The Hard Luck Girl of the Movies
By Amy Nicholson
Reading time 17 Minutes
Lila Lee’s Viola Zickafoose, a Florida farm matron
Lila Lee's Viola Zickafoose, a Florida farm matron, marches into Cottonpickin' Chickenpickers with one goal: lock up those thieves she caught swiping her hens. She's not the brightest woman, and lord even knows if she's honest. Still, at the trial when the Honorable Jubilation B. Peale invites her to testify, he dismisses a bailiff, growling "She don't need to take no oath!" True enough. The sixty-two-year-old actress had sworn, her right hand on the Bible, plenty already.
Augusta Wilhelmena Fredericka Appel, aka Cuddles Edwards, aka Lila Lee, had been in and out of courtrooms since she was a teenager. In 1920, she and her parents fought to emancipate her from vaudevillian Gus Edwards. Edwards had scooped Lila up for his company after hearing her sing on a New Jersey sidewalk at age 5; she was a perfect, preposterous figure to perform his new song, "Look Out For Jimmy Valentine," in which she'd mug about "a sentimental crook with a touch that lingers." Soon after her escape from Edwards, Lila turned around and sued her parents for earnings they'd swiped from her.
At the peak of her silent era fame, Lee was dubbed "the hard luck girl of the movies.” By the time she stomped across the Florida brush, clumsy and heavy-footed, hooting after Del Reeves and Hugh X. Lewis in Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers, she'd lost three husbands, a lung, her uterus, her appendix, and a quarter of the skin on her body in a freak bathtub accident. She'd made countless trips to the sanitarium to kick tuberculosis and booze, and survived emphysema, diabetes, cataracts, strokes, and a month stranded on the island of Bora Bora. "Nothing but fish—and you get tired of fish," she groaned to the press regarding that misadventure.
And she'd been accused of murder. Not in public, not exactly. But her ex-boyfriend was dead and the attitude of his corpse was cryptic. How does a guy blow out his brains and then neatly cross his arms?
Hollywood forgives, if you're making it money. But it never forgets. So Lila moved as far away from Los Angeles as she could get, to a cul-de-sac in Key West, a literal curlicue at the end of America, and spent three decades in big screen retirement before her role in Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers – a couple scenes as a backwater grande dame who charms a local judge.
Viola Zickafoose was her final, and most unglamorous role. If you'd grown up watching Lila Lee collapse into the ruffled arms of Rudolph Valentino, the part looks pathetic. It wasn't the farewell bow she intended. But what looks all wrong was halfway right.
As a kid, Lila Lee was hailed as “The Most Beautiful Child in the World”
As a kid, Lila Lee was hailed as "The Most Beautiful Child in the World," a black-haired baby doll with dark eyes as big as chocolate cupcakes. She was beloved by live audiences, though her appeal was even stronger in photographs. Her mouth was solemn and her aura was haunted. She seemed "a raven, poised, shimmering, on the prow of a crowd-tinged sunbeam," wrote Photoplay—an orphan girl spun from gothic fables. This wasn't entirely untrue: Her mom, too broke to be a stage parent, waved goodbye as Lila toured the country for eight years with her new theater family.
Gus Edwards – hailed as “The Star Maker” for discovering everyone from Eddie Cantor to Groucho Marx -- had renamed her "Cuddles" Edwards. That lasted until she sued and broke free from his grip. "Lila Lee" was born in 1918 after film producer Jesse Lasky invited her to Hollywood. "From now on, if anybody says, 'Hello Miss Edwards,' or 'Hello Cuddles,' I won’t answer ‘em!'" she declared.
The 13-year-old showed up at the Paramount gates in pigtails and announced she had a meeting with Cecil B. DeMille. Guards slammed the gate in her face. Then the industry opened them too wide, blaring to the press that Lila Lee was the town's next starlet. "Our organization has been searching all branches of the entertainment world for just such a young woman," hailed Lasky. "She is tall, faultlessly built, vigorous and athletic, and she is fully eligible for the heavier demands of the motion picture drama."
Truthfully, she wasn't that tall, though Silver Screen did measure her curves and deem her a “Modern Venus.” And even more truthfully, she wasn't yet much of an actress, but the studio had decided to scare high-maintenance vamp Gloria Swanson into submission (the notion of motion picture stardom was only a decade old and actresses were learning there was a limitless supply of younger, willing replacements). The newspapers bumped Lee’s age to 18, where she'd hover for the next five years until the truth caught up, and painted her in tabloid colors as a car-crashing, irresistible bombshell.
Few in the business agreed with that assessment. Lila was too lush for child roles—let flaxen waif Mary Pickford, then 26, handle those—but male actors justifiably refused to romance jailbait onscreen. (Charlie Chaplin, however, proudly squired the girl to Cocoanut Grove months after divorcing fellow teenager Mildred Harris). Stranded between moppet and siren, and dismissed by audiences as over-hyped, she was "destarred," snipped celebrity reporter Adela Rogers St. Johns. Lila’s Hollywood career collapsed, a flimsy thing knocked flat by too much hot air. Sighed Lasky, "Stars are neither born nor made, but selected and discovered by the sovereign public."
Yet Lila rebuilt her reputation through a series of films opposite older leading men like Wallace Reid and Thomas Meighan. They pretended she was an age-appropriate babe, even if Reid looked a little silly wrapping his long arms around her in The Dictator (her soft cheeks made him look even more bald). Then she met Rudolph Valentino.
Maybe they had an affair. Maybe it was just buzz surrounding Blood & Sand, the now-17-year-old actress’s comeback, in which she played Carmen, a convent girl who falls in love with Valentino's doomed bullfighter. In their first scene together, Lila stares at him, chest heaving, fingers burrowed into her shawl as if determined not to make any sudden moves. They shake hands, twice. Yet, her eyes—almost backlit from within by an inner fire—convince us he's the sexiest man alive.
Suddenly, he was. Audiences saw Valentino through Lila’s eyes. His success boosted her own; she took that year's Wampus Baby Stars award—fine, sure, she was happy to take it, she'd only been warbling and hoofing for over three-quarters of her life—and her face appeared on the cover of Photoplay in a blue scarf strung with tiny gold coins and a red rose behind her ear. Cuddles had finally blossomed.
Now that Lila was old enough to be kissed, everyone had an opinion on how. Blood & Sand director Fred Niblo said she embodied "the lure of the first kiss—that virginal, shy, hungering kiss that is never duplicated." Beamed Cecil B. DeMille, "If she doesn't lose her figure and get fat like her mother, Lila Lee will be the greatest dramatic actress on the screen. No, I'll take that back. I believe that in ten years, barring earthquakes, Lila Lee will be the greatest dramatic actress in the world."
Yes, the fist-pumping Cottonpickin' Chickenpickers granny yelping, "Hot dang, we gottem!" was predicted to be our greatest actress by one of our greatest directors. But recall DeMille's caveat: "If."
As it turned out, there wasn’t an earthquake
As it turned out, there wasn't an earthquake. There was a wedding. On her 18th birthday, in 1923, Lila wrapped herself in a white fur stole, clutched a bouquet of lilies of the valley, and made headlines marrying director James Kirkwood, a ladies’ man with two unlucky numbers: one, he was 30 years older than her; two, he'd divorced his previous wife only six days before.
They had a son, James Kirkwood Jr., the next year, and for a while were one of the power couples of Southern California -- the tall, patrician papa and his tiny bride. Lila smartly insisted on her independence. Or as Camera magazine put it, "She refused to have her own identity as a stellar celebrity sunk in the sea of matrimony and washed over subsequently by the waters of oblivion." When producers tried to bill their films jointly as "Mr. and Mrs. Kirkwood," she threatened to quit, arguing, "Why should Lila Lee lose all the advertising she has had during the past five years?"
She did, anyway, flickering in and out of oblivion, divorce courts, and sanitariums like jerky animation: Betty Boop in human form, staggering to and from fame. In 1926, she triggered outraged headlines when she shrugged she had "no objection" to singing the word "hell" during a stage revue in London. In September of 1936, she was on her fourth comeback and fifth or sixth fiancé, an unemployed (and still married) car salesman named Reid Russell. Then Russell’s body was discovered, shot to death.
12-year-old James Jr. found the corpse. Russell was lying in a hammock at their temporary home – Kirkwood, Lee and Russell were crashing at the time with a wealthy couple named Gouverneur and Ruth Morris. He’d been shot a day before, maybe two, and ants were crawling around the wound. The boy never forgot the ants. Four and a half decades later, when James Kirkwood was famous himself for co-writing A Chorus Line, he was still telling viewers of The Dick Cavett Show about those ants. In in his quasi-fictionalized 1960 “memoir” There Must Be a Pony! he wrote, "I hated those ants at that moment worse than I can ever remember hating anybody or anything in my whole life."
But that wasn't the strangest thing about the body. The bullet hole was in Russell’s right temple, and the .32 still in his hand, tucked neatly across his chest as though he'd fallen asleep clutching a book. There was no blood on the pillow. There was no sign that the rusty pistol had recently been fired. The skull entry looked more like it had been drilled by a .22. There was no shell casing and no bullet -- though young James swore he saw the cops dig one out of a sofa and lose it in the grass.
In truth, the cops bungled everything. They were so star-struck by Lila Lee that they immediately agreed it was suicide and cleaned the powder burns from Russell’s finger tips—this phrasing, of course, assumes residue was there to begin with—making it impossible to determine whether he'd pulled the trigger himself.
Ultimately, after increasing press speculation about the botched investigation, embarrassed police captain Clyde Plummer announced they'd be re-staging Russell’s death to understand the physics of the shooting, and made sure to tell the newspapers all about how it had failed. "'This is a love slaying, not a suicide," he trumpeted. "All I can say now is that I have information to support it."
As the press breathlessly waited for police to arrest a suspect, Lila's name and picture became a fixture in the papers, innuendo handcuffing her to Russell’s death. One snide rag described her as a "former beauty." She was only 31.
It turned out that Russell had hidden three suicide notes in the house: one in Ruth Morris' jewelry box, and two more tucked into a hollow post at the bottom of a staircase where he would sneak James extra allowance. When Ruth found her note, she and Lila burned it in an ashtray before the cops could see it. They claimed it read: "You thought I would not do it, but now you know.... I hope you don't think I didn't keep my chin up." Russell’s mother gave interviews sobbing that her son would never kill himself. He was a Catholic.
Chaos encircled the Morris house. Inside, life was eerily quiet, except for when Lila would get drunk and dramatic. In There Must Be a Pony!, James Jr. describes his mother screaming at reporters, sobbing in her bedroom, and suddenly shutting down like someone had turned off the switch, "[her] face pale and rigid like she had wax poured over it and it had cooled off." The boy charged his classmates a quarter to come see Russell’s bloodstain on the hammock post. "That was my way of getting back at him," he admitted.
When the police started digging up the yard, things got even more peculiar. They found a dead sheep that had been raped and murdered by the estate's former gardener, whom Lila had fired for making a pass at James Jr. "It was too silly to make the papers," she later told the ghostwriter who worked with her on her memoir; the family kept the story to themselves.
Just before Christmas 1936, Los Angeles District Attorney Buron Fitts finally decreed Reid Russell’s death a suicide and closed the case for good. People kept whispering though. After all, Fitts was so buddy-buddy with the studio bosses he'd already swept away the unsolved murder of William Desmond Taylor and the strange death of Jean Harlow's husband.
Though she was officially exonerated, after 81 roles Lila Lee never appeared in another Hollywood film. The hard luck girl had run out of chips.
“Do you want to know about the killing?”
"Do you want to know about the killing?" Lila once asked her ghostwriter, before hastily correcting herself. "Not the killing, the suicide." Lila’s memoir was never published—her working title was All My Lovers Are Dead. In 1983, a decade after her own death, James Kirkwood Jr.'s book loosely fictionalizing the case became a TV movie starring Elizabeth Taylor.
In the '60s, Kirkwood moved his mother to Key West. The local paper spotted Lila hobbling into a fish market with a busted ankle. "I'm wearing this because I still want to be in some kind of a cast!" she joked. But she was serious.
Fledgling Florida studio Southeastern Pictures tantalized her with offers of dramatic roles – she would star in their adaption of O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. She told the press she was ready for her next comeback. Instead of all the highbrow stuff Southeastern bandied, she soon found herself on the set of Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers clomping around in an apron with her hands balled at her hips, the kind of hologram gesture where you glimpse the plucky silent film teen underneath the 62-year-old woman.
Cottonpickin' Chickenpickers was Lila's first film in 30 years, and her last film ever. There are lovelier swan songs. At least Lila's final movie let the world's most beautiful child maintain her title.
When she stands up at the trial, the sheriff coos, "Don't you think she's just 'bout the purtiest thing you ever saw?" The judge grins: "Her mouth is as red as a possum's mouth in pokeberry time!" Lila blushes like a coquette, and for a minute, this slapstick comedy that makes fun of everything doesn't mock her at all. This battered Venus is beautiful. And in this court of opinion, she's won.
Amy Nicholson is the host of the Earwolf podcasts The Canon and Unspooled and critic for Variety, The Guardian, and KPCC's Film Week. Formerly, she was the chief film critic for the MTV News and LA Weekly. Her first book, Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor, was published by Cahiers du Cinema.