When writing the Jazz Age mystery novel, Ashes of Yesterday, set in the Roaring 20s, I did a lot of research on Hollywood in the early days. The beautiful, the talented, the shining auras born with everything going for them lost themselves in hideous addictions just like a number of today’s stars. I’ve written about silent film stars Wallace Reid and Barbara La Marr in earlier posts.
This is like ambulance chasing, but there is something so intriguing about such talent that soars so high and crashes to earth in a heap of ash and ruin.
(1897 – 1931)
Alma Rubens: “I am a Dope Fiend But Not a Jewess!”
Her father was Jewish, and she denied being Jewish her whole life. (Technically, she was correct since Jewish descent passes through the mother’s line.)
In her first film, she starred with Douglas Fairbanks in 1916. A decade later, she was a drug addict.
The Roaring 20s started out well for Rubens. She signed with William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Productions in 1920 and was promoted as a descendant of the painter Rubens, (a false claim). 1
In 1921, the film star was prescribed morphine and was hooked. She moved onto alcohol, heroin, and maybe cocaine. By the late twenties, she was in and out of sanitariums. In 1929, her addiction became public when she tried to stab her doctor. 2
Family members had her committed to Patton State Hospital (Insane Asylum), but she continued using drugs. In 1930, she returned in stage role, declaring she was cured of drugs and describing her experience with drugs and in sanitariums. 3
In 1931, she was arrested for trying to smuggle drugs from Mexico back into the states. She made bail but came down with pneumonia. She fell into a coma and died at 31 years old. 4
She completed her memoirs about a month before she died.
Silent Snowbird by Alma Rubens is available on Amazon. “God pity me, God forgive me, and God help all poor mortals who fall into the clutches of the monster–dope” (7 May). This is her final sentence in the book.
(1890 – 1929)
Another Roaring 20s star whose flame extinguished quickly is Jeanne Eagles. She is remembered most for The Letter, the last film she made in 1929. She is the first actress nominated for the Best Actress Oscar after her death. 5
She started using drugs at the pinnacle of her success. By the middle of the 1920s, she was using heroin. An autopsy revealed she had alcohol in her tissues, heroin and a sedative, chloral hydrate, she used to sleep. Death was attributed to an overdose of chloral hydrate. 6
John Gilbert was a Roaring 20s silver screen idol. He rivaled Valentino at the height of his career. But in the end, he died of a heart attack. His health had been ruined by alcohol. Among his co-stars on the silent screen were Greta Garbo and Lilian Gish.
During 1928 – 29, he was MGM’s most popular male star. But Gilbert was one of the many silent screen stars who did not successfully transition from silent movies to talkies when sound technology hit the film industry.