Constance Bennett was born to the footlights and later became one of Hollywood’s highest paid actresses by playing brittle society roles.
The diminutive actress was one of the brightest stars in the golden era of Hollywood that began with the talkies. She starred in more than 50 films. One of her best-known roles was that of the female ghost in the famed “Topper” series.
In the decade before World War II, Bennett was constantly before the public — on the screen in court and as a shrewd businesswoman selling beauty though a brand of cosmetics that carried her name. She also dabbled in real estate, the stock market and in fashion design as the originator of “Fashion Frocks.” Her interest in clothes led to her frequent selections for best-dressed lists.
She was a sharp trader with the movie moguls. Once, while film executives were stalled while haggling over a $125,000 price she asked for a film, she calmly upped the figure to $300,000. She didn’t quite get it. But the executive agreed to pay the figure for two films. None of Hollywood’s glamour girls had gotten that much before.
Beyond the usual Hollywood lawsuits over contracts, Bennett engaged in several memorable court battles. One of the most unusual was a legal fight to prove an adopted son was actually a child born to her and her wealthy second husband. She lost that suit, but won another in which she refused to pay $3,500 to an internationally known artist who had painted her portrait. “I don’t like it,” she declared in explaining why she refused to pay him.
Constance Campbell Bennett was born Oct. 22, 1904, in New York City, the eldest of the three daughters of actor Richard Bennett and his actress wife, Adrianne Morrison. Actress Joan Bennett and the late Barbara Bennett were her sisters. Bennett attended private schools in this country and was a belle of Ivy League college dances and football games. It appeared she was on her way to becoming a matron of society.
Then came a chance meeting with film producer Samuel Goldwyn, who met the teenage beauty at an Equity ball. Impressed with her good looks, he asked her to take a screen test. From the start, she bypassed the bit parts usually assigned to beginners and won important roles and then starring ones.
But in 1925, she announced she would surrender her career to become the wife of Philip Morgan Plant, heir to a railroad and shipping fortune. She didn’t keep the promise. Plant was her second husband. Her first was Chester Moorhead, a college student she reportedly had married on a dare when she was 16. The marriage was later annulled. Her five-year marriage to Plant ended in 1929.
Two years later she married the Marquis de la Falaise de la Coudray, a French-born film producer. The third marriage lasted until 1940. Six months later Bennett became the bride of Army 2nd Lt. Gilbert Roland, who left his film career for service in World War II. After another divorce, Bennett married her fifth and last husband, Brig. Gen. John Theron Coulter.
Once in 1945, in an oblique commentary on her sojourns to the altar, Bennett (at the time unmarried) stated: “If the man can take it, everything will be OK. But I am not so sure that my design for living fits in with the concept of married life entertained by a male partner.”
Among Bennett’s best-known films were “Sally, Irene and Mary,” “This Thing Called Love,” “The Goose Hangs High” and “Three Faces East.” Bennett returned to Hollywood for her first film after a long absence soon before she died, playing with Lana Turner in a remake of “Madame X.”
She became one of the first women film producers with “Madame Spy” in 1946. She also appeared in a number of stage productions, beginning with Noel Coward’s “Easy Virtue” in 1939. She appeared in stock productions, including a highly successful tour of in “Auntie Mame” in 1958.
She died of a cerebral hemorrhage on July 24, 1965, at Walston Army Hospital at Fort Dix, N.J. She was 60.