Among all of the Hollywood stories of broken dreams, one of the saddest is that of a beautiful young blonde — born 114 years ago today — against whose ambition for stardom the fates cruelly conspired.
She was born, and died, as Constance Woodruff, but if you know of her, it is as Edwina Booth, who won what she thought was the role of a lifetime in the MGM super-production Trader Horn (1931). The physical and emotional suffering that followed made that accomplishment hollow – and Booth’s demise the province of urban legend.
Constance, a demure girl from a Mormon family in Utah, came to Los Angeles in 1925 and landed a couple of minor picture parts. Then she got noticed – as an “extra girl” beating out hundreds of aspirants to co-star as the African jungle’s “White Goddess” in Trader Horn – the much-ballyhooed film version of the best-selling book.
Multitudes clamored to see the “Goddess” who, in the story, is sought by the titular white trader (played by action star Harry Carey) and his young companion (portrayed by Duncan Renaldo). Unfortunately, journeying to Africa for many months of location shooting was part of the “dream” assignment.
Booth endured poor treatment by the studio, which, she would allege, ordered her to sunbathe nude on the deck of the ship on its way to the jungle and failed to provide her with protective clothing during the long stay in the wild, with its thorny brush and insect hordes.
Shooting was delayed even longer – leading to nearly a year total, including most of 1929 – as sound equipment, deemed necessary because of the industry transition to talking films, had to be shipped to the crew. Director W.S. Van Dyke and his charges didn’t return to the U.S. until early 1930, and Van Dyke had shot so much footage that the film would not be readied for its premiere until May 1931.
Booth received the requisite publicity push – the film was a huge popular success — but she could enjoy nothing during her abbreviated period as a star. Within weeks after her return to America, and even before Trader Horn opened, there were rumors – perhaps even encouraged by MGM for publicity’s sake – about her weakened condition via a jungle germ that threatened to claim her life within months. In the fall of 1930, a fan-magazine sob sister printed a dramatic interview with Booth about her harrowing experience:
“The worst was not sleeping … not more than ten minutes at a time all those months,” Booth said. “And since I’ve been home, it’s the same. I wake up, thinking I’m back, thinking I hear the drums, and the hyenas sleeping and the natives chanting. Did you know that when any of the village people are sick, they take them out and abandon them in the forest to die? We saw that happen. …
“But I’m much better. I can sleep an hour at a time now. I’m ready to go back to work whenever they need me. It was terrible – and wonderful, too.”
Then things turned really terrible. Booth endured an alienation-of-affection accusation from the wife of her Trader Horn co-star Duncan Renaldo. And she did get sick … very sick. Booth had come down with malaria and dysentery while in Africa.
Contrary to legend, Booth did not return to obscurity immediately. She actually ground out four Poverty Row films after Trader Horn. The Vanishing Legion (1931) and The Last of the Mohicans (1932) were low-budget serials that reteamed Booth with Harry Carey. The Midnight Patrol (1932) was a routine murder mystery with Mary Nolan (another too-soon Hollywood casualty) down the cast list. Trapped in Tia Juana (1932) matched Booth with Renaldo again, but by then Booth was ready to retire to her sickbed.
And there she stayed … for more than five years, her career done before it had really started. Booth collected a mere $35,000 in a $1 million lawsuit against MGM that was settled out of court in 1936.
Her family took care of Booth, who popped in and out of the news throughout the 1930s as newspapers recorded her ups and downs. In 1936, she was judged well enough to walk on her own for the first time in many months. By 1938, she was forced to leave her beloved Utah to return to Los Angeles for more treatment. Her father told a wire-service reporter that “she suffers slight relapses at intervals in the long fight against the illness.”
Booth recovered enough to marry twice more (she had divorced her first husband in the early 1930s). Constance took back her birth name, and she lived quietly with her third husband. Their lives centered on their work in an LDS temple, and most of Connie’s friends during her twilight years knew nothing of her life as Edwina.
Meanwhile, many folks thought that Edwina Booth had died back in the ’30s. The misinformation continued as late as 1987, when Katharine Hepburn repeated the claim of Booth’s early death in her book “The Making of ‘The African Queen.’”
On May 18, 1991, the truth came permanently to light after Edwina Booth/Constance Woodruff passed on, at age 86 in a convalescent hospital in Long Beach, California. Her husband had perished seven years before, so it was left to the actress’s brother to report her death to the news media.
“Her death has been wrongly reported so many times …,” Booth Woodruff told the Los Angeles Times. “But this time she really did die.”
“Hollywood Sub-Stories: Hidden Away, Edwina Booth Still Is Haunted by the Horrors She Saw,” Motion Picture Classic, September 1930.
“Edwina Booth Continues Health Battle,” United Press report, cited from Salt Lake (Utah) Telegram, October 4, 1938.
“Edwina Booth: White Goddess of Classic Film Trader Horn,” Los Angeles Times, May 22, 1991.
(The most complete account of Edwina Booth’s life can be found in a series of stories from 2006 by D. Robert Carter for the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Look here and at related links.)