Mae Murray: Through the Eyes of Artists

Artists and illustrators over the years have tried to capture the essence and beauty of silent film actress Mae Murray.  In anticipation of the release of my new book, Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips, in the fall, I wanted to share with you some of the best examples of Mae Murray in art. Enjoy!

By Bob Harman

Bob Harman‘s caricature of Mae Murray is one of my all-time favorites.  He was truly the Artist of the Stars.

A 1920s caricature.

As seen through the eyes of artist Nell Brinkley.

Another Nell Brinkley sketch.

Mae in silhouette in an ad for Sans Souci (mid-1910s).

By James Montgomery Flagg.

Advertisements for Mae’s films were some of the most interesting depictions of the actress.

A. L. Ewine’s 1924 drawings of Mae in Mademoiselle Midnight.

A 1927 sketch for the Los Angeles Times.

1928

Mae advertises Pepsodent (1924).

Sketch for one of Mae’s gowns in The Merry Widow.

At the height of the Murray-Negri feud (1927).

A drawing from a 1941 article relating to Mae’s struggles. The quote underneath reads, “Throughout all her difficulties Mae’s glamour was like an umbrella protecting her and helping her survive the deluges of woe through the years.

An artist envisions Mae sleeping homeless on a park bench in Central Park.

A 1946 illustration that advertised Mae’s lecture series.

Mae graced the covers of the most popular movie magazines.

August 1920

March 1923

November 1924

The Sad, Soulful Eyes of Barbara La Marr

By Michael G. Ankerich

Brian Labrie, a reader of this blog, made an interesting comment regarding my June post on Barbara La Marr. How ironic it is that Barbara was dubbed “The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful,” but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of candid photos of her out there in cyberworld. I challenge you to look through their collections and find some relaxed photos of this actress with her family and friends.

Barbara (R) with actress Blanche Sweet.

You know by now that I am fascinated by this lovely creature, plain old Reatha Watson who became world famous as Barbara La Marr. She is on the top of the list of those I would want to interview if I could find my way back to 1920s Hollywood.

The exquisite Barbara La Marr

The other afternoon, I was researching an actress for my new book, Hairpins and Dead Ends: The Perilous Journeys of 18 Actresses Through Early Hollywood, when I came across an interview that British journalist Joan Drummond did with La Marr for Pictures and the Picturegoer (April, 1924).  While the screen siren was great at self reflection, this is most revealing  interview I have ever read with her. The story also included some lovely photographs I had never seen of Barbara. I will share some of them here.

Let’s visit Barbara through the eyes of writer Joan Drummond. I will set the stage for you.

We are high above Hollywood in Whitley Heights at the home of Barbara La Marr. It is the spring of 1924.

The La Marr home on Whitley Terrace.

Barbara is getting ready to go abroad where she will honeymoon in Paris with husband Jack Daugherty and began work in Rome on The Eternal City. The vamp is trying to settle down to a normal home life.  The year before she had secretly given birth to little Marvin and concocted a plan to “adopt” him from an orphanage in Texas.

When writer Joan Drummond showed up at the La Marr home, she first encountered a maid in a cretonne apron warming little Marvin’s bottle by the fireplace. When Drummond said hello, the woman turned from the fire.  It was not a servant at all; she was face to face with La Marr herself.

Drummond writes, “I found myself looking straight into the languorous black eyes and jet-black hair of the screen’s most popular vamp. I hadn’t recognized her out of her trailing gowns, and her silks and satins, black velvet and slinky robes.”

La Marr and son

Barbara gushed about little Marvin. “Isn’t he a beauty? Isn’t he just too sweet for anything?  He is going to be a fine man someday. I’m going to have him travel just as soon as he is old enough. I don’t want him to grow up like other men.  I’m through with men, you know.”

The writer made note of the bitter look in Barbara’s eyes.

Drummond wrote, “I thought of Barbara’s hard fight for recognition, and of her adventures, during those first chequered years of hers in California. I felt we were getting into dangerous ground. She had such depths of experience in her eyes that in spite of her young beauty I found it hard to credit the fact that to-day she is still only twenty-five.”

Rather than follow up in the Barbara Walters style of questioning, Drummond changed the subject to Barbara’s upcoming schedule.

“Busy, my dear? the actress replied. “I’m nearly rushed to death. I’m off to Rome in a few days to make The Eternal City for Goldwyn. It’s a holiday for me in a way, and really, I do think I deserve one for I’ve been rushed from studio to studio, and lot to lot for many months without a break. ”

Barbara and husband apply for a passport.

You must be tired? the reporter wondered.

“Tired? Never with work! It’s only life that makes me tired. Sometimes though my work makes me anxious. I lie awake at night and wonder whether I am really progressing, whether I am really giving the best of my soul to my art, whether I am really satisfying my public.”

As an good reporter does, Drummond let the moment of silence between them play out. Barbara opened up.

“I’ve had a lonely life,” the siren said. “I have known misery, and infidelity and soul sickness. I have known what it was to be all alone in the wide, wide world with not a human being to turn to for comfort. That is why I have brought Marvin here and given him a home. I couldn’t bear the thought of another morsel of humanity suffering as I have suffered.”

Then, Barbara plays with the facts and wanders from the truth. “For I was a foster child myself. My father was French and my mother Italian, but I never knew them. I was thrust out into the world at the age of four to earn my living as a dancer.”

Reatha Watson’s entry in the 1900 U.S. Federal Census. Her father and mother were from Illinois and Oregon. Barbara was one of five children.

Barbara told of her years as a dancer in her teens. Those years taught her about carriage and poise.

“Many a producer has asked me where I learned to walk with such ease and charm. My walk has won for me more than one part I am sure. That is no credit to myself–all dancers know the way.”

What about ambitions for acting?

“Always, in the bottom of my heart, but for many years  I crushed it down,” Barbara recalled. “I have felt, too, the ache to write; and indeed I have written. It was my pen that brought me indirectly to the screen. When I had been dancing for ten years or so, the life began to sicken me. I longed to create. I longed to express myself in poetry, and I wrote quite a number of verses that were accepted by American magazines.  Gradually I established a position as a writer and chance threw at my feet the offer of a post in the scenario department of the Fox Film Company.”

She wrote the scenario for His Brother’s Wife. Then she was tapped to appear before the camera.

“I have little time for writing nowadays,” Barbara said. “Since I started working in pictures, parts have come fast and furious. They say I am a type. They say they can’t think what they’d do without me now. Nita Naldi is a type, too. Consequently we must be two of the busiest women on the screen.”

She touched on two men who furthered her career in films: Douglas Fairbanks and Rex Ingram.

Ramon Novarro, Rex Ingram, and Barbara rehearse a scene for Trifling Women.

“I doubt if I should ever have been known to-day if it had not been for the piece of luck that brought Douglas Fairbanks to engage me for the part of Milady in The Three Musketeers.”  Ingram discovered her in the studio cafeteria when he was filming The Prisoner of Zenda and preparing for Black Orchids. “My walk — Oh, how often I have blessed that walk — caught his eye. He promptly came across and spoke to me. I was in luck that day. He gave me first the part of Antoinette de Mauban in The Prisoner of Zenda. In due course, he carried out the contract. And meanwhile I stayed on at the Metro studios to play the vamp in Quincy Adams Sawyer.

Barbara on the set of The Eternal Struggle with cast and crew.

Bess Meredyth reads her scenario of Thy Name is Woman to Barbara and others.

Drummond reminded her that the vamp in Quincy Adams Sawyer was played in “gingham and country mannerisms.”

“A vamp in any other dress is still a vamp,” Barbara laughed. “It’s the look in the eye that does it. Clothes don’t make much difference really.”

The sad, soulful eyes of Barbara La Marr.

The reporter questioned Barbara about her large, soulful eyes and how they helped create her image as a screen siren. Barbara confided that producers urged her to insure them against injury from “Sunlight arcs.” She took out a £5,000 policy.

Barbara was in a constant battle with her weight. Excessive dieting was partially responsible for her death in 1926.

Barbara continued, “Louise Fazenda once told me that I made her think of women at tombs. I think she was right. Sometimes I seem to get outside of my own sadness and look at it, and I know then what she meant.”

Barbara’s gowns were always spectacular.

When the interview was over, Drummond descended Whitley Heights and headed down into Hollywood. She relived her experience with the screen’s most popular vamp, especially her comment of being finished with men.

The reporter concluded, “I began to have a strong suspicion that the gentle art of leg-pulling was not unknown to Beautiful Barbara!”

Less than two years after her interview with Joan Drummond, Barbara La Marr was fighting for her life. The ailing actress is pictured with her father, William Watson.

The Intrigue of Frances Teague

By Michael G. Ankerich

Did you see her?  Did you get a look at Frances Teague in the passing parade?

You had to look fast, but she was there, one of the stunning beauties of the silent screen.

Frances Teague, Photoplay magazine, 1925.

I came across her portrait about a month ago while looking through a 1925 Photoplay magazine. I almost passed it by, but her eyes caught my eye. The mysterious and mesmerizing Frances Teague.

Who was she anyway?  She did she come from?  What was the extent of her film career in Hollywood?  What became of Frances Teague?

She came from Oakland, California, born April 12, 1905, to Walter E. and Margaret Teague.  The name Teague was well known in the Bay area. Frances’s great-grandfather furnished the teams for grading the old Central Pacific Railroad, the final link in the transcontinental railway. Her father was the manager of the Operating Department of the Southern Pacific Company.

Early publicity suggests that Frances had dramatics and dancing as her childhood ambitions. Her daughter, Patricia (Pat) Hillsinger, speaking in an interview with this author in August 2012, said she was not aware of her mother’s interest in the arts. Nevertheless, she stood out in Oakland as a beauty among beauties. The Oakland Tribune followed her development over the years.

After she entered films, the newspaper featured her on the front page, showing her progression through the years.

The Evolution of Frances Teague

According to press reports, Frances spent six years studying aesthetic dancing. She specialized in dramatics at Miss Hamlin’s exclusive girl’s school in San Francisco.

Newspaper accounts of Frances’s entry into motion pictures are contradictory. One account involves director Eric von Stroheim. While on location in San Francisco with Greed, Von Stroheim secured the cooperation of Southern Pacific officals for some location settings. When the director paid a visit to Walter Teague’s office at Southern Pacific, he took one look at Frances’s photograph on her father’s desk and asked to make some screen tests. He promised her a part an upcoming production, but the offer never materialized.

The other account has Frances being discovered  shortly after her arrival in Hollywood.  When she graduated from Miss Hamlin’s, Frances and her parents moved to Los Angeles. Her early publicity suggests the family moved to allow Frances to pursue her acting ambitions.

Frances’s daughter, however, says the reason they ventured south was at the request of a railroad official in Los Angeles who asked Walter Teague to start a produce terminal in Los Angeles.  In addition, Frances’s older brother, Earle, after attending agriculture school, was working in the farming industry in the Los Angeles area.

The Teagues settled into a house in fashionable Whitley Heights next door to Rudolph Valentino. Frances’s daughter remembers her mother speaking fondly of the Latin heartthrob over the years. “She thought he was a very nice man,” Pat Hillsinger said. Plus, they shared a common bond: they were both dog lovers.

“My mother told me that tour buses would come up to Whitley Heights from Hollywood and stop in front of Valentino’s house,” Pat said. Fans clamored for a glimpse of Rudy. A man, dressed in workman’s clothes, frequently worked on a car out front and would wave to the fans as the bus passed. The fans thought they were waving to one of Rudy’s hired hands, never realizing the man covered in motor oil was Valentino himself.

Rudolph Valentino, with his car and canine friend, in front of his Whitley Heights home.

After a short time in Hollywood, Frances was signed to contract at Fox Studios. Press reports at the time stated that John Ford had hired her for the feminine lead in The Iron Horse (1924), which centers on the building of the transcontinental railroad. Madge Bellamy, however, played the lead opposite George O’Brien. Frances appeared as Polka Dot, the dance hall girl.

The publicity machine pitched in to promote Frances’s career. The story was that Lloyd’s of London had insured her curls into the six figures.

Frances then had small parts in John Ford’s Hearts of Oak (1924) and Her Husband’s Secret (1925).

Oakland was proud of its hometown girl and all the stars of filmdom who hailed from their city. Frances, along with Natalie Kingston, Lloyd Hamilton, and Monte Blue returned to their hometown in March 1926 and were honored by Mayor John L. Davis.

Frances, sitting between Monte Blue and Lloyd Hamilton, was honored by Oakland, her hometown.

In Wild Justice (1925), Frances plays Polly Ann Hadley. Polly Ann’s uncle is murdered by a brutal thug. The ruffian takes over the uncle’s cabin and his dog, Arno (Peter the Great). When Polly Ann comes to visit, the bandit attempts to force himself on her, but Arno comes to her aid until the kindly doctor (George Sherwood) arrives on the scene and rescues her.

Frances and Jack Daugherty thrilled audiences in the 10-chapter serial, The Trail of the Tiger, for Universal in 1927 and ’28.

Then, Frances Teague vanished from the screen. Her trail ended with The Trail of the Tiger.

What became of Frances Teague? Her daughter, Pat Hillsinger, filled in the details.

It’s not exactly clear why Frances left films.  She certainly didn’t leave Hollywood.  After they settled in the city, the Teagues built a house in the Hollywood Hills at 2760 Hollyridge Drive.

Frances Teague’s home in the Hollywood Hills.

In April 1931, Frances married Charles L. Tilley, the general manager of the Outer Harbor Dock and Wharf Company in San Pedro. Their daughter, Patricia Ann, was born in January 1932.  A son, Walter, came along in 1935.

Pat said her mother never talked about being an actress, so she couldn’t say exactly why her career came to an abrupt end in the late 1920s. In fact, no one in Pat’s family ever talked about Frances having been an actress.

“My father’s parents didn’t think much of picture people,” Frances’s daughter said. “Some of them didn’t have good reputations. There were some who thought of people in the movies as gypsies.”

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Charles Tilley, because of his waterfront business, was asked to move down to San Pedro. In case of an invasion of the harbor, he could be on the scene in minutes.

“My mother didn’t want to move from Hollywood,” Pat said. “She thought San Pedro was at the end of the world. ”

Over time, however, the couple built a home in nearby Palo Verdes and Frances fell in love with the area. The former actress was “extremely active” over the years, her daughter said.  She started a Girl Scout troop, volunteered for the Red Cross, and supervised a group who made socks for men in the Army and Navy. She was active in the Assistance League of Long Beach for years. After the war, she devoted herself to a number of charities and remained socially active.

Frances Teague retained her beauty throughout much of her life.

“When I was a kid,” Pat said, “I would hear people say, ‘Your mother is so beautiful.'”

In the late 1960s, Frances was stricken with cancer.  She died on July 29, 1969, at age 64.

Frances Teague was one of the many actresses who passed by quickly in the parade of Hollywood hopefuls.

I’m grateful to Frances’s daughter for telling me the story of her mother’s life. After a month of digging around in the past, I am still intrigued by the portrait I found of Frances in an old Photoplay.  I have it on my desk as I write these words.  I think I’ll keep it around a little while longer.

My desk

My Visit with Barbara La Marr

My visits with Barbara La Marr happen every time I venture out to Hollywood.  They are rather one-sided, you understand.  I visit her at her final resting spot, a crypt in the Great Mausoleum at the Hollywood Memorial Cemetery (Hollywood Forever). I have never been to Hollywood that I didn’t spend a little time with the siren known as “The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful.”

My 2011 visit with Barbara La Marr.

Last month, when I spent a few minutes with Barbara, there were lip prints on the marble above her name.  Someone either left them there for her, or perhaps she was trying to bring me a kiss from the Great Beyond.

Crimson prints from Barbara La Marr

I do have a thing for Barbara La Marr. She fascinates me, just as she did millions of movie fans in the 1920s. There is a sense of mystery about her that has never been explained.  When I read about her, I want to know more.  If I am asked about those I wished I could have interviewed, Barbara La Marr is always at the top of the list.

It is her soulful eyes that draw me to her.  There’s an undeniable sadness that peers out from a troubled soul.

Things didn’t always so bleak in Barbara La Marr’s troubled personal life.

In mid-1922, life started looking brighter for this butterfly of the night. She quietly gave birth to Marvin Carville La Marr in July. Being unwed, she sent little Marvin to live with family friends until she could hatch a plan to orchestrate an adoption. Marvin was officially adopted by Barbara in February 1923.

Barbara and son

Marvin, now Tom Gallery, told me the story of his life in an interview for Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels. With her multiple failed marriages, heavy drinking, busy work schedule, one wonders how motherhood fit into her life plan.

“Barbara finally found out she couldn’t find a man she could love,” her son told me. “She thought, ‘I can love Marvin and he will love me unconditionally,’ and that’s something she didn’t get from the men she married.”

Barbara and Marvin settled down in her spacious home high above Hollywood on Whitley Terrace. She invited friend and writer Grace Kingsley for a visit. Photos of her luxurious dwelling were published in fan magazines and gave her loyal following a glimpse of how their favorite vamp lived. Let’s have a peek.

The caption in Motion Picture Classic read, “Above is the lovely chatelaine and her adopted baby, who is king of the house, naturally.”

“Above is the exterior in its lovely grove of shade trees. It also clings to the California tradition of brown stucco and red-tiled roof.”

“The little sun porch where Barbara and the baby spend their leisure hours, kept cool by the breezes blowing thru the Cahuenga Pass.”

“The spacious living room of the La Marr home.”

“The far end of Miss La Marr’s interesting living room, with its harmonious blending of Spanish and Italian.”

“Barbara’s bedroom, which is done in an odd, tho effective color scheme of pale blue and green.”

Many years later, her son returned to the house on Whitley Terrace to see if he had any recollections of living there. He came into a hall and approached a blank wall. He asked what had been there. The owners said it had once been a escape hatch, as the kidnapping of celebrity’s children was always a threat.

From the street, you can see the chimney and roof of Barbara’s home. The Hollywood Sign is visible in the distance.

Barbara married her fifth husband, actor Jack Daugherty, in 1923. Her family was now complete.

Mr. and Mrs. Jack Daugherty

Later that year, they honeymooned in Paris, before going to Rome, where Barbara filmed The Eternal City.

Barbara and Jack’s passport photos

Despite her hopes and dreams, Barbara’s life unraveled in 1924. Her health, ravaged by years of alcohol abuse and constant dieting, began to show on her famous face and figure. She faced numerous legal entanglements and her films were under constant threat of being banned. By the fall, her marriage was on the rocks.

Sadly, the La Marr – Daugherty marriage failed.

While filming a scene for The Girl from Montmartre, Barbara La Marr, seriously ill with tuberculosis, collapsed and had to be carried from the set. She went into seclusion at her Altadena home and battled for her life. On one of her good days, she called friend ZaSu Pitts to her bedside.

“If I don’t make it, would you raise my little boy?” she asked Pitts. According to Barbara’s son, his mother gave Pitts $100,000 for his care.

In late January 1926, Barbara slipped into a coma. She died January 30. “Broken nerves and complications” were to blame, according to initial reports from the press.

Little Marvin was adopted by ZaSu Pitts and her husband, Tom Gallery. His name was changed to Don Gallery. “ZaSu never called me her adopted son,” said Don. “I was always part of the family.”

Poet Margaret Sangster wrote a poem in tribute to the screen siren.

Somewhere, back of the sunset,

Where loveliness never dies —

She dwells in a land of glory,

With dreams in her lifted eyes.

And laughter lives all about her,

And music always in the air;

She is far from all thoughts of sadness,

Of passion, and doubt, and care!

The flowers of vanished April,

The lost gold of summer’s mirth,

Are wrapped, like a cloak, about her,

Who hurried, too soon, from earth.

And we who have known her splendor —

A beauty that brought swift tears;

Will cherish her vision, always,

To brighten the drifting years!

Barbara, who crammed five lifetimes into a mere 29 years, had a fear of being forgotten. When she signed her photographs, she added, “Lest you forget.”

Lest we forget?  Not a chance!

Actress Sherri Snyder (who has portrayed Barbara on stage), Don Gallery (Barbara’s son), and Michael G. Ankerich

The Sound of Silence is Reviewed

I’m always appreciative to those who read my books and offer their feedback, especially when they review the book for a newspaper, magazine, or website. Here is a review by Laura Wagner for the May 2012 edition of Classic Images.

And, just for the record, I’m pleased to read those reviews that are not so positive. I believe in the old Mae West saying:

“It is better to be looked over, than overlooked.”

Thanks, Laura!

Dove Tails — Lee, Billie, and the Rest of the Story

 

Billie gave me this original Melbourne Spurr photograph from her collection.

 

Billie Dove’s disappointing experience with Blondie of the Follies (1932) was a factor in prompting her to leave films. The film centered on the Follies rivalry of two showgirls and friends, Blondie (Marion Davies) and Lottie (Billie). Before the last scene was filmed, William Randolph Hearst, Marion’s companion and financier, called a halt to the production. “That’s a good Billie Dove picture,” he said. That was fine, except he wanted a Marion Davies picture. Billie knew it would be a great Billie Dove picture. “I had given a damned good performance,” she said.

Hearst ordered the rewriting of scenes. The cast was called to retake scenes that favored Marion. It became obvious to Billie that Hearst, in his attempt to elevate further Marion, was making Billie the villain.  “It broke my heart,” Billie told me in a 1994 interview. “I realized too late that I should not have done the picture. I should have known better. After all, it was Hearst’s money.”  Billie and a beau saw the final version in a theater.  Midway through the film, Billie leaned to her escort and said, “Let’s go.  I’ve had enough.”

Robert Montgomery, Marion Davies, and Billie Dove in Blondie of the Follies.

After marrying Robert Kenaston in May 1933, Billie felt the time had come to shift her focus.

The Kenastons

“I thought I had attained everything I wanted to attain,” Billie said. “I was still in my twenties (early thirties, actually), and I wanted to do like other people. I wanted a family.” Their son, Robert Jr., was born in April 1934.

Billie’s fan club president, Lee Heidorn, kept her fan club alive. From her letters to Lee, it was evident that Billie’s first concern was her family, not her film career.

 

After some time, Lee broached the subject of starting a fan club for another film player.  Billie was in complete support.

The Kenastons adopted a daughter, Gail, in 1937. Billie focused on her family. She dabbled in drawing and painting.

Billie drew this portrait of her son in the mid-1930s.

 

During World War II, Lee’s correspondence with Billie was sporadic.  Billie explained her silence in a 1943 letter.

When Lenore moved to California in 1944, she and Billie reconnected and never lost touch.  They saw each other as often as time allowed, between Billie raising her family and Lee’s work at a telephone company.

In the 1950s, Billie’s son, Robert Jr., tried breaking into films as an actor. After minor roles in several films, he concluded the film industry was not for him.

Billie's son, Robert Kenaston Jr.

 

The Kenastons maintained an active social life in Palm Springs. When not entertaining, Bob played golf; Billie wrote and  painted.

Bob and Billie Kenaston

Billie with her paintings in her home in Rancho Mirage.

Billie penned this poem in the 1960s:

*Cocktail Party*

Lying in state on a sliver of bread,

A tired sardine, long since been dead;

An ounce of bourbon, Scotch or gin

With water, ice and lime thrown in;

The laughter forced, the voices loud,

So to be heard above the crowd;

The aching feet, nowhere to sit,

No place to put the olive pit;

Redundant chatter, the old stale joke

In a room too hot and blurred with smoke;

Too hard trying to have some fun — 

Too big the head that greets the sun!

 

No matter how busy their lives became, Billie and Lee (now Lenore Foote) stayed in touch for the rest of their lives.  In a 1966 letter, Billie fills Lee in on the activities of the Kenastons.

 

Lee with Bob Kenaston Jr. and wife, Denise.

Billie, Lee, and Billie's mother at Billie's home in Rancho Mirage in 1970.

Billie and Lee in Billie's Rancho Mirage home in 1979.

Billie, Lee, and Doris (Lee's sister) in Palm Springs

in 1992 .

 

I received a letter from Lee after my interview with Billie appeared in Classic Images magazine in 1994. Billie was, at first, a reluctant interview subject. She had said she was saving her memories for her own memoirs.  She said it my persistence — and Southern accent– that weakened Billie’s defenses. We spent hours on the phone. She gave me the first interview (which last several hours) while standing in her kitchen.  The cord on her phone was short and she had no where to sit, so she leaned against the counter and reminisced about her life in films.

When I made plans to journey to the West Coast in December 1994, Lee and I made plans to meet at her home, where she lived with Doris, in Vista, California. I asked Billie about visiting her in Rancho Mirage.  She was reluctant to having a visitor.  Lee was not surprised. Billie, somewhere in her early 90s, saw fewer and fewer visitors, and she rarely went out. She did not encourage Lee to drive to the desert to see her.  Yet, Billie was lonely! It was only after I arrived in Los Angeles that Billie called me to say she was looking forward to my visit.

I enjoyed a fabulous Chinese lunch with Lee and Doris in Vista.

I finally have MY picture made with Lee, the avid movie fan who had rubbed shoulders with the greats during their heyday: Thelma Todd, Jean Harlow, Bing Crosby, Sue Carol, Ruth Roland, and others.

On to Rancho Mirage, where Billie and I spent the day together. In person, she confided about her much publicized romance with and engagement to Howard Hughes. We watched several of her films and spent time in her movie room.  She was generous with her collection of stills.  “Pick out what you want,” she said. “I’ll autograph them for you.”

As evening approached, we dug around in her freezer for some frozen Swanson dinners. We ate by candlelight at her enormous dining room table. Just the two of us.

It was an unforgettable day.

Billie and Michael

Billie and Timmy

Billie began suffering monumental losses in her life. Her son, Robert Kenaston Jr., died in 1995. As her health faded and her savings dwindled, she left her Rancho Mirage home and moved into the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills. She was chipper and in good spirits to the end. She died of pneumonia on December 31, 1997.

Lee asked a friend to drive her to Glendale for Billie’s simple funeral at Forest Lawn. She spoke briefly with Billie’s daughter, Gail, whose relationship with her mother was strained, and Arleen Sorkin, an actress (Days of Our Lives) who befriended Billie in later years. Lee was bewildered that Billie was buried in a “pauper’s coffin.”

Over the next year, Lee’s health began to fail and I heard less and less from her. Lee passed away on February 20, 1999. Gail, Billie’s daughter, died two days later.

Lee’s death marked the end of a fascinating story about a starstruck teenager from Chicago who reached out to her favorite movie stars in the 1920s and 30s at a time when the greats of Hollywood reached back! Billie’s and Lee’s long friendship is now part of Hollywood history. I was privileged to know them both and honored they shared their lives with me.

 

Note: My interview with Billie Dove is covered in full in The Sound of Silence.

 

When Night Time Comes

This tattered page from a mid-1920s movie magazine has inspired me for decades. It is one of my treasures. When I was writing Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels, the stories of 14 young women who became actresses in silent films and suffered in their personal and professional lives along the way, I kept this poem and photograph close to be desk–and heart

When I journey out to modern-day Hollywood, this image goes with me. When I walk or drive down Hollywood Boulevard, I try really hard to imagine the little town that existed in the 1920s, that “silent, resting town” that has “wept, and laughed, and worked, and known desire.” I imagine those earth-bound stars whose faiths were lost and whose plans went awry.

Of the ones I wrote about in Dangerous Curves, I believe it is the tragic lives of Barbara La Marr, Marie Prevost, Olive Borden, and Lucille Ricksen that touched me most. When that project was over, I had trouble letting go of  Lucille Ricksen, who joined the heavenly stars in1925. In future postings, I want to share with you items from the scrapbook Lucille and her mother compiled. This enthusiastic teenager, who was thrust into leading lady roles much too early, crammed too much living into her young life. I wish Lady Moon had kept closer watch over little Lucille.

Lucille signed this photograph for "Daddy".