On the face of it, Hollywood looks like many North American neighbourhoods. There are coffee shops, tree-lined streets and folks who nod Hello.
But, like any town, Hollywood has seen its share of, uh, unsavoury activities. As author Michael G. Ankerich says, “Hollywood’s secret world resembled everyday life in sunny California.”¹
Ankerich’s recently-published Hairpins and Dead Ends: The Perilous Journeys of 25 Actresses Through Early Hollywood looks at 25 actresses in the silent era who wanted to Make It Big in the movies. These women were, for a time, Hollywood’s Bright Young Things.
Their success is noteworthy, but it’s what happened After Fame that is the focus of this book. They are stories of tragedy, mainly; several of these actresses died as young women.
For example, Barbara La Marr (pictured above) was ambitious and self-destructive. She rarely slept, and drank to relieve the pain of gum disease. “The candle she burned at both ends was not lit by a match, but by a blowtorch,” writes Ankerich.² She was dead at age 30, from complications of tuberculosis.
Or look at Helen Lee Worthing, who was shunned when she married (gasp!) an African-American doctor, then struggled financially and emotionally after the marriage ended. Look at the articles (below) that document Worthing’s troubled life.³
Hairpins and Dead Ends is as much a history of Hollywood’s underbelly as a history of these women.
There are a lot of juicy stories here, but it doesn’t read like a scandalous tell-all. Ankerich does not sensationalize or pass judgment; rather, he cautions us about fame’s fickle nature.
Look at Alice Lake, for instance. According to Ankerich, Lake earned $750 week as a film star in the early 1920s. Ten years later, she was making $7.50 per day as an extra.4
Or take Marie Walcamp, who starred in action-packed serials in the 1910s and performed most of her own stunts. Despite her athleticism and fortitude, she became physically and mentally ill, and committed suicide in 1936.5
Or how about Fontaine La Rue, who had to change her name to save her career after news leaked of her affair with a married man.6 (Ankerich says changing names and identities was not unheard of during the silent era.)
Then there’s Margaret Gibson.
The above photo was taken before Margaret Gibson was busted in an opium den.7 She changed her name to Patricia Palmer to keep working, but when her career faltered, she became involved in an extortion ring. This led to another arrest, but that might not be the worst of it. Ankerich tells of Palmer’s “deathbed confession” in 1964, when she claimed involvement in the murder of director William Desmond Taylor in 1922.8
The biography of Margaret Gibson is an excellent example of Ankerich’s mad research skills. He thoroughly examines these women’s lives, as much as one can 100 years later, and has unearthed some unexpected stories.
Jetta Goudal, who who had the reputation of being temperamental (to say the least), took Cecil B. DeMille’s company to court over her contract, and won.9 “Jetta also became involved in the fight for unionized film players,” writes Ankerich. “Her fellow actors dubbed her Joan of Arc of Equity.”10
Or look at Jean Sothern who, despite a bizarre case of mistaken identity, became a popular radio actress, specializing in foreign accents.
Ankerich writes in an amusing, conversational style that pulls you into the lives of these women and paints a vivid, albeit undesirable, picture of old Hollywood.
Ultimately, Hairpins and Dead Ends chronicles the destructive nature of fame, but Ankerich reminds us these women’s experiences are human experiences.
“Here are the stories of twenty-five young women who didn’t return home,” writes Ankerich. “Rather than taking the easy way, they stuck it out. …[T]hey often found themselves used, abused, and discarded. They are among the ghosts of Hollywood’s past.”11