Actor Carole Landis Commits Suicide During Affair with Rex Harrison Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Film actor Carole Landis killed herself after her lover, film and stage actor Rex Harrison, refused to leave his wife, actor Lilli Palmer, for her. Harrison afterward denied that either he or the affair itself had caused Landis’s death and went on to a long distinguished film career.

Summary of Event

Carole Landis seemed to have it all—beauty, brains (she also was a writer), and the ability to sing her own songs in musicals without her voice having to be dubbed. However, she was unlucky in love, with four failed marriages and numerous affairs that led nowhere. One affair was with Rex Harrison, whose own sexual peccadilloes were legendary (he was known as Sexy Rexy). Married at the time to his second wife, actor Lilli Palmer, Harrison nonetheless carried on a liaison with Landis but refused to divorce Palmer to marry Landis. [kw]Actor Carole Landis Commits Suicide During Affair with Rex Harrison (July 5, 1948) [kw]Suicide During Affair with Rex Harrison, Actor Carole Landis Commits (July 5, 1948) [kw]Landis Commits Suicide During Affair with Rex Harrison, Actor Carole (July 5, 1948) Landis, Carole Harrison, Rex Marriage;Carole Landis[Landis] Landis, Carole Harrison, Rex Marriage;Carole Landis[Landis] [g]United States;July 5, 1948: Actor Carole Landis Commits Suicide During Affair with Rex Harrison[00810] [c]Murder and suicide;July 5, 1948: Actor Carole Landis Commits Suicide During Affair with Rex Harrison[00810] [c]Sex;July 5, 1948: Actor Carole Landis Commits Suicide During Affair with Rex Harrison[00810] [c]Hollywood;July 5, 1948: Actor Carole Landis Commits Suicide During Affair with Rex Harrison[00810] [c]Popular culture;July 5, 1948: Actor Carole Landis Commits Suicide During Affair with Rex Harrison[00810] Palmer, Lilli

Carole Landis.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The youngest of five children, Landis came from a broken home and lost two of her brothers to tragic accidents during her childhood. After her family, led by her mother, moved to California, Landis became fascinated with the glamour of Hollywood. As a youngster, she gave an impromptu singing performance at an amateur-night contest, began placing high in beauty contests, and organized a short-lived football team for girls in high school. At the age of fifteen, she eloped with her first husband and remarried him some time after the first marriage was annulled, but the second marriage did not last either. She also dropped out of school at the age of fifteen, wanting to devote herself to becoming a star.

After she saved money from jobs as a sales girl, waitress, and movie-theater usher, Landis took a bus north to San Francisco, changed her name, and dyed her hair blond. She began landing jobs as a dancer (her first job was as part of a hula-dance duo), singer, and small-role player in films, including A Star is Born (1937). Musical choreographer Busby Berkeley was sufficiently impressed with her to help get her a contract with Warner Bros. Berkeley later proposed marriage but changed his mind because of vague rumors that she had been a call girl when she first came to Hollywood.

Landis next performed in a stage show starring Bob Hope. Moving to Republic Pictures, she had leading roles in two small Westerns (one starring a young John Wayne) and a twelve-chapter serial. However, her breakthrough role came as a cave girl, wearing a skimpy costume that showed off her fabulous figure, in the Hal Roach production One Million B.C. (1940). It was a low-budget film (the prehistoric beasts were magnified lizards) but was nominated for Oscars for special effects and musical score.

Landis married again in 1940, but the marriage ended within the year. Among her high-profile escorts around this time were Charles Chaplin, Victor Mature, George Montgomery, and Cesar Romero, whom she later described as her favorite leading man.

During World World War II[World War 02];and Carole Landis[Landis] War II, Landis took part in war-bond rallies, flew with the Civilian Air Patrol, and visited soldiers at the Hollywood Canteen. In 1942 and 1943, she joined actor Kay Francis, comedian Martha Raye, and dancer Mitzi Mayfair on trips to Europe and North Africa to entertain U.S. soldiers. Landis found time for her third marriage, to a former air squadron commander in London. Back in the United States in 1943, she was honored as having traveled more miles and done more entertaining for the war effort than any female celebrity of the time.

Landis wrote a book about her wartime adventures, Four Jills in a Jeep, which was first serialized in the magazine The Saturday Evening Post. In 1944, the book was made into a film in which she, Francis, Raye, and Mayfair played themselves, but the picture did lackluster business. Later that year, Landis again went on tour with a USO troupe, led by Jack Benny, to the South Pacific. She became ill with amoebic dysentery and malaria and nearly died of pneumonia. She never fully regained her health and, later that year, separated from husband number three. They divorced the following year.

In 1945, Landis appeared in a musical comedy on Broadway theater Broadway along with future novelist Jacqueline Susann. She and Susann developed an intimate relationship, and Landis showered Susann with gifts that included jewelry and a mink coat. Susann’s best-selling novel Valley of the Dolls (1966) features an actor who commits suicide by overdosing on pills. Some readers believe the character is based on Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn Monroe but others suggest she was based on Landis. In the 1967 film version of the novel, the character was played by Tate, Sharon Sharon Tate, an actor who was murdered with four others by the notorious Manson family in 1969.

Susann introduced Landis to a millionaire Broadway actor and producer named Schmidlapp, W. Horace W. Horace Schmidlapp, whom Landis married near the end of the year. He was her last husband (they were in the process of divorce when she died). In the summer of 1947, Landis met British actor Harrison, who was then married to the second of what would be six wives—German actor Palmer. Landis and Harrison, however, did not let their marriages stand in the way of their passionate affair. In 1948, columnist Walter Winchell predicted that Harrison would eventually become Landis’s fifth husband, causing public interest in the affair to peak. With her career fading in Hollywood, Landis went to England to make some pictures, and Harrison followed with his family. Eventually catching on to the affair, Palmer took her and Harrison’s three-year-old son and returned to New York.

Landis and Harrison reconnected upon their returns to the United States, although Harrison consistently denied the existence of an affair when queried by reporters. The two met for dinner on the Fourth of July in 1948, and Landis learned that Harrison would be returning to England to do a play. After Harrison left about nine o’clock, Landis filled a small suitcase with letters he had written to her and placed it outside the house of another actor they both knew. She returned home, drank several cocktails, wrote a note to her mother apologizing for what she was going to be putting her through, and wrote a note to her maid to check on her pet cat’s sore paw. Landis took enough barbiturates to have been fatal five times over, according to the autopsy. She was just twenty-nine years old.

After returning to Los Angeles, Harrison tried to telephone Landis several times the next morning, then came to her house early in the afternoon and found Landis’s body. He informed Landis’s maid and then left the house. It was the maid who called authorities. Harrison did not call them until more than one hour after he discovered Landis’s body. Someone gave Harrison the suitcase of letters that Landis had collected. Harrison promptly burned them.

Rejoined by his wife a few days later, Harrison told reporters there was no love affair between him and Landis and that they were merely friends. Palmer proclaimed her love for Harrison and said they had a happy marriage. The coroner’s inquest was covered by reporters, photographers, and even radio announcers. Harrison testified that he had no idea why Landis would have killed herself. That Landis had attempted suicide in the past tended to support the view that her death was indeed a suicide. Thousands of people, including Harrison and Palmer, attended her funeral on July 10. Harrison and Palmer slipped out a side door as the ceremony was ending to avoid the press and public.


Although Landis, at the time of her death, had been suffering from depression and a fading career, either or both of which could have contributed to her suicide, the public blamed Harrison for her death. Harrison lost his film contract with Twentieth Century Fox, but his career did not slow down, despite public opinion. He went on to win many acting honors, including for his performance on Broadway and also in the film version of the musical My Fair Lady. He and Palmer divorced in 1957 and he married four more times. Adding a further twist to the scandal of Landis’s suicide by overdose was the suicide of Harrison’s fifth wife, Rachel Roberts. She also killed herself with an overdose of sleeping pills. Landis, Carole Harrison, Rex Marriage;Carole Landis[Landis]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fleming, E. J. Carole Landis: A Tragic Life In Hollywood. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2005. The definitive book chronicling the life and career of the beautiful but troubled Carole Landis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harrison, Rex. A Damned Serious Business. New York: Bantam Books, 1991. The British actor’s autobiography, covering his professional career on stage and screen but with little information on his personal life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walker, Alexander. Fatal Charm: The Life of Rex Harrison. London: Orion, 2002. A balanced treatment of Harrison’s achievements as an actor. Also explores his affairs, his unfaithfulness to all six of his wives, and the emotional injury he inflicted on the women in his life.

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Categories: History