After Whitney Bourne, we have an another debutante who wanted more of life than fancy tea parties and golf. Leila Ernst was a Boston blue blood who gained ever lasting recognition on Broadway with her role in the original production or Pal Joey, but did not continue her winning row, which ended after just one movie , in Hollywood.
Laila Semple Ernst was born on July 28, 1922/1920, in Joffrey, New Hampshire, to Frederick Steinmann Ernst and Roberta D. Ernst. Her father, a WW1 veteran, served as a head master at a prestigious all boys school in the city. They moved to Salem, Massachusetts right after 1923 started. Her younger brother Frederick Jr. was born there a year later, in 1924. The family moved to Wellesley, Norfolk, Massachusetts in the late 1920s, and were prominent in the Chesnut Hill social set. Leila traveled with her parents from her earliest days – she was in Europe before she turned 8, visiting Monaco and France.
Coming from a solid upper middle class family, Leila had a top notch schooling, shuffling between private schools in England, France and Italy, and, after coming of age, getting her very own place in the Back Bay Society of Boston. Being one of the oldest WASP society enclaves in the US, the Boston set was highly prestigious and Leila was a sough after debutante. Yet, the life of leisure proved too unsatisfying for the energetic girl and after getting the acting bug she enrolled into Walter Hartwig’s Junior Colony Theater School. Her talent did not go unnoticed and in 1937 she was given a big chance of playing opposite the theater’s professional team, led by Donald Cook, in a play named “Soubrette”. A Paramount executive saw her and steered her towards the New York office. To prepare for a movie career, she enrolled into Boston’s Leland Powers School for Radio . Reta Shaw was one of the more famous actresses to come out of that school. After one term at Powers, she got real acting experience in the Mercury Theater (led by Orson Welles), acting in stock in Maine. There George Abbott heard her, and tested for his upcoming play, Too Many Girls.
Leila had much better luck on Broadway than in Hollywood. After some brushing up in summer stock, she got her first real role in Too Many Girls in 1939. At the tender age of 17, there she was , on the sure road to stardom. And for a time, she did not disappoint. She took her theater career very seriously, and was very dedicated to it.
In the interim of her theater work, Leila made only one movie in Hollywood. It was a leading female role in Life with Henry where she was surrounded by some pretty famous thespians – Jackie Cooper, Eddie Bracken and the gossip queen/actress Hedda Hopper. The movie is not a bad piece of work, one in the long running series of the Henry Aldrich adventures, but it was quickly forgotten.
Leila was very level headed about both Hollywood and the movie business. She refused to stay as a contractee in California, and went back to summer stock right after the movie was finished. Despite the fact that she liked Hollywood and doing movies, her chief desire was to gain stage experience, and she knew she could not get that if she was tied to a studio for a prolonged period of time. Her plan was to work for two years on the East coast before trying her hand on the West coast yet again. She rubbed this method into her costar Jackie Cooper, who left movies for a period after Life with Henry to experience stage life and become a better actor. The two went into a semi partnership to appear in Maine summer stock.
And then, after some summer stock, Leila got her big break. In December 1940, Pal Joey opened on Broadway with her, Gene Kelly and Vivienne Segal in the leads. Leila played Linda English, the nice, naive showgirl, Segal’s rival for Joey’s love. The show is a musical theater staple even today, and got made as a movie in 1957 (sadly with no actors from the original run, but with Rita Hayworth, Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak in Leila’s role). The play lasted for a year and after it ended in November 1941, Leila opted for semi retirement with her new husband.
In early 1943, there were reports that RKO was giving Leila a large build up to become a comedienne in the class of Carole Lombard, but it all amounted to nothing, and she left the West coast not long after. She was back on the stage in June 1943 in Doughgirls. A funny farce about wartime Washington, it was a decent comeback vehicle, and Leila was once again ready for the big spotlight. She continued touring with the play in 1945.
In 1946 she hit the Broadway stage once again with Truckline Cafe, starring in February 27, 1946. Tons of highly revered names were involved in it: Maxwell Anderson, Harold Clurman, Elia Kazan, Marlon Brando, Karl Malden and David Manners among others, but it was a failure, closing after only 13 performances. Today it is best known as one of Brando’s earliest stage credits.
Leila’s last Broadway credit was If the Shoe Fits, a short lived musical that closed after a few performances – but Leila at least played the dream role for every woman – Cinderella.
Leila withdrew from the acting life after this.
Papers tried to make the most out of her blue blood background. She was hailed as a “blonde Boston ball of fire” who “shocks old Boston dowagers with her crazy tomboy antics” in Hollywood. Example: Leila dated Victor Mature, the muscle man of Hollywood. For one, Mature, who came from a humble background, had a special taste for fine bred ladies (three of his wives were debutantes), and for the other, they were even named “Least likely to romantically succeed” by the papers. The press got that right (what a shocker! :-P), as they broke up soon after. The same year she had a unnamed Boston admirer who only saw her photo, but was ready to date her anyway. No info is given to what happened next.
Leila married Stacy Beakes Hulse Jr. on July 1, 1941, in the Church of the Transfiguration (commonly known as the Little Church) in Manhattan. Hulse was born on April 25, 1920 in New Haven, Connecticut to a prominent family, attended the private Belmont High School, studied at Harvard, majoring in business and specializing in American colonial history. Afterwards, he would go on to work in the finance world.
Alas, the marriage was not meant to last – they separated in late 1945 and divorced in 1947 in Dade, Florida. Hulse died in 1988 in Maryland.
In 1946, before her divorce (but while she was separated from Hulse), she started dating Edgar Luckenback, a Palm beach man from a prominent shipping family. The relationship lasted until mid 1947. After this, she was seen with Victor Carbone and was suppose to marry him in 1948, but nothing came out of it. Right after came Bruce Emmings, a British business executive, but that too did not lead to marriage.
Leila’s last acknowledged beau was James Veitch in 1952. What happened to her afterwards is a mystery.
She is allegedly still alive today, at the age of 91.