Stories about child actresses seldom have happy endings, and Linda Darnell’s case is no different. Darnell grew up adored by Hollywood but soon learned its many dangers. No matter how hard she tried, happiness always seemed to evade her. Before she even got a chance to turn her life around, the “Girl With The Perfect Face” met an end so horrific—it’s unforgettable.
1. She Grew Up In A Toxic Environment
Darnell was born into a big family, but her parents’ marriage was an unhappy one. Her mother, Margaret “Pearl” Brown, had two children from a previous marriage before she married Darnell’s father, Calvin Roy Darnell. The couple had four other kids together, including Darnell, and the crowded house was full of petty rivalries and spats.
Darnell’s mother, especially, wasn’t any help when it came to alleviating the toxic state of their home.
2. Her Mother Played Favorites
Although little Darnell was a shy child in a big family, her mother Pearl became obsessed with turning her daughter into a movie star, and she was willing to do anything to make that happen. Indeed, she started to completely ignore her other children in order to focus on Darnell’s career. Darnell, on the other hand, had other ideas.
3. She Never Wanted To Be A Star
Darnell was still too young to know what she wanted to do with her life when her mother decided on her future for her. Perhaps worst of all, Darnell never even believed in herself. As she once said, “I had no great talent, and I didn’t want to be a movie star particularly, but Mother had always wanted it for herself, and I guess she attained it through me.” For the sake of her mother’s dream, Darnell paid a terrible price.
4. She Didn’t Belong
A childhood spent looking for the limelight left poor Darnell lonely and isolated. For one, she had trouble making friends at school because she didn’t have much in common with her peers. She never attended her high school graduation or university. Instead, Darnell worked on stage to support her family…and even the industry started to get concerned.
5. She Grew Up Too Fast
Although Darnell was already a veteran stage actor by the age of 13, her mother Pearl always wanted more. So when the girl turned 14, Pearl tried to turn her into a film actress. Incredibly, even the notoriously immoral Hollywood studios thought that Darnell was “too young,” and turned her away. For a while, that is. A year later, they signed her on….and the downward spiral began.
6. She Was An Instant Sensation
At 15 years old, the naive and vulnerable Darnell moved into a Hollywood apartment all by her lonesome to try to become a silver screen siren, just like so many other girls of her time. As it happened, Darnell got lucky and got a big break: Her first film, Hotel for Women, was a huge success, and the teenager officially became an up-and-coming actress. But there was just one problem.
7. She Lied About Her Age
Darnell might have been a studio actress at 15, but many producers still considered her too young for the sultry parts she auditioned for. To combat this, Darnell initially claimed she was actually 17, and her studio bumped her up another two years and publicized her as a full-grown 19 year old. Yes, this was all incredibly gross—but somehow, it wasn’t the worst part.
You see, the studios knew she was underage and decided to lie for her anyway. For Darnell, this was one heck of a slippery slope.
8. She Was Young And Naive
Being shoved into the entertainment industry at such a young age meant that Darnell was an easy target for exploitation. A columnist wrote about Darnell that she was, “so young, so immature and so naive in her ideas.” She wasn’t great at differentiating friend from foe, and by the time she recognized her role in this game of exploitation, it was already far too late.
9. Her Boss Was A Creep
Darnell blindly trusted her boss, studio executive Darryl F. Zanuck, who cast her in her first film. She didn’t realize until much later that Zanuck harbored an unhealthy obsession for her. In truth, he was a total creep and pursued Darnell even though he knew she was underage. He was also expertly manipulative, casting her in good roles whenever she proved pleasant and agreeable.
Although Darnell fought her way out of the dark, she didn’t escape unscathed. Working in Hollywood was an education all on its own.
10. Her Looks Were Deceiving
Darnell’s gorgeous features were both a blessing and a curse. She never had to plod her way through the so-called “awkward phase” of her teen years because, well, she was never awkward. In fact, publications dubbed her “the girl with the perfect face” for her Latin features as well as her dark hair and eyes. Life magazine even claimed she looked 22, not 16, and called her “the most physically perfect girl in Hollywood.”
And with her grown-up looks it’s no wonder that she landed some very grown-up roles.
11. She Took On Mature Roles
In 1939, Darnell starred alongside heartthrob Tyrone Power in Day-Time Wife, playing (you guessed it) Power’s spouse even though she was still a teenager and he was almost a decade older than her. It was only her second film, but it set the tone for her entire exploitative career as an ingenue. Zanuck, who already looked at her with lustful eyes, took this chance to exploit her even further.
12. She Was Part Of A Popular Onscreen Couple
In 1940, Darnell starred alongside Tyrone Power again in Brigham Young, a film that owed its success largely to the two being a very popular on-screen pair. Zanuck, who knew how popular the on-screen couple had become, added extra romantic scenes between them to entice viewers (and, most probably, himself). Repulsive as this was, Zanuck’s move paid off, and the film became an instant success, catapulting Darnell to brand new heights.
13. She Made A Fortune
Brigham Young was reportedly 20th Century Fox’s most expensive film when it was released. Its success made Darnell into a high-profile actress, which meant she was making the big bucks. After shooting this stand-out film she was reportedly making more money than most bank officials. But Darnell’s desirable youth wasn’t going to last forever.
14. She Dealt With Self-Image Issues
Being in the public eye from a young age did a lot of damage to Darnell’s confidence. The “most physically perfect girl in Hollywood” grew up to be distrustful of others, and of their compliments. She explained, “In pictures you’re built up by everyone…everyone says you’re wonderful. It gives you a false sense of security.”
And just as Darnell feared, this security really was short-lived.
15. She Fell Out Of Favor
Just a few years after her debut, Darnell suddenly found herself struggling to find work. The magic had faded, and just being young and pretty wasn’t going to cut it anymore. On one hand, 20th Century Fox struggled to find her new and exciting roles. And on the other, she was becoming old news to the silver screen audience. It also didn’t help that her boss was a pesky speed bump on her path to success.
16. Her Boss Sabotaged Her
As Darnell got older, Zanuck became bolder. When Darnell continued to reject his advances, he responded by standing in the way of her career. Just as the public lost interest in Darnell, Zanuck did too, and he stopped considering her for roles altogether. But if Zanuck was a toxic figure in Darnell’s life, her mother Pearl still had him beat.
17. Her Mother Was A Known Menace
Even after Darnell made a name for herself in Hollywood, her mother was still nagging her and watching her every career move. To those in the know in Hollywood, Pearl was Darnell’s “overbearing” and “possessive” mother. Moreover, as if her reputation wasn’t bad enough, in 1940, Pearl made a shocking accusation against her husband that turned Darnell’s life into a nightmare.
18. Her Family Became Unbearable
In 1940, just as Darnell’s star was rising, her mother did the unthinkable: Pearl accused her husband of having an incestuous relationship with one of his stepdaughters. The claim tore Darnell’s family apart, and in 1942, unable to handle the hostilities between her parents anymore, she took her younger sister and left home, never to return again. Sadly, she made one huge mistake…
She sorely underestimated her mother’s thirst for vengeance.
19. Her Mother Betrayed Her
When Darnell tried to leave her family’s toxic drama behind, her mother decided to seek a brutal revenge. After grooming Darnell to be a star all those years, Pearl wasn’t willing to let her walk away. If she couldn’t control her daughter, the least she could do was burn her reputation to the ground. She took the news of their family drama and delivered it to the press who welcomed this hot gossip with open arms.
Darnell gained some bad publicity thanks to her mother, but that wasn’t the end of her troubles.
20. Her Life Was In Danger
By 1942, Darnell still carried the weight of the world on her shoulders. Life even got a bit scarier when an unknown individual started blackmailing the actress, demanding that she pay them $2,000 or face bodily harm. Darnell’s studio enlisted the help of the FBI to find the culprit, only to reveal a high schooler with too much time on their hands.
In truth, Darnell’s real problems all stemmed from her toxic workplace.
21. She Rebelled Against Her Employer
By 1943, Darnell had become vocal about how she was sick of the tepid, unchallenging roles her studio was giving her to play. Obviously, this caused issues between her and 20th Century Fox, and the studio decided to “punish” her by giving her exactly what she didn’t want: They loaned her out to a different studio for a supporting role in a B movie.
However, they never expected this so-called “punishment” to backfire.
22. Her “Punishment” Was A Breath Of Fresh Air
The B movie Darnell’s studio signed her up for was the 1943 film, City Without Men, and in a delightful twist, Darnell actually enjoyed the experience. She felt respected in this new environment, and the studio she worked with treated her as a reputable actress and not as a child, something she had grown used to experiencing with 20th Century Fox.
Sadly, Fox saw her contentment and rushed in to crush it.
23. Her Career Was In Decline
When casting Darnell in a B movie wasn’t enough to teach her a lesson, Fox resorted to other forms of punishment and suspended the star in April 1943. Even after the suspension ended, Darnell, who usually took lead roles, could only play second fiddle, and that was if she was cast in anything at all. Then again, there were other, shadier motives behind this suspension…
24. She Married A Man Twice Her Age
In April 1943, Darnell eloped with Peverell Marley, one of her cameramen, and nobody—least of all her creepy Fox boss Zanuck—was happy about the marriage. Indeed, Zanuck very likely took out his jealousy on his old favorite by viciously suspending her…Then again, the naysayers might have had a point: At 42, Marley was old enough to be the 19-year-old Darnell’s father. And that’s not all.
25. Her Husband Was A Bad Influence
On top of the big age gap, Marley also introduced Darnell to bad habits that changed her for the worse. The 42-year-old was a heavy drinker, and under his influence, Darnell developed drinking problems as well. It got so bad that people started to notice a shocking change in the actress: The previously mild-mannered Darnell was now throwing temper tantrums. Not, only that, but her coveted figure started gaining weight.
But despite the physical and mental toll her marriage took, Darnell’s career was about to take a sharp turn for the better.
26. Her Image Experienced A Loss Of Innocence
In 1944, Darnell finally managed to achieve the thing she had been longing for: an image change. The character Darnell played in Summer Storm was nothing like the good-natured and innocent roles she was used to playing. Olga Kuzminichna Urbenin was a seductress and a femme fatale, and Darnell welcomed the challenge of playing her with open arms.
27. She Had An Affair With Iron Man’s Inspiration
After successfully accomplishing an image rehab with Summer Storm Darnell starred in all kinds of films, including westerns. She was also getting adventurous with her love life. During the shooting of a certain western titled My Darling Clementine, she fell in love with a wealthy womanizer by the name Howard Hughes. But Hughes had a terrible reputation and when Darnell fell for him, she also stepped right into the path of oncoming danger.
28. She Knew He Was Bad News
Hughes was notoriously known for his terrible dating history. His track record included a long list of the most famous names in Hollywood, and it didn’t matter to him if the women he dated already had partners. In fact, he himself entertained multiple women whenever he could. As such, Darnell’s close friend, actress Ann Miller, warned her about Hughes.
Having experience with Hughes herself, Miller told her that Hughes had a short attention span when it came to women and that he’d probably dump her in no time. But of course, Darnell was far too stubborn to take this advice to heart.
29. Her Lover Wasn’t That Invested
As expected, Hughes ended up breaking Darnell’s heart. She was willing to divorce her husband to marry him, but Hughes didn’t want to take their relationship that far and rejected any of her serious advances. Ouch. In the end, Darnell had to shamefully return to her husband…and to call that homecoming awkward would be an understatement.
30. She Worked On An Awkward Production
Darnell had been asking for more challenging roles for a long time and with 1947’s Forever Amber, the studio gave her just what she wanted. The catch? Not only did she have to work under the notoriously intimidating director Otto Preminger, but she also had to work with her cameraman husband Marley. Having recently cheated on him, this was a recipe for disaster.
Predictably, it was one tense set—and a demanding one too.
31. She Wore A New Mask
Darnell took the role of Amber very seriously. To prepare, she underwent strict dieting and voice training to learn to speak with an English accent. She also had to change her signature Latin image and dark hair because Amber was an English redhead. Indeed, playing Amber took a lot more out of Darnell than she could afford.
32. She Bit Off More Than She Could Chew
The shooting of Forever Amber took a heavy toll on Darnell’s health. During filming, she became very sick as a result of the heavy dieting and overexertion of her body. She also fainted twice on set. Even worse, the film’s reception was very disappointing, which left Darnell crushed. On the bright side, however, her marriage crisis was averted…for now.
33. She Became A Mother
Turns out, working together was the couple’s therapy Darnell and Marley needed, and after the filming of Forever Amber, the couple reconciled and even decided to become parents. In the hopes of cultivating a new start for their relationship (never a good idea), the couple adopted a baby girl in 1948 and named her Charlotte Mildred Marley, or Lola for short.
But just as things seemed to be looking up, Darnell deceived her husband once again.
34. She Fell For Another Jerk
One undeniable fact about the actress Linda Darnell is that she had terrible taste in men. Not long after adopting her daughter with Marley, Darnell fell for Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the director of her most critically acclaimed film, A Letter To Three Wives. Mankiewicz was also married at that time to Austrian actress Rose Stradner, but that didn’t seem to pose an issue for him, or for Darnell.
Once again, Darnell got her divorce papers ready, and once again she faced betrayal.
35. She Thought He Was The One
Darnell emotionally invested herself in Mankiewicz—and it was an awful mistake. Even after the man made it clear he wouldn’t leave his wife for her, Darnell still stayed with him for six years, and even called him the “great love of her life.” As for Mankiewicz, let’s just say he viewed their relationship very differently.
36. Her Lover Wouldn’t Claim Her
When it came to defining their turbulent relationship, Darnell and Mankiewicz were not on the same page. Not only did he never publicly admit to his affair with her, but he also called her a “marvelous girl with very terrifying personal problems.” Were these “personal problems” caused by Mankiewicz’s callous disregard for her? Probably. Were they indeed “terrifying?” Absolutely.
37. She Tried To Take Her Own Life
The emotional toll from her relationship with Mankiewicz put Darnell’s mental health in jeopardy. She fell into a spiraling depression and had to go to therapy in 1949. Later the same year, Mankiewicz left her to focus on his own career, and as a result, she almost took her own life. She wasn’t free of him until the mid-1950s…and by then, her own marriage was past the point of no return.
38. Her Husband Tried To Bankrupt Her
Darnell agreed to separate from her husband Marley on July 19, 1950, but there was a heavy price to pay—literally. Marley didn’t make a fuss out of her relationship with Mankiewicz, he “only” asked for a very pricey settlement. Darnell was to pay him $125,000, an amount that almost bankrupted her. Darnell refused to let Marley get away with this scot-free, so she decided to get her revenge.
39. She Gave Him Five Minutes Of Hell
A year after their settlement, Darnell filed for divorce from Marley and added some vengeful flair to the lawsuit. During a five-minute hearing, she accused her husband of being “rude” and “critical” towards her and her family, and in the end, she finally wrangled the divorce of her dreams: She won custody over their daughter and Marley had no choice but to pay child support.
Truly, like mother, like daughter. In fact, Darnell’s marriages all ended up mirroring her parents’ relationship.
40. She Ended Her Longest Partnership
The early 1950s saw Darnell appear in less and less noteworthy films, but in 1952, another great shift she’d been anticipating finally happened: Her contract with 20th Century Fox ended. Brimming with excitement, Darnell believed that her newly acquired freedom would allow her to build a career in Europe. After 13 years, she was finally ready to spread her wings and fly.
However, she soon learned that venturing out on her own wasn’t going to be as easy as she’d thought.
41. She Received A Rude Awakening
Soon after leaving 20th Century Fox, Darnell had an immediate change of heart and came to resent the studio for letting her go instead of holding on to her. Granted, this probably had a lot to do with the fact that she couldn’t get work anywhere else: “I thought in a little while I’d get offers from other studios, but not many came along.”
Riddled with uncertainty and insecurity, Darnell ended up making yet another rash decision.
42. Her Second Marriage Had A Detrimental Flaw
In 1954, Darnell married Philip Liebmann, a wealthy New York brewery heir, but she clearly hadn’t thought this one through. The couple soon learned they were fundamentally incompatible. For one, Darnell realized that although she felt drawn to Liebmann’s deep pockets, she wasn’t actually physically attracted to him. Liebmann, of course, found Darnell’s looks very attractive, and in the end, they decided on a compromise to satisfy both parties.
43. Her Plans Went Awry
Darnell and Liebmann transformed their marriage into a business arrangement—and it was absolutely disastrous. In exchange for remaining his wife, Liebmann agreed to support the actress, who had passed her financial prime. Liebmann was a very docile husband, putting up with Darnell’s bad temper and buying her presents to appease her.
Unfortunately for him, this just wasn’t enough.
44. Her Pride Ended Her Marriage
Her career might have been in decline, but Darnell found out that she wasn’t actually desperate enough to stay with a man who tried to buy her affection. Tired of her loveless marriage with Liebmann, Darnell filed for divorce on grounds of incompatibility. Liebmann, who was desperate to keep her, tried to convince her to stay by adopting a child.
Alas, not even a darling baby girl could change her mind. Darnell never looked back.
45. She Took What She Got
Darnell continued to struggle as an actress in the 50s and 60s. She went to Europe and starred in a few films that didn’t do much for her career. Returning to Hollywood, she accepted offers to appear in films from her past lovers—Hughes and Mankiewicz. She even went back to 20th Century Fox, which had, at that time, started venturing into television.
Her last stand as an actress saw her return to the stage…before fate forcibly put an end to her career.
46. Her Third Time Was Not A Charm
Darnell’s last marriage was to pilot Merle Roy Robertson in 1957, but the poor man came into her life at a difficult time. Darnell’s depression had crept up on her again, and she was falling back into old habits, drinking heavily and feeding her addiction. After going to rehab, she started to recover a little, but Robertson still had to suffer the brunt of her instability.
47. She Unironically Made A Cheater Pay
Taking a page out of her mother’s book one more time, Darnell made Robertson rue the day he ever met her. She took him to court and made a scene, asking for a divorce from him because he allegedly cheated on her with a Polish actress and even fathered an illegitimate child. Darnell left the courtroom victorious. But her new lease on life was tragically cut short.
48. She Was Sentimental
On April 8, 1965, Darnell was at the home of her former secretary, Jeanne Curtis, spending the evening with Jeanne and her daughter Patty. The trio stayed up late to watch Star Dust, one of Darnell’s early films that greatly boosted her popularity in the 40s. The film made Darnell nostalgic, and she started reminiscing to her hosts about the peak of her career in Hollywood.
Little did they know, this quiet and peaceful evening was about to see a devastating interruption.
49. She Saved Lives
Darnell spent the night at Curtis’ house, but at 3:30 am, little Patty woke her mother up complaining about feeling unusually hot. A fire had started in the living room where the three had sat the night before. Remaining calm, Darnell told Jeanne to get Patty out first through a window on the second floor. Patty broke her leg from the fall, but she made it to safety.
Jeanne prepared to jump down next. But when she looked back to make sure Darnell was right behind her, there was nobody there.
50. Her End Was Tragic
Too frightened to make the two-story-high jump, Darnell decided to ascend the stairs and make a dash towards the door. Sadly, she never made it. Firefighters found her on the living room floor with burns covering 80 percent of her body. They rushed her to the hospital but it was already too late. On April 10, at 41 years old, Darnell closed her eyes forever.
51. She Had One Final Wish
Before her death, Darnell had expressed a wish to have her ashes dispersed over a ranch in New Mexico. Therefore, when she passed, her loved ones had her body cremated and tried to put her to rest the way she had wanted, but things didn’t work out so well. The landowner of the New Mexico ranch refused to have Darnell’s ashes scattered on his land.
52. Her Daughter Said Goodbye
Darnell’s remains ended up staying in storage for ten years until her daughter, Lola, was old enough to decide what to do with them. In 1975, Lola finally put her mother to rest, reliving her grief all over again. She buried Darnell’s ashes at her husband’s family plot at the Union Hill Cemetery, Chester County, Pennsylvania.