He was equally popular, both as an actor and as a citizen, in Europe as in North America. He enjoyed a lucrative career both in front of, and behind, the camera. And, legend has it that he “discovered” one of the most popular stars in movie history. Ben Lyon, indeed, packed a lot of life into his 78 years.
Ben Lyon was born on February 6, 1901, in Atlanta, Georgia. He was raised in Baltimore, Maryland, and in New York City, and began appearing on the stage at age 17, and in films at age 18: his film debut was Open Your Eyes (1919). He proceeded to star in many films throughout the 1920s, yet made his biggest splash at the dawn of the next decade.
Hell’s Angels (1930) was produced by Howard Hughes, and emerged as one of the most important films, from both creative and technical standpoints, made to date. In this landmark aviation film, Lyon piloted his own aircraft, shot some of the airborne scenes, and was his own stunt pilot. Lucky for him that he was careful, for on June 14, 1930, Lyon married actress Bebe Daniels, in a lavish Hollywood ceremony. Louella Parsons was matron of honor, and bridesmaids included Lila Lee, Constance Talmadge, Betty Compson, and Adela Rogers Hyland (later St. John). From 1933 onwards, the Lyons paid several visits to Great Britain (making numerous theatrical and film appearances), and came to love the country and its people. They were in England when war broke out, in September 1939, and decided to stay put. It was there that their first child, daughter Barbara Bebe, was born on September 9, 1931. They later adopted a son, Richard, in 1937.
In 1940-42, the Lyons enjoyed great success with a BBC-comedy variety show entitled Hi, Gang!, and another radio series called Stars and Stripes Abroad, which was beamed to America, transmitting the voices of American servicemen to their loved ones back home. Their contribution to uplifting the spirits of the citizenry during the War endeared the Lyons to millions worldwide. And, on a non-histrionic front, Ben served with distinction as a combat pilot with the British Royal Air Force during WWII, and was released with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. In 1977, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II for his World War II work.
On November 5, 1950, the premiere episode of the radio series Life With the Lyons aired on the BBC Light Programme. Its success spawned two films, Life With the Lyons (1954) and The Lyons in Paris (1955): these films represented final screen credits for both Bebe and Ben. In the late 1950s, the television incarnation of Life With the Lyons began a run that ended in 1961 – all told, between radio and television, almost 300 shows, during eleven years on the air, chronicled the wacky adventures of Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon, sometimes silly, always entertaining. Oh, there was one other citation for the title: their joint autobiography, Life With the Lyons, written in 1953.
In the late 1940s, Ben served as an executive talent director for Fox, later heading his own talent agency in London: Lyon is universally recognized as the “discoverer” of Marilyn Monroe.
On March 16, 1971, Mrs. Ben Lyon, Bebe Daniels, died from a cerebral hemorrhage, in London. Lyon returned to America where, on April 1, 1972, he married widowed actress Marian Nixon at Westwood Methodist Church in Los Angeles. They had first met at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles in 1927.
Ben Lyon died on March 22, 1979, aboard the Queen Elizabeth II cruise ship, of a heart attack, at age 78. Bebe Daniels had been cremated eight years earlier; now, with his passing and cremation, Bebe and Ben were laid to rest together, in elegant urns on the second story of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery Columbarium. Ben Lyons’ contributions to the motion picture industry were recognized with a star along Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, at 1724 Vine Street. In a career that spanned more than four decades, which transcended many media, and which made fans out of everybody he met, Ben Lyon made his time count, and gave countless generations infinite reasons to remember him … forever.