Tandra Quinn (USA 1931-2016) was a model and starlet whose stunning beauty lit up the cinema screen briefly in the early 1950s, in four Hollywood films; most notably the now-cult surreal science fiction picture, Mesa of Lost Women (USA 1953).
Born Derline Jeanette Smith in South Los Angeles in the Depression, her mother was determined that her daughter would not suffer the hardship she had herself experienced in her childhood; the best way as she saw it, ensuring that her child became a successful Hollywood actress.
Derline had an auspicious start winning Number 1 Perfect Baby in America award (as declared by the Chiropractors Association); and her subsequent childhood steps into show business were fashion modelling and attending acting lessons with the Meglin Kiddies, a famous drama studio for children.
However, even before these early curtain calls, Derline had suffered a tragic burning accident that would leave her physically and mentally ( she suffered a constant fight with depression) all her life; and ultimately undermine her confidence in her Hollywood career.
That is not to say that there was plenty of bright hope at the beginning: the startlingly pretty youngster auditioned alongside her contemporary, Elizabeth Taylor (USA 1932-2011) for the role that the ‘well-connected’ Taylor would win in National Velvet (USA 1944); and then had a small role as a schoolgirl in Weekend at The Wardolf (USA 1945), starring Lana Turner (USA 1921-1995).
After 20th Century Fox had signed her up to a 7 year contract, the spectre of her early tragedy reared its head, leading to her being dropped by the studio, after casting directors complained that a screen test highlighted an imbalance in her features, when photographed ( Derline had been told that the burns had hampered bone development). She was deeply hurt – but on screen there is no evidence that her beauty was marred; just evidence of the rife insensitivity and brutality of the studio system.
Happily, in 1950 she was chosen as “Goose Girl” at Hollywood Park; to ‘preside over the geese in the Hollypark infield’; and as ‘Goose Girl’ she guested on the television show, Turf Topics, on KTTV. Publicity stills reveal her blossoming beauty.
Around this time the esteemed photographer Paul Hesse arranged an appointment for her at RKO to meet Howard Hughes. Hughes wanted her to pose in bright light while he hid behind a curtain, but she refused; and she would say in a 2006 interview, that she was probably the only girl ever to stand up Howard Hughes; known for his enticement of so many Hollywood beauties.
The road of B-movies inevitably lay ahead and interspersing modelling with acting, she tried various names including Tundra Nova, Jeanette Quinn – as she was billed in The Neanderthal Man (USA 1953), in which she played, with great sensitivity, a deaf mute – before settling on Tandra Quinn.
The irony was that in all her movie roles she had no dialogue, despite having an exquisite velvet voice which had impressed producers, to accompany her expressive beauty – and which, as can be confirmed by those who knew in her later years (including myself), endured agelessly.
Tandra Quinn crossed paths with a plethora of Hollywood stars during her brief film career; and in her last years recalled knowing Joi Lansing (USA 1928-1972), at drama school, working alongside fellow pin up model, Mara Corday (USA 1933 -), Beverly Garland (USA 1926-2008) & Helen Walker ( USA 1922-1968) in Problem Girls (USA 1953); and Dolores Fuller, Ed Wood Jr’s muse (USA 1923-2011) in Girls of The Night (USA 1954). She also knew Marilyn Monroe (USA 1926-1962), with whom she shared a photographer and Rock Hudson (USA 1925-1985) & John Wayne (1905-1979) were amongst her neighbours, around 1960, whilst she lived in Newport Beach – where she would also see resident Mamie Van Doren (USA 1931-)
In 1954, she married a Beverly Hills builder Herbert Smithson ( who passed in 1995) who also taught tennis to the Hollywood Stars, including Gary Cooper (USA 1901-1961) and became a mother to two children. She then retired from films – and quite the entrepreneur, she embarked on various projects, never quite getting the right financial backing; but taking her all around the world – including to Australia and Tahiti. In the 1970s she became interested in gold mining which occupied her and her companion Phillip for the rest of her life.
As a classic Hollywood film buff I was fascinated with the B-movie, Mesa of Lost Women, which I first saw on video in the late 1990s – and was intrigued to research any of the surviving actors; especially Tandra Quinn (Derline). Research on the internet lead me to contact Derline’s younger sister Loretta in California in 2005. As an artist I had created cartoon tributes featuring Derline in her heyday as Tandra Quinn ( I had even depicted her with her own Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame) – and I was eager to surprise her and hopefully uplift her.
She was delighted – though humbly bemused and incredulous that anyone would remember let alone celebrate her – which only warmed me to her all the more. She had virtually forgotten "that corny old movie" as she called it, until one day in the 1990s, she walked into a half price book & video store in Dallas, spotted the cover featuring her pin up pose and said to herself, " I guess I’ll buy one". Lightly mentioning to the cashier that she was buying it "..’cause this is me" provoked much excitement – "you’re kidding?!" – and he and his co-workers asked her to sign the cover of another tape of the movie, as ‘Tandra Quinn’.
We quickly became firm friends, initially through long letters (she wrote in beautiful script from her Texas home…. "I came here hoping to find a cute cowboy, but…") and then later by long telephone calls – sharing care, support (we both fought depression and suffered knocks in life), our Christian faith – and laughs; always thanking God for humour. Derline had the most wicked dry sense of humour that would be accompanied by the most infectious peel of laughter.
Derline had suffered much hardship in her later years and ever wanting to lift her from a sense of worthlessness , I would always remind her that she was a beautiful piece of film history, from a Golden Era of Hollywood; forever preserved on film. She was usually dismissive and I so wanted her to receive more recognition; so with her permission I contacted film historians Tom Weaver and Alan ‘Al’ Doshna to tell then that I had discovered Tandra Quinn- and she agreed to wonderful revealing interviews with them, respectively in 2006 and 2015.
Tom Weaver’s interview, conducted both through a meeting and telephone calls was first published in Starlog (Issue 365 – May 2008); then again ( with a ‘Tandra Quinn today’ photograph, showing the former actress as a voluptuous blonde) in his book of Hollywood interviews, I Talked With a Zombie (McFarland & Co. Inc, 2009). Alan Doshna’s interview, conducted by phone and in writing containing even more revelations from Derline’s film past was published in FilmFax (No.141 – Summer 2015).
Tandra Quinn is forever preserved on celluloid but the lady behind the starlet was so much more: she was a loving, caring, generous, compassionate, often ingenious and feisty human being. She had an extraordinary knowledge of health foods and was an advocate for alternative therapies (although her one personal vice was sugar – "I’m an ice cream & cookies gal!") and a great passion for fighting against injustice . She also protested against cruelty to animals in which she took an active part in highlighting in no uncertain terms, when she tentatively joined Facebook in 2011; at the encouragement of her niece.
Derline and I sadly never got to meet in person – though our hearts most definitely met and bonded. I am completing and posting this tribute on what would be the 73rd birthday of my late beautiful mother Marjorie J. Whatley (1943- 1981), about whom Derline showed so much interest; and compassionate care for me, in my early bereavement
Whilst Derline had deteriorating health problems, she hid from everyone – including her sister – how widespread the cancer was becoming, that claimed her life on October 21, 2016. She passed away peacefully in Florida as she wished (" I’m an ocean gal!" she shared) supported by her son Scott.
I was naturally distressed to hear this past August that she had been admitted to hospital as an emergency – and with prayers, painted this portrait tribute ( photographed just after completion), primarily inspired by her role of Tarantella in Mesa of Lost Women (USA 1953), for which she was most known; determined that it would be painted in her lifetime. Two months later Derline was released from her trial of suffering.
I was deeply honoured to know Derline as my dear friend; though as a film fan I would I have loved a dedicated photograph I never wanted to bother her( I have a treasured batch of letters) – so I conclude this tribute with the inscription Tom Weaver arranged for Tandra Quinn to write in the cover page of his book in 2009:
" To my dear Sir Stephen ~ This one of Tom’s Zombies has awakened to send her love! ~ Tandra Quinn (your Derline)"
See the complete portrait here:
Stephen B. Whatley, November 18, 2016.
Tandra Quinn. 2016
Oil on canvas
20 x 16in/51 x 40.6cm
Tagged: , art , expressionism , portrait , painting , Tandra Quinn , Hollywood , Pin-up , model , glamour , glamor , beauty , Derline Smithson , movies , film , cinema , B-movies , Mesa of Lost Women , 1950s , fifties , 50s , actress , interior , studio , Elizabeth Taylor , Lana Turner , National Velvet , Weekend at The Waldorf , Hollywood Park , 20th Century Fox , Howard Hughes , Paul Hesse , artist’s easel , easel , publicity stills , hunk , sex symbol , sexy , Tarantella , Samuel Wu , science fiction , RKO , The Neanderthal Man , Mara Corday , Dolores Fuller , Helen alker , Beverly Garland , Problem Girls , john Wayne , Rock Hudson , Mamie Van Doren , Gary Cooper , Beverly Hills , Christian , Texas , Dallas , Florida , Tom Weaver , zombie , Alan Doshna , Stephen B. Whatley , artist Stephen B. Whatley , Whatley , Stephen Whatley , love , peace , cookies , ice cream , LA , Los Angeles , Marjorie J Whatley , Facebook , ABigFave , AnAwesomeShot , Allan Nixon , Newport Beach