The Jean Wallace Story

There are fewer than two dozen film acting credits in the dossier of Jean Wallace (Jean Walaceck, 1923-1990). Yet hers is a story worth knowing for show biz buffs I think.

Wallace was raised in Chicago, and started out as a model and Earl Carroll chorus girl. Her first film appearances were in chorus parts, in Ziegfeld Girl, Glamour Boy, and Louisiana Purchase, all 1941. That same year she married Franchot Tone, that paragon of the straight and narrow private life. Children followed in 1943 and 1945, a period during which Wallace only had a couple of walk-on roles in films. In 1946, she attempted suicide with sleeping pills, whether due to post-partum depression, or dissatisfaction with her career, or jealousy over Tone’s real or imagined infidelity, or all of the above, is a matter of conjecture. In 1948 the pair divorced and it was ugly. She charged his infidelity with Barbara Payton (whom he married in 1951, and who looked a LOT like Jean Wallace). Tone charged Wallace with being involved with gangster Johnny Stompanato (the same guy who was later murdered by Lana Turner’s daughter Cheryl Crane). Wallace lost custody of the children in the divorce, and attempted suicide again a few months later with a knife. Astoundingly, in 1949 she enjoyed the first good movies roles of her career in Jigsaw and The Man on the Eiffel Tower, both of which starred Tone.

In 1950 Wallace was married for a few months to a man named Jim Randall (immediately anulled) and was with Lawrence Tierney on one of the many occasions when he was arrested for public drunkenness, but on the positive side had a very good year in her career, with her third-billed role in the Jack Carson comedy The Good Humor Man. The next year she was fourth billed in a film that should be better known, an Argentine adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son, starring the author himself as the hero Bigger Thomas!

Also in 1951 Wallace began her 30 year marriage to Cornel Wilde, commencing a period of much greater personal and professional stability. At this stage she regained custody of her children as well as the guardianship of Wallace’s young sister after their mother was killed in an auto accident. She co-starred with Wilde in the films Star of India (1954), The Big Combo (1955), Storm Fear (1955), The Devil’s Hairpin (1957), and Maracaibo (1958). And she put her show biz skills to use on television on The Colgate Comedy Hour, The Bob Hope Show, The George Jessel Show, et al.

During the filming of Lancelot and Guinevere, a.k.a. Sword of Lancelot (1963) Wallace broke a bone in a horse-riding accent. This seems to have taken the 40 year old actress out of the business pretty much for good, although she did sing the title song for Wilde’s Beach Red (1967), and starred one last time in Wilde’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi film No Blade of Grass (1970). In 1967, at the age of 44, she had her third son, Cornel Wilde Jr.

The final decade of her marriage was marred by alcohol abuse. Wilde divorced her in 1981. It is said that she spent her remaining time on earth cultivating a home menagerie, which included such exotic fauna as a tarantula and two snakes. She died in 1990 at the age of 66. The cause was a gastrointestinal hemorrhage, a condition sometimes brought about by chronic drinking.

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous