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The sun sets on a fallen star

By D. Robert Carter - | Mar 22, 2008

Aweek after experiencing the thrill of attending the premier of Trader Horn at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, Edwina underwent one of the most humiliating experiences of her life. She made her deposition answering Suzette Renaldo’s charge of alienation of affection.

Edwina arrived in the office of Mrs. Renaldo’s attorney, Paul Shapiro, and the two women sat side by side while awaiting the proceedings. Neither showed the other any sign of recognition. While answering the questions posed by Shapiro, Edwina never once turned her eyes toward her accuser. Mrs. Renaldo, on the other hand, kept her gaze fixed directly on Edwina during the 15- minute-long proceedings.

Edwina testified she first met Renaldo just before the troupe left Los Angeles for New York. She said she didn’t find out he was married until another girl told her while they were steaming across the Red Sea.

Edwina answered most of Shapiro’s questions negatively. The actress denied calling Mrs. Renaldo “a cold and mercenary woman,” refuted “breaking down the fidelity of Renaldo to his wife,” and denied saying Renaldo would never get anywhere in pictures with a wife and a child. Edwina spurned claims that Renaldo lived with her and her family, that she was ever alone with Renaldo in her or anyone else’s apartment, and that she had her marriage annulled so she could marry Renaldo.

When Shapiro asked Edwina if she knew that Renaldo was true to his wife before he met her, the actress laughed and replied that the question was “too ridiculous.” Shapiro followed these questions by asking Edwina if she made love to her leading man in Africa. Edwina replied, “I certainly did not.” The actress refused to answer when asked if her landlady had threatened to evict her after finding Renaldo in her room.

When the hearing closed, Edwina rapidly left the room, brushing against Mrs. Renaldo, who fell back over a chair. Suzette claimed Edwina pushed her.

In other court action that took place early in 1931, Duncan’s attorneys showed that Mrs. Renaldo’s elevator stopped somewhere short of the top floor. In court, she claimed Duncan’s aged, gray, fedora hat possessed occult powers. She said her husband, who she believed to be a Manchu prince, acquired the hat while in China studying to become a Buddhist priest.

In Suzette Renaldo’s clouded mind, her husband was a member of a dangerous Chinese band, and he used narcotics. The deluded woman accused Edwina “of indulging in mystical love rites practiced by the savages of the jungle.”

Duncan’s attorneys continued to expose his ex-wife’s “mental irregularity” by showing she had attempted to buy the testimony of her landlady and the landlady’s son. The attorneys also proved Suzette lied about receiving death threats from Renaldo’s “Chinese friends.”

Roughly a year after Mrs. Renaldo filed the original suit, Edwina appeared before Superior Court Judge Carl A. Stutzman early in September 1931. The accused answered negatively 18 times to essentially the same questions asked earlier by Mrs. Renaldo’s attorney.

Edwina served as the only witness. Mrs. Renaldo had fled California to avoid her sanity hearing scheduled to be heard in that state. Stutzman found Edwina innocent and absolved her of any blame. She may have won the case, but she lost economically; Edwina was shackled by large legal fees.

Duncan Renaldo was not so lucky. The court found him guilty of illegally entering the United States and making false statements in order to obtain a passport. He served 18 months in federal prison and was pardoned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt one day before his term in prison expired. After being released, Renaldo started over as a janitor earning $50 a week in a movie studio. He ultimately became early television’s Cisco Kid and earned a comfortable living.

Early in 1931, Edwina Booth’s name rolled off every tongue. Paul Cuilhe, a nationally known floral expert, even named an orchid for her. “The Edwina” appeared at a Pasadena flower show. Cuilhe valued it at $25,000, much more than Edwina received for filming Trader Horn.

Edwina appeared in three movie serials during 1931 and 1932: The Vanishing Legion and The Last of the Mohicans with Harry Carey, and Trapped in Tijuana with Duncan Renaldo. Then her short career in movies ended.

Despite her illness, Edwina had forced herself to stay on her feet until she suffered a total collapse sometime in 1932. In Edwina’s words, “I found it useless. I had driven myself as far as I could go. I had to lie down and rest.”

She went to bed, and she stayed there for years. Because of this extended illness, MGM released her from her motion picture commitments, leaving her without the means to pay her legal and medical bills.

Edwina’s mother, Josie Woodruff, was eventually forced to apply to the county for food, and provisions began arriving twice a week from a mysterious source. Duncan Renaldo, William Van Dyke and Harry and Olive Carey collected money to help pay Connie’s bills and sent it to Edwina’s family anonymously.

The ailing actress spoke to correspondent Russell J. Birdwell about her destitute condition in 1934: “I am not ashamed that I am on charity. I would be if I hadn’t tried. I tried with all my might and this happened to me.”

When Edwina first arrived home from Africa, her parents thought the actress would recover from her illness with proper rest and love. As time passed, they realized it would take more. They called in doctors to examine her, and her father began researching tropical diseases. He corresponded with European experts who thought they could help Edwina, if they could see her and study her case.

Mr. Woodruff talked to LDS attorney Preston D. Richards at a church party one night. Richards thought MGM would pay for the trip to Europe, if Woodruff would ask the company. Woodruff asked, MGM refused, and the family filed a $1 million suit against the film giant. Three medical experts, Arthur Torrance, Frederick Finch and John Barrow, examined Edwina. They wrote letters to the effect that insect bites and overexposure to the sun, which burned her nerve endings and shattered her nervous system, caused her physical malady.

The film company offered to settle out of court for $20,000, with the stipulation that Edwina be taken to Europe for treatment. Richards advised the family to accept this offer, and they did. Lloyd Woodruff later accused his attorney of acting in collusion with MGM.

In November 1934, shortly before Lloyd and Edwina left for Europe, the actress granted an interview to Russell J. Birdwell. This interview revealed Edwina’s mental and physical anguish. She told the reporter:

“I’ve been away so long that nothing matters now. … I went home to die, but I wasn’t that fortunate. I’ve only learned what it means to die — to be away — to be denied life — to know that I may … just remain like this … so weak that you cry when you want to talk; to have pains go shooting through your head; to want to walk and be unable; to lie on your back in a darkened room — away from the sunshine you hate — and know that outside the parade has passed you by and that you’ll never be able to catch up with it again.”

For two-and-a-half years, Edwina had lain in a darkened room. On her good days, she wrote poetry and finished a children’s book in poem form. Her sister illustrated it. They hoped to make a little money from the book, but they couldn’t find a publisher.

Edwina sent some of her poems to Aloysius Horn. He wrote back:

“These poems give me the best jungle impressions I know of! I read a little – Then shut my eyes & picture myself back in the old home in the forest again & the thoughts linger long.

“I read you over again & find they are precious gems & will give countless artistic souls a peep into what really exists in ‘Darkest Africa.’ “

When Birdwell asked if Hollywood remembered her, Edwina responded: “No one has ever come to see me from among those I used to know. My friends now are from among the strangers who have called at the house to wish me well. Just strangers who have turned out to be my best friends.”

Edwina prepared for the trip to Europe by eating a special diet, resting and taking prescribed medications. Late in April 1935, she boarded a New-York-bound train once more, six years after her excitement-filled trip to the “Big Apple” in 1929. At the beginning of the latter journey, she entered the train on a stretcher. Edwina wore sunglasses, and her body was covered to the eyes. Her father and a nurse accompanied her.

The train stopped in Salt Lake City, but the former Utahan lay confined to her sleeping compartment. After staying a few days in a hospital in New York City, Edwina continued on to London by ship.

The ailing actress stayed for some time in England, living in the LDS Mission Home. Provo resident Rex Blake was serving a mission in England in 1935, and he remembers Miss Booth and Lloyd Woodruff lodging at the mission home. When Rex visited London for a conference, he took a picture of Lloyd and Edwina.

While Lloyd and Edwina visited in Birmingham, England, the actress spent about two weeks living with a local family, the Dunns. She caught the eye of young Basil Dunn, who was five or six years old at the time. Dunn, who is now a United States citizen and lives in American Fork, remembers not only Edwina’s beauty, but her demeanor. Even though she acted very much the lady, Basil asserts she remained natural and unaffected.

Basil also observed an outward sign of Edwina’s illness during her short stay in Birmingham. As the actress helped clean up after a family meal, she fainted while carrying a load of dishes from the table to the kitchen sink. Down she went, plates, saucers, cups and all. When she regained consciousness, she apologized profusely for materially reducing the contents of the Dunn kitchen cupboard.

While Edwina was a guest in their home, the Dunn family asked her a few questions about filming Trader Horn. They wondered if any of the animal scenes were faked, especially those involving Edwina in close proximity with lions. She assured them the scenes were all authentic.

Mr. Woodruff and his daughter went from doctor to doctor in England, Switzerland, Germany and Austria. A strange experience highlighted the trip to Berlin. Shirley Paxman, Edwina’s first cousin, recounted this incident.

Lloyd and Edwina traveled to Berlin by train. Edwina occupied a sleeping compartment, but for economy, Lloyd slept in a chair a few cars back. One morning, Lloyd awoke to find his car sitting on a siding, while Edwina’s car sped on toward the German capital.

Lloyd had served an LDS mission in Germany, and he spoke the language fluently. His life’s experiences had taught him to go to the top if he needed help. He practiced this time-tested principle by ringing up Der Fuhrer, Adolph Hitler. By now, the name Edwina Booth was known all over the world, and Lloyd got straight through to the German leader.

After hearing Lloyd’s story, Herr Hitler, who recognized the star’s name and had seen Trader Horn, said he would have his S.S. men take Edwina off the train and put her in a waiting ambulance, where she would remain until Lloyd arrived. In Shirley’s words, “So, when Lloyd went to Berlin, there’s Connie being taken care of by Hitler’s S.S. men — well taken care of.”

The father and daughter also visited Vienna, where they saw Dr. Steinach, a Viennese physician. In a letter home, Edwina described the doctor’s diagnosis to Cora Leaver, her former nurse: “He said that not only is my blood poisoned by bites of the tsetse fly, but that the African sun burned out the nerve center in the neck which controls all of the nerves of my body. That is why none of the glands and nerves of my body can function.”

Paxman remembers that the doctors in Europe diagnosed Edwina’s physical problem as sleeping sickness.

Columnist John McClain, who had accompanied the MGM filming safari in Africa as its press agent, met Edwina and Lloyd on their arrival in New York in April 1936. The newspaperman found Edwina optimistic and determined to get back on her feet. He quoted her as saying: “I was almost resigned to becoming an invalid for life, but I think now the doctors have finally discovered what’s the matter with me. … It will take a couple of years of convalescence before I will be up and around.”

McClain summed up her situation with these words: “Edwina was completely removed from the world of pictures — almost the world of reality. … I believe it is safe to say her picture career is ruined, even if her health is not.”

McClain’s prediction proved to be dead right. On her return from Africa, the former actress moved in with her family and eventually took back the name Connie Woodruff. She steadfastly refused to discuss her acting career with anyone. According to Shirley Paxman, Edwina’s brother Booth and her mother devoted their lives to taking care of the former actress.

Connie’s health improved enough to allow her to do some studying. She delved deeply into religion, reading Josephus, studying different Bible texts, and comparing them to the Book of Mormon. Connie served an LDS stake mission tailored to her strength.

Josie Woodruff died on Mother’s Day in 1951, and that same year Connie married Urial Higham, a former LDS mission president. Lloyd Woodruff died in 1954 from injuries received in an automobile accident. Both of Connie’s parents are buried in the Provo City Cemetery.

Mr. Higham died in 1957, and Connie spent much of her time working in the Los Angeles LDS Temple, where she met Reinold Fehlberg, who worked in the miniature department of a motion picture studio. According to Fehlberg’s niece, Orem resident Betty Noakes, their bishop acted as a matchmaker, and the two married in 1959.

The couple lived in separate apartments in the same complex. Since Connie remained ill and rather reclusive, she insisted on quiet lodgings of her own. The couple’s lives revolved peacefully around their church work. Since Connie carefully kept her past life a secret, only a few of her close friends knew who she really was.

In 1964, the couple returned to Provo for a visit. While she was in town, Connie told a Daily Herald reporter, “It’s wonderful to be back in my hometown again. Provo is still one of the beautiful places in the world.”

While being interviewed in 1968 by Byron Riggan, Duncan Renaldo phoned Connie. During their conversation, Renaldo asked, “Where have you been? We thought you were dead.”

Connie replied, “I know people think that, but that’s all right with me. Let them keep thinking it.”

After their short conversation ended and Duncan hung up the phone, he confided in Riggan:

“I don’t altogether understand Edwina. Although she was a very determined young woman, she was naive. She thought that good work and honest effort are always justly rewarded. She had worked so hard, under such difficult conditions, she felt she deserved better treatment than she got. We all think so, too. But instead of accepting it gracefully, Edwina, I think, has just tried to blank out her whole life during those years.”

Connie may have tried to forget her past fame, but occasionally, when nostalgia enveloped her like an African morning mist, she must certainly have sat swathed in memories of the days when she was a fair-haired goddess surrounded by her awe-struck subjects.

Josephine Constance Woodruff Fehlburg, once widely famous worldwide as Edwina Booth, died May 18, 1991, in the Medallion Convalescent Hospital in Long Beach, California, at age 86. A small cluster of mourners honored her during a simple grave side service in Santa Monica, California.

D. Robert Carter is a historian from Springville. He can be reached at 489-8256.

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