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Tragic Facts About Deannie Best, Hollywood’s Lost Femme Fatale

Samantha Henman

Everyone knows the dark history of actresses like Lana Turner and Natalie Wood, but they’ve almost completely forgotten Deannie Best’s wild story. A chorus girl turned actress, Best’s scandalous exploits offscreen overshadowed her tragically short career. From her secret marriage to her involvement in a murder, Best’s life was a non-stop rollercoaster ride from start to finish. Here are jaw-dropping facts about the life of Deannie Best, the forgotten femme fatale.


1. She Had Surprising Beginnings

Deannie Best may have ended up in Hollywood, but she came from humble beginnings. She was born Willia Dean Doughty in 1926 in a small town Altus, Oklahoma. Unlike many, Best’s family seemed to avoid the worst of the Great Depression, but this was probably the last time that Best was able to escape horrifically bad fortune.

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2. She Had Big Dreams

Best had a tumultuous childhood. When she was just three years old, her parents divorced, remarried, and the little girl ended up in Oklahoma City. Other than this information, however, much of Best’s past is mysterious. That said, we know one thing for sure: By the time that she was a teenager, Deannie was more than ready to leave Oklahoma behind for good.

3. She Was a Dropout

Best fled her family’s home of Oklahoma when she was just a teenager, likely before she even finished high school. Besides, she didn’t need an education where she was going. She had a much different plan; Best was ready for the bright lights of Hollywood. As least at first, it seemed like the beautiful starlet would inevitably make her way to the A-list.

4. She Got Lucky—At First

With her good looks, it didn’t take long for Best to get noticed. Soon after she arrived in Hollywood, she landed a plum gig as a Goldwyn Girl, a stock company of female dancers who appeared in films made by the big-time Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn. Before they were famous, both Lucille Ball and Betty Grable were Goldwyn Girls. It was a great stepping stone for her career, but Best was also in for some falls.

5. Her Name Has a Hidden Reference

A name like “Willia Dean Doughty” might have cut it in Oklahoma, but like many other starlets before her, she wanted to craft a compelling stage name. The first name “Deannie” came from her middle name. Appropriately enough for an ambitious young actress, she then selected “Best” as her last name, which was actually her stepfather’s family name.

6. She Had a Skeleton in Her Closet

Landing a spot as a Goldwyn Girl was supposed to be Best’s big break. But behind the scenes, she was hiding a dark secret. At the time, producers expected starlets in Hollywood to be single—but when Best was just 17 or 18 years old, she eloped with a man named George Balzer. She tried to conceal her martial status…but secrets have a way of coming out.

7. She “Bought” a Man

The Goldwyn Girls were some of the naughtiest girls in Hollywood, and they’d do anything for publicity. Well, so would Deannie, and one of her publicity stunts was beyond ridiculous. In a move to garner press, Best and her fellow girls reportedly pooled their hard-earned money together and ended up buying an entire…person. The lucky man was a young actor—but it gets even weirder than that.

8. She Was Desperate for Publicity

According to the “deal” they made with the nameless up-and-comer, Best and six of her fellow Goldwyn Girls each owned 10% of the actor, which to be fair left him with a totally reasonable 30% of himself. Best and the girls also became his managers to boot, though it doesn’t look like his career ever took off. After all, Best had already gotten what she wanted: notoriety.

9. The Tabloids Spread Rumors About Her

This bizarre play for hype somehow worked, and Best soon began to attract media attention. When she sat next to famed writer James Hilton at a glitzy Hollywood dinner, the tabloids gleefully lapped it up, generating rumors that the pair could have been dealing with each other. All along, no one suspected that Best was already a taken woman.

10. She Experienced a Bloodcurdling Shock

Just as her star was on the rise, Best made a devastating discovery. Back in Oklahoma, her mother died under the worst circumstances imaginable. Instead of going quietly in her bed, Willia had been murdered at the tender age of 35, from a gunshot wound. Even worse, the incident was a sinister omen for Best’s dark deeds decades later.

11. She Repressed Her Pain

In the months after her mother’s violent passing, Best stuffed all her emotions inside, and instead focused the stardom she was certain she would win. In the mid-40s, she toured around with the Goldwyn Girls to boost morale for men fighting in WWI. Best even managed to snag the attention of famed bandleader Kay Kyser, who brought her along on his own tour…but more tragedy was ahead.

12. She Had a Cruel Breakup

Best might have been gaining attention in the press, but her life was falling apart. Her secret marriage to Balzer disintegrated, and within a year of their union she sought out a divorce. Painfully, barely anyone knew Best was going through the divorce, and she had to deal with her heartache all alone. Although, not for long.

13. She Rebounded Hard

Best wasn’t a girl who wanted to stay single, and almost immediately after her separation from Balzer, she jumped into the arms of a man named Willis E. Hunt, a yacht salesman whose biggest claim to fame was his ex-wife, the curvy actress Carole Landis, AKA “The Chest.” Yep, this guy seems like a stand-up rebound, Deannie.

14. She Got Left at the Altar

Best wanted to make a fresh start with Hunt, but it was actually more of a false one. Soon after meeting, Hunt got down on one knee and proposed to the starlet—only fate had crueler plans. Within a few more months, the couple broke off their engagement, and Deannie Best was once more all alone in an utterly heartless Hollywood.

15. She Starred in an Iconic Film

Romance wasn’t the only arena where Best was toiling away. After her success with the Goldwyn Girls, she was determined to make it as an actress, and even earned small parts, first in Wonder Man and then in the now-classic The Big Sleep, featuring superstars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Sadly, The Big Sleep didn’t exactly turn out to be Deannie’s big break.

16. Studios Erased Her Name

Best’s role of “Waitress” in The Big Sleep was sadly humble, and she didn’t even earn herself a credit in the iconic film. The same thing happened again in 1946 when she appeared in Three Little Girls in Blue. After moving to Hollywood so young, with bright eyes and big dreams, Best was discouraged and disillusioned. So she started developing some unhealthy habits.

17. She Was Bedfellows With Starlets

Best may not have been on the A-list, but on the dating scene, she was climbing the ranks. In 1947, she began to date Joseph Stephen Crane, an actor and restauranteur known for wooing starlets like Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, and Lana Turner. But this impressive romance history didn’t keep Best’s eye from wandering even more.

18. She Had an Infamous Lover

Best’s dalliance with Crane seemed to open the floodgates, and she started dating a succession of men who were very, very bad for her. Shortly after her tryst with Crane ended, she got into bed with director Howard Hawks. Maybe she hoped this would help her career, but the Hawks affair didn’t move the needle. So then she turned very naughty.

19. She Had a Type

Best was on a tear, but one of her next affairs was her worst idea yet. In the late 40s, she struck up a relationship with the actor and singer John Carroll. There was just one big problem: Carroll was already married to actress Lucille Ryman. Even so, the couple made no secret of their midnight meetings, and the tabloids claimed that Carroll was going to divorce Ryman for the starlet. He never did.

20. She Got a Big Break

In 1948, Best gave herself a rude awakening and started trying to get her career back on track. That year, producers finally cast her in a lead role, playing secretary Phyllis Powers in the mystery thriller Shanghai Chest. Best played a pivotal part in the opening scene of the film, and even made it onto the movie’s poster. Things were looking up—but not for long.

21. She Had a May-December Romance

The same year that Shanghai Chest came out, Deannie Best also fell in “true love” once more. The man was Albert Pearlson, a Hollywood attorney more than a decade older than her. He was also a child of divorce, and had also struggled to find success. It seemed like a match made in heaven, but Best wasn’t exactly the luckiest in love…

22. She Made a Rash Decision

Like everything Best did, she jumped headlong into her relationship with Pearlson, despite the warning signs. Case in point: When Pearlson suddenly proposed to her on a trip to Las Vegas, she delightedly said “yes,” instead of, you know, deciding to think things over this time and take it slow. And that was just the beginning of the scandal. 

23. She Had a Quickie Wedding

Just like Best wasn’t one for traditional dating, she also wasn’t one for long engagements. Well, with Pearlson, she really outdid herself. Right after his proposal, the pair decided it was a great idea to just get married in Vegas mere hours later, which is the go-to choice for rational lovers everywhere. And when they returned to Los Angeles, the honeymoon was over in the blink of an eye.

24. She Had an Embarrassing Split

After their quickie marriage in Vegas, Best and Pearlson came home and didn’t even move in together. Their lack of commitment caused the union to suffer, and just a couple of weeks after they’d impulsively pledged their lives to each other, the newlyweds separated, then divorced in 1949. Well, case closed on another failed relationship, right? Nope.

25. She Had a Stalker

Heartbroken from yet more evidence that her love life was completely cursed, Best returned home to her family down south to detox from Hollywood and get back on her feet. Then an unexpected visitor showed up at her door. Pearlson had followed Best all the way across states to win her back. Somehow, the daring gesture worked, and they remarried.

26. She Escaped Hollywood

Deannie Best had struggled for years in Hollywood. With only a few minor roles to her name, Best made the difficult decision to put an end to her career. Now on her second marriage to Pearlson, she decided to direct her efforts there and become a housewife. Well, you can take the girl out of Hollywood, but you can’t take the Hollywood drama out of the girl.

27. She Suffered Alone

In truth, even while married to Pearlson, Best never learned how to trust anyone, and she had good reason not to. During her short split from her Pearlson, Best landed in the hospital for undisclosed issues in November, 1948, without either her husband or any of her former lovers to take care of her. We all walk this life alone, but Deannie Best had a harder path than others.

28. She Lost a Child

Soon after Best decided to quit acting, she got some extremely happy news: She was expecting a child. Sadly, crushing heartbreak was waiting in the wings. In the fall of 1949, when she was just a few months pregnant, Best suffered a miscarriage. While they remained together for five more years, she and Pearlson never quite recovered from the tragic loss.

29. She Moved on Fast

On Valentine’s Day 1953, Best and Pearlson called it quits for good. No, really this time. And what had Deannie Best learned after her longest relationship to date? Apparently, nothing. It’s very likely she was already in love with a new man at this time, a soldier named James Neil Kennedy; Best and Kennedy got married just 10 days after her divorce went through. That’s not all, though.

30. She Went Through a Double Tragedy

Best and Kennedy quickly settled into married life, and we mean very quickly. The former starlet immediately got pregnant again—and once again, she was in for tragedy. In June of 1953, their child was born prematurely and didn’t survive. Best’s marriage didn’t survive the loss, either, and she had divorced Kennedy by 1957. Can this girl catch a break?

31. She Had a Miracle

Best was just 30 years old and had already been divorced three times—well, four if you count Pearlson twice. She seemed to be doomed to repeat the same old patterns, until at long last, there was relief. In 1957, Best got pregnant and finally gave birth to a healthy daughter named Dru, whose father was either Kennedy or another fling.

32. She Was a Scandal-Monger

Just because Best quit acting didn’t mean that she left the tabloid cycle. She may have married a lawyer and then a soldier, but she still had one weakness: actors. Following the birth of her daughter, she went out with younger Hollywood stars Lang Jeffries and Michael Dante. The relationships didn’t last, and the next time that she made it to the papers, the stories were infinitely more scandalous.

33. She Got a Second Chance

In the 1960s, drama came calling again for Deannie Best in the form of an old flame: Her long-lost ex-fiance Willis Hunt. Deannie could never resist a reconciliation story, and the pair reunited and gave it another shot, actually marrying this time in 1965. Okay, okay, it’s not the way I would do it, but I don’t begrudge the poor girl a little happiness. It’s just that it wouldn’t last.

34. She Had a Temper

Deannie and Hunt had a long, twisted road back to each other, and neither of them were squeaky clean when they arrived. While Best had four divorces under her belt, Hunt now had five. But that wasn’t the worst part. Both Best and Hunt, beaten down by life, had developed quick tempers to go with their lost dreams. In other words, this doesn’t go well.

35. She Looked for Love in the Wrong Places

It might all have been so different for Deannie Best. Shortly after her fling with John Carroll ended, a struggling actress by the name of Marilyn Monroe moved into Carroll’s home. After she hit it big, Monroe considered Carroll and his wife integral to her success. Maybe if Best had looked for a mentor instead of a lover, her story would’ve ended differently…but we’ll never know now.

36. She Made a Bad Match

While Best and Albert Pearlson were briefly separated, Deannie didn’t sit at home like a good little girl. Instead, she took up with the recently divorced film noir actor Brian Donlevy. He wasn’t exactly the best choice in rebounds—his first wife had actually divorced him on the grounds of “cruelty”—but then again, when did Best make good choices in men?

37. Critics Noticed Her

When Best starred in Shanghai Chest, the film was sadly a flop and went nowhere for the young starlet. However, newspaper critics still took notice of her and praised her performance as the secretary of a judge who gets implicated in the man’s violent end. It’s a small scrap of what could have been, but it was a promising one nonetheless.

38. Her Husband Was Terrifying

Though Best and Hunt lived in newlywed bliss for the first year, it wasn’t long before she discovered her new husband’s chilling dark side. Sure, Best had a fiery temper, but it was nothing like Hunt’s. He liked to drink, and after he drank, things would often get physical. Indeed, his aggressive tendencies had caused his previous divorces. But “divorce” isn’t how this story ends.

39. She Had a Notorious Fight

Soon enough, Hunt and Best were engaging in intense, rage-fill arguments with each other—and one night, it all went too far. Around Christmas in 1969, Best and Hunt were at it again, this time fighting about how to discipline their now-teenaged daughter Dru. According to Dru’s testimony, her father’s last words were, “Stop, I don’t want to fight you.” And then chaos broke loose.

40. She Attacked Her Husband

There are just a few things we know for sure about that night. When the argument escalated, Best stabbed her own husband with a butcher knife. As Dru watched her adoptive father “crinkle and fall” to the ground, the man exclaimed, “Oh my God…Dru.” The ambulances then roared in and took Hunt to the hospital, all while the former starlet’s fate hung in the balance.

41. She Was a Murderer

At the hospital, a team of doctors performed surgery to save Willis E. Hunt and determine if Deannie Best’s horrific act would be cold-blooded murder or just an attempt. As always, luck was never on Best’s side. Hunt succumbed to his injuries before the night was over, passing on December 14, 1969 and throwing Best’s fate to the wolves.

42. She Had the Trial of the Century

Following Hunt’s passing at the hospital, law enforcement detained Best and charged her with manslaughter. Soon enough, reporters swarmed in for Hollywood’s trial of the century. After all, it had all the ingredients of the film noirs Best tried so hard to star in: A man was dead, a has-been was in custody, and the only witness was Best’s teenage daughter Dru. The court case more than delivered.

43. Her Daughter Betrayed Her

During her mother’s trial, lawyers called Dru to the stand to testify—and she painted a truly disturbing picture. Dru claimed that her mother had been in a “rage” that night. She said that Best even had slapped her and ripped the telephone out of the wall before turning her violent fury on her husband. And Best’s intentions were nothing short of murder.

44. She May Have Planned It All

Most of the trial revolved around whether Best had premeditated her sin, and her daughter gave some damning evidence on that account. Dru claimed that just before the deed, her mother had said, “I want to kill you. I don’t care if you have to spend the rest of my life in the penitentiary.” Of course, words are only words…but then there was the deed itself.

45. She Showed Brutal Force

Everyone agrees that Deannie Best stabbed her own husband, but the how of it is more gruesome than people know. After grabbing a butcher’s knife, Best stabbed Hunt twice in the chest, using enough strength to cut one of his ribs in half. For Dru and the prosecutors, this was an open-and-shut case against Best. But the actress had her own account of that catastrophic night.

46. She Plead Innocence

After illustrating her husband’s violent side, Best claimed self-defense, and even said that Hunt had been the first one to grab the knife. In fear for her life, she had struggled against him and hurt him by accident. It was a classic strategy, but Dru’s testimony against her own mother had been utterly incriminating. The question remained: Would the jury go for it?

47. The Jury Forgave Her

Following testimony by both Best and her own daughter, the local judge dismissed the jury to deliberate on the case. They spent eight hours discussing the evidence and going over the testimony. Then they came to a jaw-dropping final decision. Despite the brutal nature of the accusation, the jury found Deannie Best not guilty on November 11, 1970.

48. She Paid a High Price

After hearing that she was now officially innocent, Best joyfully embraced the friends and family who had come to support her in the courtroom during the trial. But did she embrace the daughter who’d testified against her? We don’t know whether the pair made up with each other, and there aren’t really any records of what happened to Dru after her mother’s trial.

49. She Gave Her Final Words

Following the reading of the verdict, Best had asked to address the court. Her words were heartbreaking. She continued to maintain her innocence, and told them that she’d been telling the truth the entire time. As she left, she stopped to speak to the reporters who had gathered to document the controversial case, telling them, “I just want to go home and rearrange my life.”

50. She Disappeared

After a sensational case like the one she’d just been through, Deannie Best could’ve feasibly used the attention to restart her Hollywood career, but she actually meant what she said to reporters. Despite the high-profile nature of the trial, Best lived the next three decades in obscurity before passing on in May 2000, at the age of 73.

Without this final, violent chapter in Best’s life, it’s likely that her name would have faded from Hollywood histories. Instead, we remember her as a dark femme fatale who just might have gotten away with murder. One thing is for sure: When it comes to the twisted saga of Deannie Best, there are far more questions than there are answers.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17


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