Lucille Ricksen — Sacrificed to Hollywood

By Michael G. Ankerich

Of all the actresses I researched and wrote about in Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels, none have stuck with me more than Lucille Ricksen.

Lucille Ricksen, a kid playing adult roles.

Her death in 1925, at the age of 14, still troubles me. I grieve for the loss of a teenager who became one of the first causalities of Hollywood. If ever there was anyone who was helplessly sacrificed to Hollywood, it was little Lucille, who, at 13, was dubbed the “Youngest Leading Lady” in moving pictures.

Lucille Ricksen signed this portrait for her father.

Our story begins in Chicago.

Under the direction of her mother, Ingeborg, Lucille’s career began almost from the time she could walk.

Lucille (R) and her brother, Marshall. Also, a lock of Lucille’s hair.

Lucille first worked as a professional model in Chicago.

Early modeling photos of Lucille Ricksen.

From modeling,  Lucille worked on the legitimate stage for about a year. Then, Ingeborg took her five-year-old daughter to the Essanay Studios, where she signed her up for film work. She was cast as Baby Ericksen in The Millionaire Baby (1915).

A rather disturbing pose, perhaps the first attempt to make Lucille appear older than she was.

By the late 1910’s, Ingeborg’s marriage was on the rocks. Sensing her fortune lay in the Golden West, she moved Lucille and her brother, Marshall, from Chicago to Hollywood and put the family to work.

Ingeborg and Samuel Ricksen in happier days. The caption is written by Lucille.

In no time, producer Samuel Goldwyn signed Lucille to appear as the dainty sweetheart of Johnny Jones in Booth Tarkington’s Edgar comedy series.

For Lucille, it was like playtime all day. She could be mischievous and rambunctious in one scene or sweet and sentimental in the next.

Lucille in a scene from one of the Edgar comedies (1920).

Lucille loved her work. She wrote a letter of appreciation to her director, E. Mason Hopper, calling him the “most patient child’s director I have ever known.”

Lucille’s handwritten letter to director E. Mason Hopper.

In 1921, Lucille and Marshall, along with a number of the cast members of the Edgar series, were cast in The Old Nest, a film based on a short story by Rupert Hughes, Howard’s uncle. When the shooting was complete, Lucille was taken on a tour around the country to promote the Edgar series.

Lucille on the front steps of writer Booth Tarkington’s Indianapolis home. He is not home when she comes to visit on her publicity tour.

Although the schedule was grueling, Lucille had the time of her life. She diligently documented the summer in her scrapbook. She carefully pasted the newspaper clippings to the pages and wrote creative captions for each photograph.

Lucille and her mother on tour.

For the next year or so, Lucille continued to mature on the big screen. By the time she made The Married Flapper (1922) with Marie Prevost and Kenneth Harlan, the 12-year-old looked the part of an adult.

Lucille Ricksen, appearing grown-up as she stands with the crew on the set of  The Married Flapper.

The publicity machines went into high gear in 1923 when director Marshall Neilan chose Lucille to play the lead in The Rendezvous. Although not quite 13 years old, the studio and press declared her to be 16. She became “the youngest leading lady in movies.”

Lucille Ricksen with director Marshall Neilan.

In The Rendezvous, Lucille plays the unhappy wife of a Russian official. One visiting reporter to the set noted how strange it was to see Lucille in the leading lady role. “Those Edgar Comedies were Lucille’s only childhood–the only chance to play with children her own age. That is what makes her different. It is almost uncanny how different she is. It makes you sorry and it makes you glad.  You long to see those pigtails flying in the wind and the cheeks snapping with bright color, instead of the all-day session playing the abused wife of a “horrid” Russian, interpersed with reading about Bernhardt and talking with older men and women.”

Lucille Ricksen in a scene from The Rendezvous.

Equally disturbing — to me — is her revelation that Marshall Neilan (her director) and Sydney Chaplin, who was also in the film, were two of her new best friends. Disturbing, because of their reputations as Hollywood “bad boys” and skirt chasers.

Moreover, in December 1923, The Billboard noted that Lucille and Chaplin had recently married.

It is doubtful, given Lucille’s age and the watchful eye that Ingeborg hopefully kept on her daughter and breadwinner of the family.  My research failed to uncover any marriage certificate for the two in Los Angeles in 1923.

Through the first half of 1924, Lucille went from picture to picture at an alarming rate. She completed an astonishing 10 features in a little over seven months.

One can’t ignore the look of exhaustion on Lucille Ricksen’s face.

The grueling pace finally caught up with the teenager. That summer, while her films were being released, Lucille was fighting for her life. While the movie-going public was building her up, Lucille was secretly breaking down.

Ingeborg sent Lucille into seclusion, hoping that a few months of rest would make her good as new. Despite her best efforts, news about Lucille’s emotional breakdown leaked out.  Her mother offered little information.  “Nervous breakdown–that’s all. No, she can’t think of working now–not for four months at least. She must have rest–lots of it. After that, perhaps.”

News of Lucille Ricksen’s breakdown made headlines.

Lucille’s doctor was more candid. “Miss Ricksen is a high-strung enthusiastic girl, full of ambition and energy,” Dr. J. F. McKitrick said. “She crowded too much work into too short a time, and overtaxed her capacities. Other youthful stars have done the same thing.  The result is that she has had a complete physical and nervous collapse–so complete that she has not rallied from it as she should.”

With no money coming in, Marshall Ricksen quit school and found work to support his mother and sister.

Lucille and Marshall Ricksen in a Melbourne Spurr portrait.

One morning before daylight, Ingeborg thought she heard Lucille cry out for her. As she was speaking to Lucille and adjusting her covers, Ingeborg collapsed over her daughter’s bed. Lucille’s screams brought Marshall running into the bedroom. He tried to lift his mother from atop Lucille. It was no use. Their mother was breathing her last. “Take care of yourself, dear,” she said. Ingeborg died two days shy of her 45th birthday.

Lucille sank deeper into despair. Their Hollywood friends came to her aid. Paul Bern made sure Lucille had around-the-clock nurses. Actress Lois Wilson sat by her bed for hours at a time.

Lois Wilson signed this portrait to Lucille Ricksen.

Samuel Ricksen, their father, who lived nearby, reappeared to offer his support. Lucille and Marshall asked actor Conrad Nagel and Rupert Hughes to become their guardians.

Three weeks after her mother’s death, Lucille, surrounded by her brother and Lois Wilson, gave up her fight for life.

Lucille Ricksen died in her Hollywood home on Gardner Drive.

Following an Episcopal service, the ashes of Lucille and her mother were placed in a bronze urn and interned at Forest Lawn (Glendale).

Photos of Lucille’s urn at Forest Lawn.

Lucille’s death certificate gives pulmonary tuberculosis as the cause of her death. Newspaper accounts blamed a nervous breakdown brought on by overwork. Contemporary references have cited a botched abortion as the contributing factor.

Lucille Ricksen’s death certificate

The bright spot of the story centers around Lucille’s brother, Marshall. With the support of Conrad Nagel and Rupert Hughes, Marshall enrolled in the University of California. He majored in law and became a successful lawyer in the San Francisco area.

Marshall Ricksen lost both his mother and sister within a month.

His two twin boys also became attorneys. Their father never talked about the devastating losses of his mother and sister. The memories were too painful.

Little Lucille Ricksen crammed a lifetime of work and living into 14 short years. She was exploited by an industry that thrived on make believe. Her innocence was snatched before its time. In real life, she was rushed hurriedly through her childhood and bypassed the years one needs to become an adult.

A leading lady at 13.

As the breadwinner of her family, she was cast in adult roles in rather complicated adult situations, but she was still a kid at heart. Her mother, perhaps struck blind by the Klieg lights of fame, waited until it was too late to pull her little Lucille to safety.

Note:  Thanks to the Ricksen family for making Lucille’s scrapbooks accessible during my research.  Most of the images in this blog entry are from those treasures. 

True Story … Do we know the true story?

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21 thoughts on “Lucille Ricksen — Sacrificed to Hollywood

  1. Such a great post! Thank you! I’ve been a fan of Lucille since I was a little girl, she was so lovely.
    Would you happen to know if there are any pictures of Lucille and Jack Pickford together? I’ve been looking but I can’t seem to find any!

      1. Knew the story about Amy supposedly being lucille reincarnated was made up. She calls herself on here the name of Jack pickford’s first wife Olive, then asks you for pictures of lucille & jack to back up her bull story. Strange how she pretended to not know who.you are when you met though after clearly stealing your research to back up her own

  2. I must confess I’ve not heard the name of Lucille Rickman before discovering this post. Such a tragic yet cautionary tale, I’m surprised it isn’t more well known.

    Thanks for sharing it with us.

  3. I never heard of her- how horribly sad… Another Mary Miles Minter type exploitation with a lot of the same men MMM interacted with….the extreme youth of the Silent actresses still amazes me since most averaged the 15 year range but few lived past their twenties…

  4. The book Syd Chaplin: A Biography by Lisa Stein (2011) mentions the rumors that Lucille Rickson died from complications from an abortion. Syd Chaplin was legally married to someone else when the marriage notice about Lucille Ricksen appeared but Ms. Stein states he was seperated from his wife for the first and only time during this time but she’s off on Lucille’s age by a year and writes that Lucille’s mother also died of TB.

  5. This is as tragic a Hollywood story as I’ve ever come across. I run a blog focusing on Carole Lombard (http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/), who started in films for good in early 1925, not long before Lucille died — and while Lombard was deemed youthful in the business at age 16, she was roughly three years older than Lucille. Carole’s mother, Elizabeth Peters, no doubt was cognizant of the pitfalls of the industry (and chaperoned her daughter in late 1924 when she was interviewed by Charles Chaplin for the leading lady role in “The Gold Rush”), and made certain Lombard could fend for herself before taking on Hollywood, and I’m sure she was well aware of what happened to Lucille (though I doubt they ever met).

  6. Michael – I learned about Lucille Ricksen from Lois Emerson who has done extensive research into the models of Beatrice Tonnesen. A photo she shared with you recently is of young “Lucille” with my Mother, Virginia Waller. You confirmed her thoughts that the older girl in the photo is Lucille. I recall my Mother saying that her father would not allow her to continue with modeling beyond her experiences with Tonnesen. I wonder if perhaps he was aware of what was happening to Lucille when she moved to Hollywood and did not want this life for his own daughter. Learning about Lucille’s life has been fascinating for me. Thank you for sharing the fates of these women.

  7. The first time i heard of Lucille was today,Saturday August 23rd,2014. I was watching the LMN Channel- a program called “THE GHOST WITHIN MY CHILD”. A young girl named Amy was having flash backs from when she was a small child that she was her in past life. I am doing some research now on her and am finding some very disturbing facts that should be justified and brought to life. She was a very young lady that was abused and miss used in many many ways. It is too late for anyone to charged and jailed;as they are all deceased; but some sort of retribution from the present day STUDIO HEADS SHOULD BE MADE TO HER SURVIVING FAMILY. i AM HAPPY THOUGH TO SEE THAT HER BROTHER, Marshall was able to do something with his life other than being used and abused in HOLLYWOOD.

  8. Amazing but so sad for this young girls life as a leading lady! I only head of her tonight watching the Amy Pierce story on TV and she said she
    was Lucille Ricksen in a former life!

  9. Just learned about Lucille Ricksen on LMN ghost stories on children. EMILLE a child was consumed with LUCILLE past life (reincarnation) about how this little girl was living and only interested in old movies and dress in fashion of that era. Emile found a picture of Lucille and advise her mother that she was LUCILLE in a past life. What a sad story its so sad how Hollywood can take advantage of a child star at such a young age and destroy their innocence and being and have not paid for their crimes they got away with child abuse and statuatory rape. If you calculate Lucilles age and the one that supposley married her their is quite a age difference. Holloywood was running a child sweat shop here in America and got away with it.

  10. i admit also that I never heard of this tragic story and kind of linked it with the story of Jean Harlow and actually I am a fan of the stars of the olden days and even more, I am fascinated with the stories behind the stories. I had a strong emotional connection to Jean Harlow ( not in a spooky way) some years ago, mostly because of her life and the misunderstandings connected with it. Most of the young women were used and abused by Hollywood in a fashion that most of us suspected but were just not sure of. Many of the child and yes, male stars as well. I am so sad for Lillian. I am happy to have found out about her through a story about a young girl from Minnesota who believes she was haunted or reincarnated by Lillian’s spirit.
    I am not a fan of reincarnation but I believe that some things are simply unexplained and spirits at unrest just might find someone to channel through. Thanks very much for this site.

  11. I notice her death certificate states her age as 15 years 6 months and 1 day. Is this her “Hollywood age?” Or did the people just get her age wrong? I know that you said Hollywood constantly lied about her age to make her seem older.

  12. I had never heard of Lucille Ricksen until just few minutes ago. I’ve been watching a TV program series that I recorded, “Ghost Inside My Child” (first aired on 8/23/2014), from the Lifetime Movie Channel, and in the program a young girl claims she was Lucille in another life. She seems to know much about Lucille and the people that surrounded her. In addition, she likes to dress in the style of the 1920s. I haven’t finished watching the program yet because I was very much intrigued about Lucille, and set forth so learn more about her. Fortunately, I came across your biography of her. What you have written is very enlightening, and I especially appreciate all the photos. I want to thank you for your research into the life of this lovely, young lady who died much too young. Like you, I am touched by her story. Well, I need to finish watching the program…thanks again!

  13. Such a sad story a beautiful young innocent girl , you can see her mothers love for her and Her brother. I also watched the reincarnation Amy’s story another sweet young girl. I would love to believe we are all reincarnated and go on and on in to incredible lives.

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