There are a handful of legends – Princess Diana, James Dean, John F. Kennedy (Senior and Junior) come to mind – who died before their time, and who, by virtue of having left us in their prime, will remain forever young. Another such legend, who didn’t live to see her 30th birthday, but who attained a status far beyond her years, was Barbara LaMarr, whose moniker “The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful” remains her hallmark.
She was born Reatha Watson, on July 28, 1896, in North Yakima, Washington. Her parents moved from that small town to another small town in California, and from there she left home at 14 and traveled southward. As a young girl, alone, in the frantic pace of Los Angeles, she got her first taste of excitement – and never looked back. She first worked as a burlesque dancer, and was arrested for underage dancing. In court, she encountered a judge who, dazzled by her teenage beauty, asserted, “You are too beautiful to be in the big city alone and unprotected.” In juvenile court that day, coincidentally, was reporter Adela Rogers St. Johns, who not only agreed with the judge’s statement, but was awed herself by Reatha’s beauty: she took the teen into her newspaper office, and presented her to her fellow reporters. That day started a whirlwind of activity in the young girl’s life.
Her initial career goals were to be a screenwriter: she sold a number of scenarios (under the name Folly Lytell) to Fox Studios. She was, by all accounts, a wonderfully vivid writer, with a penchant for poetry. However, a beauty such as hers would have been wasted if not before a camera: at the insistence of Mary Pickford, Reatha took a chance at acting. Pickford is reported to have asserted, “My dear, you are too beautiful to be behind a camera. Your vibrant magnetism should be shared by film audiences.” Pickford, always one with an eye for film greatness, couldn’t have been more right.
Reatha changed her name to Barbara LaMarr Deely (the final surname from her fourth husband; more on them to come), and appeared in two films in 1920. However, it was 1921, when her appearance in her third film got audiences really interested – co-starring with Douglas Fairbanks in The Nut, her role as a wicked vamp utilized both her considerable physical assets and her acting talents. Another excellent Fairbanks vehicle followed: The Three Musketeers (1922) saw Barbara sink her teeth into her role as M’Lady DeWinter. That was followed by such silent classics as Arabian Love (1922), The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), and Souls for Sale (1923). During the making of the latter film, life took a drastic turn for lovely Barbara LaMarr.
She sustained an injury on the set of the picture, co-starring Eleanor Boardman and Mae Busch. To curb the pain, studio doctors prescribed medication: Barbara, already a seasoned user of alcohol, quickly became addicted. And, as her life became more complex and stress-filled (owing to her skyrocketing popularity), she grew to depend on dangerous combinations of medication and alcohol to cope. Barbara also became more dependent upon her friends: one in particular, Souls for Sale costar ZaSu Pitts, would play an important role in Barbara’s personal life in just a few fleeting years.
By the time she was 28 years old, Barbara LaMarr had taken her fifth husband (her first spouse was Jack Lytell, who left her a widow; second was Lawrence Converse, a bigamist; third was Phil Ainesworth, who was sent to prison for forgery, and her fourth husband was Ben Deely, an incurable alcoholic). She was very hopeful when she wed cowboy star Jack Dougherty: the two soon had a son, Marvin, nicknamed Sonny. However, motherhood did little to curb the frantic cycle her life was in: “I cheat nature. I never sleep more than two hours a day. I have better things to do – I take lovers like roses, by the dozen!”
Barbara LaMarr can be likened to the roses she mentioned, beautiful in their prime, but with a limited lifespan. And, as her health declined, she looked forward towards her son’s future: she asked friend ZaSu Pitts and her husband, Tom Gallery, to adopt Sonny. This they did: he was later renamed Don Gallery.
Barbara LaMarr’s final picture was the First National feature The Girl from Montmartre (1926). Already suffering from tuberculosis, she collapsed on the set in the midst of filming. Taken to her home in Altadena, California, she died, on January 30, 1926; her tuberculosis was worsened by her sleep-deprived lifestyle. Close to 40,000 mourners – fans and fellow Hollywood peers – attended her services. She was laid to rest in a crypt in the Cathedral Mausoleum in Hollywood Memorial Park (now known as Hollywood Forever Cemetery).
Even after her untimely and premature death, Barbara LaMarr remained an influential and popular star. One of her biggest fans was producer Louis B. Meyer – in honor to Barbara, he gave one of his future discoveries, Hedy Kristler, a new name: Hedy LaMarr.
As beauties go, she remains a headliner. And, as Hollywood legends go, it seems that Barbara LaMarr will endure as a star of beauty and talent to match, and that her light will continue to shine … forever.