The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Film Actress Carol Wayne

There's something comforting about late-night television. No matter what's going on during the day, the hosts are the same, the bit players are the same, and there's a good chance that the phone isn't going to ring with the sort of demands that come during the day. And when it came to late-night, Johnny Carson was king.

According to YouGov polls, 90% of Americans have heard of Johnny Carson, and "The Tonight Show" still ranks at number 32 on the list of successful television shows (interestingly, just below "Star Trek: The Original Series.") Carson had his share of regulars, too, including the squeaky-voiced, not-quite-innocent Matinee Lady, Carol Wayne. Wayne was known for her skillful double entendres — and, because this was ye olde times, her form-fitting clothing and inevitable comments on her physical endowments — but Wayne had other ambitions. At the time of her death, she had begun taking on movie roles and getting some serious praise.

Wayne died in a tragic accident not long after finishing the filming of the 1985 movie "Heartbreakers," and Roger Ebert had this to say about her: "Her performance is so good, so heartbreaking, if you will, that it pulls the whole movie together." While Wayne may have been a frequent guest on "The Tonight Show" and, by extension, beloved in countless homes, her story is far from happy.

Carol Wayne's sister recalls a grueling childhood

Carol Wayne was one of a pair of sisters with big dreams, and in 1967, her sister Nina Wayne spoke with The Oil City Derrick. Nina — who had the same distinctive voice as her sister — recalled how they had both been pushed in the direction of performing from a young age. Nina's mother had her start ballet school when she was three years old, and when she was six, she and her sister Carol were enrolled in another school for ice skating.

"My sister and I used to get up at 5 o'clock in the morning and skate three hours before we went to school. Then, we'd skate again after school," she recalled. That meant some shockingly long days for the pair: In addition to school and homework, they averaged another eight hours a day training, exercising, or taking dance and skating classes.

The hard work went on for years, and when she was 15, the duo was noticed by the Ice Capades. They were hired to perform together, but was it worth it? Carol wasn't sure, explaining in an interview repeated and cited in "More of Hollywood's Unsolved Mysteries." "When you train for something so young and become good at it as we did, you never know if that's what you were meant to do in the school of things of life, or if it was just because it was someone else's idea. We missed a childhood of growing up."

Her career as a figure skater ended with a terrible accident

It's no secret that people can be pretty terrible, and while details are a little vague, Carol Wayne's explanation of how her skating career came to a screeching — and bloody — halt suggests she was the victim of people just being jerks. "Sometimes, people would unconsciously, or perhaps on purpose, throw pennies that would stick on the ice and make you fall down," she explained in an interview recorded in "More of Hollywood's Unsolved Mysteries."

And that's exactly what happened, and it brought a catastrophic end to Wayne's skating career. The injury left her with a 5-inch scar on her knee, and although she did recover enough to finish the tour they'd been hired for, the career she'd spent her life training for was suddenly gone — and it made her do some serious soul-searching.

She and her sister were hired by the Ice Capades when they were 15 and 16 years old, which meant that they had dropped out of school to go the career route. When that ended, she wasn't sure what the future held. "We were two pretty girls with no education. There was nothing else to do."

Carol Wayne was married and divorced three times

During Carol Wayne's time on "The Tonight Show," there was always some speculation on whether or not she and Johnny Carson had a relationship that was more than professional. According to Wayne, no — although she did say (via "Hollywood's Babylon Women") that it wasn't because there was no chemistry there but instead, it was because they were never single at the same time.

Both Wayne and Carson were married three times, and Wayne's first marriage was incredibly short-lived, lasting less than a year. Her second — to photographer, artist, and one-time husband to Peter, Paul, and Mary's Mary Travers, Barry Feinstein — lasted seven years, at which time Wayne explained: "The Frey boots, the Levi's — I couldn't stand the whole New York cowboy thing anymore."

Feinstein was the father to Wayne's only child, Alex — who reportedly had a bigger part to play in her story than many children have in their parents' lives. After Wayne and Feinstein divorced, she married once more, only to divorce producer Burt Sugarman in 1980.

She struggled with a reduced role on The Tonight Show

Carol Wayne started on "The Tonight Show" in 1967, and over the next 14 years, she remained one of the most popular guest stars on the show. All good things must come to an end, though, and everyone who's ever lost a favorite show to the cancellation ax knows that's especially true for television.

TV Party says that things changed in 1981, when Johnny Carson nearly walked off "The Tonight Show." The way NBC kept him was to agree to shorten his hour-and-a-half program to an hour, but that meant some content needed to go, too. On the cutting room floor were Carol Wayne's Matinee Lady sketches, and the gig that had once made her a household name started to dry up — very, very quickly. At the time, Wayne was doing a ton of supplemental work on the daytime game show circuit — on shows like "Celebrity Sweepstakes" — but when "The Tonight Show" cut her, other work started to disappear, too.

Carol Wayne's cocaine and alcohol habit made her bankrupt

Amid her dwindling popularity on "The Tonight Show," Carol Wayne started dabbling in movies with varying degrees of success. According to "Hollywood's Babylon Women," there was something else that had a bigger impact on her life: Her teenage son. It was 1984, and the Beverly Hills High School student reportedly introduced Wayne first to clove cigarettes — that she smoked relentlessly, to the dismay of all the stores and restaurants she frequented — and then to progressively harder stuff.

In December of 1984, Wayne declared bankruptcy. In her petition to the courts, she claimed an income of $0, and as for where most of her money had gone? Wayne's cigarette habit had reportedly escalated into alcohol and cocaine, to the point where her friends pleaded with her to check herself into a rehab facility. One of those friends was Richard Pryor, who told her that not only would he pay for her treatment, but that once she was clean and sober, he would guarantee her a role in one of his upcoming movies. She wouldn't live long enough to take him up on either offer.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

She died under mysterious circumstances

On Jan. 14, 1985, the Associated Press reported that Carol Wayne's body had been discovered in the waters off the coast of a resort in Manzanillo, Mexico. The official cause of death was given as drowning, with the footnote that Wayne had never learned to swim. Her second ex-husband, Barry Feinstein, issued a brief statement: "She was a great person. Warm, fun, and good." It would seem by the press release that it was fairly straightforward, but according to more details divulged in "More of Hollywood's Unsolved Mysteries," it was anything but.

Wayne was staying at the Las Hadas hotel with her friend Edward Durston, and employees later interviewed remembered them just sort of doing all the fun things anyone does when they're on vacation in a beachside resort. However, on the day they were scheduled to leave, there was reportedly some kind of disagreement that led to a delay in their trip back, and the pair rebooked at another hotel, the Playa de Santiago. Wayne — reportedly upset over the change — stormed off. Durston checked out of that hotel and into another, and the following day, headed to the airport with her luggage. He dropped it off — letting airline staff know she was going to pick it up later — and went home.

By the time Wayne's body was recovered, it was estimated she had been dead for between 36 and 48 hours. There were no drugs or alcohol in her system, and ultimately, it was ruled accidental.

Carol Wayne's death echoed a rather salacious joke often made about her

The comedy of the 1970s and 1980s is pretty different from what it is today, especially when it comes to what's acceptable to broadcast on prime time and even late-night television. Part of Carol Wayne's schtick as the Matinee Lady on "The Tonight Show" was her skill at suggestive-yet-innocent comments, coupled with her squeaky voice and her blonde, buxom appearance.

"Hollywood's Babylon Women" says that led to an oft-repeated joke about her: "With that chest, this lady will never drown!"

But ironically, that remains the official cause of death for Wayne. The case has been reopened and reinvestigated several times, including a reevaluation in 1990. With no signs of physical violence, the official ruling that it was an accident remained, in spite of some — like representatives from the American consulate — who have suggested otherwise. It's generally believed (but not proven) that she was walking along the beach when she slipped and fell into the water. 

The man she was with was present at another infamous death

Interestingly, Carol Wayne's death has an odd connection to another infamously unsolved Hollywood death. When Wayne headed to Mexico, she was in the company of Edward Durston. Also known as David Durston, he was the man behind some of the old-school, sexualized grindhouse horror flicks with names like "I Drink Your Blood." "Hollywood's Babylon Women" says he was the one who spent most of the vacation with Wayne and dropped off her luggage at the airport before returning home alone.

Durston was also the last person to see Diane Linkletter — daughter of TV personality Art Linkletter (both pictured) — alive. She, too, was an aspiring actress, until she died after falling or jumping from an apartment building window in 1969. Durston was there that night, and later told authorities that she had been upset, asked him to come over for the kind of late-night chat that definitely involved freshly baked cookies, and, in spite of his attempts to reach her, she jumped.

Durston was never a suspect, and although reports first claimed that Diane Linkletter had LSD in her system at the time of her death, Snopes says that her autopsy found no trace of drugs in her system. Still, her family has long maintained LSD was at fault, and famously kicked off an anti-drug campaign.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Carol Wayne's niece suffered a tragic death as well

In Nina Wayne's 1967 interview with The Oil City Derrick, she described her relationship with her sister in heartwarming terms: "We go everywhere together, and if I'm away, we talk to each other on the phone at least once a day. Somehow, we never competed with each other, we learned to work together. I don't know what I'd do without her."

Unfortunately, Nina Wayne's story has tragedy, too. On June 30, 2014, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that Nina's daughter, Jessica, had passed away just days before her 48th birthday, and just a day after the two had visited. Details at the time were scarce, and it wasn't until August that the Los Angeles Times reported that the San Diego County Medical Examiner's official findings had ruled Jessica's death to be an accidental overdose, caused by drugs — including methamphetamine, methadone, nordiazepam, and tramadol — that had been in her system at the time of her passing.

Jessica's father was Nina's ex-husband, John Barrymore, making her the half-sister of actress Drew Barrymore. Drew had told People: "Although I only met her briefly, I wish her and her loved ones as much peace as possible."

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).