She was dubbed 'The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful', and the less tragic screen actress, Hedy Lamarr, thanks her surname to her. Ofcourse I am talking about silent film actress Barbara La Marr, who died tragically at the age of 29, after living a hectic life. The story of Barbara fascinates me, and others, for many years now and I thought I should write it down here on my blog.
Barbara was born as Reatha Dale Watson in 1896 in Yakima, Washington. Her (foster) parents were William Wallace and Rose Watson. When Reatha was born exactly is a bit unsure, as no one has ever found a birth certificate, and when she was one month old, she was adopted by the above mentioned couple, who claimed Reatha was born on the 28th of July. There are rumours, however, that Reatha was the illegitimate child of an aristocratic family in Virginia. Barbara La Marr herself, always told that she was born in Richmond. Reatha's foster father worked at the newspaper and because of this, the gypsy family was always moving from place to place. They eventually settled in Los Angeles.
When Reatha was in her teens, she worked as an erotic dancer in Burlesque shows, where she entertained millionairs and politicians. She got arrested for this when she was 14 years old being still a minor! However, the judge felt pity for her and said that she was too beautiful to be alone and unprotected in a big city. This verdict gave the actress-to-be her nickname in later life.
Reatha was discovered by journalist Adela Rogers st. Johns, who saw her at the juvenile court and who introduced her to editor Jack Campbell. Campbell took interest in Reatha immediately and published a double-page spread including photos of her as a teen.
In 1913, Reatha started with professional dancing. She also started newspaper writing and these got published by her father. Although Reatha was competent in classical dance, she was a free spirit and her dancing was often compaired to that of Isadora Duncan. In this time, she was spotted by Jack Lytell who was interested in her immediately. The two fell in love and married that same year in 1913. It was not a happy marriage and Reatha could not handle the life on a ranch. Jack repeatedly fought with his young wife who wanted to go back to her sensational life in Los Angeles. After one of their fights, Lytell walked away in the rain, angry. Because of the rain, he catched pneumonia and died two days later in 1914. Reatha was driven by feelings of guilt and developed an addiction to alcohol.
She dived back into the nightlife, where she suffered abduction and rape for multiple times. Despite the death of her husband, she continued her career as dancer and writer. In the same year of her husband's death, Reatha met Lawrence Converse, a rich and young social lawyer. He seduced her and the two married on the 2nd of June, 1914. However, Converse was sued for bigamy only 24 hours after their wedding; it appeared that he was still married with a socialist with whom he had three children. This immediately ended the marriage between him and Reatha.
Reatha threw herself into work and in 1915 she was invited by Phoebe Hearst (mother of magnate William Randolph Hearst) to dance at the world's fair. Around this time, Reatha met the populair actor Phil Ainsworth who worked in the musicals. The two married in 1916. Ainsworth was smitten with his wife and gifted her more gifts than he could actually afford; he started forging checkes and got arrested. Reatha decided not to wait for him, and divorced from him in 1918. With her husband serving time in jail, and the divorce procedure still going, Reatha started having affairs with several men, among whom was also Ernest Hemingway. She met Hemingway when she worked in a nightclub named Harlowe's, where she danced opposite Rudolph Valentino; the two would remain friends till her death (he died a couple of months after her).
Shortly after her divorce with Ainsworth, she started a relationship with her dancing partner Ben Deeley. Although he was well over the age of 40, Reatha fell for the man, with who she shared a passion for literature and art. Deeley was also very addicted to alcohol and gambling, and the two were often seen drinking and dancing.
Reatha was notorious for her wild lifestyle, and thus she changed her name from Reatha Dale Watson into Barbara La Marr-Deeley, when she decided to become a screenwriter in Hollywood. She also decided to stop having contact with Ben Deeley and their divorce got through in 1921. Her career as a screenwriter didn't really got off the ground and she would only write a little more than six scripts for Fox Studios and United Artists. Her appearance drew attention and she was offered small film roles.
When Mary Pickford noticed Barbara at the studios, she encouraged her to start a career in film. Producer Louis B. Mayer was also looking for new talent for his new film Harriet and the Piper (1920), and in particular an actress who could well play a femme fatale. It was Barbara who won the role and would star opposite the then very popular Anita Stewart.
Barbara was a good friend of actress Marguerite De La Motte and her husband John Bowers. Marguerite introduced Barbara to Douglas Fairbanks who insisted she would get a role in the silent film The Nut (1921). La Marr was noticed by John Ford, who casted her in the western Desperate Trails in 1921. Around this time there was a huge search for actors, and in particular a femme fatale, for the film The Three Musketeers (1921). Fairbanks would play a lead in this film and recommended La Marr, who shortly after, got the role. The film became a huge success and La Marr was praised grandly. Her popularity increased rapidly and she was admired by many well known actors and actresses of the time. La Marr was offered a lot of film roles and her salary raised.
In 1923, Barbara twisted her ankle and was given morphine and cocaïne ( and according to rumours also heroïne) to continue filming and reduce the pain. The shooting of the film lasted a lot longer than expected and this exhausted her physically and mentally. She got addicted to drugs, but despite this, she kept being praised for her appearance in films.
Also in 1923, Barbara starred opposite John Gilbert for the second time and the two started a sexual relationship. Despite this, Barbara married actor Jack Dougherty, but not long before their marriage she fled to Texas to give birth to a baby boy. Although this has never been confirmed, Barbara did adopt a boy named Marvin Carville in the same period, whom she gave the nickname Sonny.
In 1924, Barbara left the Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer studios for a contract at First National Pictures. The first film she made for this studio (The White Moth, 1924) became a great success. Despite this, her addiction to drugs, alcohol and food kept growing.
Whilst filming the movie Sandra, in 1924, Barbara had another obstacle to overcome: she gained 33 pounds. She was forced to get rid of these pounds in a very short time. She achieved this by starving herself by using only cocaïne and liquids. This had a great impact on her health and Barbara was exhausted. Nevertheless, she kept acting fanatically and kept spending her time in nightclubs for the entire nights. The studio knew about her drug problem and exhaustion, but nevertheless used her for the movie The White Monkey (1925). Lamarr failed the movie and it became a flop.
La Marr was gravely ill when the studio commanded her to take part in the movie The Girl from Montmartre in 1926. Her ex-lover and friend, Paul Bern, begged Barbara not to finish the movie and take some rest instead. But Barbara finished the film and spent her days mainly with the use of drugs and alcohol. After a while, Barbara collapsed on the set and fell into a coma. When she woke up, she trusted her son to her good friend Zazu Pitts, and she recovered for a short while before Tuberculosis was detected. Paul Bern bought a house for Barbara where she would spend her dying days.
Barbara La Marr died on January 30th 1926 at the age of 29, by the cause of Tuberculosis aswell as Nephritis. Her son was adopted by Zazu Pitts and her husband John Gallery, and they changed his name to Don Gallery.
Sadly, Barbara La Marr was yet another star whose life burned out way too quickly. Many were so taken with her and among those was Louis B. Mayer; who was still so enamored with her after all those years that, in 1937, he changed the name of the new MGM actress, Hedwig Kiesler, into Hedy Lamarr as a homage to Barbara.
"Life is too short to waste on sleep" - Barbara La Marr