The roaring 20s and the introduction of film and movies were becoming all the rage under Hollywood’s big, bright lights. Stars were already shining in the eyes of Yakima local Barbara La Marr as she made the move to the big city, chasing her dreams in the early years of acting fame.

Barbara La Marr
Barbara starred in “The Three Musketeers” in 1921 which was immediately seen as “a thrilling, gripping, unadulterated success” after its release. Photo courtesy: Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood

Barbara La Marr was born in 1896 as Reatha Dale Watson to William and Rosana Watson in Yakima, where her father was an editor for the newspaper, and her mother focused on raising her and her older siblings. Life was uneventful primarily for the young Barbara, as Yakima was still a very small town back then. The family moved to various locations in Washington and Oregon during her formative years. Barbara participated in activities such as dancing and making her acting debut as Little Eva in a Tacoma stage production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in 1904.

It wasn’t until 1910 that her family moved to Fresno, California. Then in the early months of 1911, they finally moved to Los Angeles, where Barbara immediately fell in love with the L.A. way of living and found a place where her passion for dancing and writing could run free.

However, under the bright lights of Hollywood, there was no place to hide, and Barbara found herself growing up fast. She began appearing in burlesque shows and was even arrested for dancing in one as a teen, prompting her to change her name to Barbara La Marr to avoid being associated with her past. Her name would go on to appear frequently in newspaper headlines during the next few years as her stardom began to rise.

Barbara La Marr
Barbara La Marr during a photoshoot — circa late 1923-early 1924. Photo courtesy: Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood

However, before the fame, there was a string of whirlwind romances for Barbara. In November of 1914, she came back to California after spending some time in Arizona. Upon her return, she announced that she was a newly widowed wife, stating she married a rancher named Jack Lytell, whom she allegedly married in Mexico. Barbara told her family that he had died of pneumonia only three weeks into their marriage, leaving her nothing but a surname to inherit with the title Mrs. Lytelle.

Her first official documented marriage was on June 2, 1914, to Max Lawrence. He was arrested for bigamy the following day as it was discovered that he was actually a former solider of fortune named Lawrence Converse and was already married with children when he married Barbara. After the discovery, Converse died three days later on June 5, due to a blood clot.

Barbara married Phillip Ainsworth in 1916, who was a noted dancer himself. Disaster struck again for Barbara when Ainsworth was incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison for passing bad checks, and the couple divorced following the arrest in 1917.

Barbara La Marr
A scene from Barbara in “The Prisoner of Zenda” in 1922. Photo courtesy: Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood

It was during her marriage to her next husband, Ben Deely, in 1918 that she would land a job writing screenplays at Fox Film Corporation while they lived in New York City. She wrote numerous scenarios for studio shorts at Fox and United Artists, many of which she based on her real-life experiences. In 1920, she had several works released, including “The Mother of His Children,” “The Rose of Nome,” “Flame of Youth,” “The Little Grey Mouse,” and “The Land of Jazz.”

Despite the success with her earning upwards of $10,000 as a writer, life in New York was still tumultuous for Barbara. Husband Deely was over twice her age as well as an alcoholic and gambling addict, leading to the couple’s separation in April of 1921 after she had moved back to Los Angeles. New York itself was proving less than kind as she found herself in another run-in with the police one night. On this night, an officer had stopped her on the street, ordering Barbara to go home because she was “too young and beautiful to be on her own in the big city.” Local Hearst newspaper writer Adela Rogers St. Johns overheard the exchange making the next day’s headline piece “The Girl Who Is Too Beautiful,” causing the whole country to fall in love with the dazzling young woman.

Barbara La Marr
Barbara with her son Marvin who was legally adopted by her close friend, actress ZaSu Pitts, and Pitts’ husband, film executive Tom Gallery. Photo courtesy: George Watson, liveauctioneers

Thus, “Barbara La Marr” was officially born. By this time, her association with film was paying off as she had been able to make connections while working at the United Artists building. This inevitably led to her returning to Los Angeles and making her film debut in the 1920 film “Harriet and the Piper.” Though it was a supporting role, she immediately caught the audience’s attention. Her nickname of “The Girl Who Is Too Beautiful” followed her as her stunning appearance captivated audiences. This led to a smooth transition from writer to actress, with her landing another supporting role in “The Nut” in 1921.

All the publicity she was receiving further promoted her career as that same year, she landed a substantial role as Milady de Winter in “The Three Musketeers.” Barbara found herself on a fast-paced trajectory to fame, with her film career flourishing almost overnight, landing roles in “The Prisoner of Zenda” and “Trifling Women” in 1922. Though she embraced her new life for all that it was, she remarked in interviews that she slept no more than two hours a night as she was captivated by the Hollywood nightlife.

The year 1923 led to more roles for Barbara as well as a new husband. During this year, she married Jack Dougherty in May and starred as the lead role alongside Bert Lytell and Lionel Barrymore in “The Eternal City.” However, like her other marriages, this one didn’t last long, with the couple separating not even a year later. Yet, they remained legally married until her death, which was sooner on the horizon than anticipated.

In 1924, both Barbara’s career and health began to decline. During the filming of “Thy Name is Woman,” the production supervisor had to make regular visits to the set to ensure that her alcoholism wasn’t interfering with the shoot. Following this film, she starred in and co-wrote the film “Sandra,” which focused on a woman suffering from a split-personality disorder. The film received dismally negative reviews upon its release, and her next pieces would follow a similar fate. Her work in “the Heart of Siren” received a mixed reception, and “The White Monkey” was considered a critical failure. Only her film “The Girl from Montmartre” was deemed a critical success, but it was released posthumously. Barbara had collapsed on set and went into a coma as the studio wrapped up production.

Barbara La Marr
Barbara’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Photo courtesy: Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood

The long hours of partying and working had finally caught up with Barbara once she added alcohol and extreme crash diets to the mix during the last two years of her life. The effects of it all had further worsened when she contracted pulmonary tuberculosis in 1925. After her collapse on set, she was diagnosed with nephritis and was bedridden through Christmas. By late December, she reportedly weighed less than 80 pounds, and on January 30, 1926, she took her final breath at the young age of 29.

Barbara La Marr was survived by her son Marvin Carville La Marr and her adoring fans. Over 3,000 of them attended her funeral at Walter C. Blue Undertaking Chapel in Los Angeles. After, she was interred in a crypt at Hollywood Cathedral Mausoleum in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. In remembrance of “The Girl Who Is Too Beautiful,” she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where she will forever be remembered by the city that she loved so dearly.

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