Wallace Reid lived thirty-one years. He was born April 15, 1892. He died January 18, 1923. Into those thirty-one years he packed the experience, the work, the success, the joys and heartbreaks, the problems and temptations, of five ordinary lives. The high voltage killed him.
That is the simple, psychological explanation. The actual story of his life is more complicated. It is utterly of our times. It is almost unbelievable in the extravagance and exaggeration of its color and action.
Everyone is familiar with the picture of Wally Reid, and almost everyone knows the main events of his short life. The handsome, clean-cut boy who went up like a skyrocket and came down like a charred stick. But the reason for it all has been cloaked in mystery - a mystery that can be solved only by complete familiarity with the things that happened to him and with his strange, wonderful, lovable character.
It is not enough to look upon the mere outward facts that were given to the world before and at the time of his tragic death. You have to go deeper than that. You have to go into the soul of the boy - and boy he was, right to the end - and into the play of events upon that too sensitive, too facile, too generous nature. Perhaps I can do that.
It has always seemed to me that only one who knew Wally could write the story of his life. I knew Wally Reid as well as anyone ever knew him. I knew him from the time he made his first pictures until the day when I stood beside his wife and watched the smoke that consumed the last of him that was mortal fade against the sky. I am very proud and a little sad to remember that he thought of me as the sister he always wanted and never had. In a letter he wrote me not long before the end he said:
"I don't know why I have failed like this. Sometimes I think you do. Pray for me that, somewhere in the strange land into which I am going alone, I may become at last the man I have always wanted to be."
Strangely enough, the reason for his going up and his coming down, for the love he inspired the whole world to feel for him and his own heartbreaking downfall and death, for his unequaled success and his unparalleled defeat was the same. Wally Reid - the shattered idealist.
The important thing about Wallace Reid is not that he was the greatest and most popular star the motion picture has produced. It is that he was, beyond dispute, the best loved man of his generation. He woke in the heart of the multitude a great affection, a lasting affection, that still gives off fragrance, like crushed lavender. It wasn't only women who loved him, though they did - and often not wisely but too well. Men loved him, boys, old people, children. There was something about Wally Reid that fitted into the dreams in every heart. His life story is important because of that love and because his death grieved and bewildered and shocked the whole world.
Now, love and grief like that aren't stirred by a mere handsome face. It was the ideals back of that face, the ideals that corresponded so completely with the beauty and fineness of his outward being, that earned him that love. And it was those ideals, the shattered ideals he couldn't bear to live with, that destroyed him. Men without ideals can live with their disillusionments, even with their sins. Men with ideals very often cannot. The life story of Wally Reid, the shattered idealist, is a living proof of that.
When he was at the very height, when he was better known and loved than any other actor has ever been, he still felt that it wasn't quite a man's job. The pictures he loved were the ones where he had to do stunts - where he could ride, or drive a racing car, or go on location into Yosemite Valley and sit around the fire with the forest rangers. I never heard him belittle his work, but I know there was always a sense that he might have done something more manly.
"When you put grease paint on the face," he said one day, when I was watching him make up in his dressing room, "something goes out of the heart." And he laughed. But there was a wistful sound in that laugh.
In 1910, Wallace Reid touched motion pictures for the first time. His father went out to the Selig Polyscope Company to confer with them about some stories. Wally went along. The father and son were very close in those days. Wally was once more entirely under the spell of his father's brains and wit and easy ways with the world. And there, in that little old Chicago studio, the boy saw something that he wanted to do. He wanted to be a cameraman. There was a combination of mechanics and art - the thing he had been searching for and never found. So he decided to stay in Chicago and turn the crank on the little black box that made motion pictures. But directors saw his great photographic possibilities, and almost before he knew it he was in front of the camera.
Wally tried hard to be everything in motion pictures except an actor. He was a cameraman, a writer, a director - and preferred any of them to acting.
The next months were swift steps in motion pictures. He went back to New York to be near his mother, who had been injured in an automobile accident. But he had decided to stick to motion pictures. Directing was the thing that appealed to him. In consequence, he took his father's play, The Confession, to Vitagraph and offered to write a script and direct it himself. They agreed, but in the end he played a part as well. And before long he was acting as Florence Turner's leading man. They just wouldn't let him direct - naturally enough, they didn't want to hide Wallace Reid from the eyes of the public. Later, he and his father worked for Reliance, writing and acting. Then suddenly, in an hour a new life opened for him.
He was going to Hollywood. Not as an actor. "I'm never going to act again," he said. He was going as assistant director, scenario writer, second cameraman, and general utility man to Otis Turner, the big Universal director. The chance of a lifetime. The creative end of this great new art and industry which was then actually in its infancy.
There was a last-minute luncheon at the Knickerbocker Hotel with his mother. Perhaps if either of them could have looked into the future, that luncheon wouldn't have been so gay. But they didn't know what the Hollywood years were to hold, and so they were very festive; for Wally was all elation, and his mother unselfishly sunk her grief at losing him.
Hollywood! There was to be no turning back now. Forever in the past the ranches of Wyoming where he was going to live, the editing of magazines he was going to make, the study of medicine through which he might benefit mankind. He was definitely launched in motion pictures.
The Hollywood of those days was by no means the Hollywood of today. It is worth while to glance back, briefly, upon the Hollywood to which Wallace Reid came as an unknown assistant director in 1912. One main street, the Hollywood Hotel and the residence of the famous artist, Paul de Longpre, its outstanding architectural features. No two- storied buildings. I was attending Hollywood High School about that time and I had scarcely heard of motion pictures. Oh, yes, that funny shack on the corner of Sunset and Gower--that was the Universal studio and they made motion pictures there. The cowboys and Indians who occasionally dashed up and down Hollywood Boulevard were making "Westerns." The Birth of a Nation, the first great picture, was still in the future.
The coming to Hollywood was the beginning of a new life for Wallace Reid, a complete break with the past. He was twenty years old. He was, I think, as fine and clean and high-minded a young American as could have been found in the forty-eight states. He was big, handsome, strong, full of the joy of life. It would have been difficult to imagine that he had already lived two-thirds of his life.
He stayed in Hollywood for eleven years, and at the end of that time was glad, I think, to die there. What happened in those eleven years?
This is not, in the main, a history of Wallace Reid the motion picture star. It purports to be a life story of Wally Reid the man. He lived in our own times and the things he did on the screen are well known to most of us. Therefore I feel that from the time Wally came to Hollywood in 1912 until he died in 1923, we may abandon chronological data and deal almost entirely with the important things that happened to him - important as concerned his own inner life.
That he achieved tremendous success in a series of pictures in which he represented all that was best of the ideal American is a fact we may accept. Just what that success brought with it and the changes it caused in his surroundings, its dangers as well as its rewards, are the things to consider if we are to get the understanding of Wally that made most of those who knew him love him through thick and thin.
Truth never hurt anybody. Truth cannot hurt Wallace Reid. Rumor has shot far of the mark - both high and low - because of the mystery of the thing. Truth makes it very simple. It shows you at last the picture of a boy overwhelmed by odds and going down into the depths, to emerge with a triumph that cost him his life but not his soul.
The important things which happened to Wally in the next few years were, first, his marriage to Dorothy Davenport; second, his elevation to stardom by the public; and, third, America's entrance into the World War. For that statement I take full responsibility. I don't know that everyone will agree with me. But I am going to present to you the facts as I know them, from observation and from Wally himself, and let you judge. In doing this, I am betraying no trust. In its way, this life story is my monument to Wallace Reid, who was my friend, and whose death was to me at once the most tragic and the most beautiful thing I ever saw.
At the time that Wally came to Hollywood as general assistant to Otis Turner at the old Universal studio, Dorothy Davenport was already established as a star of the films. Because she was for twelve years the greatest single influence in his life, his comfort and his friend and his bulwark as well as his wife, it is strictly necessary that you know the sort of girl she was, the sort of woman she became.
When Wally first met her she was seventeen, but she had been some years in the theater and had matured early. The niece of Fanny Davenport, one of the greatest American actresses, the daughter of Harry Davenport, for many years a favorite Broadway actor, she came of stock which helped to make the history of our theater. At that time she was a girl of more than average loveliness and of striking personality. The personality entirely overshadowed even the charm of her red-brown hair and her dark eyes and her exquisite figure.
The word "personality" is hard to define, but Dorothy Davenport Reid is a synonym. Her chief characteristics as Wally's wife were a clear common sense, an amazing sense of humor, and a deep, selfless loyalty. During the years of their marriage her self-control developed an outer shell which at times made people think her cold. But it enabled her to pass through storm, confusion, and tragedy with a serene dignity and a clear thought which neither the plaudits of the world nor the sufferings of her own heart could shake. If ever a girl tried to stem a rising tide, Dorothy Reid tried. If ever a woman upheld a man's hands, she upheld Wally's. Her habit of reserve grew and she changed from a sparkling girl to a strong and guarded woman in a few brief years; but those who knew her found beneath that calm, white-faced exterior a wealth of tenderness, of humor, of understanding, of fine, sane thinking that made her stand apart from the ordinary run of women.
There is nothing more important to a man than the woman who stands beside him on his journey through life. In that, at least, Wallace Reid was blessed, and he knew it.
It was a pretty romance in the beginning, the romance of Wallace Reid and Dorothy Davenport, played in the most charming of California settings. They were two young things, with the world before them, and love added a glamour to work that was play half the time. The meeting came about in this way. Dorothy Davenport needed a leading man. Henry Walthall had played opposite her, and James Kirkwood and Harold Lockwood, and she was rather fussy in the matter of leading men. But the need was pressing and no one was available. There was, it appeared, a young man on the Universal lot, by the name of Wallace Reid, who had played leads with Florence Turner in New York and was said to be very good looking. The Turner company wasn't ready to start work and it was willing to cut down its overhead by lending this young man's services to Miss Davenport. He wasn't very keen about it, didn't want to act any more, but he was under contract and, if told to act, act he must to the best of his ability.
The first day of the film was disastrous. Miss Davenport was furious. This big, overgrown boy was all hands and feet. He knew nothing whatever about acting. Wally was annoyed because he was once more before the camera, and sulked openly. In fact, it is impossible to deny that they glared at each other across the set between love scenes. The second day was little better. But the third brought a development which won the haughty little star's respect, and she began to treat her new leading man with consideration.
There was at that time, a process of initiation on the Universal lot. Most of the pictures being made were Westerns; and the cowboys, among them Hoot Gibson, Curly Eagles, and Milt Brown, always took these dude actors from the East, picked out the worst horses they could find, and put them aboard. Naturally they tried it on young Reid, and with special vehemence, because Dorothy Davenport was their idol, and she openly turned up her pretty nose at this handsome stranger. So, when she arrived on the lot the third morning, the first sight that met her eyes was that of her leading man very much occupied with the nastiest broncho in the stables. Her interest flamed. She was a horsewoman of distinction and she had no regard for a man who couldn't stay in the saddle, no matter what the horse's ideas on the subject might be. Nobody knew of Wally's year in Wyoming and they stood back, chuckling, to get a good view of his downfall. But something went wrong with the scenario. Easy, cool, graceful, the boy from the East took everything this bad horse had to offer--corkscrews, tail spins, and sunfishes - and finally brought him back to the corral sweating and conquered. He had proved his "staying qualities" and from then one was one of the gang. Also, he was admitted to his star's good graces.
The friendship ripened rapidly. There was no resisting Wally once you knew him. He had found as a pal another young actor, Gene Pallette, and finally the two boys, a trifle lonesome and homesick in this new atmosphere, persuaded Dorothy's mother to take a house and let them share it.
Mrs. Davenport was an energetic, competent woman, as emotional as her daughter was reserved. She had divorced Dorothy's father some years before, and had learned the lessons a woman alone with a young daughter to educate and launch in the world must learn. She was the kind of woman whom everybody on lot called "mother"--and she did mother most of them, both at Universal and at the Mack Sennett studio, where she herself worked from time to time as a character woman. She had a brusque, direct way with her, but she understood young people, and they came to her with their troubles and their joys. Wally won her heart instantly and much more easily than he did her daughter's. The little family hadn't been settled in the house a week before he was like a son to her.
She was no matchmaker, and if she had been she might have made more ambitious plans for Dorothy Davenport than this unknown young leading man. But she did see in Wally all the beautiful qualities that go to make romance, and, being incurably romantic, hoped the two would fall in love. But for a time it looked as though her dreams were not to come true. Dorothy liked the boy, but, being herself all of seventeen, considered him much too young. Her ideal was somebody like Henry Walthall, a man of the world, and not a mere youth with whom she danced and rough-housed and rode horseback. The three of them - Dot, Wally, and Gene Pallette - built a stable in the back yard with their own hands, kept three horses, and spent most of their time in the saddle. They rode to the studio in the morning, rode home at night, and on Sunday they took a day off and went riding on the many beautiful trails around Hollywood.
But if Dorothy didn't fall in love as quickly as might have been expected, Wally did. One day, when they were riding together in Griffith Park, he proposed. And it was, according to Miss Davenport, who in spite of her youth had experienced several, a bum proposal.
"I think he said," she once remarked, "something like 'I guess it would be nice if we got married.'"
Whether it was the lack of romance in the words or whether her heart was actually untouched, it is hard to say. At any rate she told him loftily that they were much too young to consider anything as serious as matrimony.
"And she spurred up her horse and left me flat," said Wally.
But separation did what propinquity had failed to do. Wally went to Santa Barbara for six months with the American Film Company, writing stories, directing them, and acting in them. He acted in order to get the chance to do the other two things. Perhaps the girl missed him more than she had realized she would. Perhaps she began to see how much those rides and the evenings spent with books and the perfect companionship had meant to her. Anyway, when he came back and they again began to work together - this time Wally directing as well as starring with her - she saw it his way, and on October 13, 1913, they were married. A quiet little ceremony and back to work the next day.
They worked very hard, but it was great fun. They made two pictures a week. For these Wally wrote the stories, directed them, and played the leading role. The ideas of these stories were all Wally's, and in reading now the brief synopses that he made, they amaze one with the clearness of their dramatic points and the delicacy of their emotional treatment.
"My damn face kept me from getting a chance to be a writer or a director," Wally said, later on. He honestly felt that way about it, too. Nothing so incensed him as to feel that he was "getting by" because of his looks.
A year after their marriage and about the time they bought their first little home just off Hollywood Boulevard--it stands there now, a small, vine- covered cottage that always gives me a lump in my throat when I pass it - Wally left Universal to go with D. W. Griffith. He took a cut in salary to do it, and a cut in salary meant a lot in those days, for salaries weren't very big at best and the little house wasn't paid for. But Wally was beginning to have high ideals of what might be done in pictures, and he wanted to work with D. W.
There he sustained the first and perhaps the only disappointment of his career - and even that proved in the end a golden boomerang. D. W. was getting ready to make The Clansman, which was called on the screen The Birth of a Nation. Henry B. Walthall had been cast as the Little Colonel. Suddenly he was taken ill. The Master - as they called Griffith then and as he will be to the end of the motion picture chapter - cast about for an adequate substitute, and his eye lighted on young Wallace Reid, who was again directing.
That night there was joy in the little vine-covered cottage. Wally forgot his prejudice against acting. It was worth going back to if he could play such a part under such direction. Why, they actually went out and bought chicken for dinner, and Dorothy cooked it and Wally served it and they celebrated after the immemorial custom of young people.
Costumes were fitted to the boy. Tests were made. They started shooting - and then Walthall recovered. Before 500 feet of the film was actually shot, Walthall was back on the lot and ready to go to work. It almost broke Wally's heart. They gave him instead the part of the young blacksmith who cleaned out the gang of Negroes. They told him in the end it would do him more good. And it did. Few who saw the film ever forgot the picture of Wally, stripped to the waist, smiling, a white, avenging god of strength among those mad colored men. But it was difficult to see that then, and Wally only took it because he was so disappointed he just didn't care.
A short time later he was offered the lead with Geraldine Farrar in Carmen. It was the charm of Geraldine Farrar and his desire to work with her and know her that persuaded Wally to continue acting. One cannot blame him. Geraldine Farrar was at that time the most brilliant figure among American women. Famous as a beauty, as an artiste, as a wit, she occupied a dazzling position. A thoroughly justified position. A woman of dynamic force and of wide experience, a musician and an actress to her finger tips, she swayed the boy as no other personality with whom he had come in contact in his life up to that time had ever swayed him. Above all, she did something that he had thought it impossible for anyone to do. She awoke in him an interest in acting as an art. She saw at once the possibilities within him. And she set to work to bring them out. They had from the start one great common love - music.
Wally had never neglected his violin, and after work they spent many hours at her home, or at the Reid home, where Dorothy held gracious sway, playing, singing, talking music and all that it meant to the human race. No further testimony to Wally's real ability as a musician is needed than that Geraldine Farrar allowed him to accompany her and to play violin obbligatos when she sang arias.
It was a friendship that stimulated Wallace Reid in many ways. Her success, the fact that she was some years older than he was and had known most of the world's interesting people, made him accept her words as the utterings of an oracle. The flattery of her interest gave him a new self-confidence and a new ambition. It made him throw himself into the roles he played opposite her - in Carmen, Maria Rosa, The Woman God Forgot, and Joan the Woman - with an intensity he had never shown before. From that series of pictures he emerged a star by popular acclaim.
He had also become a father. Young William Wallace Reid was born on June 10, 1917. We have had many descriptions in fiction and history of the anxiety of the young father awaiting the birth of his first child. A very wise woman once said to me, "You will know the character of your man and the quality of his love by the way he reacts to his first experience of fatherhood." This test Wallace Reid bore with a strength and sweetness that bound him and his wife with indestructible ties. His tenderness and care and sympathy were unfailing. And from the moment of his arrival in this world, young Bill was his dad's pal.
They had moved from the first little vine-covered cottage to a charming home on Morgan Place in Hollywood, and later built the beautiful estate in the Hollywood foothills where Mrs. Reid and Bill still live. And during the ensuing years that home and little family stood with and by Wally, glorying in his triumphs, enjoying his laughter, fighting his enemies, and suffering in his tears.
And now we come to that period of Wally's life, so many of the details of which are and must remain confused - a confusion that is like some great symphony gone mad - jazz mad.
I have spoken in a general way of Wally Reid's idealism. Let us see of what, at this period, it consisted. Let us stop and look at the situation in which he now found himself and what he himself was and wanted to be.
The motion picture business in those days was very different from the motion picture business of today. No other stars will ever hold the unique position occupied by Wallace Reid and Mary Pickford. The game has grown beyond that. There are too many attractive men and women, too much competition, too many theaters, too much interest now in the story, the settings, the cast, the photography. The motion picture fan has evolved, and the days of such enormous personal popularity as came to Wally are gone forever. No one can take Wally Reid's place because that place no longer exists. Like many another monarchy of this century, it has become a republic.
Macaulay said of Lord Byron, "There is scarcely an instance in history of so sudden a rise to so dizzy an eminence." It is no exaggeration to say the same of Wallace Reid. And in many ways the story of these two gifted and unhappy young artists is not unalike. At a time when most men have just completed their education, when they are starting out to win by hard work and slow personal endeavor some of the good things of this world, this sensitive, untried, and untrained youth found himself, through practically no effort of his own, a sort of demigod.
Nor can I put it more effectively than Macaulay again said of Byron, at a similar time in the poet's life: "Everything that could stimulate, and everything that could gratify the strongest propensities of our nature, the gaze of a hundred drawing-rooms, the acclamations of the whole nation, the applause of applauded men, the love of lovely women, all this world and all the glory of this world were at once offered to a youth to whom nature had given violent passions and whom education had never taught to control them. He lived as many men live who have no similar excuse to plead for their faults." Yet the desires of Wally's own heart were different. He had the untarnished dreams of high minded youth. In a letter written while he was away on location about that time, he said: "There are only a few things worth while in this world - and they are so easy to get. An open fire, books, a little music, and a friend you can talk to or keep silence with. I think that everything you get beyond that is in the end a burden and a temptation.
"The happy lives are the quiet lives, aren't they? And yet, it is so hard to be quiet! I think you know how I feel about most things. But sitting up here alone at night thoughts come more clearly. Never to hurt anyone, to do good to others when you can, to keep your own code of honor unbroken, your soul unstained by lust or greed or pride, your mind unsullied by lies and pretense, your body strong and clean - these are the things you must do. You believe in God. Sometimes I do, too, though I can't always give Him a name. But always I do believe in good. I know there isn't any happiness possible for me without self-respect, and I could never respect myself if I fell below the standard I KNOW to be right."
It was a boy's code, not a man's. The idealism of youth. No definite principles, no philosophy of life, had formed in this thought. His was a mind of unconscious striving for spiritual good, but it was not a trained mind. He felt, rather than thought. All that he had was a deep, natural, inborn desire for right and a great admiration for the fine, upright things of life. His love of beauty was that of the poet.
He clung, all through this time, to those few friends who had combated the worst side of him, who had not hesitated to tell him the truth and to battle the unworthy things that surrounded him. That is in itself no mean test of right intention.
We see, then, a very young man to whom life had been always kind. A boy born with a golden spoon, riding a smooth and easy path. A man of such charm that he was forgiven anything and everything. And there is nothing more terrible, in the end, than to be forgiven for those things which ought not to be forgiven us. Wally Reid was like Peter Pan. He never grew up.
The irrational and yet beautiful idolatry with which he was regarded, his excessive popularity, startled him and bewildered him at first.
"Why?" he said. "Why? I haven't done anything. I haven't accomplished anything."
He had fought no dragons, beaten no enemies, conquered no obstacles, given nothing great or useful to humanity. And those, in his estimation, were the things on which one should rest. At first he tried to laugh it off. His modesty endured. Too much modesty - a sort of false humility which would not allow him to do many things he should have done, such as protecting himself from certain people and separating himself from certain environments, for fear that somebody might think he had grown conceited.
There was a peculiar thing in him that dreaded above everything else the infliction of pain, or to see another humiliated. It was all but impossible for him to say no - almost impossible for him to shut his door upon anyone, refuse to see anyone, or to do anything that gave people even momentary unhappiness. Consequently the house on Morgan Place and the big new home in Hollywood, with its swimming pool and its charming gardens and spacious rooms, became open houses. Wally was such a good fellow. Always had a smile and a ready handclasp, always made you feel happy and welcome and at home. Merriment was the order of the day. Wally played like the boy he was, and, because of that boyish quality in him, that play seemed innocent enough and drifted far into dissipation before he or anybody else realized it.
People were always "dropping in." Dorothy Reid, with her quiet dignity and sound sense of values, tried again and again to shut the doors. But you couldn't do it with Wally there. The whole world was welcome to what he had. Just a lucky break he'd happened to get it instead of the other fellow. You had to share what you had with those less fortunate. The thought was beautiful. But, like many beautiful thoughts, its application was not practical. The privilege it accorded was abused. He never had any privacy, no regularity, and not half enough sleep. His popularity was like a sea swirling about him, and his marvelous physique upheld him so that he could not see any bad results. Never alone, never with time to rest and relax and read, as he loved to do. And almost no time to think. More than that, it broke him away from the men and women who might have given him something worth while.
He was working early and late at the studio. Big stars don't work now as they worked then. Two or three pictures a year, with trips to Europe between and vacations at Palm Springs and a few months in New York to see the plays. Wally made eight or nine pictures a year and he worked long, hard, hot hours, and he did in those pictures an amazing amount of physical labor. James Cruze, who directed many of them and who was one of Wally's closest friends, says that no man in pictures has ever worked as hard as Wally worked, or burned up so much energy, or has given so much of his best qualities to the pictures as Wally did in the first years of his stardom. And he played as hard as he worked. He was always an extremist. He lacked balance, and the stream that swept him along never gave him time to establish any.
There was, first of all, a great deal of money. At least it seemed a great deal of money to a young man who knew absolutely nothing of the value of money and cared less. Money meant nothing to Wally Reid, except the things he could buy and the people he could give it to. He immediately did too much of both, as is often the way with young men who are generous to a fault, who love life passionately and want to get the most out of it, who cannot understand business in any way, shape, or form.
Like his father before him, Wally spent money, when he had it, for the things that captivated his imagination or stirred his fancy. He was equally apt to buy a new gown for Dorothy - his taste was unerring - a new electric railroad for Bill, or a new roadster for himself. When he didn't have money, it didn't worry him in the slightest. Whether he went to the studio in the morning with five dollars or $100, he came home without a dime. And as far as he was concerned, it didn't matter. Never in his life had he had any training in the handling of money, anything to teach him its value. If he got thirty dollars a month and "cakes," that was fine and he was happy. If he got $2,500 a week, that was fine, too, and he was happy, in a different way. I once saw a little black book in which Wally kept a sort of haphazard record of the money he had loaned to people. The names in it amazed me. But all you ever had to do was to ask and Wally gave.
He saw the other fellow's viewpoint too well; his sympathies were too easily stirred; he was too deeply tolerant of all kinds of faults and suffering. "Gosh," he used to say, "I'm nobody to judge anyone!"
Then there was fame. In a boyish sort of way, he loved it. But he handled it in a most peculiar and dangerous fashion. When people pointed him out, when he was circled by adoring throngs, small or great, he instantly tried to come down to their level. He felt abashed by their admiration. It overawed him. And to make himself comfortable again, to be sure that he didn't give anybody the idea that HE thought he was grand or important, he acted like a small boy who is afraid the other boys will "give him the razz."
He was a great mixer, but he was never allowed to mix on equal terms. Somehow, he always became the center of everything. He did everything so well. His conversation was so amusing, his buffoonery so fascinating, his charm so drastic, that it always ended by Wally doing the entertaining while the rest sat and admired. This was not, I know, of his choosing. But it inevitably happened.
There is nothing more dangerous to a man than to be separated from the equality of at least some of his fellow men, to lose that give and take, that easy and natural criticism and sympathy, which is possible only between equals. All during this period of his life Wally was unfortunate enough to have a court, a gang of admirers, none of whom were his equals.
His predicament was due partly to lack of time. He was busy, he was terribly overworked, he was careless. He took what came nearest to hand. And the nearest to hand was a gang of flattering sycophants such as surrounded Louis XV. The strong, cold winds of honest male companionship with men of his own class and mental caliber did not blow upon him - only the breezes of perfumed words and self-seeking adulation.
I do not believe that anyone who did not actually see it will every quite understand the woman angle of Wally's life at this time. It is a difficult matter to deal with. This is a biography which must in many ways touch the living, and, since they must not be hurt, the subject is one of extreme delicacy. But unless it is honestly dealt with you cannot get a fair estimate of the hurricane of temptations that were sweeping the boy. He was not a man who cared especially for women. He had sowed no wild oats. He had passed through one sweet and worthy young love affair to a happy and complete marriage. As a woman who possessed and valued his friendship, I know how deeply he revered women, how he desired to idealize them. From them he expected and wanted the best, and he hoped that they would want the best from him.
The three women to whom he gave a permanent feeling of love and trust were his wife, a woman of exceptional fineness and strength; his mother, as deeply spiritual and idealistic a soul as ever lived on earth; and myself - and I was to him a combination of pal and sister, and he never once asked me to soften my judgment or to temper my thoughts of him or anything he did. He always said that we were the only persons who always told him the truth, and to the very end he gave us all that was best and most loyal in himself. But many women did their best to destroy in him that idealism. No man, not even Byron himself, has ever been so besieged by the attention of women. Let me tell you a few instances that may startle you, but that will make you concede my point.
There was, for instance, the beautiful society woman, a leader of the most exclusive smart set in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. Her beauty was a tradition, her name a power, her position unassailable. And yet for a year she sent Wally a continual stream of pictures of herself which nobody but her husband should have seen. They were beautiful pictures, calculated to tempt St. Anthony himself. She sent him a key to her apartment, which nobody knew she kept. She gave his valet a diamond ring worth thousands of dollars to admit her to Wally's dressing room, and once there she exercised all her grace and splendor and knowledge of men to win his passing fancy.
One day when Wally and Dorothy and I were leaving the studio to go to their house for dinner, we found a girl hidden under the robe in the back seat of the car. I stepped on her, as a matter of fact, in getting in. I have never seen anyone more exquisite. Bronze hair and great violet eyes and the body of a wood nymph. Her father was an officer holding high rank in the United States Army and her mother was one of the most noted women in Washington. No one knew where she was. She had run away from a fashionable boarding school, sold her jewelry to buy a ticket and come West to see Wally. And, let me tell you, when I say she was irresistibly lovely, I mean just that. Dorothy and I - Wally washed his hands of her from the start in much annoyance - had a time with that child. We didn't know who she was or where she came from. She secreted herself under Wally's bed, she haunted the studio and the house, exquisitely dressed, her big eyes full of tears. When we finally found out her father's name and wired, he came West to take her home. She got off the train and San Bernardino and telephoned Wally that she was going to kill herself. But she didn't.
Then, the beautiful ex-Follies girl, who had married a multimillionaire, and was famous on Broadway for the damage she had done to masculine hearts. She came to Hollywood, too, with a wardrobe from Paris and a bag of tricks I've never seen equaled. She succeeded in winning a visiting prince, but for all her subtlety she failed to win Wally.
This is the merest cross-section, the tiniest fraction, of the sort of thing Wally Reid, a boy still in his early twenties, went through day after day. I do not condemn those women. I know nothing of their problems. Perhaps they didn't understand. But certainly they did all that a woman can do to undermine a man's moral fiber and the pressure of their pursuit and flattery must have told.
Through it all, Wally Reid started in merely to have a good time, to enjoy life. Young, hot blooded, full of laughter, of excitement, of the love of speed, he stepped into the current. And the current bore him along to dissipation, and from dissipation to disaster.
But if the most hardened moralist, the sternest critic, will sit back very quietly for a moment and try to estimate the strength of that current of sudden wealth and fame upon a boy of twenty-five, perhaps he will be more ready to weep than to condemn. If his critics will try to put themselves for one moment in Wally's place honestly, they will only be sad that one so young and fine should have been subjected to the pressure of such a pace. After all, it is part of the prayer Jesus gave us, "Lead us not into temptation."
What was it Macaulay said of Byron? "He lived as many men live who have no similar excuse to plead for their faults." And he condemned himself more harshly than could anyone else in the world.
Then came the World War.
I still believe that the beginning of the end for Wallace Reid was when he didn't put on a uniform. I will show you that he never forgave himself. And then, long afterward, worn out by illness, by overwork, by remorse, by the pace of pleasure which had caught him up, weakened by flattery and indulgence, he met his arch-enemy for the first time. And the death struggle began.
Wallace Reid's connection with the World War was a soul problem of which few people knew. On the face of things, in the eyes of the man in the street, even according to the judgment of the fervent patriot, Wally Reid's war record is not subject to attack from any source or angle. In the boy's own eyes that record was stamped indelibly with the black "S" of slacker. He himself felt that he had failed, that his manhood was smirched, that he had fallen below his own standard and the standard of the Reid family. All that was American in him responded to the thoughts and feelings that swept this country into war in 1917. The thrill of the red, white, and blue was in his blood- bred there by generations of men who had helped to make it what it was and to keep its glory untarnished. All that was boy in his heart heard the call of the great adventure - war. All that was dramatic in him reacted to uniforms, bands, battle tales, and the chance for service and heroism. All that was idealistic in him responded to Woodrow Wilson's call to make the "world safe for democracy."
He was twenty-five. He stood six feet one, and he weighted 190 pounds. He was a crack shot. His physical condition was good. He had been to military school and knew the drill and regulations. Kipling was his favorite author and Mulvaney his favorite character. Can you doubt that he wanted to get into the thick of it?
In 1919 he gave me a picture himself in the uniform of a British lieutenant - taken when he played the English boy in the prologue of Joan the Woman - and across it he scrawled, "Just a so-and-so who never got into uniform except when he put on his grease paint." That is the keynote. The thing had gone deep. No one thing so fatally undermined Wally's self-respect as his failure to join the A. E. F. If he had gone, the thing that happened to him would never have happened. He might not have come back from Chateau-Thierry, but had he gone to France and returned safely he could have weathered anything.
Once again fate switched the fails of his destiny. Once again outside facts and circumstances and people controlled his decision to his own undoing. However, it is but just to say that probably none of them dreamed for an instant of the effect of all this upon the boy. Here are the facts:
The Reids had a very small baby when America decided to get into the big show. Mrs. Reid had been out of pictures for some years, and during the year following Bill's birth her health had not been of the best. Wally's father and mother were dependent upon him at that time. Hal Reid died a short time afterward. Bertha Westbrook Reid had been left, when she and Hal were divorced, with but a small portion of what had once been a good sized fortune. Dorothy Reid had always kept Mrs. Davenport with her, and after the arrival of her son felt more and more the need of her mother's help in the confused and difficult life which she faced as the wife of a great star and matinee idol. All of which put Wallace Reid pretty well down the list of deferred classifications, as far as the draft was concerned.
Furthermore, as far as he himself was concerned, he had saved no money to meet such obligations. Wally had been getting a big salary for only a short time and it had never occurred to him to put any of it away. In spite of this, he wanted to enlist, and he said so. The opposition from all quarters was intense, and reasonably so. His drawing power at the box office had just hit its peak. To understand his importance to the organization with which he was connected it would be necessary to go into involved financial details and long explanations of the selling end of motion pictures. I think we can get at it by simply saying that Wallace Reid was for years the "whip" of the Paramount program. His pictures were sure-fire money makers, and exhibitors were taking some much less desirable films only in order to get the Reid pictures. Much of the early prosperity and success of the Paramount organization was built upon Wallace Reid.
Naturally, they opposed his enlisting, voluntarily and without need and over obstacles, in an army where he might be killed or disfigured. To them, it meant the loss of millions of dollars and the removal of that corner stone upon which they were building their future plans. They brought to bear upon him every sort of pressure in the form of sane and reasonable argument. In the army he would be just one more man, just another gun, just another stopgap.
There were plenty of men willing and ready, without obligations to either family or business associates. Let them go first. If the time came when men in deferred classifications were needed, that would be a different proposition. Also, the world needed amusement as it had never needed it before. He was filling that need. And he could be of much more use to the cause in drives, in benefits, in keeping up the morale of the nation than he could by carrying a single gun against the Germans.
The war fervor is over. We know a good deal more now about the war than we did then. The viewpoint of Wally's company and his family seems to us in the cool light of today the only sane and normal one.
There are many reasons why it is impossible to tell of some of the fine work Wally did behind the scenes of the war. This is and must continue to be part of the unwritten history which belongs to every war. Many of the details I do not know myself, but I do know that Wallace Reid served the Secret Service of his government and was of exceptional value to it all through the days of fighting. Also, he raised large sums of money, both for organizations helping the boys at the front and for the Liberty Loans. He opened his home to the disabled veterans after the Armistice, and gave liberally of his money and his time and his talents before its signing. Nevertheless, at any cost to himself and others, he should have gone to France.
A man who has not the training or the judgment or the power to reconcile his ideals to the world he must live in can be mortally wounded by other things than bullets. In this matter, Wally fell into the gap between a high idealism and a reasonable, practical necessity. He spent too much of himself in remorse - about this and other things.
Wally yielded, for he stood alone. In fact, he kept to himself his own desires and dreams, for fear he might burden those who needed him with the sight of his bitter disappointment. But he hated himself. He was, in his own opinion, just a low-lived slacker. Those who did not enlist he despised. And he was one of them! Nice company! As far as he could see, he just wasn't worth a damn.
I do not think he was ever criticized to any extent for not donning khaki. But he believed that everybody else thought the same things he was thinking. We winced every time he passed a man in uniform.
His confidence in himself faded to zero. What did it matter what he did? You couldn't get any lower than being a white-livered cur who stayed home and acted in front of a camera when every MAN was risking his life at Chateau-Thierry or Vimy Ridge. The shattering of the idealist took a long step forward.
There was, when you stop to consider it, a vast significance in something seemingly trivial that happened about this time. That was Wally's change from the violin to the saxophone as his favorite musical instrument. His love of the violin had been a very deep and sacred thing. He had given to it his very best, expressing his inner dreams, satisfying his love of beauty, touching the stars through its divine voice. On quiet evenings, which grew fewer and fewer as life went on and the merry-go-round whirled faster and faster, he would play for hours, with Dorothy accompanying him. Those hours had always brought them very close, renewed their devotion to each other. To the wife they were like oases in a desert.
But the violin was no favorite with the gay, joy seeking, hilarious young folks--and all Hollywood was unbelievably young in those days. Success and gold belonged to youth--who pressed about Wally. The saxophone was their instrument. It took Wally about two weeks to master it. Like everything else he did, he did is superlatively well. He made a collection of saxophones, little ones and big ones, gold ones and silver ones. He could go into a cafe and make the rounds of any good jazz orchestra and play every instrument, including the drums, better than the performers--and he often did. But he rarely touched his violin after that.
In the summer of 1921 Wallace Reid went to New York to make a picture from Du Maurier's great novel, Peter Ibbetson, the picture called Forever. He had been back but once since his first departure for Hollywood, and then only for a brief visit to introduce his wife and son to his mother.
He did not want to go in 1921. He had been, for the first time in his life, rather desperately ill. His nerves, of which he himself was totally unconscious, but which nevertheless lay very near the surface, were strung to the breaking point by the continual rebellion within himself over the life he was leading. His physical condition was beginning to show the result of the terrific pace at which he was living and working. He never took any care of himself - drove himself to the last ounce of energy always.
About that time the dentist found it necessary to pull nine of his teeth at one time, and the shock to his system and the nervous irritation following it told on him. Besides, he loved his home more than any other man I have ever known - really loved it. It was part of him. They could follow him into, but very few persons could drag him out of it. That home influence - the companionship of his devoted, humorous, understanding wife and the presence of the son who was growing up a pal - had kept him normal under stress, or at least had kept him from going "hay wire."
On a picture which now hangs over his widow's desk, and which is dated just a little while before his departure for the East, he wrote, "To our Mama, Wally's and Bill's, with all my devoted love, Your Wally-Boy." That was how he felt about it. And at the last moment Dorothy could not go with him to New York. Bill had had a hard siege of whooping cough and it didn't seem safe to take him East into the summer heat. Nor could his mother leave him.
So Wally went alone. He did not love New York at best. After California and the easy, informal, outdoor life he had become accustomed to, he dreaded the rush of the city. And he knew, perhaps, that he would be swamped by attentions, by people, by demands of all kinds.
In New York he had nothing that he wanted and everything he didn't want: none of the things that were good for him and all the things that were bad. He happened to dislike both the director and the co-star of the picture with the peculiar intensity of a man who dislikes very few people. In consequence, they didn't like him; and Wally resembled many other sensitive people in that he put his worst foot forward with anyone who didn't happen to like him. He was, in the last analysis, one of those peculiar, chameleon souls that take character from the expectations of those about them.
The weather in New York - it was the July of the Dempsey-Carpentier fight - was insufferably hot and humid, and Wally was used to the desert heat and cold nights of California. Also, he had to have his hair marcelled every day! And that enraged him out of all measure. He was overpowered once more by the nature of his profession, the futility of his work, the unmanly quality of the things which he was doing.
Privacy was something of which he knew no more than the now proverbial goldfish. Old friends, new friends, members of the organization, newspaper reporters, gushing admirers, celebrities who counted him one of the inner circle, women of all kinds, ranks, and degrees of beauty and intelligence, moved in upon him. As a result of all this, he had a bad case of insomnia, when night after night he tossed in the sticky, dripping heat without closing his eyes until dawn, and then had to get up and start working at nine.
I saw him the day he left for that trip. He stopped by my house on his way to the station to say good-by to my small daughter, Elaine, who was his special pet. I remember that he started matchmaking when she and Bill were in their cradles - she was only a year and a half younger - and decided that he and Dorothy and I would one day be mutual grandparents. Elaine and her "Uncle Wally" would spend long hours on the floor operating a set of mechanical animals he had bought for her, and I could never make up my mind which one of them enjoyed it more. On that day he looked ill and unhappy. A premonition of danger and disaster hung over him.
"I wish I hadn't agreed to go," he said.
But, for all that he was thin and a little drawn, his eyes were the same steady, clear eyes into which you could look and fine the truth about anything. He was going "on the wagon," he said, for the whole trip.
When he came back a few months later, I went with Dorothy to meet him at the train. The change in him appalled me. It was like meeting a stranger or seeing a dear friend through a thick veil. Dorothy had sensed the thing, naturally, much more quickly and deeply than I had. A little white mask seemed to have slipped over her radiant face.
It is not necessary to go into details. I do not know them, anyway. I doubt if Dorothy Reid herself knows them - only this: A doctor in New York had given Wally some "sleeping powders" to help him conquer the "white nights." He had come to depend upon them. There was in Wally a deep strain of the experimentalist. He would try anything once. His curiosity about every phase of life was enormous, and he suffered from that common delusion that he, at least, could do anything and not be touched by it. Many things gave evidence of this trait. In the basement of his home he had a fully equipped chemical laboratory. When you missed him from parties, you were pretty certain to find him down there, messing around with all kinds of stuff. New inventions and discoveries of which he read always interested him enormously and he liked to investigate them. The great interest in medicine which had possessed him as a boy never left him. He had a natural bent for it, as he had for so many things. When the troupe was on location in the high Sierras, he once set four broken fingers for one of the prop boys and did a perfect job, according to the Hollywood surgeon who examined the hand when they returned.
One night a party of us were returning from San Pedro, where we had dined on the house boat of a banker. It was almost dawn as we swept along the boulevard, with Wally at the wheel. Now and again we passed market trucks and wagons piled high with fruit and vegetables. When we had almost reached the city limits, we came upon a bad automobile smash-up. A fast driven roadster had upset one of the produce carts. A woman had been badly injured. It wasn't a pretty sight, but Wally was out and into it and, with extraordinary coolness, had the whole situation in had in two minutes. He did everything that could be done with the contents of his first-air kit, and then Dorothy drove the car to the receiving hospital, while he held the woman as motionless and comfortable as possible. The doctor at the receiving hospital told us there could be no question that Wally had saved the woman's life. His knowledge, actually slight but augmented by his uncanny facility, made him think of himself as a doctor. And it gave him an easy familiarity with medicines, a confidence in his ability to handle them, which was exceedingly bad for him.
The change in Wally after that New York trip was apparent to everyone close to him. An indescribable, baffling something surrounded him, which no one could understand. It was as though some malignant fairy had transformed him with one wave of her want into a distorted image of his former self. He had soared along at a terrific speed, packing together work, play, achievement, hobbies to the nth degree, burning the candle at both ends, managing somehow to do twice as much as anyone else did - all in a few years. And suddenly he had crashed.
The gradual decline of the next few months, the crumbling of the physical man, the dimming of the things in him that were so wonderful and so lovable, were enough to make the angels weep.
He worked - worked, as he had always one, faithfully and consistently, when he could hardly walk on the set. His eyes went back on him in a final, terrible case of Klieg eye caused by working under the powerful lights; but still he carried on. He played his part, but the old lovable, irresistible smile, that had won its way around the universe, was a shadow of itself. Sometimes a terrific effort would lift him back for a moment to the boy of yesterday, the boy the whole world loved. But the flame was gone. The shining light within, which had reached out and touched hearts, didn't burn any more. I do not think that he himself realized the change. He hardly knew what was happening. An enemy from without had taken possession of him, blurred his vision, eaten into his soul, numbed his mind. He was going through the motions of living, but the boy Wally was held fast in the grip of something that above all things paralyzed his consciousness of himself.
The Indianapolis road race of 1922 brought things out from under cover, precipitated the climax. The realization of the actual nature of the trouble mounted to a certainty, and his family, his real friends, his business superiors - the only ones then who actually knew - stood still for a time, poised in horror and bewilderment. It is proof of the love and respect in which they held him that there was no condemnation - nothing but a pity that tore every heart.
Not Wally! Not The Boy!
There again the charm of the man did him a fatal injustice. For, as a matter of fact, we had all known, deep down in hour hearts. But we had shuddered back from connecting it with the bright and shining things that Wally represented to us; from the horror of facing him with it, of seeing that proud and gay and loving spirit bowed before us. Yet, if the thing had been faced sooner it might have had a different end. A victim of a malady more terrible than any mere disease of the flesh, our old instinct to make things easy for him allowed us to stand back and let him face alone a problem which he wasn't even capable of recognizing, a problem whose most deadly weapon is that it makes an ally of its prey.
Wally's determination to drive in the Indianapolis race forced our hands, drove us into the open. He had decided to drive his great English speed demon, the Sunbeam, in the Decoration Day races. He was a licensed racing driver. The honor was one he valued highly. He counted Roscoe Sarles and Jimmy Murphy among his closet pals. The thing became an obsession with him. Arguments were powerless. The threats of the company that such an action would break his contract didn't touch him. The pleas of his friends were unavailing. Whether or not there was, deep down, a desire to die with his boots on, an almost subconscious hope that this would be a final, grand gesture, no one knows. But his decision to go was the first and only stubborn thing I ever saw about him. He had his mechanics get his car in shape. He set the date of his departure.
He could not go there to drive. It was worse than suicide, in his weakened mental and physical condition. It might be murder. Taking upon her slim shoulders the whole burden, as she had so quietly and so courageously shouldered many other burdens, Dorothy Davenport Reid spoke at last.
"You cannot go," she said. "You would endanger the lives of your friends, Wally. And that I know you would never do." Nor would he. That appeal stopped him. But at last they were face to face with a greater thing than any road race.
I have tried to show you how Wally's feet strayed into this fatal path. His self-respect had been destroyed by his own inner contempt for his work, by his failure to go into the trenches, by his own falls from grace in the face of overpowering temptations, and by his excessive remorse following them. His moral fiber had been weakened by the continual onslaught of temptation and the smothering of continual flattery, and the association with people who dragged him down in his own estimation, and by the lack of companions who could uplift and inspire him. His fear had been lulled to sleep by his own belief in his knowledge of medicine. His soul strength and character had ceased to grow because of the great ease with which all the glories of the world came to him. His health had been fatally undermined by overwork and nerve strain, by insomnia and illness. Under the paralyzing grip of a thing which had come upon him unawares, he was no more himself than you would be under the administration of ether. He acted blindly, and if sometimes he saw himself as he had become, he sank himself again in the fog rather than face himself.
But at last he had to face himself.
No one can know, no one should know, what Dorothy Reid bore in those days. Her first fight was to keep others from knowing. Her big fight was to break the grip of this thing upon the man she loved, whose genius and idealism she knew better than anyone else in the world. "Our Mama, Wally's and Bill's." With the aid of one or two trusted friends - in her beautiful self- sacrifice she spared Wally's mother that last battle - she forced Wally back, through agonies that were more terrible to her than to him, into clear consciousness.
At last Wally Reid was himself again. The mind that had been clouded, the soul that had cowered out of sight, were functioning once more. At first he was like a man who had lost his memory, who could not fill the gap of time. For weeks he had been in sanitariums and hospitals, helped day and night by all that science could do to make the break from this disease bearable to human mind and body. Dorothy had never left his bedside, giving everything she had to give in an effort to help him, but yielding not one inch to his mortal enemy, even when Wally joined that enemy against her. And so he day came when the boy lay spent and broken, but himself; able to look at her with honest eyes which held such love as few women will ever see.
He knew. And his remorse was terrible. His tears - contemplating the wreck of such high hopes and aspirations - kept him company day and night. Of him might it truly be said, "His bread was sorrow and his drink was tears." But the crucifixion was to come.
Hope had crept into the little room where he lay. After all, he was young - just past thirty. Love - love of those who knew him and love of the world - surrounded him still. He could come back. He could justify that love, which now, in his dark hour, he so greatly prized. Flashes of the old fighting spirit with which he had been born and had never had a need to use flamed forth. He longed for music and lay listening for hours to the great masterpieces of music on the phonograph that had been moved into his room. Or he asked Dorothy to read such poets as Keats and Mrs. Browning or the comedies of Shakespeare. Never, in many ways, had he risen to the heights of vision and the desire for fine things which he showed in those days when his worn body lay helpless upon a couch of pain.
Then the blow fell.
He wasn't getting better. He was getting steadily worse - fatally worse. The ravages were not healing. They were increasing and slowly doing him to death. But one thing would save his life. A return to the old bondage, for a time at least; a medically directed, careful, moderate return. His system could not bear the sudden release. He faced it bravely; death or a return to the thing that had destroyed him, that had almost killed his spirit, that had burned his soul. He looked, as always in moments of stress and trial, to his wife. But this time she shook her head. That was too much to ask - that she, who loved him so, make such a choice. All she could do was to kneel beside him, holding his thin hands in her strong, comforting ones, and abide by his decision. And so his last and great decision was the first which he made alone. It was great, as the boy was essentially and fundamentally great.
"I'll go out clean," he said. "I'd rather my body died than to go back to the thing that almost killed me. At least, I'm myself now. I'll - go out clean."
And then he said to her a thing which Dorothy Reid may wear all her life as a crown and which will serve her always as a consolation.
"I believe in God now," he said. "No one but God could have made the love you've given me. I'm not afraid."
So he signed his own death warrant. So he made his choice. He went out - clean and unafraid. And that clean and fearless and self-chosen death gives him a right to occupy the place in our memories which he occupied in our hearts for so many years.
Adela Rogers St. Johns, Liberty (23 June - 14 July 1928)
Wife Pens Dramatic Story of Wallace Reid's Drug Ruin
The Life Story of Wallace Reid: The Tragedy of an American Idol
Miscellaneous Press Coverage
Wallace Reid Photo Gallery
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