In 1953, Marilyn Monroe was the hottest thing in Hollywood. From the get-go, she was just too much for many to comprehend — too beautiful, complicated, messy, vulnerable, smart and self-destructive. A full 10 years before her death, the media were already betting on her premature demise.
“Miss Monroe is today the top skyrocket star of the movies,” the Los Angeles Times wrote. “Her ascendancy compares with any and all of the famous ones of the past like Barbara La Marr, Jean Harlow and other rare beauties, whose fascination has also been linked with a certain fatality.” While many still know the tragic tale of the platinum-blond Harlow, few remember silent movie sensation Barbara La Marr. She was the “too beautiful girl,” whose epic life and early death created what eventually became the Monroe archetype — the doomed, destructive beauty, whose death is foretold in the Hollywood stars.
Like Monroe, the name with which Barbara La Marr gained her greatest fame was not her own. She was born Reatha Dale Watson on July 23, 1896, in Yakima, Washington. Her father, William, was an itinerant newspaperman, and the family followed him from job to job across the Southwest. From an early age, Reatha was exceptionally lovely and exceptionally clever. She loved to write and read and started performing with traveling stock companies when she was still a child. By the time she was a preteen, her goal in life was “to be a great tragedienne and wield a dagger.”
Reatha’s theatrical ambitions eventually brought the Watson family to Los Angeles, center of the budding film industry. She soon started working as an extra in early silent films. From this point on, separating fact from fiction becomes difficult, because both Reatha and the studio system that would later promote her had tenuous relationships with the truth. Some report that Reatha began dancing in an L.A. burlesque show at the age of 13, prompting her father to involve the juvenile courts. In January 1913, 16-year-old Reatha became a local sensation when she was reportedly “kidnapped” by her half-sister, Viola, and Viola’s married paramour, C.C. Boxley. A headline in the L.A. Times blared: “Girl Missing, Warrants Out: Absent Maid’s Father Takes Drastic Action. Says He Fears Pretty Motion Picture Actress May Be In Hands of White Slavers.”
A few days after her “kidnapping,” Reatha returned to Los Angeles, and Viola and Boxley were summarily arrested. In an extraordinary statement, Reatha claimed she had been tricked into leaving Los Angeles by her wayward half-sister, who had been estranged from their parents for over a year:
Viola told me she expected to have a quarrel with her friend [Boxley] and wanted me to go along to protect her. She said he is violently jealous of her and she feared he might assault her. When we motored out of the city, I first though we were going to Riverside and that I would be back before night. But Boxley drove around to Burbank and from there to Palmdale. There I mailed a letter to my mother telling her not to be anxious. I was closely watched and did not dare to try and give any warning that I had been carried away against my will. When we reached Santa Barbara I slipped away and telephoned a friend in Los Angeles. Soon after Boxley approached with a paper in his hand. He said the police were looking for him and that he was perfectly willing to let me go back home. He told me a lot of things to say when I got home. I determined to tell the whole truth.
However, it seems Reatha was already honing her magnificent storytelling abilities. Charges against Viola and Boxley were soon dropped. The LAPD claimed to have discovered that Reatha “did not seem to be worried over her plight. In fact, she was in a happy frame of mind and told some persons she had enjoyed the motor trip from Los Angeles … immensely.” This escapade was followed by her supposed first marriage to the mysterious Jack Lytelle, a wealthy Arizona rancher who she claimed had forcibly carried her off on a horse for a quickie marriage in Mexico, only to die of pneumonia months later.
In 1914, Reatha married husband No. 2 dashing, equally notorious Lawrence Converse, after a courtship of three days. But it soon was discovered that Converse was already very much married. Converse was thrown in jail for bigamy, claiming that he just “had to have” the “dazzling Reatha.” This sent the “surplus bride” back home to Burbank, where her dramatic reunion with her family was oddly enough witnessed by reporters for the L.A. Times:
“Well Dad,” she said, “I’m back home.”
“You’re back,” said the father. “But I don’t know yet whether it’s your home or not.”
The girl, whose beauty has made her, in a sense, a celebrity, went up to her father, threw her arms around his neck, and began to sob.
“I’m a naughty, naughty girl, I know, Dad, and I don’t want to hurt you, but won’t you please hug me just as if I were a little kid again?”
Reatha was accepted back into the Watson fold, a single teenager once again (Converse died shortly thereafter while in surgery). “She spent yesterday making gingham aprons, some blue checked and some pink striped,” the L.A. Times reported about the newly “reformed” Reatha. “They are to be her uniform in the future.”
Not surprisingly, this cozy domesticity did not last for long. Legend has it that at some point a juvenile court judge banished Reatha from Los Angeles, claiming she was “too beautiful to be in a big city.” She became a ballroom dancer, traveling around the country with Robert Carville. In 1916, she left Carville to marry husband No. 3, a dancer and check forger by the name of Phillip Ainsworth. She quickly went back to Carville and was reported to have died in Salt Lake City as the result of a broken back. This story proved to be false, and in 1917, the papers breathlessly reported that Ainsworth had successfully obtained a divorce from Reatha, who was now known as “the too beautiful girl … whose beauty was fatal to her.”
This time, Reatha’s notoriety seems to have become too much even for her. She rejoined the vaudeville circuit and married husband No. 4, Ben Deely, an intellectual older actor. She also changed her name to the exotic-sounding Barbara La Marr and began indulging in her passion for writing, especially poetry. By 1919, worn out by years on the road, she and Deely returned to Los Angeles, and the newly christened Barbara began writing screenplays. Her vivid imagination found an outlet in dreaming up dramatic scenarios, and in January 1920, her story The Mother of His Children led to a lucrative writing contract with 20th Century Fox.
At this point in the story, it is tempting to speculate what would have happened if Barbara had simply stayed a screenwriter, a profession many co-workers felt was her true calling. Maybe she would have had a happy ending.
But the magnetic beauty that had attracted so many was not done working its spell. According to biographer Sherri Snyder, author of the upcoming book Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood, Barbara was invited to visit the set of The Mark of Zorro with a friend. Star Douglas Fairbanks was so entranced by her allure that he arranged a screen test. Her dark, exotic looks radiated off the screen, and she soon made her first movie, Harriet and the Piper. But her star really began to rise in 1921, when she made the blockbuster The Three Musketeers with Fairbanks and director Fred Niblo. The San Francisco Chronicle touted the reinvention of L.A.’s local legend:
Barbara La Marr [is] back in Hollywood and famous after old court ruling. “Too beautiful to live in Los Angeles,” according to the Judge who banished her to her home at El Centro, Reatha Watson has turned her beauty to good account, and under the name of Barbara La Marr has found fame on the screen.
Over a brief career of five years, Barbara would make 27 films in Hollywood, New York and Europe. In movies such as The Eternal City and The Shooting of Dan McGrew, she usually played the “vamp” (literally vampire), a dark, mysterious, damned beauty who leads the film’s stoic hero to ruin. She became equally famous for her wild love life (she left Deely in 1921) and her dramatic, liberated bon mots, which titillated the lost generation of flappers and philosophers.
“I take lovers like roses … by the dozen,” she said. “I cheat nature. I never sleep more than two hours per night. I have better things to do.” “I’m not silly enough to pretend I’m an ingénue. It isn’t my line — on or off screen … I just want to be a woman,” she said. “One loves to live only because one lives to love.”
Friends and co-workers alike often commented on the intensity with which she spoke, and her “great capacity for sheer living.” She became a mainstay at Hollywood cafes and nightclubs, where her flair for drama, dancing and natural beauty constantly turned heads. “I enjoy every bit of life,” she said. “I want to get all I can out of every minute of it.” She also learned the power of PR, refusing to be called a star, leaking her love of writing poetry to the press and visiting orphanages. In March 1923, she announced that she had fallen in love … with a baby boy at a Dallas orphanage, while she was in town to open a car show:
“He smiled and gurgled, and I smiled — and that was all,” said the silversheet siren yesterday. “I didn’t have any idea of adopting a baby when I went there, but something about him just made me pick him up — and then I couldn’t bear to go away without him. So that very afternoon I cut through all the red tape and adopted him.”
She went on to claim that she had also been a foster child and had had a son who died two years past. The L.A. Times, wise to Barbara’s powers of deception, wrote: “Foster child or not, Miss La Marr’s life has so far been composed of incidents which would make imaginative creations of a scenario writer tame.” It is not known if the reporter who wrote this knew the bigger story: that the child she had adopted, whom she named Marvin Carville La Marr, was actually her biological child.
Barbara had somehow hidden her pregnancy from the press. Her son was born on July 29, 1922, in Los Angeles, and spirited away to Texas to be “found” by his mother weeks later. Although it was never proven, Marvin (who was later renamed Don Gallery) believed his real father was producer Paul Bern, whose own tragic demise would come during his marriage to the equally tragic Jean Harlow.
Two months later in Santa Barbara, Barbara married husband No. 5, red-haired actor Jack Daugherty. The year 1923 also was when she sprained her ankle during the filming of the drama Souls for Sale. “For the pain, studio doctors gave her all sorts of drugs, including … heroin,” her son recalled. “It was important to keep filming and not let her hold up production.” Barbara soon was hopelessly addicted to a variety of drugs. According to Gallery, she kept a container of cocaine, nicknamed “joy powder,” on her piano at her home in Whitley Heights. She was constantly dieting, and began using the deadly combination of cocaine and heroin.
This escalating health crisis coincided with legal problems. Deely claimed that he was still legally her husband, and one of his lawyers attempted to extort money from Barbara to hush up her extramarital affairs. Called to court, it was reported that she was near collapse. When asked to read a complaint filed against her, Barbara replied, “My eyes are too full of tears to read it.”
The revelations about her life disclosed in court, along with the decline in popularity of the “vamp,” meant that by the spring of 1924, her career was on the downswing. “She has not grown one atom as an actress since she first donned grease paint,” reviewer Grace Kingsley wrote of her performance in White Moth. “She is a poseur, but a graceful and fascinating one.”
The media, no doubt getting whiffs of the many problems in La Marr land, began to turn on her. No one was more vicious than the usually charming L.A. columnist Alma Whittaker, who was appalled when Barbara was chosen to represent Southern California on a train tour sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce:
Now really — why Barbara La Marr? … Wasn’t she rather a peculiarly notorious little girl in this city before she became worth $15,000 a year? Weren’t the recent revelations about her five marriages brought out in a recent court trial, a bit staggering, even in these days? Wasn’t she rather quaintly vague about these various hasty and embarrassing adventures? … If the men want to be represented by Barbara La Marr, I am dead sure the women don’t.
By July 1925, the jig was up. Barbara suffered a total “nervous breakdown,” which was reported as a “throat infection complicated by intestinal disorders.” She was confined for weeks at a house in Altadena before giving an angry, erratic interview where she blamed recent film flops and lack of studio support for her broken spirit. She rallied and began filming her last movie, The Girl From Montmartre, only to collapse again on set. In November, reporters were let into her sickroom in Altadena, where they encountered a frail but still dramatic Barbara. The L.A. Times reported the heartening scene:
“Hello everybody, I’m getting better. … I’ll be all right pretty soon.” This is from Barbara La Marr to her friends. But it isn’t from the Barbara La Marr who was the siren of the silver screen. It’s from a Barbara even more lovely and beautiful and charming, although she lies frail and broken on a bed of pain. Secluded in the home of a friend in Altadena, she’s quietly whiling the long hours away until her strength returns and she can be up and about again. “It gets awfully tiresome sometimes,” she whispered, “but I’ll be all right. … I’ll be all right.”
But her comeback never came. Barbara died on Jan. 30, 1926, her parents by her side. She was 29 years old. Various news outlets blamed her death on “complications following a nervous breakdown,” or “vigorous dieting.” Many believe she actually died of tuberculosis and nephritis. Her son was placed in the care of her best friend, actress Zasu Pitts, who went on to adopt him.
Instantly, the press, who had turned on Barbara in life, proclaimed her in death to be “screenland’s beautiful lady of sorrow.” Around 40,000 people passed by her open casket at Blues Funeral Chapel to see the still-beautiful Barbara clutching a single red rose, placed in her hands by a 12-year-old fan. She was buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, in the same mausoleum where Rudolph Valentino would be placed months later. Her epitaph reads: “With God in the Joy and Beauty of Youth!”
These words seem too simple, too pat to summarize the woman who was too beautiful, too smart, too indulgent and too daring. Perhaps Barbara’s own words were more appropriate: “There are two things I can’t endure — stupidity and insincerity. I am sick of men who say the expected thing at the right time, and of pictures that end with the assumption that someone lives happily ever after.”