Before Bardot, there was Martine Carol. CHARLIE CONNELLY looks back over her tumultuous life.
The way Martine Carol told it, the whole thing had been a bit of a jape. In 1943 she was an emerging 21-year-old actress living in Paris when she was kidnapped by a notorious gangster. He was so charmed by her, however, that he not only released her the next day but had an enormous bouquet of flowers delivered to her home by way of an apology.
It was a great anecdote, the kind that went down a bomb in interviews when she’d tell it with a chuckle in her voice. How close it was to the truth was a different thing altogether.
Pierre Loutrel was a particularly nasty piece of work. Pathologically vicious, he was already an established underworld figure when he volunteered for French Gestapo auxiliary unit the Carlingue, becoming so notorious even the Gestapo themselves sought to distance themselves from him. It took something exceptional to be regarded as too brutal for the Gestapo but Loutrel, reportedly responsible for executing around 80 Resistance fighters, found himself eventually frozen out by the occupiers. He changed sides, joined the Resistance and set about murdering Germans with the same enthusiasm he’d shown for despatching his compatriots. Not for nothing was he known as ‘Pierrot le Fou’, or Crazy Pete.
Crazy Pete and Martine Carol met in a Paris nightclub during his Gestapo years. Her beauty made Carol stand out in any crowd and she was used to the attention. Whether she had any idea who he was we’ll never know, but eventually, whether by free will or otherwise she left the club with him.
Some versions of the story have it that she managed to resist his advances, fighting off the gangster with such determination he ended up beating her up and throwing her out onto the street. Others suggest her resistance was not enough and he beat her up and threw her out anyway. Either way it’s unlikely there were ever flowers.
It would be a defining moment in her life – shortly afterwards she even changed her name – an incident whose fallout was far more significant than the sanitised version she’d trot out on the chat show circuit.
Born Marie-Louise Maurer in Paris, Carol had grown up in Biarritz and returned to the French capital to study drama at l’Ecole des Beaux Arts. Graduating in the early years of the war she was learning her trade in repertory productions of Shakespeare and Racine when she encountered Crazy Pete.
When she broke into films at the end of the war, becoming a huge success on both sides of the Atlantic, Carol suffered the same fate as many beautiful women prepared to exploit their physicality as part of their acting repertoire, enduring that curious combination of lascivious delight and sneering contempt from critics. Even in her obituary, published two days after her death, the New York Times saw fit to sniff that, “in more than 40 films Miss Carol took innumerable baths, had wine poured on her nude torso and otherwise disported herself”.
Yet the glamorous roles and on-screen bathing hid a gifted actor fighting an internal life fraught with trauma and demons. Her abuse by Crazy Pete wasn’t even her first run-in with the worst of men.
“My first love was when I was 18,” she said. “When he found out I’d been to dinner with another man he knocked me down and stamped on my face, breaking my nose.”
By the autumn of 1947 Carol was finally beginning to emerge from the depression that followed her encounter with Loutrel. She was carving out a successful film career, appearing on stage in Paris in a production of Tobacco Road and had met and fallen in love with the dashingly handsome actor Georges Marchal. The dark days seemed behind her and everything pointed to a bright future when Marchal left her abruptly for actress Dany Robin, whom he would later marry. A distraught Carol threw herself into the Seine and would have drowned were it not for the bravery of the passing taxi driver who dived in to save her. A ‘crisis of nerves’ she called it. The press labelled it a publicity stunt.
The following year she married Steve Crane, the former husband of Lana Turner, and soon fell pregnant. Five months into the pregnancy an accident caused her to lose the baby and left her with injuries that ensured she could never have a child. After this latest misfortune Carol’s career began to thrive and during the first half of the 1950s she would land major roles in films alongside the likes of Gregory Peck, Gina Lollobrigida and Gary Cooper. She became a household name in Europe and the US thanks to roles such as the wife of a Napoleonic general in Caroline Chérie and the infamous linchpin of the notorious Borgia clan in Lucrèce Borgia. When in 1955 she played the title role in another historical epic, the lavishly produced Lola Montès opposite Peter Ustinov, it was expected to be the next step in her ascent to superstardom yet the film was a complete flop, grossing just $300,000 worldwide. At the same time, with Carol now in her mid-30s, a young Brigitte Bardot was emerging to eclipse her as France’s movie bombshell. It was a double blow from which her career would never recover.
To compound matters, in 1957 while filming a fight scene for The Foxiest Girl in Paris Carol fractured her spine, leaving her in a body cast for months just as Bardot’s And God Created Woman was taking the world by storm.
“I was in terrible pain and couldn’t even move my arms so I took to morphine,” she said. “Morphine really helps you forget the pain, you know. It helps you forget everything.”
Her reliance on the painkiller grew into a serious problem. She’d fallen in love with Tahiti while working there on her previous film The Stowaway and bought a house on the island with a private beach. Away from scrutiny she set about curing her addiction in idiosyncratic style.
“I got drunk for three months,” she said. “I drank something like three bottles of champagne a day and sat looking at the sea from my private beach. And I got myself off morphine.”
The film roles still trickled in, notably a part opposite Jack Palance in the Second World War bomb disposal drama Ten Seconds to Hell and Joséphine opposite Pierre Mondy’s Napoleon in The Battle of Austerlitz, but by the end of the decade as her friend René Clair, who had directed her in 1949’s The Lovers of Verona put it, “the series of failures that came after her greatest glory had shaken her”.
In 1964 she travelled to Prague to film Hell Is Empty, telling an interviewer, “I was at the top for 14 years, long before anyone had heard of Bardot. And I can be good again. You’ll see.”
She was already in poor health with a heart condition and production on the film had to be halted several times to allow her to recover. Fraught with a string of problems Hell Is Empty would not appear until the summer of 1967. By which time Carol was dead.
She’d arrived in Monte Carlo in February that year to attend a television festival with her fourth husband, British businessman Mike Eland, and seemed to be more upbeat than for some time. “I’m happy at last,” she laughed to reporters as she walked into the Hotel de Paris.
The following day she complained of feeling tired and decided not to join Eland for an evening function, telling her husband she would have an early night instead. When he returned at around 11pm Eland found her collapsed on the floor of the bathroom. By the time she reached hospital it was too late. She was 46 years old.
A week after the funeral her grave was robbed of the jewellery in which she was buried, the thieves moving an 800lb concrete slab to access her coffin and snatch the valuables. Even in death it seemed Martine Carol’s dignity and agency could be cruelly compromised, just as they had been in life.