Photography courtesy Brandon James
Some people are born for sex. Born to perform it; born to love it; born to talk about it as naturally as the more uptight among us discuss food and child-rearing. Just watch former B-movie queen Jeanne Carmen as she’s being interviewed by staid news anchor Jerry Dunphy on a recent KCAL-TV newscast. She’s so natural talking about her boobs and whom she slept with, whom she’s slept with. It’s liberating just watching her.
Turns out Jeanne’s always had that effect on people. Starting as a sharecropping cotton picker in the fields of Paragould, Arkansas, Carmen, neé Carmon, has lived a life reeling from one sexual encounter, one sexy experience, one blind stroke of luck to the next.
Take husband number one, for example, a hometown boy she married. Jeanne threw him over because, one time they were traveling and he excused himself to go to the bathroom and another, sexier, richer and more interesting man came into the restaurant. Jeanne left her hubby in the john.
Or take the time she was “discovered.” There she was pouring coffee in a beanery in St. Louis, Missouri when a traveling burlesque crew blew into town. The producer of the road company show took one look at Jeanne’s ample bosom and come-hither stare and began asking her out. “If you’re ever in New York,” he told her slyly, “come look me up.” Two months later, Jeanne hopped a bus to the Big Apple and, as luck would have it, her guy had just come back into town and, as luck would seal it, he was looking for someone to appear in the chorus.
“I was available,” Jeanne jokes today from her home in Laguna Hills, taking a little rest between appearances. Appearances like the one she made recently made in George Michael’s latest video for his song “Outside.” The song is outrageous enough, of course — Michael, who only recently was arrested for soliciting a cop in a Sunset Boulevard restroom — sings about being tired of making love on the table and in the hall and on the sofa and suggests we move the party outside. Liberating to say the least.
Not surprising, therefore, to find Miss Jeanne in that video, on a rooftop leading around a man, who’s in a dog collar and who walks on all fours. There’s Ms. Carmen, still flouncing her bosom which is appealing even after nearly six decades of exposure.
“I went to the audition,” she says in that slow intimate voice of hers, pulling you into her confidence, “and all the rest of the women who came to try out were 104 years old. It was so weird. I knew I had the part the minute I saw the competition.
“But I remember saying to my son Brandon when I saw how old the others were, 'Oops, I’m in the wrong place again!’”
When Jeanne refers to being in the wrong places, she is speaking from a wealth of experience. The worst place she ever found herself was on that night in August, when her friend Marilyn Monroe and she talked on the phone for the last time in their lives. “They say it was a suicide, that she died of an overdose,” Jeanne explains, calmly. “But that’s impossible because I was the one who gave her sleeping pills when she asked. And she didn’t have any that night.”
But, because as Jeanne claims, she and Marilyn also shared something else — a history of dating powerful and corrupt men — she and “Norma” were unusually close. Close enough to cause her boyfriend gangster Johnny Rosselli to call up Jeanne the night Marilyn died. “Johnny called me up and said, 'You’d better get the hell out of town.’ Marilyn, he told me, was killed because Bobby had told her he was going to testify against the mob after all…” she pauses. “It put an end to my acting career, I can tell you that!”
The career Ms. Carmen refers to wasn’t exactly enough to qualify her for the Thalberg. But it was surely interesting. Starting out in the chorus of that traveling burlesque show when it returned to New York City (Burt Lahr was the show’s big star), Jeanne eventually moved to Hollywood where her hourglass figure caught the eyes of horny photographers, who put her on the covers of those wonderfully nostalgic skin magazines from the 1950s with names like Glance. Masturbatory aids for an emerging post-war generation, these books stimulated God knows how much seed-spilling in the imaginary pursuits of Ms. Carmen.
Eventually even golfers got into the act. A chance meeting with Jack Redman, a golf trick shot artist, set Jeanne on an ancillary route to stardom. Applying her focused energy for sometimes 15 hours a day, she learned all sorts of trick shots to do on a golf course and she made thousands and thousands of dollars on golf course bets. Eventually, this led to her to the incident in the restaurant and to meeting Johnny Rosselli.
“My husband Sandy and Jack fought all the time over me,” Jeanne says today. “It was a riot. It was like a horror movie. One night we were in a restaurant and Johnny was just sitting there having dinner. We had no idea who he was. He followed us. He could see that my husband I were ready to kill each other. I wasn’t really used to drinking and my Irish would flare up and we’d start fighting. That night, I think we were on our way to Florida, Jack threw my husband and me out, he was so sick of our fighting. The clothes were all over the street. He took off. All of a sudden a jazzy car pulls up and that really cool guy from the restaurant asked if we needed a ride. My husband said, Yes, and Johnny said, I wasn’t talking to you! But he did put us both in the car.
“When we got to the nearest restaurant, my husband decided he had to go to the bathroom and, I guess the toilet must have been stopped up and while Johnny and I sat there we saw Sandy go to the hotel desk clerk and return to the john with a plunger. 'You want to get out of here?,’ Johnny asked. Hell yes! I said. As we pulled away we saw Sandy still plunging the toilet.
“Johnny had already heard about my golfing and he said we could make a lot of money in Vegas so we headed there. That was OK with me. Honey, everything was OK with me!”
In Vegas we’d go to the big hotels and Johnny would go to the bar and he knew the rich braggers and he knew who the assholes were who needed to be taken. He’d get into a conversation. ''I bet,’ he’d tell one of these guys, 'that even that girl sitting over there could beat you at golf.’ Then we’d go out on the course and I’d pretend not to know how to play, start left-handed and stuff like that. But as time went on I’d get 'better.’ We got richer every minute hustling these guys.
“We did get busted once and the guy said he wasn’t going to pay us. Johnny told me to come up to the roof of the Sands Hotel and Johnny sent the guy over the roof. He had a rope tied to his feet but he pooped his pants. That’s when I knew I’d been in Vegas too long.”
When Jeanne decided to leave Johnny, she headed for the Vegas airport. More luck. Who should she run into but Frank Sinatra! And it was with Frank that she came out to Palm Springs on a regular basis.
“I was in Palm Springs all the time,” she remembers. “I stayed with Sinatra on the weekends but, to tell you the truth, I couldn’t get through a whole weekend with him. I would get so bored with him, I’d leave.” She pauses. “I have to tell you honey, this guy was no ball of fire. I’d come up with the lamest excuses to get away. He’d always say, 'You left last weekend, too, why'’ And I’d say, 'My mother died.’ And he’d say, 'I thought she died last week!’ And I’d say, 'She’s funny that way.’
“I think I reminded him of Ava Gardner. I had black hair and I had a Southern accent. One reason Frank was so boring was that he was still torching for her and he was down in his career. He was living in an apartment on Wilshire and was depressed, crying and whining. But I was young, I wanted to do things and he just wanted to lie around and cry. He’d call me up and say, 'Hi, it’s me,’ and I’d say, 'Who?’ to tease him and he’d say, 'Frank,’ and I’d say, 'Frank who?’ It drove him crazy…
“I just loved Palm Springs,” she continues. “I’d go to the Racquet Club because I had friends there, take the sun, walk around, enjoy the shopping. It was so different from LA. Sometimes Frank would fly me down on his private plane. Geesh, it took longer to get to the Van Nuys airfield than it took to get to Palm Springs.”
Actually she hated the flying to the desert. “There were drafts of air pockets or something and one time my head hit the ceiling of the plane and I said that’s it, I’m driving in from now on.
“I’d drive down for dinner at Ruby’s and also hang out at that restaurant, you know, the one on the hill owned by that phony Russian prince (Romanov’s). But I was never a sun worshipper. That’s why I still look so good,” she pauses. “At 104.” (In reality, she may be 70.)
Her golfing skills took her quite a long way. “We once put on a show for President Eisenhower,” she remembers. “Unfortunately Jack and I got really drunk before the show and the Secret Service asked us to leave!”
But she did get to play a round with Ike. “He was a really interesting man,” she says. “Quiet. And he did have another side to him. A hooker friend of mine had his name in her book. (!) He played really good golf I can tell you that. And he really appreciated the fact that a woman could hit the ball the way I did. It was the trick shots that gave me the skills.”
What kind of trick shots did she do?
“I’d get on a chair and swing the club. Or I’d stack up three balls on top of one another and hit the middle one and the top one and leave the bottom one there. Or I’d hit a flagpole 150 yards out.
Listen, honey, before I met Jack I didn’t even know what golf was. I was just a cotton picker from Paragould, Arkansas!”
She’s come a long way baby.