By David Stevens
Who alive in 1948 could have imagined that we’d have mini computers in our pockets today? Or that we’d pay 100 bucks to enter taxpayer-funded professional sports stadiums with fake grass? Or that Colorado and Washington state would legalize recreational marijuana?
Eight decades ago, phonograph records and Scrabble were new, and Duncan Hines was just beginning to make a culinary name for himself.
Lila Leeds was starting down a promising path of fame and fortune in Hollywood. She had dropped out of Clovis High School four years earlier — where she was known as beauty contest queen Lila Lee Wilkinson — so she could be a star.
You’ve probably never heard of her because times change.
The Internet Movie Database tells us Leeds appeared in eight films between 1946 and 1948 and was hanging around with the movie world’s elite. That crowd included Robert Mitchum, already a star, earning an Academy Award nomination for his role of Officer Bill Walker in the critically acclaimed “Story of G.I. Joe.”
By age 20, Leeds was a drop-dead gorgeous Lana Turner lookalike, who, in fact, was engaged to Turner’s ex-husband, Stephen Crane.
She appeared in a Red Skelton film and had a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
But her star went dark the night of Aug. 31, 1948. That’s when she and Mitchum were arrested in Leeds’ Los Angeles home for smoking pot.
“I’m all washed up,” Mitchum told reporters as he was hauled off to jail. “This is the bitter end.”
It wasn’t, of course. Not for Mitchum anyway. He appeared in 137 films in a 55-year career that ended with his death in 1997. He went to jail for 43 days, part of it spent posing for “Life” magazine photographers in his work-farm uniform, gaining empathy from his fans, and then continued his career like nothing ever happened.
Leeds’ acting days, barely under way when she attracted the attention of the law, ended soon after her arrest. She served 50 days in jail, was placed on five years’ probation and her phone stopped ringing with work offers. Some reports say she was introduced to heroin during her jail stay. She eventually became an addict. She was still on probation when accused of misdemeanor reckless driving in November 1949.
She appeared before a Superior Court judge who gave her a lecture recorded by the Long Beach Independent newspaper.
“You are a member of a profession upon which you have brought great disgrace,” the judge told her. “You have given a bad reputation to all others in the profession.”
The newspaper reported the actress’ lips began to quiver and then she burst into tears. The judge ordered her to leave California for at least four years.
Public scrutiny on Leeds’ antics mostly ended after that.
She died in 1999, in relative obscurity, at age 71. The Los Angeles Times didn’t even publish her obituary.
Who knows if her life would have been better or worse as an actress, but it probably would have been different if attitudes had been different that night 66 years ago today when Leeds was arrested for smoking a plant the government regulates and taxes today.
If she’d lived in, say, Colorado or Washington State in the 21st century, when smoking pot and driving fast made for fun anecdotes on the late-night talk shows, maybe she could have been a star.
Then again, maybe she was anyway.
The LA Times tells us Leeds had returned to Hollywood by 1974, where she was a minister with a group called SMILE — Spiritual Mission, Inc., Laymen’s Evangelist. The SMILE mission was to help drug addicts lead productive lives.
Times do change, and people do, too.
David Stevens is editor for the Clovis News Journal and Portales News-Tribune. Contact him at: