July 6, 1923 – October 21, 1965
by Donna Lethal
Marie’s obit in Time Magazine: Died. Marie McDonald, 42, Hollywood performer and former Tommy Dorsey vocalist built up by press agents as “The Body,” who made it big in the tabloids with endless escapades: six marriages, escape from an Australian psychiatric clinic, a suspicious kidnapping; from as yet undetermined causes; in Hidden Hills, Calif.
(Interesting lady, right?)
Marie ‘The Body’ McDonald was born Cora Frye in 1923 in Burgin, Kentucky. Her mother had been a Ziegfeld Follies girl and Cora began modeling as a teenager and was crowned “Miss New York” at age sixteen.
McDonald (she took her mother’s name) was a Broadway showgirl, and soon headed to Hollywood where she worked as a dancer at The Florentine Gardens.
Her nickname “The Body Beautiful” was later shortened to “The Body” when she became famous as a WWII pinup on “Yank” magazine covers while she was a Universal Studios contract starlet.
McDonald was the model used by illustrator Alex Raymond for the Dale Arden and Princess Aura creations for the Flash Gordon comic strip. She had a short marriage in 1940 which quickly ended, then married her agent, Vic Orsatti, in 1943. The marriage lasted four years, although it was rumored that McDonald was one of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel’s mistresses, along with Virginia Hill. McDonald never substantiated the rumors. Supposedly, she dated Eddie Fisher too, which would make it even more strange because it was when her marriage to Orsatti ended that the craziness really began.
McDonald met shoe magnate Harry Karl. (Sound familiar?) He later married Debbie Reynolds. (I don’t know what women saw in Karl, because he was one creepy fella). One creepy fella who claimed to have millions and owned a chain of shoe stores – yet – McDonald had to support him, or so she said (big red flag to Debbie, who he bankrupted from gambling debts) … although McDonald and Karl seemed to enjoy driving each other insane.
McDonald and Karl adopted two children, Harrison, known as “Bo,” and Denise, called “Dede”, and after many miscarriages, a divorce (in which she dated Michael Wilding – talk about a hospcotch, Liz Taylor’s second husband!) – and a remarriage to each other. Marie gave birth to daughter Tina Marie in 1956. Tina Marie was supposedly born with drugs in her system and was a sickly child.
On January 4th, 1957, Marie claimed she was abducted from her home at 17031 Magnolia Blvd in Encino by “two swarthy men” who dumped her in Indio, CA clad only in her jammies and a housecoat. She was bruised, with a black eye and missing two teeth caps. This was odd, because during the time she was supposedly kidnapped, Marie left a trail of phone calls to friends and none to cops, the LA Times reported. They also found bits of a suspected ransom note in her fireplace. (She may have been too busy calling Life Magazine to get pictures of the crime scene to bother burning her ransom notes properly). On returning, she told boyfriend (and ex Liz Taylor husband #2) Michael Wilding, “Pour baby a drink – I’ve had it today.”
Soon after she was blabbing to the tabloids that she thought Harry Karl was behind it. Karl promptly responded that he thought McDonald was nuts. Unfortunately for her, she should have burned her copy of the book “The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown” which cops found at McDonald’s house – she had lifted a little too much of the plot. Much to her relief, The whole investigation was inconclusive and her attorney, Jerry Geisler, said a lie detector test was “insulting” to his client. (Is he kidding?) McDonald’s response to the whole affair was, “No woman would allow herself to be photographed with this shiner if it weren’t for real.” Oddly, the cops filmed a re-enactment of the whole thing – wouldn’t you love to see that? Wonder who played the “swarthy men” and if they removed McDonald’s teeth caps again?
Here are photographs of the scene and reenactment.
Later that year, Marie recorded “The Body Sings.” She actually did sing, earlier in her career, with Tommy Dorsey on his radio show. So it wasn’t completely a novelty act, but it definitely cashed in on her notoriety. She hit the nightclub circuit and between 1957 and 1959, made four appearances on “The Steve Allen Show.”
She returned to feature films (after an 8 year lapse) when Jerry Lewis cast her as “Lola Livingston” in The Geisha Boy, in 1958. The only big role she had ever been up for was Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday, which of course she lost to Judy Holliday, and McDonald was now famous for for her tabloid exploits more than anything.
After her second divorce from Harry Karl in April 1958 for which she received a million-dollar settlement, Marie attempted suicide. Marie eventually moved on for a year as Mrs. Louis Bass (I don’t believe he was from the shoe family, though it would be interesting to know) and after they split, she tried the title of Mrs. Edward Callahan for 48 hours in 1962, until that marriage was annulled.
She married Donald F. Taylor in 1963, who also was one of the producers of her last film, Promises! Promises! – better known for being Jayne Mansfield‘s “nudie” film. Things hadn’t gone well on “Promises!” with Jayne taking an almost instant-dislike to her (fight of the publicity whores?) To make matters worse, Jayne and her co-star husband Mickey Hargitay, were squabbling, and Jayne was carrying on with co-star/director/producer Tommy Noonan – something attention-grabber McDonald probably couldn’t stand. By the time the film came out, Jayne got all of the attention, along with a Playboy centerfold. “The Body” was forgotten again.
At some point in 1963, McDonald disappeared from a psychiatric hospital in Sydney, Australia, citing patriotism: “When they came around passing out heavy sedation, I did what any red-blooded American would do, I took off. I wasn’t going to let them turn me into a walking zombie like the rest of the people there.”
1963 was not a good year for her. She was arrested and convicted for forging prescriptions for Percodan and put on three years probation.
In 1965, McDonald was living here in Calabasas with Taylor and her three children from Harry Karl.
She had launched her own cosmetics business, but I can’t find much information about it (though, predictably I can guess – would you buy cosmetics from her?).
On October 21st of that year, Taylor found McDonald slumped at her dressing room table with empty Percodan bottles nearby. A shocked Taylor told press, “Marie was in good spirits, happy as a lark over a new cosmetics enterprise we were launching.”
Lt. James Hamilton of the LA County Sheriff’s Homicide Division said, “From our investigation it doesn’t appear to be suicide but there could have been an overdose of pills, possibly taken accidentally. We won’t know until the coroner’s doctors their post-mortem. There were lots of pills around her room and we’ve gathered them all up. There were no marks of violence on her. Her body was natural in appearance and there seemed to be no evidence of suicide. Conceivably, she could have been taking sleeping pills. If anything, it would lean toward an accidental death, and it certainly could be a natural death.”
McDonald had had a hemorrhoid operation three weeks before her death (ouch!) and another operation the year before in which a large amount of her stomach was removed due to three ulcers, so she wasn’t in great shape. Her heart stopped during the ulcer operation. “If I hadn’t had such a wonderful surgeon, I’d be dead,” she stated. She also had an eye infection and went to bed the night of her death with a compress on it, so she was pretty out of it.
Again, the word “inconclusive” comes into play, this time in the initial finding of “suicide or accidental death” by “acute drug intoxication” but it was later ruled “accidental” based on a review of her “past life and normal pattern of living.” (Normal pattern?)
Her funeral was attended by 50 people and three of her divorce lawyers served as pallbearers. She was interred in the Freedom Mausoleum, in Forest Lawn Glendale.
On January 3, 1966, Denise Karl and her boyfriend found the body of Donald Taylor lying alongside his bed with an empty bottle of Seconal on the nightstand. Taylor left two handwritten suicide notes. One note, addressed to his business partner in Marie McDonald Inc., he wrote, “Please go on with the cosmetics business. It was Marie’s fervent desire to give women a product that would do them some good at a a reasonable price.” The note, dated two days before the discovery of his body, led police to believe he took his life two days earlier, on New Year’s Day, 1966.
Carrie Fisher gets the details wrong in her book, “Wishful Drinking,” and claims that Tina came first and Harrison and Denise were adopted later (Carrie’s own history with pills may have clouded the facts. She bugs me).
“But let’s not get too far past Harry Karl though. My first stepfather. Harry was a shoe tycoon. It doesn’t sound like those words should fit together, does it? But in this case they do. So, prior to being married to my mother, Harry was married to Marie McDonald …
So now there are three children left. What should we do with them? I know! Let’s send them to Harry and Debbie. Now, Debbie is told that one of the children should be institutionalized. But my mother is a good person, much like Sarah Palin (only smarter), and she says, “Absolutely not. We will put her in Carrie’s room!”
I don’t know what happened to the kids after Debbie and Karl’s divorce. Debbie Reynolds has said she was forced to live in her Cadillac when Karl left her widowed and broke – so I doubt there was room for her plus 5 kids in the car – though it would have made a cute Debbie Reynolds movie.
Not long before her death Marie told reporters, “I want them to forget “The Body” and remember “Marie McDonald.”