There have been many Hollywood Golden Era stars far more famous than Lina Basquette, but few have had lives crammed with so much romance and adventure, heartbreak and accomplishment.
A novelist would be hard put to invent a life as colorful as hers. Movie moguls, gangsters and European noblemen pursued her. Jack Dempsey was in love with her, and she fought off Hitler’s advances while visiting his mountain retreat with her lover of the moment, a German baron.
“Maybe if I hadn’t been so fastidious I might have changed history, but oh that body odor of his!,” exclaimed Basquette. “When Hitler was about to rape me I said, ‘Hey, wait a minute! You don’t want to touch me. My grandfather was Jewish, which was true.”
Basquette was reminiscing in the living room of her daughter Lita’s elegant high-rise condominium in the Wilshire corridor. She was in town to promote “Paradise Park,” her first film in 48 years, and the first installment of her recently published memoirs, “Lina: DeMille’s Godless Girl,” and to appear tonight and Saturday at the Silent Movie, where “The Godless Girl” (1929), her most famous film, will be screened. In this lurid but lively and vastly entertaining potboiler, Basquette plays a high school student busily proselytizing her classmates in the joys of atheism.
The dust jacket of Basquette’s book promises descriptions of her “action-packed marriages, one-night stands and sizzling affairs,” and she delivers the goods. Since she is as candid about herself as she is about everyone else, it is not hard to believe her every word--even the Hitler encounter. This impression of outspoken honesty is reinforced by meeting her in person. At 84 she retains an amazing vitality and a vibrant personality. Her dazzling dark eyes are those of a young woman, and they peer out of a face that retains much of its beauty. The moment you meet her you understand immediately why so many men fell in love with her.
Born in San Mateo to a classic stage mother and a loving but alcoholic father who shot himself to death at 36, Basquette began dancing as a child, winning the attention of Anna Pavlova, who wanted to make her her protege. But since her mother concluded that a career as a ballerina would bring in only “peanuts,” 9-year-old Lina ended up a child actress under contract at Universal, where her dressing room was opposite Valentino’s. (Basquette’s younger half-sister Marge Champion, however, would become a famous dancer-choreographer.) Becoming a featured ballerina in the Ziegfeld Follies, she attracted the attention of Sam Warner of Warner Bros. (and also Harry Cohn, who would later prove to be a good friend in crisis). Pushed into a marriage to Warner by her mother, she found herself falling in love with him and bore his daughter Lita, named after Charlie Chaplin’s second wife, Lita Grey. Her portraits of Sam Warner and Harry Cohn, diamonds in the rough both, are extraordinarily touching.
Warner was the visionary who forged ahead with his belief in talking pictures despite his brothers’ lack of enthusiasm--"Sam and his toy phonograph” was the way they referred to the Vitaphone process, according to Basquette--but in his round-the-clock dedication he so neglected a sinus attack and some badly abscessed teeth that he died of a cerebral hemorrhage three days before “The Jazz Singer” was to premiere in New York. (Basquette said it was she who persuaded Sam to go after Al Jolson rather than have George Jessel repeat his stage role on the screen.)
Warner was only 42 and had died so quickly that he didn’t have time to protect his wife and daughter legally. A widow at 20, Basquette found herself not only maneuvered out of her husband’s share in Warner Bros. and even, to a large extent, blacklisted in the film industry, but also pressured to give up custody of Lita to Sam’s brother Harry and his wife in return for a guarantee that her daughter would be set up with a $300,000 trust fund. Basquette would not see her daughter for 32 years, and it was only in 1977, when Lina backed Lita in her suit against Jack Warner’s estate, did mother and daughter begin the ongoing process of getting to know each other. (Currently, Lita is at her Aspen, Colo., home.)
Basquette’s fate at the hands of her in-laws was clearly the central, shaping event of her life, a subject about which she remains understandably bitter but philosophical. “Had I been a little smarter and not had such bum lawyers, maybe things would have been different. . . ,” she said, trailing off with a shrug. “But you can’t live life with ‘what-ifs.”’
Not long after Sam’s death, Basquette lost the other great love of her life, a young actor named Ray Hallam, to leukemia. Traumatized and her career fading, she began a long ricochet from one husband--she eventually had seven--and lover to another, and had a son, Edward, by Dempsey’s ex-trainer Teddy Hayes, with whom she had her most tempestuous marriage. Her book ends in the late ‘30s, but more adventures were to follow in South America, where in Buenos Aires she became the mistress of Col. Alberto Lorenzo Osti, Italy’s minister of intelligence for all of South America, a liaison which subsequently brought her to the attention of the State Department and a turn as a World War II Mata Hari.
After the end of the war and at a low ebb emotionally and professionally, holed up in Henderson, Nev., Basquette began thinking about writing her memoirs.
“At first I thought I might tell my story as a novel--'Camilla Duval'--that was going to knock Scarlett O’Hara right off the boards,” she said.
Eventually, she abandoned the idea to fictionalize her experiences, but when Warner Bros. officials got wind that she would be doing a book, they got her to put it off for a decade--"I guess they thought I wouldn’t live past 50,” she harrumphed--in return for turning over to her a $100,000 trust fund from which she’d been receiving semi-annual payments.
Even though her lawyers took a third of the trust in fees, she was still left with enough to purchase her first Bucks County, Pa., farm and start a new career as a breeder of champion Great Danes. (She credits Blake Edwards’ late mother, Lillian, with putting her “on the top” by providing a champion sire for her bitches.)
Gradually, Basquette became a star in the world of dog breeding, which she gave up some years ago to settle in Wheeling, W. Va. Currently, she earns her living as a judge for the American Kennel Assn.; only last month she drove herself in her Chevy to Vermont--850 miles each way, with no stopovers--to judge two contests.
Basquette’s “resurrection,” as she calls it, commenced with a 1989 New Yorker profile by Louise Brooks’ biographer Barry Paris, which triggered the publication of part of her memoirs by a small Virginia company for whom she had written a book on Great Danes.
Then earlier this year she attended a film society showing of some of her films in Charleston, W. Va., where she met Danny Boyd, a communications professor at West Virginia State College. He offered her a role in his independent production, “Paradise Park,” in which she was to play a grandmother who dreams that God is coming to grant a wish to her neighbors in an Appalachian trailer park. Somewhat to her surprise, she accepted the role, and spent two weeks in June filming.
“It was fun,” she said, even though she momentarily thought she’d lost her mind in accepting the part. “They treated me like a star, put me up in a Ramada Inn. In one scene they turned the fire hoses on us, and everyone got a kick out of the fact that I was such an old trouper. But I’ve always been a trouper, same as in the dog game, I go do my job, stand out in the sun eight or 10 hours--I may go collapse later. That was my training.”
Right now she’s eager to get the rest of her memoirs published, and hopes to live to see her story filmed, either as a feature or a miniseries. (She thinks Sean Young would be perfect casting but would scarcely be adverse to, say, Madonna, playing her.) “I’ve had so much go sour in my life I want a big splash,” she said. As for playing another part herself, she said: “As long as I keep breathing I’m game for anything. I’ve still got great health and a sense of humor--but it may be a bit perverted. As long as I wake up and I’m still breathing, it’s a wonderful day.”