Esther Ralston at the height of her fame, mid-twenties.
To read Part I of this series, please click here.
Blessed with a lovely, melodic voice, it’s something of a puzzle why Paramount dropped Esther Ralston’s option in 1929. Esther was a rising star who, between 1924 and 1929, starred or co-starred in twenty-five films. She would seem a natural for talkies.
But the mystery is soon cleared up as Esther explains:
Since I had only a year to go on my Paramount contract, the studio sent me a new contract with a talkie clause to sign. Knowing I had been brought up in the theater before going into pictures, George decided I should ask for a hundred thousand dollars to sign this talkie clause. He sent me alone to talk to Mr. Lasky and Mr. Zukor. They were courteous as always, but explained that the new talkie panic had them worried and they didn’t feel they should have to increase my salary until they were sure I would be adequate in talkies.
Once again, the destructive Svengali-Trilby relationship asserts itself as the guiding principle of Esther and George.
Unlike so many other stars who grew tired and cynical under the pressures of the frantic pace of production, Esther genuinely delighted in the hard work and was, by all accounts, well liked by everyone.
In her modest but hugely revealing memoir, Some Day We'll Laugh
, and years later in conversation with silent film historian, Anthony Slide
, Esther vents about an unpleasant breach, professional and personal, with director Dorothy Arzner.
Publicity photo of Esther Ralston for Ten Modern Commandments, the film in which director Dorothy Arzner sexually harassed the young star.
Open about her homosexuality, director Dorothy Arzner, during production of Fashions for Women
and Ten Modern Commandments
, 1927, is in the habit of dragging Esther into her lap and groping her breasts.
Esther rejects Arzner’s crude advances and Arzner takes revenge by browbeating Esther, making her perform take after take of a single scene. Ironic, because Esther was known as One-Take Ralston.
Furious, Esther storms into Adolf Zukor’s office and announces that she will never again work with Arzner.
Esther Wants a Baby
Broke, with Hollywood re-gearing for the new era of talkies, George proposes that Esther go on the road with a vaudeville act. It is notable that George himself never once considers going to work. No, the structure of their dysfunctional relationship dictates Esther as breadwinner and George as, um, parasite.
Like the veteran trouper she is, Esther puts together an act billed as the “Golden Girl of the Silver Screen… in Person.”
Esther opens in 1929 at the Orpheum in Los Angeles. Playing to enthusiastic audiences, the tour moves to Chicago and then The Palace in New York. A month later, playing three shows a day, four on Saturday and Sunday, Esther is worn down, depressed.
Although it was a thrill to see people lined up for a block and a half waiting to get into the theater to see my act, I just wanted to go home to have a baby. George kept urging me to be patient, saying that having a baby might make me lose my American Venus figure, that I was still young and there would be plenty of time to start a family.
A crude manipulator, George threatens to commit suicide if Esther insists on abandoning the tour. Torn by her desire to start a family, and her husband’s control over her life and career, Esther sinks into silence and starts to lose weight. Alarmed at seeing his meal ticket in meltdown, George makes an appointment for Esther with a “Park Avenue specialist.”
I was thoroughly examined and, after I had dressed, I came out to the office where the specialist was talking with George. They both stared at me so solemnly that I was frightened. “What is it?” I almost screamed. “Why are you looking at me like that. Is something wrong with me?”
“Better sit down, my dear,” the doctor said quietly, then he told me the bad news. Evidently, my strenuous acrobatic dancing, my high kicks and so forth, had left me with one ovary completely damaged and the other only halfway intact. “I’m sorry, Miss Ralston, but I’m afraid you can never have children. I’m so sorry.” He said.
I was numb with shock. It just couldn’t be true. All I wanted out of life was to have children. Who cared about a career? What price being a movie star, here today gone tomorrow? No babies? Not ever? I wanted to die.
What is going on here?
I presented Esther’s narrative to a close friend, a distinguished physician. He pointed out that female athletes, and dancers—usually ballerinas—through endless training, rehearsals, and extreme diets, frequently lose their menstrual cycles, which leads to temporary infertility.
But Esther does not present as that kind of dancer or dieter. No, it seems that Esther was the victim of a cruel manipulation designed to keep her on the road and insure a cash flow.
I'm fairly certain that George Webb greased the palm of the Park Avenue specialist to offer the heart-breaking diagnosis thereby breaking down Esther’s defenses and making her even more dependent on her husband.
Esther agrees to finish the tour.
The Case of Lena Smith, 1929, directed by Josef von Sternberg. Released just as sound was coming in, this film, according to Esther, was her very best work. No copies are known to exist. Lena Smith is one of the most sought after lost films of the silent era.
Esther might be gullible, and she is most certainly uninformed about female biology, but she has true grit and faith in G-d.
Raised an Episcopalian, Esther confesses that for years she has been an earnest student of Christian Science
. Convinced that G-d wants her to have a child, Esther summons a Christian Science Practitioner for prayer sessions.
In the days before antibiotics, when the most ordinary infection could result in death, scores of the Hollywood colony flocked to Christian Science. The great director King Vidor was one of the most visible adherents.
A few months later, her vaudeville tour ended, back in Hollywood, Louis B. Mayer offers Esther a long-term contract worth $100,000.
Esther turns it down, explaining that she is, yes, pregnant.
With all due respect to Christian Science, I still believe that George Webb and the Park Avenue specialist conspired the false diagnosis to keep Esther working.
Esther and the Miraculous Turtle Cream
Meanwhile, George discovers a “scientist” who has invented a miraculous “turtle cosmetic cream” guaranteed to make women look years younger. In 1930, using the money Esther earned on her vaudeville tour, George opens “Esther’s in Hollywood” a spa on Yucca Street in Los Angeles.
In 1931 Esther gives birth to a daughter, Mary Esther, and Ralston looks forward to a quiet life in her mansion as a mother and wife.
But business and money management at “Esther’s in Hollywood” is not what it should be—big shock—and George arranges for another grueling vaudeville tour.
Playing to sold-out audiences, Esther is invited to England to deliver a Command Performance at the Palladium, the largest theater in the world.
Rather than be separated from her child, Esther hires a Nanny to help care for baby Mary on the tour.
Esther and the anti-Semites
Checking into the Mayfair hotel in London, Esther discovers that Eddie Kay, her musical conductor and arranger, and his wife Tessie are not registered.
“Why not?” I said. “All my company are to be registered here at this hotel. “But Madame,” answered the clerk, “I’m sorry, but we couldn’t register Mr. Kay. He is a Jew.”
“Restricted” hotels were an accepted part of the social landscape in Europe and America all through the 1950's.
Esther immediately checks out of the Mayfair and rents a luxurious apartment directly across from the Marble Arch where Eddie, Tessie and Esther’s entire staff stay for the duration of the London tour.
Esther does not deliver a tedious lecture about fighting injustice and prejudice. She doesn’t make any grand claims for her righteousness. She does the right thing, and moves on with her story.
Esther is exhausted and homesick, for America, for her lovely mansion, and the golden California sunshine. But George books weeks of further engagements in Scotland and Wales.
We had been almost a year in England by now and I began to fret with homesickness. We had received a cable from our receptionist at “Esther’s in Hollywood” requesting an immediate five thousand dollars for new hair dryers. It seemed to me that our salon was beginning to cost more than it was bringing in.
I complained to George that it just didn’t seem fair that his mother, Mrs. Frey, his nephew Mac, and his youngest daughter, Marion should all be living in our “castle,” enjoying the California sunshine, swimming in my beloved pool, being waited on by Sing [the cook] while my baby and I were so far from home and I had to work so hard for every penny.
So badly has George mismanaged Esther’s finances that on February 27, 1933, Esther’s mansion and all its contents are put up for auction. Esther does not provide details of George’s financial mismanagement, but between bad investments, various swindles, and George’s degenerate gambling we can well imagine how another fortune is lost.
Esther makes a list of each creditor and accepts every job that Hollywood has to offer. Dollar by dollar, Esther pays off her considerable debts.
Quarreling all the time, George and Esther are bound in a loveless, dysfunctional marriage.
Esther Gets on the Very Bad Side of L.B. Mayer
Thirty-one years old, Esther is no longer the devastatingly beautiful ingénue who lit up the screen in the silent era. But Louis B. Mayer, the most powerful studio head in Hollywood, is still anxious to bring her to MGM.
He offers her $750.00 a week, a steep decline from the days when she was pulling in $2,500 a week, but Esther is more than grateful to sign the contract.
But there’s a catch. And it’s classic Hollywood.
L.B. Mayer has a massive schoolboy crush on Esther, and when she realizes that the powerful mogul expects, um, favors in return for roles, Esther spurns Mayer’s advances.
When I arrived at the studio the next morning, I was told to go at once to Mr. Mayer’s office. He wanted to see me.
“Good morning,” I said cheerfully as I entered his office.
Mr. Mayer glared at me and, shaking his finger at me furiously, he shouted, “Think you’re pretty smart, eh? Think you fooled me? Let me tell you, I can have any woman on this lot — Joan Crawford and…”
I stood up indignantly and interrupted his tirade. “Perhaps you can — any woman but Esther Ralston.”
“Just who do you think you are?” he sputtered.
“I thought, Mr. Mayer, I was hired as an actress, but evidently you had other plans for me.’
Getting up from his chair, Mayer paced up and down the room, shouting, “You sing your psalms, young lady, and see where you get! I’ll blackball you in every studio in Hollywood, and what’s more you’ll get nothing here!”
Mayer makes good on his promise. MGM sells Esther’s contract to Universal for a group of less than stellar projects which do nothing for her career, and as everyone knows if you’re not on an upward trajectory in Hollywood, you’re probably in a downward spiral.
Esther Ralston and Joan Crawford in Sadie McKee.
Esther's one MGM film during that period is the Joan Crawford vehicle, Sadie McKee,
It is director Clarence Brown—Garbo’s frequent helmer—who insists on casting Ralston as the theatrical femme fatale, Dolly Merrick.
Esther’s part is small, but she sparkles in every scene. Even as a slinky tramp, Esther brings warmth to the character that keeps you off-balance. You want to hate this vaudeville villainess, yet at the same time there is the urge to melt into her arms.
Here's a brief clip of Esther Ralston singing I Looked In Your Eyes
with Gene Raymond. As you can see, Esther is magnetic, with a richly-toned voice. As Dolly Merrick, Esther plays a vaudeville femme fatale who steals Barry from good girl Crawford. Sadie McKee
is not one of Crawford's better known vehicles, but it happens to be one of my favorites. And Esther Ralston's presence is one of the reasons this film has such appeal for yours truly.
[youtube dP0r02wtAn0 nolink]
In March of 1934, Esther finally sues for divorce from George Webb. True to form, Webb counter-sues, demanding $75.00 a week in alimony. The judge denies Webb’s claim and hands Esther full custody of their child Mary Esther.
Esther Rebuilds Her Life—Sorta
At last free from George Webb, a liar, a gambler, and swindler, Esther is free to rebuild her life and career, and hopefully choose her next relationship through the prism of hard earned experience.
However, the day after her divorce—the very next day—at a Hollywood party in Brentwood, Esther clamps eyes on Ted Morgan, a smooth crooner with a pleasing baritone.
Chatting intimately, Esther learns that Morgan’s wife has just run off with another man.
I guess the fact that we were both unhappy victims of divorce brought us closer together, for I brought him home to Mama’s the next day for dinner.
In the meantime, Esther comes to the conclusion that though she can always earn money, she can’t seem to hold on to it. Thus, Esther engages a high-profile money manager who claims that his clients are a who’s who of Hollywood talent. Confident that, at last, she has found financial salvation, Esther turns over her entire savings to her new money manager. He puts Esther on a weekly allowance and —
— and if your stomach is churning as you read this, well, you have guessed correctly.
The money manager blows town, conning Esther out of all her money.
For those keeping a scorecard, this makes three
fortunes Esther has earned and lost.
Esther Ralston is once again broke, adrift in a cocoon of bafflement and betrayal.
It is under these circumstances in June 1935—betrayed by a man she trusted, and forced to drastically downsize—that Esther accepts Morgan’s marriage proposal.
During these months, Will Morgan and I were seeing each other constantly and though it seemed that he was drinking an awful lot, I refused to see the danger signals. We were so in love.
Esther with Bill Morgan husband #2.
Really, at this point in the narrative I 'm slapping my forehead like a Dexedrine fueled lab monkey.
Esther, baby, what are
Of course, Morgan can’t buy
a job in Hollywood and so he convinces the pliable Esther to combine their talents.
The Ralston-Morgan Vaudeville Act goes on a mildly successful tour across the U.S. No doubt, if it was just Esther head-lining, the box office would have been better.
Forced to leave daughter Mary behind, the pain of their separation is almost more than Esther can bear. And so when Esther’s agent tells her that she has several film offers back in Hollywood, Esther cancels the tour and hurries home.
Resenting Esther’s success, Morgan climbs into a bottle—a case of bottles.
One day, on location for The Girl From Mandalay
, Morgan, a sloppy drunk, staggers on the set and disrupts production:
After this final humiliation, I took Mary and went to stay with Mama. I told Bill I’d had it with his drinking and I was leaving him for good. A few nights later, I drove back to our apartment in North Hollywood to pick up my belongings. I parked the car in front and as I got out, saw Bill waiting for me. He was drunk again, and as I turned to go back to the car, he grabbed me by the throat and tried to drag me to the apartment door, yelling, “You aren’t going to leave me, I’ll kill you first.”
Okay, kids, pull out your trusty scorecard: check off two
husbands who have threatened murder.
Esther’s life, her dreadful choices in love, is like a Kabuki performance where movement and emotion are ritualized. Esther and the men in her life play their assigned roles to grim perfection.
Esther and Bill are divorced in 1938. Again, Esther is almost penniless and the sole support of her daughter.
What to do?
Esther drives cross-country to New York seeking work in radio and summer stock.
The American Venus is determined to get a fresh start.
But on her very first day in New York, in an agent’s office, Esther meets a young, well-connected show biz columnist who immediately sets his sights on Ralston.
Coming soon, Part III, and yup, husband # 3 also wants to murder Esther.
Copyright Robert J. Avrech