This one is by special request — a reader (some morbid soul) wanted to see more stories like a certain tragic one we posted a few days ago. Essentially this is just a round up of several tales of show business tragedies, mostly vaudeville, but I’ve added some Hollywood ones as well. Just click on the performer’s name to learn more.
Down and Out, Penniless, Forgotten:
Tens of thousands of aspiring stage and screen performers found themselves in this predicament, but we mention a few notables who had been either at the top, or very successful, and spent their last days broke and alone: Stephen Foster, the Father of American Song died drunk, penniless, singing for his supper and owing back-rent for his Bowery hotel room (this was in the days before songwriters got royalties), Eva Tanguay, at one point the “Queen of Vaudeville” and one of the highest paid entertainers in the country, died blind, bed-ridden, and broke; Clarice Vance, also a star, wound up homeless and eventually in an insane asylum; Agnes Ayres, a Paramount star, toppled from fame, eventually losing her child, and going mad; Johnny Arthur died a charity case; Leo Dryden spent his last days singing for coppers on street corners; Olive Borden was scrubbing floors on Skid Row when she died at age 41. However, the most extreme cases wound up as:
Nat M. Wills, “The Happy Tramp”, suffering money and romantic woes, may have been one of the first people to kill himself with automobile exhaust fumes. There is some ambiguity because it was not well known at the time that one could actually die that way. And his career was going just great at the time. In most cases, the facts were much clearer. The clown Slivers Oakley killed himself with gas when vaudeville didn’t pan out. Premiere monologist Charley Case shot himself in his hotel room. Legendary screen beauty Mary Nolan’s slow descent ended with an overdose of pills. Jenny Dolly of the Dolly Sisters, having lost her beauty in a car accident, hanged herself. Lou Tellegen stabbed himself when talkies killed his career. Paul McCullough of Clark and McCullough, chronically depressed, slit his own throat while sitting in a barber chair. Sideshow performer Waldo the Human Ostrich gassed himself when a love affair went sour. Gus Williams shot himself following a discouraging meeting with his agent; his Dutch specialty wasn’t giving him any traction. Actor John Bowers drowned himself over a career decline (some think this event was the model for the climax of A Star is Born). Fan dancer Faith Bacon, unable to find work, threw herself out a window. Silent screen comedienne Phyllis Haver had been tragically isolated for years when she took an overdose of sleeping pills in 1960. And one of the greatest of all 20th century comedians Max Linder and his wife, despondent over failing health and career, each committed TRIPLE suicides by taking barbiturates, injecting morphine, and cutting themselves.
The above folks all have connections to vaudeville. We’ve also written about some purely Hollywood suicides, including Peg Entwistle (who jumped off the famous “Hollywood” sign); the “Mexican Spitfire” Lupe Velez, who took pills when she became pregnant out of wedlock; Clara Blandick (Aunt Em of The Wizard of Oz), who suffocated herself with a plastic bag in response to health problems; and Doodles Weaver who shot himself.
Syphillis and Other Diseases
Strange to think that we could get a whole category out of venereal disease, but in the days before penicillin it took a shocking number of lives — especially (it shouldn’t surprise you to learn) a high number in the theatrical community. It was a terrible way to go because it usually first manifested itself in madness. The afflicted person was normally put away for a few years before they finally gave up the ghost. At any rate; the risks were known at the time, so in a way, to die in this manner was a kind of a suicide. Those who went in this fashion included Scott Joplin; Maurice Barrymore; George Walker of Walker and Williams; Tony Hart of Harrigan and Hart; Bob Cole of Cole and Johnson; Harry Kernell of the Kernell Brothers; Ernest Hogan; and Joe Welch.
Mabel Normand died of TB at 37. Tuberculosis was also common in those days, although Normand was almost certainly weakened from her hard-partying life style. Fellow silent comedian Larry Semon also died of the disease, among other factors.
If we concede that alcoholism is a disease, the catalog of those whose lives were shortened, ended or harmed by that affliction would be too long to list but some prominent examples included W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, Lillian Roth, Leo Gorcey, Bert Williams and Jack Pickford. (and some of those also mentioned elsewhere on this page)
DISASTERS AND ACCIDENTS
A few notable examples of stagefolk who died prematurely under bizarre or sudden circumstances. Blackface performer** Artie Hall was killed when a theatre collapsed during the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. Magician Ching Ling Foo died while performing the dangerous “bullet catch” stunt. Houdini died of peritonitis after some college students punched him in the stomach, rupturing his appendix. Drag performer Bert Savoy was struck by lightning. Cowboy star Buck Jones was killed in a terrible night club fire. Olive Thomas accidentally drank poison, resulting in a slow, painful hospital death. Rosetta Duncan of the Duncan Sisters died in a car crash, as did Bernard Gorcey. Marilyn Miller’s story is a double tragedy: first her husband Frank Carter died in a car accident, then she herself was killed in a botched hospital operation.
A few notable murders have found their way into these pages. There’s the famous William Desmond Taylor mystery. Most rule comedienne Thelma Todd’s death a murder (there are SUSPECTS and suspicious circumstances) although it’s possible it may have been an accident or suicide. Professor Backwards was famously killed by some inept robbers. Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer lost his life over a petty money dispute.
Fame and wealth are all well and good; but NO ONE escapes the ubiquitous pitfalls of life on Abattoir Earth!
For more on the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold. For more on silent film, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.