If the name Susan Peters doesn’t ring bells or set off an alarm in your brain, it’s understandable; hers is not a name that’s exactly been on anyone’s lips of late.
But 50 years ago this week, everyone in Hollywood was speaking of the Spokane native for a pair of reasons.
For one, she was the new girl of the moment at the (then) mighty MGM studios, a dark-haired beauty who’d recently pulled an Oscar nomination (for “Random Harvest”) and seemed a sure bet for superstardom in Leo the Lion’s lair.
But on New Year’s Day of 1945, a gun had accidentally misfired in San Diego and virtually ended Susan Peters’ career at the age of 22.
And, even after 50 years, it’s interesting to contemplate just how high Susan Peters’ career might have soared, how recognizable her name might be today, had it not been for that tragic accident.
Peters had been born Suzanne Carnahan in Spokane before migrating at an early age to Los Angeles to live with her grandmother. She was too pretty to go unnoticed for long and soon was signed by Warner Bros., where her assignments included Errol Flynn’s “Santa Fe Trail” (billed 24th), all the way to Bogart’s “The Big Shot” (billed fourth).
She also tested for, but lost, the lead opposite Gary Cooper in “Sergeant York,” ditto a juicy role in “Kings Row,” etc.
But when she was signed to a long-term contract by MGM in 1942, the tide really turned.
Early on came the turning point: a showy supporting role in an MGM biggie, “Random Harvest,” with Ronald Colman and Greer Garson. With that, a star was born.
An Oscar nomination was received. A future was assured.
Susan Peters’ first actual star assignment was opposite one of MGM’s kings, Robert Taylor, in a drama called “Song of Russia.” Then came a co-star spot with one of the studio’s genuine queens, Lana Turner, in “Keep Your Powder Dry.”
It was only the beginning for Peters, according to MGM, which had her slotted for The Big Push.
But then came that fateful Jan. 1 and a hunting trip with her husband Richard Quine. He was a young MGM contractee who eventually would become a highly respected director (“Bell, Book and Candle,” “The World of Suzie Wong,” “Strangers When We Meet”).
A gun Peters was carrying accidentally discharged, with a bullet lodging in her spine. Thereafter, she was permanently paralyzed from the waist down.
During a long, slow recovery, MGM kept her on salary, but by her own wish the contract was soon dissolved. (“I won’t trade on my handicap,” Peters insisted.)
Using a wheelchair, she starred in one more film (Columbia’s 1948 “The Sign of the Ram,” in which she was fine but the movie wasn’t), did some stage and radio work, and even starred in a short-lived TV series “Miss Susan” as, shades of “Ironside,” a lawyer who uses a wheelchair.
But, as time ticked by, the future began looking less hopeful.
She divorced Quine in 1948, grew more depressed and more reclusive, and died Oct. 23, 1952, at age 31.
The official reason: bronchial pneumonia and starvation. More likely: She had simply lost the will to live.
It was a sad, sobering finale to a destiny that at one time had seemed to be nothing but glowing and limitless. But by any yardstick, the beautiful Susan P. was a woman worth remembering.
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