Hollyweird: Russ Columbo

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The Independent Culture

The story of the demise of Russ Columbo is one of the weirdest in Hollywood history.

Born in New Jersey in 1908, Columbo's skill as a violinist saw him move to California to become a musician and singer with the Gus Arnheim orchestra. He landed a recording contract and an NBC radio show. With hits like "You Call It Madness (But I Call It Love)", he was dubbed "the Romeo of Radio". Universal Pictures wanted him for a string of musicals.

But tragedy struck. On 2 September 1934, Columbo visited Lansing V Brown Jr, a photographer and friend. They talked, drank and played with Brown's collection of Civil War duelling pistols. Events remain unclear, but supposedly Brown struck a match on a loaded gun. A bullet ricocheted off the furniture and hit Columbo in the left eye. He was rushed to hospital, but surgery failed to save him. He was only 26.

In the best Hollyweird tradition, there's a final twist: days before Columbo's death, his nearly blind mother suffered a heart attack. Fearing for her life, the family decided not to tell her. A story about a long sailing tour was concocted, including weekly letters of comfort. The deception continued until 1944, when she died.