A sensitive reader of these Chronicles remarked to me that of all of them, Chronicle 280 about Carole Landis is suffused with the most genuine emotion. It is indeed strange and wholly unexpected to experience such depth of feeling for someone known only indirectly. I feel as one who has discovered a buried treasure, something of immense value, lost to the world, to be brought forth by me alone.
Carole’s beauty is incomparable. The library of the Motion Picture Academy contains a few hundred 8×10 photographs of her, dozens of which are more beautiful than any image I have ever seen of anyone else. Looking at her early photographs (the one that inspired Chronicle 280, still the most beautiful of all, and not in the Academy collection, dates from 1940, when she was 21), one could predict her selfless generosity during the war and after; Carole is so beautiful because her beauty is never coquettishly kept to itself but radiates forth as a gift to the world. It is a beauty that transcends desire as love transcends desire.
The film idols of the past, Mary Pickford, Lilian Gish, Vilma Banky, Theda Bara, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, so many others, all belong more or less to their time, and before our eyes become “historical figures,” to be understood rather than simply appreciated. Carole’s timeless beauty touches us now as it would have sixty years ago–more, I think, because the conditions that nourished it no longer exist.
Since writing Chronicle 280 over two months ago, I have learned a great deal more about Carole. I have seen about half of her 28 films, most forgettable except for her, some forgettable even with her. I have read her book, 4 Jills and a Jeep, which is both a humorous account of Carole’s first USO tour abroad and, in its modest way, her Recherche du temps perdu, the significant time of her life transformed by writing into a model of salvation. I have collected a few dozen photographs of her, and related articles and ads from old magazines. My wife and I have visited her star in Hollywood and left a bouquet on her grave at Forest Lawn.
Carole’s uniqueness was not entirely of her own making. This was the one time that Hollywood, still in its pre-television, big-studio glory era, would find a place, however grudgingly, for someone so “distractingly desirable” (Life)–whom directors hesitated to use because they not unreasonably feared that her beauty would detract from the plot. Thus was Carole fortuitously allowed to attain the transcendent glamour that she so eagerly offered as a gift to those fighting the last and most crucial of history’s great wars, becoming afflicted in the process with malaria and amoebic dysentery that plagued her the rest of her life.
Contemplating Carole’s story has taught me a great deal about life narratives. Told as a Hollywood chronicle, it is depressing. Carole was not only beautiful, she could sing in a lovely contralto and act, with a particular gift for comedy; her memoir and other writings (which I believe are essentially her own work) display a knack for witty, vivid narration amazing in someone with a junior high school education. Poised, graceful, modest as befits someone whose attractiveness speaks for itself, neither haughty nor vulgar, intelligent, witty, kind, generous, patriotic, Carole was the true American Beauty. Yet she never starred in a major film and ended her career in low-budget English potboilers. By all accounts she was a delightful person to be with, yet, with the dubious and fatal exception of Rex Harrison, four times married, she seems never to have had a single genuine love relationship. Declining in health and career, looking worn in her last months and no doubt terrified of the nearing age of thirty, she ended her life with a bottle of Seconal. Hardly an uplifting tale.
There are no books about Carole. No one likes sad stories, unless there is a scandal attached to them, and Harrison is not quite scandal enough. There are, however, a dozen versions of her career in books like Fallen Angels, Hollywood’s Babylon Women, Hollywood’s Unsolved Mysteries, The Hollywood Celebrity Death Book…, for all of which her life’s meaning is defined by her suicide. Here is the beginning of the most sympathetic account of her life, Kirk Crivello’s November 1973 bio-filmography in Film Fan Monthly:
There is, inevitably, much worse. Carole’s beauty gave occasion for envy, and the more mean-spirited variety of Hollywood resentment literature is filled with what in a different context would be reviled as the lowest form of sexism. For Kenneth Anger in Hollywood Babylon II, she is a “bouncy sexpot” and a promiscuous “studio hooker”; a recent People magazine makes an offhand reference to her as “curvaceous and unfettered by talent,” the two qualifications being presumed synonymous.
I intend to remedy this situation. Carole’s real story is uplifting rather than depressing. It may be regrettable that Hollywood let us see so little of her, but we should be thankful, yes, thankful even to Hollywood, that it allowed us to see and hear her at all. I would compare Carole, in all seriousness, to Thérèse de Lisieux, France’s most popular saint, who died of tuberculosis in 1897 at the age of 26. The world saw even less of Thérèse than of Carole, but it saw enough to find in her an example of holiness. We don’t need another twenty films to find in Carole’s gift of beauty a consolation for our mortality. Carole’s wartime activities, and the everyday “graciousness and kindness” referred to on her grave, were reciprocated in her time by a popular affection that those of later generations should be given the opportunity to share.
Beauty is a cultural phenomenon that does more than reinforce biology. A beautiful woman concentrates within her the world’s mimetic power. But the effect is not to provoke violence but to contain and transform it. Although the original desire is libidinous, beauty as magnificent as Carole’s inspires not desire but chaste admiration. The appeal of sexual appetite is whetted by desire only to a certain point. At the moment when I feel that I bear within myself the unanimous desiring community, desire is transformed into a joyful assent to a sharing no longer burdened with sexuality, one in which persons of any gender can participate. The very attributes that inspire desire can be contemplated with disinterested reverence; we experience the body’s beauty as communion with the soul. Carole is a worldly guarantee of incarnation.
If I have ever had a mission in life, it is to write a book, the only book, about Carole Landis. I cannot blame this mission on God, so I will attribute it to anthropology. Carole has made me realize what this inextricably dialectical mixture of nature and culture called Eric Gans has been put on earth to desire, and to love beyond desire. She has made the thought of death less painful, and those who share my life more precious. This project is a token of my gratitude.