Hollywood legend comes alive again
Silent-film actress and screenwriter Barbara La Marr once said, “I take lovers like roses . . . by the dozen.”
And she was hardly exaggerating: By age 19 she had been married three times, divorced and widowed. In her 20s, she married twice more. Still, she found time to become a world-famous actress, only to die at 29 a few months after collapsing on a movie set.
Despite the fact that the Jazz Age screen goddess died in Altadena more than 80 years ago, she will “return” as “hostess” of a cemetery tour there in November.
The tour is the centerpiece of the third annual “Walk Through Time,” presented by the Pasadena Museum of History and the Pasadena Playhouse. This year’s version is titled “Channeling Hollywood.” With the Mountain View Cemetery and Mausoleum as the setting, the tour will feature actors portraying long-dead Hollywood personalities, most of whom occupy final resting places at the Altadena cemetery.
La Marr was one of those silent-film stars who disappeared from the world’s consciousness almost as swiftly as she entered it, dying the year before the first “talkie” appeared.
During her brief career, she danced with Hollywood’s greatest romantic idols, including Rudolph Valentino and Ramon Novarro, and starred with Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Even before she appeared in front of the cameras, La Marr wrote film scenarios and screenplays, according to newspaper accounts of the time.
Once she appeared on screen, she sizzled as a sexy vamp. According to her son, Don Gallery, La Marr lived with abandon, keeping a container of cocaine on her piano and bingeing on heroin and highballs. Friends and family members said she became hooked on drugs after being given painkillers for an injury.
Official accounts of her death in 1926 at her Altadena home on Boston Street list the cause as tuberculosis and nephritis -- inflammation of the kidney.
She may have been the only screenwriter to persuade a dictator to appear in a film: Benito Mussolini played himself in the now-vanished 1923 film “The Eternal City,” which La Marr starred in and for which she was reported to have done uncredited writing and producing.
Years after her death, La Marr is a subject of fascination for Sherri Snyder, the actress and model who will portray her on the cemetery tour.
“I enjoy historically based roles that help bring history to life,” said Snyder, who researched and wrote her monologue for the tour. La Marr “was such a talented, intriguing person.” Even with La Marr’s liberal use of alcohol and drugs, Snyder said, “her work never suffered; she was able to keep herself going.
“Acting and writing entire scenarios at that time was a tall order for a woman. Audiences didn’t want their vamps to have intelligence, so a lot of her writings went uncredited,” Snyder said.
Gallery, La Marr’s illegitimate son, was 4 years old when his mother died, and he was then adopted by actress ZaSu Pitts and her husband, Tom Gallery.
The facts of La Marr’s life are sketchy at best, pieced together by Don Gallery from family stories and newspaper accounts as well as his mother’s personal papers.
She was born Reatha Dale Watson in Yakima, Wash., in 1896. Around 1910, her father, newspaperman William Wright Watson, brought his family to Los Angeles. It didn’t take long for the aspiring actress, then a teenager, to get into trouble.
She was arrested for dancing in a burlesque show, which provoked a juvenile court judge to remark that she was “too beautiful to be in a big city alone and unprotected.” Studio publicists later seized on the phrase and trumpeted her as “The Girl Who Is Too Beautiful.”
Three years later, at 17, she ran away from home and began dancing again. She married the first of five husbands, an Arizona rancher named Jack Lytell.
A few months later, Lytell died of pneumonia, and his teenage widow returned to the bright lights of L.A. That same year, 1914, she married Lawrence Converse of Glendora, who already had a wife and children. Both used false names on the marriage license. He was jailed the day after their wedding on bigamy charges.
Within two weeks, he was dying in surgery as doctors operated on a blood clot, according to The Times.
The twice-widowed teenager went back to dancing in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.
In San Francisco she met and married her third husband, dancer and comic Phil Ainsworth. He soon began forging checks, sold her car out from under her and spent time in prison, according to Times stories.
In 1918, she was married a fourth time -- before the ink on her divorce from Ainsworth was dry -- to another dance partner, Ben Deely, who was twice her age but shared her love of literature and art.
Around that time, she changed her name to Barbara La Marr and began writing scenarios and screenplays, among them “Rose of Nome” and “The Mother of His Children.”
She was lured into silent films in 1920 by film producer Louis B. Mayer and by Fairbanks and his wife, Mary Pickford, who said La Marr was too beautiful not to be in front of a camera. On her path to screen stardom, La Marr played the roles of vamp, spy, seductress and gangster’s moll.
In 1921, La Marr and Deely separated.
Gallery, her son, was born July 29, 1922, in Los Angeles.
While his birth certificate does not list La Marr as his mother, Gallery said in a telephone interview from his Puerto Vallarta home that his adoptive parents, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and other celebrities “always told me that [La Marr] was my birth mother.”
Gallery, who says he has all of his mother’s papers, is writing a screenplay about her. He said he learned from Hollywood friends of his mother’s plan to cover up his birth: He was 7 months old when she sent him to Hope Cottage, a Dallas orphanage. It was just weeks before she was to be crowned queen of the city’s car show.
“Through contacts, she made sure she got a tour of the orphanage. A Dallas newspaper reported how this one particular baby touched her heart,” Gallery chuckled, recalling how La Marr then “adopted” him.
In March 1923, La Marr arrived home in Los Angeles with her son.
“I have no idea who my real father was, but I can guess -- Paul Bern,” a studio executive who later married actress Jean Harlow and killed himself two months later. “He was my godfather and visited me every Sunday” until his death in 1932, Gallery said.
In May 1923, La Marr married cowboy star Jack Daugherty. During the filming of a dance sequence in “Souls For Sale,” she sprained her ankle. “For the pain, studio doctors gave her all sorts of drugs, including . . . heroin,” Gallery said. “It was important to keep filming and not let her hold up production.”
She soon was hooked on the drugs, Gallery said. La Marr herself is reported to have once boasted, “I cheat nature. I never sleep more than two hours per night. I have better things to do.”
But her nonstop pace took its toll. In late 1925, she collapsed on the set of her final film, “The Girl From Montmartre.” Before sinking into a coma, she turned over the care of her son to her best friend, the actress Pitts.
La Marr died Jan. 30, 1926, several months before Valentino’s death from a perforated ulcer. She was buried at what is now the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, and in 1960 she was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
But her character will appear at the Altadena cemetery along with actors portraying other Pasadena-area notables who are buried there -- mystery writer Earl Derr Biggers, who created the fictional detective character Charlie Chan; television’s first Superman, actor George Reeves, who grew up in the area and attended Pasadena schools; Pasadena Playhouse founder Gilmore Brown; and actress Maudie Prickett, who performed at the Playhouse and was married to a Pasadena mayor.
The Mountain View Cemetery and Mausoleum, with its grand staircase and stained glass windows, will host “Channeling Hollywood: The Vamp, The Impresario, Superman and More” Nov. 3 and 4. Reservations are required and are available at (626) 794-7133 or www.pasadenahistory.org.