When a woman is tagged “too beautiful”, my first instinct isn’t one of pity. So normally Barbara La Marr’s soubriquet – “The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful” – would generate more eye-rolling than sympathy. But although the phrase was meant to describe her dangerous effect on the opposite sex, the only real victim of her beauty was Barbara La Marr herself. Largely unknown today, Barbara La Marr was a famous movie star of the silent screen, as well-known for her off-screen exploits as on. But in on-screen and off-screen paradigms where beautiful women fit into two neat little boxes – naive ingenues needing protection and knowing vamps we need protection from– Barbara was unfairly vilified.
Born with the fairly un-vampy name Reatha Dale Watson, Barbara’s father was a writer-newspaperman-irrigationist. (How’s that for a multi-hyphenate?) As Sherri Snyder writes on her website devoted to Barbara La Marr, “She immersed herself in his extensive book collection from an early age, further honing her innate intellect. Reatha also uncovered an inborn talent and abiding passion for writing. Bolstered by her father’s encouragement, she first composed little verses and soon found great joy in penning fantasy-like tales. She made up her mind then and there, she later related, to become a great actress.” Reatha was the kind of girl who, when she made up her mind, she made it happen. #goals She spent her childhood performing with stock companies in a variety of plays. But in 1910, when our girl turned 14 she turned to the silver screen. The motion picture industry was still new, but prescient Reatha just knew that this was going to be her jam.
Turns out becoming a movie star, even in the nascent world of movies, wasn’t all that easy. So, our heroine found a way to star in some major drama in RL. Sherri Snyder writes:
“In 1913, sixteen-year-old Reatha starred in a real-life drama that rivaled the offerings at the local movie houses. It began when she inexplicably vanished from her family’s Los Angeles apartment following an encounter with her estranged half-sister. Presuming the worst, her father charged to the police station and reported Reatha kidnapped. Stolen, he told authorities, by her half-sister and her half-sister’s married boyfriend. A massive search for Reatha ensued, encompassing multiple states and spawning sensational headlines. The saga continued when Reatha reappeared—unharmed—, telling the district attorney and reporters of having experienced what she described as the most horrible ordeal of her life. Yet testimony given by her half-sister, her half-sister’s boyfriend, and certain witnesses at the preliminary hearing revealed that Reatha’s story was not all it seemed. A judge ultimately halted the matter from proceeding to trial, citing a lack of supporting evidence against Reatha’s so-called kidnappers.”
As dumb luck (or gullible people) would have it, Reatha was involved in a second kidnapping attempt just a few months later. She told friends that while she was away with her family she had been married and widowed. She claimed her groom was Jack Lytelle, a rich and handsome rancher. After she refused his many marriage proposals, he got desperate. Allegedly (cough cough), one day when she was out riding her horse in the desert, he rode up to her in his car and pulled her from atop the horse into his car. (Ahem.) Against her will, he drove them to Mexico and forced her to marry him. As if that weren’t bad enough, two months into their happy (?) marriage, while her good-looking kidnapper/lothario was away on business she got a letter saying Jack had tragically been struck down with pneumonia. Attending business at another ranch, she said, she received a letter from a mutual friend, informing her of his sudden death from pneumonia. (Um…if you ask me, I’m not sure Reatha’s penning of “fantasy-like tales” ended with childhood. But hey, it might be true. Anyway, mad respect to her for either her imagination, persuasive powers getting people to believe this stuff – OR, for being so young and having endured and survived some serious ass shit.)
Anyway, après widowhood, Reatha took to dancing in Los Angeles’ many cafes and cabarets. She was good at all the latest dance crazes, and she was a very good-looking girl, so despite her being underage she was welcome in all the hottest places, and welcome to their liquor. However, when her writer-reporter-irrigationist dad heard what his little angel was up to, he got LA’s finest to force his daughter to come back home. The juvenile officers deemed Reatha “too beautiful” for the city, and she was sent back home.
But remember our girl’s good looks weren’t the only things powerful and persuasive about her. If the powers-that-be said she was forbidden to live in Los Angeles without her parents, she’d simply get her parents to move back there with her. Still only 17, but champing at the bit to be on her own and extricate herself from her parents’ grasp , she leapt into marriage with Lawrence Converse, a garage manager she’d known for, wait for it, a week. The day after the wedding Reatha finds out hubby already had a wife! #Doh Lawrence said he had no memory of marrying Reatha! (Right??!) Anyway, herecomes the good/sad part. As Sherri explains:
“It seems his irrational, immoral behavior stemmed from a head injury he had sustained years earlier. Immediate surgery was required, the doctors said, to relieve pressure on his brain and—it was hoped—restore him to his former self. To prove he wasn’t responsible for his bigamous marriage, Converse underwent the operation. His plea of innocence cost him dearly. The surgery resulted in his death.”
So, who do you think was blamed for Converse’s death? Larry and that ridiculous excuse? His doctors? The surgeon? Those mean ole bigamy laws? Nope, teenage Reatha was the one who took all the blame. The media laid it all at her feet. Her “scandalous escapades” were too well-known and film studios deemed the “too beautiful” unfit for their pictures.
The twice-widowed teen went back to dancing, hooking up with ballroom dancer Robert Carville on and off the dance floor. Decades before branding was a thing, she became Barbara La Marr. She and Robert performed, and Barbara did interpretive dances she choreographed herself. Unfortunately, Barbara and Robert had a big fight. Long story short, she ends up marrying a new dance partner, Philip Ainsworth. Two months later, unfortunately, Barbara and Phillip had a big fight. Barbara went back to Robert. (Keep in mind, she’s not even 21 yet!)
Barbara went on to join comedian and veteran vaudevillian “Ben” Deely as the female foil in his vaudeville trio. Their comedic skits went over well, and so did Ben with Barbara. Despite his being eighteen years older than she, she wanted him for husband #3 (Or #4, depending upon whom you believe.) . Sherri explains:
“When the company passed through Chicago, Barbara petitioned a judge for a divorce from Philip Ainsworth and the court granted it. She was unaware that her divorce decree was invalid. Divorces awarded in Illinois at the time were contingent upon something Barbara didn’t have: a minimum one-year residency in the state. Little suspecting the future consequences of her actions, she married Deely in September 1918.”
Mr. and Mrs. Deely went to Los Angeles where Ben found work in movies and Barbara “succumbed to what she described as an instinctive pull toward the pen.” She wrote a story that garnered her a $10,000 contract with the Fox Film Corporation. (In today’s terms, that’s like hundreds of thousands of dollars! She’s 21 y’all!!) Contracted to write six stories in January 1920, her story The Mother of His Children was the first to hit the screen, with others following soon after. Fox soon had Barbara writing intertitles (the written word frames in silent movies.) One day, visiting the set of The Mark of Zorroshe was introduced to the film’s lead, silent movie SUPERSTAR Douglas Fairbanks. (In today’s terms, that’s like Brad Pitt, Ryan Reynolds and “The Rock” all rolled into one.) Fairbanks deemed Barbara La Marr way “too beautiful” to be working behind the cameraand gave her a screen test and some supporting roles in his films. She crushed it playing the baaaad girl seductress Milady in Fairbanks’ blockbuster The Three Musketeers (1921). Being successful in a blockbuster with a major superstar, and being not just beautiful but “Too beautiful”, Barbara Lamarr decided maybe she should give this whole movie star thing a try. (Ya think?!) Hubby Ben was not feelin’ it. Unfortunately, Barbara and Ben had a big fight. A few big fights. Eventually they decided to go their separate ways.
“I’m not silly enough to pretend I’m an ingenue. It isn’t my line—on or off the screen…I just want to be a woman.” —Barbara La Marr
Barbara La Marr not surprisingly did become a big star. In just 5 years the writer-cum-actress made over two dozen (!) films, including The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), Trifling Women (1922), The Shooting of Dan McGrew (1924), and Thy Name is Woman (1924). This was a binary age when it came to women: vamps and virgins. You had your good virgins (Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Janet Gaynor) to cheer, and your out-for-no-good vamps to hiss*. Vamps like Theda Bara, Pola Negri, and Barbara La Marr. Dark and exotic females like La Marr were typically cast in the vamp roles, women who used their womanly wiles to ensnare and hopefully, ruin men. (Vamp was short for vampire, by the way). Anyway, buying our girl as a naïve waif was beyond even her thespian prowess. Sherri Snyder tells us famed silent film director Fred Niblo deemed Barbara La Marr had“the most tremendous sex appeal of any woman on the screen.” Snyder points out that in addition to her considerable vamp game:
“Critics simultaneously praised her emotional depth as an actress with such commentary as: “she earns her every close-up with real tears and real acting” and “proves beyond a doubt that she is not dependent upon slinky gowns.” When not before the camera, Barbara wrote poetry and authored at least one more (unproduced) screenplay. She was frequently called upon to help rewrite films in which she appeared, though she did not receive formal writing credit in such cases.”
Barbara La Marr was as potent off-screen as she was on. Her ‘wicked, wicked ways’ with men made good fodder for newspapers and movie magazines of the day. “I take lovers like roses – by the dozen,” shequipped. Some of those rosy (and not so rosy) affairs came back to haunt her. In 1922, when she was separated from Ben Deely, she became pregnant by a man not Ben Deely. (She never did say who.) To skirt a career-ending scandal, Barbara had her baby boy in secret, and then staged his adoption at a Texas orphanage. (This trick would be used by Loretta Young about a decade later.) As far as reporters and the public were concerned, the swaddled babe Barbara La Marr cuddled in front of the cameras was an orphan she’s taken in.
Even if the baby had been estranged Ben’s boy, the infant would have still been a bastard. In 1923 Barbara found out her divorce from Philip Ainsworth wasn’t finalized until after she married Deely, so, believing her marriage to Deely wasn’t legit, she married cowboy star Jack Daugherty. (Are you keeping track of all these guys? Kidnapper, bigamist, dancer, cowboy…it gets confusing.) But Ben Deely thought he was married to La Marr, so her marriage to another guy naturally rubbed him the wrong way. Filing for divorce, his attorney went against Deely’s wishes and put together a long list of men Barbara had presumably been with – many of whom were film industry bigshots. Then the attorney, Herman Roth, tried blackmailing Barbara’s manager, threatening to release the list. Then the District attorney got involved and shit went DOWN. (If you want all the deets, you gotta get ahold of Sherri Snyder’s definitive biography, Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood.) You won’t be surprised to learn that La Marr’s marriage to cowboy Jack lasted less than a year.
Suffice it to say, the resulting scandal and shitstorm were hard on poor Barbara. Her health was deteriorating off-screen and her stardom was dwindling on-screen at the same time. In more innocent times, audiences often confused stars with their movie personae. The celluloid vamping and the real-life mishigas melded together, and Barbara La Marr’s films started to become banned and boycotted. After a meteoric rise, by 1925 her star was already starting to fade.
Like lots of other women in the 20s revved up by a new-found and unprecedented emancipation, Barbara was hellbent on “burning the candle at both ends.” And tragically, Barbara La Marr did not “last the night”.**
Most people today, if they’ve heard of Barbara La Marr at all, know her from the popular 70’s book Hollywood Babylon, which trashed talked many classic film stars. Which wouldn’t have been so bad if the trash talk were true. But a lot of it, including the wild tales about Barbara’s drug addictions and orgies, were not. Still, a brutal schedule, unbridled nightlife, weak lungs and crazy weight loss regimes took their toll. Knowing she was on her way out, Barbara handed over her son to good friend Zazu Pitts. (Remember her from Greed?)
Like so many silent movie stars who died before their time***, Barbara La Marr was only 29 when she died. Still a star, they say 120,000 mourners came to view her casket as she lay in state. Sherri describes it best:
“Echoing the sentiments of those affected by her talent, kindness, and fathomless generosity were a red rose and accompanying note, brought to her casket by a twelve-year-old girl. “To my Beautiful Lady whom I have longed to meet,” the note read in part, “may my life be as lovely and unselfish as yours has been.” Barbara rests in a crypt behind the inscription “With God in The Joy and Beauty of Youth” at Hollywood Forever Cemetery—remembered by all who loved her as a woman and soul who was ‘too beautiful.’”
I’d never have thought being a popular, gorgeous movie star would end up being the worst thing that could happen to a person, but sadly, Barbara La Marr’s most superficial asset became the downfall for this creative, intelligent, gutsy woman. I guess you can be “too beautiful”.
P.S. I’ve just given you just the tippy-tip of the iceberg that was Barbara La Marr’s short but chock-full life. If you’ve found this sliver amazing, you’ve got to check out Sherri Snyder’s biography, Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood, named one of the Huffington Post’s “Best Film Books of 2017”. Sherri has the intelligence, insight and sensitivity to get Barbara’s complexity. Sherri explains what caught her attention:
“Barbara La Marr was indeed an incredible, multi-talented woman, often tortured by great adversity. What touched me most, beyond Barbara’s frailties and the tragic elements of her life, was the underlying strength and determination she possessed.”
Sherri became so fascinated by this fascinating, forgotten star, she created a really wonderful website with lots of information and great photos) devoted to this incredible woman, and her own one-woman show dedicated to this complex phenomenon. Her extensive research included befriending Barbara’s only child, Don, and access to the star’s private diary!
*Luckily the “flapper” came along where stars like Clara Bow could be sexy and yet not evil. Progress!
**If you are not familiar with Edna St. Vincent Millay’spoem, the public school system failed you.
***Rudolph Valentino, Mabel Normand, Mary Miles Minter, Olive Thomas, Renee Adoree, Wallace Reid…and Martha Mansfield, who died of burns started by a cigarette thrown on her dress.