Esther Ralston, at the height of her Hollywood stardom in the 1920's.
They called her: The American Venus.
She lived in a Hollywood mansion with a staff of servants. Her chauffeur drove a limited edition limousine. But she ended her days in an upscale trailer park in Ventura, California.
One of the enduring mysteries—for yours truly—are the scores of Hollywood starlets, innocent young women, who are attracted to bad men: drunks, gamblers, liars, tinsel town sociopaths.
Esther Ralston is a prime example of an early Hollywood star who showed great promise as an actress—she played drama and comedy with equal craft—but three ill-considered marriages effectively derailed Ralston’s career and drained away her considerable fortune.
Esther On the Road
Esther spent her childhood as a member of The Seven Ralston’s, an entertainment troupe made up of her four brothers and her parents. It was a hardscrabble, gypsy life, traveling across rural America performing in carnivals, town halls, revival tents, high school gymnasiums, colleges, even insane asylums, anywhere there was an audience.
In her tender and revealing autobiography, Some Day We’ll Laugh
, Esther remembers:
As children, my four brothers and I never knew what it was like to have enough to eat or to be sure where we would sleep that night. In this modern world of disposable diapers, detergents, and specialized medicine, I often wonder what mama used for diapers and how she washed them, or us, in theater dressing rooms or railroad station waiting rooms.
Quite often, when there was no money for railroad fare, a kind station master would persuade the brakeman of a freight train which was stopping by for water, to allow us to ride to our next destination in the caboose. This was high adventure for us kids.
Billed as “Baby Esther, America’s Youngest Juliet,” Esther performed Shakespeare at the tender age of six.
The Ralston Family, 1917, from left to right: Esther, Howard, Bradford, Carleton, Mama, Clarence, and Papa.
In spite of poverty, hunger and the uncertainty of where the next job and buck would come, Esther’s memories of her childhood are, for the most part, bathed in the warm glow of nostalgia. Being poor was a minor annoyance when placed against the overwhelming security of a close, loving family.
But then, as now, human monsters preyed on innocent children.
In the Summer of 1911, in West Virginia, alone in a shabby rural hotel room, a traveling salesman promised seven-year old Esther a “surprise” if she would visit his room:
Esther was uncertain but remembered that her mother cautioned never to be rude to their public.
… he grabbed me and threw me backward across the bed, trying to pin me down by my arms. Terror-stricken as I was, the training in boxing, wrestling and gymnastics I’d had from my father since I was two stood me in good stead now. I was scratching, biting, kicking and squirming like a wildcat and the startled young man was no match for me; freeing myself from his clutches, I beat him to the door, raced down the hall and out of the hotel.
Esther sobbed out her story to her family and her father, in cold fury, ran back to the hotel to deal with the child molester, but the traveling salesman had already fled.
Esther in Hollywood
In 1917 the family moved to California in order to escape the infantile paralysis scare. Esther, growing into an American beauty, attended Glendale high school. Soon, Esther was picking up work as a movie extra and in 1920 she signed a three-month contract with Charlie Chaplin Studios to play an angel in The Kid
, 1921. Unfortunately, her footage ended up on the cutting room floor.
In 1922, Esther appeared with the great Lon Chaney in Oliver Twist
. The veteran actor mentored Esther on set, advising her to relax between scenes or she would rapidly burn out due to her nervous enthusiasm. Playing opposite Chaney, a huge movie star, proved a valuable boost to her career.
A few months later, on the set of a western, Phantom Fortune
, 1923, Esther met actor George Webb, a reliable character actor well known for playing heavies.
I was immediately attracted to Mr. Webb, and he to me. He often drove me home in his fine car. This was much better than hitch-hiking.
One late afternoon, when we had finished work earlier than usual, Mr. Webb invited me to have dinner with him at the Hollywood Athletic Club, where he was living. I had had very little experience eating in a fine restaurant and I was enthralled but very conscious of “minding my manners.” When Mr. Webb, ordering a lovely dinner, asked me, “Would you like to have a fruit cocktail?” I answered with dignity, “Oh, no thank you. I don’t drink.”
Raised on the road with few creature comforts, often eating out of tin cans and having absolutely no experience in polite society, we sense this young woman’s excitement and excruciating self-consciousness as she fumbles for the right fork and tries desperately to impress the seemingly sophisticated and worldly George Webb.
George Webb, Esther's first husband.
Esther in Love
Women are attracted to powerful men and Esther, a stunning if insecure ingénue, perceived Webb as a Hollywood player, a well known actor who seemed to know everybody in the business.
But of course, there were warning signs that Webb was a leaky vessel:
As the picture progressed, so did our friendship. To me, Mr. Webb was the epitome of elegance and sophistication and one of the best actors in Hollywood. But George was an inveterate gambler. He’d bet on whether it was going to rain the next day. Sometimes he would drive me to the beach after work and I would watch him in adoring silence while he spent hours playing the local pinball machine.
Reading this paragraph, I wanted to travel back in time, sit down with Esther and explain that this guy is big trouble, certainly not marriage material.
Soon, George Webb confessed to Esther—they were in love and so it was truth time—that his real name was George Webb Frey and he was still married, but separated from his wife and waiting for a divorce.
Esther’s family was appalled at this romance. Esther was twenty-one years old. Webb was old enough to be her father.
The close-knit Ralston family demanded that Esther stop seeing Webb, but Esther, gripped by romantic illusions, stubbornly defied her brothers and parents.
After the preview for “Phantom Justice,” on a dark side street where Webb’s car was parked, Esther heard the sounds of shouts, blows and scuffling:
I jumped out of the car and ran around back in time to see Clarence [brother] holding George by his arms while Howard [brother] beat him unmercifully.
Screaming for help, and yelling, “You cowards, two against one!” I grabbed Howard by the hair and clung with my legs around him while nearby doors opened, lights went on and the police arrived.
We were all driven down to the police station in Los Angeles, where the two boys were booked for “Disturbing the Peace and Assault.” George, his eyes blackened and his nose dripping blood, managed to give me a dime to call his lawyer, and then I was left alone in the waiting room.
“How am I going to get home?” I sobbed to the policeman behind the desk. “I don’t have any carfare.”
“Too bad you didn’t think of that, girlie, before you got mixed up with a married man,” smirked the policeman.
Waves of shame and humiliation washed over me and I buried my face in my hands and wept.
Already an action-filled evening, it only gets worse as Esther accepts a ride home from a reporter who was hanging around the station.
In the car, Esther pours out her heart to the sympathetic journalist, who promptly makes a crude pass at her. Horrified, Esther jumps out of the car at the next red light and runs all the way home, where she throws herself at her mother’s feet:
“Oh Mama, Mama, why would you let them do that to me. Why would you betray me. Why… why?”
Mama coldly pushed me away and stood up, “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.”
Financially independent due to her film work, Esther packs a bag and moves into her own apartment.
And then, another great role comes along. Esther is cast as Mrs. Darling in Peter Pan
, 1924. At first, Esther is horrified at playing the part of a mother. After all, she’s a rising star, a beautiful ingénue, hardly the mother type, but director Herbert Brenon explains that he wants to cast Mrs. Darling as every child sees his mother—as a young girl.
Peter Pan, 1921, Esther Ralston, left, plays Mrs. Darling. Mary Brian is her daughter Wendy. Esther was just four years older than Mary.
After the success of “Peter Pan,” Esther’s star rises in Hollywood and she is offered more roles. George Webb, a classic manipulator, gives up acting in order to “manage” Esther’s career. He shrewdly reads her scripts and coaches Esther on her acting technique. Esther writes that sessions with Webb often reduced her to tears, but she freely admits that she emerged a far more skilled actress.
Esther in Marriage
More sinister, Webb has Esther alter her contract at Paramount so that her weekly paychecks are paid to George Webb, “for services rendered.”
Esther does not have a checkbook, not even her own bank account.
One day Esther asks George for a dollar—yup, one single American dollar—to keep in her purse in case she wants to buy something. Webb smoothly assures Esther that whenever she needs money she only has to ask. “I’m going to make sure, sweetheart, that you will never be poor again.”
In a screenplay this is called a foreshadowing moment.
Far from stupid, Esther Ralston comes across as hopelessly naïve and trusting. Separated from her family, Esther Ralston substituted George Webb as her primary emotional support. Webb became lover, father, mother and brother to the fragile young woman who found herself abruptly thrust into the confusing world of Hollywood stardom.
At this point in Esther's narrative, I was gnawing my handkerchief in alarm. Here was a good and decent woman surrendering control of her professional and financial affairs to a stone cold sociopath.
Webb uses Esther’s hard earned money to purchase a diamond ring. Nothing like buying your own engagement ring, right ladies?
Predictably, Webb invests Esther’s money and in a sure-fire real estate deal that conjures the Marx Bros. in “Coconuts:”
While I was filming Trouble with Wives, George invested in four lots in Eagle Lake, California; total price $200.00. When we visited Eagle Lake some time later to look at our beautiful property, we discovered that all four lots were under water—IN the lake, not beside it, as the real estate salesman had assured us. It wasn’t the last time “Gambler George” was to be swindled.
In 1925, Esther and Webb are finally wed and the surprises keep coming: Esther discovers that she is now stepmother to Webb’s children. Esther takes it in stride, she loves the children and adores being a mother.
By this time, Esther is under an exclusive seven-year contract to Paramount. Esther is cast by the legendary Florenz Ziegfeld—a man who knows something about beautiful women—to play the lead role in The American Venus
, 1926, a film about the Miss America contest in Atlantic City.
Years later, reports Anthony Slide in Silent Players
, Esther Ralston read a biography of Louise Brooks that describes Brook’s performance as eclipsing Esther’s work. Ralston commented: “Hell, I didn’t even know she was in the film!”
Esther in Close-Up
Almost every page of Ralston’s modest volume contains a telling anecdote about her career and the people with whom she worked. Her recollections are razor-sharp and invariably shed a welcome light on early Hollywood.
On the set of Victor Fleming’s The Blind Goddess
, 1926 Esther was having trouble conjuring tears for an important scene:
…Mr. Fleming ordered the cameraman to set up for a big close-up of me crying for my dead father I couldn’t squeeze a tear.
Mr. Fleming was getting disgusted with me and I felt miserable. Just then the lovely and marvelous actress, Louise Dressler, came over and knelt beside me and, taking my hand in hers, she said quietly, “Esther dear, my beloved mother is in the Hollywood hospital, dying of cancer. They just phoned me and said if I could get right over there, I’d be able to see her once more before she dies. I can’t leave until we do this scene.” Before she finished talking to me, I was sobbing like a child. Mr. Fleming signaled the cameraman to “get her close-up… quick!” It turned out to be one of the best scenes in the picture, but I couldn’t stop crying for an hour afterward. Later that day, I found out that Miss Dressler’s mother had passed on an hour after she reached the hospital.
After shooting Old Ironsides
, 1926, Esther’s favorite film, she has another talk with George Webb about money:
“I know you handle all our money,” I complained. “I’m grateful for that, as you know I don’t know anything about business, but I never have even a quarter in my purse. Suppose I’m stuck somewhere where you can’t get to me and I can’t get home? I can’t even buy an ice cream cone without asking you for money.”
Webb magnanimously agrees to give Esther an allowance of ten dollars a week.
I knew my salary was twenty-five hundred a week, but I was so glad to get an allowance, I stopped complaining.
George continues showering Esther with extravagant gifts—he's generous with her money.
By 1927, Esther was enjoying a high standard of living. Here, she's posing with her limited edition Lincoln Town Car. Esther did not know how to drive.
On Christmas Eve of 1927:
…George gave me a gorgeous diamond bracelet with a square-cut emerald in the center, and a new Lincoln Town Car which had just won first prize at the auto show in Chicago. Only two of these town cars were ever built, mine and the one Sue Carol bought. I reveled in at last reaching stardom and riding in the back of this elegant green car with its rabbit-fur lap robe, crystal rose vase, and phone to my chauffeur.
Esther in Peril
Esther Ralston has reached the upper level of Hollywood stardom, but there is an abyss of danger and darkness in the starlet's life:
In February, George and I drove to the Grand Canyon on our vacation. While we were crossing the lonely desert up to the canyon, George suddenly stopped the car and turned to me.
“I’m sorry, Honey,” he told me, “But … I brought you up here to kill you.”
I stared at him in horror. There wasn’t a house, a tree, or another car for miles in any direction. “You mean,” I faltered, “because of my life insurance?”
George gazed at my startled face for a moment and then patted my knee. “Honey,” he said, as he started up the car, “I was only kidding.”
I didn’t think this was funny at all.
Does Esther take the hint that she’s married to a sociopath, does she walk out on him and serve him with divorce papers?
Sadly, the answer is no.
Esther Crashes and So Does America
George fast-talks a group of Hollywood stars into investing in a sure fire gold mine in Arizona. Big surprise, the mine turns out to have been “salted” and vast amounts of money are lost.
George buys a mansion, 2212 Hollyridge Drive, befitting a Hollywood star. There is a swimming pool and a staff of servants. George and Esther go on a spending spree furnishing the home with valuable antiques.
And then comes the stock market crash of 1929:
About three-thirty one morning I awoke to find myself alone in bed. I saw there was light in George’s office den, so I got up and went out to see him. He was slumped over his desk, his head on his arms, and he was sobbing. I rushed over to him and put my arms around him.
“What is it, darling,” I whispered. “Why are you crying?”
He sat up and stared at me and then blurted out, “Oh, my God honey, don’t hate me. I’ve lost all your money! I bought stock on margin, four-hundred and fifty-seven thousand dollars, and it’s all gone down the drain.”
Esther is pretty darn upbeat for a woman whose fortune has just been stolen and lost by a husband who has already admitted to homicidal tendencies.
Let's be clear: Esther now moves from simple naivete to an entirely other level.
All together, let's spell, e-n-a-b-l-e-r.
“Oh my poor darling,” I cried. “Can’t you save any of it? I know, my jewelry!” I ran to my dressing table and collected all the beautiful diamond jewelry I owned and dumped it on his desk.
“There,” I said. “Take these, they’re certainly worth something. I don’t need any jewelry. Besides, we’ve still got my contract.”
George looked at me sadly and said, “Honey, that jewelry is only a drop in the bucket. And besides, I didn’t want to tell you, but Paramount didn’t take up your option.”
Indeed, sound has arrived and there is panic in Hollywood with the studios undermining and destroying scores of careers.
Coming soon, Part II: Here comes husband #2, and guess what, he too wants to murder Esther.
Copyright Robert J. Avrech