Susan Peters poses in Palisades Park in Santa Monica in the 1940s.
I had never heard of Susan Peters and her story until the 2012 book, Hollywood Rides a Bike: Cycling With the Stars, by Philadelphia film critic Steven Rea and my friends at Angel City Press. The book shows off dozens of movie stars like Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor, Tom Hanks and others riding bikes on screen or in promotional shots posed on backlots or around town. It's a lot more fun than it sounds or than I expected from the title alone.
Many of the pictures were obviously just a convenient way for studio publicists to show off their young clients' legs. The photo above of Peters peering over the railing at Palisades Park jumped out at me first for her beauty — who is she? — and stayed with me because of the backstory I later learned. (Aficionados will apparently admire her Monark wheels.) It turns out that Peters was a starlet on the way up who received a best supporting actress Oscar nomination, as Rea writes, "for her role as a lovestruck young woman set to marry amnesiac Ronald Colman in 'Random Harvest' (1942)...[and] being groomed for great things." MGM elevated her from featured player to star status in the 1944 class that included Esther Williams, Laraine Day, Gene Kelly, and George Murphy.
Then on New Year's Day in 1945, while she was on a duck hunting trip near San Diego with her husband, actor Richard Quine, a hunting rifle went off by accident. Rea writes that "a bullet lodged in Peters’ spine—she was left paralyzed from the waist down." After recuperating from the wound, she tried to continue her promising career, taking wheelchair-bound roles in the film "The Sign of the Ram," an early NBC soap opera called "Miss Susan" and in stage productions of "The Glass Menagerie" and "The Barretts of Wimpole Street." Recently, when I was doing research in the Valley Times photo collection at the Los Angeles Public Library, I found this 1946 photo of Peters behind the wheel of a car fitted with hand controls for her at Birmingham General Hospital. The World War II Army hospital for paraplegic soldiers was converted in the 1950s to Birmingham High School, in what is now Lake Balboa.
The career transformation from ingenue to disabled young woman didn't take. MGM released Peters from her contract. She divorced Quine, and died in 1951, at age 31, suffering from anorexia and depression. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, received in 1960, at 1601 Vine Street.
Add Birmingham Hospital: Marlon Brando's first film role, in "The Men," came as a paraplegic war veteran at the Birmingham hospital. The cast included Jack Webb and Teresa Wright, and the film got an Oscar nomination for Carl Foreman's screenplay. More
* Update: Rea continues to post photos of stars on bikes at his blog, Rides a Bike. Here is Marilyn Monroe out for a spin with Arthur Miller in 1956, and Natalie Wood straddling a Schwinn Stingray.