Landis was born Frances Lillian Mary Ridste in Fairchild, Wisconsin. She was the youngest of five children (two of whom died in childhood) born to Clara (née Stentek), a Polish farmer’s daughter, and Norwegian-American Alfred Ridste, a “drifting railroad mechanic” who abandoned the family after Landis’ birth. According to Landis’ biographer E.J. Felming, circumstantial evidence supports that Landis was likely the biological child of her mother’s second husband, Charles Fenner. Fenner left Landis’ mother in April 1921 and remarried a few months later. In 1923, Landis’ family moved to San Bernardino, California. Landis mother worked menial jobs to support the family. At the age of 15, Landis dropped out of San Bernardino High School and set forth on a career path to show business. She started out as a hula dancer in a San Francisco nightclub and later sang with a dance band. She bleached her hair blonde and changed her name to “Carole Landis” after her favorite actress, Carole Lombard. After saving $100 she moved to Hollywood.
Landis made her film debut as an extra in the 1937 film A Star Is Born; she also appeared in various horse operas. She posed for hundreds of cheesecake photographs. She continued appearing in bit parts until 1940 when Hal Roach cast her as a cave girl in One Million B.C.. The movie was a sensation and turned Landis into a star. A press agent nicknamed her “The Ping Girl” (because “she makes you purr”). Landis appeared in a string of successful films in the early ’40s, usually as the second female lead. In a time when the singing of many actresses was dubbed in, Landis’s own voice was considered good enough and was used in her few musical roles. Landis landed a contract with Twentieth Century-Fox and began a sexual relationship with Darryl F. Zanuck. She had roles playing opposite fellow pin-up girl Betty Grable in Moon Over Miami and I Wake Up Screaming, both in 1941. When Landis ended her relationship with Zanuck, her career suffered and she was assigned roles in B-movies. Her final two films Noose and Brass Monkey were both made in Great Britain.
In 1942, she toured with comedienne Martha Raye, dancer Mitzi Mayfair and actress Kay Francis with a USO troupe in England and North Africa. Two years later, she entertained soldiers in the South Pacific with Jack Benny. Landis traveled more than 100,000 miles during the war and spent more time visiting troops than any other actress. Landis became a popular pin-up with servicemen during World War II. In 1945 she starred on Broadway in the musical A Lady Says Yes with Jacqueline Susann, with whom she reportedly had an affair. Susann purportedly based the character Jennifer North in her book Valley of the Dolls on Landis. Landis wrote several newspaper and magazine articles about her experiences during the war, including the 1944 book Four Jills in a Jeep, which was later made into a movie, costarring Kay Francis, Martha Raye, and Mitzi Mayfair. She also wrote the foreword to Victor Herman’s cartoon book Winnie the WAC.
Landis was married five times and had no children (she was unable to conceive due to endometriosis). In January 1934, 15-year-old Landis married her first husband, 19-year-old Irving Wheeler. Her mother had the marriage annulled in February 1934. Landis convinced her father Alfred Ridste (who had left the family shortly after Landis was born and who, by coincidence, lived near the family in San Bernadino) to allow her remarry Wheeler. He finally relented and the two were remarried on August 25, 1934. After three weeks of marriage, Landis and Wheeler got into an argument and Landis walked out. Neither filed for divorce and Landis began pursuing an acting career. In 1938, Wheeler reappeared and filed a $250,000 alienation of affections lawsuit against director and choreographer Busby Berkeley. Despite the fact that Landis and Wheeler were only married in the legal sense, he claimed that Berkeley had enticed and otherwise persuaded Landis to transfer her affections. Landis maintained that she had not seen Wheeler in years and only heard from him the previous year when he claimed to want a divorce. Wheeler’s lawsuit was later dismissed, and Landis and Wheeler were divorced in 1939. In June 1939, Berkeley proposed to Landis, but later broke it off. On July 4, 1940 she married yacht broker Willis Hunt, Jr. in Las Vegas. Landis left Hunt after two months of marriage. They were divorced in November 1940.
While touring Army camps in London in 1942, she met United States Army Air Corps Captain Thomas Wallace. They were married in January 1943 but separated in May 1945. They divorced in July 1945. On December 8, 1945, Landis married Broadway producer W. Horace Schmidlapp. They separated in 1947 and Landis filed for divorce in May 1948 charging Schmidlapp with “extreme mental cruelty”. During her separation from Schmidlapp, Landis entered into a romance with actor Rex Harrison, who was then married to actress Lilli Palmer. The affair became an open secret in Hollywood. After Landis’ death however, Harrison downplayed their relationship and publicly claimed that she was merely a close friend of his and Palmer’s.
Landis was reportedly crushed when Harrison refused to divorce his wife for her; unable to cope any longer, she committed suicide in her Pacific Palisades home at 1465 Capri Drive by taking an overdose of Seconal. Harrison was the last person to see her alive, having had dinner with Landis the night before she committed suicide. The next afternoon, Harrison and the maid discovered her on the bathroom floor. Harrison waited several hours before he called a doctor and the police. According to some sources, Landis left two suicide notes, one for her mother and the second for Harrison who instructed his lawyers to destroy it. During a coroner’s inquest, Harrison denied knowing any motive for her suicide and told the coroner he did not know of the existence of a second suicide note. Landis’ official web site, which is owned by her family, has questioned the events of Landis’ death and the coroner’s ruling of suicide. She is interred in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California in plot 814 of the “Everlasting Love” section. Among the celebrities at her funeral were Cesar Romero, Van Johnson, and Pat O’Brien. Harrison attended with his wife. Landis has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 1765 Vine Street.
- January, 01, 1919
- Fairchild, Wisconsin
- July, 05, 1948
- Pacific Palisades, California
Cause of Death
- Forest Lawn Memorial Park
- Glendale, California