In Search of he Last Starlet : One fan’s quest for the mysterious Carol Ohmart
“Carol Ohmart is a star and anyone who refers to her as a starlet is fired immediately!”
--Y. Frank Freeman, Paramount president, 1955 memo
A few weeks ago, already deep into research for this article, I sat down with a bowl of popcorn to watch an exploitation cheapie called “Naked Youth.” It’s part of Rhino Video’s Teen-Age Theater Series of unintentionally campy teen movies from the low-low-budget past. Right after the title appeared, I sat up abruptly, nearly dumping my popcorn--caught off guard by the words: Starring Carol Ohmart.
I was certain that I knew of all 10 of her movies--and “Naked Youth” wasn’t among them. The former Miss Utah of 1946 had gone on to a modeling career (posing at age 19 as the prototype for the Copper Calhoon character in the Steve Canyon comic strip), before top-lining in such pictures as “The Scarlet Hour,” “The Wild Party” and “House on Haunted Hill.”
But “Naked Youth"--I’d never heard of it. Ohmart’s name wasn’t on the videocassette cover. Instead, it pictured Mamie Van Doren, one-time Queen of B movies, who is the hostess for the series.
As “Naked Youth” unfolded in grainy black-and-white, it turned out to be an abridged (one-hour) version of a cheesy full-length film originally released in 1959 as “Wild Youth.” Ohmart starred as a sex-crazed junkie.
The irony of stumbling across an old Ohmart movie--severely truncated, sold for laughs on a video shelf, its star unworthy of mention on the cover--hardly escaped me. In the context of the story I was putting together, it was the final insult, telling evidence of how far she had fallen into obscurity.
In 1955, four years before “Wild Youth,” Ohmart had been Hollywood’s hottest discovery, selected and groomed by Paramount Pictures as its answer to Marilyn Monroe. The studio signed the unknown beauty to a long-term contract, launching a then-hefty $2-million publicity campaign to transform her into an instant star.
I was 12 that year, living in my hometown of Victoria, Tex. With a population then of about 25,000, we had two first-run theaters--the Uptown and the El Rancho. My father, a photographer, occasionally moonlighted as a projectionist, so I grew up watching movies for free--star-struck.
With Ohmart hoopla building, I happened on a Life magazine photo of her buried--up to her chest--in the Malibu sand. Weaned on fan magazines, I knew she’d be a star. Intrigued, I wrote to her, requesting an autographed photo and information about joining her fan club. Instead, her mother Merl replied, authorizing me to begin a fan club in Victoria!
Our club eventually grew to be nationwide, before sputtering out in late 1957, when our heroine was very nearly a has-been at 30.
Her brief career outlasted my pubescent fascination; within a few years, I’d pretty much forgotten about her.
Then, last spring, I happened across a lengthy reference to Ohmart in “Who’s Who in Hollywood, 1900-1976.” According to the profile, she dropped out of the Hollywood scene in 1967, giving away her possessions, living meagerly and searching for a higher truth in God. She was dedicated only to her studies of Jesus, Lao Tzu, Buddha and Confucius. If friends located her, she would move. Maintaining a Beverly Hills mailing address, she eventually went back to Salt Lake City, where she continued her religious studies and acquired a doctorate in metaphysics from the Church of Divine Consciousness.
My curiosity was piqued. What had become of her since 1976?
The Old Scrapbook
Calls to the Screen Actors Guild, veteran trade paper reporters and her old phone numbers proved futile. Paramount executives from her era were either dead or long retired. A check of Ohmarts in the Salt Lake directory turned up nothing.
I pulled out my musty “Ohmartians” fan scrapbook of news clippings. On April 12, 1956, the Salt Lake City newspapers covered her as if she were royalty when she returned home for the world premiere of her first movie, “The Scarlet Hour.” The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Paramount had flown her in and put up their statuesque star at the elegant Hotel Utah. She rode in an open convertible past cheering throngs to the Capitol Theater, where an explosion of flashbulbs greeted her.
In one yellowing clipping, I found a lead: A small paragraph about a reception at the home of a cousin, Claudia Atkinson.
Atkinson, one of the last descendants of a pioneer Mormon family, was listed in the directory. I reached her by phone and explained that I was trying to locate Carol.
There was a long pause. Then: “We’re wondering what happened to her, too. She’s been missing for 10 years.”
Through Atkinson--and trunks full of Ohmart memorabilia, correspondence and personal belongings that Atkinson had kept, locked, in her garage for years--I began putting together the puzzle of Ohmart’s life.
It proved to be a gothic tale of an abusive and manipulative “stage mother” who had driven her daughter toward stardom while keeping a strangling hold on her; of a film industry that saw Ohmart first and foremost as a luscious body to be exploited--an industry that can go through attractive performers the way the fashion world uses up dress designs; of divorce, drug addiction, violence, penury and deep depression, from which Ohmart tried to find inner peace through almost compulsive spiritual exploration.
‘She Was Psychic’
Salt Lake City has forgotten Ohmart. Those who are now thirtysomething, babies in 1956, shrug blankly when I mention her. Even a 60-ish woman at a newspaper library couldn’t recall the name--the librarian wondered if I didn’t mean Marie Osmond. “We have lots on her.”
When Ohmart’s mother, Merl Cragun Ohmart, died in June, 1987, she left three sealed trunks with Claudia Atkinson that were to be sent to the New York Public Library in the event of her death. Atkinson never sent them. When we spoke by phone, she offered to let me examine the contents.
Now 77, Atkinson greeted me at her secluded home in Holladay, an affluent Salt Lake City suburb. She introduced me to her husband, then ushered me to the living room filled with family heirlooms and pictures of her grandchildren.
“I can’t believe this is actually happening,” she said, pulling out a family photo album. “I wouldn’t put it past her (Merl) to get you to find that newspaper clipping with my address. She was psychic, you know.”
Atkinson turned to a 1946 photo of a swimming party in her back yard--a bon voyage party for Ohmart, then 19, who was representing Utah at the Miss America contest in Atlantic City, N.J. Ohmart was svelte, blond, gorgeous; in the photo, mother Merl, plainer and more sturdily built.
“Merl was this big, overweight person,” Atkinson said. “Even as a young girl, she was put down by her slender sisters. She never had many beaus.”
Merl, Atkinson added, “lived only for Carol--or rather, through her.”
“There they are!”
Atkinson pointed to three metal chests at the rear of her garage. Before her death in 1987, Merl had written on them in bold red letters: Carol Ohmart, Star. New York Public Library. New York. Atkinson jimmied the trunks open with a nail file.
The first trunk held dresses, baby books, high school reports, photos, and letters from Ohmart’s formative years.
The second contained a green bag filled with burial instructions, a last will and testament, receipts, and stacks of notebooks in which Merl as a dutiful Mormon kept track of her family genealogy. Later, Atkinson also would find $250 in crisp $10 bills in the “green death bag.”
The third trunk covered Ohmart’s career accomplishments: clippings of beauty contest victories, modeling photos, Ohmart’s first magazine cover (a 1947 issue of Police Gazette), memorabilia from her Paramount days--even a letter I had written to Merl on fan club stationery.
There was also a list of Ohmart’s 10 Hollywood movies: Other than “Scarlet Hour,” most were shoestring productions, including her second film “The Wild Party” (1956). Only one, William Castle’s “House on Haunted Hill” (1958), was a box-office hit. Her fourth film, “Born Reckless” (1959), which pitted her against Mamie Van Doren, is still seen on late-night TV.
Her later films on the list were unfamiliar to me: The aforementioned “Wild Youth,” “The Scavengers” (1959), “Spider Baby” (1964), “One Man’s Way” (1964), “Caxambu” (1967, unreleased) and “The Spectre of Edgar Allan Poe” (1974).
Atkinson also showed me a rusty metal box in the basement, also left behind by Merl. The box proved to be a mother lode, containing 350 letters Merl received from her daughter between 1964 and 1978, along with 20 audio recordings of phone conversations.
Amelia Merl Cragun was born in Utah in 1903, one of five children in a Mormon family. At 24 she married Dr. Thomas Carlyle Ohmart, a failed actor who took up dentistry late in life. He was 30 years older with two daughters from a previous marriage.
Shortly after the birth of their only child, Armelia Carol, in 1927, the family moved to Seattle. Carl, after previously working on the road for the Painless Parker Dentists, started his own practice, with Merl as his assistant. Carol’s uncle, Owen Sweeten, was a vaudeville performer; whenever he was in town, Merl would be found backstage at the Orpheum Theater with Carol in tow.
Billed as “Baby Carol,” she made her stage debut in her uncle’s act at age 3, wearing an outfit devised by Merl--a black derby, tights and small cane.
Merl was something of a bully, as far as I could piece together their relationship. She insisted, for instance, that Carl go outside to smoke, even in foul weather. Carol would often follow him, and when she was old enough, she asked about his frequent absences.
During one long period of separation, Carol wrote a song, “Daddy Is Someone You Say Goodbye To.”
Merl divorced him in 1942. He died in Tacoma, Wash., in 1955, a copy of a Louella Parsons column with the headline “Carol Ohmart to Star in Her First Picture” in his hands. The attending nurse said that his last words were: “Carol can take care of herself now.”
Merl and her daughter moved constantly--Salt Lake City, Seattle, San Francisco, Spokane. By the time she graduated from high school in 1944, Carol had attended more than a dozen schools.
Merl often locked Carol in a closet with an empty tomato juice can if she had to go relieve herself. Once, after Carol was locked away for what seemed like days, her mother returned and laughingly explained, “Oh, I forgot all about you.”
At school, a teacher’s concern over Carol’s thick long stockings led to a school nurse’s discovery of scars and open wounds on the girl’s legs from lashings.
According to family members, theirs was a dark, twisted relationship in which Merl could alternately shower adulation on her daughter, then abuse her.
In 1941, they moved back to Salt Lake, where Merl put a down payment on a modest house on Markea Street. They finally had a home. But it was too late.
Carol was 14 that year. She saved her money for an off-the-shoulder white taffeta dress for her graduation from Bryant Junior High School--and for the dance afterward. When her date arrived, Merl invited him graciously into their house. But when Carol came into the room, Merl’s face flamed and she swung at her daughter: “You’re not leaving this house until you’ve scrubbed that kitchen floor, and I mean all of it,” Merl screamed.
As Carol tried to make light of it and leave, Merl blocked the door. Carol shed her dress in the bedroom and washed the kitchen floor in panties and stockings, fighting back tears. Done and dressed again, she went out on her date with a smile, as if nothing had happened.
She was becoming expert at smiling and performing--creating a facade to cover up the reality of her life with Merl.
After her high school graduation, Merl and Carol quickly landed a job as a staff singer for a radio station, and weeks before she won the Miss Utah contest, her name was on the Salt Lake City Coconut Grove marquee as a featured vocalist.
As Miss Utah, she went on to the 1946 Miss America pageant, placing fourth. Ohmart received $1,500 in scholarship money, which she used for singing and acting studies in New York, with Merl along as chaperon.
New York illustrator Russell Patterson, a judge from the Miss America Pageant, helped Ohmart find modeling work. It lead to comic strip artist Milton Caniff, who dyed her hair flaming red and used her as the prototype for Copper Calhoon in his post-war strip, “Steve Canyon.” She was also artist Al Moore’s Esquire Girl for 1949.
In 1949, a then-21 Ohmart was pressured by Merl to marry Ken Grayson, a radio actor and engineer she’d met during her radio days. The couple had their marriage annulled in 1951.
At this point, Ohmart’s passion was for a singing and acting career. She initially depended on Merl, since her scholarship barely paid for her classes. But slowly, she began to support herself with small parts in radio commercials, summer stock, a few off-Broadway shows and dozens of TV shows such as “Studio One” and “Philco Playhouse.”
The break was almost too much a cliche to be true: Carol landed a small comedic role as a nubile slave girl in the Broadway hit “Kismet,” understudying for Joan Diener, who played Lalume. When the star missed a show, Ohmart went on. A Paramount scout was in the audience.
Her screen test on Jan. 13, 1955, created a buzz around the lot. Her measurements (36-24-35), on a 5-7 frame, combined with piercing blue eyes, chestnut-blond hair, sensual lips and smoky voice, fit Paramount’s needs.
The requisite seven-year contract followed. She would earn $500 a week the first year, escalating to $2,000 for the last two years. Of course the studio had the option to renew or cancel.
The publicity department sent out a press invitation: A white card with only Ohmart’s eyes visible, inviting media to “see all of Miss Ohmart at a luncheon and unveiling of the largest actual photograph ever to be mounted on a billboard.”
At noon July 3, 1955, Ohmart’s 28th birthday, the Hollywood press gathered at the studio commissary for the unveiling. Extras on a lunch break from Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” joined the crowd.
The curtains parted to reveal a billboard bearing a full-body shot of a seductive Ohmart in a peekaboo negligee. At the following luncheon, each place setting had a small orange viewfinder with a color transparency of Ohmart in a tight-fitting Edith Head-designed dress. A silver whistle was attached to each viewfinder, which bore the request: “Give a l-o-n-g low whistle for Carol Ohmart, Paramount’s newest star.”
Studio President Y. Frank Freeman sat next to the guest of honor. He rose and spoke in his soft Southern drawl: words later quoted in Daily Variety: “As someone with 25 years’ experience in the motion-picture business, I ask you to be humble and remain humble. Not every star has done this. Remember that when entering the movie business, you stop living for yourself alone. You now represent a great industry and your actions can either enhance or hurt its reputation.”
“The important thing is to realize that you can’t become a star alone. You need the help of all the people you will be working with. You have a great chance and we’re all behind you.”
The studio commissary introduced the Carol Ohmart Luncheon: A ripe banana, sliced cucumber, raw carrot curls, a sliced raw potato, celery sticks, one-half bell pepper, zwieback bread, fresh pomegranate juice, unsalted almonds, and a slice of Italian white cheese. Price: $1.50.
Army Archerd, the columnist for Daily Variety, couldn’t believe that Ohmart actually ate raw potatoes. So he dined with her and watched as she polished one off, telling him she was “a food faddist.”
A full-page photo of the actress appeared in the Hollywood trade papers with the announcement: “Carol Ohmart, now before Paramount’s VistaVision cameras in ‘The Scarlet Hour,’ under the direction of veteran star-maker Michael Curtiz, is arousing the kind of excitement that comes once in a decade. Paramount feels that she is destined for stardom.”
Ohmart cutouts began appearing in theater lobbies around the world. Carol Ohmart bowling teams were formed in New York and L.A. Fan magazines churned out stories on the lucky starlet.
Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons nominated her for stardom. Hedda Hopper wanted Ohmart’s last name changed to Omar. James Bacon, then an Associated Press writer, dubbed her “a female Brando.” Life edged out Newsweek by a week to publish a major story on her.
The Times featured her front page photo with a new registered orchid strain named after her--Cymbidium Carol Ohmart. Orchid authority E. E. Hetherington predicted it would make Ohmart’s name immortal. (He was right: Hetherington recently confirmed that the Ohmart strain still exists around the world.)
In describing the image he wanted for Ohmart, director Michael Curtiz, who had directed the heralded “Casablanca,” instructed legendary designer Edith Head: “I want you to think of her as a female tiger recently out of the jungle.”
In 1955, by the time I had received Merl’s first letter, authorizing the fan club, she was living at a rundown apartment complex in Santa Monica. Her letters--written on impressive pink stationery lifted from the posh Lady Windemere Hotel--were filled with tips on how to run the fan club. Once, she also confided her own dream to be a beauty consultant to the stars. I learned later that she was attending daily beautician classes in Hollywood.
She also revealed that as a young woman, she had wanted a great spirit to enter her body to create a perfect child. Carol was God’s answer.
But Merl also feared losing control over her. She was known to call Ohmart’s business contacts, pretending to be her daughter. She forged Carol’s signature to letters, even sneaked into her daughter’s apartment to make or break Ohmart’s appointments without her knowledge. Later, during Ohmart’s marriage to TV star Wayde Preston, Merl tried to spread the idea that Preston had been a baby boy Merl had given away--insinuating that Ohmart had unknowingly married her own brother.
“Carol Ohmart’s career is zooming with incredible speed--even greater speed than I, who first mentioned her potentialities, believed possible,” Louella Parsons clucked in her column in February, 1956.
Hedda Hopper tooted: "(Producer) Sidney Harmon wires that he’s succeeded in borrowing Paramount’s Carol Ohmart for ‘Step Down to Terror’ (later released as “Wild Party”). She’ll be co-starred with Anthony Quinn, Jay Robinson and Kathryn Grant. Carol will play a thrill-seeking socialite who is held prisoner by Quinn until she agrees to a Mexican elopement.”
In April, “Scarlet Hour” opened at the RKO Pantages to lukewarm reviews.
Herald-Express critic David Bongard wrote: “Carol Ohmart is the sultry boss’s wife. She has an amazing physical resemblance, in some angles, to Barbara Stanwyck.”
“Obviously she’s Curtiz’s Galatea in the acting field. If the material weren’t so childish and over-dramatic, she might have made a bull’s-eye with this. She soon might be capable of the stuff of a Stanwyck or a Bette Davis.”
But this would be her first and last film for Paramount.
United Artists “Wild Party” premiered at the World Theater in New York on Dec. 21, 1956. Hollywood Reporter reviewer James Powers praised the film: “It is not a pleasant picture, but it is an absorbing one. The script and the dialogue are remarkably good; the names--Anthony Quinn, Carol Ohmart, Arthur Franz--are attractive, and for once names deliver solidly.”
The New York Times found the film itself had “more tasteless sociological dressing than a Christmas goose.”
“Wild Party” reached the nation’s theaters in the spring but it was consigned to double-feature schedules with “Four Boys and a Gun.”
In my hometown in Texas, I arranged with the manager of the El Rancho to have a fan club display in the lobby. Carol had sent us the gloves she wore in the film and we exhibited them on mannequin’s hands. Fan clubbers and I asked patrons to sign a petition urging Paramount to put our star in wholesome parts.
Ohmart sent me a letter: “Dear Gregg, I guess you’re old enough to know the truth.” She told about her decision to leave Paramount and devote her life to being Mrs. Wayde Preston. She had married Preston--a Wyoming cowboy who had become her steady in the pages of every fan magazine--on Thanksgiving Day, 1956.
A year later, despite a lack of acting experience, Preston’s good looks and his highly visible profile as Mr. Carol Ohmart were enough to prompt Warner Bros. to star him in its new “Colt .45" series on ABC.
Ohmart wrote that her husband’s career now came first: “When a woman finds her man she must stick by him.
“If she doesn’t, there will be problems--that’s why many Hollywood marriages end in divorce.”
A letter followed from Merl: “Who is the devil with such big horns that he dares take such a talented girl and make her drop her career?! I challenge him. Rats are eventually caught; they spread disease!”
She enclosed a frightening photo of herself dressed in a coonskin cap posed in a menacing manner with a knife in one hand and a rifle in the other. In the past, she had sent me funny photos of herself with a powdered wig or dressed as a clairvoyant, but the latest photo was downright scary.
That was the last of my correspondence with both Ohmart and her mother. The fan club folded. I became more interested in rock ‘n’ roll and dances than movie-star romances.
Then I read that former screen starlet Ohmart filed for divorce from Wayde Preston in July, 1958, nine months after her final letter.
Ohmart and her mother were mostly estranged for the next two decades. Merl was confined to a wheelchair in the late 1970s and living back in Salt Lake City.
“Around 1977, Merl met a man living in her apartment building named Bill,” cousin Claudia Atkinson said. “He was from back east. I don’t know if he worked steady, but he sang in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.”
Merl mistook Bill’s graciousness--such as trips to the supermarket in his car--for more romantic intentions.
Then Carol showed up. Within a few weeks, she and Bill ran off to Wyoming and got married.
Merl “pretended not to worry.” But she was shocked; she thought that Carol always needed mother to manage her affairs, the cousin said.
Merl hired detectives, but they couldn’t find Carol.
“After that,” Atkinson said, “Merl began to deteriorate. She died in a rest home. I gathered her belongings and arranged a small service. None of the other relatives wanted to have anything to do with her. They thought she was a kook. And I guess she was.”
When Ohmart had taken off with Bill, she had hissed at her mother, “You’ll never see me alive again!”
When Merl died in June, 1987, her once-famous daughter, the embodiment of Merl’s dreams, had been missing for 10 years.