"The Girl Who Is Too Beautiful"
Celebrated around the world as "The Girl Who Is Too Beautiful," Barbara LaMarr was much more than a mere screen beauty. Possessing a razor sharp intelligence, a keen sense of humor, and a wise understanding of human nature, LaMarr was also a successful screenwriter during the silent era.
A child actress at the age of seven, Reatha Dale Watson (as she was then called) had a tremendous impact on her turn-of-the-century theater audiences as she played in stock companies up and down the West Coast for over six years.
La Marr's parents moved to a small town in California when she was a teenager, but she quickly left home to explore the opportunities available in Los Angeles. She was arrested for dancing in a burlesque show while she was 14, and a judge said she was "too beautiful to be alone in a big city, alone and unprotected," a comment which led to her eventual screen nickname.
Audiences adored her as she danced to filled nightclubs, theaters, and vaudeville houses in her next incarnation as a dancer.
Hand in hand with LaMarr’s successful career as an actress and dancer was LaMarr the writer, beginning with her short stories in newspapers. She branched out as film and theater critic, magazine contributor, and lastly film scenarist. She "doctored" numerous screenplays and wrote (or co-wrote) at least eight movies.
In 1913 and 1914 LaMarr filmed some quickie westerns in Arizona. She is also said to have filmed dancing shorts in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, with partners such as Rudolph Valentino and Clifton Webb. None of this film footage survives. By 1920 Louis B. Mayer and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. with wife Mary Pickford "discovered" Barbara LaMarr and set her on the path to screen stardom.
With her exotic looks, native intelligence, and inborn grace of form and movement, Barbara became one of the most celebrated film vamps and an icon of the art deco era. She received rave reviews in such box office hits as "The Three Musketeers," "The Prisoner of Zenda," "Strangers of the Night," and "Thy Name Is Woman."
Very soon, LaMarr was to the cinema world what Babe Ruth would become to the baseball world. People were mad about her, whether she played naïve women or vamps. Critics and audiences loved her with equal fervor.
Barbara once said of her film work, "Each characterization I create chips a little piece from my very soul." She did work very hard—she also played very hard.
LaMarr was a serious junkie who dabbled in nearly every available drug. She kept her cocaine in a golden casket on the grand piano; her opium was the finest Benares blend. She eventually became addicted to heroin. She boasted of never wasting any more than 2 hours a night on sleep because she had "better things to do." Indeed, she had lovers by the dozens—"like roses," she said—as well as six husbands during her brief career.
When LaMarr died, she was in her twenties (reports differ from age 26 to 29). She may have died of a fatal overdose; other reports say tuberculosis. The studio blamed her death on "too rigorous dieting." LaMarr had one son, who is now known as Don Gallery. An estimated 40,000 mourners attended her funeral. Her crypt contains the inscription, "With God in the joy and beauty of youth."
Years after her death, MGM studio chief Louis Mayer, one of LaMarr's greatest fans, decided to pick a new name for a young starlett named Hedwig Kiesler. He decided to name her in honor of LaMarr and gave her the name Hedy Lamarr.
Film historian Kevin Brownlow has said of her: “Barbara LaMarr personified Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem about burning one’s candle at both ends. And she exemplified the extravagance of the early Twenties – incredible dresses, astonishing hats – all worn with the insouciance of the great beauty. But she could be a feisty gangster’s moll, and her tougher performances suggest what a marvelous actress she might have become if she and the movies had been allowed to develop together.”
“Seventy years after her death it comes to light that Barbara LaMarr was more than Hollywood’s original tragic icon of youth and beauty flung by decadence into an early grave," said Karen Pedersen of The Writers Guild Foundation. "Behind the impossible glamour was a human being and woman whose talent and complexity were far greater than many of her era were willing to see.”