“She was a winner, Who became a doggie’s dinner…” — Nick Lowe
Would a dog loving movie star leave her pooch to starve?
Memorialized in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon and in the eponymous pop song, Marie Prevost is best-known today as a overly-nasal actress who killed herself without anticipating that her pet dachshund would get hungry after days of not being fed.
It’s a memorable Hollywood fairytale, the falling movie star who killed herself in despair and ended up being consumed by her starving if reluctant pup. But is it true?
At the end of the 19th century, Mary Dunn was born in Canada and later moved to Hollywood with her family. As a young teen, the beautiful girl found success as a Sennett Bathing Beauty. (Other Sennett Bathing Beauties include Gloria Swanson, Mabel Normand, and Carole Lombard.) Mack Sennett changed her last name to the fancier, French-ier Prevost, and she went on to star in movies as an unflappable flapper and later a charming comedienne at Universal and Warner Bros. Her career spanned 21 years, during which she not only survived the transition to sound, but managed to make over 120 films!
Marie had the requisite bee-stung lips and perfect pouty insouciance to embody the 20s female ideal. She was featured on the first cover of The Flapper magazine, which asked readers:
“How do you like our girl on the cover? Some fascinating little minx, Marie Prevost, isn’t she? And who but she could assume such a fascinating pose?”
Marie as The Flapper Magazine’s first cover girl
Prevost flappered it up in lots of films, occasionally scoring a juicy lead, as she did in an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned (1923) where she had sufficient chemistry with her leading man to merit their marrying Kenneth Harlan the next year. She made three films with Ernest Lubitsch where his infamous “Lubitsch touch” was in full-effect in mischievous movies like The Marriage Circle (1924), where Marie once again got to play an impish, slightly risqué jazz baby who turns out to be a “good girl” in the end. She made films with other famous directors as well, including Frank Capra, Mervyn LeRoy and Cecil B. DeMille.
But in 1926, while starring in one of her six films with the original movie star Harrison Ford (you didn’t know there were two, did ya?), Marie’s mother died in a car accident. It hit Prevost pretty hard, and that, coupled with her divorce from Harlan, sent Marie straight to the bottle – and the fridge.
Her drinking and eating made her put on the pounds, and roles became harder to get. Too curvy to represent slim, flat-chested flapperdom (a trope that was losing steam, and steaminess, anyway), she was now primarily playing “blowsy tough dames” or the wisecracking sidekick to stars like Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford. She tried all kinds of crash diets with hopes of getting back in the game. In a 1936 New York Times article, “Sometimes They Do Come Back”, Prevost ‘s slide is evident:
“In the studio restaurant at Warners there is an “Old-Timers Tables” that is reserved, in tacit arrangement, for the group of former stars who like to talk over together their halcyon days. A few weeks ago, Marie Prevost sat down at the table. The siren of Mack Sennett days had been successful with a reducing course and had got herself a job as a contract player…She was put to work almost immediately, in a small part in The Bengal Tiger…Miss Prevost is unbilled in The Bengal Tiger: She has only three lines to say, and those short ones.”
Full-on Marie Prevost!
Prevost’s “reducing course” consisted of drinking and not eating. A star just a few years before, Marie was now an “old-timer” and a has-been who was subsisting almost solely on booze –and hope.
On January 23, 1937, neighbors in her rundown apartment building called police to complain about a dog ‘s non-stop barking. Inside, they found Marie dead. Initially diagnosed as having died of acute alcoholism, the major cause of death was actually severe malnutrition.
To get back into pictures once again, Marie had basically starved herself to death. She was only 38.
Though she ate one too many hot dogs, today it’s the appetite of a different kind of weiner dog that has put poor Marie into the Hollywood Hall of Infamy. Despite Nick Lowe and Hollywood Babylon, the truth is that her poor distressed pet was only trying to rouse his sleeping mistress. The police report clearly states that the dog “had chewed up her arms and legs in a futile attempt to awaken her.” In her obituary in the Los Angeles Times, January 24, 1937, the paper details the more poignant than putrid scene:
“Whining at the-bedside was her pet dachshund, Maxie, and teeth marks on the actress’ body indicated animal had tugged at his mistress in ant attempt to arouse her.”
In fact, one can plainly see from the photo in Anger’s book that Marie’s corpse is intact. (And as far as the accuracy of Nick Lowe’s song, he even misspells Marie’s name in title!)
Prevost died a pauper, with only $300 and a few IOUs made out to Joan Crawford, a pal from silent days who’d lent her some money. Marie was also remembered by other luminaries; stars attending her funeral included Barbara Stanwyck, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Clark Gable, and her old boss Mack Sennett, and her destitution prompted Hollywood to form the Motion Picture Relief Fund and the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital.
Marie was a lovely, talented woman who died not of despair but from the hope that fueled her starving for stardom. Her end is sad, not sickening, both for poor Marie — and poor Maxie.
What if one day you got an email out of the blue from someone claiming to be your sister? What would you do?
I was 50 when I met my brother. It was a month or so after I met my mother. Wait, let me back up a little.
Growing up, my biological mother was the sole star of my adoptee’s curiosity. I knew out there somewhere was an inhibitionless, loves-conditionless woman with an unruly curly mane who would mend the hole in my heart and maybe had a hole of her own that I could mend. Well, wrong.
After a lifetime of being number one on my bucket list, meeting my biological mom, Doris, proved to be startlingly underwhelming. She was a sweet little old lady, never married, never had any children (other than me). She was polite and unguarded, but she had little to say, and no interest in, or anything in common with, yours truly. All my years of wondering and pining may have begun with a clichéd one-night bang, but it ended with a whimper. Despite my lifelong focus on the mystery of the missing mythical mama, it turned out the most interesting and valuable thing about finally finding her was when she coughed up the name of the man chance had made my dad. It was poor Doris’s bad luck to get knocked up by her boss the second time she had sex (at 37!), but it was my incredible luck to not only get all born and everything, but to get some really awesome relatives out of it.
I hadn’t given a lot of thought to my biological father, save for a vague fantasy where Perry Mason or some other smart, even-keeled grown-up swooped in to rescue me. I certainly never gave any siblings much thought. That makes sense – after all, why would I want to share a brand-spanking new loved one with a bunch of interlopers armed with their meddlesome better-than-me-ness? I think my needy heart and its gaping hungry mouth just nudged any fledgling brothers or sisters out the fantasy nest.
So, laughing and hugging and being inappropriate with my birthmother never came to pass, but I got the unexpected gift of a lifetime when I met my brother – and sister, and uncle, aunt, and cousins on my father’s side.
When I called my Dad (the one who raised me) to tell him I’d found out who my biological parents were, I mentioned my birthfather was a big Kennedy administration mucky-muck, with my uncle being an even bigger mucky-muck there, and a well-known writer and politician. “Too bad he wasn’t your father,” said my Dad, and that was the end of the matter. Well, much as I hated to disappoint my father with, well, my father, I am personally overjoyed to have had the birthfather that I did, because now I have 4 brothers and a wonderful sister.
In this last year and a half I’ve been treated to an assortment of sweet cousins, aunts and uncles. I also met Adam S., the best brother anyone could hope for (seriously, look in the dictionary under World’s Best brother and you’ll see his handsome kisser), his wife and a darling niece born this year that I’m already obsessing over how to spoil. I also met Ann, a wonderful big sister who’s already bestowed upon me the most incredibly loving blend of affection, interest and well-meaning badgering. (Hi Ann!) She sent me lots of photos, and even our father’s wristwatch. She came all the way to New York City to meet me, tell me stories, gossip, tease me, support me, and give me advice. In other words, she’s a real sister. I’ve also met an aunt and uncle and cousins and I love them all to pieces.
And this Thanksgiving weekend I’ll meet my third biological sibling, an older brother and his wife and family. While it’s a little nerve-racking, I am getting better at it.
But I was really scared the first time I tried contacting a new relative. My birthmother never told a single living soul about me, and to honor her secret I couldn’t very well go looking for any leaves on her side of my family tree. So I went about finding family on my father’s side. Since my birthfather’s family were pretty hot hot-shots, it wasn’t hard to track down family members’ names. I knew one of my biological brothers was named Adam. (Coincidentally, I grew up with a brother named Adam with my adopted family; he was their biological son.) When I Googled the name, I saw that an Adam S. wrote for TIME Magazine, just the sort of place someone like he, and me, would work. I wrote poor Adam the most awkward email I’d ever written. (And that’s saying something.) Basically, it was along the lines of “Excuse me, are you son of ——- , nephew of ———? If so, well, uh, I’m your illegitimate sister. Um…Hello!” I hit “Send” and then prepared to wait awhile but then, pretty quickly, I got a response. Basically, a “Yes, that’s me. Wow. So, what can I do for you?” We agreed to meet near his office (he worked about 3 blocks from my apartment!). I don’t recall too much about our meeting, except how kind and smart and good-looking he was. I was so nervous and overwhelmed I thought I might pass out.
But I do remember that when he asked what I wanted, I slowly, gingerly reached out with my index finger and touched his forearm. You see, for you to be near someone who shares your genes, or ancestors or DNA, isn’t a big deal. You’ve been surrounded by them your whole life. But for me, Adam S. was only the second person I’d ever met to whom I was related. I’d gone half a century without ever knowing anyone related to me by blood, and it was, well, exciting isn’t really the word. I don’t know what the word is. But the word that leaps to mind is, oddly enough, relaxing. I felt like a part of me could, at last, exhale.
This whole wonderful story with a very happy ending is due completely to the insanely loving welcome the ——- clan has given me. It is well beyond what I ever would have expected or dared hope. I mean, remember my question: What would you do if some woman just popped up one day and you had a surprise sister? I can imagine it would be unsettling, maybe disturbing, unnerving and bring up things about your dad (brother, uncle, etc.) you might not be interested in knowing. But my brother, sister, uncle, aunt, cousins -– they’ve all been so kind to me, so accepting. The only thing that keeps me from being clumsily stymied and speechless by their sweetness is their earth-shaking smarts. They’re all really, really smart. The two qualities I most admire in anyone are kindness and intelligence, and this family has both in spades. (But frankly, they had me well before I said, “Hello”; I was smitten the moment I touched my brother’s forearm.)
A special lucky surprise was the fact that my big mucky-muck uncle, the writer, wrote a memoir detailing the family’s history with a cast of fascinating and impressively civic-minded, socially conscious, progressive intellectuals. To have photos of grandparents and great-grandparents is such a wonderful gift, and a remarkable backstory like this is more than I’d ever dreamed and so much grander than any childhood delusions of adequacy I might have harbored.
And now in a few days I’ll be privileged to meet more kind, intelligent relatives. I’m looking forward to meeting another brother, Alan, and his wife and children. This Thanksgiving, I’m looking forward to feeling at home.
If you passed Hannah Brencher on the street, you might assume she’s merely one of those lovely young girls with the kind of tousled hair and effortless Isabel Marant-y style you see in the pages of a Free People catalogue. You’d have no way of knowing that behind that ingénue exterior is the ingenuity behind the global phenomenon,The World Needs More Love Letters. Just 25,Hannah runs a global love letter writing organization that harnesses the power behind social media to write and mail love letters to individuals all over the world. (I’m talking all 50 states and across 6 continents.)
About 4 years ago, Hannah began leaving anonymous love letters all over New York City as a way to try to fight off big city loneliness and depression. Soon she found herself writing — and mailing — over 400 love letters to strangers in need around the world. Before long, others had joined her in her work, and The World Needs More Love Letters story could be found in the Wall Street Journal, Oprah, Glamour, and the Chicago Tribune. Soon Hannah and labor — and letters — of love were everywhere, from the White House to AOL to TED. (Even yours truly was lucky enough to be on a panel with Hannah and hear her beautiful message firsthand.)
Hannah’s been kinda holed up and locked away feverishly working on her new memoir, “If You Find This Letter”, which you can get your hot little hands on come March 2015. But she was nice enough to take some time out of her busy memorizing schedule to answer my questions…
DIXIE: I know you began leaving anonymous love letters all over New York City as a way to try to fight off big city loneliness and depression. Can you tell us a little more about what was going on, and what sparked the idea to write your first love letter, and then your second and third?
HANNAH: Plain and simple, I felt small and inadequate. That was the biggest of feelings I was fighting up against. I moved to New York City thinking I was going to make an impact and a difference I slowly but surely felt like I was proven wrong. The city is so big. And it can feel so empty. And there was this voice rattling inside of my head: You are incapable. You are never going to matter. Give up.
Writing letters was the only way to extinguish those feelings for a little while. I would see people on the train who looked like what I figured I probably looked like during that time– sad, lonely, tired. And I liked to imagine what it would feel like to get one of these letters and read it and suck in the truth that we rarely tell ourselves. I guess you could say that was my biggest fear then– and still my biggest fear now– that we will believe the lies we tell ourselves and they will become so big that we let them swallow us and make us too afraid to move.
DIXIE: What do love letters mean to the people who receive them? What are some of the responses you’ve received that keep you at it?
HANNAH: Love letters mean different things to different people. To some, it’s hope. To others, it’s a push to keep going. For some, those letters are so valuable that they become an intricate part of daily life. Some people will pull them out and read them on a daily basis. I wrote a love letter to my friend Ronny at the start of this movement, right when MLL was starting to get bigger, and it was right after one our good friends died. He told me (in a letter he wrote back to me) that he was reading my letter every single day. There were some days when he was reading that letter just to make it through the day.
I am consistently amazed by how words written on a piece of paper can change someone’s life for good.
DIXIE: How did you recruit others to join in? How did the whole thing snowball so quickly? What did you do to market or publicize what you were doing?
HANNAH: For the first year, I wrote love letters alone. I thought the idea could not possibly make a difference. I was so wrong. When I started More Love Letters in 2011, I quickly saw a rapid-fire response. People were hungry to make an impact. People wanted to make a difference. I am proud to say that we didn’t market it or publicize it through any sorts of press pushes– we let the whole thing be organic and watched it spiral. I was pretty certain, from day 1, that I wanted to see what could happen when love drives a movement. Not motive. Not money. Not a goal we needed to meet. Just love– pure, basic, bare-boned love.
DIXIE: What can people do who want to be part of your mission and message of love?
HANNAH: All the ways to get involved are sitting– ready and waiting– on MoreLoveLetters.com. People have the opportunity to submit letters to a current bundle being collected for someone in need or start leaving love letters around their community as I did back in New York City.
DIXIE: What makes a good love letter? What elements should be included? (Besides love, of course)
HANNAH: I think the best letters are the ones where someone can be honest on the page. It’s not even about encouragement, sometimes it’s just about opening up to someone and being honest. I don’t think we need all the right answers nearly as much as we just need someone to come alongside us and tell us we are not alone– that we have never been alone for a single second of this.
DIXIE: I know you’ve got a book coming out soon, and stationery to go with it! Tell us about your book and your plans for the future!
HANNAH: Well, my book comes out on March 10, 2015. I am so excited to finally get the whole story into people’s hands. I also have a kit coming out in December that is fun, funky and gives people the chance to write love letters to people in their lives with scripted prompts.
My future plans are wide open. I will continue speaking across the country but, more than anything, I am just open to whatever could happen next. So many great things came into my life because I could have never planned what happened and I don’t want to get so planned that I resist that happening all over again. So I guess you could say I am open. I am open and ready.
When was the last time you put pen to paper to let someone know he or she mattered? Email, text messaging and instant communication are incredible tools, but lack the personal touch of a handwritten letter. Sunday, December 7th is, for realz, National Letter Writing Day. Dust off your best stationery, pull out a pen, and let some special someone(s) know how you feel. I bet it’ll make their day (and it won’t do yours any harm, either).
Photo credit: Tiffany Farley
Also published at LikeaBossGirls.com
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