Monetta Eloyse Darnell was born in Dallas, Texas, as one of four children (excluding her mother's two children from an earlier marriage), to postal clerk Calvin Roy Darnell and the former Pearl Brown. She was the younger sister of Undeen (born March 1918) and the older sister of Monte Maloya (born 1929) and Calvin Roy, Jr. (born 1930). Her parents were not happily married, and she grew up as a shy and reserved girl in a house of domestic turmoil. Starting at an early age, her mother Pearl had big plans for Darnell in the entertainment industry. Her mother believed that Darnell was her only child with potential as an actress and ignored the rearing of her other children.
According to her siblings, Darnell enjoyed the limelight and shared her mother's dream. Darnell herself, though, once commented: "Mother really shoved me along, spotting me in one contest after another. 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." One elocution teacher recalled: "[Darnell] didn't stand out particularly, except that she was so sweet and considerate. In her theater work she wasn't outstanding. But her mother was right behind her everywhere she went."
Unlike her husband, Pearl had a notorious reputation in the neighborhood of being "aggressive" or "downright mean". Despite some financial problems, Darnell insisted on having had a joyful childhood and loving parents. Darnell was a model by the age of 11 and was acting on the stage by the age of 13. She initially started modeling to save money for the household, and performed mostly in beauty contests.
Before leaving school for Hollywood, Darnell was a student at Sunset High School, which she entered in September 1937, majoring in Spanish and art. She did not have a lot in common with her peers and usually spent her time at home as a teen, working under the guidance of her mother. In 1936, she entered The Dallas Little Theater and was cast in the southwestern premiere ofMurder in the Cathedral. The same year, she was hired as one of the hostesses at the Texas Centennial Exposition.
In November 1937, a talent scout for 20th Century Fox arrived in Dallas, looking for new faces. Encouraged by her mother, Darnell met him, and after a few months he invited her for a screen testin Hollywood. Arriving in California alongside Mary Healy and Dorris Bowdon in February 1938, Darnell was initially rejected by film studios and was sent home because she was declared "too young".
Although originally wanting to become an actress on the stage, Darnell was featured in a "Gateway to Hollywood" talent-search and initially landed a contract at RKO Pictures. There was no certainty, though, and Darnell soon returned to Dallas. When 20th Century Fox offered her a part, Darnell wanted to accept, but RKO was unwilling to release her. Nevertheless, by age 15, she was signed to a contract at 20th Century Fox and moved to a small apartment in Hollywood all alone on April 5, 1939. With production beginning in April 1939, she featured in her first film Hotel for Women in 1939, which had newspapers immediately hail her the newest star of Hollywood. Loretta Young was originally assigned to play the role, but demanded a salary which the studio would not give her. Darryl F. Zanuck instead cast Darnell "because he felt that the name would advertise her beauty and suggest a Latin quality that matched her coloring."
Although only 15 at the time, Darnell posed as a 17-year-old and was listed as 19 years old by the studio. According to columnist Louella O. Parsons, Darnell was "so young, so immature and so naive in her ideas" and was very loyal to her boss, Darryl F. Zanuck. Her true age came out later in 1939, and she became one of the few actresses under the age of 16 to serve as leading ladies in films. While working on Hotel for Women, Darnell was cast alongside Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert in Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) in June 1939. She was later replaced, because the studio felt her role was not important enough. In an interview during production of Hotel for Women, which lasted until June, Darnell admitted that movie making was not what she expected: "I'm learning what really hard work is. At home in Dallas I used to sprawl on the lawn and dream about the nice, easy time the screen stars must be having in Hollywood, but the last two months have taught me quite another story."
Since the beginning of her career at 20th Century Fox, Darnell had been very positive about her frequent co-star Tyrone Power. In a 1939 interview, she expressed her interest in starring opposite Power in Johnny Apollo (1940). Rationalizing why she was not cast, Darnell said: "It's a man's part and the girl's role is only incidental." Dorothy Lamour was cast instead. Nevertheless, Darnell had her way as she was assigned in the female lead opposite Power in the light romantic comedy Day-Time Wife (1939). Although the film received only slightly favorable reviews, Darnell's performance was received positively, with one critic saying: "Despite her apparent youth, [Darnell] turns in an outstanding performance when playing with popular players." Another critic wrote that "little Linda is not only a breath-taking eyeful but a splendid actress as well." Life magazine stated that Darnell appeared to be 22 and was "the most physically perfect girl in Hollywood".Following the film's release, she was cast in the drama comedy Star Dust in December 1939. The film was hailed as one of the "most original entertainment idea in years" and boosted Darnell's popularity, being nicknamed 'Hollywood's loveliest and most exciting star'. Variety continued: "Miss Darnell displays a wealth of youthful charm and personality that confirms studio efforts to build her to a draw personality." Her studio contract had been revised to allow Darnell to earn $200 a week.
After appearing in several small films, Darnell was cast in her first big-budget film in May 1940, appearing again opposite Tyrone Power in Brigham Young (1940), which was shot on location in mid-1940 and was regarded the most expensive film 20th Century Fox had yet produced. Darnell and Power were cast together for the second time due to the box office success of Day-Time Wife, and they became a highly publicized onscreen couple, which prompted Darryl F. Zanuck to add 18 more romantic scenes to Brigham Young. The film's director, Henry Hathaway, in later life had only slight memories of Darnell and recalled that "a sweeter girl never lived." By June 1940, shortly after completing Brigham Young, Darnell achieved stardom and earned "a weekly salary larger than most bank officials."
In the summer of 1940, Darnell began working on The Mark of Zorro (1940), in which she again co-starred as Power's sweetheart in a role for which Anne Baxter was previously considered. A big budget adventure film that was raved over by the critics, The Mark of Zorro was a box office sensation and did much to enhance Darnell's star status. Afterwards, she was paired withHenry Fonda for the first time in the western Chad Hanna (1940), her first Technicolor film. The film received only little attention, unlike Darnell's next film Blood and Sand (1941), was shot on location in Mexico and she was re-teamed with Power. It was the first film for which she was widely critically acclaimed. Nevertheless, Darnell later claimed that her downfall began after Blood and Sand. In an interview she said:
- "People got tired of seeing the sweet young things I was playing and I landed at the bottom of the roller coaster. The change and realization were very subtle. I'd had the fame and money every girl dreams about–and the romance. I'd crammed thirty years into ten, and while it was exciting and I would do it over again, I still know I missed out on my girlhood, the fun, little things that now seem important."
The studio was unable to find Darnell suitable roles. In late 1940, Fox chose her for the main role in Song of the Islands (1942), a Hawaiian musical film which eventually starred Betty Grable.After Blood and Sand, she was set to co-star with Claudette Colbert in Remember the Day (1941), but another actress was eventually cast. Meanwhile, she was considered for the female lead in Swamp Water (1941), but Anne Baxter was later assigned the role. Darnell was disappointed and felt rejected; she later said: "Right under your very nose someone else is brought in for that prize part you wanted so terribly." Months passed by without any work, and in August 1941 she was cast in a supporting role in the musical Rise and Shine (1941). The film was a setback in her career, and she was rejected for a later role because she refused to respond to Darryl F. Zanuck's advances. Instead, she contributed to the war effort, working for the Red Cross, selling war bonds, and she was a regular at the Hollywood Canteen.
In early 1942, Darnell filmed The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe, another film that would not do much to improve her career. Meanwhile, she realized that Darryl F. Zanuck had lost interest in her, and she was overlooked for most film roles that suited her. Instead, she was cast in roles that she loathed, including the musical Orchestra Wives (1942). Zanuck insisted that she take the role, but she was replaced by Ann Rutherford after twelve days of shooting. The press reported that "Linda Darnell and Twentieth Century-Fox aren't on the best of terms at the moment." As a punishment, she was loaned out to another studio for a supporting role in a B movie called City Without Men. According to co-star Rosemary DeCamp, Darnell nevertheless was "very polite", and she was satisfied to work at a studio which did not treat her as a child. In April 1943, she was put on suspension, which meant being replaced in the Technicolor musical film The Gang's All Here (1943). By this time, Darnell had eloped, which caused Zanuck to be in even greater fury.
In 1943, she was cast, uncredited, as the Virgin Mary in The Song of Bernadette. By late 1943, Darnell was fed up with critics only praising her beauty rather than her acting abilities. Judging her performance in Sweet and Low-Down (1944), in which she co-starred with Lynn Bari, one critic of the Los Angeles Examiner wrote, "Lynn comes off the best because she has more of a chance to shine. Linda just doesn't have enough to do – but looks beautiful doing it." Darnell was reduced to second leads and was overlooked for big budget productions. Matters changed when she was named one of the four most beautiful women in Hollywood, along with Hedy Lamarr, Ingrid Bergman and Gene Tierney in a 1944 edition of Lookmagazine. Afterwards, the studio allowed her to be loaned out for the lead in Summer Storm. Portraying a "seductive peasant girl who takes three men to their ruin before she herself is murdered," it was a type of role she had never before played. In a later interview, Darnell commented:
- I was told that such a violent change of type might ruin my career, but I insisted on taking the chance. [...] This is one picture on which I am setting much store for the future. For eighteen months I did nothing in pictures. I pleaded for something to do, but nothing happened. The character in the Chekhov film is a wild sort of she-devil, which any actress would go miles to play. She's devil mostly–at times angelic–and perfectly fascinating to interpret. I'm counting on my Russian girl to give me a new start.
Released in 1944, the film provided her a new screen image as a pin-up girl. Shortly after, Darnell was again loaned out to portray a showgirl in The Great John L., the first film to feature her bare legs. Darnell complained that the studio lacked recognition of her, which prodded Darryl F. Zanuck to cast her in Hangover Square (1945), playing a role she personally had chosen. The film became a great success, and with Darnell's triumph assured, she was allowed to abandon her upcoming film Don Juan Quilligan (1945), which would have been another low point in her career. In January 1945, she was added to the cast of the film noir Fallen Angel (1945), which also included Dana Andrews and Alice Faye. Despite suffering from the "terrifying" director Otto Preminger, Darnell completed the film and was praised by reviewers so widely that there was even talk of an Oscar nomination. Due to her success in Fallen Angel, she was cast opposite Tyrone Power in Captain from Castile in December 1945, on the insistence of Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Although she looked forward to the film project, believing it would be her most important to date, she was later replaced by newcomer Jean Peters due to scheduling conflicts, a decision she resented.
In 1946, Darnell filmed two pictures simultaneously, the expensively budgeted Anna and the King of Siam and Preminger's Centennial Summer. During the release of the latter, she was on location in Monument Valley for the filming of the classic western My Darling Clementine (1946), playing a role for which she lost twelve pounds. She was assigned to a negligible role by Zanuck, which displeased the film's director, John Ford, who felt that she was not suitable.
In 1947, Darnell won the starring role in the highly anticipated movie Forever Amber, based on a bestselling historical novel that was denounced as being immoral at that time. The character, Amber, was so named because of her hair color, and this is the only major film in which Darnell—normally known for her raven hair and somewhat Latin looks—appears as a redhead. It was the most expensive film yet produced by Fox, and publicity at the time compared the novel Forever Amber to Gone with the Wind. Darnell replaced British actress Peggy Cummins in July 1946 at a cost of $350,000. Because $1 million had already been spent on production costs when Darnell was brought in, the pressure was high to make the film a financial success. Her casting was a result of a campaign for stronger roles. Regardless, she was surprised to find out that she had been cast, because she had been intensively rehearsing for Captain from Castile by the time. Although she had to give up that role and work with Otto Preminger, she was delighted to play the title role and thought she was "the luckiest girl in Hollywood."
The search for the actress to portray Amber, a beauty who uses men to make her fortune in 17th-century England, was modeled on the extensive process that led to the casting of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara. Production demanded a lot from Darnell. She was again put on a diet and was assigned to a voice coach to learn how to speak with an English accent. In addition, she spent hours in fittings for costume changes. Darnell was certain that Forever Amber would be her ticket to stardom, and she told reporters:
- My first seven years in Hollywood were a series of discouraging struggles for me. For a while it looked as though the Darnell-versus-Hollywood tussle was going to find Darnell coming out second best. The next seven years aren't going to be the same.
Darnell worked long hours at the studio during filming, and according to her older sister she started loathing Preminger, which did not ease production. This and the heavy dieting resulted in exhaustion and a serious illness in November 1946. Her shooting schedule lasted until March 1947, and she collapsed on the set two times in the meanwhile. Forever Amber did not live up to its hype, and although it became a success at the box office, most reviewers agreed that the film was a disappointment. Darnell was disappointed in the film's reception; it did not gain her the recognition she longed for.
The following year, Darnell portrayed Daphne de Carter in the Preston Sturges' comedy Unfaithfully Yours (1948), also starring Rex Harrison, and was then rushed into production as one of the three wives in the comedy/drama A Letter to Three Wives (1949). Darnell's hard-edged performance in the latter won her unanimous acclaim and the best reviews of her career. Darnell became one of the most-demanded actresses in Hollywood, and she now had the freedom to select her own roles. She longed for the leading role in the controversial film Pinky (1949), but Zanuck feared that her character would be compared to Amber by the audience, and A Letter to Three Wives co-star Jeanne Crain was cast instead.
Darnell had been widely expected to win an Academy Award nomination for A Letter to Three Wives; when this did not happen, her career began to wane. She was cast opposite Richard Widmark and Veronica Lake in Slattery's Hurricane (1949), which she perceived as a step down from the level she had reached with A Letter to Three Wives, even though it did well at the box office.
Aside from her co-starring role opposite Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier in the groundbreaking No Way Out (1950), directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, which she later called "the only good picture [she] ever made," her later films were rarely noteworthy, and her appearances were increasingly sporadic. Further hampering Darnell's career was the actress's alcoholism and weight gain. Her next film was a western, Two Flags West (1950). Due to her allergy to horses, she loathed making westerns, and in addition to her complaints about her "colorless" role, she disliked her co-stars Joseph Cotten and Cornel Wilde. She was even less enthusiastic about her next film The 13th Letter (1951), which reunited her with Otto Preminger, and she only took the role because it was an unglamorous one. Shortly after its release, she was put on suspension for refusing a role in the film The Guy Who Came Back (1951) opposite Paul Douglas and Joan Bennett, because it felt "too similar." She later consented to take on the glamor role, but she refused to bleach her hair for it.
On March 21, 1951, Darnell signed a new contract with 20th Century Fox that allowed her to become a freelance actress. Her first film outside 20th Century Fox was for Universal Pictures, The Lady Pays Off (1951), after Douglas Sirk requested her for the lead role. She was responsible for putting the film behind schedule, because on the fifth day of shooting she learned that Ivan Kahn, the man responsible for her breakthrough, had died. After The Lady Pays Off, Darnell headed the cast of Saturday Island (1952), which was filmed on location in Jamaica in late 1951. There Darnell fell ill and had to be quarantined for several weeks. Because her contract required her to make one film a year for the studio, she reported to the lot of 20th Century Fox in March 1952 and was cast in the film noir Night Without Sleep (1952). It was the only time that she had to live up to this part of her contract, though, since she was released from it in September 1952, most likely because the competition of television forced studios all over Hollywood to drop actors.
This news initially excited Darnell, because it permitted her to focus on her film career in Europe. She soon realized, though, that the ease and protection enjoyed under contract was gone, and she came to resent 20th Century Fox and Zanuck:
- Suppose you'd been earning $4,000 to $5,000 a week for years. Suddenly you were fired and no one would hire you at any figure remotely comparable to your previous salary. I thought in a little while I'd get offers from other studios, but not many came along. The only thing I knew how to do was be a movie star. No one expects to last forever in this business. You know that sooner or later the studio's going to let you go. But who wants to be retired at twenty-nine?
Before traveling to Italy for a two-picture deal with Giuseppe Amato, Darnell was rushed into the production of Blackbeard the Pirate (1952), which — much to Darnell's distress — went far behind schedule. She arrived in Italy in August 1952 and started filming Angels of Darkness (1954) in February of the next year. The second collaboration proved disastrous, and the next film was never released in the United States. Due to a delay in the middle of production, she was sent back to Hollywood, and there accepted an offer from Howard Hughes to star in RKO's 3-D film Second Chance (1953), filmed in Mexico. Afterwards, she flew back to Rome to complete Angels of Darkness, in which she spoke Italian. Upon returning to New York, she was under the misunderstanding that she would portray the title role in Mankiewicz' The Barefoot Contessa (1954), believing that the role could carry her to dramatic heights. Through trade papers, she learned that Ava Gardner assumed the part.
Because of her then husband, Philip Liebmann, Darnell put her career on a hiatus. She returned to 20th Century Fox in August 1955, by which time the studio had entered the television field. Darnell was eager to appear on Ronald W. Reagan's General Electric Theater. In 1958, Darnell appeared in the episode "Kid on a Calico Horse" of NBC's Cimarron City, along with a cast of other guest stars, including Edgar Buchanan. That same year, she held the guest-starring title role in "The Dora Gray Story" of NBC's Wagon Train. Dora is an attractive young woman trying to reach San Francisco and has inadvertently joined with a gun runner played by John Carradine to reach the west. Robert Horton carries the cast lead in the segment, and Mike Connors appears as Miles Borden, Dora's erstwhile love interest but a corrupt United States Army lieutenant bitter over his meager $54-per-month pay.Dan Blocker, more than a year before Bonanza, also guests in this segment.
In addition to television, Darnell returned to the stage. Darnell's last work as an actress was in a stage production in Atlanta, Georgia in early 1965.
Since Darnell was underage when she arrived in Hollywood, she was tutored on the sets. She planned on attending graduation day at Sunset High School, but she was excluded from it, and instead she graduated from University High School in 1941. Her work schedules prohibited her from enrolling in a university.
In 1940, during the shooting of Star Dust, Darnell for a short time went out with teen idol Mickey Rooney. Her first love was Jaime Jorba, a Mexican whom she met while still in high school. They met again during production of Blood and Sand, but they drifted apart when Jorba announced he could not marry a girl who was in the public eye. Starting at age 17, Darnell dated herpublicity agent Alan Gordon, whom she allegedly married in a double wedding with Lana Turner and Joseph Stephen Crane on July 17, 1942. The report turned out to be false, and over the years Darnell became known as "filmland's most eligible bachelorette." Up to 1942, she dated Kay Kyser, Eddie Albert, George Montgomery and Jackie Cooper, among others. At one point, she was set to elope with talent agent Vic Orsatti, only to report later that she was "concentrating on [her] career."
Although a well-loved figure on the 20th Century Fox lot among the cast, crew and lot workers, it was reported that Darnell made only one good friend in Hollywood, actress-singer Ann Miller, whom she met at a Catalina Island benefit. Darnell was very negative about the Hollywood social scene, finding it "nauseating". During her stay in Hollywood, her relationship with her mother Pearl worsened, her mother being an unpopular figure on the lot due to her overbearing and possessive behavior. In 1940, Pearl accused her husband of having an incestuousrelationship with Evelyn, one of her children, even though he was not Evelyn's biological father. Following an intense fight between her parents in 1942, Darnell left home with her younger sister Monte and never returned. In spite, Pearl turned to the press, which gained Darnell some bad publicity.
In 1942, Darnell was plagued with extortion letters from an unknown person threatening her with bodily harm unless $2,000 was paid immediately. The studio asked the FBI to protect the actress, and eventually a 17-year-old high school student was arrested for the crime.
On April 18, 1943, at age 19, Darnell eloped with 42-year-old cameraman Peverell Marley in Las Vegas. Darnell and Marley started seeing each other in 1940, and the press dismissed him as her "devoted friend and escort." Most friends and relatives disapproved of the marriage, including 20th Century Fox and her parents, and it was believed that Darnell looked at Marley more as a father figure than her romantic interest. Marley was a heavy drinker and introduced Darnell to alcohol in 1944, which eventually led to an addiction and weight problem. Neighbors and acquaintances recalled the drastic change she underwent in this period, becoming hardened and hot-tempered. In 1946, during production of Centennial Summer, she repeatedly met with Howard Hughes. Although she initially disregarded gossip of an affair, she fell in love with the womanizing millionaire and separated from Marley shortly after finishing My Darling Clementine. When Hughes announced that he had no desire to marry her, Darnell returned to her husband and cancelled divorce proceedings. Shortly after the reunion, her health worsened, caused by the tough production of Forever Amber (1947).
Because Darnell and Marley were unable to have children, they adopted a daughter in 1948, Charlotte Mildred "Lola" Marley (born January 5, 1948), the actress's only child. She also planned to adopt a boy within years, but nothing ever came of it. In mid-1948, she became romantically involved with Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the director of A Letter to Three Wives, and in July 1948, she filed for divorce. Mankiewicz, however, was unwilling to leave his wife for Darnell, and even though the affair would continue for six years, she returned to her husband. Whereas she called him the "great love of her life," Mankiewicz never acknowledged the affair; he only mentioned her to his biographer as a "marvelous girl with very terrifying personal problems." In 1949, Darnell went into psychotherapy for hostile emotions that she had been building since childhood. Darnell's romance with Mankiewicz influenced her personal life. When he left in late 1949 for on location shooting of All About Eve (1950), Darnell fell into a depression and almost committed suicide. She continued to occasionally meet with him until production of The Barefoot Contessa (1954) started.
On January 25, 1949, Darnell went to court to sue her former business manager Cy Tanner for fraud. She testified that he stole $7,250 from her between 1946 and 1947, and Tanner was eventually sent to prison. On July 19, 1950, it was reported that Darnell had separated from her husband. Marley offered a quiet settlement - without mention of Mankiewicz - for a payment of $125,000. She agreed, and she almost lost all of her money. When she filed for divorce from Marley in 1951, she accused her husband of cruelty, claiming he was "rude" and "critical" towards Darnell and her family. Following a five-minute hearing, Darnell was granted a divorce and custody of Charlotte, while Marley was to pay $75 a month for child support.
"At thirty-two, I can see tell-tale marks in the mirror, but the ravages of time no longer terrify me. I am told that when surface beauty is gone, the real woman emerges. My only regret will be that I could not have begun it earlier - that so many years have been ruined because I was considered beautiful."
Darnell shortly after her divorce from Liebmann.
In her later life, she dated actor Dick Paxton and had an affair with Italian director Giuseppe Amato. She marriedbrewery heir Philip Liebmann in February 1954. Due to a lack of physical attraction from her side, Darnell agreed that the marriage would be a business arrangement: she was to be his wife in name only, and in return, he supported her financially. After a while, she grew dissatisfied with her loveless marriage, and she detested her husband for allowing her to lash out at him, as well as cheapening her by buying her lavish presents. In response, Darnell resorted to charity work, opening facilities accommodating thirty girls in the neighborhood of Rome in 1955. Liebmann attempted to save the marriage by adopting a baby named Alfreda, but the marriage ended nevertheless on grounds of incompatibility, and Liebmann kept the girl.
Darnell was married to pilot Merle Roy Robertson from 1957 to 1963. In 1963, Darnell was granted a divorce from Robertson following an outburst in the courtroom, where she accused her third husband of fathering the baby of a Polish actress. She was promised a monthly alimony of $350 until July 15, 1964, and $250 until September 15, 1967.
Darnell died on April 10, 1965 from burns she received in a house fire in Glenview, Illinois. She had been staying there with friends while preparing for a stage role in the Chicago area. Her 1940 film, Star Dust, had played on television the night of the fire, and it was widely reported that Darnell had fallen asleep with a lit cigarette while watching it. Some more sensational reports claimed she was intoxicated and despondent over her career. But biographer Ronald L. Davis, in his book Hollywood Beauty, wrote that there was no evidence that any of these stories were true, or that Darnell was in any way responsible for the blaze. By his account, Darnell was burned over 90 percent of her body because rather than jump from the window as her friend's daughter had already done, Darnell tried to make it to the front door. She reached the door but the doorknob was too hot to touch.
Her ashes are interred at the Union Hill Cemetery, Chester County, Pennsylvania, in the family plot of her son-in-law. For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Linda Darnell has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1631 Vine Street.