Lili Damita: from Paris to Hollywood to…Fort Dodge

The life story of Lili DamitaLiliane Marie-Madeleine Carré, 1904-1994) resolves into nice, discrete chapters for convenient consumption. She made quite a journey.

The daughter of a French military officer, Damita studied dance in her youth and was already performing in ballets at the Opera de Paris by age 14. Soon she was getting booked in music halls and cabarets and appearing in the nighly revue at the Casino de Paris. She also posed as a model, winning a 1921 beatuty contest, which catapulted her into films. For the remainder of the decade she supplemented her income from live performance with appearances in silent films by major European directors like G.W. Pabst, Robert Wiene, and Michael Curtiz, with whom she had a long term intimate relationship.

In 1929 Damita moved to Hollywood, ironically (in light of her heavy accent) just as talking pictures were becoming the thing. She had major roles in 16 Hollywood films through the mid 1930s, including the original version of The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1929), One Hour With You (1932), The Match King (1932), the 1935 British version of Brewster’s Millions and Frisco Kid (1936). She starred opposite guys like Gary Cooper, James Cagney, Cary Grant, Adolphe Menjou, and Warren William — a true creature of the Pre-Code era.

In 1935 Damita married Errol Flynn, then just poised to become a huge star by way of Curtiz’s Captain Blood. Damita retired from acting soon thereafter. She had been the much bigger star initially; now the positions were reversed. In 1941, their son Sean Flynn was born. Errol divorced Damita a few months later. Sean went on to ride his father’s coat-tails for a while as an actor, on his dad’s tv show Errol Flynn Theatre and in films like The Son of Captain Blood (1962). Later he became a photojournalist and went missing in Cambodia in 1970 while covering the Vietnam War. Some think Dennis Hopper’s character in Apocalypse Now was based on him. If you recognize the name “Sean Flynn” you may remember it from the Clash’s 1982 album Combat Rock. It’s about him! Sean Flynn was declared legally dead in 1984.

From 1962 through 1983, Damita was married to a manufacturer of dairy products named Allen Loomis. This is the explanation for the strange fact that this star of the Paris cabaret scene was finally laid to rest in Ford Dodge, Iowa. It was her ex-husband’s hometown. It’s as good a place as any.

For more on the history of the variety arts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.