While Hollywood studios often end their films happily and with distinct resolution, the same sense of joyful closure does not necessarily apply to everyone off-screen. Many actors and actresses experience great success, but many also encounter harsh challenges in their personal lives. At their worst, many of these problems can lead to scandal, pain, personal suffering, and death. Though some on-screen personalities have been affected by tragedy and personal challenges, it is all the more important to share their stories and celebrate their achievements in this exciting industry. Every story is worth telling–especially in the case of early film pioneers.
Silent film heroine Barbara La Marr achieved success as an actress, cabaret artist, and a screenwriter. Known for her beauty and lengthy marital history, La Marr became a staple on screen and in headlines. She appeared with notable co-stars in her films, propelled by experience in vaudeville, Broadway, and screenwriting. Tragically, her troubling lifestyle in Hollywood, coupled with an array of contributing factors, led to her early passing.
Author Sherri Snyder approaches her subject in a particularly intriguing and intimate way, as she was introduced to La Marr’s work prior to the casting of a play at the Pasadena Playhouse and Pasadena Museum of History. Snyder was recommended to play the part of Barbara La Marr by film historian friend, Karie Bible, and immediately became fascinated by La Marr’s life and legacy when researching her character. Since La Marr’s life is linked to tragedy and scandal, the separation of fact from fiction is a difficult undertaking. However, Snyder beautifully steps up to the task of providing film scholars a thoughtful and well-researched depiction of La Marr’s life, career, and legacy.
Snyder’s work offers an honest and incredibly personal perspective of La Marr’s life. Snyder’s prose justly portrays both the rewarding and challenging moments throughout La Marr’s life and career. Additionally, Snyder has culled information from a wide range of sources to provide readers with a thorough and complete examination of La Marr, dispelling Hollywood myths and offering clarity along the way.
While Snyder’s writing entices the reader to continue exploring La Marr’s life due to La Marr’s fascinating story, a key strength in Snyder’s work is her very personal connection to La Marr. Although the two have never met, Snyder nevertheless grasps a unique understanding of La Marr after acquainting herself with her acting career in order to portray her appropriately in the play, Channeling Hollywood. While La Marr had already died long before Snyder’s exposure to her career, Snyder was lucky enough to be in touch with La Marr’s son, Donald Gallery, weaving in yet another perspective in telling the story of Barbara La Marr.
Though Gallery recently passed away, his appreciation for this story about his mother stand as a testament to Snyder’s efforts to uncover information on La Marr’s life and career as respectfully and honestly as possible.
I was lucky enough to interview author Sherri Snyder about this biography, and am delighted to share our exchange here.
Annette: Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood is wonderful way to learn about the life of silent star, Barbara La Marr. What inspired you to begin the project of writing about her life?
Sherri: I like to think that this project found me. I was contacted in 2007 by a friend of mine, writer and film historian Karie Bible, about portraying Barbara in a production called Channeling Hollywood—a joint collaboration between the Pasadena Playhouse and Pasadena Museum of History. One of the producers had asked Karie if she knew of an actress who could both play Barbara and write her life story in monologue form. (Barbara, having passed away at age twenty-nine in Altadena in 1926, was one of five deceased Hollywood notables with ties to Pasadena and Altadena to be spotlighted; the production featured five monologues, all woven together to form a play.) Karie informed me that she had given the producer my name. I was called in to audition and I ended up getting the part.
Barbara’s only child, her son, Donald Gallery, came to California from his home in Puerto Vallarta to see the play, was very moved by it, and went home and told his wife, “I’ve finally met the person who is supposed to write Barbara’s book.” To have his mother’s complete story told was a lifelong dream of Don’s, and I had so loved working on the play that I wholeheartedly accepted his request that I author her biography.
I also expanded the monologue that I wrote for the play. I have performed it for eight years now alongside Barbara’s crypt at Hollywood Forever each October as the finale to an annual tour hosted by the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles.
Annette: I found it fascinating that you portrayed La Marr in a play, as I feel that carrying out a role grants one a unique sense of perspective and connection. What did you discover about Barbara La Marr while portraying her? Do you see any connection between Barbara La Marr and yourself?
Sherri: From the time I first began researching Barbara for the play, I was taken by the underlying strength she possessed beneath her frailties and insecurities. The number of tragedies and amount of scandal she endured in a single lifetime is staggering—infamy by age sixteen after she was reported kidnapped by her half-sister and her half-sister’s paramour; barring by Los Angeles film studios from working as an actress following her bigamous marriage and increased notoriety; several more failed marriages and relationships; a blackmail attempt against her that undermined her emotional health, reputation, and career; alcoholism; and frail health (to name a few). Unbelievably, she always found it within herself—often through her strong will and sense of humor—to continue pursuing her dreams, achieving success and renown as a cabaret dancer, vaudevillian, and Fox Film Corporation story writer, and, finally, worldwide fame as one of the silent screen’s foremost actresses and sex goddesses.
To answer the second part of your question: curiously, yes, I encountered similarities between Barbara and myself. Our temperaments are similar; we’ve both been described as strong-willed, sensitive (to others and generally speaking), emotionally expressive, kind-hearted, prone to sadness at times, spiritual, and hard-working. When I decide to do something, I plunge in with both feet, as she did. We were both raised by protective parents, were both rebellious and ran away from home in our teens, and both developed a deeper appreciation for our parents in our adult years. Like Barbara, I discovered my aptitudes for acting and writing in my childhood.
Annette: I am so glad that you were able to be in touch with La Marr’s son, Donald Gallery. What is your most memorable moment with him?
Sherri: Since Don and his wife, Patricia, —both wonderful people—became close friends of mine after I met them in 2007, I have many memorable moments involving Don. One that really stands out occurred when he came to see me portray Barbara in Channeling Hollywood. It was the play’s final performance and I knew he was in the audience that night; though the performance was sold out, it was hard to miss him dead center in the first row. While I’m not usually nervous about performing, I was nervous about him being there and, because the play involved me addressing the audience as Barbara at various points, I had avoided looking at him. Then, near the end, curiosity got the better of me. I glanced his way and saw him wiping tears from his eyes. As I walked out into the reception area with the other actors after the play, he came up and threw his arms around me. People were taking pictures and I actually have a photo of that moment. He went back home to Puerto Vallarta a few days later and told Patricia that he had felt his mother while watching my performance. This really meant a lot to me since my goal was to embody Barbara as truthfully as I could and I had hoped Don would enjoy the performance.
Annette: I am always interested in learning more about the hometowns of various Hollywood stars. How has La Marr’s legacy been preserved within her hometown of Yakima, Washington, if at all? Do you know if she is honored in other locations?
Sherri: In 2013, the Yakima Valley Museum commemorated Barbara’s life by including her in one of the museum’s permanent exhibits, “Famous Beyond the Valley.” Also featured in the exhibit are many other celebrities hailing from Yakima, including several actors such as Kyle MacLachlan and Sam Kinison. I didn’t locate any additional tributes to Barbara in Yakima, and the Yakima Valley Museum and Washington State Historical Society are unaware of any others.
Barbara was also memorialized during her lifetime and shortly after her passing. At one point during the height of her fame, from 1923 to 1925, a street in a developing Florida neighborhood was named La Marr after her (although I’ve been unable to verify that the street is still in existence today). Producer Paul Bern, who was romantically linked to Barbara and loved her deeply, paid homage to her in the early 1930s by hiring Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio artisans to carve her likeness into one of four wooden beams above the patio of his Benedict Canyon home. The four beams, depicting the four winds, each bear the face of someone who was closest to Bern in his life. On a side note, when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer mogul Louis B. Mayer discovered a beautiful, exotic, intelligent actress named Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in the late 1930s, she reminded him so much of Barbara that he renamed her Hedy Lamarr in Barbara’s honor.
Barbara’s career as a silent film actress was commemorated with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. The star is located at 1621 Vine Street, near the intersection of Hollywood Blvd. and Vine.
I created and host www.barbaralamarr.net, a tribute site where visitors may learn about Barbara’s life and career, as well as peruse an extensive array of her photographs.
Annette: Not many writers have covered La Marr’s life, so this book is especially intriguing to me. What are you most proud of regarding your work on this book?
Sherri: My primary goal was to uncover the truth from as many primary sources as possible. I wanted to represent Barbara and every person who factored into her life story as factually as I could. In many ways, I was navigating uncharted territory; as you pointed out, Barbara hasn’t been widely covered since her passing and her complete story is largely unknown. I gathered all of the information I could lay my hands on, pursuing every avenue I found. I’m proud of all of the work I put into this project for so many years in my efforts to accomplish my objectives. It became an all-consuming process and essentially a full-time job for quite some time—albeit a very enjoyable one.
It makes me happy whenever people read something I have written about Barbara, or see one of my performances as Barbara, and come away with appreciation for her manifold accomplishments and increased empathy for her and all she went through. I love when people are moved by her story.
I was especially touched by how Don’s perspective of his mother changed, and how excited he became each time my research uncovered something he hadn’t known about her. Only three years old when she died, he originally based much of what he knew about Barbara on the memories of those who had known her and (frequently erroneous and derogatory) accounts he had read or heard about her. While Don unfortunately passed away in 2014, before the book’s completion, he was able to read the majority of the chapters involving himself and Barbara. Not long after reading them, he told his wife that he had a peace inside him that he had never had before about Barbara and how she felt about him. I would say that that is my proudest moment in this incredible journey.
Annette: Since La Marr’s life is not covered often, I am sure that you conducted a great deal of original research about her. What was the most exciting or shocking part of your research process for this book?
Sherri: I was constantly astounded by how one person could—without even trying—stir up so much scandal and publicity at such a young age and sustain it throughout the duration of her life. It amazed me that Barbara ultimately used the tragic events of her life to fire her determination to succeed, rather than allow them to devastate her. Her commendable success on multiple career fronts in an era when such an accomplishment was a rarity and many women led lives of domesticity is also impressive. The greatest surprise for me (and the others involved), however, involved a discovery pertaining to the parentage of her son—but I’m unable to say anything more about that here without giving too much away. I address it at length in the book, of course.
Annette: Through the publication of your book, you’ve continued if not reopened a conversation on La Marr’s life and contributions. How can we best preserve the legacy and story of Barbara La Marr?
Sherri: I encourage people to watch her films. Two of them, The Nut (1921) and The Three Musketeers (1921), both starring Douglas Fairbanks, may be enjoyed free of charge. I have a complete listing of the six films comprising Barbara’s screenwriting career and the twenty-six films in which she is known to have appeared on my Barbara La Marr tribute website in the Filmography section. The survival status of each film is provided, in addition to where Barbara’s extant films may be viewed.
I also encourage people to be open to considering the person she was at her core, to look beyond the headlines, scandals, and rumors she spawned. At the peak of her fame and during a time when she was feeling particularly battered by her life’s circumstances and people’s judgment of her, Barbara stated that the greatest thing we can give one another is understanding. It’s my hope that Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood will dispel the inaccuracies shrouding her legacy and give readers a true sense of who she was as an artist and person.
Snyder’s book is perfect for silent film fans and film historians. This new volume on Barbara La Marr is not to be missed and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.
I think I read an excerpt from this book a few years ago. My interest has be re- sparked and I’m going to have to buy the book or check it out at the library.