July 28, 1896 – Barbara La Marr:
“When I am happy I am like a cat, sleek and purring, quite useless. It is when I am unhappy, with an ache perhaps in my heart, that I do my finest work.“
She’s my kind of girl, that Barbara La Marr. She was one of those rare cases in which someone is so utterly charismatic, they can get away with almost anything. Constant embellishing of her life story, deliciously reckless behavior, a tangled string of fiery romances; she ticked off every box, and film fans around the world loved her for it.
Barbara La Marr was born Reatha Dale Watson in Yakima, Washington. She was adopted by an eccentric showbiz family, but there were rumors that she was an illegitimate child from an aristocratic family in Virginia.
In 1911, her family moved to Los Angeles, and she started working in Burlesque and the occasional small role in silent films, but what she really liked was hitting the town with her sister and getting into some mischief. But soon enough, that mischief got deadly.
Still in her teens, she was working as a dancer, but because she was a minor, she was arrested. However, a judge took pity on her and said that she was too beautiful to be alone and unprotected in the big city.
Walking around the city one night, a police officer stopped La Marr, and told her to go home because she was “too young and too beautiful to be on her own”. A reporter overhead him, and the next day the newspapers had headlines that read: The Girl Who Is Too Beautiful.
La Marr was discovered by society writer Adela Rogers St. Johns, who saw her at the juvenile court hearing and introduced her to her editor who published a double-page spread piece with photographs of La Marr.
La Marr and her sister took a little trip to Santa Barbara with C.C. Boxley, a man who had no intention of bringing them back to LA. It was only when the police put out a warrant for Boxley for kidnapping that the women were released. The tabloids devoured the story, and La Marr used the opportunity to regale the press with fantastic details about her personal life.
In 1913, La Marr started dancing professionally and legally. She was spotted by a rancher dude, Jack Lytell, who took an interest in her immediately. They fell in love and married. It was not a happy marriage, with young La Marr stifled by life on a ranch. Lytell fought constantly with his young wife who wanted to go back to her sensational life in Los Angeles. After one of their fights, Lytell angrily walked away in the rain. He caught pneumonia and died two days later.
La Marr returned to dancing in a club, where she was abducted and raped. But she met Lawrence Converse, a rich, young lawyer and they married in 1914. However, Converse was sued for bigamy only 24 hours after their wedding; it seems he neglected to tell La Marr that he was married with three children.
She went back to dancing again, and in 1915 she was invited by Phoebe Hearst, mother of William Randolph Hearst, to dance at the San Diego World’s Fair. It was there that La Marr met the popular actor Phil Ainsworth, known for his work in stage musicals. They married in 1916. Ainsworth showered his new bride with more gifts than he could afford, and he started forging checks and got arrested. La Marr decided not to wait for him to serve his sentence, and she began a series of affairs, including a fling with writer Ernest Hemingway. She had met Hemingway when she worked in a nightclub where her dancing partner was Rudolph Valentino. She and the great silent film star remained close friends until her death (he died a couple of months after her).
She divorced Ainsworth in 1918, and started a relationship with her dancing partner, 40-year-old Ben Deeley. She shared his passion for literature and art. Deeley was a boozer and gambler, and the two were often spotted drinking and dancing into the early morning. La Marr was already notorious for her wild lifestyle.
She started writing screenplays for Fox Studios under the name “Folly Lyell”. Most were autobiographical, and her stories were in demand. At her peak, she was earning over $10,000 a week as a writer. She decided to divorce Deeley in 1921.
The biggest star in the world, Mary Pickford, took notice of La Marr and told her “My dear, you are too beautiful to be behind a camera” Pickford introduced her to MGM honcho Louis B. Mayer who cast her as a bad girl in Harriet And The Piper (1920), opposite the very popular silent film star Anita Stewart.
Douglas Fairbanks saw her around town and cast her in The Nut (1921), a crazy nuthouse of a film. Fairbanks then cast her as Milady de Winter in his production of The Three Musketeers (1921), where Fairbanks’s one-handed handspring to grab a sword during a fight scene in this film is considered as one of the great stunts in movie history.
La Marr caught the eye of the great director John Ford, who gave her a role in his western Desperate Trails (1921) featuring Harry Carey. This film is now lost.
La Marr received enthusiastic reviews for her work, and she received more film roles. Two career-boosting films with star director Rex Ingram: The Prisoner Of Zenda (1922) and the Gothic drama Trifling Women, both with gay star Ramon Novarro. Her popularity with fans grew and her salary increased.
La Marr produced, wrote and starred in three films distributed by various studios: The Hero(1923), Sandra (1924), and The Shooting Of Dan McGrew (1924).
La Marr was injured while filming in 1923 and the studio doctor began giving her morphine and cocaine so she could continue working through the pain. She became exhausted physically and mentally. She became addicted to drugs, but she continued to be praised for her work in films.
In 1923, she had an affair with screen great John Gilbert. At the same time, she married actor Jack Dougherty, but before the wedding, she left town and gave birth to a baby boy. When she returned to Hollywood, the studio put out a press release saying that she and Dougherty had adopted a child.
In 1924, La Marr signed with First National Pictures. The first film she made there was from her own screenplay, The White Moth (1924). It was a huge hit. But, her addiction to drugs, alcohol and food became a problem on the set.
When she started to film Sandra (1924), she had gained 33 pounds. To lose weight she went on a diet of just cocaine and liquids. She continued acting, but in the evenings, she hit the nightclubs. The studio knew about her drug use and exhaustion, but they still cast her in The White Monkey (1925). Her performance suffered, and the film was a flop.
La Marr was in bad shape when the studio forced her to take the title role in The Girl From Montmarte (1926). Her ex-lover, Paul Bern, begged her to refuse the film. She collapsed on the set and died, gone at 29 years old. The studio wrapped production without her, using a double in long shots. Ironically, The Girl From Montmarte became her biggest hit.
Bern helped launch the career of Jean Harlow, whom he married in 1932; two months later, he was found dead of a gunshot wound, leaving what appeared to be a suicide note. One theory is that he was killed by his ex-girlfriend Dorothy Millette, who jumped to her death from a ferry two days later. The mystery of his death was never solved.
La Marr’s son Marvin La Marr came to live with her friend, actor Zasu Pitts and her husband. After La Marr’s death, he was legally adopted by Pitts and Gallery, and was renamed Don Gallery. He died in 2014.
La Marr’s funeral was attended by more than 4000 fans, and five women fainted in the crowd. She is interred in a crypt at Hollywood Cathedral Mausoleum, in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. You can visit her there; I have.
Louis B. Mayer remained so enamored of La Marr that, in 1937, he changed the name of his new MGM actor from Hedwig Kiesler to Hedy Lamarr in homage.
I am sick of men, the admiration of men. The so-called love of men.