Have you ever learned something at a busy or downright terrible time in your life and simply tucked it away in your brain while saying, “I can’t deal with this information right now, I’ll think about it later”? That happened to me today when I learned about the passing of Mary Carlisle at 104. I found out earlier this afternoon as I was browsing social media while getting ready for work, and I just couldn’t handle it. My day job is to teach art to young children, and I knew that I had to bottle up my emotions and put on a bright and shining face for them, so it’s taken this long for me to finally process the loss of one of my absolute favorite actresses. I discovered Mary by accident after checking out a selection of Bing Crosby films from my local library. One of the movies in the collection was College Humor (1933), one of Bing’s first, and as I watched I became instantly captivated by Mary Carlisle, who portrayed his leading lady.
Trust me when I say that I’m not exaggerating this statement because she has passed, but she was one of the most breathtakingly beautiful women that I have ever seen. I think so to this day, and it baffled me that she wasn’t as famous as the likes of Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard. I instantly scrambled to find more of her work. There wasn’t much to find as most of her films have been lost or have remained unreleased and unrestored, but I’ve seen and adored every single picture of hers that I could get my hands on, like One Frightened Night (1935), Dance, Girl Dance (1940), Grand Hotel (1932) and Dead Men Walk (1943). The quest that I have been on to locate and discover her movies was made even easier this past Christmas when I was given a tremendous Bing Crosby DVD box set, which includes two of the three films that he and Mary starred in together, the aforementioned College Humor (1933) and the film that has easily become my personal favorite of hers (and everyone else who adores her too), Double or Nothing (1937). The way she dances and rejects Bing’s advances are simply delightful, and I can never get enough of that picture.
Of course, through my discovery of such an incredible person, I had also taken a deep interest in her personal life as well, learning about her friendships with the likes of Bing, Jean Harlow, and Dick Powell. Before long I became a Mary Carlisle fanatic, and as soon as I learned that she was still gracing the world with her presence, I decided to write her a letter and tell Mary how much she meant to me. To my absolute astonishment, she replied just one week later (with the help of one of her dear friends, Darrell Rooney, who runs her Facebook page and broke the news of her death) and remains to this day only one of two classic film stars to ever do so. I wrote about her letter at length only a couple of weeks ago, but I’ll also post it below:
Mary was very pleased and impressed with your letter and said, “Now that is a letter that I must respond to!” “It was very kind and I appreciate it” she said. Mary says she was not a close friend of Jean Harlow’s, but she did know her and liked her very much. She certainly saw her often socially, and was even at her home in Beverly Glen with Dick Powell. She adored Bing Crosby — they were very good friends, he was instrumental in bringing her to Paramount in 1936. Mary is always so amazed that young people know [who] she is. It pleases her to no end to think someone so young appreciates her work and her personal life. She was happy to sign your photo —
Darrell (writing for Mary)”
I was so overwhelmed by her sweet response, and I meant to follow up with more letters, but that didn’t come to pass. I did, however, send her flowers earlier this year on February 3rd, which marked her final birthday. Words can’t describe the profound effect her kindness and her amazing work has had on me, and I’m certain on many others too. Mary truly was one of the final stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and it’s easy to say that the world has lost a legend. This has remained in my mind all day, and likely will for a long time. On the other hand, however, when I first read through the comments reacting to Mary’s passing, one really struck me and sums today up best: “Heaven has gained a beautiful angel.” I couldn’t agree more.