Jeanne Carmen: Movie pin-up and friend to stars

Jeanne Laverne Carmen, actress: born Paragould, Arkansas 4 August 1930; married (one son, two daughters); died Irvine, California 20 December 2007

Pin-up girl, B-movie actress, trick-shot golfer, friend and girlfriend of the stars Jeanne Carmen was all of these things in the New York, Hollywood and Las Vegas of the Fifties and early Sixties. Carmen appeared with Eddie Cochran in the teen-exploitation film Untamed Youth in 1957, and inspired the rock'n'roller to cover "Jeannie, Jeannie, Jeannie".

She then vanished from public view to raise a family in Arizona but over the last 20 years had parlayed her associations with Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and the Kennedys into recurrent appearances on television exposs, such as Channel 4's What's Inside Frank Sinatra's Coffin? two years ago. In 1998, she was herself the subject of a documentary entitled Jeanne Carmen: Queen of the B-movies. The same year, she played a blonde dominatrix in George Michael's video for "Outside", the riposte to his arrest for engaging in a lewd act in a Los Angeles lavatory. Last year, her son Brandon James published a biography called Jeanne Carmen: my wild, wild life as a New York pin-up queen, trick shot golfer and Hollywood actress. He has now turned the book into a biopic and stars such as Christina Aguilera, Scarlett Johansson and Kate Bosworth, who all resemble Carmen in her heyday, have been mentioned in connection with the lead role.

Born in 1930, Carmen grew up on a cotton farm in Arkansas and ran away aged 13 when her mother forbade her to enter the finals of a beauty contest in which she had won a local heat. "I was just a little country girl that wanted to be a movie star," Carmen said in 1996. She worked as a waitress in St Louis and, via a "look me up when you come to New York invitation" from a producer, ended up as a chorus girl in the Broadway show Burlesque.

In 1948, she began modelling and posed for Irving Klaw and other glamour photographers. Carmen graced the covers of pin-up magazines with evocative titles like Carnival, Dare, Glance, Pose and Titter. Modelling golf clothes for a Manhattan shop owner Jack Redmond in 1949, Carmen discovered she had a natural ability to play the game. "The next thing I know, I was a professional trick-shot golf artist who could hit a golf ball off someone's mouth 210 yards," she recalled. "There wasn't anything I couldn't do with a ball."

She then met the Chicago mobster Johnny Roselli, who suggested a move to Las Vegas, where the couple played tourists for suckers. "Johnny would find wealthy hotel guests and set them up," she said. "He'd point to me and bet them they couldn't beat me. I'd start slowly and let them get ahead for the first five or six holes. Then I'd make this amazing improvement. I never lost."

Carmen tired of the hustling lifestyle and moved on to Los Angeles in 1953 where she invested in property. "Then I got into the movies and that was the worst thing I could have done," she admitted later. "I didn't like the movies." Naturally dark-haired, with an hourglass figure and striking green eyes, she was quickly typecast as a señorita in The Three Outlaws a western later remade as Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid in 1956 and as an Indian girl in War Drums in 1957. She was eclipsed by the blonde bombshell Mamie Van Doren in Untamed Youth and Born Reckless and gave golf lessons to Jayne Mansfield.

When she appeared as a gangster moll in Guns Don't Argue and as a femme fatale in the film noir Portland Expos in 1957, Carmen had gone bottle-blonde too. In 1959, she played the screaming female lead in The Monster of Piedras Blancas, an Irvin Berwick feature which bore more than a passing resemblance to The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The figure-hugging dress she wore at the Los Angeles premiere caused a riot.

Jeanne Carmen had a few parts in television series like Riverboat and Tightrope and appeared in the satanic cult movie The Devil's Hand (1962) but left Hollywood after the death of her friend Marilyn Monroe that year. Carmen hinted she'd had relationships with Sinatra, Presley, Clark Gable and Errol Flynn, and, in later years, became ubiquitous as an incorrigible name-dropper commentating on the mores of Hollywood in the Fifties and Sixties.

Her scene in Rob Zombie's shlock pastiche House of 1,000 Corpses (2003) ended up on the cutting room floor but she made the most of her role in The Naked Monster, Ted Newsom's 2005 homage to drive-in movies. "Everything I've done, I think I did at the right time," she said. "And it turned out great. Maybe a few marriages I could have done without. As for my career, it absolutely happened the way it was supposed to happen. A door opened and I was a pin-up. I'm as happy as a pig in a pond."

Pierre Perrone

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