Rita Johnson (with Ray Milland) in The Big Clock (John Farrow, 1948)
A Book Review by Zoe Kurland.
With meticulous details gathered from an impressive variety of sources, Hollywood’s Hard Luck Ladies implies that, regardless of luck, Hollywood was (and is) quite unkind to women, especially those who attempt to control their own narrative.”
The story usually begins the same way: a girl trades in her ungainly given name for a spruced-up glamour-gal title. Frances Ethel Gumm becomes Judy Garland, Norma Jeane Mortenson becomes Marilyn Monroe, Margarita Carmen Cansino becomes Rita Hayworth, and so on. Having made the change, she no longer has a past, but she might have a future as an actress if Hollywood will take her. But Hollywood is a notoriously shallow town; in an 1962 interview with LIFE magazine, the aforementioned Monroe casually stated, “I don’t look at myself as a commodity, but I’m sure a lot of people have.” She was right both in life and death; not only has her image been reproduced countless times over, sold in places from Sotheby’s to the gift shop on Hollywood Boulevard, Monroe’s tragic demise, shrouded in an odd blend of glamour and mystery, has spawned countless conspiracy theories, tributes, and speculative biopics which detail, in platinum blonde wigs and red lipstick, the particular idiosyncrasies and psychoses that hinted at the end.
It’s not just Monroe, of course; culture revolves around tragedy and conspiracy, the fetishization of image and the proliferation of said image. Tragic actresses of the Hollywood Golden Era are of particular fascination as of late (see Karina Longworth’s excellent podcast series entitled Dead Blondes, or Ryan Murphy’s less-than-excellent series Hollywood); there exists an inclination to re-examine the past and cast a kinder eye upon those who fell victim to Tinseltown’s particular brand of superficiality. Author Laura Wagner (contributor editor for Classic Images) acknowledges the “ocean of ink spilled on the most famous of these ladies,” but in her new book Hollywood’s Hard Luck Ladies: 23 Actresses Who Suffered Early Deaths, Accidents, Missteps, Illnesses and Tragedies (McFarland, 2020), Wagner aims to shed light on lesser-known starlets who lived and died under the hot lights, all before reaching those lofty levels of acclaim (1). With meticulous details gathered from an impressive variety of sources ranging from newspaper archives and history books to family members and friends, Wagner delves into the lives of 23 women who made their way to Hollywood and met unfortunate fates, shedding light on their lives and the systems they fell victim to.
So, we begin the same tale again: Harriet Pearl Shapiro becomes Susan Cabot, Mary Ann Noblett becomes Mary Castle, Violet Mary Klotz becomes Mae Clark, and so on. We may not know these names as well, but as Wagner says, they are no less important. Their tales of woe differ; some couldn’t find their way through the harshness of Hollywood, some saw their dreams die at the hands of unfortunate circumstances, and some met an early and tragic demise before even getting the chance to make it big. Wagner takes a sympathetic look at these women and applies a 21st-century lens where it counts, retrospectively identifying mental illnesses that went misdiagnosed or untreated at the time, and how those circumstances amplified the stresses of the day. Wagner catalogues car-crashes and hunting accidents, illness and alcoholism, cancer and amputations, and perseverance in the face of all of it all. But regardless of the setbacks, all of these actresses were subjected to a certain level of commodification and co-option at the hands of the studios they worked for, the men they married, or the public that they so wanted to please.
Wagner traces the lives of these 23 women from obscurity to the soundstage, showing with frank prose and attention to detail how differently each woman approached their career, and how quickly they were sorted into the types that would come to define them – the all-American girl, the exotic temptress, or the femme fatale, among others. Wagner smartly peppers in archival material from legendary gossip columnists such as Hedda Hopper and Dorothy Kilgallen, or magazines like Photoplay, allowing us a window into just how much these identifiers factored into public image. The irony in Wagner’s text seems to be that these women, in partaking in the grand system of Hollywood, only further perpetuated the tropes that trapped them.
Wagner presents these facts frankly and without fuss, but she does not shy away from the morbidity and meta-absurdity of life and death in Hollywood, relaying moments in which women who were severely ill or headed towards disaster found themselves playing out their own tragic circumstances on the screen. These various juxtapositions illuminate the odd slippage between fiction and reality. With the right script and dress, Hollywood makes complex woman palatable and entertaining, happily marketing tragedy, but in the harsh light of day, female suffering looks a lot less glamorous and elicits far less sympathy.
Though many of the 23 women Wagner profiles had a significant impact on Hollywood, Wagner traces the way that impact gets filtered through the men in their lives, their personal suffering winding its way through the filmic machine and coming out the other end as product. Rosa Stradner, married to Joseph Mankewicz (and occasionally credited as “Rose”), served as the inspiration for the iconic Margot Channing in All About Eve, yet she did not reap any returns. Dorothy Comingore’s interactions with HUAC inspired a role in a film that she had no involvement with. Mayo Methot, one half of “the battling Bogarts” abandoned her career to support that of her husband, Humphrey Bogart. She helped to build a mythology about Bogart’s personal life while acting as an emotional spur, provoking some of his best work. The invisible influence and resulting lack of notoriety seems a cruel and ironic fate for these actresses, whose quest for fame only led them down rabbit holes of vice, thus pushing them further into their own obscurity. “Even when an actress isn’t working, she’s got to have scenes to play,” said Bogart in reference to Methot (117). This statement encapsulates the fact that actresses were always subject to criticism as performers, seen as perpetual dramatists by the public both on and off-screen.
More description of the actresses and the films discussed would help to flesh out some of the particulars in the text; there is generally less romance to the slow burn of tragedy – wounds gathered and scarred over from years of silent mistreatment, legs and livers failing just on the cusp of a comeback. But more specificity in Wagner’s retellings would keep some of the chapters from verging on the monotonous. It’s evident that Wagner has a wry, observant voice, and the work is most stirring when she uses it to lean into the romance of it all; reports of gravestone inscriptions, funeral processions, and touching or telling post-mortem minutiae, serve to bolster the accounts and acknowledge what legacy these actresses left behind for those close to them.
Though many trials and tribulations came from “hard luck,” the implicit message in Hollywood’s Hard Luck Ladies seems to be that, regardless of luck, Hollywood was (and is) quite unkind to women, especially those who attempt to control their own narrative. It seems that the path of least resistance, submission to one’s own commodification, always garnered the most sympathy, though it did not garner happiness.
I cannot shake Wagner’s vivid description of the actress Patricia Dane at 69 years old, long gone from her tumultuous Hollywood days, sitting in her mother’s house reading Taylor Caldwell novels. “I was something back then,” said Dane to a visiting reporter. “But I was stubborn too…that’s why I don’t own the world” (75).
Zoe Kurland is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. She holds a BA in English from Columbia University. Her writing appears in Bright Lights Film Journal, COUNTERCLOCK Journal, The Nonconformist, and more.