Hollywood chews up starlets and spits them out—but no one knew this better than the silver screen’s original vamp, Barbara La Marr.
Barbara La Marr Facts
1. She Was A Dark Beauty
In the 1920s, Barbara La Marr was the vamp of Hollywood, using her dark good looks to seduce audiences across America. She was the femme fatale everyone wanted to know more about—but if they could have peered inside her life, they would have been shocked to their core. And when her end finally came, it was unimaginably dark.
Read on for the tragic story of Barbara La Marr.
2. She Was An LA Baby
At first glance, Barbara La Marr’s origin story is as classic as the come. Growing up as "Reatha Watson" at the turn of the century, she got into dancing in Vaudeville shows when she was just a child. Her family eventually moved to Los Angeles to try their fortunes—and although she was still just a teenager, this is when it all started to go wrong.
3. She Did Anything To Pursue Her Dreams
Los Angeles rubbed off on La Marr, and suddenly she wanted to be “the greatest tragedienne and wield a dagger". But when La Marr was 15 years old, her thirst for fame brought her to dark places. At that tender age, she began performing in racy burlesque shows. After all, she was going to break into the fantasy realm of Hollywood.
Only, La Marr didn’t realize her world was about to transform into a real-life nightmare.
4. She Went On A Suspicious Road Trip
In 1913, Barbara La Marr’s life turned upside down for all the wrong reasons. That January, her half-sister Violet came out of the woodwork and asked her sibling if she’d like to take a little road trip with her friend, a man named CC Boxley. Still an impressionable 16 years old, La Marr said yes. It was one of the worst mistakes of her life.
5. Her Sister Kidnapped Her
The trio hopped in the car and drove up to Santa Barbara. But as the days went on, La Marr got a sinking feeling. She began to realize that Boxley and Violet were not her friends, and even started to suspect they weren’t ever going to let her go home. Before she could find a way to escape, though, her captors made a chilling discovery.
6. She Made A Hasty Escape
We’ll never know exactly what Barbara’s half-sister and accomplice were planning to do with her. That’s because when the pair found out there were warrants out for their arrest for kidnapping, they got cold feet and let the girl go back to Los Angeles. This all proved to be a turning point for La Marr—of the worst kind.
7. She Testified Against Her Own Sister
When the press got a hold of La Marr’s story, they went wild. Barbara’s response, however, was disturbing. Desperate for fame, she absolutely lapped up the attention, even testifying against her sister in the trial. Then, after she ran out of the truth, she began telling the journalists lies to keep their attention, even pronouncing that she was adopted. And still, that's not all.
8. She Told An Enormous Lie
According to the police reports from the time of this kidnapping, La Marr may have exaggerated her road trip kidnapping from the get-go. As the officers put it, the teenager “did not seem to be worried over her plight. In fact, she was in a happy frame of mind and told some persons she had enjoyed the motor trip from Los Angeles. …immensely”.
Within days, a monster was born.
9. She Had A Whirlwind Romance
From here on out, Barbara La Marr made sure she was never without drama. In fact, the very next year La Marr went to Arizona and came back to California with yet another story to tell. She claimed that while visiting the state, a rancher named Jack Lytelle had happened upon her riding a horse and fell in love at first sight. Then, it took a huge twist.
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10. She Was A Young Widow
La Marr’s whirlwind romance with Jack Lytelle swirled faster, and the very next day they were married. Then—in a dark presage of her adult love life—Lytelle tragically perished of pneumonia just three weeks later. Or, so La Marr Said. By this time, La Marr’s life was already such an intense blend of sensational fact and dramatic fiction that we still don’t know if Lytelle was real or a figment.
One thing was true, though: La Marr was growing irresistible to the worst kind of men. Her next marriage happened within weeks…and was almost unbelievably disastrous.
11. She Fell In Love With A Con-Man
La Marr’s first provable marriage was in July of 1914, to a man named Max Lawrence. But days after walking down the aisle, La Marr uncovered his jaw-dropping secret. An accomplished liar himself, Max’s real name was actually Lawrence Converse, and he worked as a shady gun for hire. Oh, but that was just the beginning.
12. She Married A Stranger
La Marr sure knew how to pick ‘em. Her new husband wasn’t just going under a pseudonym; his entire life was a lie. It turned out that he was already married, with children no less, which probably explains why he was using a false name to marry La Marr in the first place. For all that effort, “Max” got a quick and brutal comeuppance.
13. She Drove Men Wild
The authorities were obviously already onto this Max Lawrence, because the very next day after Barbara became his unlawful wife, officers arrested him for bigamy and sent La Marr back home to her parents. According to reports, Max said that La Marr’s beauty was so “dazzling,” he simply “had to have her” despite all obstacles. Somehow, it gets even darker.
14. She Was Widowed Again
Although La Marr’s family tried to force her back into calm domesticity, there was one more shock to this story. Three days after his arrest, La Marr's bigamist husband perished from a blood clot to his brain. Yes, Barbara La Marr lived through more in a week than most people do in a lifetime. But she wasn’t close to slowing down. Actually, she was spinning out of control.
15. She Liked Bad Men
La Marr seemed addicted to drama—to the high it gave her, and to the attention it garnered. And right now, nothing was more dramatic to her than a wedding to a total bad boy. In 1916, she got married again, this time to dancer Philip Ainsworth, the scion of a wealthy family. But no, this was not true love, and it was about to crash and burn spectacularly.
16. She Was Unlucky In Love
Surprise surprise, La Marr’s marriage to Ainsworth didn’t last, and for good reason. Despite his family’s money, Ainsworth actually landed behind bars for passing bad checks. La Marr wasn’t really a woman who stuck by her man, and they were done with each other within a year of the wedding. Then La Marr’s life took another strange turn.
17. She Had A Fake Death
Around her split from Ainsworth, a startling rumor followed La Marr. And somehow, this one beat all the whispers that came before: One way or another, it got out that she had perished in Salt Lake City from a broken back. Of course, she wasn’t dead, and the ensuing notice of her “survival” sent more shockwaves through America.
By now, La Marr was practically famous for being famous, and she had more up her sleeve.
18. She Was A Man-Eater
La Marr was never one to sit around and mourn a relationship, and she moved on characteristically quickly from her check-forging husband Philip Ainsworth. Before the ink was dry on their divorce, she took up with another dancer, Ben Deely, marrying him two years after her last wedding. Only with Deely, La Marr had no idea what she was in for.
19. Her New Husband Had A Scandalous Past
It will probably surprise no one to say that La Marr was a partier, and enjoyed her drink more than the average dame. With her new husband, this went into overdrive. Deely, who was more than twice her age, had been drinking and gambling his way through life for years. He quickly pulled La Marr into his orbit and helped her start circling the drain.
Except this period of La Marr’s life also offered a surprise.
20. She Went Hollywood
La Marr had always stalked around the edges of Hollywood, but with Ben Deely, she finally made a crack at a real career in entertainment. This didn’t happen the way you might think. La Marr, who now had aspirations of being a poet, actually got her start screenwriting. By 1920, she had penned a handful of films for various studios, and her career was heating up in other ways.
21. She Danced With The Best
In order to fund her expensive habits and her husband’s gambling, La Marr couldn’t survive on screenwriting alone. Accordingly, she also went on dancing tours across America during this period. She was no slouch in this department, either: Her dancing partners were the likes of heartthrobs Rudolph Valentino and Clifton Webb.
Her star was on the rise—it just took another star to turn it into a supernova.
22. Mary Pickford “Discovered” Her
While working as a writer for the United Artists production company, La Marr got an enormous break. One of the studio shareholders, the legendary actress Mary Pickford, caught sight of La Marr hammering out a script and stopped in her tracks. La Marr was beautiful, yes, but Pickford also knew a photogenic face when she saw one.
Pickford reportedly went up to La Marr and said, “My dear, you are too beautiful to be behind a camera”. It all happened quickly from there—too quickly.
23. She Was A Vamp
Within a year, La Marr had successfully parlayed her dark good looks into becoming one of the biggest “vamps” of her time, a kind of pre-cursor to the femme fatale in the silent era. True to form, her Hollywood image in films like The Prisoner of Zenda and Trifling Women was of a beautiful man-eater stuffed to the gills with dark secrets. Speaking of dark...
24. She Made Friends With A Dictator
Barbara La Marr just couldn’t stop being a bad girl, and when she wrote and acted in 1915’s The Eternal City, her scandalous proclivities were on full view. The film, which is now lost, features a cameo by none other than dictator Benito Mussolini—and it was reportedly La Marr herself who convinced him to take on the role.
Still, all her audience could see was one thing.
25. She Was “The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful”
Near the height of her success, La Marr earned herself an unforgettable nickname. Reportedly, she was walking around downtown when a judge saw her during a police beat and insisted she go home, claiming that she was "too beautiful and young to be on her own in the big city”. When a journalist overheard this, they printed that La Marr was now “The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful”.
It helped rocket her career even further, but she was now going too fast for comfort.
26. She Was A Woman About Town
With the rise of her fame, La Marr’s life took on a new intensity. She was constantly running around the party circuit in Hollywood, and became infamous for her sharp wit and carousing comments. “I take lovers like roses…by the dozen,” she liked to quip, and her friends and confidantes once commented on her "great capacity for sheer living”. She also had another quality that few saw.
27. She Had A Cunning Side
In addition to her beauty and her joie de vivre, few people knew that Barbara La Marr was also cunning. For one, she knew just how to spin her PR to get the most attention. She frequently refused to let people call her a “star,” knowing that would add to her mystique, and often "accidentally" leaked her own poetry to the public.
It’s no wonder audiences kept coming back to her films—yet everything that goes up must come down.
28. She Was Single And Ready To Mingle
In 1921, La Marr’s life fell apart. That year, her husband Ben Deely’s gambling and drinking finally caught up to the couple, and they filed for divorce. For the first time in a long time, La Marr was single, and this also meant she had a chance to learn some lessons about herself. Only, that is not what she did. More famous than ever, she proceeded to run her life into the ground.
29. She Cheated Nature
In the wake of her divorce, La Marr threw herself even more into partying, gallivanting around town at all hours, always with a bottle in her hand. Around this time, she made an eyebrow-raising confession. When the press brought up her night-owl ways, La Marr admitted, "I cheat nature. I never sleep more than two hours a day. I have better things to do”.
But for all her adventures, she was about to enter an entirely new frontier.
30. She Fell In Love With A Baby
In 1923, Barbara La Marr made a surprising announcement: She said that she was in love again. Only, this time, it wasn’t with a man, it was with a baby boy. According to her story, she’d been visiting an orphanage—for the PR, naturally—when she suddenly fell madly in love with one of the babies there. Her response to this was typically Barbara.
31. She Adopted A Boy
La Marr did nothing by halves, and she also did nothing slowly—so that day, she walked out of the orphanage with a son. Reportedly, she was so mad over the little boy, she “cut through all the red tape and adopted him” that same afternoon, naming him Marvin. There were still a lot of questions about this, but La Marr knew just what to do about that: Cause another diversion.
32. She Made The Same Mistakes
By 1923, her divorce from Deely still hadn’t gone through. Nonetheless, La Marr was impatient to marry her new beau, the B-movie actor Jack Dougherty. After all, she now had another mouth to feed in the form of little Marvin, and another husband would surely help with that.
So instead of following the letter of the law, she went ahead and married Doughtery before her divorce from Deely was even official. This is where La Marr’s life got truly messy.
33. She Suffered A Horrible Injury
The same year La Marr married Doughtery, fate dealt her a brutal hand. While working on a film set of Souls for Sale, she sprained her ankle badly. Although these accounts are highly disputed, rumors quickly went around that La Marr had become addicted to opiates while trying to recover, and that she even kept a container of “joy powder” to keep her energy up.
Sadly, this wasn’t the only way her demons chased her.
34. She Crash Dieted
With all her partying and lack of sleep, La Marr’s weight began to go up steadily. Horrified that Hollywood would no longer consider her beautiful or cast her in films, La Marr went to drastic measures to keep the weight down. She tried all sorts of crash diets to lose weight—and when that didn’t work, she took a very disturbing route.
35. She Went To Desperate Measures
La Marr didn’t know who she was if people weren’t looking at her, so the idea of weighing more than audiences would allow terrified her right to her bones. So much so, she reportedly once went on the disgusting “tapeworm diet,” eating one via a pill in the hopes that this time, the weight loss solution would work. It didn’t.
36. Her Ex Took Her To Court
To add to all of the drama La Marr was dealing with, an old ghost came back to haunt her. Her ex-husband Ben Deely claimed that, thanks to her quickie wedding to Dougherty, he was actually still her husband. He even had one of his lawyers try to extort the actress for money, saying she should pay up, or else Deely would reveal all her affairs and dirty secrets to the world.
But when La Marr showed up one day in court, it went from bad to worse.
37. Her Appearance Shocked People
That day in the courtroom, La Marr reportedly looked horrific—her late nights and constant partying were still clearly doing her no good. Then again, she was under extreme emotional stress thanks to Deely’s suit; when the judge asked her to read Deely’s complaint, she answered that “My eyes are too full of tears to read it”.
38. Her Husband Left Her
Around this time, La Marr got a bitter taste of her own medicine. She had never stuck around long in a rocky marriage, and Jack Dougherty appeared to feel the same about her. When she was at her lowest, they separated, leaving La Marr to fend for herself and for her little boy Marvin. Sadly, Deely's court case had an even worse effect on her career.
39. Her Star Imploded
Soon, Barbara La Marr’s popularity took a huge nosedive, thanks in part to the courtroom drama that followed her everywhere. Still, we can't blame Deely for everything—La Marr also dropped the ball all on her own, and her appearances on screen were now lackluster. As one reviewer said of her newest work: “She has not grown one atom as an actress since she first donned grease paint”.
La Marr’s stardom was now vulnerable…and the wolves came out to play.
40. The Press Turned On Her
La Marr already had enough to deal with, and she now suffered a painful betrayal. Members of the press completely turned on her. Where her antics once entertained them, now they raked her over the coals for her multiple marriages and high-speed partying. “If the men want to be represented by Barbara La Marr,” one journalist sniffed, “I am dead sure the women don’t”.
It was nearing the final nail in her career’s coffin, and the consequences were unimaginable.
41. She Went Through A Breakdown
If there was one thing La Marr cared about besides her son Marvin, it was what the press thought of her. She was so aghast at their new attitude, she suffered a kind of mental breakdown, with the papers reporting on a “throat infection complicated by intestinal disorders”. She was in confinement for weeks, plotting her next move. But in the end, she knew there was only one thing she could do.
42. She Tried To Make A Comeback
Barbara La Marr was, by now, a shadow of her former self. She was malnourished, nervous, and angry at the world to boot. Nonetheless, she decided she needed a comeback right now, and left her bedrest to begin making The Girl from Montmartre, where she would play the “good girl” for once in her career. No one could have predicted the horrible fate that awaited her.
43. She Collapsed On Set
While filming The Girl from Montmartre, La Marr’s happy life came to a shocking halt. She was so weakened from all that had happened to her, she collapsed on set and went into a coma. Cast and crew rushed her to a hospital, where doctors diagnosed her with tuberculosis and nephritis, thanks to her years of mistreating her body.
At this point, La Marr must have known there was little hope, because she made a gut-wrenching decision.
44. She Gave Up Her Son
Fading fast, La Marr gave her son Marvin over to the care of her friend, actress ZaSu Pitts, and Pitt’s husband Tom Gallery. The pair eventually fully adopted the little boy, renaming him Donald Gallery. In the end, this was for the best—because the little boy known as Marvin would never see his mother alive again.
45. She Died Incredibly Young
On January 30, 1926, La Marr finally succumbed to her illnesses. Incredibly, despite the intense life she had lived, she was only 29 years old when she passed. There was one final consolation. She didn’t go alone; her friend, the studio producer Paul Bern, was by her side until the very end. Her funeral, however, gave her more company than she could handle.
46. Her Funeral Was A Main Event
The press had wanted nothing to do with Barbara La Marr at the end of her career, but now they couldn’t wait to swoop in once she was only a memory. Her funeral attracted 3,000 mourners, with several women in the crowd even becoming so emotional that they fainted and needed a police escort to get free of the crowds.
Then, when the procession started, a mob of fans ran in, hoping to tear off even a bit of her floral decorations. Somehow, I imagine La Marr would have approved.
47. She Kept A Big Secret
La Marr loved to tell lies left, right, and center about her life, but her biggest secret was scandalously true. Although La Marr claimed that she had adopted her baby boy Marvin, get this: He was really her biological son. She had him out of wedlock between her marriages to Ben Deely and Jack Dougherty, and orchestrated the entire adoption plot to cover up the scandal.
That's right, she first had the baby then sent him away to an orphanage, all so she could “find” him and "adopt" him. But the intrigue doesn't end there.
48. She Wouldn’t Name The Father
La Marr might have seemed flighty and impulsive, but she could clamp down and keep her mouth shut when she wanted to. And when it came to Marvin’s father, she very much wanted to. She never, never gave away the man’s identity, and no one ever came forward after her passing. Even so, her son once thought he knew the truth.
49. She Left A Final Mystery
Later in life, Marvin, now going by the name Donald Gallery, claimed that he believed his father was the producer Paul Bern. That's right, the man who had stayed with La Marr until the bitter end. While this certainly would have made for a juicy twist, people soon disproved this theory, and La Marr’s mystery man lives on.
La Marr lives on in another way, too.
50. Her Name Lives On
Barbara La Marr burned fast and bright from the moment she entered the world. But despite her tragic, premature end, she was more than just a flash in the pan. Her legacy lived on: When Louis B Mayer was thinking of a stage name for one of his new stars, he went with “Hedy Lamarr” in homage to Barbara.