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.

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