Marian Marsh Henderson, 93; '30s actress starred in 'Svengali'

Times Staff Writer

Marian Marsh Henderson, a Hollywood leading lady who played Trilby opposite John Barrymore's Svengali in the early 1930s and later founded the nonprofit Desert Beautiful organization in Palm Desert, has died. She was 93.

Henderson, the widow of pioneer Palm Desert developer Clifford Henderson, died of natural causes Thursday at her home in Palm Desert, said her daughter, Cathy Scott.

"All Paris desired her, but Svengali owned her!" So went a tag line for "Svengali," the 1931 screen version of "Trilby," George Du Maurier's classic 1894 novel about a sinister music teacher who uses his hypnotic powers to transform a milkmaid who can't sing into a great diva.

Henderson had appeared only in comedy shorts and had played several bit parts in features when she landed the coveted role of Trilby at Warner Bros., where she was under contract and had been given the stage name Marian Marsh.

"She is the epitome of Du Maurier's doomed heroine," Gregory William Mank wrote of Marsh in his book "Women in Horror Films, 1930s." "She was an unusual talent who captured all the imperiled beauty of a classic horror heroine, who seemed to have wandered out of a storybook."

Then 17, the blond and pretty Marsh was screen-tested for the role after receiving Barrymore's approval.

Because she was underage, she told Mank in a 1992 interview, her mother accompanied her when studio boss Jack Warner and production head Darryl Zanuck took her to the palatial mansion of Barrymore and his wife, screen star Dolores Costello.

While her mother waited downstairs, Warner and Zanuck led her upstairs to Barrymore's bedroom, where the ailing actor known as "the Great Profile" was propped up with pillows in an "enormous" bed. As she recalled the encounter: " 'Has anyone ever remarked,' Barrymore asked, 'that you resemble my wife, Dolores?' 'Yes,' I said. 'Who?' asked Barrymore. And I said, 'The butcher on Vine Street who gives me liver for my cat!' Well, Barrymore just laughed his head off!"

Warner Bros. followed up "Svengali" by pairing her again with Barrymore in "The Mad Genius," in which she played a ballerina who runs afoul of Barrymore's evil puppeteer turned impresario.

At Warners, she also appeared in such films as "Five Star Final," a 1931 newspaper crime-drama starring Edward G. Robinson; and "The Road to Singapore," a 1931 drama with William Powell.

Briefly under contract to Columbia in the mid-1930s, Marsh appeared with Boris Karloff in the cult horror classic "The Black Room," and played opposite Peter Lorre in director Josef von Sternberg's "Crime and Punishment."

Although she showed promise of becoming a big star after "Svengali," Mank said in an interview Friday, "it didn't happen the way she had hoped, and her career became progressively one of B movies. She deserved better."

Her last film was "House of Errors," a 1942 comedy with former silent star Harry Langdon.

Born Violet Krauth on Oct. 17, 1913, in Trinidad in the West Indies, she was the youngest of four children of a German chocolate manufacturer and his British wife. After World War I destroyed the business, according to an account on the Internet Movie Data Base, the family moved to Massachusetts.

In the mid-1920s, Henderson's older sister Jean became a film actress -- later known as Jean Fenwick -- and the family moved to Los Angeles. Henderson attended Hollywood High School and, with the help of her sister, launched her film career.

In 1938, she married stockbroker Albert P. Scott, with whom she had a son and daughter. The marriage ended in divorce in the late 1950s.

In 1960, she married Clifford Henderson, who had begun developing Palm Desert in the late 1940s. She founded Desert Beautiful in 1962.

"Cathedral City was the most messy city ever," she told the Desert Sun in 1999. "Every single vacant lot had broken-down cars just dumped on all of them."

As the group's president, she organized volunteers to collect rubbish on vacant lots and other desert sites, initiated an early recycling program and encouraged developers and city and county officials to include greenbelts, trees and shrubbery on their properties.

In addition to her daughter, Henderson is survived by her son, Albert P. Scott Jr.; eight grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 43775 Deep Canyon Road, Palm Desert. Instead of flowers, donations may be made to the Historical Society of Palm Desert, P.O. Box 77, Palm Desert, CA 92261.


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