Though it is said that Helen of Troy’s beauty was such that her face launched a thousand ships, it was the girl on the cigar box that stopped Richard Blackburn dead in his tracks.
That face! That figure! The vision of womanliness reached out to him through the cheap gold foil of the package. Blackburn was only eight years old at the time, in the mid-’60s, but he remembers holding up a checkout line while gawking at the cigar label.
He memorized the face. He memorized the figure. He was transfixed.
As he grew older, as he learned where to look, Blackburn began seeing her everywhere. Pulpish girlie magazines such as Modern Man. Hollywood publicity stills. The covers of girl-in-danger mystery paperbacks, the kind that invariably showed her bursting out of a peasant blouse, on a darkened staircase, being menaced by a fiend. Among the sea of faces in crowd shots; an extra in B-movies. A long-running role as the evil daughter in the 1950s ”Fu Manchu” TV serial, available later on videotape. And, all too rarely, a star in movies like “Kim,” with Errol Flynn, in ”D.O.A.” with Edmond O’Brien, in “Ballad of a Gunfighter” with Marty Robbins, and for one glorious, cheesy, fur-bikini moment, the name above the title in the 1950 ”Prehistoric Women.”
It was a time when a woman’s fuselage was celebrated for its natural shapeliness, not its artificial toning.
The cigar girl’s name, Blackburn learned, was Laurette Luez. And that she came from Hawaii.
Born Loretta Luiz, she spent her first year cradled in a guitar case as her English-Portuguese parents worked the Far East vaudeville circuit. Mother Francesca was a glamour gal herself, and danced on the stage while father Frank sang in Spanish. As a Honolulu teenager in World War II, Luez became one of the favorite pin-ups of GIs fighting in the Pacific. She was occasionally featured on the cover of the Star-Bulletin’s Sunday magazine.
Hollywood took notice, and her first role was as a Malay dancing girl in ”Dr. Wassell” with Gary Cooper. When the war ended, 17-year-old Luez was signed by 20th-Century Fox and cast immediately in ”Anna and the King of Siam.”
Over the next decade Luez found herself cast primarily as exotic, foreign beauties in a variety of not-great movies. Along the way, she suffered a fractured skull on location, was romanced by Howard Hughes, married and divorced actor Philip Soldano — whom she met at a screen test — and was briefly engaged to producer Sam Goldwyn Jr. When Luez dumped Goldwyn uncermoniously a few months later, all Hollywood wondered why. She then married the producer of “Prehistoric Women,” a union that fell apart when the picture wrapped.
Luez also befriended another budding actress in drama class. Norma Jean Baker was searching for a new name, and Luez had a theory about allitertive names that echo famous people. She suggested combining the names of actress Marilyn Miller and the Monroe Doctrine. Luez believed she was the source of Marilyn Monroe’s screen name.
By the late ’50s, Luez’ career arc essentially peaked, and she was only in her late 20s. In 1957, Luez married a fellow named Robert Creel, which lasted until he died two decades later. Afraid of the effect Hollywood would have on her three children, the couple eventually settled in Florida. She considered returning to film, but a nagging health problem that turned out to be diabetes derailed that dream.
And so Luez vanished into the mists of popular culture.
Blackburn, by now a deputy sheriff and manager of his family’s Los Angeles apartment buildings, owned a copy of “Prehistoric Women” on videotape, and would watch it when he was feeling low. He was still entranced by the sloe-eyed girl, and a Spanish maid he employed kept telling him she knew where the lady in the video lived — nearby, almost a neighbor. Blackburn laughed it off.
Later, he became consumed with curiousity about Luez and began a search for her fan mail address. It turned out the maid had been right. Luez and Blackburn had been unknowingly crossing paths for 20 years.
He sent flowers to the address, but they were returned. Luez had moved out shortly before. In 1998, he tried a long shot, wiring flowers to a white-pages listing in Florida, and that night Luez called him.
They became telephone friends and confessors. Blackburn learned that Goldwyn used to beat Luez, that she suffered from emphysema due to cigarettes, that Greta Garba had made a pass at her but Howard Hughes never had, that her pregnant mother had been told by a swami in India that the child would be world-famous.
“We discussed each others’ problems and thought of solutions together,” said Blackburn. “I wanted to meet her in person; she was 100 percent first-class. She sounded very nice and had a high-class voice.”
Blackburn sorted her memorabilia for her and created a website devoted to Luez. They planned to meet.
And in mid-September, 1999, Blackburn received an email from Luez’ daughter Claudia. The star of “Prehistoric Women” had died suddenly at age 71, at home in Milton, FL. The only obituary of Luez was written by the Los Angeles Times, noting only her career in film was that of an ”exotic brunet beauty.”
Blackburn, stunned, took solace in the thought that Luez’ ashes were scattered over the Atlantic, rather than the Pacific, because she believed that all oceans — like all lives and interrupted careers and unexpected friendships — were interconnected, a part of a whole, and that there was a reason a girl’s picture on a cigar box would, and could, stop a boy in his tracks.