Marilyn Miller was the 1920s and 30s Broadway performer famous for her Cinderella-like characters. Her real-life story, however, was no fairy tale.
1. She Was The Bad-Luck Blonde
Long before Marilyn Monroe, there was Marilyn Miller; the blonde Broadway dancer who pirouetted her way into audiences’ hearts. But, while she played happy-go-lucky characters on stage, her real life was full of personal tragedies, professional betrayals, and romantic misadventures.
Read these morose facts about Broadway’s blighted blonde before the curtain call.
2. She Had A Stage Mom
Mary Ellen Reynolds (aka Marilyn Miller) was born into a theater family in September 1898. Her mother was Ada Lynn Thompson, a prominent vaudevillian herself, while her biological father, Edwin D Reynolds, ended up abandoning the family. Instead, Miller grew up with her stepfather, Oscar Caro Miller. Her childhood was anything but normal.
3. She Was Sweet As A Sugarlump
Given her family’s business, it was little surprise that little Miller joined her relatives on stage at a young age. When she was just four years old, she made her big debut as Mademoiselle Sugarlump—and she was sweeter than apple pie. Miller stood out from her siblings and became an instant hit with audiences. However, it came at a terrible price.
4. She Did Not Have A Pleasant Childhood
Miller’s stepfather, Oscar Caro, took stage parenting to painful new heights. Whenever he felt that Miller wasn’t giving her all in rehearsals, he would strike her backside. “I was put on stage because a living had to be earned,” Marilyn later explained, “It’s not a very pleasant childhood to remember”. Tragically, a sore behind was the least of her ailments.
5. She Had Sinusitis
In just a few short years, audiences all over the world would come to recognize Miller’s radiant smile. They could never have guessed that she was in near constant pain. Throughout her life, Miller suffered from debilitating sinusitis-induced migraines. Thankfully, the condition never stopped her from giving her best on stage.
A special guest in the audience was taking notes.
6. She Was Cute As A Bon-Bon
Fans all across America and Europe fell in love with Miller. They likened the adorable vaudevillian to powder puffs, bon-bons, matchboxes, and even pen nibs. However, one man saw the woman she could become: Lee Shubert. He was a member of the pioneering Shubert family (the ones that made Broadway, well, Broadway).
Bigger, brighter spotlights were just around the corner.
7. She Couldn’t Escape Her Stepfather
With the Shubert family’s platform firmly beneath her feet, Miller got her start on Broadway. She worked for the Shuberts for four years, attaining moderate success. Nevertheless, she couldn’t get out from under her domineering stepfather. It would take a more powerful female figure to thrust her into the glaring spotlight.
8. She Was Like A Confection
During one of her performances in the Shubert production, Show of Wonders, Miller attracted the eye of Billie Burke. Burke was the wife of impresario and star-maker Florenz Ziegfeld of the Ziegfeld Follies. As soon as the curtains fell, Burke rushed back to Ziegfeld and gushed to him about “a confection of a girl” she had just seen on stage.
Miller had a funny way of showing her gratitude.
9. She Made Fun Of Her Boss’ Wife
Trusting his wife’s judgment, Ziegfeld signed Miller on right away and the young starlet stepped into the Broadway spotlight for the first time. She delivered an unforgettable performance of “Mine Was a Marriage of Convenience” in which she mercilessly impersonated Ziegfeld’s wife, Burke.
It was all in good humor—but there was trouble in the Miller/Ziegfeld partnership already brewing.
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10. She Followed Her Heart
Freed from her stepfather and earning her own money with Ziegfeld, Miller was finally free to pursue her own interests. Namely, her heart. Shortly after she started working for Ziegfeld, Miller fell in love with her co-star, Frank Carter. But no one, least of all Ziegfeld, supported the match as they feared a pregnancy would end her promising career early.
Miller would have to make a difficult decision.
11. Her Love Was Not For Sale
At first, Ziegfeld tried to bribe Miller with expensive new costumes and trinkets in an effort to get her to break up with Carter. However, the light of their love was brighter than any spotlight. When Ziegfeld’s efforts failed to end the romance, even her parents expressed their disapproval by banning Carter from the family home.
Even that wasn’t enough.
12. She Got Married In Secret
Defying her employer and her parents, Miller continued meeting with Carter in secret. In the shadows of the stage lights and the dark recesses of the dressing rooms, Miller and Carter’s love for each other blossomed. Finally, just before the premier of the 1919 Follies, the young love birds eloped. Ziegfeld’s fiery reaction to the surprise announcement broke Miller’s heart.
13. Her Boss Fired Her Husband
Unsurprisingly, Ziegfeld was furious that Miller had defied him and married Carter, threatening her career prospects if she became pregnant. But, angry as he was, he couldn’t touch her—Miller was quickly becoming his biggest star. Instead, Ziegfeld took out his frustration on Carter and fired him on the spot. An old friend came to the couple’s rescue.
14. She Buried The Hatchet
Miller was about to quit the Follies in protest against Ziegfeld when her old employer, Shubert, stepped in and hired Carter to diffuse the situation. Despite the lingering tensions, Miller stayed on with Ziegfeld and even made the 1919 Follies the biggest box office draw in Broadway history. Her success gave her a terrible shopping habit.
15. She Had Expensive Tastes
As the money rolled, Miller developed a love for the finer things in life. While enjoying a second honeymoon with Carter in Chicago, Miller fell in love with a $10,000 Packard touring car she spotted at a carshow. Carter told Miller that it was just too expensive—the average Packard went for $3,500. But he had a surprise for her.
16. Her Husband Was Planning A Big Surprise
Carter’s refusal to buy the touring car had just been an elaborate ruse. In reality, he planned to surprise Miller with the luxury vehicle as a gift for their upcoming first anniversary. Secretly, later that night, Carter returned to the car show and slapped down an initial payment for the Packard. He couldn’t have known that he was making a downpayment on his own demise.
17. Her Husband Was About To Deliver Her Gift
As they wrapped up their honeymoon, Miller returned to New York to prepare for her next show. Without revealing his secret, Carter remained in Chicago and picked up the expensive gift he had bought for Miller. With some of their mutual show business friends, Carter began driving the Packard to New York to deliver his surprise.
That's when the nightmare began.
18. Her Husband Crashed The Car
For the most part, Carter took his time driving the car from Chicago to New York. But, when he encountered an open stretch of road, he floored the gas pedal. Just then, a hidden bend in the road forced him to slam on the brakes and he lost control of the vehicle. With a screech, the car flipped over and came to a crashing halt in an embankment.
19. She Learned The Devastating Truth
The next morning, Miller received a call saying that her husband had been in a car accident. Initially, she believed that he was recovering in the hospital but when she arrived, she learned the tragic news. Carter had perished in the crash instantaneously, crushed between his seat and the steering wheel. There was still one cruel twist.
20. She Sold Her Husband’s Gift
Carter’s fateful accident had come like a bolt out of the blue for Miller. But there was still one ironic twist to the accident. Unlike Charter’s chest cavity—or Miller’s heart—the Packard was barely damaged by the fatal crash. Devastated, Miller had the minor damages repaired and sold the vehicle. Getting over her grief would not be that easy.
21. She Dissolved Into Tears
After Carter’s horrific accident, Miller could only do one thing to console herself: dance. She buried herself in her work, beaming a bright, radiant smile while on stage. But, when no one was looking, her smile faded. After every show, Miller would run into the wings and dissolve into tears. She had other, less healthy, ways of expressing her grief.
22. She Became An Escapist
All of Miller’s closest friends noticed that her behavior changed after Carter’s demise. One of her fellow Follies remarked that Miller had become “much more escapist and fun seeking”. More worrying than that, however, was that she “appeared to go from one relationship to another”. One of her alleged beaus shocked everyone.
23. She Was A Folly For Ziegfeld
Even with the tumult and tragedy in her personal life, Miller continued to bring in record-breaking box office totals for Ziegfeld. In fact, she had become so synonymous with the Ziegfeld Follies that there was speculation that she and the big impresario himself were carrying on a secret affair. But their relationship was more complicated than that.
24. She Treated Her Boss Badly
Far from crawling into Ziegfeld’s bed, Miller took out all of her frustrations and grief on the big Broadway impresario. She blamed Ziegfeld for Carter’s untimely demise and was ruthless in her scorn towards him. As one fellow Folly put it, “At times she treated him [Ziegfeld] so profanely that it appeared she had a strange hold on him”. Maybe she did.
25. She Got Her Own Show
Even though he wasn’t responsible for Carter’s accident, Ziegfeld did feel bad about Miller’s loss and worried that her heartache would ruin the shows. So, he gave Miller the only thing that he believed would brighten her spirit: her very own show, Sally. But, while Sally was all about optimism, there were only dark times ahead for Miller.
26. She Always “Looked For The Silver Lining”
Sally was a feel-good, rags-to-riches story about an orphan who had her dreams come true when she became a Ziegfeld dancer. Optimistic songs such as “Look for the Silver Lining” allowed Miller to pretend that her own life wasn’t so tragic. With her “ruthless charm” Sally turned Miller into the biggest name on Broadway.
The success got to her head in stunning ways.
27. She Had A Big Ego
As her fame grew due to Sally’s resounding success, Miller buried her heartbreak in diva-like behavior. Ziegfeld, still feeling bad about Miller’s doomed marriage, did his best to keep her happy with ever more expensive costumes and set designs. However, what happened next made it obvious that her head had gotten too big for her own good.
28. She Had A Funny Way Of Saying “Hi”
When Ziegfeld tried to introduce his daughter, Patricia, to Miller, he was left stunned. He brought his starstruck little girl backstage after a show. When Miller saw him standing there, she greeted him with a cool and indifferent, “Hello you no-good b-,” well, we’ll let you imagine the rest of that greeting. She also bade him farewell on equally acrimonious terms.
29. She Creamed Ziegfeld
Ignoring the gob-smacked Patricia completely, Miller continued her interaction with Ziegfeld by complaining about her costumes that she said “weighed a thousand tons”. As Ziegfeld tried to end the exchange and get his daughter away from the troubled star, Miller threw a jar of cold cream after him. Her bad behavior didn’t end there.
30. She Danced With Frat Boys
Miller’s success allowed her to bury the troubles of her still-broken heart in increasingly bad behavior. Between the performances of her hit show on Broadway, she would sneak away to the Plaza Hotel. In one infamous incident, she danced with more than forty Harvard boys to the amazement of onlookers. But that was tame compared to her other escapades.
31. She Found A “Playboy”
During the night, Miller frequently attended the wild parties of one unnamed “playboy art dealer”. The details of his scandalous parties often ended up splashed all over the society pages, such as when one showgirl sold herself to the highest bidder as though she were a prize in an auction.
Ziegfeld and others feared that Miller had fallen in with the wrong crowd. For her part, Miller played up the gossip.
32. She Was Playing Coy
With her attendance at the scandalous parties, rumors began circulating that Miller had finally mended her broken heart. Broadway was abuzz with talk that she was engaged to this troublesome “playboy art dealer”. When the tabloids asked her about it, however, she simply answered with a shrug and sigh. She was covering up something.
33. She Was Dating A “Playboy”
Miller had been dating a “playboy”—just not the one everyone thought. As Sally was nearing the end of its record-breaking three-year run, Miller made a shocking announcement. She was engaged to none other than Jack Pickford, the troubled younger brother of screen legend Mary Pickford. Ziegfeld’s reaction to the news was even worse this time.
34. Her Boss Was Concerned For Her Safety
Ziegfeld once again expressed his displeasure with Miller’s choice of man. Unlike with Carter, however, Ziegfeld did not employ Pickford so he couldn’t fire him. But while his opposition to Miller’s first marriage had been for his own selfish reasons, this time he was only thinking of Miller’s safety—and he had every right to be concerned.
35. She Was In Danger
Miller’s engagement to Pickford brought up terrible and tragic memories for Ziegfeld. You see, Pickford had previously been married to Olive Thomas. Just like Miller, Thomas had been a Ziegfeld girl. The Pickford/Thomas marriage, however, had ended horribly for the show girl—a fate that Ziegfeld feared was about to befall his biggest star.
36. Her Husband Might Have Been A Poisoner
Miller should have known to be wary of Pickford given the scandalous end to his previous marriage. While on a second honeymoon in Paris, Thomas had ingested a lethal amount of mercury bichloride. Despite the official reports stating that it had been an accident, there were rumors that Pickford had administered the poison himself.
Ziegfeld did the most shocking thing imaginable to break up the engagement and save Miller’s life.
37. Her Boss Tried To Save Her
Ziegfeld was desperate to save Miller from a fate similar to Thomas’. In a last ditch effort to make Miller see the danger, Ziegfeld denounced Pickford in the media, calling him everything from a draft dodger to a wife poisoner. But, he should have known that the more he tried to control her, the more Miller would defy him.
What she did next threatened her career.
38. She Accused Her Boss Of Impropriety
Miller, irate at Ziegfeld for once again trying to keep her from the man she loved, fired back at Ziegfeld with allegations of her own. She claimed that the impresario slept with his showgirls. Moreover, she said he only opposed the marriage because he wanted her for himself but couldn’t leave his wife because of their daughter.
This time, the damage was beyond repair.
39. She Left Broadway For Pickfair
Miller and Ziegfeld had always feuded. But this time, they had both crossed the line. After trading barbs in the press, Miller left the Ziegfeld Follies and ended the record-breaking, three-year run of her hit show, Sally. Free from her obligations, she absconded to Los Angeles and married Pickford at his family estate, Pickfair.
She was about to find out what a terrible mistake she had made.
40. Her Husband Had Jealous Fits
Just as everyone had warned, Miller’s and Pickford’s marriage was troubled from the beginning. Ziegfeld had correctly predicted that Pickford’s struggles with substance use coupled with a hot temper put the marriage under strain. According to reports, Pickford frequently flew into jealous rages at Miller. In all fairness, he had good reason to.
41. She Had Many Lovers
Throughout their marriage, when Pickford wasn’t berating Miller, he was carrying on an affair with the actress Bebe Daniels. And Miller was no slouch herself. She had no less than three lovers of her own at the time, including Broadway and Hollywood stars Clifton Webb, Jack Donahue, and Ben Lyon. She even cheated in her career.
42. She Betrayed Ziegfeld
To even her professional score, Miller turned to Ziegfeld rival Charles Dillingham. Much to Ziegfeld’s chagrin, Dillingham agreed to give Miller the spotlight in a Sally rip-off called Sunny. But, after only a moderately successful run, it was obvious to Miller that she needed Ziegfeld as much as Ziegfeld needed her. There was only one obstacle blocking their reunion.
43. She Wanted To Get Rid Of Her Husband
Miller knew that Ziegfeld would never take her back as long as she was married to Pickford. But, by January 1926, four years into their marriage, rumors began swirling that Miller and Pickford were headed for the rocks. Even Miller’s mother commented to the papers, “I should not be surprised if they make their separation permanent”.
44. She Left Her Spouse For The Spotlight
Miller had always craved the audience’s love more than Pickford’s. So, sure enough, she filed for divorce from her good-for-nothing husband and went back, with her tail between her legs, to Ziegfeld. To his credit, Ziegfeld didn’t hold a grudge and made Miller the star of his next big production, Rosalie. Sadly, by then, her star had begun to fade.
45. She Wasn’t Sally Anymore
Rosalie was a hit. Just not as big a hit as Sally. To her dread, Miller could feel her starpower—and her youth—slipping away. Before a performance of Rosalie, she experienced a rare moment of vulnerability in front of Ziegfeld, crying, “I can entertain them when they come into the theater, but I can’t go outside and drag them in!”
She would do anything to recapture the magic she lost.
46. She Went To Hollywood
Miller could see that the times were changing. Audiences increasingly preferred the cinema to the stage. To recapture her stardom, she accepted a hugely lucrative deal from MGM. At first, the move to Hollywood seemed to pay off.
She made a hugely successful screen adaptation of Sally in 1929. But, her next two pictures, Sunny (1930), and Her Majesty, Love (1931) made it obvious that she was a stage actress, not a screen actress.
Then the fates turned against her.
47. She Was Getting Old
With the onset of the Great Depression and the hardships it brought to theater-going audiences, Miller’s happy-go-lucky characters in fairy-tale-like stories lost their appeal. Even the critics turned against her, referring to the once radiant star as a scion from “an older order of musical comedy”. “Older” was not a word she cared to hear in association with her name.
So, she tried to recapture her youth.
48. Her Love Life Was In Shambles
Just like her career, Miller’s love life also took a nosedive around the onset of the Great Depression. She announced her engagement to actor and director Don Alvarado. But, after he left her with black and blue bruises, the engagement fell apart and the marriage never materialized. That didn’t stop her from searching high and low for love.
49. She Just Wanted To Love Someone
Miller—once the symbol of the independent, fast-living Jazz Age woman—changed. She had a growing list of romantic misadventures—but in her heart, she just wanted someone to hold. “You have to love,” she gushed to the papers, “you have to have someone to please...in order to make life worthwhile...love is life to me”.
One last chance at happiness was closer than she knew.
50. She Found Love Again
1933 brought a glimmer of hope back to Miller’s bleak prospects. Her career experienced a short resurgence with As Thousands Cheer. More importantly, however, her love life also experienced a renaissance. While working on As Thousands Cheer, met Chester O’Brien, then just a chorus dancer and lowly assistant.
They had a bit more fun than they should have together.
51. She Was A Prankster
O’Brien was younger than Miller and he helped her recapture some of the fun of her youth. Maybe too much fun, though. During a performance of As Thousands Cheer, Miller and O’Brien snuck Woolworth heir Jimmy Donahue on stage. In the scene, Miller impersonated Donahue’s cousin, the heiress Barbara Hutton.
The seemingly harmless prank incessed the show’s producers.
52. She Walked Away From Broadway
This little prank landed O'Brien in hot water. For his unprofessionalism, the show’s producers fired him. In the wake of this joke gone wrong, Miller followed her boyfriend out of the theater—and then later, canceled her contract. Little did she know, she was walking away from more than just one show.
53. She Retired For The Simple Life
When she dropped out of her contract, Miller left behind the world she knew best. Frustrated with the way show business had treated her and longing for something else, Miller announced her retirement and married O’Brien. She spoiled O’Brien rotten, spending a small fortune on him in their brief marriage.
She was also finally free to address one of her longest issues.
54. She Took Her Final Bow
Throughout her career, Miller had simply smiled through her sinusitis-induced migraines. However, when she heard about a “miracle doctor," she jumped at the opportunity. Far from a panacea, however, the insulin treatments she received had horrifying consequences.
For months, Miller endured some scary side effects including disorientation and passing comas—but in April, 1936, her condition took a turn for the worse. She slipped into a coma and never woke up. Her attending nurse later told the press about the actress's final moments.
Reportedly, just minutes before she passed, Miller actually opened her eyes: "She said not a word. She smiled, a rich, deep comfortable smile, and then closed her eyes, and passed away".
55. She Inspired Another Marilyn
Miller was just 37 at the time of her demise but she left a legacy behind. Years after her early exit from the stage of life, her former lover and co-star Ben Lyon met a curious woman named Norma Jean Baker. Lyon told Baker that she reminded him of Miller so the sultry would-be starlet changed her name to Marilyn Monroe.
56. She Lost Herself In Dance
Just as she had commanded in her will, Miller’s family buried her in a mausoleum next to her first husband, Frank Carter. She summarized her own life and career perfectly when she said, “I always lose myself when I dance. I seem to be another, projected personality”. Hopefully, to escape the tragedies of her own life, that personality was a happy one.