Quite a BBQ: B Movie Beauty Elyse Knox

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Pretty Elyse Knox was born Elsie Lillian Kornbrath in Connecticut in 1917. That much was easy to ascertain, the rest was a challenge. The normally trustworthy Wikipedia states that she is the daughter of Austrian immigrants Frederick and Hermine Kornbrath. While researching this article, I read Elyse’s obituary in the UK’s Daily Telegraph. The second line of this obit reads: “Her father was William Franklin Knox, a newspaper editor and publisher who would become Secretary of the Navy in Roosevelt’s wartime administration, driving the expansion of the country’s Atlantic and Pacific fleets”. This threw me for a loop because of all the articles I had read, I had not read this. My extensive investigation of Frank Knox – this, after all, might explain how she came to use the last name Knox – lead me to the Arlington National Cemetery Website. It’s entry on Mr. Knox states, in it’s second-to-last line, all by itself: “He is the father of B-movie actress Elyse Knox”. These are the only two instances I could find that claimed that Mr. Knox was Elyse’s father. I subsequently learned hard lessons about the exorbitant amounts ancestry sites charge you to access their files and could not find confirmation anywhere on the web other than these two entries. And nowhere could I find personal information on Frank Knox at all – although I learned he was quite a guy who’s parents were Canadian. His wife’s name was Annie Reid Knox and I could find no info on her. Finally, the mystery was solved when I stumbled on an interview with Elyse’s son that gave me my answer. See the video below.

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Anyways…Elyse studied to be a fashion designer at a Manhattan fashion school. In 1937, when she was 20, she was seen modelling some of her own creations in Vogue Magazine which led to a contract from 20th Century-Fox. Between her start in 1937 and 1942 she Elyse4appeared in 14 unremarkable films, being uncredited 5 times. She was then cast in Universal’s “The Mummy’s Tomb” alongside Lon Chaney, Jr. and, a year later, “Hit the Ice”, an Abbott and Costello vehicle I reviewed recently, and it is for these films that she is remembered. Her many B pictures make up an interesting list of films that would be fun to discover if only you could find them on DVD or watch them online. In 1945, Monogram Pictures signed Elyse to portray Anne Howe, the girlfriend of Joe Palooka, the fictional boxer portrayed by Joe Kirkwood, Jr. Kirkwood was an Australian golfer whose father had put the game on the map Down Under. The Kirkwood’s were the most successful father and son team on the PGA Tour until the early 2000’s. Elyse was also a pin-up model and posed for the boys in Yank magazine, a weekly published by the military during World War 2.

While appearing on the Kraft Music Hall radio show with Bing Crosby, Elyse met football star Tom Harmon and the two soon became an item. Harmon grew up in Gary, Indiana, the same city that spawned the Jackson 5. Sporting the nickname “Ol’ 98”, Harmon took the sports world by storm playing halfback for the University of Michigan, making All-American and winning the 1940 Heisman Trophy. Harmon became a legend in his three seasons at Michigan, landing on the cover of Life and leading the nation in scoring in consecutive years, 1939 and 1940 – a feat that has yet to be matched. At the end of 1940, he was selected by the Chicago Bears in the first round of the 1941 draft but he declined, saying his football days were over. He planned to go into broadcasting – and the movies.

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Bing Crosby had taken Harmon under his wing and Bing and his people brokered his deal with Columbia Pictures who signed Harmon the following spring and starred him in “Harmon of Michigan”. But his stillborn film career soon gave way to a military career. Twice deferred, Harmon sought to be deferred permanently but his request was denied. He enlisted in the Air Corps in late 1941. By this time, Harmon and Knox were engaged to be married but with the prospect of being separated when Harmon entered the fray in the Pacific Theatre, the young lovers broke their engagement.

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Elyse photographed by Paul Hesse.

Elyse now found herself alone and nurturing a middling movie career. Enter fashion photographer Paul Hesse. Hesse had been a pioneer in commercial photography and began to specialize in the infant medium of photography for advertisements and magazine covers. He was one of the first photographers to work in colour when many in the field were reluctant to deviate from black and white. Hesse had photographed Elyse many times and the two were married shortly after Tom entered the service. One can only surmise what motivated this union and how invested the participants were; the marriage lasted not much more than a year. Hesse would go on to a legendary career photographing the stars, becoming a favourite of many of them. He even had a hand in discovering one, Margaret O’Brien. For this I can never forgive him. But he blew it with Marilyn Monroe. When she was an aspiring model and was brought to his attention he refused to work with her, rebuffing her coldly by saying “Darling, you’re too fat”. Bob Cummings’ photographer character on “The Bob Cummings Show” was modeled on Hesse.

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Tom Harmon – back row, center – and crew at Atkinson Field.

During the war, Tom Harmon survived two plane crashes. The first occurred after Tom had reported flying in heavy rains for some time. His plane crashed in the Brazilian jungle, killing all but Tom. Tom had parachuted out at 1,500 feet and landed 20 yards from the smouldering wreck. He was alive but stranded in the jungle. He walked for four days before finding civilization. Later that same year, Harmon was involved in a ferocious dogfight with Japanese Zeros 8,000 feet above the Yangtze River. Tom shot down two Japanese planes before a Zero’s guns tore through Tom’s cockpit. His pant legs were on fire and soon the entire cockpit was aflame and Tom bailed out. Panicked, he pulled his chute but it was pulled much too early for a safe descent. Tom was still 5,000 feet in the air and floating in the middle of the still-raging dogfight. He played dead while the Zeros tried to shoot him out of the air. His downward drifting came to a sudden halt as his chute was caught up in some trees. He eventually cut himself down – again the sole survivor of a plane crash – and was taken in hand by anti-Japanese Chinese guerrillas. Tom’s legs were burned and he was delirious with sickness throughout the 34 day hike through the jungle back to Allied lines. Tom was awarded the Silver Star and a Purple Heart. He was eventually promoted to captain and then discharged in the late summer of 1945.

Tom returned to the U.S. from China in January of 1944. Now, here’s where your romantic imagination can take wing. The next account of the lives of Elyse Knox and Tom Harmon I can find is a notice in the San Jose Evening News from August 26, 1944 saying that Elyse and Tom were married on the University of Michigan campus. There’s a screenplay in there somewhere. Needless to say, with Tom home safely from the war, he and Elyse reconnected and had rekindled their relationship through the first half of ’44, culminating with their nuptials that late summer day. Elyse’s wedding dress was made in part from the silk of one of the parachutes Tom had used to survive bailing out of his plane.

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Elyse’s “parachute” wedding dress.

After his discharge from the military, Tom reconsidered his retirement and played two years of pro football in the NFL with the Los Angeles Rams. However, his war injuries had taken a toll – not to mention having broken his nose 13 times! – and he retired to the life he really coveted, that of broadcaster. He went on to have a prolific career as a colour commentator and is considered one of the first athletes to have made a successful transition from player to broadcaster.

Elyse, meanwhile, continued making movies as a young wife and mother. Indeed, her tenure as Joe Palooka’s girl started while she had a baby daughter at home and continued through the birth of her next child. She wrapped up her career with three films in 1949, the last of which was the musical comedy/romance “There’s a Girl in My Heart”, also starring Lon Chaney, Jr. and Gloria Jean.

But this couple’s amazing story is not done yet. The couple had three gorgeous children who also lead interesting lives in the public spotlight.

First came Kristin. When she was 17, Kristin married singer Rick Nelson and they had four children, the oldest of which was daughter Tracy – born six months after Rick and Kristin were married – who would go on to have a prolific television career including recurring roles on “Square Pegs” and “Melrose Place”. Next came twin boys Matthew and Gunnar who together would form the pop group Nelson.

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L: Rick and Kristin Nelson and their children, Gunner, Tracy and Matthew. R: Tracy as an adult.

After marrying Rick, Kristin joined her husband and his family on their popular TV show “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet”, becoming a regular. In 1965, Rick and Kristin starred in the motion picture “Love and Kisses”, also starring Jack Kelly and Jerry Van Dyke. Kristin went on to a modest career appearing in episodes of TV shows. Rick and Kristin’s extravagant lifestyle put a strain on their finances and their marriage. They eventually divorced before Rick died in a plane crash in 1985. Two years after Rick’s death, she was undergoing drug rehabilitation and other family members challenged her ability to look after her kids and even applied to attain custody. Kristin married television producer and director Mark Tinker who encouraged her to pursue her love of painting. Her paintings were purchased by the likes of Jacqueline Onassis, Mia Farrow and Dwight Yoakam. Kristin and Tinker divorced in 2000 and daughter Tracy announced in April of 2018 that her mother had died suddenly of a heart attack.

Elyse and Tom’s second child was Kelly. Kelly Harmon was a model and became well known by appearing in a series of commercials for Tic Tacs. She also had a modest career in episodic television and in 1983 she was a regular on the short-lived “Bay City Blues”. In 1969, when Kelly was 20, she married 45-year-old automobile industry exec, John DeLorean. The union lasted two years. Later in the ’80’s, she married an L.A. publisher and she started her own interior design company which continues to thrive today.

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L: Kelly with first husband John DeLorean. R: if Kelly ever ages, I’m sure she will age well.

Elyse and Tom’s last child arrived in 1951. Mark Harmon played football like his dad and starred in college at UCLA. After graduating, he began working in business but soon transitioned to acting. His first job came courtesy of his sister, Kristin’s, in-laws, the Nelson’s and Mark appeared in an episode of “Ozzie’s Girls”, a one-season spin-off of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet”. After guesting on various TV shows, Mark was tapped by Jack Webb to star in two series that ultimately failed. “905-Wild” was a proposed show about L.A. County’s Animal Control officers and “Sam” had Mark portraying an LAPD officer and his K-9 partner.

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Mark. A typically gorgeous Harmon.

He eventually appeared with note on several television projects including the prime-time soap “Flamingo Road” and the acclaimed show “St. Elsewhere”. He portrayed Ted Bundy in a TV movie and made the hidden gem “The Prince of Bel-Air” in which he enjoys an idyllic life, courting Kirstie Alley and acting alongside Robert Vaughn. He appeared as Sam Crawford in a landmark story arc in “Moonlighting”, played John Dillinger and Uncle Charlie in “Shadow of a Doubt”. In films, Harmon gained immortality by portraying gym teacher Freddy Shoop in the contemporary classic, “Summer School”. In 2003, he began his portrayal of Leroy Jethro Gibbs on television’s “NCIS”. It made him internationally popular and is his crowning achievement. (This commercial, for the curiously named “Product 19” cereal, is priceless as it features Tom, Elyse and Mark)

Mark Harmon has been married to actress Pam Dawber since 1987. In that year, it was Mark and Pam that applied for custody of Mark’s sister Kristin’s kids, claiming she could not competently raise them. When Kristin fired back claiming Dawber had a drug problem herself, Mark dropped the suit. Mark and Pam seem like a classy couple and keep an incredibly low profile. Mark is not opposed to making the rounds to publicize “NCIS”, however, a show he also produces. The mystery surrounding Elyse Knox’s parentage was solved for me when I saw this clip of Mark on the (unbearable) show “The Talk”. He recounts the story of his mother’s wedding dress and mentions his “Austrian grandmother”.

Elyse had studied oil painting in high school and later in life she picked it up again. In 1981, her impressionistic paintings were exhibited – along with those of her daughter, Kristin’s – in a Beverly Hills shop. Tom continued his association with football broadcasting, doing the play-by-play on Los Angeles Raiders exhibition games and working in local television as the host of “Raider Playbook”, a show that broke down the play of the Raiders. Mostly, though, he played golf. On Thursday, March 15, 1990, Tom played an 18-hole tournament at Bel-Air Country Club with Dr. David Boska as his partner. Tom was feeling fine and recorded four birdies on the front nine en route to winning the tourney. From the course, Tom drove to a travel agency to pick up tickets for a trip to another celebrity golf tournament. While at the agency, Tom became ill and asked employees to call Dr. Boska at his office. He soon passed out and was taken to the UCLA Medical Center. He was pronounced dead of cardiac arrest at 6:40pm. Tom Harmon died after a round of golf, like Bing Crosby.

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Elyse, Tom and Mark at home in 1972, watching replays of Mark’s football game.
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A remarkable family picture. Mid 1970’s? Back row: Rick Nelson, Kristin Nelson, Mark Harmon, Kelly Harmon. Front row: Tom, perhaps Tom’s mother?, Tracy Nelson, Elyse. Bottom left: the twins, Gunnar and Matthew.

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Elyse Knox lived to see not only her children but her grandchildren become successful in the entertainment field. She lived for 22 years after her husband passed away, into her 90’s. I like to think she was comfortable and was doted on by her children and grandchildren. I like to think of her sitting in the yard surrounded by family, content with her journey. She had suffered heartache, sure, but I like to think she also was content in the thought that she had made her dreams come true, having designed clothes and worn them in fashion photographs, enjoyed a film career that while it may not have brought her superstardom it also lacked the restrictions that immense fame can bring. She married the love of her life, who was returned to her from not one but two brushes with death. She had ridiculously beautiful children who made their own way in the world, rubbing shoulders with famous people and, while some struggled, for the most part they also seem to have been fulfilled. I like to think of the BBQ’s the family may have had through the years. The attendees would have been eclectic and notable. Maybe Lon Chaney sipping cold beer from a heavy glass mug. Lou Costello cutting up and returning to the grill for seconds and thirds. Perhaps Ozzie Nelson, smoking, wearing a cardigan. Certainly Rick Nelson was there, husband of her first born. Pretty daughter Kelly and her husband John, who drove up in one of his namesake vehicles as seen in “Back to the Future”. Beloved son Thomas Mark – named after his dad – and his wife Pam. Young Gunnar and Matthew, strumming guitars. Quite a BBQ. Elyse Knox passed away peacefully, her family at her side, February 16, 2012. She was 94.

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