Mary MacLaren’s Twisted Heart

By Michael G. Ankerich

For several weeks, I’ve been trying to twist my mind around The Twisted Heart, a novel by silent film actress Mary MacLaren. Mary is one of the actresses I am including in my new book, Hairpins and Dead Ends: The Perilous Journeys of 20 Actresses Through Early Hollywood.

Mary MacLaren at the height of her film career.

As part of my research, I felt compelled to pick up a copy of The Twisted Heart. Picking up a copy in not quite how I’d put it, as the book had been published in 1952 and has been out of print for decades.

Mary MacLaren (L) and Tallulah Bankhead exchange books.

Unable to find a copy on my recent journey to Hollywood, I searched the net and found a copy in an online bookshop.

The Twisted Heart’s cover.

I could hardly wait to settle into Mary’s story about a woman, Barbara Moray, who finds love after the death of her husband and child.

Advance publicity hinted that Babs’ love affair was a shocker. The subtitle, The Revealing Story of a Strange Love, gave little away. The back jacket text rambled on about Babs finding all she wanted in Dee Richards: good looks, magnetic personality, lover of the outdoors.

After jumping between the covers of the book, we soon share Babs’ concerns as she discovers Dee’s lack of expertise under the sheets. She’s further rattled by his flirtations with everything on two legs.

Babs’ dilemma, Dee Richards, referred to as a “halfman”, isn’t all she thought she was getting in a companion. The man she’s given her heart to turns out to be homosexual. Not a topic of discussion in the days when father knew best and we loved Lucy.

MacLaren’s heroine tells her story in first person, and so, we follow her torment for over 200 hundred pages as if she were spilling her guts while sitting at our dining room table or swinging on the front porch.

Dee Richards, the man of her dreams, turns out to be the man of her obsession. She’s eager to test their budding relationship by taking a trip together. In an intimate moment, Dee confesses that an accident has robbed him of his ability to adequately satisfy her smoldering needs.

Babs goes blindly forward, checking on Dee’s every move, begging him not to leave her, then pining for him when he’s gone. She catches him exchanging odd glances with, what seems to be, every man he encounters, whether single or in the company of their wives.

We begin to wonder if poor Babs is simply imagining it all. Maybe she’s paranoid, or just plain crazy. The thought crosses Dee’s mind. As a deflection, he accuses Babs of being mentally imbalanced. “Either you’re crazy, or I am,” Babs counters. “But I have cause.  Look what I’ve got in life’s lottery.”

It isn’t until page 80 that Babs works up the courage to confront her man. “You’re a queer, aren’t you?” Dee slaps her; she hits back.  All she needs is Dee’s denial for her to reconnect her blinders and secure her rose-colored glasses.

To prove his devotion to her, Dee takes Babs on a road trip to the High Sierras, where they, alone in nature, can kindle their passion in the warm glow of a campfire.

Babs, almost wild-eyed with lust, comes close to forgetting her suspicions. A few days into the trip, however, Dee and Babs are fishing when, supposedly by chance, they run into one of Dee’s male friends. Babs is all eyes and ears. To hear her tell it, Dee falls into a trance as he and Tommy lock eyes. Then, Dee “obeys a given signal and follows him to the road.”

“My heart sank,” Babs laments. “Oh, God! I thought. I can’t go through this agony again. I waited with pounding heart and I saw them go up the hill and disappear from sight.”

Poor Babs. She does go through the agony again — and again. Finally, she sees a psychologist, who advises her to release Dee from her obsession and find herself a “normal man.”

Babs is inquisitive. “On what grounds do you psychologists condemn homosexuality?” she asks.

“We condemn it because it has no survival values,” he says, “because of its uselessness, its utter unproductiveness. Of what good are a lot of keys without locks? It is the fitting of the keys into the locks which opens the door to life . . . which makes both the key and the lock functional.”

The professional assures Babs she will not be able to “solve the problem of homosexuality in its entirety.”

“I simply wish to solve my problem with one homosexual man,” she replies.

Her agony continues to the final pages. She loves Dee; she hates Dee. She can’t live with him and her suspicions; she can’t live without him.

Babs finally gets some relief when an old flame reconnects with news that he is being released from the Army and is headed her way with romance on his mind. (Let’s hope that he, too, was not working out his sexuality at her expense.)

What became of Dee?  MacLaren makes sure that Babs’ tormentor suffers for his “sins”. Dee is found sprawled, naked and mutilated, across the bed of a hotel room in a sleazy auto court.  Babs was not surprised. “I sensed the end would be something like this.”

So, the loose ends are tied up; the story is finished; the bad guy gets what is coming to him. Isn’t that how most stories ended in the day?

While The Twisted Heart shed light on homosexuality in the mainstream in a time when the subject was taboo, the book did nothing to widen the narrow understanding and acceptance of gay men in the early 1950s. MacLaren’s timing could not have been more perfect. Her book was released during the national hysteria spurred on by the shameful McCarthy witch hunt into Communist sympathizers.  Gay men, too, were demonized, and became yet another part of society to be investigated, ostracized, and marginalized.

The obvious question I had, after reading the book, is where is Mary MacLaren in this story? Is it purely fiction or was she working out part of her own story, grinding her own ax? There are many parallels between MacLaren and Babs Moray. Both shared a love for animals; both married men with military careers; both ran boarding houses.

Mary MacLaren’s bio on the back cover of The Twisted Heart.

MacLaren’s niece, the daughter of silent film actress Katherine MacDonald, had little light to shed on her aunt’s story. While she remembers reading The Twisted Heart years before and recalling that it was quite controversial when it was released, she never heard, through family history, that any of Mary’s husbands were gay. There was no talk, either, of Mary being a lesbian.

Mary MacLaren’s work of fiction is only a tiny piece of her story. While reading it was an important part of my research for Hairpins and Dead Ends, the true and tragic story of Mary MacLaren’s own life and career makes The Twisted Heart seem like a tame story from The Reader’s Digest.

Truth, with all its guaranteed twists and turns, is, my friends, stranger than fiction!

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Discovering Old Hollywood Among the New – My 2012 Tinseltown Adventure

Almost 30 years since I made my first to Tinseltown, Hollywood still has a pull over me. There’s a line in an Eagles song that goes something like, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” Although I’ve come and gone countless times over the past three decades, flying in and out of LAX, I don’t think I’ve ever really left.

Officially, my trip to LA last week was a research venture for my new book, Hairpins and Dead-Ends: The Perilous Journeys of 20 Actresses Through Early Hollywood, which is a companion volume to Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels. I spent four full days at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library, going through their vast collection and researching the lives and careers of the actresses I want to include in the new book: Evelyn Nelson, Belle Bennett, Corliss Palmer, Mary Miles Minter, Alma Rubens, Mary MacLaren, Florence Deshon, Margaret Gibson, Edwina Booth, Lottie Pickford, Valeska Suratt, Lilyan Tashman, Jetta Goudal, Katherine MacDonald, Marie Walcamp, and several others.

Before checking in at the library every morning, I drove around the neighborhood of Hollywood in search of the homes where these luminaries of the silver screen live, loved, and died (sometimes). I located the house where poor Alma Rubens died in 1931 after a hard fought battle with drugs.

Alma Rubens died in this house in 1931.

Unfortunately, the house on DeLongpre Avenue where Evelyn Nelson committed suicide in 1923 is no longer there. It was razed to make room for a medical facility. Almost directly across the street, however, the house where Florence Deshon lived during her time in Hollywood was still standing.

The mysterious Florence Deshon will be included in my new book.

If I had any time to spare in the morning before barricading myself in the library, I would wander among the graves and tombs at Hollywood Memorial Cemetery.  (Yeah, I know the name has been officially been changed to Hollywood Forever, but it will forever remain Hollywood Memorial Cemetery.) That cemetery is absolutely one of my favorite spots on God’s green earth.  You don’t have to worry about a parking place or traffic and no one is going to honk at you to get out of their way — unless it’s the geese.

A flock of geese live in and around the pond at Hollywood Memorial Cemetery.

The pond and the Hollywood Sign.

This trip, a mother goose was sitting on her nest, which was nestled into the top of a cast iron pot on the steps leading down to Douglas Fairbanks’ tomb.  Daddy goose waddled after me and hissed until I got the message and walked in another direction.

Mother Goose

Minutes after I fled papa goose, I went to another part of the cemetery to look for Mae Murray’s brother. I stumbled upon a peacock that was discouraged me from getting a closer look. By the time I raise my camera, this bird was fluttering its feathers and edging closer and closer. I was sure this creature was the reincarnation of dear Mae Murray and she was doing her dance from Peacock Alley.

That peacock got close ……

… and closer!

I sought refuge from the birds of the cemetery inside the mausoleum, where I paid my respects to Rudolph Valentino, William Desmond Taylor, and Barbara La Marr. There are always fresh flowers and lipstick prints around Miss La Marr’s crypt.

Barbara La Marr’s final resting spot

I had to wonder whether someone was leaving those lip prints on the marble, or was Barbara trying to give me a kiss from the great beyond?

I couldn’t leave town without paying my respects to Mae Murray at Valhalla Cemetery. One afternoon, I drove out to North Hollywood and spent some time with Eve Southern, Belle Bennett, and Miss Murray.  I tried setting up the camera so I might get a shot of me and Mae’s grave marker. The shot looked more like an ant looking up at me from the grass.

An ant’s eye view of me at Mae Murray’s grave site.

This is the best I could do.

Michael’s shadow over Mae’s marker

This trip was also about making connections. I spent several hours in Santa Barbara with the daughter of silent film actress Katherine MacDonald. She gave me an insightful interview about her mother and their struggles together. It will be included in Hairpins and Dead-Ends. I had lunch one afternoon in Studio City with relatives of silent film actress Evelyn Nelson. They supplied me with number of stills to use in the book.

Evelyn Nelson frequently played opposite Jack Hoxie in the early 1920s.

Brandee Cox also gave me a fascinating tour of the Pickford Center. Astounding!

I reconnected with fellow writers Jim Parish, Tony Slide, and André Soares. At an Italian cafe in Santa Monica, André and I talked non-stop for three hours without ever taking a breath, much less a bite of the pizza we ordered. We had to box it up to go. Have you read André’s bio of Ramon Novarro?  If not, it is a must!

A favorite book from my collection.

Speaking of books, I spent some time at Larry Edmunds and Iliad. Alas, I didn’t bring back a suitcase full of loot this time, but I found some interesting items. I finally found a copy of Jim Kirkwood’s There Must Be a Pony, a novel based his parents, Lila Lee and James Kirkwood.

Check out his dedication…..

I also found a signed copy of a book by Carole Landis.  Not exactly a signed book.  A fan, Jimmy Jarnisch, apparently met her and got her autograph in the 1940s. He pasted it into a book Carole wrote, Four Jills in a Jeep, about entertaining the troops during World War II. I like Carole Landis, so I couldn’t resist.

This trip was also one of firsts.  After almost 20 years of searching, I finally found the garage where Thelma Todd breathed her last. I had been to her home on the Pacific Coast Highway many times.

Thelma’s beach home

When I climbed into the hills behind the house, however, I could never locate the garage where Thelma died. This time, I took a street off of Sunset and worked my way around until I made the discovery.  Apparently, she died in the garage on the right.

Thelma’s garage

This trip was also the first time I used GPS.  I had always depended on my trusty 1994 Thomas Brothers maps to get me around the city.

Don’t get wrong, I still used these maps, but I introduced Hazel into the fun.  Hazel is my name for GPS. Charlie and I named it Hazel several years back when we were traveling from Heidelberg to Munich. Hazel and I have a love/hate relationship. She got us to the hotel, but she waited until it was almost too late to direct us to the turnoff.

This time, as I left the car rental agency at LAX, I typed in the address of the hotel. Rather than taking me up the 405 to 10 towards Los Angeles, Hazel decides to direct me to back streets I had never heard of.

“Oh, come on, Hazel,” I yelled out at this little box on the seat next to me. “This is your first trip here.  I’ve been coming to Hollywood for almost 30 years.” She kept quiet!