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The Tragic Death of Linda Darnell, the Girl with the Perfect Face

While she’s unknown to all but the biggest movie buffs today, Linda Darnell was one of the most recognizable faces on the silver screen in the forties. Her talent and good looks catapulted her to stardom as one of the top female movie stars at Twentieth Century Fox.

In this video, we’re going to look at Linda Darnell’s rise to fame, some of her best films, and her tragic death. Be sure to stick around to the end of the video to learn how her final wishes couldn’t be met in spite of her family’s best efforts.

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Linda Darnell was born Monetta Eloyse Darnell on October 16, 1923 in Dallas, Texas. She was a middle child of four siblings. Her parents’ marriage was not happy and she grew up shy and reserved amongst a lot of domestic turmoil.

Her mother had big plans for Darnell, however. She thought Linda was the only one of her four children with any real potential as an actress. She took this to the extreme, ignoring her other children in favor of developing Linda’s career in acting.

Darnell didn’t particularly want to be a big star but she followed her mother’s urging and made it happen. As one of her elocution teachers recalled, “Darnell didn’t stand out particularly, except that she was so sweet and considerate. In her theater work, she wasn’t outstanding, but her mother was right behind her everywhere she went.”

Linda went from being a child model to acting in theatre and film at a young age. She made her first movie, Hotel for Women, in 1939 and had supporting roles in big-budget films throughout the 1940s. In many of those films, she starred alongside Hollywood heartthrobs like Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda.

She soon tired of the thankless “good girl” roles, however, and reached a personal milestone when Twentieth Century Fox loaned her out to United Artists for the movie Summer Storm in 1944. She played a “Scarlett O’Hara” style Russian vixen, showing her range.

In an interview shortly after, Darnell commented, “I was told that such a violent change of type might ruin my career, but I insisted on taking the chance.”

She went on to say, “This is one picture on which I am setting much store for the future. For eighteen months I did nothing in pictures. I pleaded for something to do, but nothing happened. The character in the Chekhov film is a wild sort of she-devil, which any actress would go miles to play. She’s devil mostly — at time angelic — and perfectly fascinating to interpret. I’m counting on my Russian girl to give me a new start.”

Her success with United Artists helped Twentieth Century Fox recognize the depth of her talent. They started putting her in more substantial roles, leading to the movie Forever Amber in 1947.

Darnell was sure it would be her ticket to stardom, telling reporters, “My first seven years in Hollywood were a series of discouraging struggles for me. For a while it looked as though the Darnell-versus-Hollywood tussle was going to find Darnell coming out second best. The next seven years aren’t going to be the same.”

Forever Amber’s production put a lot of pressure on Darnell, however. She was put on a diet and assigned a voice coach to learn to speak with a British accent.

She worked long hours during the filming of the movie and combined with the heavy dieting, it led to exhaustion and serious illness. Between November 1946 and March 1947, she collapsed twice on the set of the movie.

Forever Amber was a box office success but in spite of that, it didn’t quite live up to it hype with most reviewers agreeing the film was a disappointment.

Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz followed Forever Amber by giving Darnell two of the best parts of her entire career – Paul Douglas’ wife from “the wrong side of the tracks” in A Letter to Three Wives in 1949 and Richard Widmark’s racist girlfriend in No Way Out in 1950.

Darnell was widely expected to be nominated for an Academy Award for her role in A Letter to Three Wives but it did not happen. After this, her career began to slow down. She began to be cast in lower budget films that, while often doing well at the box office, felt like a step down to Linda.

Darnell’s contract with Twentieth Century Fox ended in 1952 and she found herself in the unfortunate position of being adrift in Hollywood, with good roles becoming harder to come by.

She began to resent Twentieth Century Fox, saying, “Suppose you’d been earning $4,000 to $5,000 a week for years. Suddenly you were fired and no one would hire you at any figure remotely comparable to your previous salary. I thought in a little while I’d get offers from other studios, but not many came along. The only thing I knew how to do was be a movie star. No one expects to last forever in this business. You know that sooner or later the studio’s going to let you go. But who wants to be retired at 29?”

By the mid-1960s, she had started appearing as a nightclub singer, touring with summer theater troupes, and taking supporting roles on TV shows.

Darnell was married and divorced three time. First, to cinematographer J. Peverell Marley from 1944 to 1952. Next, to Phillip Liebmann, a New York brewer, from 1954 to 1955. And finally to Merle Roy Robertson, an airline pilot, from 1957 to 1962.

Linda died tragically on April 10, 1965, at the age of 41, when she was caught in a fire at her former secretary’s home. Ironically, she was watching Star Dust on TV at the time, a movie she had made in 1940 that had helped set her career in motion.

After acting on TV and in live theater for several years, she landed the role of the lusty mistress Sadie in a low-budget film called Black Spurs. After the film’s opening, she received critical praise for her performance.

Her agent called to tell her that her work in Black Spurs had generated offers for roles in three other movies. She was visiting her former secretary when she got that call, and unfortunately the fire and her untimely death meant she never got to fulfill the promise of that future.

The fire started in the living room of the house and Darnell was trapped on the second floor by heat and smoke. Her secretary’s daughter had already jumped from the second-floor window and her secretary was still on the ledge, calling for help.

She had lost track of Darnell in the confusion of the moment and insisted the firefighters rescue Linda before she would leave the window ledge. They found Darnell next to the burning living room sofa. She was taken to the burn unit at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital, suffering from burns to 80 percent of her body.

Doctors did everything they could to save Darnell but unfortunately, she succumbed to her injuries 33 hours after the fire.

Following Darnell’s death, a man claiming to be her fiancé identified her body. The coroner’s inquest that followed ruled that Linda’s death was accidental and that the fire had started on or near the living room sofa due to careless smoking. Both Darnell and her former secretary were smokers.

Some of the more sensational reports at the time claimed that on the night of the fire, Darnell had been intoxicated and was despondent over the way her career had ended up. But in his book Hollywood Beauty, biographer Ronald L. Davis wrote that there was no evidence that supported any of those stories.

Davis also contended that there was no evidence Linda was in any way responsible for the blaze. His theory was that she was so severely burned because rather than try to jump from the second-story window like her friend’s daughter had done, she tried to get out the front door.

She reached the door but the doorknob was already too hot for her to touch.

Linda’s body was cremated according to her wishes. She wanted her ashes to be scattered over a New Mexico ranch owned by the Hurd family but a dispute with the landowners caused problems.

According to reports at the time, the Hurds “wanted the most dreadful ritualistic thing of depositing her ashes.” Darnell’s family disliked the idea so much that they decided not to follow her final wishes.

Instead, her ashes were kept in the office of a Chicago cemetary for the next decade. Finally, in 1975, her daughter Lola asked that they be interred at the Union Hill Cemetary in Chester County, Pennsylvania. She had moved to Pennsylvania and given birth to her own children and had Linda’s ashes interred in the Adams family plot.

“It was painful,” Lola said. “It wasn’t until Mother’s ashes were in the ground that I saw her death was real.”

After coming to grips with her mother’s death, Lola came to realize Linda wouldn’t have wanted to live with the disfigurement she would have had if she had recovered from the fire.

“What would she have looked like?” Lola wondered. “Not simply from a professional standpoint, but just to get up in the morning and look at herself in the mirror. And what would her health have been?”

Linda Darnell appeared in 46 films over the course of her career. She was often described as the “girl with the perfect face” because of her astonishing beauty. She died at the young age of 41.

While her life tragically ended too early, Darnell is memorialized for her contributions to the film industry with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1631 Vine Street. Let us know your favorite Linda Darnell film in the comments below!

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