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Thursday, January 20, 2011

MENTAL MONTAGE: Little Known Tragedies and Scandals

It is time once again, I fear, to get a little dark. By featuring William Haines this month, it is hard to be negative, because the guy is such a fun-loving prince. Yet, even he had to suffer his share of burdens and heartbreaks. Every light casts a shadow, and Tinsel Town didn't get its reputation for being a haven for lost and lonely souls for nothing. Thus, here are a few of the sad tales endured by some of Hollywood's brightest and too-soon-forgotten talents:

Billy Haines (left) is remembered as a hero in many ways, if for nothing else than his enduring and optimistic spirit. Through all of life's changes and challenges, he seemed to come out swinging with determination and integrity in tact. Indeed, despite the fact that he was openly homosexual, there are minimal recorded accounts of him crumbling under the weight of bigotry or even being on the receiving end of malicious or ignorant onslaughts. Most occurrences of that sort had to do with the King of Hypocrisy himself, LB Mayer, but even in those few interludes, which left Billy more than perturbed, he seemed to brush the dust right off his finely tailored jacket as if nothing had happened. For the most part, perhaps just due to his congenial spirit, Billy attracted more friends to him than enemies. Unfortunately, no one is safe from cruelty, not even the charismatic Mr. Haines. In time, despite his obstinant grace in the face of small-mindedness, he too would suffer what he would recall as the most humiliating and horrific event of his life-- one that would change him forever.

By 1936, Billy's cinematic career was hanging on by a thread. Having already made his exit from MGM after a final confrontation with LB over his sexuality, Billy was freelancing in "Poverty Row," while building an impressive reputation as an interior designer. Still, he was not completely ready to give up the ghost of his acting ambitions; he loved his place in the spotlight, and didn't want to surrender it to the new breed of man rising in the Hollywood ranks, such as Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable, and James Cagney. Taking some time off, he and a group of his friends, including partner Jimmie Shields and director George Cukor, headed for a respite in El Porto, a bit south of the glittering and oppressive nature of Hollywood. Little did they know that even a mere 20-odd miles from the more socially accepting Los Angeles, ideals and standard of public and private behavior were much more regimented. In the nearby Hermosa Beach, for example, the KKK was still very much alive and active.

A view of beach life in 1930s California-- Huntington Beach.

The inhabitants of El Porto were not inviting of Billy and his crew from the moment they arrived. This was not because the boys were noisy, intrusive, or disrespectful, but because they were a) Those hoity-toity Hollywood People and b) Gay. Certainly, the troupe of gentlemen could feel that they were swimming in unwelcome waters when they got such a chilly reception, but the nonchalant Billy probably convinced them to ignore it and not let the up-tight locals inhibit their fun getaway. Easier said than done. On the night of May 31, Billy et al were leaving a local restaurant and returning to their rented beach house when they were accosted by a gang of residents, both male and female. They were told, in no uncertain terms, to leave the city in the next hour "or else." Billy naturally laughed the threat off at first, but when one of the angry crowd threw a punch at Jimmie, Billy lunged at him, only to find himself beaten to the ground. Shaken, Billy-- now bearing two black eyes-- and his retinue quickly raced back to grab their belongings, jump in the car, and drive out of town, all while the locals shouted insults and slurs, pelting them and their vehicle with tomatoes. To his dying day, George Cukor would refuse to even speak about the incident. (The situation was later sensationalized when it was claimed that crosses were burned outside of the rented beach house, but this was not true-- yet another reason why you should take the biographical information of such sources as Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon I and II with a grain of salt... and probably a shot of Tequila).

It was later alleged that the mob rebelled against its Hollywood guests because Jimmie had been accused of molesting a local boy, Jimmy Walker. However, this had all been a complete concoction built up as an excuse to unleash unfounded hostility against the unwelcome visitors. Witnesses claimed everything from seeing Jimmie buy the boy a hotdog or hamburger, allow him to pet his purple poodle, then invite him into his house where the sexual assault supposedly took place. Billy and Jimmie did not, nor did they ever, have a "purple poodle," which was an obvious and cliched attack against them and their sexuality. Nor was there ever any evidence in Billy or Jimmie's past of anything resembling pedophiliac tendencies. Friends who knew Jimmie defended him adamantly, saying that he would never, ever do anything to hurt a child. Indeed, the young boy failed to even identify Jimmie as his assailant in court. What grew from Jimmie probably innocently saying "hello" to Jimmy Walker on the beach was a malicious and disgusting lie designed to oust Billy and his friends from town. No charges were ever brought against Jimmie nor Billy-- who was innocent by all counts anyway-- but the event left him shaken and much more press shy for the remainder of his life. He had seen the dark side of his once adoring public, and he no longer trusted the safety of his star stature. His charming bravado had been unmasked, and for the first time in his life he was truly scared. Though this event did not kill Billy's spirit, it did change him and make him take stock of what was important in life. It wasn't long before he bowed out of cinema completely and embraced a life behind the scenes in the world of fashion and decor, where he enjoyed more privacy and safety from a disloyal public.

Interestingly enough, there was another celebrity scrape not far from Billy's feud in Manhattan Beach. This time, the star caught in the middle of it all was Lila Lee (left), starlet of such silent classics as Cecil B. Demille's Male and Female and the sound version of The Unholy Three. Lila Lee was staying at the home of author Gouverneur Morris, whose dark and twisted works were often immortalized onscreen, (such as in The Penalty). In 1936, Lila's world would be turned upside down when the body of her boyfriend, Reid Russell, was found limp and bleeding in the garden swing. Reid was an out of work salesman and a good friend of the Morrises, with whom he often played bridge. It was initially suggested that the death was a suicide, for Reid was discovered clasping a gun in his hand.

Lila unsuccessfully tries to woo butler Thomas Meighan
(center) from the glamorous Gloria Swanson (left) in Male and Female.

However, there were still a great many unanswered questions. While many reported that Reid had been despondent, his mother refused to believe that he had taken his own life. Later, hostess Mrs. Victoria Morris claimed that a suicide note had been found, but that Lila had urged her to burn it. In addition, it was discovered that the body must have been sitting in its swing for twelve hours before it was reported. The fired shell was never found, which made investigating officers question whether the body had been moved from another location, and it was never corroborated that the "rusty gun" Reid held was the same one that killed him. The position of the body was also awkward, as Reid's arms were crossed. It was impossible for experts to recreate the phenomenon that could have resulted in such a post-shot posture. Still, no motive could be found, and the case was left unsolved. After the ensuing media frenzy, Lila-- like Billy-- became much more press shy and effectively retired from the biz. She would later return, doing modest work in the '40s and '50s, but her career never recaptured the steam of its untainted youth. It was never determined whether Reid was murdered or had committed suicide, but the story had a profound effect upon Lila's son, James Kirkwood Jr, (father was actor James Kirkwood Sr.), who would remember the event well and recreate it in his novel There Must Be a Pony. In fact, James was the one to find the body at the tender age of twelve. (Kirkwood would also famously co-author the award-winning A Chorus Line).

One of the saddest tales repeated down the line of Hollywood Lore involves Karl Dane, the Danish silent film comedian who contributed to a multitude of classics, including The Big Parade with John Gilbert and Slide Kelly Slide opposite Bill Haines. Karl (right) was known in the film industry as a sweet-natured and friendly man, albeit a private one. He often preferred doing wood-work in his carpentry shop to going out on the town. In fact, he was very good with his hands and had originally worked as a machinist in Copenhagen before moving to America for better prospects in 1916. Dane had dreamed of working as an actor ever since accompanying his father to a theater as a child, where the senior party had a job as a curtain puller. Trying his hand at the thriving new industry, he slowly ingratiated himself to some of the greatest directors of his time, landing plum parts opposite the likes of Rudolph Valentino and Renee Adoree. He used his good sense of humor to team up with George K. Arthur to form comedy duo Dane and Arthur, which was a big success. He was on top of the world, earning $1500/wk. Then as the talkie revolution inched nearer, things changed. It is remembered today that Karl's career came to an end because his thick accent didn't transfer well to sound films, though there have also been reports that his work on the screen was still solid in these early sound years. It seems that many factors contributed to the end of his acting career, for he too suffered a nervous breakdown that resulted in his leaving MGM. He struggled through various ventures, searching for work on the screen or in vaudeville, but he was never able to regain his stride.

Karl performs opposite Lillian Gish in The Scarlet Letter.

It is popularly recalled that Karl bought a stake in a hotdog stand that used to operate outside MGM, his old studio, and when a friend from his past recognized him, the humiliation drove him to suicide. However, history proves that it wasn't that simple. After the hot-dog venture failed, Karl pursued more work as a carpenter or even an extra-- a far cry from his co-starring days-- but he couldn't seem to catch a break. Sinking deeper into depression, and alone after three failed marriages, on April 13, 1933 he was robbed of his last $18. The next day, April 14, he was discovered by his friend Frances Leake in his apartment with a self-inflicted bullet in his head. He left behind a simple note saying: "To Frances and all my friends-- goodbye." Many in the industry, who still considered Karl a friend, were shocked and saddened by the turn of events that had left him feeling so alone that death was the only option. Jean Hersholt stepped forward on his fallen friend's behalf and insisted that MGM pay for Karl's funeral. Suprisingly, they agreed. His talent and contribution to film remains forgotten under the stigma of being "the hot-dog guy," but at least in this Karl has been able to find a way to etch himself into our memory and serve as a warning for those who enter the biz with naivete.

Another forgotten lady is Marie Prevost, also notoriously remembered for her shocking demise. Marie (left) was a beautiful actress who got her start as one of the illustrious silent "Bathing Beauties." While under contract at Universal Studios, Irving Thalberg noticed her and saw great potential, but as a man of taste he wanted to get her away from those awful cheesecake roles. So, he had her publicly burn her bathing suit at Coney Island as a symbol of her birth as a genuine actress. The ploy worked and brought Marie a great deal of attention. After making some more of her token comedies, which she had an uncanny knack for, she was signed at Warner Bros, where she suffered her first major scandal: bigamy. She very nonchalantly married Kenneth Harlan, her The Beautiful and Damned co-star (a telling title) while she was still technically married to her first husband, Sonny Gerke. The marriage was quickly annulled so that she could obtain an official divorce, and she and Kenneth were legally and appropriately wed with much less pomp and circumstance later. She went on to star in the Howard Hughes picture The Racket, during the filming of which she was incredibly depressed due to her mother's death and her botched affair with Hughes. As her film work came to a crawl, resulting in emotional weight gain, her prospects looked worse and worse. Crash dieting impaired her health, and her poor finances left her in a desperate state. Alcohol was a chosen comfort, as is usually the case.

Marie with Monte Blue in The Marriage Circle.

As the life seemed to slowly drain out of the girl who was once such a vivacious riot, friends became concerned, but no one had any idea as to the depths of her true despair. Once hailed by Ernst Lubitsch as "one of the few actresses in Hollywood who knew how to underplay comedy to achieve the maximum effect," Marie's hopes at performing deterioated with her health. On January 21, 1937, at only 38-years-old, Marie died of heart failure as induced by alcoholism and malnutrition. She was not found until 2 days later, when her dog's barking become so obnoxious that the bellboy of her Hollywood apartment was finally forced to enter her room. He found her in bed, lying face down. Certain "historians" have recorded that Marie was found half eaten by her dachshund, but this is false-- (cough, Kenneth Anger, cough). "Maxie" had simply bitten Marie in attempts to wake her up. The sad tale of the washed-up former beauty touched every one in the community, most of whom called her "friend." The likes of Barbara Stanwyck, Wallace Beery, and Joan Crawford attended her funeral, which the latter allegedly paid for herself. Marie's sad end resulted in one major triumph: the establishment of The Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital, which cares for the ill and elderly veterans of the industry. No other lost soul would thus be condemned to the same fate as she. Marie's final place of residence remains standing today at 6230 Afton Place with an identical building mirroring it on the opposite side of the street. A beautiful old structure covered with lush ivy, it is hard to imagine that such an old Hollywood jewel ever housed one of Hollywood's saddest discarded gems.

The Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood is famous for its list of illustrious clientele (see Elvis entering, right) and infamous for the scandals they often carried in with their luggage. Frances Farmer was hauled through its lobby wearing nothing but a shower curtain for her 1942 arrest, Bess Houdini held a seance on the roof on Halloween evening in 1936 in attempts to contact her late and supernaturally obsessed husband-- who had apparently passed this trait onto his widow, D.W. Griffith collapsed in the lobby of a stroke in 1948, and I Love Lucy's William Frawley did the same (heart attack) not far from its front door, where he was quickly dragged in 1966. But for all of the ill luck seemingly associated with the once proud Hotel (it is now a residence for elderly living), one story stands out as being more tragic than the rest. Irene Lentz (Gibbons) was a well-respected costume designer who started out as an ingenue in Mack Sennett comedies. Her real talent, however, was in fashion, and in time she was popular enough to be referred to by her first name only, "Irene"-- thus, the Cher of the fashion world. She stitched her way into Ginger Rogers's heart when designing her gowns for Shall We Dance, and later in the 1960s she was a close friend of Doris Day, for whom she designed many stunning creations.

After a flourishing and fairly steady career, including 2 Academy Award nominations, the 61-year-old Irene (left) checked into the Knickerbocker under a pseudonym. Friends had noticed that she was melancholy and had been depressed for some time. Some chalked it up to her unhappy marriage to Eliot Gibbons; some stated that she was still pining for the recently deceased Gary Cooper, who was allegedly the only man she ever really loved. Whatever the source of her misery, she could apparently no longer endure it. On Nov. 15, 1962 at about 3pm, she slit her wrists in her hotel room, but while waiting to bleed out she found that death was not coming quickly enough. Desperate for an end to her pain, she flung herself from the bedroom window, landing on the roof over the lobby. She was discovered later that evening. Her death remains mysterious and saddening, with her parting words being almost too polite: "I'm sorry. This is the best way. Get someone very good to design and be happy. I love you all. Irene." Initially one might accuse her of being a drama queen, tossing herself from one of the most famous hotels in Hollywood, but her original attempt to kill herself by blood-letting eradicates this theory. She was clearly a woman who was deeply distraught and out of hope. The beauty of her designs, however, live on in films like The Postman Always Rings Twice, where Lana Turner's "hot pants" became the new hot item.

No, no. The true drama queen was the woman accredited with the most famous Swan Dive in Hollywood history, and I'm not talking about Esther Williams. Many have heard the story of Peg Entwistle (right), or are familiar with the nature of her death.  Peg (aka Millicent Lillian) was a Welsh actress who paved her way to fame and artistic respect on the Broadway stage. When still dreaming of her own career, Bette Davis allegedly liked to watch Peg perform, soaking in every nuance of her skillful portrayals. Like many before her, and many who would follow, "Peg" would move out to Hollywood in the hope of transferring her stage successes to the screen. Certainly, an actress who had conquered the complicated words of Henrik Ibsen could equally repeat the awkward drivel that passed as a screenplay! Starting out doing a play with Billie Burke, The Mad Hopes, Peg won her first creditable film role in the B-movie Thirteen Women, also starring rising leading ladies Irene Dunne and Myrna Loy, the latter of whom played the film's vengeful villainess. Peg's role was small and over in the film's first few minutes, but she hoped that it had at least gotten her foot in the proverbial door. However, the movie was a dud, and rightfully so-- watching it today, the only things interesting about it are the early performances of its future stars and, of course, the ill-fated Peg.

The famous sign as it once appeared.

When no other acting jobs followed, Peg's despair set in. Of course, this is all summary, and certainly there were more than career pressures weighing upon her, but whatever the source of her malcontent, Peg had reached the end of her tether. If she were unable to live a star, then she would die as one. It is assumed that sometime on September 16, 1932, Peg made her way up Beachwood Drive from her Uncle's home, where she had been staying, and made a slow and steady climb up Mount Lee to the "Hollywoodland" sign. Neatly folding her jacket, removing her shoes, and laying her purse at the base of the "H," she then used a workman's ladder to climb this letter. Reaching the top, she probably took a long, last look at the city that had once promised her such hope and left her only with heartache. She jumped, leaving behind her the sad note: "I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E." Today, the remaining "Hollywood" sign bears a dual significance because of her leap: the promise and the pain of a life in the movies. The bitterest part of this tale is the legend that Peg was to receive a film offer the day after her leap. If only she had waited... As such, she has become an idol and is often referenced as the "Patron Saint of struggling actors," who perhaps use her sad story to convince themselves to hold out a little bit longer and not let the insufferable blues make victims of them as well.

2428 Beachwood Dr, the house from whence
Peg would begin her infamous climb.

The scandals of Hollywood are its juiciest enticements. Many love to hear the trash-talk or the sensational rumors, which are usually more exciting than the fictional stories released in the theaters. However, these tales are always more appealing when one is the observer and not the subject, and resultingly the object of scorn, ridicule, or pity. While some stars occassionally find themselves humbled by the circumstances that bring them crashing to earth after flying too close to the sun, forgetting their own mortality-- their penetrability-- there are also those that are never able to rise back up from the ashes. Are there certain people who are naturally predisposed to depression? Would Peg or Irene or Karl have met a happier fate had they lived in these modern times when therapy and medication are the rule and not the exception, or does Hollywood truly breed a kind of sorrow that often cannot be cured? While the likes of William Haines and Lila Lee were able to crawl out from under the rubble of their own scandals, turn their backs on negativity, and start afresh, not all are so lucky. It can only be hoped that the fallen stars in this City of Angels have not forfeited their lives in vain-- the lessons they pass on are eagerly heard, but hopefully just as eagerly learned. It is, after all, pain-- the common denominator-- that unites as all in our fight for life. Sometimes it takes death for us to realize that our stars are human too.


  1. Really lovely summation Meredith and, as always, thank you.

    ps - while I was familiar with the rest of the the stories, I did not know the Lila Lee one. I learned something today!

  2. Fascinating! Thanks for the wonderful post.

  3. Thanks for the comments, guy and gals. I appreciate it. I know a lot of the stories were probably review, but they're all worth mentioning. Have a great weekend!