The latest story in our series that revisits some of the most infamous and curious crimes in Hollywood history
IN TINSELTOWN’S GOLDEN AGE, CELEBRATED SCREEN SIREN MARIE “ THE BODY” McDONALD SHOCKED THE NATION WITH HER SENSATIONAL STORY OF BEING KIDNAPPED, ATTACKED, AND HELD FOR RANSOM. THE CONVERGENCE OF TRUTH AND FICTION BAFFLED POLICE AND CREATED SUSPICION THAT BECAME PART OF HER LEGACY
By JOE McGOVERN @JMCGVRN
MCDONALD: BETTMANN ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES
T here are many mysteries in the nighttime desert. A spooky whistling noise could be the wind or a wolf’s howl. A shift of movement in the sand might be moonlight or a rattlesnake. A stranger approaching could be a crazed lunatic or someone who is desperately lost, seeking help, pleading to have a story heard.
At 11:15 p.m. on Jan. 4, 1957, a truck driver named Richard D. Corn became the first of many to hear one such tale. Corn was barreling his tractor-trailer 15 miles east of Coachella, Calif., when his headlights illuminated a blond woman with sand in her hair, dressed in a bathrobe and slippers, waving her arms on the highway. “I had a hard time stopping,” Corn later told police. “She runs around to the side of the cab and there she is, crying and carrying on hysterical.”
The woman had a swollen lip, two cracked teeth, and bruises on her face and legs. As Corn was speeding her to the nearest hospital, something occurred to him. “I thought I recognized her from the pictures in the papers,” he said. Sure enough, earlier that day, The New York Times and other publications had run articles about the disappearance of 33-year-old Hollywood starlet Marie McDonald. Here she was, 24 hours after she reportedly had been abducted from her home. And here is her story.
Who was Marie McDonald?
Though she appeared in more than a dozen movies throughout the 1940s, mostly in supporting roles, her name as an actress has slipped into obscurity. Born Cora Marie Frye in Kentucky in 1923, she ventured to New York as a teenager with her mother and entered numerous beauty pageants. By 17, she had won the title of Miss New York State and debuted on Broadway as a showgirl. Making her way to California, McDonald landed a contract for $75 per week with Universal Pictures. It was after her appearance in the 1942 Abbott and Costello vehicle Pardon My Sarong that she acquired her notorious nickname, based on her voluptuous figure: The Body.
“Can you imagine being called that today?” asks Tina Diamond, McDonald’s only biological child. (Before giving birth to Tina, McDonald also adopted two children.) “It would be just awful. But back then calling a woman ‘The Body’ was apparently okay as a marketing tool. I don’t think she liked it. In fact I know she didn’t. She was funny and very smart, and she knew it was creepy.”
Despite—or perhaps because of—that label, McDonald never caught hold of a project to launch her into major stardom. In 1944, at the height of World War II, she flashed some leg as a pinup girl in the U.S. Army’s Yank magazine, and in 1947 she was romanced on screen by Gene Kelly in the musical Living in a Big Way. She screentested for the leading role in the comedy Born Yesterday, the movie that won star Judy Holliday an Oscar in 1951. Marilyn Monroe, three years McDonald’s junior, was cornering the market on bleach-blond seductresses. A greater degree of McDonald’s fame came from her love affairs and marriages, which tabloid newspaper and magazine writers of the day covered voraciously.
By her early 30s, McDonald had been married four times—and for a few months was even the mistress of infamous gangster Bugsy Siegel, shortly before he was shot to death through the window of a Beverly Hills mansion. “Her biggest problem was that she had terrible relationships with men,” her daughter says. “And there were always men chasing her, I guess for her looks, and she couldn’t resist them.”
The Los Angeles Times front page from Jan. 5, 1957
Her third and fourth marriages were to wealthy tycoon Harry Karl, owner of the largest privately owned shoe-store chain in the country. Six weeks after divorcing him in late 1954, McDonald announced her intention to remarry Karl—yet then reversed course, telling the media that she was allergic to him and that “when I am with Harry, I get sick. When I am away from him, I never get sick.” Nevertheless, McDonald and Karl did tie the knot for a second time in June of 1955. But by the fall of the following year, after McDonald filed a police report accusing Karl of domestic violence, they were separated and living apart again.
And so it was around midnight on the evening of Jan. 3, 1957, that McDonald was alone in her bedroom in her lavish home at 17031 Magnolia Blvd. in Encino, Calif. A housekeeper and a chauffeur were asleep downstairs, as were her three children (Tina was 5 months old), when McDonald heard a clanging noise outside her window. There she saw her boxer dog running toward a man tapping a stick against the property’s fence. Next to him was another man holding a sawed-off shotgun. Both were wearing long leather jackets.
“Call off the dog or else we’ll shoot,” the first man shouted. McDonald obeyed. Within moments the two men, one African-American and the other Mexican, were inside her home. She asked what they wanted. “We want your rings, your money, and your body,” they said, and threatened the lives of her children if McDonald screamed or made any sudden gestures. Over the next half hour, they stole pearls and diamonds from her jewelry boxes and prepared a ransom note by clipping block letters out of newspaper headlines. Once the note was finished and placed in the house’s mailbox, the men blindfolded McDonald and forced her at gunpoint into a two-door sedan parked in the street.
(Top) Marie McDonald flanked by police during a filmed reenactment of her abduction
(Bottom) McDonald speaks about her ordeal upon arriving home
(Left) Marie McDonald flanked by police during a filmed reenactment of her abduction
(Right) McDonald speaks about her ordeal upon arriving home
Sitting in the backseat of the car, she was terrified as the men drove for more than an hour toward the California desert. Eventually they arrived at a small bungalow, where she was brought inside and made to swallow several pills with whiskey. McDonald was able to hold some of the pills in her cheek, but soon enough she was fading into drowsiness. Around this same time, Marie Tuboni, McDonald’s mother and a former Ziegfeld Follies girl, received a phone call at her home in Woodland Hills, Calif. “We have Marie,” a nervous young male voice told her. “No harm will come to her if police are not notified.”
Yet Tuboni immediately called the cops and then drove to McDonald’s home. The gate and the front door were wide open, but the three children were safe in their beds. A policeman soon arrived, discovered the note in the mailbox (“She won’t be hurt to get money,” it awkwardly read), and informed his superiors at the Los Angeles Police Department. Then, at 2:10 a.m., McDonald’s estranged husband was awakened by the ringing of his phone. “We have your wife,” a man murmured to Harry Karl. “If you want to see her alive again, don’t contact police.”
Back in the bungalow, McDonald roused herself from the narcotics-induced slumber. The men had left her alone in a room with a telephone. She could hear them arguing about her ransom amount, and she knew she needed to do something. It was after four o’clock in the morning when she quietly lifted the phone’s receiver and dialed the number of famed Hollywood gossip columnist Harrison Carroll. “Tonight at my home these two men came in and abducted me,” she whispered to him. “I’m blindfolded and doped. I wish to God I knew where I was.”
As night turned into day, McDonald’s kidnapping appeared in headlines across the nation. “Marie McDonald Missing on Coast,” boomed The New York Times. The LAPD sprung into action. Roadblocks were set up as far away as Arizona. In the bungalow, McDonald was left alone as the two men went out for turkey sandwiches. She was able to make two more phone calls—one to actor and beau Michael Wilding (the soon-to-be ex-husband of Elizabeth Taylor) and the other to her business manager Harold Plant. Shortly before three o’clock in the afternoon, she cried to Plant, “I’m still held captive!”
As dusk was approaching, the men entered the room and discovered McDonald on the phone. They grabbed her by the wrist. A struggle ensued, and she was slapped in the face before being blindfolded again and shoved back in the car. This time she fought furiously, scratching both men on their faces and chests. “We have to get rid of her here,” one said to the other, “because we’re getting close to the border.” The men twisted McDonald’s seven-carat diamond ring off her finger and dumped her out of the car, where she plummeted down a 25-foot embankment. Minutes later, a full day after her lurid ordeal had begun, she was saved by spotting the headlights of Richard D. Corn’s truck.
That was Marie McDonald’s story—and she was sticking to it. On Jan. 7, the actress wore large sunglasses as she was carried on a stretcher back into her house. “Thank God I am safe with my children,” she told the assembled press. “There were times when I thought I would never see them again.” However, before she had even been found alive and returned home, estranged husband Harry Karl was expressing an alternative point of view. “Marie is very sick,” he said to reporters, “and I think she left the house of her own will.”
Karl wasn’t alone in doubting the full truth of McDonald’s claims. In comments to reporters about her case, LAPD officers uttered the phrase “puzzling discrepancies,” while the words “hoax” and “publicity stunt” appeared in news headlines as early as the next day. One cop was asked if the force was actively searching for McDonald’s abductors, and he quipped, “Yeah, but not very hard.” McDonald’s reputation was working against her. She had not appeared in a movie for seven years but was still generating headlines—for marriages, divorces, a DUI hit-and-run crash in Beverly Hills, and another car accident in Benedict Canyon. Following her arrest in the hit-and-run, she was accused of kicking one LAPD officer in the groin and biting the thumb of another.
MARIE MCDONALD’S LIFE
HAD MORE PLOT TWISTS
THAN ANY FILM.
THESE ARE HER SEVEN
MOST NOTABLE ROLES.
by JOE McGOVERN
Pardon My Sarong 1942
In this Abbott and Costello comedy, McDonald is on screen for only a few minutes as an exotic island girl. But the role earned the actress her nickname: The Body.
A Scream in the Dark 1943
A razor-tipped umbrella is the murder weapon in this snappy detective mystery. McDonald costars as the private eye’s spunky girlfriend.
Guest in the House 1944
Anne Baxter (
) chews scenery as a wicked woman trying to seduce a married artist (Ralph Bellamy). McDonald is subtle by comparison as his boozy muse.
Getting Gertie's Garter 1945
McDonald has a blast with them crackling dialogue of this farce, as a former showgirl whose ex needs to retrieve the title piece of lingerie.
The Geisha Boy 1958
In her first movie after the kidnapping brouhaha, McDonald pokes fun at her image as a glam movie star who’s tripped down a flight of stairs by a clumsy magician (Jerry Lewis).
Promises! Promises! 1963
Jayne Mansfield’s nude scenes in this sex romp ushered in a newer, bluer Hollywood era. McDonald plays a married woman she meets on a cruise.
PARDON MY SARONG: UNIVERSAL PICTURES/PHOTOFEST; A SCREAM IN THE DARK, GUEST IN THE HOUSE: EVERETT COLLECTION (2)
GETTING GERTIE’S GARTER, THE GEISHA BOY, PROMISES! PROMISES!,: EVERETT COLLECTION (3); LIVING IN A BIG WAY: ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
In the kidnapping case, she initially claimed to have been sexually assaulted, but physician Allan Fisher explained she showed “no evidence of any type of a criminal attack.” There was the matter of the crumpled newspapers found in McDonald’s fireplace, remnants of the ransom note. “It is far-fetched to believe that any kidnappers would take that much time and trouble to make up a note in the home,” LAPD inspector Edward Walker said. There was the bizarreness of her telephone calls from the bungalow. “It’s hard to imagine kidnappers who would let their victim have access to a telephone,” remarked LAPD lieutenant Ernest Johnston, head of a 10-man team assigned to the investigation. “And why didn’t she call police instead?”
On that point, McDonald offered an explanation that only intensified the police’s skepticism: The kidnappers, she now asserted, had ordered her to make the calls. “They wanted to alarm the people they planned to ask for ransom money,” she said. “They would ask me the number, dial it for me, and then hand me the phone. The only number I could remember was Harrison Carroll’s, so I called him.” But then why had she told Carroll, according to his account, “They’re in the next room. They think I’m asleep”?
Most scintillating to the public were the similarities between McDonald’s tale and the plot of Sylvia Tate’s 1956 comic novel The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown, a copy of which was found in McDonald’s home. In the book, two men kidnap a famous blond actress in her pajamas from her home; the woman embeds with her captors and falls in love with one of them. (In the summer of 1957, a movie version of The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown, starring Jane Russell, was released. The film’s marketing fully capitalized on the McDonald rumormongering by declaring on its posters: “Police Hint Publicity Hoax!”)
The lead character in The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown is vexed by the possibility that people might think her abduction was a stunt—a fear also very much alive within McDonald. After making remarks to the media, she settled back in her home, along with her mother, boyfriend Wilding, and superstar lawyer Jerry Giesler, who had three years earlier represented Marilyn Monroe in her divorce from Joe DiMaggio. And according to the Associated Press, “After [McDonald] entered the house, reporters could hear her sobbing, ‘Nobody believes me.’ ”
Police sketches of her kidnappers, based on McDonald’s description
But Los Angeles chief of police William H. Parker wasn’t including himself among the doubters. As Giesler was denouncing the suggestion that McDonald take a lie-detector test as “insulting” to his client, L.A.’s top cop spent Sunday, Jan. 13, reading The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown. In speaking to reporters, Parker noted that the similarities between McDonald’s case and the novel did not prove her kidnapping was a hoax. “We don’t want to be charged with harassing her,” he said. “She hasn’t been accused of anything.”
“To state the obvious, high-profile stars get treated by police differently from your average victim,” says best-selling author Steve Hodel, a retired 25-year veteran of the LAPD’s homicide division. The McDonald case proved that truism with one of the most spectacular charades in California law enforcement history. Two days after her safe return home, the LAPD orchestrated a Hollywood-caliber reenactment of her alleged abduction. The two dozen reporters and photographers on the scene were ecstatic. Newspaperman James Bacon penned an article snarkily headlined “Police Crew Films ‘The Body Snatchers,’ ” in which he wrote, “The movie had everything any Cecil B. DeMille epic ever had—except camels. There were four scenes requiring six takes; a bedroom shot and an outdoor location; a producer and director (both policemen)!”
According to Hodel, such an occurrence was unprecedented. “Thad Brown was the LAPD’s chief of detectives back then, and he loved to rub elbows with movie stars,” Hodel says. “One of his drinking buddies was Jack Webb, who was the creator and star of Dragnet, which was extremely popular on TV in 1957. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Brown spearheaded the whole reenactment thing.” But Hodel notes that the elaborate cinematic overture could also have been the LAPD’s own demonstration of crisis management. “Their main motivation might have been what we call CYA—cover your ass—so that nothing in the McDonald case came back to bite them.”
Two weeks later, McDonald appeared for three hours before a grand jury, empaneled to decide whether there was enough evidence for indictments against the two still-unidentified assailants in her case. Walking out of the hearing with tears in her eyes, she told reporters, “I was in a state of shock when I made my statement in [the hospital]. I’m glad to clear up these so-called glaring discrepancies.” She expressed her hope that the grand jury would issue “John Doe” indictments against the two men, who she said would probably still show scratch marks on their faces from her fingernails. Yet the 19-man jury concluded that there was insufficient evidence to issue charges. The case was effectively closed. McDonald was shattered. “We will not rest until the men who kidnapped me are brought to justice,” she said.
We will not rest until the men who kidnapped me are brought to justice.
— MARIE McDONALD
(Left) Harry Karl taking a lie-detector test in 1958 after McDonald accused him of ordering her kidnapping
(Right) Karl and McDonald with their daughter Tina
(Top) Harry Karl taking a lie-detector test in 1958 after McDonald accused him of ordering her kidnapping
(Bottom) Karl and McDonald with their daughter Tina
One more twist was left to come. Fourteen months after the grand jury decision ceased momentum in her case, McDonald reported to police that she knew who had been the mastermind behind her abduction. Speaking to the press from her hotel room in Kentucky, where she was touring and singing in her own nightclub act, McDonald revealed that she had made contact with the two men who kidnapped her and had traveled to meet them in Las Vegas. There she paid them $5,000 in exchange for information about who they were working for. They told her, she said, that it was her estranged husband Harry Karl.
When she confronted Karl, McDonald claimed, he then confessed his guilt to her. “Harry begged me not to say anything about this to the police,” she told the reporters. Karl adamantly denied her allegations. In a statement he said, “It’s absurd and ridiculous, and I think it’s in bad taste to get publicity through this method. I feel sorry for Marie. She needs a great deal of help.” The LAPD’s Thad Brown was interested in knowing why McDonald hadn’t flagged Karl as a suspect before. “We’d certainly like to talk to her when she gets back to Los Angeles,” he said. Her timing for dropping this bombshell was particularly curious, as one day earlier Karl had asked McDonald to grant him their second divorce. To reporters in her hotel room, she swore to do no such thing. While choking back sobs, she told them, “In spite of everything I love him, but I’m afraid of him.”
In Los Angeles, Karl eagerly volunteered to take a lie-detector test and was cleared of any wrongdoing in the kidnapping case. The next day at a press conference with police brass, including Chief Parker, McDonald emotionally withdrew her accusations. “Just say that I am retracting the whole story. What I said is in conflict with the truth.” Though she managed to add, “Except that Mr. Karl told me he had something to do with it.” McDonald and Karl’s divorce was finalized a month later and a bright interlude of good news was in store for the actress that spring. She was cast opposite Jerry Lewis in a comedy called The Geisha Boy, which opened in December 1958 to favorable reviews.
But McDonald’s resurgence didn’t last. She appeared in just one more movie (1963’s risqué Promises! Promises!) before her death in 1965 at the age of 42. She was discovered slumped over her dressing table by her sixth husband, Promises! Promises! producer Donald F. Taylor; coroners later revealed the cause to have been an accidental drug overdose. McDonald’s children were raised, in another wild turn of events, by Karl’s famous third wife, Debbie Reynolds, and McDonald’s widower, Taylor, committed suicide nine weeks after her death.
Tina Diamond, who was 9 when she lost her mother, doesn’t dispute McDonald’s turbulent reputation. “She was a wild woman, that I was aware of,” Diamond says. “It was an extravagant life. I rode a horse to school in the morning, for instance. Marie would smuggle firecrackers into our pants when we were kids, so that she could light them off in the yard. The police would always come, but they’d just stand there and watch. She loved firework shows.”
And though Diamond possesses no eyewitness knowledge of the alleged kidnapping, she poses a reasonable question when asked about it: “If she did it for publicity, how did she end up with bruises and knocked-out teeth? She was way too vain for that. Did she beat herself up? No way my mother would do that.” But then Diamond offers up the name of a man who she says could know something more. “He was a young guy, obviously dating my mother, and he lived with us for a while. He always had handcuffs with him. Such a creep. He ended up marrying some wealthy woman, of course, and became a big shot. I’m sure he knows a lot.” Attempts by EW to contact this individual were unsuccessful.
Sixty years have passed since that night in 1957 when McDonald was discovered in her nightgown, screaming for help on the highway. Despite the fact that her abduction is widely assumed to have been a hoax, she never publicly acknowledged it as such. “Listen, I don’t mind all the truth coming out,” Diamond says. “I just want to know who hurt my mother.” ◆
The film ends by hinting that Zodiac may be the man behind you in the theater. Since Zodiac was a movie fan and an egotist and since the movie played only to a limited audience in San Francisco, the chances he was in theseat behind you were pretty good.
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