the decision to drop out of school to pursue a career in show business. She dyed her hair blonde and adopted the name “Carole Landis”. Her new persona was inspired by her favorite movie actress, Carole Lombard.
It was during this transformative time that Landis married Norman Wheeler, who was four years her senior in Yuma, Arizona. When Clara found out about the marriage, she had the union annulled. Landis then turned to her father, Alfred, who now lived in San Bernadino, to allow her to remarry Wheeler. He reluctantly agreed and Landis and Wheeler were remarried in August 1934 six months after their initial marriage was dissolved.
After only three weeks of marriage, the couple had an argument and Landis walked out. They went their separate ways with neither filing for divorce.

“The only thing I’ve found out about love is that I don’t know anything about it. I wish somebody would tell me what it’s really like. I’ve made a couple of guesses. But that business about ‘women’s intuition’ just isn’t true. Not in my case, anyway.”

– Carole Landis

Pre-Fame Career

Landis got a job as a hula dancer at a nightclub in San Francisco, a job that by all accounts she was not well suited for. The proprietor of the nightclub described her as “… nervous $35-a-week blonde doing a pathetic hula…”. Nevertheless, he allowed her to continue to work there. After saving $100 Landis quit and headed to Hollywood to pursue a movie career.

“I had thought of going across the street to the drugstore for a malted milk, for the purpose of being discovered for movies but decided instead to take the money I’d saved and go to Hollywood. Funny thing – I found Hollywood already had plenty of blondes.”

– Carole Landis

Beginning in 1937 through 1939 Landis would appear in nearly 30 films, including A Star is Born (1937), A Day at the Races (1937), and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) primarily as either an extra or in a bit part with minimal lines of dialogue. Before her Hollywood career really took off Landis worked as a model posing for hundreds of pin-up pictures to supplement her income.

“When the boys needed someone to pose in a skin-tight white bathing suit…they would yell ‘Get Landis!’”

– Carole Landis

In the late 1930s, Landis began an affair with legendary musical director Busby Berkeley. When her estranged husband, Irving Wheeler, found out he showed up and promptly filed a $250,000 alienation of affections lawsuit against director and choreographer Busby Berkeley. Wheeler’s lawsuit was dismissed, and the estranged couple was divorced in 1939. Before the ink was even dry on the divorce Berkeley proposed to Landis but the relationship had fizzled from her perspective, and she ended it.
On July 4, 1940, Landis married yacht salesman Willis Hunt in Las Vegas, Nevada. The marriage ended after two months although they were officially divorced in November of that year.


Landis’ big break came when she was cast in a starring role by Hal Roach in the prehistoric adventure movie One Million B.C. (1940). The movie became an instant smash at the box office, catapulting Landis to stardom. The moniker “The Ping Girl” was quickly attached to her persona by a press agent, and it took hold in a similar fashion to Lana Turner’s “The Sweater Girl” title bestowed on her a few years earlier.
Landis continued to work in movies by Hal Roach including movies such as Topper Returns (1941) and Road Show (1941). Landis then signed a contract with Twentieth Century Fox and entered into a sexual relationship with studio mogul Darryl F. Zanuck.

“The busier they keep me the better I like it. I’ve been fighting to get up on this ladder for five years ever since I ran away from high school.”

– Carole Landis

During their relationship, Landis landed prime roles typically as the second female lead opposite stars such as Betty Grable in Hot Spot (1941) and Moon Over Miami (1941). Next, she co-starred with Rita Hayworth in My Gal Sal (1942). Landis was originally supposed to be the lead in this movie, however, when she ended her sexual relationship with Zanuck, he retaliated against her by giving Hayworth the lead and demoting her to a lesser part.

World War II

Three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Hollywood Victory Committee was formed to help sell war bonds and entertain the troops. Landis helped sell war bonds and appeared regularly alongside fellow stars such as Marlene Dietrich and Bette Davis at the Hollywood Canteen.
In the Autumn of 1942, Landis took the war effort to heart and became ensconced in the USO to give support to the troops. Over the next few years, Landis logged tens of thousands of miles to entertain troops in Europe, the South Pacific, and Northern Africa alongside such stars as Jack Benny, Martha Raye, Mitzi Mayfair, and Kay Francis.

“Whatever we do for soldiers can’t be enough in return for what they do for us. They are wonderful!”

– Carole Landis

In 1944 Landis released a book about her experiences during the war entitled Four Jills in a Jeep. The book was turned into a movie shortly thereafter and it featured Landis, Francis, Raye, and Mayfair all playing themselves.

Tommy Wallace

On November 13, 1942. while on tour with the USO in London, Landis met United States Army Air Force Captain Thomas Wallace, a 25-year-old pilot in Royal Air Force’s American “Eagle Squadron”. They were married on January 5, 1943.

“No woman ever loved a man more than I loved Tommy Wallace. And Tommy loved me, too. All my life, above all the rest, I want to remember that.”

– Carole Landis

During their marriage, they spent very little time together due to the War. Wallace wanted Landis to give up showbusiness and be a housewife and when Carole refused the marriage basically ended. They separated and were divorced in July 1945.

Final Years

In 1945 Landis headed to New York City to star in the Broadway musical A Lady Says Yes. Her co-star Jaqueline Susann would go on to write the best-selling novel Valley of the Dolls. The book’s character Jennifer North (played by Sharon Tate in the film adaptation) is believed to be based on Landis.
On December 8, 1945, Landis married Broadway producer W. Horace Schmidlapp. The couple separated in 1947. In May 1948, Landis filed for divorce from her fourth husband. Schmidlapp claimed no divorce papers were ever delivered to him. In 1948 Landis shot two movies in England, Noose and Brass Monkey. These would be her final films.
During her separation from Schmidlapp Landis began an affair with English actor Rex Harrison, who was married to actress Lilli Palmer. The affair, hardly discreet, became an open secret in Hollywood.

July 4, 1948

Carole Landis hosted a pool party for friends in the early afternoon at her home on what would be her final Independence Day and the second to last day of her life. A few hours later, everyone left so she could get ready for a private dinner with Harrison. Their seventh such evening in a row spent this way.
During the meal of cold roast chicken, a tossed salad, and lemon chiffon pie the couple gets into an argument and Harrison ends the relationship. He reportedly leaves the house immediately after this and is the last person to see her that day.
Later that night Landis filled a suitcase with everything Harrison had given her and delivered it along with a suicide note to the driveway of her and Harrison’s mutual friend actor Roland Culver. Landis had attempted suicide twice before and had reached out to friends beforehand which allowed them to stop her from committing the deed. However, this time she was not so fortunate.
Culver did not find the items left by Landis until the next day. After finding them, Culver called Harrison to tell him about it. Upon learning of Landis’ death Culver burned everything that she had left in his driveway including the suicide note.

Death and Aftermath

At around 3 P.M. on July 5, 1948, Harrison showed up at Landis’ home and explained to the maid, Fannie Mae Bolden, that he was concerned that she was dead. Minutes later Carole Landis was found unresponsive on the bathroom floor of her Pacific Palisades home by the pair. Harrison checked her body and when he located a faint pulse instead of calling an ambulance, he looked for an address book he claimed would have her private doctor’s information in it to help her avoid a scandal in the tabloids.
When Harrison didn’t locate the item, he just left and went home. Upon arriving Harrison called Daryl F. Zanuck to make him aware so he could begin damage control for the actor. Bolden unsure of what to do ran to a neighbor’s house and asked them to call the police. When they finally arrived, Landis was dead. She was 29 years old. After an autopsy was conducted Landis’ death was ruled a suicide from an overdose of Seconal. Over four times the amount to kill her was found in her system.
It is believed that two suicide notes were found, one to her mother Clara, and another to Harrison. However, if the second note did exist, it vanished from the scene without a trace. The Landis family believed Lilli Palmer paid a policeman $500 to destroy it. During an inquiry with the coroner, Harrison said he was not aware of a second suicide note addressed to him.

“Dearest Mommie – 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. I love each and every one of them dearly – Everything goes to you – Look in the files and there is a will which decrees everything – Goodbye, my angel – Pray for me – Your baby”

– Suicide note by Carole Landis to her mother

Landis was interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. Harrison attended the funeral with his wife and over the days and weeks that followed would attempt to distance himself from Landis in the press claiming they were just friends.


Carole Landis’ death was a tragedy. Landis’ family never accepted that she died by her own hand, instead opting for a theory not supported by the evidence that Rex Harrison poisoned her with Seconal without her knowledge. Nevertheless, Harrison’s hands are not exactly clean given how he basically left her to die as a sacrifice to save his own Hollywood ambitions. What makes it even more grotesque is that people actually helped him accomplish it.

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