The luminous star, known around the globe and considered by many to be the most exquisite beauty of her day, painfully succumbed a few months before her 30th birthday.
Reatha Dale Watson was born July 28, 1896, in North Yakima, Wash., and was adopted by the Watson family when she was one month old. Just one year earlier, projected motion pictures had made their commercial debut in America.
Reatha's father, William Watson, was a newspaper editor who was always moving his family from town to town. While settled in Takoma, Wash., she made her theatrical debut as Little Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin. The seven-year-old continued her stage career in stock productions up and down the West Coast for the next six years. Watson had a tremendous impact on audiences, especially later, when the mature 13-year-old danced seductively on stage. In 1910, the family moved to the desert community of Palmdale, Calif. There, Watson 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 it is reported that Watson slapped the face of famed director Cecil B. DeMille when he tried to fondle and kiss her on the set, thus ending her chance to storm the movies.
Watson then 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 in the audience, and was 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 was witnessed by newspaper feature writer Adela Rogers St. Johns, who was covering the police beat in Los Angeles. Adela's interview with Watson for a Hearst newspaper led to her eventual screen nickname, 'The Girl Who Is Too Beautiful.' Watson became a ward of the Los Angeles court system, and was ordered back into the care of Mr. Watson. Later, 17-year-old Watson married the first of her five husbands, a man who helped her to escape the grasp of the court.
Watson soon began her writing career with short stories, often published in her father's newspaper. After marrying her fourth husband, she moved to New York and continued her dancing career and became a theater and film critic, magazine writer, and playwright who wrote six screenplays for the East Coast-based 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 own 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, powerful star Douglas Fairbanks cast her as the 'femme fatale' Milady DeWinter in his film version of The Three Musketeers ( 1921 ) . On her parent's advice to help shed her past, Watson changed her name to Barbara La Marr. Soon, she starred as Antoinette De Maubam in The Prisoner of Zenda ( 1922 ) . By 1923, La Marr was listed as one of the 19 highest-salaried stars in Hollywood and received rave reviews for her films. She became known for her extreme talent, intelligence, exquisite taste, presence, vibrancy, generosity and kindness. That same year, she badly sprained her ankle on the set of Souls For Sale ( 1923 ) , and La Marr was prescribed morphine for her anguish—and soon, La Marr was addicted.
It has been reported that La Marr kept her recreational cocaine in a golden casket atop her grand piano. Opium was a wildly popular drug of the time that was always available, and La Marr's was of the very highest grade. She had numerous lovers. Known around the globe, La Marr was highly regarded as a great actress by the press and her peers. She was considered equally adept at comedy, drama, and romance. LaMarr also produced films, designed hats and endorsed her own perfume. Her taste was as elegant as her image, and her home was decorated in the epitome of 1920s Hollywood elegance, with a bathroom that was legendary for its onyx-covered walls and floor offering a gigantic sunken bathtub with solid gold fixtures. Barbara loved to throw lavish parties.
However, La Marr's marriages were like curses, and somewhat more interesting than her film career. In 1914, to escape her parents and the Los Angeles court system, she married the first of her five husbands, cowboy Jack Lytell. After only a few months of wedded bliss, Lytell had a heated argument with La Marr when she made it clear she missed the excitement of Los Angeles. Lytell rode the range and was caught in a thunderstorm for hours. He died two days later of pneumonia. The distraught La Marr went on a drinking binge and was kidnapped and raped by three fellow partygoers.
In June of that same year, La Marr 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. Converse cried that he 'had to have her, to possess her magnificent beauty.' He then began beating his own head against the steel bars of his cell while calling out La Marr's name. Two days later, he died during surgery for blood clots on his brain. In 1916, La Marr 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 bride.
In 1918, La Marr wed alcoholic gambler Ben Deely, a homosexual man twice her age. The couple travelled to New York, where La Marr danced ( under another name ) at Harlowe's Nightclub with her exhibition partner, Senor Rodolfo, who was soon to become the famous Rudolph Valentino. At the nightclub she met many lovers, including Ernest Hemingway, with whom she had a torrid affair. Her alliance with her husband was annulled in 1923. That same year, Barbara produced a son from one of her many affairs, whom she 'adopted' to save face. She named him Marvin Carville La Marr.
Almost immediately, Barbara married Jack Dougherty, who was a handsome feature player in action movies and westerns. Their marriage was awash in booze and drugs. Dougherty filed for divorce and his case was still pending when La Marr collapsed on the set of The Girl From Montmartre ( 1926 ) . The beautiful, seemingly damned star died a couple of months later, Jan. 30, 1926, in Altadena, Calif. Her demise was from a combination of drugs, alcohol, tuberculosis, nephritis, stress and starvation dieting. Her former dancing partner Valentino, the world's most famous movie star, died the same year. Marvin La Marr was adopted by Barbara's best friend, actress Zasu Pitts, and her husband Tom Gallery. Little Marvin was renamed Don Gallery.
During the three days her body lay in state, 40,000 people came to see her, filing by her flower-laden open casket. There was often mass hysteria in the crowd, with hundreds of men shouting her name while several women fainted.
Inscribed on La Marr's headstone at Hollywood Forever Cemetery are the words 'With God in the joy and the beauty of youth.' Her crypt is frequently decorated with flowers, fan letters, photographs and lip prints.
Silent star Mary Philbin once stated, 'Barbara La Marr was a true and rare beauty. I remember seeing her at a Hollywood premiere wearing a silver-beaded Madame Frances gown. She was stunning. Her glaring beauty almost made me faint.'
Very few people today remember or know of Barbara La Marr. Perhaps she feared 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 photographer, designer, artist, and writer, he is the owner of Steve Starr Studios, specializing in original Art Deco photo frames, artifacts and jewelry, and celebrating its 39th anniversary in 2006. Steve Starr's personal collection of over 950 gorgeous frames is filled with photos of Hollywood's most elegant stars. His column STARRLIGHT, about movie stars of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, appears in various publications.
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Photo of Steve Starr at the Whitehall Hotel, Jan. 28, 2006, by NBC News Director Harold 'Sandy' Whiteley.