Death of a Starlet – The Rise and Fall of Dariel Jean Johnson

In 1942 a 14-year-old girl made national entertainment news when she was discovered by actress Judy Garland during a performance at the Wilshire Ebell Club in Los Angeles.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Dariel Jean was performing in a production called “Cavalcade of Youth” when she caught the eye of Garland, who urged studio executives to sign her. In 8th grade, attending Bret Harte Junior High School in Los Angeles, Dariel’s seven year contract was approved on her 14th birthday by Judge Emmet H. Wilson.

From the Los Angeles Times Wed., November 11,1942

Dariel Jean Johnson was born November 10, 1928 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She was the youngest child of Lee and Mabel Johnson. Lee Johnson worked as an accountant and by the late 1930s moved his family to Los Angeles.

Vivian Blaine’s column “Star Dust” noted Dariel Jean Johnson in newspapers around the country. February 19, 1943

She was signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, earning $75 a week, and it was reported that she was taking acting and ballet lessons to prepare for “important roles in forth coming pictures.” The “discovery” of Dariel Jean was featured in newspapers across the country in Virginia Vale’s column “Star Dust” regaling her contract with MGM.  Then in December of that year it was reported that she would appear in “Girl Crazy” staring Garland and Mickey Rooney. However, she did not appear in the film, or at least is not credited with any role.

Dariel Jean, age 16, poses while performing “Fellow on a Furlough”, 1944. Universal Pictures

In 1944 Dariel Jean did perform in “Fellow on a Furlough” directed by Vernon Keays and produced by Will Cowan of Universal Pictures. The musical short featured Bob Chester and His Orchestra and starred Hal Derwin and Rose Anne Stevens; other performers included the Les Paul Trio and the Nillson Sisters. It was released on March 1st in theaters and included as a bonus reel along with feature films.

Movie ad, with bonus feature, “Fellow on a Furlough”

It is unknown if Dariel was included in any other studio productions but she did attend a “legislative attaches’ dinner” in Sacramento in 1945 along with other performers including Vivian Blaine, Dorothy Lamour and Leo Carillo. The group of fourteen actors, singers and dancers then entertained patients in several hospitals, including military hospitals in the San Francisco area.

Nothing else is known of her contract with studios MGM or Universal, but it is likely they did not resign her. At the age of 18, with her short career as a starlet seemingly behind her, Dariel Jean married Alvin Thomas Budd on September 23, 1947. Budd was a California native, born in 1925, a veteran of World War II, and employed with the telephone company. One year after they were married Dariel gave birth to a baby girl.  

In 1950 the family of three had settled down to a domesticated life in Orange County and although Hollywood was less than 60 miles away, they were worlds apart.  On the surface, all must have seemed well for Dariel Jean, who had lived a semi-charmed life, transitioning from a brief time in the limelight into the routine of family life. But there was something amiss; something troubling.

Dariel Jean Budd with daughter. This photo may have been taken on the back lot of one of the movie studios.
USC DIGITAL LIBRARY, LOS ANGELES EXAMINER NEGATIVES COLLECTION, 1950-1961

Alvin Budd left for a job in Hawaii as a radio operator, but Dariel and her young daughter stayed behind, living in Newport Beach with a roommate identified only as Mrs. Robert Shand. Mother and child were to eventually meet Alvin in Hawaii, but on Monday, August 13, 1951 Dariel Jean  drove south on Highway 101 through the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and pulled off near Aliso Canyon, on a beach area five miles north of Oceanside. She was presumably there to meet a “friend.”

Whether she met that friend or not is unknown, but on August 16, 1951 a group of Camp Pendleton Marines would discover a grisly scene. Dariel Jean’s life had come to a sudden end.

The Oceanside Blade Tribune published the tragic story on August 17, 1951 with the headline “Discover Body Young Lady Aliso Canyon” with the sad details that Marines on maneuvers had “discovered the body of a 23-year-old woman in a car parked in Aliso Canyon, seven miles north of Oceanside on the Camp Pendleton reservation.  The woman identified as Dariel Jean Budd, of Newport Beach, had apparently been dead for several days. She was found slumped across the front seat of the car, a .32 caliber pistol clutched in her right hand. Upon examination it was found that a bullet had entered the right side of her head just above the ear and emerged a little higher above the left ear, lodging in the car top. The slug will be extracted from the automobile for examination. The young woman was clad in slacks and a blouse. She gripped the steering wheel of the car with her left hand.”

The FBI was called to investigate, likely because the death occurred on federal property. Investigators found the car doors locked and made entry by forcing a window open. An automatic pistol of “foreign make” was found lying on the seat. A small wicker purse was on the floor containing a makeup kit, along with a green wallet which revealed an identification card from the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company, and a driver’s license, identifying the lifeless body as Dariel Jean Budd. Authorities contacted her husband Alvin Budd, who made arrangements to quickly return to California.

The body of his wife was taken to Davis Mortuary in Oceanside and an autopsy performed. San Diego County Coroner A. E. Gallagher said “evidence indicated a suicide.” He reported that “the barrel of the gun had been placed close against the right side of the head, as there were powder burns at the entrance of the bullet wound.” He added there were “no other marks on or about the body to indicate that there had been any violence in connection with the death.”

Despite the finding of suicide, her roommate was interviewed and said that Dariel Jean did not know how to load or fire a gun and that she had planned to leave on August 30th to join her husband in Hawaii. One additional detail she provided was that Dariel had left Monday afternoon to meet a Camp Pendleton Marine by the name of Ernie. The two had met at a dance just four days prior on August 10th, but Mrs. Shand described the relationship as “casual.”

What led Dariel Jean to end her life? Was it an overwhelming disappointment of a failed movie contract? Did an unhappy marriage lead to a brief affair?  From whom and when did she acquire a gun?

As Dariel Jean viewed the waves of the Pacific Ocean crashing on the shoreline from her car window, was she waiting for a friend or a lover? It is unknown if investigators tried to determine the identity of Ernie. Did Dariel Jean ever meet up with him that day? If he existed, he never stepped forward.

In the scrapbooks of Captain Harold Davis of the Oceanside Police Department was a torn photograph of Dariel Jean. In the photo she is gripping the steering wheel with her left hand and a gun is resting in the crook of her right hand. It seems an odd position of each. But with the coroner’s ruling as suicide, the death of Dariel Jean no longer warranted further investigation.

Photo from the Captain Harold Davis Collection. Note Dariel’s hand gripping the steering wheel.

It was a sad ending for a young woman who appeared to have fame and stardom within reach, but it had slipped through her fingers. She was discovered by one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Garland herself would die a lonely death years later despite the fame she had gained. She is quoted as saying, “If I am a legend, then why am I so lonely?”

Dariel Jean died alone in her car, either by her own hand or that of someone else. It wasn’t the “Hollywood ending” anyone expected.

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