What an incident-filled, short life was that of silent screen writer and actress Barbara La Marr (Reatha Watson, 1896-1926). Best known today for inspiring the screen name of Hedy LaMarr, the original La Marr was a star for only six years before her hard-partying ways took her from this earth, making her one of the first heavily publicized Hollywood casualties.
La Marr grew up in the Pacific Northwest and California, her father a newspaper editor who moved frequently as opportunities presented themselves. She made her stage debut at age eight in a production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her older brother William Watson, Jr, performed in vaudeville as a comedian under the name Billy Devore.
As a teenager, La Marr performed in vaudeville and burlesque as a dancer. She was arrested at age 14 for being in a burlesque show. From the outset, her personal life was a rambling, disordered thing. In 1913, her half-sister Violete Ake, an actress, and a male confederate kidnapped her, presumably for immoral purposes, an incident which made the newspapers. The following year she claimed to have married an Arizona rancher named Jack Lytelle who died three weeks later of pneumonia, but there is no documentation of the union, which was supposed to have happened in Mexico. Just a few months later she married a man she thought was named Max Lawrence, but who was actually Lawrence Converse, a professional mercenary, who was already married at the time. Converse was arrested for bigamy the day after the marriage and died of a blog clot two days after that! According to legend, he’d been banging his head against the bars of his cell, calling her name. In 1916 he married a dancer named Philip Ainsworth, who was arrested for check kiting. They divorced in 1917 while he did time in San Quentin. Her fourth husband, Ben Deely was a dancer in his late 30s. It was with Deely that she moved to Hollywood.
All this while she was making a name for herself dancing in clubs and theatres all over the country. She was featured in a series of articles in the San Francisco Examiner in 1914. She danced at the San Francisco Exposition in 1915. Early dance partners included the likes of Clifton Webb and Rudolph Valentino. Much like Colette, though, she was a dancer who aspired to be a writer. In 1920 she began to supply scenarios (based on her own experiences) to studios. Films based on her stories included The Mother of His Children, Rose of Nome, Little Grey Mouse, Flame of Youth, and The Land of Jazz (all 1920), and The White Moth, and My Husband’s Wives (both 1924). La Marr’s great beauty was noted by Mary Pickford, who immediately arranged for her to go before the cameras as well, with the publicity handle “The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful”. Her first movie as an actress was Harriet and the Piper (1920) with Anita Stewart. She appeared opposite Douglas Fairbanks in The Nut and The Three Musketeers, both in 1921. Of her two dozen other pictures, some notable ones were The Prisoner of Zenda (1922) and The Shooting of Dan McGrew (1924).
Meanwhile, in 1921 La Marr had divorced Deeley, a problem drinker and gambler. But La Marr was given to hard partying herself, and she boasted of sleeping only two hours a night. In 1922 she gave birth to a child of uncertain paternity. This was kept secret from the press and not revealed to the public until years afterward. In 1923 she married actor Jack Daugherty, from whom she separated the following year. She collapsed during the shooting of her last film The Girl from Montmarre in 1925 and lapsed into a coma. By January 1926 she was dead of nephritis, brought about by pulmonary TB. She was only 29. A morphine addiction was alleged by commentators both then and now, although that claim has always been disputed. Of her excessive alcohol consumption there is no debate. Her baby, Marvin Lamarr, was adopted by her friend Zasu Pitts. Re-named Don Gallery, he passed away in 2014.
To learn more about vaudeville, please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.
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