“It’s a Wonderful Life”…


It’s a Wonderful Life: Tragic story of the girl who starred in the classic Christmas movie


It's a Wonderful Life

Wonderful life? I was orphaned, my son died and I lost a fortune


For millions of people, Christmas just isn’t Christmas until they’ve curled up in front of feelgood classic It’s a Wonderful Life.


As the film’s cute child star, Karolyn Grimes has touched the hearts of three generations.


But for the actress, reality has never lived up to the film’s title.    (Click on ‘Continue Reading’ for more)



At the age of six, Karolyn Grimes, now 68, played James Stewart’s cute daughter Zuzu and had the film’s most memorable line: “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”


But since Frank Capra’s 1946 classic her life has been dogged by tragedy.


Orphaned in her teens, Karolyn suffered at the hands of a wicked foster mother, watched two husbands die, lost a child to suicide and three stepchildren to a bitter court battle.


Yet through it all, she’s had the support of the film’s fans. “My life has not been wonderful. But that’s OK,” she says in an exclusive interview with the Mirror. “It has been a rollercoaster ride. It’s a Wonderful Life gives people so much joy and happiness each year and that makes me happy.”


Karolyn was four when her mum started putting her forward for roles.


Two years later she won the part of Zuzu, the youngest daughter of George Bailey, a businessman about to commit suicide until an angel shows him how life would have been without him.


Karolyn still remembers shooting the iconic film. “It doesn’t snow in Los Angeles so to see the snow, even though it wasn’t real, was fantastic,” she recalls. “I enjoyed playing with other kids and it was great to have a huge tree with all these ornaments. Mum told me not to take anything but I confess one of those baubles disappeared!”


The beautiful child starred in three Oscar-nominated movies but by 1947, aged seven, her career started to falter. 


The first real tragedy to hit her life struck when she was 14.


“My mother had early-onset Alzheimer’s and it took her four years to die. She was only 44, I was 14.


“A year later I became an orphan when my father died in a car wreck.”


A court sent Karolyn to live with her father’s brother and his wife in the small farming town of Osceola, Missouri, a far cry from the glamour of Hollywood.


“My Aunt Marsha ruled the family with a rod of iron. She was one wicked, mean woman.” So began years of mental abuse for Karolyn.


“I had a really big fear of snakes and she knew that. They built this big basement – with my money – and they put a closet down there. She knew there were snakes in the basement and she knew there were snakes in my closet.


“So I would have to go downstairs and look straight ahead, never down, to get my clothes. That was the kind of thing she would do. If she was mad at me she would punish someone else in the family. She wore me down pretty good.”


Karolyn’s $60,000 inheritance, a huge sum back in those days, soon started disappearing. “Everyone in that town knew my aunt was a wicked, vicious woman. She was a sick lady. The whole town rallied around me, my teachers, my friends and people in the town really cared.


“They accepted me immediately. She made me break off contact with everybody I knew back in Los Angeles. But I never wanted to go back to Hollywood because it is a really superficial, shallow place.


“But my aunt and uncle pretty much took the money. I was rebellious when I got there but she beat me down.”


Karolyn found her escape through marriage to local Hal Barnes. The couple had two daughters but divorced quickly.


“I married him to get away from my aunt. It didn’t work very well and a year after our divorce he got killed deer hunting,” she adds. She then met contractor Mike Wilkerson, a divorcee looking after three children, and together they had two children of their own.


But again tragedy struck when her 18-year-old son John killed himself in 1989.


“It was the worst thing in the world that has happened to me,” says Karolyn. “You have to live with all the whys and the guilt is terrible.


“It is pretty obvious to me now that he was mentally ill. I am so sorry I didn’t pick up on it before. But I was working so hard at being a good stepmother to the others that I took him for granted.


“He was such a good boy. He was painfully shy, maybe he was bipolar, I really don’t know.


“The way I healed myself was that I did the best I could and loved him very much. He had a weight problem and he went on a radical liquid diet and I think his electrolytes might have been a little off. He lost 40lbs in two months. He was trying to get a girl but the last one dumped him.”


Three years later her beloved husband of 25 years died from cancer.


“In the last year of his life his business went belly up because he wasn’t making very good decisions because of the illness. We lost everything and then he died.”


Worse was to come. Four years later she met psychologist Chris Brunell. But the news went down badly with her stepchildren who then sued her for their father’s life insurance money.


“My stepchildren weren’t too happy when I got involved with someone else. They didn’t like it much,” she says.


“They sued me because I did get a little insurance money but I gave half to the children. They didn’t win as they had no case.


“It was like they put a knife through my heart because I had lost three more kids.


“The oldest son has since apologised but it won’t be the same again. But I brought them up and they called me mom. I was the one. It broke my heart. They didn’t want to move on.”


She and Chris now live in Seattle but her daughter Deena contracted breast cancer a year ago and lives with them as she undergoes chemotherapy.


Karolyn has flown into Britain for a whistlestop tour to promote a new DVD of the classic film.


In the cinema next door, over 100 people are watching the restored print on the big screen, once again enjoying the magic of It’s a Wonderful Life.


Karolyn gives talks about the film and about Zuzu. She basks in the glow of people’s love for the film.


“Life continues to be difficult,” she says. “It always will be because that’s just life. But I am so glad I have put some happiness into the world.


“There have been adverse things happen in my own life, but there are balances out there.


“And the movie itself has affected my life so much because I have George Bailey’s philosophy… that friendships and caring and loving will carry you through anything. Life is a wonderful gift.”



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3 Responses to ““It’s a Wonderful Life”…”

  1. Landman says:

    Your story was so touching, I said a prayer for you. What a life of tragedy you have experienced. How ironic that the wonderful movie you made that makes us all happy, should leave you with so much heart break. The next time I watch “Its a wonderful Life” I will think about you and hope that you will get some joy at last so you can live out a Wonderful life in reality. God bless you Karolyn!

  2. Anne says:

    I was deeply moved by your story of endless tragedy and your courage thru it all. Thanks for the wonderful memories you generated in the world of ” make believe” wishing you a better life in reality.

  3. Carla Wajid says:

    Why some people suffer so much more than others I will never know
    But your portrayal of Zusu and Debbie in the Bishops wife will always be with us. Sending you lots of blessings

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