April 10, 1965

Look at that face with the Valentine eyebrows and pin-up girl pout, her little ribbon mouth blowing a plume of smoke like come here and give me a kiss. Nobody could smoke a cigarette like Linda Darnell. And here she is at forty-one, curled on a friend’s couch in a Chicago suburb, lighting up a long Pall Mall while watching one of her old movies and thinking about her strange relationship with time. That’s what happens when Life magazine calls you ‘the most physically perfect girl in Hollywood.’

After twelve years of bombshell service in romance, noir, and adventure films, Twentieth Century Fox let her go, citing concerns about her weight gain and heavy drinking. “Leaving the studio was like leaving home at twenty-eight,” she said. “I’d been there since I was sixteen.” She patched up her life with more booze and more men. When she was nineteen, she eloped with the camerman. He was forty-two. Then came Mickey Rooney and Howard Hughes and a dozen scuffed-up footnotes on Hollywood and Vine. There was the screenwriter with the yacht and the powerful director with rough hands like an ape. Yet the only man she truly loved was her high school sweetheart, a quiet Mexican boy who was terrified by her fame and moved away. She took her broken heart to Rome and did spaghetti westerns and opened an orphanage. “At thirty-two, I can see tell-tale marks in the mirror,” she said, “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.”

She dozed in the warm living room, listening to her younger Star Dust self say “Do you want to kiss me?” Maybe her Pall Mall dropped to the floor. Perhaps it landed on the script she was studying, a play at the local theater. The fire bloomed fast. Afraid to jump from the window, she tried to make it to the front door. The doorknob was too hot to touch and the flames took her as she heard herself on the television saying, “Now this is romance.”

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