Verdugo Views: Guests at sanitarium each had a story to tell

Rockhaven Sanitarium in Montrose was sometimes called the Screen Actor’s Sanitarium, as it provided a home for several women who were either active in — or connected to — show business.

Over the years, residents included actress Billie Burke, best known for her role as Glinda, the Good Witch in the “Wizard of Oz;” Josephine Dillon, Clark Gable’s first wife; Frances Farmer and Gladys Baker, mother of Marilyn Monroe. Here’s a short sketch of three of those women.

Billie Burke was appearing on Broadway when she caught the eye of Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., producer of the famed Ziegfeld Follies. After they married in 1914, she continued to appear on stage and sometimes in movies. Then, when Ziegfeld died and left her with substantial debts, she focused on making movies, according to

Burke was in her 50s when she was selected to play Glinda in the “Wizard of Oz,” one of the most successful movies in Hollywood history.

She worked steadily for many years, often playing comedic, aristocratic types. Her last movie was “Sergeant Rutledge” in 1960, and she died in 1970 at 85. Learn more about her early years by watching Myrna Loy play her in “The Great Ziegfeld,” made in 1936.

Dillon was more than just Clark Gable’s first wife. She graduated from Stanford in 1908 (a rare accomplishment for a female in those days) and sought work as an actress. In 1918, according to Wikipedia, she applied for a passport in order to go to Turkey with the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief, an agency based in New York City.

After returning, she formed a theater company in Oregon. There she met Gable and, seeing his potential, paid to have his teeth fixed and hair groomed. Then — in what seems to have been a business arrangement — they married in 1924 and went off to Hollywood, where she opened another stock company while Gable worked in films.

They divorced in 1930, and she later spoke bitterly about Gable, saying he had abandoned her. However, according to a website it seems Gable bought a house for her to live in and left it to her in his will. Dillon died in 1971.

Farmer studied drama and went to New York City in 1935, hoping to get into the theater. Instead, she got a contract with Paramount and worked in Hollywood. But, she soon tired of the studio’s control over her private life and left to do summer theater in upstate New York, according to Wikipedia.

Despite a reputation as a temperamental actress with alcohol problems, as noted on, she returned to make films in Hollywood. She was stopped in 1942 for driving with her headlights on bright during a wartime blackout, arrested for being drunk and jailed overnight, all of which attracted intense media attention.

Declared mentally ill by the court and committed to a mental institution, she was eventually released and went back into acting. She died in 1970, amid conflicting reports of her treatment during her incarceration. Her story was told in the movie “Frances,” made in 1983, and in a A&E documentary, “Frances Farmer: Paradise Lost,” shown in 2001.

More on Gladys Baker, mother of Marilyn Monroe, at a later date.


Readers Write:

Foursquare archivist Steve Zeleny emailed me after reading Verdugo Views, Oct. 9, regarding Aimee Semple McPherson living in Glendale in February 1928. He enclosed a copy of the April 25, 1928, Foursquare Crusader newspaper, which had a story about how McPherson had no permanent residence; she was living some seven miles away in Glendale and it was difficult for her to drive from her dwelling place to the temple.

According to the article, the church was converting an existing structure on the grounds into a place where she could live.


If you have questions, comments or memories to share, please write to Verdugo Views, c/o News-Press, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. Please include your name, address and phone number.