The Killing of Susan Cabot

They give birth astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then its night once more. We are all born mad. Some remain so. Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

The life and death of Susan Cabot (Harriet Pearl Shapiro, 1927-1986) were not happy, but she enjoyed glimmers of good fortune, which is how we know about her existence at all. I became interested in her by way of an enthusiasm for her last movie, Roger Corman‘s The Wasp Woman (1959), in which she is presented as an even greater beauty than Barboura Morris, whose allure was considerable. Cabot had been in numerous major studio productions prior to this, many of them westerns, usually in co-starring or second female lead roles, often as non-white characters. But ironically this Grade Z cheapie may be her most watched movie nowadays, due to its utility as good Halloween fun.

Cabot’s life began and ended in chaos. Born in Boston to an absentee father and a mother who was institutionalized for mental illness, Cabot grew up in foster homes, as many as eight of them, finally winding up in the Bronx, where she discovered an affinity for dramatics in high school. My guess is that her professional name is a kind of satirical eye-wink about her humble origins. The Cabots were one of the principal Boston Brahmin families, as distant from her own early circumstances as could be. At the age of 17 she married an artist named Martin Sacker, and he appears to have drawn her in to the Boho scene of Greenwich Village, where she sang in cabarets, and worked by day as a children’s book illustrator.

On the strength of her good looks, she was cast in a small role in Henry Hathaway’s gritty crime thriller Kiss of Death (1947), which shot in New York with stars Victor Mature and Coleen Gray (who was in Nightmare Alley the same year). Her screen career began in earnest three years later, and lasted less than a decade. Her studio pictures included On the Isle of Samoa (1950) opposite Jon Hall; The Battle at Apache Pass (1952) with Jeff Chandler; Son of Ali Baba (1952) with Tony Curtis; and The Duel at Silver Creek (1952), Gunsmoke (1953) and Ride Clear of Diablo (1954) all with Audie Murphy; as well several others in which she played smaller supporting roles. She divorced Sacker in 1951 just as her career got cooking.

Unhappy being relegated to B movie westerns, Cabot next spent a couple of years studying with Sanford Meisner, and appearing in regional and off-Broadway theater. In 1957 she returned to screens in Corman’s AIP films, starring in such low-budget fare as Carnival Rock (1957, in which she sings a couple of numbers), Sorority Girl (1957), The Viking Women and the Sea Serpent (1957), War of the Satellites (1958), Machine Gun Kelly (1958), and The Wasp Woman (1959). She was also in United Artists’ Fort Massacre (1958) with Joel McCrea, Allied Artists’ Surrender – Hell (1959), and episodes of the TV shows Kraft Theatre and Have Gun, Will Travel.

At this stage, Cabot left Hollywood a second time and appeared in the play Intimate Relations at London’s Mermaid Theater in 1962. After this, the story grows more colorful — both blue and purple. She had a well publicized relationship with no less than King Hussein of Jordan. (Those who’ve gazed on the lovely Queen Noor know that His Highness had a thing for western women. Though half Lebanese/Syrian Noor is also half-Swedish, and looks it). At any rate, Hussein parted ways with Cabot in 1964 after learning of her Jewish origins — but not before fathering a child with her. Google it! It’s well documented now. It wasn’t known until years later. At the time, Cabot claimed to have been briefly married to an English diplomat and that he was the baby’s father, although she had also dated Christopher Jones, then considered another possible paternal candidate. In 1968, Cabot married a man named Michael Roman and her illegitimate son took his surname, becoming Timothy Roman. As if this tale weren’t sensational enough Timothy had  Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and was afflicted with dwarfism.

Burgeoning cat lady

In 1970, Cabot returned to the screen one last time, appearing in an episode of the tv show Bracken’s World. She was only 43 at this stage, but as middle-age crept in, Cabot seems to have inherited her mother’s mental illness, suffering from depression, paranoia, delusions, and hoarding disorder. The latter condition was not without benefits, for she was a collector, and her penchant for buying and selling vintage cars and parcels of real estate kept her afloat after her divorce from Roman in 1983. But she declined steadily, living in isolation in a house piled high with garbage and rotting food.

And then, the fatal day in late 1986 when her son came to visit her unannounced and found her fully delusional and violent. Not recognizing him (he later testified) she attacked him with a weightlifting bar and a scalpel (the presence of both of which speak to her hoarding condition). Much smaller than his mother, and medicated himself due to his condition, Roman snatched the weapons away and beat her on the head in self-defense, so he later claimed, and she expired from her injuries. She was not yet 60 at the time. Roman was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, with a three year suspended sentence due to time served. A visual artist like his mother, he passed away in 2003. In 2007 a lurid bio-pic titled Black Oasis starring Rose McGowan as Cabot was announced in the trades but it never materialized.