What happened to Carole Landis?

My sophomore year of high school I had one of the best teacher’s 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” and “Ethan Frome” but she somehow made them exciting and described them 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 “The 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 1940s, starring in films like “Moon Over Miami” with Betty Grable and Four Jills in a Jeep,” a film based off a book she wrote.  Landis was friendly, well-liked and traveled overseas during World War II.

Unexpectedly Landis was found dead at 4 a.m. on July 5, 1948.  It’s been 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 July party followed by an intimate dinner with Rex Harrison.

Rex Harrison and Carole 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 Harrison murdered 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 murder:

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 her death 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 about 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 lady’s man and dated everyone. Singling him out as Landis’s boyfriend is silly, particularly during studio era Hollywood when 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 Key Kendal.

•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, Harrisons 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: An Autobiography” 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 VII 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’…” (164-165).

Williams tells how the studio created an alibi for Harrison and Palmer the weekend Landis died and Palmer does discuss this in her autobiography “Change Lobsters and Dance.”  Studios were very powerful during that 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 service men.

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page  or follow on Twitter at @jnpickens. 

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42 thoughts on “What happened to Carole Landis?

  1. Carole Landis was a lovely and talented actress, and it’s sad that she died so young. You give a trenchant analysis as to why her death was probably suicide and not murder; I agree w/your conclusions that her ‘attention getting’ should have been seen as a warning sign. Thanks for your excellent post.

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    • Thank you 🙂
      Carole Landis was really great. I love her in Moon Over Miami. There may be more to her death than everyone things, but we will honestly never know. I think it’s hard to judge if someone is happy or sad or what not in Hollywood because life seems so much more different than a normal working person’s-particularly to a family who lived in Smalltown America in the 1940s.

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      • I have read extensively on the death of Carole Landis and the circumstances surrounding same. I sympathize with the feelings of the Landis family suspicions for several important reasons: facts that have not been investigated fully or ignored totally for nefarious reasons. First, the affair was a scandal mainly for Harrison and secondarily for Landis. He was a notorious philanderer and got involved over his head. He wanted desperately to end the affair. He was the last to see her and the first to discover her body. He may have tormented her into drinking seconal while he was still there with noone still around. Her maid testified he went to her upstairs quarters the next morning after repeatedly phoning her and remained there quite a while. He waited quite some time before phoning authorities. Carole supposedly left two suicide notes but only one was found and revealed. Harrison had enough time to either find her r still barely alive and, if so, have her drink additional seconal, or, finding her deceased, totally realigning the body position and removing an implicating note that was supposedly never found. He is also accused of paying off a police officer for destroying the missing note but apparently there was no followup on that charge. In today’s CIS era this case would have undergone minute detail in the investigation which was hurriedly closed down up back in 1948. One only has to look at the Kennedy-Monroe affair to see how recent extremely investigative books have discovered reams of new information never before revealed on that whole episode that obviously changed that conclusion from suicide to unindicted murder.

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  2. I miss Mrs. Pierce. More now than i did in highschool.

    Sorry this comment is not really about Carole Landis… But I agree that suicide’s longstanding stigma renders her family’s denial suspect. No one wants to seem somehow responsible for her unhappiness.

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    • Hey Lena 🙂 I do too…It’s honestly still hard to think about it.
      And I agree, I think even today that suicide is something a family has a hard time dealing with wanting to blame themselves or others, but I guess we never really know what is going on in others.
      It’s okay that it’s not about Carole Landis either haha

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  3. That is so sad about your teacher. Suicide is something that is so hard to understand.

    Interesting analysis of Carole Landis. I always wonder what drove her to that. I guess that’s the usual question–why? But, like you said, maybe it’s time just to let it rest.

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    • It definately was a sad time at my high school.
      I often wonder what made her do it too. I mean it could be possible that foul play was involved, but I highly doubt it.
      Definately a sad story about a really wonderful actress. She did some great work for the war effort too.

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  4. I didn’t see where your story with Ms. Pierce was going; what a shocker. How sad for her. What a jarring thing for you to go through at such a young age as well. Your analysis of Ms. Landis’ death is interesting. Based on what I remember about Esther Williams’ autobiography, I think you’ve made a lot of sense here. Excellent post!

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    • Thanks 🙂
      Their website made it sound like Esther said Lilli Palmer lied and she was with them, but really she was just showing how strong the studio system was when it came to covering up scandals lol.
      Yeh it was definitely a hard time for a bunch of us at my school. I was hoping to show that I understood how suicide was and how it’s easy to fall into the train of though of “she wouldn’t have done that”

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      • I thought you wove the stories together very well. The shock of that fifth paragraph really got me. It drove your point home for sure! Some of the happiest smiles hide the darkest minds.

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  5. I haven’t seen many of Carole’s movies nor did I know much about her death, so this was a really interesting read. I think your explanations make a lot of sense. Since she’d attempted suicide before, her family really shouldn’t have dismissed them like that. And with the studio getting involved, there’s no doubt in my mind that they were in full damage control mode.

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    • I actually have only seen her in a handful of things as well and had always heard she had committed suicide until I came across the family website around Christmas. I did think it was silly they dismissed her suicide attempts.

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  6. I’ve only seen Carole Landis in a few movies (am thinking of “Moon Over Miami” right now); she was very lovely. Her end was very sad and I imagine a combination of reasons brought her to it. Lilli Palmer, who weathered Rex Harrison’s infidelity with various women for years, wasn’t an opera singer, but an actress. She appeared with Gary Cooper in “Cloak and Dagger,” with John Garfield in “Body and Soul,” with Harrison in “The Four Poster,” “But Not for Me” with Clark Gable, etc. She and Harrison split in the 1950s when he became involved with actress Kay Kendall who, it turned out, was dying of leukemia. This apparently inspired Harrison to marry Kendall, who died within a short time. (There was a very popular opera singer named Lily Pons who made a few movies in the ’30s but she wasn’t connected to Harrison.)

    Later Harrison married and divorced actress Rachel Roberts. I have read that she was devastated by the split and never recovered – she took her own life a few years later. I suppose Harrison might rightly be called a lady killer.

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    • Great evaluation!
      Wow, I can’t believe I confused Lily Pons and Lilli Palmer LOL! I’ll fix it in the post. I guess I had thought I’d seen her sing in something.
      And yes, in a figurative sense, I definitely think “Sexy Rexy” (I think that was his nickname according to Willimas) was a ‘lady killer.’

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  7. Very interesting, and I’m inclined to agree with you. Just because someone appears happy on the outside doesn’t mean it is always the case. And previous suicide attempts should definitely have sent up some red flags to those close to her. Rex Harrison was a total ladies’ man (as were many straight guys in Hollywood) but it’s doubtful he murdered anyone.

    PS, sorry to hear about your teacher, she sounded lovely.

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  8. Finally something rational written about Carole Landis! Between the family’s website and the Eric Gans website I was starting to get really creeped out.

    Good job and thanks for the insight.

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    • Why thank you Jeff! That is a wonderful compliment 🙂
      The family’s website both creeped me out and made me angry so I felt something needed to be researched and written ahah

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  10. To the author of this blog, and with no disrespect intended to either movie lovers or enthusiasts of Carole Landis, your mention of Eastside high school’s Leslie Pierce appears to be nearly the only public memory of her existence.

    She was my AP English teacher in 1992, the year when I survived a very high fall. We had a conversation about death after that happened. I remember several scenes in my mind, about her, from that time.

    Where is she buried? We had such life-enriching conversations, and now I can’t even find her grave, despite being practiced in genealogy. Ms. Pierce was AWESOME– it is probably due to her that I went on to get an undergraduate degree in English. I just wish I knew where she was buried.

    Thank you for mentioning her in your posting. Her life is almost completely obscured from the world’s memory, it would seem.

    For the record– she was very cute, too 😉 I was 18, forgive me.

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    • Sorry for responding so late! I honestly have no idea about where she was born-I never even saw an obituary. Her family was very hush hush about the whole situation.

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      • I was a close friend to Leslie and then moved away for many years .Her father recently died and she used to talk to me about him and all his accomplishments in the Army.i was heart broken to hear of her passing as our friendship was very close. She loved teaching and loved her students very much. I will miss her laugh and smile . She was a wonderful woman.

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  11. What a fascinating post on so many levels!

    First, I can relate to having a great teacher whose skill, attentiveness, and passion stays with you for a lifetime. I was lucky to have two. One was a lovely English teacher in my junior year in high school who introduced me to the quiet and melancholy beauty of Carson McCullers’ writing, as well as instilled a lifetime habit of having my nose stuck in a book. The other was a brilliant, rotund college English professor whom I took the most difficult classes with: 18th-Century Lit., Shakespeare, and the Old Testament, because he was so erudite and entertaining at the same time. Like a classically-trained actor, Professor Lynn Batten would get so into character reciting Macbeth monologues that the front row in class would be known as the “spit zone.”

    Regarding Carole Landis, I came upon her story recently because of my renewed appreciate for Rex Harrison’s work and wanted to know a little about him as a person. I agree that this story is tragic on all sides and that we will never know what happened on the evening of July 4th in the Palisades.

    Harrison seems to have been the most underrated Lothario in Hollywood. Every other women on the studio lot wanted to be Mrs. Sexy Rexy. Until now, I had only related to him as a father-figure type, i.e. Professor Higgins and Doctor Dolittle, but after viewing a few of his films from 1940s, I can see how his elegant masculinity combined with ferocious wit and intelligence, can be fatal.

    I’m speculating that had this tragedy never happened and if Darryl Zanuck didn’t force Harrison to retreat back to New York/England, he would have been a bigger Hollywood leading man. Harrison’s resume in the 1950s was thin on high-profile Hollywood vehicles. Technically, I find Harrison a brilliant actor and more versatile than many of his contemporaries.

    Keep up the good work.

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    • Thanks for stopping by and all of your feedback! I remember the first time I read that Harrison was referred to as “Sexy Rexy” and was pretty surprised, because I had never thought of him that way either!
      I will admit, the whole situation is pretty sketchy, but I do feel it probably had something to do with the way the studio system handled it.

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  13. Ms. Pierce was an amazing teacher and an amazing woman. Thank you for keeping her memory alive. She deserves to be remembered.

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      • Wow. I just got an email today saying there were new comments on this thread. I had to come figure out why I was following a discussion of Carole Landis!

        For a very late reply to your question, I was class of ’04 and I had Ms. Pierce for my sophomore and senior years. Even though we had graduated before she died, everyone in my class heard about it and we were all devastated. She was impossible not to love.

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  14. Graduating class of 06′.
    Mrs pierce once told me ‘don’t throw your pearls before the swine’. I was in her class the year she hung herself. I think of her often.

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  15. A curious thing happened to me when I visited Forest Lawn in 1994. I had intended to see if I could visit the crypts of Carole Lombard and Clark Gable but that proved to be fruitless. Of course the management of Forest Lawn have no interest in encouraging tourists who may want to pay their respects to their idols. I understand that. After a few hours of exploring I sat down in the shade of some eucalyptus trees and noticed that there was a plaque by my side. I brushed some fallen leaves off it and to my amazement found that it was Carole Landis’ grave. I had no idea whatsoever that that was where Miss Landis was buried. It was almost as if..and I like to think so..that Carole had guided me to her saying “I know you were looking for the other one but come sit by me for a while.” Reading about her life and personality has given me a sense that she may have been the type to have done just that. A beautiful woman. I’ll never forget that day.

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    • Very interesting story! Thank you for dropping by and sharing 🙂
      I do agree with you, I think little moments like that were meant to happen

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  16. Carole Landis was my 2nd Cousin (or should say) would have been my 2nd cousin, if she had not died in 1948. I was born in 1949, my father spent time with Carole, when my father (2nd Lt U.S Army) was in charged with a anti-aircraft gun on top of a hill in Burback. (you know the hill, because it still has the sign to this day that says “HOLLYWOOD”

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  17. The detail that got the conspiracy theorists going is that an orchid was placed on Carole’s chest as she lay ‘in state’, she had specifically mentioned she would like a red carnation to be placed on her body if ever she lay dead…….therefore Rex did perpetrate a deliberate contradiction of the deceased wishes. I tend to agree with the family, but I’m not going to rant about it, just state my opinion.

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    • Thank you for sharing!
      I was not aware of Rex contradicting her wishes. I’m a little confused about that. Was he in charge of the funeral arrangements?

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  18. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=PCKwhIFDYx0C&pg=PA244&dq=carole+landis+%2B+orchid&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Ts6lU6bXJuKR0AWD0IAQ&ved=0CCEQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=carole%20landis%20%2B%20orchid&f=false – I’m at fault for assuming he did have a lot to do with the funeral arrangements, you can see that his shifty behaviour is commented on as he looks least at her body “hurries past her” – I couldn’t find the actual conspiracy theory account, but the general tenor of it was orchids were a male symbol, & they were put there (I didn’t know the details in this link, she turns out to have had a lot of orchids on her body, relatively speaking) deliberately instead of the GARDENIAS, so I got the flower wrong – she’d requested gardenias, in her will. I’ve not written a will & I’m 60 in October. So basically the conspiracy theory would be Rex acted as a member of a male secret society fraternity, so she’ll have known a helluva lot more than you can ever realise. If that link doesn’t ‘button’ immediately, ‘cut/copy and paste it’ into the top bar, probably a child will do that if you don’t know how to.

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    • Thank you for sharing the link, I haven’t read that book yet.
      As you know probably, Hollywood studios worked hard to protect their stars and cover any bad publicity. I know Harrison’s studio made up some alibis for him during that time- which could explain the shiftiness. Who knows, really. I guess it will remain one of those Hollywood mysteries along with Natalie Wood and Thelma Todd.

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  19. You took the words out of my mouth. I have depression and I can be happy and nice when around other people, but when alone is when it really shows.. unless you have depression you can not really say anything. Sometimes people see what they want to see, and not what really happened. I am sorry for the family but I believe it was a suicide.

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  20. The fact that she fronted so much money for a “glorious” party on the 4th of July and died on the night of that party, while being single, and in my opinion giving up on life, leaves the conclusion to suicide. The fact that Rex Harisson found the body is, in my opinion, irrelevent. It is almost what she wanted, a scandal and to put Rex under a investigative microscope…

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  21. What a great analysis! I have depression and when I am out among others, no one would know it. The fact about depression that few share is that it takes a LOT of energy to keep the ‘happy self’ front, so when I can’t do it, I just don’t go around people. I have a ‘suicide kit’ that I keep hidden, and when I think I am at my lowest point, I somehow am comforted to know I can do it if I choose, kind of like the alcoholic keeping a bottle of booze in the cabinet. I would never do it whilst my parents are alive, because it would upset them terribly, and they don’t deserve it. No one can say that Carole Landis was not depressed, because we are terribly good at hiding it when we choose. The parallels you drew between your teacher and Carole are well reasoned. It is rare to find so much candor.

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  22. I think that Carole really thought she would be found before it was too late.I also believe her family are not trying to capitalize on her death or celebrity or whatever. They just can’t forget how Wonderful she was,and how much she accomplished.She was very talented,and her voice is just so comforting.

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