Rediscovering the Last Starlet : A mysterious phone call leads to Carol Ohmart

I spent months trying to locate Carol Ohmart. My search had led me to her hometown, Salt Lake City, and several locked trunks stored in the garage of her cousin, Claudia Atkinson. They contained some 350 letters that Ohmart had written to her mother, Merl, plus audio tapes that Merl had secretly made of their phone conversations over the years.

In one letter, I discovered Ohmart's Social Security number. That might be a helpful device to "prove" that I was a legitimate friend of hers. Who else would know such a detail? I took the number to a source at the Screen Actors Guild pension office who promised to help.

Apparently that source knew how to reach the missing Ohmart.

A few nights later, I received a phone call at home: "I represent Carol Ohmart," the woman said.

I recognized the husky voice from the audio tapes as Ohmart's.

When I asked the caller point-blank if she were Ohmart, she denied it--unconvincingly.

Bearing Bad News

The caller asked what I wanted and I told her I had an unpleasant task, that since relatives hadn't known Ohmart's whereabouts in 10 years, it had fallen on me to relay the news of Merl's death in June, 1987.

There was a pause. Then the caller responded in a controlled, almost resigned voice: "Merl served her purpose."

The conversation ended without much more being said.

Several days later, she called again. This time she acknowledged that she was indeed Ohmart and apologized for her previous ruse. And, yes, she indeed recalled my name from the fan club I ran in the mid-1950s.

She went on: "Carol Ohmart has been out of my life for 10 years," she said. "I have a new name, a new life. It would be overwhelming to face up to that again."

But she agreed to an interview in person if her husband's full name--the same Bill she had married in 1978 when she disappeared--and her place of residence weren't revealed.

The suburban Seattle neighborhood was wooded with tall pines. Ohmart stood in the driveway of an apartment complex. At 61, with long, almost platinum hair, she was unmistakably the same woman I had first seen in Life magazine 33 years ago.

Inside, I met her husband Bill, 65, who was friendly but cautious. Ohmart handed me a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, offering bee's pollen with it. (She's that rare, contradictory breed of health-food devotee and smoker.)

At 5-feet-7, she looked trim, healthy and attractive in a light blouse, safari pants and white running shoes. If anything, her blue eyes appeared clearer than in her studio publicity photos.

Their unassuming apartment reflects the fact that they live only on his modest retirement income. There isn't a single piece of memorabilia from her movie-star past. The living room is dominated by a stunning view of Cascade Mountains.

After we exchanged cordialities, Ohmart proudly showed me the fruits of her current pastimes: Oil painting and sprout gardening. But when we sat down to talk, it was about the old Ohmart.

"A few days after we first talked on the phone," she said, "I woke up in the middle of the night, stretched my arms upward, and said, 'Thank God. After 58 years, I'm free.' "

She was talking about her delayed reaction to the news of her mother's death. We sat in the kitchen, looking through a photo album of Merl's that I had brought from Salt Lake City.

When I first mentioned her mother, who had been unaware of her daughter's whereabouts for about 10 years when she died in 1987, Ohmart refused to discuss her. A fearful look clouded her features and a slight stutter entered her voice, a marked contrast to her earlier cheerful demeanor.

I asked her why she hadn't returned home or kept in touch with her mother.

Initially, she defensively said that Merl had made her own burial arrangements and there was little she could do or wanted from her mother by then. Later, in a more introspective mood, Ohmart said that she had left after Merl, in a rage over Ohmart's marriage to Bill, screamed at her, "I am God!"

"In the last 10 years being away from her and in the relative safety of time and space, and after reading about tyrant-victim relationships, I now can comprehend why I was always trying to protect her.

"Until I became of legal age, I was terrorized. It was hammered into me that God's command was to love your mother or God will kill you."

Had she finally forgiven her mother for the physical and emotional abuse of her youth?

"Yes, I forgave her, but I haven't forgotten. How could I? I tried to be a dutiful daughter, I wrote her all those (hundreds of) letters, but she never let me live my own life. She tried to live through me. I appreciated her supporting me during the lean years, but she wasn't doing it for me, it was for her own selfish ends, to keep me taking orders.

"She controlled my life."

The Missing Truth

She stopped as Bill came into the room. After he left to shop for groceries, she went on to explain that he still didn't know the full truth about her previous marriages or her career.

In the living room, we unfolded a vintage poster of "The Scarlet Hour," her first film, released in 1956. She stared at the sultry image.

"Those were the glory days!" she said.

She became animated as she retraced, for the first time in years, her halcyon days at Paramount. Her break with her Hollywood past has been total, save for an occasional card to old friends like actress Anne Francis.

She recalled that star-maker and Oscar-winner Michael Curtiz ("Casablanca," "Mildred Pierce"), who directed and produced her first film, had gotten quite a jolt when a veritable who's who of Paramount stars trooped on to the set of "Scarlet Hour" in 1955: Humphrey Bogart, David Niven, Yul Brynner, Cary Grant, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, most of whom Curtiz had worked with.

Bogart, the spokesman, told the producer-director firmly, "We didn't come to see you--we came to see her."

Bogey then whispered to Paramount's new discovery, "We're with you, babe."

The day before, the Hungarian-born Curtiz had yelled at Ohmart: "Leave your two damn feet here and take two steps back." His way of conveying a camera cue nearly reduced her to tears.

Later, on the huge sound stage, Curtiz cautioned her in his accented English, "It doesn't matter what you think of me or what I think of you. You're going to be up there in that film all by yourself. You can't take the credits off the picture."

His treatment of her was so brusque that at one point, actors Elaine Stritch and James Gregory walked off the set, followed by the crew. Paramount executives advised Curtiz to ease up. When the film finally wrapped late in the fall, Stritch threw a party, announcing that "If Miss Ohmart wants to get drunk, she can. She's entitled."

Not long after, Ohmart dined at the 21 Club in New York with Lauren Bacall and husband Humphrey Bogart, who did "Casablanca" with Curtiz and knew him well.

"He (Curtiz) really put you through crap," Bogart said flatly.

"You know?" Ohmart asked.

"Why do you think we came on the set for you that day?" Bogart replied.

Paramount honchos forbade Ohmart to attend a sneak preview but she went anyway, incognito. Viewing the film noir tale of infidelity, robbery and murder proved more painful than the filming. What hurt most was watching herself on the big screen in an unsympathetic role, that of Paulie, a rich and reckless woman who leads her lover (Tom Tryon) to crime and her husband (James Gregory) to an accidental death.

"It was the wrong vehicle to launch me as a star," Ohmart said. "Frank Tashlin, one of the film's three screenwriters, told me that it had been earlier turned down by Barbara Stanwyck. Foolishly, Paramount let its new leading lady portray a lush, an adulteress wife and a suicide by the film's end.

"Look at the difference between that and Audrey Hepburn, who played a princess in her first film ("Roman Holiday") or Shirley MacLaine, who was allowed to be kooky and funny ("The Trouble With Harry"). I had to be elegant and aloof. I saw it happening, but what could I do about it?

"Everything was programmed for me. I was put in the star category from the start. I entered through the Cecil B. DeMille gate. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope used that gate! I wasn't making their salary (she made $500 a week her first year), but I was paid more than a contract player who had to use a less conspicuous entrance.

"The studio also told me who to date and what to wear. Once, I was told to date Hugh O'Brian. He knew how to play the game and told the press, 'She's like perfume--we should bottle her.' I instead said, 'I'd rather stay home and read a book.'

"One Sunday, I threw on my sweats and went to the grocery store. A few hours later, I got a call from Y. Frank (Freeman, Paramount president) himself saying I'd left my house without being dressed like a star."

Cursing Cohn

If Curtiz was her nemesis at Paramount, she went on, her closest confidant was the powerful and detested boss of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn. They had met at a party in New York in 1952 where she cracked the ice by telling an off-color joke. He later had her screen test as a Russian ballerina; her performance was so poor, she returned to New York.

Cohn nevertheless continued to help her, at one point even hiring prostitutes for Ohmart to interview in preparation for the part of Alma, the private club hostess/hooker in "From Here to Eternity," which Columbia was then preparing.

When she read in the New York Times that Donna Reed had gotten the part, she exploded.

"You dirty . . . ," she told Cohn over the phone. "You didn't even have the (guts) to tell me first."

Eventually, as an understudy in "Kismet," she was discovered by Paramount and signed to a seven-year and low-paying contract after a successful screen test.

Once in Hollywood, her flare-up with Cohn forgotten, she would see him by sneaking on to the Columbia lot--for fear the wrong kind of talk might start. (She claims that their relationship was more platonic than amorous, and that she went for his sage advice.)

Cohn told her flatly: "Paramount is killing you. They're over-publicizing you. Your first picture is terrible. I've tried to buy your contract, but they want too much money for you."

Failed Projects

Paramount reassessed its game plan to make Ohmart an instant star. A Paramount executive told Newsweek in 1955: "Ordinarily it would take a lot of time, say three years, and a lot of money, attention and grief to develop a star, but we're hoping to jump it. If we get a star, we've won the gamble. If we get three-quarters of a star, we're still ahead."

Now, Ohmart is quick to retort: "It's like being a little bit pregnant."

Dore Schary, then MGM president, told Ohmart that he pleaded with Freeman to loan her for a starring part in MGM's "Trial" (Dorothy McGuire was later hired); Ohmart likewise pleaded with Freeman. He refused.

In early 1956, she got the female lead in United Artists' "The Wild Party," after being tested and approved by the star, Anthony Quinn. Freeman surprised her by giving his OK.

"Now Carol comes home to Paramount and to comedy," Louella Parsons noted in her column. "Carol asked that she be given a chance to show what she could do, so she'll have the top role in 'The Fullback Wore Satin.' The story by Melvin Palmer is about a clothes designer who's sent to create new uniforms for a football team."

The project never materialized, and by year's end, as "Wild Party" was premiering, Paramount hadn't offered Ohmart any new roles. Except for a few TV shots, she was idle.

In January, 1957, Paramount informed her that it was exercising its option not to renew her contract for a third year.

"They told me that TV had made such inroads into movie attendance that they didn't have the money for my automatic yearly raise. I didn't bother to argue. I felt lucky that I didn't have to pay to get out of the contract. I was a free agent now.

"Things were looking up."

Recalling the highs and lows of her Hollywood past, she seemed torn between the euphoria that I was intrigued by them, and the concern that the memories of her starlet years might be unimportant to anyone else.

Merl, who had initially shared an apartment with her movie star daughter, moved to more modest quarters in Santa Monica by late 1955. After getting her beautician's license, she worked at the Miramar Hotel beauty salon. She also kept relatives and the fan club informed about her daughter's activities, including a lengthy account of Ohmart's marriage on Thanksgiving Day, 1956, to a gyroscope factory worker and aspiring actor named Bill Strange, later known as Wayde Preston.

"Carol brought me back the bouquet, so I'm next," Merl wrote. "I'm looking for a good man to marry, but I doubt if I can find one as nice as Bill." Still a charismatic woman, she quickly attracted a small coterie of young admirers, Ohmart related--one of them a young actor-poet named Rod McKuen.

We discussed Ohmart's last note in October, 1957, telling me--and the fan club--that she was abandoning her career, devoting herself to her marriage to Preston (which ended eight months later).

"I wasn't covering up to you as much as I was covering up to me," she said. "Wayde and I already had problems, but the old-fashioned woman in me wouldn't admit it.

"In Hollywood, I had all this public adulation, but no one to hold my hand. A guy might send me flowers or take me dancing, but then whisper in my ear: 'Take my script to Paramount.' I was lonely until I met this tall, blond cowboy and my heart went boom-boom.

"We should have been great friends. Instead, we decided to play house. It didn't work. Warner's had just put him under contract when I wrote you. He was working hard at becoming a good actor until he screwed up badly."

Preston had simply disappeared, leaving his starring role in Warner's "Colt .45" series for ABC in mid-season to protest his $250-a-week wage.

Warners President Jack Warner initially went into a rage. He felt that Ohmart, despite her pending divorce from Preston, knew where he was and had perhaps orchestrated his disappearance. At a meeting at the Brown Derby, the mogul quizzed her until she convinced him of her innocence.

Weeks later, Warner's office called Ohmart with an offer to co-star in "Born Reckless." In confidence, an executive told her, "This is Jack's way of saying he forgives you, that you're clean." Although she didn't want to do the film, she did, fearing retaliation from Warner.

The studio finished "Colt .45" that season with a stand-in for Preston, then hired a new lead for the next season. Unable to find work, Preston moved to Italy where he starred in spaghetti Westerns.

(Living in Los Angeles, Preston is still in the film industry. He finds more film parts in Europe than in Hollywood, where he occasionally does stunt doubles. He says pressure on him at Warner Bros. caused his marriage to Ohmart to go awry; also, he maintains, mother-in-law Merl (whom he says was "goofy as a bedbug") meddled in his and Carol's business affairs.

(Recalling Carol's career, he said: "It's a shame that after that big buildup, they (Paramount) threw her in a turkey; otherwise she might be a big star in this town. She was a fine actress, but she got nailed.")

Ohmart worked her way back into the film business, but the offers now were for B pictures that made her ill-fated Paramount film look like a classic in comparison.

Her first successful part came in William Castle's "House on Haunted Hill" (1958) with Vincent Price. The film was a hit, but it was Castle's gimmickry--a skeletal figure floating through the theater--and not the film's actors that sold tickets. In 1959, she portrayed an opium addict in "The Scavengers," followed by "Wild Youth," in which she did a turn as a sex-crazed heroin addict.

During this time, she also appeared on various TV shows ("Northwest Passage," "Michael Shayne," "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp," guest-starring with former date Hugh O'Brian).

She returned to New York in 1962, starring in the play "Banderol," written by Dore Schary.

It folded before reaching Broadway and she "returned to Hollywood to lick my wounds."

She had a part in the UA film "One Man's Way" (1964) and was in an American General horror film, "Cannibal Orgy" (filmed in 1964, but not released until 1968 as "Spider Baby"), with Lon Chaney Jr.

The shooting star was burning out.

She sold real estate and began studying spiritualism, enrolling in a bachelor's degree program at the Institute of Religious Science. But by 1967, she was in debt. Desperate, she took the female lead in a B movie shot in the Philippines, "Caxambu," playing a newlywed stranded in a plane crash, terrorized by jungle creatures and natives.

Upon her return to Los Angeles, she joined the Church of Divine Consciousness, whose brand of esoteric metaphysical teachings filled her spiritual needs. Ohmart earned a "doctorate" title after she wrote a dissertation on the church teachings. (No records exist of such a degree. In one letter to her mother written in the 1970s, Ohmart wrote that the title was only a joke--"Let it be our little secret.")

For the rest of the 1960s, Ohmart focused her attention on New Age teaching and writing, while unsuccessfully trying to sell her poems and short stories.

She also began "The Divine Letters," a series of missives attributed to various biblical characters. She became obsessed with the project, claiming she was receiving dictation for the letters through channeling. Years later, in poor mental health, she was told in a vision to destroy the letters, which had grown to a leviathan-sized manuscript.

Only three letters survived--copies she mailed to her then invalid mother in Salt Lake City, which were found in a trunk at her cousin's home.

(Ohmart now devotes much time and energy to meditative writing and the study of American Indian spiritual teachings. She has recorded Indian poetry and legends for various tribes.)

In the late 1960s, Merl invited her daughter to return home and live with her. Ohmart returned in 1971 for 14 months. She had left Hollywood after the 1970 Woodland Hills-Malibu fires, fearing the ashen sky was a sign of the final days.

"I've moved back to Salt Lake because life is so much cleaner here and less complex, and when there are TV jobs or movies, I will commute to Hollywood," she told a writer for the Deseret News.

Audio tapes made by Merl at the time of the visit, later found in one of the trunks, reveal that the reunion provided a chance for both mother and daughter to forgive and forget. It didn't work.

As Merl narrates in one tape: "Carol's in the other room packing her belongings with cologne. She's sending everything air freight to California. Doesn't have a place yet, but I don't ask questions. You'd think she'd have had her fill of Hollywood."

Ohmart still chased the fading dream. She starred with Cesar Romero in "The Spectre of Edgar Allen Poe," appeared on such TV shows as "Mannix," "Get Smart" and "The FBI"--and won a date to Reno on "The Dating Game."

In early 1973, on an episode of "Barnaby Jones" entitled "A Little Glory, a Little Death," she portrayed a washed-up starlet who was murdered. The show, shot at Paramount, used publicity shots from Ohmart's own brief fling with stardom.

Then bad turned to worse. Ohmart was attacked and beaten by three men on a Hollywood street. After emergency treatment, she said an attending doctor sent her home and prescribed pain killers to which she became addicted. A drug abuse hot line eventually led her to UCLA Medical Center and disability.

As Ohmart describes it now, this was the beginning of a series of physical ailments that included memory loss, backaches, narcolepsy (a sleeping disorder) and severe dental problems.

Once seen in sultry splendor on a huge billboard introducing her to the world, she was now reduced to poverty and obscurity.

In a 1976 letter to Merl, Ohmart wrote of her woes: "My 'worker' was here (again) to see if I qualify for aid. It has been rough living on $174 a month. I am sorry that I didn't apply three years ago when this battle began. I told the worker that I'm beginning to see my good light of health and spirit and asked if I could get a little extra for phone toll calls and transportation in order to look for work.

"The money I got from you and others in order to survive these past 3 1/2 years was just that--mere survival! In 1973, UCLA said I was 70% crippled and everything else. The remission of my illness (narcolepsy) has lasted over four months. Now I must get work!

"Still, I can't afford to be proud. I'll work as a nude model for art schools. For bust shots only. It pays $12 per hour for 3 hours, but it's something. I'm so in need, I'll drive the 45 miles for the $36."

In a September, 1976, entry of her audio diary, the aging Merl contemplated her life and relationship with Ohmart five years after their last reunion. The chirping and cooing of pet birds can be heard in the background of the recording.

"Carol says (in her letter) that I should take classes like she is," the tape begins.

"At 73, who cares about classes if you're not well and not able to do for yourself? I've learned to stand much pain, but as I get older, I still have too much education and knowledge and nothing of the thousands I've spent hoping someday, someone would care about me. Being in a wheelchair gives me much to think about. . . .

"Carol is a divine lady. She went through what Job in the Bible did and has loved God first. She will be healed. But now I can no longer send her rent money. I've given her thousands of dollars. I've never gotten a penny back. Now she wants me to go to classes. What I need is someone to care about me.

"What will happen to my birds when I'm gone? They're my life. They listen to me. Their cages are never shut in my house."

The day after our first meeting, I met Ohmart for brunch at the Hotel Alexis in downtown Seattle. Bill, who had declined to talk about his life before he met Ohmart, sent his regrets. The two met when Ohmart, having moved back to Salt Lake City in 1978, was still dependent on her mother, as much as she hated it. Merl, who was then in a wheelchair, had moved to low-income housing.

"I was still ailing, without any idea of where I was going or what I was going to do," Ohmart said over our food. "The Lady (Merl) had promised me a lot of things that weren't done."

"She had told me I could stay there, but after three days she wanted me out."

Then 51, the troubled ex-movie star, alternately pampered and abused by her mother, found a way out of Merl's clutches when she met Bill, a retired fireman and her mother's new upstairs neighbor. Little did Ohmart know that her 75-year-old mother also had set her sights on Bill, then 55.

"I had never met anyone like him," Ohmart said. "He accepted me for me and not what I'd been. That was new to me. He didn't make a big deal out of my physical problems. If we'd go for a walk and I had to sit and rest, he was there for me. We grew closer. Out of the blue, he said, 'Let's get married.' I thought about it a couple days and said, 'OK.'

"After we got married in Wyoming, we decided to move from Utah to be away from (Merl). It helped my physical and psychic recovery."

Later, in phone calls and letters, Ohmart detailed the love-hate relationship with her mother, confirmed the earlier child abuse incidents, and expressed relief in finally verbalizing it.

And while her almost debilitating anger toward her mother appears to have diminished, Ohmart's dependency on Merl--despite her protests to the contrary--apparently hasn't. She recently accepted $250 in cash that Merl left in a "green death bag" found in a trunk by her cousin, Claudia Atkinson.

"Part of my healing came from returning here," she said, as we walked through the Seattle fish market district. "Little pieces of my childhood, my soul, returned to me. On my first visit, I made a sentimental journey to my childhood dwelling. It was smaller than I had imagined.

"Bill swears he saw the ghost of a little girl come out of the house. 'Thank you for coming back and getting me,' the child told him."

Then the conversation changed, disturbing in light of how much Ohmart had reviled Hollywood, how desperately she said she had tried to leave it behind.

"Before your first call, I dreamt that Meryl Streep had called me," she said offhand. "She wanted to stay at my place a few weeks since she was going to star in a film about my life. I asked her if there was a small role for the 61-year old Carol Ohmart of today.

"Funny dream, isn't it?

"When I left Hollywood back in the 1970s, I didn't want to slam the door and padlock it," Ohmart said. "I was happy there in the early years. I was a star and flamboyant. I was successful and popular. I left because I was tired and wanted to find me. I've spent a decade being a quiet, ordinary person. I've found my peace, my secret garden.

"Now," Ohmart said, "I need to give of my talents again."

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