The Life of Art Linkletter and The Death of His Daughter Diane

Speaking of the “Darnest Things”, one of the “Darndest Things” is that I know who Art Linkletter (1912-2010) is so well, despite the fact that my sentient TV watching years started after his long-running shows were off the air. The explanation is that Linkletter remained on TV constantly for decades afterwards, on the talk show circuit, on game shows like Hollywood Squares, but above all, from commercial endorsements, for things like National Home Life Insurance, Craftmatic Contour Chairs, Kodak, and various Milton Bradley board games. He was also one of the original financial backers of the hula hoop. He was an aggressive pitchman, and I’m sure he raked in the mega-bucks in doing so.

I put the “Darnest Things” in quotes because that phrase was associated with a segment on his radio and tv show House Party, later known as The Art Linkletter Show (1945-1969), “Kids Say the Darndest Things”, in which he interviewed children and inadvertent “comedy” would issue from the mouths of babes. This premise was later used for the title and theme of an identical show exec produced by Linkletter and hosted by Bill Cosby from 1998 to 2000, in much the same spirit that the latter had tried to fill Groucho’s shoes on a revived You Bet Your Life. (Neither experiment lasted long). Back then Cosby was very much associated with kids: he had a doctorate in education, had created Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, had been on Sesame Street and endorsed Jello Pudding. Now of course I imagine people keep their children a good distance away from the old reprobate. At any rate, Linkletter also had an education degree and worked as a school teacher. He was the adopted son of a Protestant minister. So, he, too was very much associated with kids.

Blecch! How would you like to learn the facts of life THIS way?

But only very young ones. As for older ones, teens and young adults…well, let’s just say it’s surely no coincidence that his last regular tv show went off the air in 1970. No one better represented the button-down sweater, white-bread world of post-war America than Linkletter. He fit comfortably in a box that includes the likes of Ozzie & Harriet and Norman Vincent Peale. He was a friend of the Nixon and Reagan administrations. He was close to Walt Disney. He represented wholesomeness to much of America and was one of its most popular personalities. Having started out in local radio in his hometown of San Diego in the early ’40s, Linkletter specialized in two things: 1) live hook ups from fairs, expositions, parades, and openings, most famously the Disneyland launch telecast in 1955; and 2) shows where ordinary people participated in silly stunts and contests. In addition to House Party he hosted People Are Funny (1942-1960). On these shows and in his commercials he would often be surrounded by his children, which was very much in the spirit of the times.

Naturally the counterculture would have found this stuff treacly and revolting, and Linkletter was pretty much pushed out of prime TV at the same time dozens of similar presenters of a certain age were (Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, etc etc etc). There was also a bit of a whiff of hypocrisy detectable to the man’s character. Was he as morally upright as everyone pretended? There were indications that perhaps…not strictly. In 1943 he was prosecuted and fined for falsely claiming to be an American citizen (he was actually born in Moosejaw, Canada). In 1963, Linkletter and Bob Hope were among the principal investors in the Valley Music Theatre. This venue was used as a location in the 1967 movie The Cool Ones. That same year however Linkletter was accused of participating in a scheme to sell the ailing enterprise to the city (i.e. to saddle the taxpayers with the loss).

Then in October, 1969…the broadcaster’s 20 year old daughter Diane Linkletter died both mysteriously and spectacularly. Diane had appeared on TV with her dad, and also on other shows like that of Red Skelton. She was definitely, unmistakably, a hippie. Not long before her death, father and daughter had recorded a disk called “We Love You, Call Collect”, which explored the Generation Gap and later won an award. But by then Diane made headlines by leaping out a sixth story window to her death. Linkletter then took the unusual and seemingly opportunistic step of blaming her death on an LSD freak-out and mounting a major public relations campaign against drugs. The rest of the story? A toxicology test showed NO LSD IN HER SYSTEM.

You can forgive some people for finding Linkletter insufferable, then. But it’s up to you whether you want to cut John Waters some slack. For it was he who in 1970 directed what is surely the most tasteless of his self-consciously tasteless oeuvre, The Diane Linkletter story, starring Divine as Diane, and David Lochary, and Mary Vivian Pierce as the Linkletter parents. Obviously the tragedy is played for campy laughs and that seems unforgivable, but the whole thing must be put into context. If your perspective is that the man was a sanctimonious hypocrite, an embarrassment to his daughter, a proven fraudster, and an exploiter of children, who even exploited the death of his dead child, then he might be a legitimate target for satire. If you don’t agree, don’t watch it.

Another fascinating piece of this, however: a man named David E. Durston was with Diane at the time of her death. In 1971, Durston directed the Charles Manson inspired horror film I Drink Your Blood. (Coincidentally, John Waters was also obsessed with the Tate-LaBianca murders, which happened just a few weeks before Diane’s death. Waters included mention of the killings in the film he was making at the time, Multiple Maniacs). At any rate, Durston may have also been with Tonight Show regular Carol Wayne when she drowned on a Mexican beach in 1985. All of these little details add up to….nothing really. They’re just connections; we don’t imply any causality, which is the error of all conspiracy buffs. But it does open up a third possible explanation for Linkletter’s death, that she may have been “helped” over the balcony by the future director of the hardcore porn films Boynapped (1975) and Man Hole (1978).

“Boynapped”? “Man Hole”? Kids say the darndest things.

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