“The girl who was too beautiful,” “the world’s wickedest vamp,” “immoral woman”… Barbara La Marr wore many labels throughout her tragically short life and meteoric career as one of the silent screen’s brightest stars and eminent sex symbols. Some of these labels were justly earned. Others—an amalgamation of her incendiary screen image, clever marketing, and her tumultuous private life—were hung on her by a public unable to discern the woman behind the myth. “To be understood,” she remarked a year before her death in a fan magazine article reportedly authored by her, “—that is the greatest thing you can give to any person, and it is . . . the greatest thing any person can give you.” 1
Born Reatha Watson in North Yakima, Washington, on July 28, 1896, she grew accustomed to feeling misunderstood. Her efforts to begin a theatrical career in Tacoma, Washington, at the age of eight were at first dismissed by her parents—William, an itinerant newspaperman and irrigationist, and Rose, a homemaker and seamstress—as a fleeting whim. But Reatha’s talent and strong will eventually won out; she entered the spotlight later that year, performing with various stock theater companies for adoring audiences in the Pacific Northwest and Fresno, California, for the duration of her childhood.
Throughout her teenage years, Reatha’s headstrong, oftentimes rebellious nature incited frequent clashes with her protective parents—as well as attempts to escape their authority. One apparent attempt, occurring when she was sixteen and the family was living in Los Angeles, resulted in kidnapping charges against her older half-sister and her half-sister’s illicit lover, headlines and torrents of public empathy in multiple states, and Reatha’s elevation to mythical status. After she returned home—unharmed, albeit mysteriously—, the press, having touted her beauty since her disappearance, remained entranced. The Los Angeles Evening Herald, crediting the alleged kidnapping with the revelation of “a new world beauty,” pronounced Reatha “California’s Venus.” 2
Los Angeles law enforcement, however, inadvertently coined the moniker that would forever define her. When Reatha’s parents, prompted by the intense nervous strain her purported kidnapping and subsequent publicity induced in her, moved to El Centro, a remote town deep in southeastern California’s desert, Reatha went willingly, but longed for her former life. She left her parents, returning to what she later described as the thrills and bright lights of Los Angeles. Her father, fearing for her safety, beseeched authorities to intervene. Chief Juvenile Officer Leo Marden investigated; newspapers broadcast his verdict: seventeen-year-old Reatha, constantly pursued by men, had been deemed “too beautiful” to remain in the city unsupervised and was ordered to return to her parents in El Centro.
Reatha was soon back in Los Angeles—and the headlines. Embittered by the fact that she was unable to live in the city without her parents, who had relocated with her, she wed garage owner Lawrence Converse less than two months before her eighteenth birthday, unaware that he was another woman’s husband and a father. (Evidently, it was the second time Reatha had used marriage as a means to emancipate herself from parental authority; the first occurred months earlier when she returned to Los Angeles from El Centro alone, claiming she had been married to—and promptly widowed by—a wealthy, lovesick Arizona rancher.) Converse’s attorney, Fred J. Spring, attributed Converse’s lapse in judgment to a head injury Converse sustained years earlier and “matrimonial aphasia”: “He looked too long at the beautiful face of Miss [Reatha] Watson,” said Spring, and “was in no condition to withstand the allurements of so handsome a young woman.” 3 Subsequently dubbed by the press as an enchantress of fatal beauty, Reatha was again blamed when the operation undertaken to restore Converse’s sanity led to his death. The film acting career she had been working toward was brought to a screeching halt; Los Angeles studios, wary of “limelight beauties,” Reatha’s widely publicized “lurid” escapades, and potential entanglements with film censorship coalitions, banned Reatha from appearing in their films. 4
Without hope of living down her scandalous image, Reatha escaped it—at least temporarily—, and her intrinsic talents and magnetism flourished. Reborn as Barbara La Marr, a name she took up when she began a dancing partnership with her soon-to-be lover, ballroom dancer Robert Carville, she appeared with great acclaim as a dancer between 1915 and 1917 in some of the nation’s most renowned venues and on Broadway. Her performances included both paired numbers (with, most notably, Carville and Philip Ainsworth [during their brief marriage in 1916]) and impassioned, interpretive, barefoot solo dances she choreographed herself. In 1917, she joined Ben Deely, a celebrated comedian and vaudevillian she would wed in 1918, and toured the vaudeville circuits until 1919, garnering praise as a supporting actress in Deely’s humor-packed skits and ultimately receiving equal billing with him. Still under the guise of her assumed identity, she then returned to Los Angeles and submitted a scenario she authored to Winfield Sheehan, vice president of Fox Film Corporation. The scenario won her a $10,000 contract with Fox (around $138,000 as of this writing), beginning in January 1920, for six original stories that appeared on screens worldwide.
While employed by Fox, Barbara’s beauty and charisma captured the attention and imaginations of other film producers. Though fearful of being recognized on the screen as the infamous Reatha Watson, Barbara began accepting acting work in major motion pictures, including the supporting role of the iniquitous spy Milady de Winter opposite Douglas Fairbanks Sr., one of the era’s biggest stars, in his wildly successful film The Three Musketeers (1921). In 1922, her “flawless” performance as a depraved fortune-teller, Zareda, in leading director Rex Ingram’s Trifling Women solidified her image as a vamp, a titillating type of film heroine who uses her powers of seduction to exploit men. 5
Film roles poured in for Barbara as producers competed for her services; her rise to fame was nothing short of spectacular. In 1923, a little over a year after she completed Trifling Women, she was awarded a long-term starring contract for films produced by Associated Pictures and distributed by the industry’s top distributor at the time, First National. Meanwhile, Barbara’s mystique mesmerized filmgoers the world over. Fred Niblo, who directed her in The Three Musketeers and two other films, averred that she possessed “the most tremendous sex appeal of any woman on the screen” and that “even a bad dressmaker cannot make [her] look virtuous.” 6 Homosexual film star William Haines, romantically linked to Barbara in 1923, agreed, contending, “Of all the screen sirens I think she was the greatest—she was always so much the real woman.” 7 Critics likewise concurred; Film Daily, citing Barbara’s “highly sensuous” performance as The Lady Known as Lou, a scintillating dancer, in The Shooting of Dan McGrew (1924), asserted that she “lends her physical charms liberally for the purposes of sex appeal, of which she is nothing else but.” 8 Writer Jim Tully described Barbara as “voluptuous, caressing, undulating,…fascinating as a beautiful tigress,” and “vibrant with life.” 9 Writer Willis Goldbeck rhapsodized, “Her radiance is that of moonlight in the heavy shadows of the night . . .Calypso she is, burning with the flame of subtle ecstasy.” 10
Barbara eventually yearned to break free of her image as a wayward sex symbol. That she had significant talent as an actress was clearly evidenced. Critics lauded her as an actress of “uncommon ability”; commended her for rendering her characterizations “with her whole heart and soul” and for “[earning] her every close-up with some real dancing, real tears, and real acting”; and applauded her performance in Thy Name Is Woman (1924)—a portrayal that defies her vamp typecasting—as “one of the most potent and subtle” of the year. 11 Although the vamp had made Barbara, the vamp threatened to ruin her. Her producers persisted in capitalizing upon her sex siren image. At the same time, Barbara’s private life, sensationalized by the press, once again rivaled the roles she enacted for the screen. Her serial relationships, numerous husbands, acrimonious divorces, and hidden pregnancy (she conceived and gave birth to a son while separated from one of her husbands, and, heightening suspicions notwithstanding, masqueraded as the boy’s adoptive mother to evade a career-damning scandal), combined with the exposure of her notorious past as the “too beautiful” Reatha Watson (the result of a blackmail attempt against her), led many to presume her aberrant film persona and true character were the same. Buffeted by the scathing publicity she had received, and the rising popularity of lighthearted flappers as filmdom’s reigning sex symbols, Barbara’s career faltered.
Long-held insecurities often plagued Barbara, fueling her alcoholism and causing her to discredit herself. “I am just as lacking in self-confidence now as when I made Harriet and the Piper [one of her first pictures],” she was quoted as saying at the pinnacle of her success. 12 She typically avoided viewing her films, feared reading reviews of her performances, and admitted to spending sleepless nights questioning whether or not her work truly satisfied her public. Regularly exalted as the most beautiful woman in the world, she nonetheless denounced her beauty. “My nose is too sharp and pointed,” she once explained to an interviewer. “My head doesn’t fit my body. My eyes are crooked.” 13 Despite wanting very much to be liked for herself, she veiled herself with fictitious, aggrandized background accounts—in one instance declaring she was the daughter of a French actress and an Italian of noble birth—, and wondered who would even notice her if she were not Barbara La Marr, a screen star.
And yet, Barbara’s self-doubts and life tragedies, rather than completely destroy her, had imbued her with some of her greatest virtues, among them estimable acting talent—“It is when I am unhappy, with an ache perhaps in my heart, that I do my finest work,” she confessed—and determination to succeed. 14 In 1925, she undertook to resurrect her image and career, insisting to her producers that she was through playing vamps. Battling incipient pulmonary tuberculosis, she commenced work on The Girl from Montmartre (1926), a story of a dimensional character she had selected herself. Narrowly completing the film before collapsing on the set in a coma, Barbara passed away on January 30, 1926, at age twenty-nine, never learning of the accolades her performance received; The Girl from Montmartre was released on January 31.
Not long before her death, Barbara asked writer Jim Tully, a friend of hers, “Some day, Jim, will you write about me—and tell them that I wasn’t everything I played on the screen?” 15 To those who loved Barbara, she was far more than the debauched women she played, her demons, and the shocking headlines she spawned. Ramon Novarro, famed Latin lover of the silent screen and Barbara’s friend and costar in three of her films, saw beyond what he termed the “glittering, enchanting personality” Barbara erected around herself; he found in her a sincerity, humility, and “kindness that made her lovable.” 16 Actress Alice Terry, Barbara’s Prisoner of Zenda costar, affirmed, “[Barbara] was as lovely in her personality as she was in her ravishing looks…She was very big-hearted and generous and loved to please people.” 17 Indeed, Barbara’s extensively acknowledged generosity knew no bounds. Seemingly unable to turn her back on anyone in need, she routinely donated large sums to charities, allowed struggling artists to live with her in her Whitley Heights home until they found steady work, and bestowed lavish gifts upon friends and co-workers. She gave away more money than she ever spent on herself, according to her father. Reporters and columnists, expecting Barbara to behave in person as her impious screen characters would, were pleasantly surprised when meeting her for the first time, encountering instead a charming, “regular girl” who “radiates good fellowship.” 18 Directors, her castmates, and film crew members consistently spoke of what a joy she was to work with. A film critic, praising Barbara’s performance in her final film, The Girl from Montmartre, noted that the picture depicts Barbara in her real nature: “a generous, impulsive, whole-souled and loving girl.” 19 Willis Goldbeck was said to believe Barbara’s virtues to be “of the mind and spirit,” and that her weaknesses were “all of the flesh.” 20
As Barbara lay in state in Los Angeles before her funeral, tens of thousands waited in line to pay their respects. Floral offerings surrounded her casket, filling the chapel. A red rose, placed in Barbara’s hand by a twelve-year-old girl, stood out among the rest. “To my Beautiful Lady,” the accompanying note read, “May my life be as lovely and unselfish as yours has been, and may you find eternal peace and love in the ‘Happyland.'” 21 Barbara’s father buried the rose with Barbara, considering it the ultimate tribute.
Actress and writer Sherri Snyder is the author of Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood, published by the University Press of Kentucky; she regularly portrays Barbara La Marr in a one-woman performance piece she wrote for the Pasadena Playhouse and Pasadena Museum of History production, Channeling Hollywood; and she maintains the tribute website, barbaralamarr.net.
1 Barbara La Marr, “The True Story of My Life,” Movie Weekly, January 10, 1925, 15.
2 “Miss Watson Hailed as California’s Venus,” Los Angeles Evening Herald, January 21, 1913.
3 “‘Matrimonial Aphasia,’ Plea of Converse for Bigamy,” Los Angeles Examiner, June 23, 1914.
4 “Managers Place Ban on Beautiful Actress,” Oakland Tribune, July 5, 1914.
5 “Garrick Books ‘Trifling Women’ Starts Saturday,” Duluth-News Tribune, December 28, 1922.
6 Fred Niblo, “What Makes Them Stars? ‘Lure!’ Says Fred Niblo,” Photoplay, November 1923, 116.
7 Haines quoted in Marquis Busby, “The Wisecracker Reveals,” Photoplay, October 1929, 128.
8 “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” Film Daily, March 30, 1924, 9.
9 Jim Tully, “Jim Tully’s Gallery of Women,” New Movie Magazine, October 1932, 31.
10 Willis Goldbeck, “The Black Orchid,” Motion Picture Magazine, November 1922, 64.
11 “The Prisoner of Zenda,” Moving Picture World, May 6, 1922, 87; “The Screen in Review,” Picture Play, July 1924, 96; “‘Dan McGrew’ Fascinates New York Theatre Crowds,” Moving Picture World, June 28, 1924, 817; Tamar Lane, “That’s Out; Is Barbara La Marr Another Clothes Rack?” Motion Picture Magazine, November 1924, 113.
12 Barbara La Marr, “The True Story of My Life,” Movie Weekly, January 31, 1925, 18.
13 Helen Lee, “The Gift for Glory,” Screenland, December 1923, 104.
14 Willis Goldbeck, “The Black Orchid,” Motion Picture Magazine, November 1922, 93.
15 Jim Tully, “Jim Tully’s Gallery of Women,” New Movie Magazine, October 1932, 104.
16 Ramon Novarro, “Ramon Novarro Tells of His Screen Loves,” Movie Weekly, April 25, 1925, 5.
17 Terry quoted in Jimmy Bangley, “The Legendary Barbara La Marr,” Classic Images, May 1996, 17.
18 Regina Cannon, “‘My Private Life’s My Own Affair,’ Declares Barbara La Marr,” Movie Weekly, May 31, 1924, 3.
19 New York Graphic quoted in “Newspaper Opinions,” Film Daily, February 28, 1926, 197.
20 Goldbeck quoted in Adela Rogers St. Johns, “The Life Story of Barbara La Marr,” Liberty Magazine, December 15, 1928, 67.
21 “Baby Rose Dwarfs Floral Bier,” Los Angeles Times, February 3, 1926.