Bebe Daniels was one of Hollywood’s first true superstars, but if she’s forgotten today, perhaps that's because of her sad end.
1. She Was A Hollywood Veteran
No one lit up the screen like Bebe Daniels—but no one had a more tragic time when the cameras stopped rolling. A child film star almost before such a thing existed, Daniels’ career only got more scandalous as she grew older. From her messed-up romances to the one, harrowing night she could never forget, Daniels’ life was truly stranger than fiction.
2. She Was Born For The Screen
Though she was born in Dallas Texas, Phyllis Virginia “Bebe” Daniels had Hollywood running through her veins. Her father was a theater manager, while her mother was a stage actress. In fact, just 10 weeks after Daniels was born, her father carried her on stage at one of his productions, despite the fact a baby had nothing to do with the dramatic proceedings.
As it turned out, this was just the beginning of her father’s ambitions for his daughter.
3. She Was One Of The First Child Stars
When Daniels was still just a girl, her parents made a fateful decision for her. Knowing the business inside and out, they moved to Los Angeles, and Daniels immediately took up acting. At the age of four, she played a part in The Squaw Man, treading the boards in Shakespeare productions on the side. But this had a dark facet to it.
4. She Was Dorothy Before Judy Garland
Over the next few years, Daniels wracked up as many film credits as she could, even once starring as Dorothy Gale in an early Wizard of Oz short film. Still, when it came to her family, Daniels’ initial dedication to her craft had less to do with passion and more to do with pleasing her parents.
As she later admitted, “my parents decided there was a good future in picture work,” and she worked to keep them (and their bank accounts) happy. Until one day, that all changed.
5. She Met A Rising Star
When Daniels was just 14 years old, a golden opportunity fell into her lap. The moderately successful comedian Harold Lloyd and his producer Hal Roach were looking around for a leading lady to co-star with Lloyd for his “Lonesome Luke” character reels. Although Daniels was still extremely young, she radiated verve and wit, and Roach scooped her up in a second.
Bebe’s parents’ reaction was nothing like she expected.
6. Her Mother Treated Her Cruelly
Instead of rejoicing over what was surely her daughter’s big break, Bebe’s mother responded with a brutal insult. Apparently, while it was alright for Bebe to play act as a child, especially on the stage, her mother—despite being an actress herself—was scandalized that her daughter was trying to make a go of it as in almost-adult in film.
She reportedly claimed she “never thought Bebe would sink that low”. Well, Bebe’s first moments on set with Harold Lloyd were worse than her mother could have imagined.
7. She Demeaned Herself
Daniels’ experience on the first films with Lloyd and his Lonesome Luke character were nothing short of demeaning. In most of them, she played short roles devoid of any personality and existed only to set up Lloyd or be the object of his desire—usually both. Critics saw her roles as “crude” and simple in these pieces.
Behind the scenes, however, it was getting very complicated.
8. She Seemed Older Than She Was
Although Daniels was still barely a teenager, it was sometimes hard to tell this on set. She had, as one biographer put it, “an extraordinarily expressive face,” and she was a master at giving just the right facial expression at just the right time. Her co-star Harold Lloyd didn’t fail to notice her skill—and her budding beauty.
But this burgeoning romance was creepier than you can imagine.
9. Her Co-Star Had A Creepy Crush
Lloyd was instantly attracted to Daniels, and his reasons were disturbing. He called her “a dark, dewy, big-eyed child,” as if her doll-like beauty made her more attractive. Not to mention that Lloyd was almost a decade her senior, and also the better-paid, more important star on set. So, yeah, ew.
Still, Daniels certainly didn’t have this reaction.
10. She Was “The Girl”
Soon after starting work with Harold Lloyd, the teenaged Daniels fell into a relationship with her co-star. They were so popular on film, with characters titled “The Boy” and “The Girl,” these became their nicknames in real life to fans who were rooting for them to last forever. As usual, though, not everything was as perfect as it looked on screen.
11. She Had A Dysfunctional Relationship
Lloyd and Daniels had the boundless energy of the young and famous, and spent their good days ripping up dance competitions together—a fad for new celebrity couples at the time—and winning several trophies in the process. But their flame also burned too hot. Daniels was young, yes, but she wasn’t meek, and she and Lloyd would often have all-out arguments with each other.
Their most frequent fights, it turned out, were about Daniels herself.
12. She Wanted More
Daniels was no fool, and she knew playing Lloyd’s little comedic sidekick wasn’t going to get her where she wanted in Hollywood. At first, she tried to convince Lloyd and producer Hal Roach to let her have more creative control of their reels together, but it all fell on deaf ears. They kept refusing. Frustrated, Daniels acted out in the only way she knew how.
13. She Could Be A Diva
With her two male co-workers stopping her at every turn, Daniels got a petty revenge. Pulling the “diva” card over their latest disagreement, she refused to perform and hauled herself off set to do something better with her life than listen to what two men thought. Unfortunately, her punishment for this was extremely outsized.
14. Her Boyfriend Controlled Her
For all that Daniels wanted more freedom in her work, Lloyd and Roach wanted to control their little doll. They knew just what to do: Records show that when Daniels refused to perform, Roach went ahead and called his business partner, instructing him to hold back Bebe’s paycheck as payback for her rebellion.
For a still-emerging actress, nothing could have been worse. The wear began to show.
15. She Made A Bitter Confession
Daniels wasn’t one to keep quiet about her dissatisfactions, and soon she was splashing her drama all over magazine pages. In a 1917 interview with Photoplay Journal, she said firmly, “Of course I love my present work, but someday I want to do really big things…I’ll never be satisfied until I do”. It was a clear message to Roach and Lloyd. She was about to send a louder one.
16. She Had A Fateful Meeting
In 1917, Daniels was still stuck in a holding pattern with Lloyd and Roach. Then one night nearly changed everything. According to Lloyd, the pair of them were dancing as they usually did at a club in Santa Monica when they ran into famed director Cecil B DeMille, who was watching Daniels with rapt attention. He made her an offer she almost couldn’t refuse.
17. She Met A Man Who Understood Her
If Lloyd and Roach refused to see Bebe’s dramatic potential, DeMille had no such issues. He went over to Daniels and asked her if she’d like to work for him on one of his serious pictures. First, Daniels admitted that she “would like nothing better”—but there was one more thing standing in her way.
18. She Performed A Selfless Act
Incredibly, Daniels politely turned down DeMille in the end. Despite her temptations, she still had a year contract left with Roach and Lloyd, and she wanted to treat it with integrity. As DeMille himself put it when he remembered this meeting, she was “more honorable than some in those cutthroat days”.
Unfortunately, when Roach heard about the story, he didn’t treat her or DeMille with the same honor.
19. She Enraged Her Producer
Although no harm had (yet) come of DeMiIle’s encounter with Daniels, her producer Hal Roach didn’t see it that way at all. Shortly thereafter, he instructed his business partner to pen a strongly articulated letter to a cinema manager. The letter accused DeMille of engaging in prohibited acts of "raiding" a studio's stars, which was against the rules at the time.
Of course, that is exactly what DeMille was trying to do, but since he didn’t succeed—and since Roach wasn’t giving Daniels what she wanted anyway—it was more than a little petty. Soon, karma came for him.
20. She Made A Strange Exit
The next event in Bebe Daniels’ life is shrouded in mystery and more than a little scandal. See, reportedly—even with the nasty little letter—Lloyd and Roach gladly let Daniels go like clockwork a year later to DeMille, after telling her “This is a great opportunity for you, and we think you ought to go”.
But that’s a sanitized Hollywood ending that Daniels, Lloyd, and Roach made up. The truth is much more agonizing.
21. She Went Through A Secret Breakup
Right around this time, Lloyd’s career was beginning to take off (he’d soon hit superstardom with 1923’s Safety Last!), and Daniels could certainly see that. So, was her thirst for dramatic roles really that desperate that she’d throw away sure stardom? I don’t think so. Instead, the reality was heartbreaking.
Conveniently, just as she left the production, Daniels and Lloyd had stopped dating. And this was no amicable breakup.
22. She Was Jilted In Love
Although she was trying to paste smiles over the whole situation, Daniels had suffered cruel blows in her relationship with Lloyd in the years before she decamped for DeMille. For one, film historians believe she wanted Lloyd to marry her, and spent some time begging him to pop the question. His response was enough to infuriate any woman.
23. Her Lover Scorned Her
Daniels had got her start so early, she was still nothing more than a slip of a girl in 1919. So despite being with her for nearly their entire working relationship, Lloyd decided now she was too young, thought she couldn’t make a proper wife, and refused to marry her.
Other experts even suggest that Lloyd, who was infamously miserly, also didn’t want to support a full household. Still, it gets worse.
24. Her Boyfriend Sucked
In the end, it likely wasn’t Daniels’ age that broke apart the relationship. The reason was Lloyd’s own creepy taste in women. If you’ll remember, he liked Daniels at first because she was a “big-eyed child,” and it turns out this attraction went more than skin deep.
He quite literally wanted an innocent puppet he could direct how he wanted, and Daniels’ ambitious, independent streak scared him. Oof. Unfortunately, there’s more.
25. She Watched Herself Get Replaced
After Daniels’ left him, Lloyd was left in the lurch. He quickly replaced her with the actress Mildred Davis, which is reasonable enough. What wasn’t reasonable was that Davis was almost a carbon-copy of Daniels, and Lloyd described her in turn as “a big French doll”. Sounds eerily like “big-eyed child,” if you ask me.
That’s right, Lloyd really rubbed in just how replaceable he thought Daniels was. Then he added more salt to the wound.
26. Another Woman Lived Her Life
Lo and behold, it wasn’t long before Lloyd began a relationship with his new co-star Davis as well, leaving Bebe to watch the two of them gallivanting around town. It got more horrible. In 1923, he would eventually marry Davis, giving her everything that Bebe had been begging for. Oof again.
And now here Daniels was, cutting herself loose from him at last and trying to make a go at serious work. Her desperation showed.
27. She Was Insecure—And It Showed
Daniels was barely 18 years old when she called Cecil B DeMille up and asked him if he’d still like to have her in one of his pictures. When she and DeMille met again at last, it was obvious Daniels was insecure about her age (thanks, Harold). DeMille remembered that “she came to see me, all dressed up in her mother’s clothes to make her look mature enough for dramatic roles”.
Still, it worked well enough, and he gave Daniels a minor role in his next film Male and Female. It was the beginning of something no one expected.
28. She Got Her Big Break
After leaving Lloyd and Roach, Daniels darn near exploded. By the 1920s, she was playing opposite matinee draws like Rudolph Valentino. Then when the silent era ended and the Talkie era began—an era that felled many a silent star—studios discovered she had a wonderful singing voice. She also got the perfect revenge on her ex.
29. She Got The Last Laugh
One actor who didn’t quite make it all the way through the Talkies was Daniels’ ex-boyfriend himself, Harold Lloyd. Although he rocketed to fame with a go-getting, college boy character right after their breakup, and did transition into talking roles, by the 1930s and the Great Depression, his happy-go-lucky comedy was fully out of fashion.
More than that, he’d also nearly physically ruined himself.
30. Her Ex Literally Exploded
In 1919, not too long after Bebe finally got out of her personal and professional relationship with Lloyd, she heard some shocking news. While taking promotional photos for his newest movie, Lloyd ignited what he thought was a mere prop, only to find out it was indeed an actual explosive.
The device exploded, blowing off his thumb and forefinger on his right hand. It might have been a little harsh of karma, but Daniels’ response was pure class.
31. She Sent A Heartwarming Gift
With all the drama surrounding their relationship, Daniels could have taken the low road, and nobody would have blamed her. Instead, she presented Lloyd with a heartwarming act. While he was recovering in the hospital from his injuries, she sent him a get-well card that read “To: The Boy, From: The Girl”.
Besides, she was about to get a serious upgrade.
32. She Met Her Leading Man
In her time on the Hollywood scene, Daniels met the dashing leading man Ben Lyon, who seemed to woo every leading lady on screen with an effortless, non-showy charm. As one Photoplay journalist wrote, “Girls, Ben Lyon looks harmless but we have reliable information that he's irresistible”.
With his steady good looks and suave manner, Lyon was the man to Lloyd’s boy, and Daniels fell hard. So hard, she took a huge step.
33. She Was On A High
In the summer of 1930, Bebe Daniels finally got her dream—she married a man who loved her and was utterly devoted to her. The next year, she and Lyon welcomed a baby girl, Barbara. More than that, her career was still on fire, with flicks like the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon and the Busby Berkeley musical 42nd Street coming up.
She had finally broken free of her early career with Lloyd…but little did she know, a nightmare was just around the corner.
34. She Experienced A Shocking Trauma
In 1931, just after her marriage to Lyon, Daniels witnessed a horrific sight. While in a hotel room in San Francisco, a strange man burst through her door. He confronted her with a string of words that didn’t seem to make any sense to Daniels, terrifying her even after her security swept him out of the room.
When the truth came out, jaws dropped.
35. She Had A Stalker
The man who had broken into Daniels’ room was the 30-something Albert Holland, a WWI veteran who was under several delusions about Daniels. After seeing her on screen or in popular culture, Holland began to believe that he had gone to school with Daniels. More than that, he believed they had married each other in 1925, and had broken into her room to convince her of these facts.
For the newly married Daniels and her husband Ben Lyon, it was deeply unsettling. They had no idea how bad it would get.
36. Her Attacker Escaped
After his altercation with Daniels, the authorities committed Albert Holland to a State Asylum all the way in Arizona. It should have protected Daniels from him for the next good long while, but then the worst happened. Just a year after, Holland managed to escape from the asylum, and his tactics became more terrifying than ever.
37. She Received Chilling Letters
Now that he was free, Holland began sending Bebe a constant stream of letters. Their contents were not for the faint of heart. In them, he threatened her and rambled, eventually racking up over 150 missives to the star. Daniels, who had a husband and a baby to worry about, felt trapped, even after the authorities caught Holland again. She was quickly proven right.
38. She Was Haunted
Holland’s next stint in an institution was longer than his first, but not long enough. He soon won a release (legitimately this time), and the sad truth was revealed. It had not helped, and—still under his many delusions about his “wife”—he confronted Bebe Daniels yet again. This time, the consequences were bigger than ever before.
39. She Was In The Trial Of The Decade
In 1934, three breathless years after Albert Holland had first tracked her down, Daniels and her husband Lyon had to testify against her stalker in court. The press covered the Los Angeles trial constantly, putting a harsh spotlight on Bebe as she related memories to the judge she’d have rather forgotten. Yet that wasn’t the chilling part.
40. Her Stalker Stared Her In The Face
Albert Holland was certainly his own kind of victim in this, and his behavior in court made it clear just how far gone he was mentally. The stalker inadvisably conducted most of his own defense, but this also meant he got to directly cross-examine Bebe’s husband Ben Lyon at length—an experience that must have been excruciating for the couple.
When the verdict came in, no one won.
41. She Ran Away From Hollywood
In the end, the jury put down a verdict that everyone already knew: Holland was mentally unfit, and he went back into an institution for quite some time. But the consequences for Bebe were harrowing. She was now too afraid to live anywhere near the public eye, and she announced her retirement from Hollywood.
Soon, the couple moved to London, England—but there was one last plot twist.
42. She Had A Chance Meeting
In 1935, Daniels and Lyon were just settling into London when they happened to visit one of the city’s orphanages. While there, Daniels reportedly caught sight of a small boy peering through the railings and thought immediately “A brother for Barbara”. That was all it took; she quickly adopted the boy, named him Richard, and folded him into their family.
Still, she didn’t retreat entirely away from the spotlight. Just because her Hollywood days were over didn’t mean her stardom was.
43. She Became A Radio Star
Acting was in Daniels’ and Lyon’s blood, and while over in Europe they began collaborating on radio shows, among them the Rinso Radio Revue for Radio Luxembourg. On the surface, it looked like everything was finally falling into place for the couple after years of hardship. Tragically, their timing couldn’t have been worse.
44. She Was In The Worst Place At The Worst Time
Just a few short years after Daniels and Lyon upended their entire lives to move to London, fate threw them a huge curveball. In 1939, WWII ignited, and suddenly England—so close to the fighting—was the last place they wanted to raise their young family. That’s when they made a dangerous and unorthodox decision.
45. She Rescued Her Children
In June of 1939, Daniels and her husband made a frantic trip back over to Los Angeles and safety with their children. The thing is, the couple didn’t stay safe for long. Instead, they left their son and daughter in the care of Daniels’ mother Phyllis, then went right back to London a handful of weeks later. It would prove to be a harrowing choice.
46. She Lived Through An Infamous Era
Perhaps Daniels thought she wasn’t in much danger across the pond, but if so she was wrong. As the conflict continued and the Axis powers captured France, England was right in their line of fire. Nonetheless, Daniels stood firm, remaining in London even as the Germans subjected the city to the infamous Blitz.
Bebe wasn’t your average starlet, and the world took notice.
47. She Won A Huge Award
By the end of WWII, Daniels had done work entertaining the public in comedy radio shows such as Hi Gang!, never faltering through it all. As the dust cleared, none other than President Harry S Truman recognized her efforts by giving her the Medal of Freedom. Even this accolade, however, wasn’t enough to draw her away from England, and she remained there over the next decades.
In fact, it’s where she came up with an extremely modern idea.
48. She Was A Proto-Kardashian
In the early 1950s, Daniels and Lyon came up with a new radio show, Life with the Lyons, that included their children acting in roles and presented a fictionalized version of their family. Eventually, the show turned into a television sitcom as well as multiple feature films. Essentially, they were the Kardashians before the Kardashians.
Unfortunately for Bebe, time was running out.
49. She Suffered A Terrible Ailment
Life with the Lyons ran in some form until 1961—and it wasn’t long after that a tragedy struck Bebe. In 1963, when she was still only in her early 60s, she suffered a crippling stroke. Suddenly, the playful, charismatic, brave woman was a shadow of her former self, so much so that she shielded herself from public life once more.
The end was quick in coming.
50. She Couldn’t Quit Hollywood
In 1970, Daniels suffered yet another stroke, barely making it out alive. Then, in 1971, the ultimate setback occurred when the 70-year-old suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage. Never forgetting her roots, Daniels had her ashes returned to the US, and is now interred in Hollywood Forever Cemetery. When Ben Lyon followed her eight years later, he was buried beside his wife.