The Mysterious and Untimely Death of Russell Gleason

Russell Gleason (1908-1945) was a minor but well-known Hollywood figure in his time; you’d think his shocking death would be a better known tale.

He was the son of the famous husband-wife acting couple James and Lucille Gleason, whom we wrote about here (James especially was in a long list of classics). Russell was born while the couple was barnstorming in Oregon. While raised mostly by grandparents in Oakland, California, he also acted with his parents as a child when it was feasible, such as during summer school vacations. He entered films when he was 20, in the 1928 picture Shady Lady with Phyllis Haver. Over the next decade and a half he appeared in over 50 movies, including All Quiet On the Western Front (1930), several of the Jones family comedies (1936-40), as well as Higgins Family comedies (1938-40), along with his parents, several of Hal Roach’s streamliners, A Tenderfoot Goes West (1936), and things like Swing Shift Maisie (1943). His last appearance was in The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944) opposite Fredric March, playing the great author’s brother Orion Clemens.

Then, on Christmas Day, 1945, the damnedest thing happened. Having enlisted in the U.S. army, Gleason was staying at the Hotel Sutton in New York City, which had been converted into a temporary barracks — whereupon he fell out of a fourth story window to his death. Whenever I learn that someone has “fallen out a window”, I get suspicious. How could you not? Most people usually have too much sense to fall out of a window accidentally. If you are standing in a room, how precisely do you GO out a window? Some reports say that he had been taking a prescription cold medicine that made him groggy. One also notes that it was Christmas Day and he was away from his family (he had a wife and child) so perhaps he had been drinking, even whooping it up. And yet, he was 37 years old at the time, not, ya know, 21. And yet, as a rule, actors are the most immature people on the planet, so death by way of carousing is a possibility. I have come across zero evidence of suicide, although I have seen it intimated in a couple of places. Kenneth Anger (a dubious source on all occasions) includes an account of Gleason’s death in his chapter on suicides in Hollywood Babylon II. I’ve also come across even more sketchy sources that claim he was gay, had an affair with Howard Hughes, and leapt to his death. Yet another possibility, which I’ve not seen mentioned anywhere, but is only logical, is that the death was caused by others, either in the form of horseplay gone haywire (it was pretty common for movie actors to be mercilessly hazed when they joined the service) or out-and-out foul play. However it happened, though, there is special poignance in the fact that it happened on Christmas Day, and several months after the war was already over. (He and fellow troops were due to be shipped to Europe as part of the post-war mop-up).

As we mentioned, Gleason was survived by a wife and child, and they were both interesting. In 1938, he married Cynthia Hobart (1915-2007), daughter of producer Henry Hobart, who’d had a hand in such films as The Noose (1928) and Alias French Gertie (1930). At age 18, Cynthia had been a chorus girl in such pictures as Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade (1933) and Down to Their Last Yacht (1934). Her last movie as an actress was Having a Wonderful Time (1938) with Ginger Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Later she married film editor Louis Lindsay. As Cynthia Lindsay she wrote the books Dear Boris: The Life of William Henry Pratt a.k.a Boris Karloff (the Gleasons were friends of Karloff’s), and I Love Her, That’s Why! (a George Burns autogobiography which she ghost-wrote) as well as episodes of My Three Sons and Family Affair. Gleason’s son took the name Michael Lindsay, and did some television producing in the 1960s and ’70s, working on shows starring the likes of Paul Lynde and Cleavon Little.

Prior to marrying Hobart, Gleason is said to have dated Mary Brian.

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