Her tragic death made front page news in the city she had adopted as her own. San Diego Actress: in Grip of Fatal Tetanus, Delights Audience, the headlines read. One prick and her life was essentially finished.
The San Diego Union had all the details. In mid-July 1924, Marjorie Ray was dressing for her part in The Suffragettes at the Colonial Theatre when she pricked herself in the leg with a safety pin. It was minor pain, nothing serious. She forgot about the mishap. There was a show to do and the show went on.
That Saturday night, Marjorie was not feeling like herself. She complained of a sore throat and stiff neck. She brushed off suggestions that she hand her part to an understudy for the day. The trooper made it through the performance and gave the last bow of her career — and her life. Marjorie took to her bed at the Ford Hotel hopeful that the strange sensation would pass. It didn’t. In fact, the grip overtook her, locked her jaws.
Her Sunday performance was impossible. Dr. Mott H. Arnold was summoned. He examined the actress and found the infected spot where the pin had pierced her skin. She was taken to the McCullough sanitarium for treatment. Her condition had advanced to the point where treatment was useless. She suffered through the night. Around 10:45 the next morning, death brought relief to Marjorie Ray.
Those who worked with her described her as an artist devoted to her work.
“She wasn’t like many others,” Will Politzer, manager of the theatre company, told The San Diego Union. “She went ‘on’ no matter how she felt and wasn’t always looking for some excuse to lay off. The first week she came here she worked four shows one day and when she made her last bow she called an ambulance, went to a hospital and was operated on for appendicitis. That shows what kind of a girl she was.”
Fritz Fields, a comedian who worked with Marjorie at the Colonial for 15 months, was distraught. “She was a real comedienne,” Fields said. “Words can hardly express the grief the company and myself feel over her tragic end.”
Fritz Fields spoke the truth. Marjorie Ray’s untimely death was tragic, more tragic, in fact, than the public was led to believe. Perhaps Fields or those in her troupe knew or suspected the truth about the actress. Who knew that Marjorie was in the grip of another struggle against a demon that, in those days, was often left unnamed? Who knew that an act of desperation would seal the fate of a young woman who had struggled make a name for herself on the stage and screen?
Few knew, until now!
Marjorie was born in July of 1890 in Kansas City, Missouri. She was one of eight children born to George and Marie Ray. They called her Maggie.
Little is known about Maggie’s early life. Professionally, Maggie’s career began when comedian Dan Russell brought his show, The Matinee Girl, a musical comedy, to Kansas City. In no time, Dan, 15 years her senior, found a place in his show for the teenager.
The actor, whose real name was Herbert Charles Dunn, also made room for the teenager in his bed. Somewhere along the way, while making her a featured act in his show, Dan made Maggie a mother to be.
In Corsicana, Texas, in December 1909, Maggie gave birth to James E. Dunn. In time, the troupe moved on. Dan and Maggie got laughter and applause wherever they went. Life on the road, however, was no place for a toddler. Maggie turned her baby over to her mother in Kansas City. In May 1910, little Jimmy lost his life, victim of (according his death certificate) acute bronchitis, gastroenteritis, and malnutrition. He was buried in an unmarked grave.
For the next decade, Maggie and Dan crisscrossed the country with their show. In 1915, Dan broke into the films, two-reel comedies produced by the L-KO Kompany and released by Universal. Two years later, Maggie illuminated the silver sheets.
As Marjorie Ray, she was featured in such comedies as Spike’s Bizzy Bike, The Battle of ‘Let’s Go’, and Nellie’s Nifty Necklace, all released in 1917. Billed as Mrs. Dan Russell, she appeared in Lonesome Hearts, Loose Lions, and Sirens of the Suds.
Maggie’s film career was brief. She preferred footlights to Kliegs. Bill and Maggie continued their road show into the early 1920s.
The duo eventually parted ways. Maggie, according to reports, ended up performing in theaters in Mexico City. She landed in San Diego in early 1923 and found work at the Colonial Theatre. She delighted audiences and soon became a featured performer.
“Thousands of San Diegans have laughed at the girl who sacrificed the desire to appear beautiful on the stage to don the grotesque costumes her parts demanded,” the Union reported. The actress who had appeared on stage since her teenage years often wore herself into a frazzle.
Everything changed for Maggie the day she became infected with tetanus. In truth, Maggie had not needed to fix her costume the night she pricked herself with a rusty safety pin. What she needed was a fix!
Marjorie Ray, a morphine and opium addict, needed a syringe. With none available, a desperate Marjorie gouged the pin deep into her skin. Then, using an eye dropper, she attempted to inject the narcotics into her bloodstream. Her fate was sealed in that one frantic moment.
Between 350 and 400 mourners crowded into Merkley’s Funeral Home to pay respects to the actress who had just performed onstage the previous Saturday evening. More than 50 floral arrangements banked the room and covered the coffin where Maggie lay, clad in her favorite stage gown.
Her untimely death touched many. One woman, bent over by years and wearing a faded dress, brought a handful of asters. A girl not more than six years old placed a tiny bouquet of pansies on the coffin.
Those who knew her best knew very little about Maggie’s personal life. They were able to locate a sister, Florence, in Texas. The wife and mother of actor Fritz Fields accompanied Maggie on the long journey to San Antonio, where the actress was laid to rest. Her final tour, her last curtain call.