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Thursday, October 20, 2011

HISTORY LESSON: Hollywood Suicide



A title card from The Flapper, which ironically appears after Olive Thomas's character decides 
not to kill herself. This single slide could serve as the explanation many have
 as to why Olive's death was not a suicide but an accident-- 
she loved life too much to let go... Or did she?


As Halloween creeps closer, I thought it relevant to dip into the more macabre side of Hollywood. Since All Hallows Eve is embraced as a public indulgence in the sometimes very thin line between life and death, it seems a perfect holiday for La La Land. Hollywood itself, sometimes appearing as a glorious Heaven and others as a torturous Hell, has birthed multiple superstars but has too killed its own children. The most depressing and pitiable of these fallen angels are those who choose to take their own lives. In all cases, the deaths are shocking, unexpected, and heartbreaking, but there are a few that are so unbelievable that, even when given direct reason or motive, one cannot wrap his or her mind around the tragedy; at least I can't. Olive Thomas remains the first official poster girl for the inexplicable, self-inflicted death, which to this day remains debatable. One can continue to turn over the evidence, but the varying testimonies of husband Jack Pickford, the memories of friends, and the final conclusions of medical professionals all produce contradictory evidence. Whether suicide or accident, the outcome is still devastating and Olive still a victim. Journeying down this same vein of the unfathomable and unreasonable disappearance of some of our brightest stars, I've compiled the following collection of some of the most bizarre and yet little discussed suicides in Hollywood History. Years after their shattered ends, one can still cry "Why, oh, why?" to the Hollywood Hills and receive no answer but a pained echo for the lost souls, volleying without end.


LUPE VELEZ:


Lupe was branded the "Mexican Spitfire" due to her feisty, sensual, uncontainable spirit and her obvious heritage. Born in San Luis Potosi, she-- like Dolores Del Rio and Anna May Wong-- paved the way in the industry for "ethnic" girls, bringing her beauty, fire, and passion to the screen with full force. After a stint in vaudeville, Lupe landed in Hollywood where she made unprecedented, scene-stealing appearances in films opposite Douglas Fairbanks (The Gaucho) and Lon Chaney (Where East is East). The girl didn't just have "something," she had something indescribable. Who else in the history of cinema has outshone the Man of a Thousand Faces? Intensely sexual with a temper to match, she had a notorious romance with Gary Cooper-- whose placid demeanor was probably the only one who could withstand her raging bouts of anger-- and a failed marriage to an equal wild man, Johnny Weissmuller. Her career thrived through the silent era, where she gained a reputation as a comedienne with punch and panache, but the coming of talkies allegedly inhibited her career due to her obvious accent-- taking her out of the running of more acceptable, all-American leading ladies-- and later accusations of communist support dampened her public appeal. In her thirties, she did Broadway, returned to her native Mexico-- where she was very popular-- and landed back in Hollywood where she fell into the arms of actor Harald Maresch. Then, on Dec. 13, 1944, Lupe was gone, having taken her own life with the aid of Seconal. She was but 36-years-old. The reason for her shocking end was given by herself in a suicide note: "To Harald, may God forgive you and forgive me too but I prefer to take my life away and our baby's before I bring him with shame, or killing him, Lupe." The reason, therefore, for her desperate final act, was personal shame over the fact that Harald had gotten her pregnant and refused to marry her, but even in this there is controversy. 


Lupe may have gone to convent school as a child, but she was far from conventional. A vibrant, caution-be-damned kind of girl, it is doubtful that she killed herself to protect her own reputation and save her child from a life of ridicule.  The Lupe the world knew and loved would have most certainly socked anyone in the nose who so much as looked at her child the wrong way. There must be more to the story, and in the end it seems more likely that it was Lupe's own impulsive, defiant behavior that killed her. Perhaps after a lifetime of broken hearts, a lover's refusal of marriage became the last straw. One could argue that she killed herself more to hurt Harald for his betrayal or to simply give one last eff-you to the world that she had considered so cruel. Adela Rogers St. Johns would state that Harald had every intention of marrying Lupe, but simply refused to lie about the date of the nuptials in order to make their child the product of marriage and not conversely marriage the product of the child. If this is true, it makes the suicide even more head-scratching. More puzzling is the speculation that Harald was totally innocent in the debacle and that the child was that of Gary Cooper, with whom Lupe had maintained an on-again off-again affair. The most commonly accepted theory is that Lupe was not a well woman. Her vacillations in temperament indicate that she would have been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder had such a disease been recognized in her day. Friends too reported that, despite her bravado, in which she attacked life with chin out and up, Lupe had great pain and melancholy. On rare occasions, she would open up about her life's disappointments and what she felt was the absence of real love. Her death scene is too debatable because of the way it has been painted. Some state that she was found lying in a bed of white satin, completely composed and beautiful, the way she herself had dramatically staged it. Others attest that she had a violent reaction to the Seconal and died with her head in the toilet, drowning to death. Both are debatable: suicide is never a glossy affair, but one doubts that anyone could "drown" in a toilet, given that the weight of the human body would, if unconscious, naturally slump to the floor. The only hard core truth we can rely on is that Lupe left us all too soon, and whatever reason she had for taking her own life was not reason enough.


GEORGE SANDERS:


Talk about unexpected... The Sultan of Snark and fastest s-wordsman of witty barbs taking his own life? No. Not possible. George Sanders, on screen and off, seemed to be the smartest of them all and ten steps ahead of everyone else. Sitting comfortably on a pedestal of intellect, he looked down his nose at a world of neandrethals and gloated at his own superiority. We counted on his smirking charm to add layers of humor and biting edge to films like The Picture of Dorian Gray and All About Eve, and with every opportunity to impress us with his entrancing voice-- one put to use as Shere Khan in The Jungle Book-- he succeeded. But this Englishman too must have been hiding a secret behind his superior jabs and polished deviance, for his life ended in April of 1972 by his own hand. Even more startling is the fact that he was well into his sixties when he committed this personal atrocity. One thinks of suicide as being the haven for discontented and bruised youths who have given up hope; apparently we never mature past our own insecurities and need for escape. After four marriages, one of which was to Zsa Zsa Gabor, George dwindled into ill health. The aid of alcohol certainly didn't help things, and in his later years he had become mentally unstable, experiencing moments of complete delirium, which resulted in angry outbursts. Losing his mental faculties-- the man whose shrewd mind was his key asset-- was something he could not bear. When he was unable to play his piano, he solved the problem by chopping it to bits. He wandered aimlessly, landing in Barcelona, where he finally said farewell as only he would, with annoyance and condescension: "Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck." His drug of choice was Nembutal. What remains so indiscernible is that a sharp man such as himself could suddenly become the butt of life's joke.


CHARLES BOYER:


The ultimate French lover, Charles Boyer could inspire amore in even the lowest of skunks-- which he did when Looney Tunes modeled Pepe le Pew after him. With unforgettable performances ranging from superb malevolence in Gaslight to pious romanticism in All This, and Heaven Too, his acting talents were enhanced by a single raised eyebrow that drew women to him like moths to a flame. In his private life, Charles maintained his suavity but had much less ego. Fairly shy but amiable, he was entrancing for reasons aside from his looks-- which was necessary since he was prematurely balding, short, and had a bit of a gut. Originally a student of philosophy and a fluent speaker of five languages, the equally religious man wed his only wife in 1934 and remained faithful to her for the next 44 years (although, James Cagney--also a loyal husband-- would recall overhearing ol' Charles putting the moves on a young actress on one of their WWII morale boosting tours). The classy Irene Dunne named him as one of her two favorite leading men, (Cary Grant being the other), and he was able to befriend even the intensely private Maurice Chevalier. However, despite a prosperous career and happy marriage, darkness too was lurking over Charles's shoulder. After losing his son, Michael-- who shot himself either by accident or suicide on his twenty-first birthday-- Charles lost his beloved wife Pat nearly fourteen years later in 1978. Two days after this tragedy, Charles took his own life, again with the aid of Seconal. It is believed that he did so because the great romantic could not bear life without his paramour, but there had to be more cracks in a man than a broken heart to spur on such a desperate act. Whatever pains he felt in his personal life, he kept hidden, therefore giving a performance that far outshone anything he did on the silver screen. Without Pat as the glue to hold him together against his demons, death must have seemed the only out, but the results still make one shake the head in consternation.


MARGARET SULLAVAN:


Everyone's favorite girl-next-door ruled the silver screen in roles that showcased both her warmth and resilience. Close friends would be impressed with these qualities in her private life, including Jimmy Stewart who was head-over-heels for her in his early career. Maggie was a fighter, and proved it by overcoming a muscular weakness that prevented her from walking when she was a child. Rebellious in spirit, she overcame this malady and grew into a tomboy who shrugged off familial disapproval to pursue a career in dance and theater. When they cut her off financially, she paid her own way, making it all the way to Hollywood and cementing herself as a leading lady with grace and gumption. One of her most remarked upon qualities was her voice, which did not ring out clear as a bell, like so many young ingenues, but was instead deep and lush. Few knew that this was because she had a hearing problem diagnosed as otosclerosis: only by speaking at a deeper register could she even hear herself. As she aged, her condition worsened, which deeply affected her psychologically, as did her divorce from third husband Leland Hayward. After her three children forsook her to live with their father, Margaret was crushed. Separated from her family, she felt alienated and it gave her great pain to see the lives of her loved ones fall apart-- all of her children possessed her same rebellious spirit if not her focused drive. She became increasingly depressed, finding it difficult to sleep, and spent a great deal of time on her own. Though she continued to work, her only real companion seemed to be the foggy static that used to serve as noise in her increasingly isolated and lonely life. After spending time briefly in a mental institution, she was found home in bed suffering a Barbituate overdose on New Years Day 1960. It was too late to save her life. It continues to be argued whether the death was accidental or purposeful, but examining the evidence it seems that Maggie's flinty strength finally succumbed to her emotional abandonment. To make things even more tragic, two of her other children-- Bridget and Bill-- would later commit suicide, continuing the sad legacy. Only daughter Brooke remained to pen the novel of her family's breakdown: HaywireWatching Maggie's movies today, she remains one of the least likely candidates for such a death, yet there the hard truth lies-- etched in stone. 


LOU TELLEGEN:


Lou is a rarely remembered film personality. If he is recalled at all, it is only by history buffs who know him as the one-time husband of screen siren and opera star Geraldine Farrar. A handsome man, he clearly had something in the way of charm, since he was able to woo some of the biggest and most untouchable women in show business, including the illustrious Sarah Bernhardt in addition to Farrar. Charm also helped him in his acting career, where it has been reported that what he lacked in talent he made up for in personality and the ability to forge the correct "relationships." He got his start on the stage after seducing Bernhardt, who cast the young man as her leading man. He had no experience and at the time had just been released from prison. His drive for success was perhaps propelled by his status as an "illegetimate child." The legitimacy that he lacked in infancy, he clearly sought to attain in adulthood through prosperity. His ambition revealed itself in his first marriage-- to a countess. The name of his auto-biography, therefore, seems befitting: Women Have Been Kind. With his good looks, he clearly knew how to play the game to suit his needs, but after three failed marriages he still had not found what he was looking for. Thrown into the mix was his dwindling career, which included stage plays and film roles (including 3 Bad Men), often playing unsavory characters with an agenda. Things took a turn when his handsome face was damaged in a fire, thus leaving him without his oft played Ace. By 1934, he too was suffering from Cancer (a fact that was kept from him) and bankruptcy. With no career, no woman to save him, and a lifetime of mistakes and lost opportunities, Lou at fifty-one had nothing. This makes his death not necessarily surprising, as his sad state was obvious to those around him; what makes his suicide shocking is its execution. Lou's method was masochistic: standing before a mirror, he stabbed himself with a pair of sewing scissors... seven times. Legend has it that this was done while he was surrounded by newspaper clippings of his past glories, which is true figuratively if not literally. 



The mysterious and saddening ends of W.S. Van Dyke, Max Linder, Phyllis Haver, Brian Keith, Everett Sloane, etc. could be added to this never-ending list. The question is, is Hollywood really a major contributing culprit in their deaths, or does living larger-than-life simply project a more intense version of universal truths? Clearly, when you have climbed higher than the rest, you have farther to fall, and for those who have once tasted ambrosia on Mount Olympus to be left with only memories of past glories, a quiet, solitary life does not seem as inviting as the eternal silence of death-- which will shut out their unfulfilled desires with their sorrows. If Hollywood were erased from the equation, it seems that all of these stories would have ended the same way, for it does not appear that the loss of fame tipped the scales against Margaret Sullavan or Charles Boyer as it more fully did to Tellegan. Why is it then that this city still seems to be to blame, at least partly? Life in show-business, so rich, passionate, and dramatic seems to induce equally dramatic ends. Just as plot-twists give unsuspecting film viewers a thrilling whip-lash, tabloid truths have too taken us for a loop when things don't end the way we expect them to. Perhaps these deaths seem more brutal because we never expect our stars to die at all-- even when they do die, they don't. Olive Thomas still uproariously mugs at us in her remaining masterpiece, The Flapper-- a film in which she ironically backs out of a half-hearted suicide attempt-- and she has been gone for nearly one-hundred years. This haunting quality only adds to the Hollywood mystique: light and shadows, glamour and debauchery, flecks of gold and celluloid dust. For every lost life, thousands of movie fans are born to take its place; to continue carrying the torch for lights snuffed out by the cool hand of death.

5 comments:

  1. Boyer and Peterson's relationship is one of my favorite untold Hollywood romances, even if it did lead to irrational extremes on behalf of Boyer when she died of natural causes (cancer). Speaking of which, many speculate that losing beloved wife Benita Hume to breast cancer in 1967 contributed to Sanders's decision to abandon this sweet cesspool.

    I had no idea Margaret Sullavan took her own life! I just wrote about that fantastic voice in a recent blog post, too. What a tragic, unfair end for her, and for all these actors.

    Thought-provoking and poignant post!

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  2. Meredith, you captured the Lupe suicide theory better than any I have ever heard. I am so glad you didn't mention that Kenneth Anger nonsense. But you're too smart and way to nice to even go there. I totally agree that there had to be something else going on in her head to do such a desperate act. As you you said, she was tough . Maybe it was her Catholic faith that led her down this road. We'll never know. Thanks

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  3. We are CELEBRATING the first anniversary of the blog O FALCÃO MALTÊS (The Maltese Falcon).
    Show up!
    Greetings!

    O Falcão Maltês

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  4. Laura: I agree. Such a sweet romance! Thanks for the info on George and Benita as well. I was unaware of the circumstances. So sad.
    Billy: Glad you approve. The Lupe debacle has always fascinated me, and made me angry too. She was so amazing.
    Antonio: I will definitely be stopping by!

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  5. What does any of this have to do with Brian Keith whom I Googled and got all this mess.

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