The star who was considered by many to be the most exquisite beauty of her day painfully succumbed to a combination of starvation dieting, drugs, alcohol, tuberculosis, nephritis,and emotional stress at the age of 29.
Reatha Dale Watson was born July 28, 1896, in North Yakima, Wash. She was adopted by a foster family when she was one month old. That same year, projected motion pictures made their commercial debut in America.
Reatha's adopted father William Watson was a newspaper editor who was always moving his family from town to town. Little Reatha made her theatrical debut in Takoma, Wash., as Little Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin. In 1910, the family moved to the desert community of Palmdale, Calif. Reatha blossomed into a dazzling natural beauty with raven hair, violet eyes, and a flawless, radiant complexion. Mrs. Watson took her daughter for a screen test in Hollywood, but the young girl slapped the face of Cecil B. DeMille when he tried to fondle and kiss her on the set, thus ending her chance to storm the movies. She became involved in the excitement of Los Angeles nightlife and refused to return home. The 14-year-old was arrested for dancing in a burlesque show after she started a riot, and hauled before a juvenile court. Judge Monroe told Reatha's father that his daughter was 'too beautiful for her own good ... too beautiful to be alone and unprotected in a big city.' The assessment led to her eventual screen nickname, 'The Girl Who Is Too Beautiful'. She became a ward of the Los Angeles court system, and ordered back into the care of Mr. Watson. On her parents' advice to help shed her past, Rhetha changed her name to Barbara La Marr. To escape, Barbara married the first of her five husbands. La Marr continued a career in dance and in 1918 she performed at Harlowe's nightclub with her exhibition partner, Rudolph Valentino. There she met many lovers, including Ernest Hemingway with whom she had a torrid affair.
After moving to New York with her fourth husband, Barbara began a career as a theatre and film critic, magazine writer, and screenwriter for Fox Studios. Among her credits are the films Flame of Youth (1920), and My Husband's Wives (1924). Most of her stories were based on her untamed personal life. Running out of script ideas, she followed her friends' suggestions to act. Her screen debut was in Harriet and the Piper (1920). After a number of other minor roles, Douglas Fairbanks cast her as the femme fatale Milady DeWinter in his film version of The Three Musketeers (1921). She soon starred as Antoinette De Maubam in The Prisoner of Zenda (1922). In 1923 Barbara was listed as one of the 19 highest-salaried stars in Hollywood. That same year she developed an addiction to pain killers after being prescribed morphine when she sprained her ankle on the set of Souls For Sale (1923). Known around the globe as 'The Girl Who Is Too Beautiful', La Marr was highly regarded as a great actress by the press and her peers. She was considered equally adept at comedy, drama, or romance. Barbara also produced films, designed hats, and endorsed her own perfume.
La Marr's taste was as elegant as her image. Her home was decorated in the epitome of 1920s Hollywood elegance, where she loved to dance and throw lavish parties. Barbara's bathroom was legendary for its onyx-covered walls and floor with a gigantic sunken bathtub and solid-gold fixtures.
However, the luminous La Marr was hopelessly addicted to drugs, keeping her cocaine in a golden casket atop her grand piano. Opium, which was a wildly popular drug of the time, was always available, and of the very highest grade.
To make the most of her time, Barbara bragged that she never wasted more than two hours of sleep a night for there were 'better things to do.' She had numerous lovers, and stated 'I like my my men like I like my roses ... by the dozens'.
Her marriages were like curses, though, and somewhat more interesting than her film career. In 1914 she married cowboy Jack Lytell, the first of her five husbands, in order to escape the Los Angeles court system. After only a few months of wedded bliss, Lytell had a heated argument with Barbara when she made it clear she missed the excitement of Los Angeles. Jack rode the range and was caught in a thunderstorm for hours, staying out all night in wet clothes. He died two days later of pneumonia. Barbara went on a drinking binge and was kidnapped and raped by three fellow partygoers.
In June of that same year, Barbara married Lawrence Converse, a lawyer with a socialite wife and three children, and heir to the Converse shoe dynasty. He was arrested for bigamy the day after their wedding. Lawrence cried that he 'had to have her, to possess her magnificent beauty.' Mr. Converse began beating his own head against the steel bars of his cell while calling out Barbara's name. Two days later he died during surgery for blood clots on his brain.
In 1916, Barbara married one Phil Ainsworth, who was arrested seven months later, tried, and sent to San Quentin prison for forging checks to buy clothes, jewelry, vacations and other luxuries for his beautiful bride. In 1918, Barbara wed alcoholic gambler Ben Deely, a man twice her age. Ben and Barbara travelled to New York and had a very successful dancing partnership, performing together in vaudeville and cabarets. Their alliance was annulled in 1923. Almost immediately, Barbara married Jack Dougherty, who was a handsome feature player in action movies and westerns. Barbara and Jack's marriage was awash in booze and drugs. Deely died a few months later. Dougherty filed for divorce and his case was still pending when Barbara collapsed on the set of The Girl From Montmarte (1926). She died a couple of months later, Jan. 30, 1926, in Altadena, Calif., three months before her 30th birthday. Her dancing partner Valentino died the same year. In 1923, La Marr produced a son from one of her many affairs, whom she 'adopted' to save face. She named him Marvin Carville La Marr. After her death, he was adopted by her best friend, actress Zasu Pitts and her husband Tom Gallery. Little Marvin was renamed Don Gallery.
The woman considered by many to be the most exquisite beauty of her day had succumbed to her vices and disease. One writer who admired her declared she died 'from simply too much beauty.' During the three days her body lay in state, 40,000 people came to see her, and filed by her flower-laden open casket. There was mass hysteria in the crowd, with hundreds of men shouting her name. Several women fainted. On her headstone at Hollywood Forever cemetery is inscribed the words 'With God in the joy and the beauty of youth.' Her crypt is often decorated with flowers, fan letters, photographs and even lip prints.
Some of her movie titles seem to portray her short life and career. They include Trifling Woman (1922), Domestic Relations (1922), Strangers In The Night (1923), White Moth (1924), and The Heart of a Siren (1925).
Very few people today remember or know of her. Perhaps she was afraid of future anonymity, for her photos are almost always signed, 'Lest you forget, Barbara La Marr.'
Sources: The Movie Stars by Richard Griffith; Movie Time by Gene Brown; Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger; The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz; Films In Review by Rod A. Uselton; Barbara La Marr websites
Steve Starr is the author of Picture Perfect—Art Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946, published by Rizzoli International Publications. A designer and an artist, he is the owner of Steve Starr Studios, specializing in original Art Deco photo frames, furnishings and jewelry, and celebrating its 37th anniversary in 2004.
Visit the glamorous studio at 2779 N. Lincoln Ave. in Chicago where adorning the walls is Steve Starr's personal collection of over 950 gorgeous frames filled with photos of Hollywood's most elegant stars.
You may e-mail Steve at SSSChicago@ameritech.net
A version of this story first appeared in my column in Outlines, Feb. 3, 1999.
Homes to Benefit Anti-Cruelty Society's Let's Pet Together
More than 20 unique 'pet palaces' will debut at River North area design and retail stores at the River North Association's annual Design Walk June 18 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Entitled the Parade of Pet Homes, this special exhibit features functional pet homes designed by top Chicago-area designers. The event is free.
Guests at Design Walk will be treated to complimentary food and drink while discovering a wealth of locally owned and absolutely unique furniture, accessories and accessories boutiques.
They will also be the very first to view the pet palaces, which will remain on display outside all of the participating retailers through July 22, when they will be auctioned off to benefit the Anti-Cruelty Society at their 'Let's Pet Together Event'.
'Lovers of fine design want to treat their prized pets to the very best, as well. The parade features of one-of-a-kind, functional yet fanciful, pet homes that will make your special pet feel truly pampered,' according to Boyce Moffitt, co-owner of No Place Like and chairman of the event. The 'Parade of Pet Homes' is sponsored in part by Cosmopolitan Bank & Trust.
Participating Design Walk retailers include: The Ambiente Collection, Arrelle Fine Linens, Artemide, Cambium, Fast Frame, The Golden Triangle, Kreiss Collection, Lamin-8, Lightology, LuxeHome at the Merchandise Mart, Material Culture, MG Gallery, No Place Like, Oscar Isberian Rugs, Orange Skin, Sawbridge Studios, Svenska Mobler, The Tile Gallery, Thomas Jolly Antiques and Wear Eyewear.
Additional pet homes will be on display at Cosmopolitan Bank & Trust and the Lenox Suites Hotel. www.rivernorthassociation.com .
Between June 18 and July 22 the public is invited to tour the homes and vote for their favorite 'Pet Palace'.
Pet Palaces, are available in sizes small, medium and large to accommodate the needs of cats and dogs of all sizes and the public may also place silent auction bids on their favorite creations.
Winning bids will be announced after the 4th annual 'Let's Pet Together' event to benefit the Anti-Cruelty Society, taking place on Thursday, July 22 at the Erie Café. This annual ACS summer mixer brings together pet lovers and their canine companions for appetizers, bars, entertainment.
See www.anticruelty.org or call (312) 644-8338 x341.