Known for her on-screen wholesomeness, Lila Lee was the 1920s silent film star whose career crashed and burned because of her many personal—yet very public—scandals. Secret abortions. Blackmail marriages. And one unsolvable mystery. Lee’s life had it all, and then some.
1. Her Name Was A Mouthful
Lila Lee was born in 1905 to German immigrant parents. They moved to New York when Lee was just a babe. Her actual name was Augusta Wilhelmena Fredericka Appel. Now, that was obviously a mouthful and there was no way that audiences would remember that, so they had to give her a different name.
While it was a friendlier, more approachable sounding name, it was one that wouldn’t really match her scandalous life.
2. She Was Born To Be A Star
Neither of Lee’s parents had any connections to the entertainment industry—far less the burgeoning film industry. But it was obvious from day one that little Lee was going to be famous. There are, however, varying accounts of how exactly Lee got her start in the industry. Either her parents pushed—read: shoved—her into the spotlight, or the spotlight found her.
3. She Was A Mouseketeer
Lila Lee was an outgoing and sociable little girl. Her parents didn’t know anything about the entertainment industry but they knew that her endearing personality and love of the spotlight would serve her well on the stage. So, according to some sources, they enrolled Lee in Gus Edwards’ kiddie review—think Mickey Mouse Club, but circa 1900. But there’s another side to her story…
4. She Was Plucked Off The Streets
While some sources say that Lee’s parents thrust her into the limelight, there’s another story that’s a lot creepier. It suggests that Gus Edwards discovered Lee on the streets of New York one day when she was playing with other children. And given how things with Gus Edwards went, it’s much likelier.
5. She Was Cuddly Like A Doll
Whichever way Lila Lee got her start in show business, she was in and there was no stopping her now. Lee’s gregarious personality endeared her to her fellow actors and audiences alike. The little girl with the big eyes and raven hair was just so cute. Lee’s fellow actors gave her the nickname “Cuddles.” It was a name that would stick to her for the rest of her career.
Pretty adorable, but things were about to get a lot less cute…
6. Her Parents Pushed Her
Lee’s early acting career took off. She was wildly popular in the vaudevillian stage performances put on by Gus Edwards. It was extremely clear to Lee’s parents that she couldn’t lead a normal childhood. So, they hired a cadre of private tutors and practically thrust their daughter into the very eager hands of Gus Edwards.
Edwards’ wife, Lillian, became Lee’s legal guardian—and the source of her first scandal.
7. She Learned Hard Lessons
Early on in her long career, Lila Lee got a taste of Hollywood’s bad side. At just 15 years of age, Lee was already a movie star and a ten-year veteran of the entertainment business. But the lessons that most celebrity actors get to learn when they are well into their 20s, Lee had to learn before she could even drive.
In 1920, Lee filed suit against her legal guardian, Lillian Edwards.
8. Her Stuff Was Stolen
Lee accused Lillian Edwards, her legal guardian, of profiting off of her. She claimed that Lillian had seized complete control over her “money, automobiles, furniture, and wearing apparel.” Lillian fired back at the suit, claiming that she had invested countless sums of money in Lee since she was a toddler, barely out of diapers.
It wouldn’t matter for long anyway. Lee had better things on her horizon—and bigger scandals.
9. Her Lucky Number Was 13
Lee had her film debut in 1918’s The Cruise of the Make-Believes. Lee would only have been 13 at the time, but that didn’t stop her from winning over audiences. By all accounts, it was a towering success that brought Lee fame for her wholesomeness on screen—and, for now, off-screen as well. It wasn’t until the 1920s, however, when things really got started for Lee
10. She Was A Leading Lady
Lee’s career took off with the Roaring Twenties. Between 1920 and 1922 alone—after she ditched the Edwards for scamming her—Lee starred in 20 films. That’s like, one, two, carry the six…a lot of movies every year. Lee quickly became a leading lady on screen, which meant that she got to rub shoulders with some of Hollywood’s hunkiest leading men. Some were charming, while others were decidedly not.
11. Her Valentine Wasn’t Valentino
Lee’s co-stars included the earliest—and steamiest—Hollywood heartthrobs. Namely, Lee starred alongside the sleepy-eyed and ever so dreamy Rudolph Valentino. But, unlike audiences everywhere, she found him somewhat less than charming. On the set of 1922’s Blood and Sand, Lee had to lock lips with Valentino on a couple of occasions.
Let’s just say, she wanted it done in one take.
12. She Didn’t Like Garlic Breath
Lila Lee had to get a little too close for comfort to Valentino n the set of Blood and Sand. The chiseled Italian-American actor preferred his lunches to be heavily seasoned…with copious amounts of garlic. As a result, Lee demanded that they shoot all of her kissing scenes with Valentino in the morning. I guess breath mints weren’t a thing yet.
13. She Dated A Famous Clown
While “Cuddles” wasn’t eager to lock lips with Valentino, she was cozying up to some of her other very famous co-stars. Early on in her career, insiders speculated that Lee had a romantic relationship with actor John Gilbert—but there was just one problem. Gilbert was married at the time. He wasn’t her only conquest, either.
Some sources claim that Lee dated funny man Charlie Chaplin for a time. There weren’t many laughs in her future, though.
14. She Had A Sudden Marriage
While it is entirely possible that Lee could have dated Chaplin and Gilbert, she ended up with a far less desirable leading man. “Cuddles” met James Kirkwood Sr. on the set of Ebb Tide in 1922. The very next year, the couple waltzed down the aisle—and by waltzed, I mean one dragged the other by the hand. If the whole thing seemed a little rushed, that’s because it was.
15. She Had Her Reasons
Lee’s marriage to Kirkwood Sr. came out of nowhere, and the reason for her sudden nuptials remained a mystery until decades later. In her autobiography, Lee revealed that her marriage to Kirkwood Sr. hadn’t exactly been a stereotypical Hollywood fairy tale of a marriage—or, maybe that it had been a little too Hollywood.
Apparently, Kirkwood Sr. had blackmailed her into walking down the aisle, and what he had on her was pretty dark.
16. Her Mother Begged Her Not To Marry
Lila Lee’s mother was not happy with her daughter’s decision to marry James Kirkwood Sr. She told her that she need only to look at the man’s past to see that he wasn’t going to make for a good husband. He had already developed something of a, shall we say, reputation. Of course, Lee knew that her mother was right but there wasn’t anything she could do about it.
And she couldn’t tell her mother the real reason why she had to marry this monster.
17. She Had A Baby Bump
In her autobiography, Lee revealed the real reason that she had had to marry Kirkwood Sr. “Cuddles” confessed that she had lost her virginity to Kirkwood Sr. before their marriage. And, if that wasn’t bad enough, she became pregnant as a result of their tryst. Their little affair clashed with Lee’s wholesome persona, and she couldn’t risk ruining her career—or sending her mother to an early grave.
18. She Wanted To Abort The Marriage
James Kirkwood Sr. had decided to cast himself in the role of Lee’s knight in shining armor—never mind that he was the one who got her pregnant in the first place. In order to cover up the whole sordid affair, he arranged for Lee to get an abortion. And that vulnerable moment is just when Kirkwood Sr. chose to make his move.
He threatened to tell Lee’s mother about the affair if she didn’t marry him. What else could she do?
19. Her Marriage Was A Whirlpool
The actress affectionately known to audiences as “Cuddles” and her new dashing—if a little rakish—husband Kirkwood Sr. presented a wholesome image to the public. Less than a year into their marriage, they appeared together in 1923’s Love’s Whirlpool. Of course, behind the scenes, their love was an actual whirlpool that sucked all of the happiness out of the room.
20. She Wasn’t A Happy Wife
Kirkwood Sr. had outmaneuvered Lee and duped her into a marriage. But that didn’t mean that she had to be a happy wife. In 1928, Lee kicked up an affair with big-time writer, producer, and director John Farrow. She wanted nothing more to do with her manipulative husband but if she thought that divorce would come easy, she had another thing coming.
21. She Wanted A Divorce
Lee was having a great time with her new beau, Farrow, while Kirkwood Sr. was away in London working on a film. Given that years had passed, Lee figured that Kirkwood Sr.’s blackmail wouldn’t hold any more sway. She wrote to Kirkwood Sr. that she wanted to get a divorce. But Kirkwood Sr. wasn’t about to just let her go. Not after he had manipulated her into marriage in the first place.
22. She Got Her Divorce, And Then Some
Lee knew that her husband was a master of manipulation—that was, after all, how he had gotten that ring on her finger in the first place. But she had no idea just how crazy he actually was. When she sent him the divorce papers, Kirkwood Sr. was all too happy to sign them. But if it seemed to Lee like he had given up too easily, that’s because he hadn’t given up at all.
He had one card to play. And he would play it well.
23. She Gave Birth To A Son
Lee and Kirkwood Sr. hadn’t had a happy marriage, but they had managed to salvage something precious between them. The couple had one child together—not including the child that Kirkwood Sr. forced Lee to abort. Kirkwood Sr. signed the divorce papers but, when it came to custody of their only child, Kirkwood Jr., he wasn’t letting it go without a fight.
24. She Lost Her Only Son
Kirkwood Sr. knew that Lee didn’t love him. But she loved their son. So, get back at her for divorcing him, he demanded full custody of their only child. Lee wouldn’t have abandoned her son to his maniacal father if she had a choice, but he’d made an absolutely disturbing threat. Kirkwood Sr. told her that he’d kill Farrow, Lee, Kirkwood Jr., and himself if Lee fought for custody.
She reluctantly agreed. She was finally free of that devil—and ready for more.
25. She Took An Anti-Honeymoon
Following her 1931 divorce from her husband—AKA the madman Kirkwood Sr.—Lee had to take an anti-honeymoon. The stresses of her nightmare of a marriage coupled with her demanding career had taken their toll on her health. She traveled to a sanitorium in Arizona, ostensibly for tuberculosis. However, people speculated that she was there for another reason.
26. She May Have Had A Bad Habit
Lila Lee had been in the entertainment business since she had been five. That was more than enough time to pick up some bad habits. Some speculated that Lee’s trip to Arizona wasn’t to recover from tuberculosis and soothe her frayed nerves from a harrowing divorce. There were rumors that Lee was recovering—unsuccessfully—from substance addiction.
Those rumors continued to plague her throughout her career.
27. She Called Off An Engagement
In all of the chaos swirling around Lila Lee, there was, she thought, one bright spot. Following her divorce from James Kirkwood Sr., Lee became engaged to John Farrow. But even that silver lining turned out to be another heartbreak. Lee called off the engagement after she learned that Farrow had been unfaithful to her.
Yeesh, can’t a silent film star get a break? Nope. No, she cannot.
28. She Wanted The Simple Life
Lila Lee had been around Hollywood bigwigs and fellow stars since she had been a little girl. She needed a change. She swore off of Hollywood men following her run-ins with Kirkwood Sr. and Farrow. While regular guys might have treated Lee a lot better, they came with their own set of baggage. And a whole lot of career-ending drama for Lee.
29. She Found A Decent Guy
Lee began seeing a broker by the name of Jack R. Peine. It must have been a hot and heavy romance. But, like any flame, it burned strong at first and then quickly crackled out. Nevertheless, the couple was married by December 8, 1934. There was no secret abortion. No blackmail. No threats against her child. It looked like Lee had finally found happiness.
30. Her Husband Abandoned Her
After all of the heartbreak of her first marriage, Lila Lee’s marriage to Peine seemed like a happily ever after—but it was less fairy tale, and more horror story. Before the flowers in their wedding bouquet had even wilted, Peine took off and left Lee behind. So, while Lee scoured the suburbs looking for a home for the newlyweds to move into, her husband had gone off to enjoy their honeymoon alone in sunny Mexico.
When he came back a month later, Lee wasn’t buying the excuse that he had just been working on his tan.
31. She Kicked Her Husband To The Curb
On July 2, 1935—less than a full year after they had said their “I dos”—Lee split from Peine. She might have forgiven the poor sop for his trip to Mexico—perhaps the guy really liked authentic tacos and tamales—but everything else was just beyond the pale. Lee had had enough of Peine and his gambling, hard-drinking, cheating ways.
Believe it or not, this made him the least scandalous of her lovers.
32. She Moved In With Friends
Following her divorce from Peine, Lee once again needed to clear her head. She moved in the novelist Gouverneur Morris and his wife, Ruth Morris. But while was expecting to spend some quiet time with friends, getting herself back on her feet, fate had other plans. Lee had no idea that she was about to give Morris the story of his lifetime.
33. She Had A Thing For Car Salesmen
With the help of her friends, the Morrises, Lee moved on from her marriage to Peine pretty quickly. In 1935, she began dating car salesman, Reid Russell. While her relationship with Russell would last longer than her marriage to Peine, it would have a far more dramatic ending. In fact, the ending was downright gruesome.
34. Her Relationship Ended Gruesomely
Lee’s relationship with Russell came to a sudden and inexplicable end. On September 25, 1936, Lee’s son Kirkwood Jr. discovered the lifeless body of Russell swinging in a hammock outside of the Morris household. Russell had a single .32caliber bullet wound to the head. Curiously, however, investigators never found the bullet or the shell casing.
That was just the opening chapter in the scandal that would ruin Lee’s great career.
35. She Got Her Story Straight
The speculation surrounding the discovery of Russell’s body began immediately. Lee and the Morrises all confirmed to investigators, however, that there wasn’t much to see here at all. All three told the investigators—for the benefit of the tabloids—that Russell had talked incessantly about suicide, particularly after losing his job. But their story didn’t totally add up.
36. She Kept A Secret From Investigators
Lila Lee later divulged that Mrs. Morris had told her about a suicide note. Lee said that Ruth Morris told her that she had discovered the note in her jewel box—of all the strange places—two or three days following the discovery of Russell’s body. Lee chose not to disclose this fact to the investigators—and then, her behavior got weirder.
37. She Burned After Reading
Mrs. Morris did eventually tell the investigators about the suicide note she had found in her jewel box. But she also told them that she couldn’t produce the note itself—all for a bizarre reason. Lee claimed that she had never seen the note herself, but said that Mrs. Morris had read it to her and then burned it in an ashtray.
If that seemed suspicious, then the next hole in their story was ominous.
38. She Had Selective Deafness
Even more strange than the whole suicide note episode was Lee and the Morrises’ recollections of the events preceding the discovery of Russell’s body. While they claimed that there had been no argument or even any noise around the time of the incident, their neighbors claimed to have heard something completely different.
While Lee and the Morrises claimed not to have heard the assuredly deafening sound of a .32 caliber round going off, all of their neighbors said they’d heard it.
39. She Would Have Slayed For Love
If you can believe it, there was yet another twist. To cast even more suspicion on the whole debacle, Russell’s mother claimed to have received phone calls from an unknown female demanding to know where Russell was. Investigators entertained the idea of a “love slaying.” Of course, Lee was Russell’s only known lover at the time.
The investigation was just starting to get interesting.
40. She May Have Had The Investigation Shutdown
On December 12, 1936, a little over a year after Kirkwood Jr. discovered Russell’s body, District Attorney Burron Fitts closed the Russell case as a suicide. Fitts claimed that there could not have been foul play at hand. However, Fitts had a history of accepting bribe money from film studios. And who worked for film studios if not “Cuddles”?
41. She Wrote A Confession
Lee wrote about the scandal in her autobiography. She said: “They started digging around the place and they had found that our gardener had had relations with a sheep, had buried it […] The gardener had made a pass at Jimmy when he was alone in the house in the afternoon. He was gotten rid of but fast.” So, law enforcement turned up plenty about the gardener, but what was Reid Russell?
As Lee wrote, “I think he [Reid Russell] committed suicide.” But later on, she contradicted herself.
42. She Had A Slip Of The Tongue
Years after the whole scandal had blown over, Lila Lee made a disturbing slip of the tongue. She was speaking to Evan Rhodes about the scandal when she might have let the truth about Russell’s untimely demise slip out. Rhodes wrote down that Lee had said in the interview, “Do you want to know about the killing? [No], not the killing—the suicide[?]”
43. Her Career Was Over
Whatever the facts of the Russell scandal, one thing is for sure. Lila “Cuddles” Lee was old news in Hollywood. The Russell scandal—along with her ailing health and rumors of substance addiction—effectively ruined her career and she appeared in her last film in 1937. Lee would never reach her former level of fame again.
44. She Tried Marriage A Third Time
Lee disappeared into obscurity in the 1940s. She continued to suffer from ill-health and didn’t take up any new work. She was able to mend her broken heart, though. Lee must have had a thing for brokers. She married broker John E. Murphy in 1944, but the couple called it quits five years later. Her remaining years were not easy.
45. She Was At The Mercy Of Her Ex’s Wife
Being out of work, of poor health, and divorced—multiple times over—Lee was left in a state of utter devastation. The royalties from her films weren’t exactly rolling in anymore. To make matters worse, her third husband’s will left her at the mercy of his second wife. By all accounts, she was something of a penny-pincher who had little time for Lee.
46. Her Stage Collapsed
Lila Lee attempted to return to her former glory days of gracing the big screen. Throughout the 1940s, she made repeated appearances on the stage. But the audiences who had once lovingly called her “Cuddles” were far less receptive to her in her 50s. None of Lee’s stage appearances earned her any accolades. However, she wasn’t done trying.
47. She Took A Soaping
Following her unsuccessful return to the stage, Lee even tried to make a daring return to Hollywood. She took on smaller roles in early soap operas in the 1950s. While Lee was, herself, no stranger to the dramas in a soap opera—her life had practically been one—audiences were cool to them. Still, Lee had one last chance to make a comeback.
48. She Was In A Cursed Film
Lila Lee finally managed to find herself back on the set of another major Hollywood production. Well, not major, but still Hollywood. Lee appeared in 1967’s utterly forgettable Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers. It would be the last time that Lee ever appeared on screen. But the film might have been cursed.
It was a career-ender for the likes of once-shining stars Greta Thyssen, Tommy Noonan, and Sunny Tuft.
49. She Passed Away Peacefully
Lila Lee moved to Saranac Lake, New York to seek treatment for her tuberculosis—or drinking habits and frayed nerves. Or maybe she was on the lam for the still-mysterious passing of Reid Russell. Either way, Lee passed on after a stroke in 1973, far removed from the glamor of her 1920s heydays.
50. She’s Lost To History
Lila Lee has about 100 film credits to her name. Despite the less than climactic ending to her career, she dazzled audiences for the better part of three decades. But sadly, modern audience will never know how good she was. Most of Lee’s considerable filmography is considered to be lost forever. Her scandalous story, however, endures.