Before there was Marilyn Monroe, there was Carole Landis. Known to her fans as “The Ping Girl,” Landis was Hollywood’s favorite bodacious blonde…for all of about 15 minutes. In her short career, she didn’t snag any Academy Awards, but she did snag a husband or two…or four. Her tumultuous off-screen romances ultimately led to her tragic and unexpected suicide. Or was it foul play? Read on and decide for yourself.
1. Her Life Was Always A Mystery
Carole Landis—if that was even her real name—was born on New Year’s Day in 1919 in Fairchild, Wisconsin. Less than thirty years later, her lover would—allegedly—discover her lifeless body on the floor of her bathroom. And while her suicide is definitely a mystery, the circumstances surrounding her birth were equally suspicious.
2. She Was An Enigma
Landis’ birth is one of those riddles wrapped up in an enigma, stuffed into a paradox, and then boxed in a quandary. Frankly, there are only two things we know for sure about Landis’ birth. One: her real name was Frances Lillian Mary Ridste. Two: Clara Ridste was her mother. Oh, and she was, actually, born on New Year’s Day. But the identity of her father?
Well, that’s a lot less clear. And a lot more scandalous.
3. Her Father Abandoned Her
At the time of her birth, Landis’ mother was married to the railroad-drifting mechanic, Alfred Ridste. Under suspicious circumstances and for unexplained reasons, Alfred abandoned the family shortly after Landis’ birth. He didn’t exactly write a going away letter, but it looks like his motives for leaving had something to do with Landis herself.
4. She Had Daddy Issues
Carole Landis’ biographer, E. J. Fleming, put forth a plausible theory to unravel the odd circumstances of Landis’ birth. He put forth the idea that Landis wasn’t, in fact, Alfred’s child. He claimed that there was sufficient evidence to support the idea that Landis was the child of her mother’s second husband, Charles Fenner. Either way, Landis couldn’t keep a father…
5. She Had Abandonment Issues
Just a few years after she was born, Carole Landis lost out on her second opportunity to have a father. Her mother’s second husband walked out of the marriage and remarried shortly thereafter. With two fathers walking out on her, one might assume that Landis was some sort of ogre-baby with horns and worms for hair. In fact, just the opposite was true.
6. She Was Just A Doll
Throughout her life, Landis would adopt several monikers. “The Ping Girl” and “The Chest” were two of the most popular. But her first-ever nickname—apart from the one her mother gave her—was “Baby Doll.” Growing up, her naturally good looks won her several beauty pageants. Obviously, Hollywood was calling her name. Or, at least, one of her names.
7. She Had Talent
Landis always had a knack for putting on a show. At the age of nine, she ran on stage in the middle of a talent show and began belting out “That’s My Weakness Now.” She declared to her mother then and there that she was going to be a star one day. Someone should have warned her that the flames that burn brightest fade fastest.
But at least she went out spectacularly.
8. She Was An Athlete
Landis wasn’t just about her looks and show-biz talents. As she grew older, she enjoyed sports and wanted people to value her for more than just her rapidly-maturing figure. In high school, she tried to start up an all-girls sports team, but the school administration thought that was unbecoming of girls. There were, obviously, worse things girls could do.
And Landis would do them all.
9. She Was A Dropout
As a child, Landis hadn’t spent much time with her father—either of them—but at least they taught her one thing: Namely, the art of walking out. At the age of 15, Landis walked right out of San Bernardino High School and never went back. She was more focused on other, more…”adult” things at the time.
10. She Was Crazy
While most of her classmates had been studying their books, Landis had been “researching” other things. Like the male anatomy. Landis later confessed to being “boy crazy” in her youth and to finding older men more attractive. She had always considered herself to be more mature than her peers—and her curvy figure agreed. Unfortunately, that kind of thinking got her into a world of trouble…
11. She Skipped Town
Landis wasn’t kidding when she said that she was “boy crazy.” She had been dating the 19-year-old Irving Wheeler at the time that she dropped out of high school. And she didn’t waste any time with her newfound freedom. In January of 1914, Landis skipped town with Wheeler and traveled to Yuma, Arizona—and they weren’t trying to find the Grand Canyon.
12. She Got Married In Secret
Most people who shouldn’t get married go to Las Vegas. But when you’re a broke high school drop-out who is too young to even enter a casino, Yuma will have to do. Landis had to lie about her age on their marriage certificate but by the end of the day, they were Mr. & Mrs. Carole Landis. That is, until the real Mrs. Landis found out.
13. She Was A Delinquent
The newlyweds returned home to San Bernardino and a very unromantic honeymoon. Landis’ mother, Clara, found out about the marriage and did the adult thing; had her daughter’s marriage annulled. Momma Landis took it a step further, however, when she had Wheeler thrown into the clink for “contributing to the delinquency of a minor.”
But that wasn’t the last we’d see of Irving Wheeler.
14. She Begged Her Dad
Fortunately for Landis, in those days, all a girl really needed was her father’s permission to get married. And she had two of them. Coincidentally, Alfred Ridste, just so happened to live nearby. So, Landis did what any daddy’s girl would do. She begged Ridste to let her remarry Wheeler and the poor sap agreed. What happened next proved that she’d made a terrible mistake.
15. Her Second Marriage Was A Quick One
Newlywed yet again, Landis and Wheeler moved into a tiny studio apartment that didn’t even have a working refrigerator. Not surprisingly, those tight living quarters created some tension. Landis and Wheeler got into an argument three weeks into their second marriage and Landis did what her family did best: She walked out. She left Wheeler in her dust—but he had a funny way of showing up again and again.
16. She Was A Dancer
Landis was a high school drop-out and divorcee all before she was old enough to vote. But to her, that just meant that it was time to pursue her Hollywood ambitions. She landed her first show biz gig as a hula dancer at a nightclub in San Francisco. She later confessed that she had no idea how to do the hula but, like everyone else with Tinseltown dreams, she faked it to make it.
17. She Was A Cheap Blonde
If Landis thought that she was just going to hula her way into fame, she had another thing coming. Her boss at the nightclub described her as a “nervous $35-a-week blonde doing a pathetic hula at her opening night…that’ll never get her anyplace in show business.” He might have been right about her terrible hula dancing—but he was wrong about everything else.
18. She Thought Blondes Had More Fun
Carole Landis’ boss at the San Francisco nightclub clearly didn’t have a good eye for talent—or even good eyes for that matter. Not only was he wrong that Landis wouldn’t make it in show business, but he mustn’t have been looking at her roots. Landis’ famous blonde locks weren’t even hers. She bleached her hair. But the rest of her was real…ish.
19. She Beat Them By A Nose
Later on in her career, somewhere between 1939 and 1940, Carole Landis’ adoring fans noticed a change in their favorite blonde. Her nose had magically gotten smaller. Apparently, Landis had the surgery on her nose to remove an unsightly bump. At least, that was the official story that she gave. The tabloids, however, told a different tale.
20. She Was Tough
Even before her nose surgery, Landis was a photogenic jaw-dropper. That had some people questioning why she had bothered to get the surgery in the first place. Rumors began swirling around Tinseltown that Landis had needed to “fix” her nose after she met the wrong end of her boyfriend’s fist. Even if the rumors were true, however, Landis was a tough gal.
21. She Made Her Own Way
Up until she started hula dancing at nightclubs, no one was calling Carole Landis, well, Carole Landis. But the enterprising high drop-out made sure that she would have a name everyone would remember. Landis got her stage name by sitting down one afternoon and writing down nearly 200 names. Carole Landis sounded like the best one to her, so she took it.
22. She Kept The Ring
Carole Landis’s good looks kept her in steady work in San Francisco, but being attractive had a downside. The men were all over Landis but, after her two failed marriages to Wheeler, she had gotten over her “boy crazy” days… for the time being. To ward off admirers, Landis kept on her wedding ring. She might have been better off pawning the thing for bus money.
23. She Left For Hollywood
Landis knew that the real problem with that cheap nightclub wasn’t her hula. It was that her talents were actually too big for it. After working the nightclub scene for a while, Landis managed to save up $100 and set off from San Francisco for the shiny lights of Hollywood. She was living life in the fast lane—but she was about to crash hard.
24. She Was Irresistible
Carole Landis arrived in Hollywood with big dreams and, well, little else. She had a decent voice, but she couldn’t act, could barely dance, and had no money. In other words, she was just like all of the other buxom blondes in Hollywood seeking fame and fortune. The one thing she had that none of the girls had, however, was an ability to snag any man she wanted. That came in handy in a town like Los Angeles…
25. She Landed Her First Big Role
At first, Carole Landis had a tough go of it in Hollywood. That is, until she auditioned for director Busby Berkeley. The powerful director gave her a minor dancing role in one of his films, but it was the off-screen role that landed Landis her first big break. She began dating the Hollywood bigwig and the tabloids couldn’t get enough of the buxom blonde.
26. She Was A Swimsuit Model
Berkeley got Landis a small contract with Warner Brothers but it was her looks that paid her bills and her modeling career took off. She became a successful pin-up girl, posing for hundreds of racy photos. According to Landis, “…when the boys needed someone to pose in a skin-tight white bathing suit […] they would yell ‘Get Landis!’”
Get Landis, indeed.
27. Her Past Came Back to Haunt Her
While she was dating Berkeley, Landis was, technically, still married to Wheeler. She did, after all, still have the ring. And once Wheeler saw his leggy, full-bodied, and smoking hot wife in the tabloids hanging off the arm of a big Hollywood director, he wanted his cut of the action. Wheeler sued Berkeley for “alienation of affections.”
Fortunately, the court dismissed the claim as Landis and Wheeler were estranged.
28. Her Reputation Was Tarnished
The scandal was no good for Landis’ career. Or her relationship. Berkeley probably didn’t appreciate having his lover’s ex drag him into court. Landis and Berkeley went their separate ways and when her contract with Warner Bros. expired, they chose not to renew it. For a while, it looked like her dreams of becoming a famous actor would never come true—but life had another curveball in store for Carole Landis.
29. She Got A Little Shakespearean
Without a contract or a bigshot boyfriend, Landis decided to change strategies. In her own words, “I had great dreams of being the toast of Broadway and of every studio in Hollywood clamoring for my services.” But success on Broadway was just as elusive as it had been in Hollywood. Her stage career ended after just a few performances—yet Carole Landis wasn’t one to take “No” for an answer.
30. She Had Class
Carole Landis realized that she would have to make it the hard way…kind of. She took up some acting classes to improve her talents. And, if a handsome casting director just so happened to notice her “assets” in class, well that was just fine too. Landis began dating a casting director, Kenny Morgan, who landed her a couple of roles alongside John Wayne.
But true stardom was just around the corner.
31. She Was Finally Single
In 1939, on the cusp of stardom, Landis finally divorced Wheeler. Once she was officially single, Morgan tried to make an honest woman of her and proposed. He did not get the answer he wanted. Landis wasn’t looking for love anymore—and she had gotten everything she needed out of Morgan anyway. Landis turned down Morgan’s proposal and never looked back.
32. She Got Everything She Wanted
With some real acting credentials under her belt—or in her bra—Landis was ready to take on a lead role. She auditioned for director Hal Roach’s One Million B.C. and so impressed him with her athleticism that he gave her the role. The critics weren’t crazy about the film itself, but everyone agreed: Carole Landis was their favorite new bodacious blonde. So now that she finally had her feet under her, what was next?
33. She Made You Purr?
Landis’ “bawdy” body was on full display in One Million B.C. and it made her an instant success with audiences. In an effort to cash-in on Landis’ fame, studio executives gave her the moniker “Ping Girl” apparently because “she makes you purr.” If that sounds lame to you, you’re not alone. Landis hated the name. And let everyone know it.
34. She Was Late To The Party
In an effort to make the name “Ping Girl” stick, Roach threw a party for Landis. Everyone who was anyone in Hollywood attended. Except, that is, for the guest of honor. Landis boycotted her own party and said, “I will not be present at my own reception to ping, purr, or even coo.” Now tell us how you really feel…
35. She Was More Than Just A Curvy Cutie
In case she hadn’t made herself abundantly clear by boycotting her own party, Carole Landis thought it best to spell out what she thought about being Hollywood’s “Ping Girl.” Landis wrote to all of the newspapers imploring them to boycott the name with her. She wrote, “This is the lament of a fugitive from a leg-art career. I want a fair chance to prove myself something more than a curvaceous cutie.”
And that wasn’t her only demand.
36. She Was All Pinned-Up
Landis wanted audiences to take her seriously as an actress. To look past her long legs, full chest, and round rump. She demanded that the newspapers not print any more of her famous pin-up girl photos. However, her steep demands only managed to garner more publicity. And her pin-up photos were just too great not to print. And salivate over…
37. She Was A Favorite Of The Troops
Carole Landis’ racy photos were a favorite of the American troops out on service during WWII. And the servicemen didn’t have to just dream about the curvy actress. In 1942, Landis traveled to the front lines with the USO. According to entertainer Jack Benny, Landis loved spending time with the troops and spent more time with the injured than any other entertainer.
38. She Snagged Herself An Airman
While touring with the USO, Landis did more than entertain. She did a little shopping too…a little boyfriend shopping. She fell head over heels in love with the dimpled cheeks and curly hair of one US Airman, Captain Thomas Wallace. And the feeling was mutual. On their very first official date in 1943, Wallace proposed to Landis.
39. She Was Bursting With Excitement
Landis must have been excited about her marriage—even if she had done it before. However, this would be no fairy tale wedding. One week before the nuptials, Landis suffered a terrible bout of appendicitis. It was very nearly the end for her, but her doctor saved her life. She was so grateful that she had the doctor walk her down the aisle. Not that she had a shortage of fathers.
40. She Wasn’t “Wife Material”
Between her blossoming acting career and Wallace’s service with the Royal Air Force, Landis and Wallace spent little time together. What few moments they stole away, however, were blissful. Until they weren’t. Her new husband returned stateside to make a miserable discovery. Wallace hated the Hollywood lifestyle and wanted Landis to give it up. But entertaining was in her blood. Something had to give.
41. She Was Hopelessly In Love
After two years, it became apparent that, despite their love, Landis and Wallace wanted different things in life. Wallace divorced Landis in 1945, but she never stopped loving him. She later said, “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.”
42. She Squeezed Another One In
Between her puppy love marriage to Wheeler and her true romance with the dashing airman Wallace, Landis had managed to squeeze in another husband. Her second marriage—or, technically, third marriage but second husband—was to a yacht broker named William Hunt, Jr. The couple met in the summer of 1940 and after only two weeks of dating, they decided to get married.
Once again, Landis’ mother cautioned against the match.
43. She Dodged A Bullet
Compared to the three-week nightmare of a marriage to Wheeler, Landis and Hunt had a happy marriage—for all of two months. Landis divorced Hunt in November 1940, claiming that Hunt had been, well, less than gentlemanly. She didn’t yet realize how good of a decision she’d made, though. Considering the fact that Hunt’s fifth wife would later fatally stab him in self-defense, it seems like Landis got out just in time.
44. She Moved On Quickly
Not long after her divorce from Wallace in 1945—and by “not long after,” we mean “later that same year”—Landis got married again. Her fourth and final husband was the wealthy Broadway producer, W. Horace Schmidlapp. For a time, it seemed like Landis was going to be happy playing house, but when her contract with 20th Century Fox expired, things took a dark turn.
45. She Was Saved By A Cat
Without an acting contract, Landis thought she might try taking on a domestic role. But she was poorly cast as a desperate housewife. Landis was unable to get pregnant. Without her career or a child to comfort her, she fell into a deep depression. One night, she planned to commit suicide by driving off of a cliff, but changed her mind when she saw a kitten in the road.
She’d been given a second chance at life—but it was too late for poor Carole Landis.
46. She Landed A Lead…ing Man
That kitten might have been able to save Landis’ life, but it couldn’t save her marriage. While her husband, Schmidlapp, was away, Landis began a highly-publicized affair with one of Hollywood’s leading men, Rex Harrison. There was just one problem: Harrison was also married. The whole affair would come to a very tragic—and very suspicious—end.
47. She Was Desperate For Love
Landis really didn’t have any luck in love. In 1948, she filed for divorce from Schmidlapp with hopes to marry Rex Harrison. Over dinner one night, she begged Harrison to divorce his wife and start a life anew with her but Harrison refused. Distraught, Landis fell into another deep depression. This time, there wouldn’t be any life-saving kittens.
48. She Took Some Sedatives
The following afternoon, Harrison called on Landis—but when he arrived at her home, he made a shocking discovery. The unsuspecting Harrison walked in to find Landis lifeless on the bathroom floor. Apparently, Hollywood’s bodacious Ping Girl had overdosed on sedatives. But some things in his story just weren’t adding up.
49. She Wasn’t In A Suicide Mindset
According to a coroner’s inquest, Landis’ maid had been home at the time. She claimed that Landis and Harrison had been spending the whole week together and that Landis had been in good spirits. She also said that Harrison, upon discovering Landis on the bathroom floor, felt for a pulse, said, “I feel a little life,” and then left.
50. She Said Farewell
The coroner’s inquest also concluded that Landis had left behind two suicide notes. One presumably for her mother and another one for…well that’s the mystery. The second note disappeared. Years later, Harrison’s wife confessed to having paid an officer $500 to destroy the second note. It was, she claimed, a “lover’s farewell.”
51. She Just Wanted To Love And Be Loved
Landis packed more life into her 29 years than most. Nevertheless, there was one thing that eluded her. She said, “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.” It just goes to show, all of the curves and swerves can’t buy you love.