Weird History, Part 6: Falling Stars


I know that after skimping on a history post in July, I totally failed yet again in August. I was GOING to post this in August, but my Internet went out and I had to wait for the broadband guy to come and fix it. (Fortunately, it didn’t take long once he got here and they didn’t charge me.)

So here you go:

With more of our information available on the Internet, and the proliferation of social media, it seems easier to become (and stay) famous—or infamous. Social media brought us the discovery of Justin Bieber and returned the last living silent film star to the public eye. When a celebrity gives birth or shuffles off this mortal coil, their name blows up the “Trending” sidebars on Twitter, Facebook, and Google News. Pro athletes announce their retirements in flashy press conferences, and rock stars tour the globe to give their farewell concerts—sometimes multiple times.

But what was it like to be a fading star before social media, before the Internet … even before television? In this month’s “Weird History” feature, let’s take a look at the strange ways that the spotlight faded for some of Hollywood’s early celebrities.

We’re going to start off on a more positive note …

Mary Pickford

One can’t study film history without running into Mary Pickford’s name. It’s hard to believe, but in the advent of film, the performers were unknown and uncredited. As audiences saw more movies, they came to know the performers’ faces, and demanded to know their identities, as well. The first audiences knew her only as “the girl with the curls,” but Mary Pickford became so popular that was one of the first subjects of fan magazines.

Rather than fade into obscurity or fall into notoriety, however, Mary Pickford continued her work in show business long after she stepped away from the camera. She helped form United Artists with Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, and Charlie Chaplin; promoted film preservation; was a co-founder of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; broke ground for the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in 1942; and accepted an honorary Oscar for her contribution to the film industry in 1976. She died of a stroke in 1979, at age 87.

Mary Philbin

Less inspiring, perhaps, is the career of Mary Philbin. Devoted fans of The Phantom of the Opera (like yours truly) know her best as Christine Daaé in the 1925 silent film version. Although she was an acclaimed and hugely popular actress in the 1920s, her career did not carry over into the sound era. Supposedly her voice did not have a good quality for recording (think Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain). She never married and left show business after the rise of “talkies.” Little is known about her later life, as she made few public appearances—although she did attend the L.A. premiere of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s The Phantom of the Opera. She died of pneumonia at age 90, in Huntington Beach, California.

Louise Brooks

Here we start to get into the tragic and somewhat bizarre. Even if you’ve never watched any of Louise Brooks’ films, you’ve seen her. Her dark bob, smokey eye, and playful smirk inspired the “flapper” look and defined the style of a decade. A fiery, sensual, independent personality (which carried over onto many of her film characters) also contributed to the idea of flappers as women of high spirits and low morals.

Largely ignored by her mother, Louise made her own way in the world. She left her native Kansas at 15 and traveled to New York with a chaperone (who later returned to Kansas, sans Louise) to study modern dance. She joined the Ziegfeld Follies and caught the attention of film producers. After a few years making U.S. films, she went to Germany to make some of the films for which she is now best known, such as Diary of a Lost Girl and Pandora’s Box.

Unfortunately, after her return to Hollywood, she gained a reputation for being demanding and haughty, butting heads with studios and producers. She turned down advantageous roles, nursed a drinking problem, and went through several failed relationships–and actively fueled speculation about her sexuality. She made her living dancing in night clubs, unsuccessfully tried to run a dance studio, and tried her hand at a gossip column. Eventually, she became an upper-class call girl.

Film historians and critics rediscovered her films in the 1950s, when a curator learned that she was a recluse in New York City. With his encouragement, she became a film writer and historian of sorts, and published her memoirs. She was found dead of a heart attack on August 8, 1985 (the day after I was born, I have to point out) at age 78.

Veronica Lake

Along a similar vein ran the career of 1940s bombshell (no pun intended) Veronica Lake. Here was another young beauty who enjoyed such immense fame and popularity that she inspired an iconic look. Her trademark hair, pout, and ice-princess demeanor, in fact, inspired the character of Jessica Rabbit—arguably more famous now than her predecessor.

Veronica’s popularity increased most with an on-screen partnership with Alan Ladd, and she was one of the most common pinups among American GIs during World War II. Women attempted to copy her “peek-a-boo” hairstyle, but many learned the hard way that it was better suited for the screen than for wartime life. Legend has it that the U.S. government ordered her to change her style after too many women were injured at work when their long hair got tangled in factory machinery.

Much like Louise Brooks, Veronica’s career suffered due to tumultuous relationships, a drinking problem, and reputation for being difficult to work with. For example, she starred in I Married a Witch (a precursor to the TV series Bewitched) with my favorite classic-film actor, Fredric March. Fredric loathed working with her, and even referred to that movie by a different title—changing only one letter. Audience tastes also changed, and her career took a huge hit when she portrayed a Nazi sympathizer in the movie Dawn. After a string of flops in the 1950s, she vanished from public life.

She took her children to New York in an effort to revive her career. Her efforts were less than successful—in 1962, a reporter found her working at the Martha Washington hotel for women, under the name Connie de Toth. After this “rediscovery,” she periodically performed work on the stage, but her drinking problems caught up with her. After being diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver by a doctor in Vermont, she died of acute hepatitis and acute kidney injury on July 7, 1973.

Her son claimed her body after a small memorial service, paid for by her friend Donald Bain, the ghostwriter who helped pen her autobiography. Supposedly Veronica’s body was cremated and her ashes were scattered in the waters off Miami. In a bizarre turn, however, another story arose that her ashes had been stored at a funeral home in Vermont, due to a financial-based argument, according to Bain. Her ashes (or some of them, at least) supposedly turned up in an antique store in the Catskills.

Gloria Grahame

Gloria is probably best known as Violet Bick, Mary’s sort-of rival for George Bailey’s affections and Bedford Falls’ resident sort-of “bad girl” in It’s a Wonderful Life. She was often cast in film noir productions as a femme fatale, and worked with Hollywood greats such as Humphrey Bogart, Joan Crawford, Robert Mitchum, and Olivia de Havilland.

Like many people whose career is inextricably linked with their appearance, Gloria was obsessed with her looks—in particular, the size and shape of her upper lip. Numerous surgeries to fix this “flaw” led to nerve damage and paralysis of her upper lip. The resulting effect on her speech and performance tripped up her career. She also confused audiences—used to seeing her as a vengeful ex or heartless seductress—with her performance as well-meaning Ado Annie in the big-screen version of Oklahoma! Her career declined, but she occasionally took roles on stage and television.

Like many others of her ilk, Gloria had a reputation for being difficult. That reputation took its biggest hit in 1960, when she married her fourth husband, Anthony “Tony” Ray—her stepson from her second marriage. The scandal led to a custody battle with her third husband, Cy Howard, over their daughter, and the stress of it all contributed to a nervous breakdown, for which Gloria received electroshock therapy in the 1960s. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in the 1970s. It went into remission after treatment, only to return. She developed peritonitis after a botched abdominal surgery in London, and was moved back to the United States by two of her children. Gloria died in a New York City hospital in 1981. She is generally unknown nowadays, although she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful.

Depressing? Absolutely! But in our attention-hungry, fame-whoring culture, it may be important to remember that fame is–and always has been–volatile,  uncertain, and usually temporary.

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