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Rediscovering the Last Starlet : A mysterious phone call leads to Carol Ohmart

In 1955, Paramount Pictures spent $2 million on a campaign to make unknown Carol Ohmart into a quick star. Gregg Barrios, then 12, started the Carol Ohmart Fan Club -- which lasted two years. Last week he detailed Ohmart's rocket rise and rocket fall, as well as her troubled relationship with her manipulative mother. Ohmart virtually disappeared in the late 1970s. Not even her relatives knew where she was. Barrios finally found her.

January 08, 1989|GREGG BARRIOS

SEATTLE — I spent months trying to locate Carol Ohmart. My search had led me to her hometown, Salt Lake City, and several locked trunks stored in the garage of her cousin, Claudia Atkinson. They contained some 350 letters that Ohmart had written to her mother, Merl, plus audio tapes that Merl had secretly made of their phone conversations over the years.

In one letter, I discovered Ohmart's Social Security number. That might be a helpful device to "prove" that I was a legitimate friend of hers. Who else would know such a detail? I took the number to a source at the Screen Actors Guild pension office who promised to help.

Apparently that source knew how to reach the missing Ohmart.

A few nights later, I received a phone call at home: "I represent Carol Ohmart," the woman said.

I recognized the husky voice from the audio tapes as Ohmart's.

When I asked the caller point-blank if she were Ohmart, she denied it--unconvincingly.

Bearing Bad News

The caller asked what I wanted and I told her I had an unpleasant task, that since relatives hadn't known Ohmart's whereabouts in 10 years, it had fallen on me to relay the news of Merl's death in June, 1987.

There was a pause. Then the caller responded in a controlled, almost resigned voice: "Merl served her purpose."

The conversation ended without much more being said.

Several days later, she called again. This time she acknowledged that she was indeed Ohmart and apologized for her previous ruse. And, yes, she indeed recalled my name from the fan club I ran in the mid-1950s.

She went on: "Carol Ohmart has been out of my life for 10 years," she said. "I have a new name, a new life. It would be overwhelming to face up to that again."

But she agreed to an interview in person if her husband's full name--the same Bill she had married in 1978 when she disappeared--and her place of residence weren't revealed.

The suburban Seattle neighborhood was wooded with tall pines. Ohmart stood in the driveway of an apartment complex. At 61, with long, almost platinum hair, she was unmistakably the same woman I had first seen in Life magazine 33 years ago.

Inside, I met her husband Bill, 65, who was friendly but cautious. Ohmart handed me a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, offering bee's pollen with it. (She's that rare, contradictory breed of health-food devotee and smoker.)

At 5-feet-7, she looked trim, healthy and attractive in a light blouse, safari pants and white running shoes. If anything, her blue eyes appeared clearer than in her studio publicity photos.

Their unassuming apartment reflects the fact that they live only on his modest retirement income. There isn't a single piece of memorabilia from her movie-star past. The living room is dominated by a stunning view of Cascade Mountains.

After we exchanged cordialities, Ohmart proudly showed me the fruits of her current pastimes: Oil painting and sprout gardening. But when we sat down to talk, it was about the old Ohmart.

"A few days after we first talked on the phone," she said, "I woke up in the middle of the night, stretched my arms upward, and said, 'Thank God. After 58 years, I'm free.' "

She was talking about her delayed reaction to the news of her mother's death. We sat in the kitchen, looking through a photo album of Merl's that I had brought from Salt Lake City.

When I first mentioned her mother, who had been unaware of her daughter's whereabouts for about 10 years when she died in 1987, Ohmart refused to discuss her. A fearful look clouded her features and a slight stutter entered her voice, a marked contrast to her earlier cheerful demeanor.

I asked her why she hadn't returned home or kept in touch with her mother.

Initially, she defensively said that Merl had made her own burial arrangements and there was little she could do or wanted from her mother by then. Later, in a more introspective mood, Ohmart said that she had left after Merl, in a rage over Ohmart's marriage to Bill, screamed at her, "I am God!"

"In the last 10 years being away from her and in the relative safety of time and space, and after reading about tyrant-victim relationships, I now can comprehend why I was always trying to protect her.

"Until I became of legal age, I was terrorized. It was hammered into me that God's command was to love your mother or God will kill you."

Had she finally forgiven her mother for the physical and emotional abuse of her youth?

"Yes, I forgave her, but I haven't forgotten. How could I? I tried to be a dutiful daughter, I wrote her all those (hundreds of) letters, but she never let me live my own life. She tried to live through me. I appreciated her supporting me during the lean years, but she wasn't doing it for me, it was for her own selfish ends, to keep me taking orders.

"She controlled my life."

The Missing Truth

She stopped as Bill came into the room. After he left to shop for groceries, she went on to explain that he still didn't know the full truth about her previous marriages or her career.

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