Esther Ralston at the height of her fame, 1920's.
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Broke, with her second marriage in shambles and blacklisted by studio boss L.B. Mayer—Esther wouldn't trade amorous favors for movie roles—Esther Ralston flees to New York in 1939 to find work and rebuild her shattered career.
Esther, in her slim but resonant 1985 memoir, Some Day We’ll Laugh
, tells us that she was forced to leave her daughter Mary behind in California with her mother.
Working in Summer Stock and radio, Esther meets a young entertainment columnist named Ted Lloyd. Everywhere she plays, Ted is in the audience. With characteristic understatement Esther notes that Lloyd “seemed to follow me.”
Clearly, Esther has an admirer. Not surprising in that Esther Ralston, dubbed The American Venus
, was a famous Hollywood beauty. One would hope that coming on the heels of two ex-husbands who were not only unreliable, but also somewhat homicidal, Esther would steer clear of another hasty romantic entanglement, but —
— Alas, soon enough Lloyd is escorting Esther around town. They appear arm in arm in the fashionable Stork Club, Toot Shorr’s, Jack Dempsey’s and Lindy’s.
During these weeks, Ted kept telling me how much he loved me and pleading with me to marry him. I explained that I was trying to recover from a sad divorce and was not interested in ever marrying again.
Okay. Good for Esther. She’s using her common sense under the juggernaut of her latest suitor’s attentions.
Esther and Scary Husband #3
But Lloyd is not just aggressive, he’s coldly manipulative and he zeroes in on Esther’s vulnerable core—her eight-year old daughter Mary.
Ted took a trip to California and got in touch with my family. He took them all to dinner, bought Mary a doll, and tried to talk her into persuading me to marry him so she could come and be with her mother.
This is seriously creepy, and it should have unmasked Lloyd as morally deficient. Esther, once discovering this ethical breach, should have reacted with fury. But Mary’s pathetic letters—“I miss you, Mommy. Please can’t I come to you?”—breaks Esther's will and she surrenders to Lloyd.
In a final and serious talk with Ted Lloyd, I told him I wasn’t in love with him, I’d been too hurt and disillusioned by my previous marriages, but if he still wanted me, I would marry him and do my best to make him happy. We were married at the Pickwick Arms in Greenwich, Connecticut, on August 6th 1939.
Homicidal husband #3, Ted Lloyd.
Esther, Ted and Mary move into a modest house in Little Neck. Esther’s dream—the American Dream—of a life of simple domesticity seems to be falling into place. But finances are something of a problem. Lloyd, a lowly columnist and sometimes PR guy, is not pulling in that much money.
And so, in September of 1939, on Esther’s thirty-eighth birthday, when Darryl F. Zanuck calls to offer Esther a role in the prestigious Alice Faye vehicle, Tin Pan Alley, Esther immediately agrees to play the famous singer Nora Bayes.
In Hollywood a week later, Esther is working with a solid cast including Alice Faye, Betty Grable, Jack Oakie, and John Payne.
A few years earlier, Esther notes, she met Nora Bayes on the Paramount lot and Bayes offered some words—deeply prophetic—that Esther never forgot:
“You’re young now, Esther. What I say may not mean much to you now, but someday you’ll remember what I tell you. Someday, everything you think, everything you do, will be in your face. Remember that.”
As she’s wrapping up work in Tin Pan Alley
, Esther is offered a supporting role in Universal’s San Francisco Docks
Acutely aware of her role as mother and wife, Esther calls Ted to ask his permission to stay another few weeks in California. Reluctantly, Ted agrees, but makes Esther promise that this will be her last motion picture.
Esther abides by her agreement.
Alice Faye, left, and Esther Ralston on the set of Tin Pan Alley, 1939.
In 1942 Ted loses his job as a columnist. Esther, always the optimist, encourages Ted to produce his own radio shows. He moves ahead with her suggestion and proves successful, saving money by hiring Esther to play multiple roles on his radio plays.
Two more children are born, Judy in 1942, and Ted Jr., in 1943. At last, Esther seems to be, enjoying her life as mother and wife. They buy a bigger house in Great Neck and Esther wears a mink coat when they go sailing on their new ship.
Esther Meets Dorian Gray
But the routine of cooking, house cleaning and laundering leaves Esther exhausted by nightfall. Ted frequently calls from New York urging Esther to get dressed and join him for an important cocktail party or theater event. But, pleads Esther, she can’t leave the kids.
Inevitably, Ted starts coming home late. He becomes cold and inattentive. Finally, Esther discovers that Ted is having an affair with, yup, his secretary.
Husband #1, George Webb, gambler.
Husband #2, Bill Morgan, alcoholic.
Husband #3, Ted Lloyd, adulterer.
But something else gnaws at Esther. Something even more disturbing and elemental than the awful cliché of her husband’s infidelity. She looks in the mirror and sees signs of encroaching middle age. But Ted—like Dorian Gray—seems eternally young.
Esther confronts him:
Ted was so quiet, I became alarmed. “You did tell the truth about your age when you wrote on our marriage license that you were the same age as I, didn’t you?” Ted never answered me.
A cold chill ran through me, and then I said quietly, “Teddy, tell me the truth. How old are you?” Then Ted told me he was twelve years younger than I.
“Why? Why did you lie to me?” I gasped, choking back the tears.
“Because I knew you wouldn’t have married me if you had known,” he said.
Nora Bayes prophetic advice kicks in with ferocity:
In the months to follow, I found myself studying my face, my figure, looking for lines, grey hairs, and so on. I became so conscious of the difference in our ages that I became depressed and miserably unhappy. Ted’s frequent sarcasm and slighting remarks that had never bothered me before became red flags to my ego.
An emotional scorched earth policy seems to envelope the marriage. In 1950, while Esther visits her mother in California, Mary, now a lively teenager, urgently writes: “Daddy has a woman sleeping with him in your bed!”
Esther immediately returns to New York. In a scene we have viewed in countless movies, Ted packs his bags and walks out on his wife and children. He withholds all financial support. Once again, Esther alone is responsible for her children.
I tried to carry on without my husband, but soon found that we were not only running short of food but the telephone and lights were about to be turned off because of non-payment of bills. I was frantic. I called the Welfare Department and told them my husband had abandoned my children and me and what my plight was. They contacted Ted at his office and he was furious that I had called Welfare, but he came by the next day with a bag of groceries.
A week later, Ted calls and invites Esther out to dinner. Hopeful, Esther imagines an attempt at reconciliation. But Ted is strangely silent and Esther, confused and sad, asks Ted to drive her home:
We were both silent as we neared our house, but when he drove right by it and turned down a dark, little-traveled road, I was suddenly frightened. His face was set and ugly-looking and I said to him, “Ted, take me home at once! I don’t know what you’ve got in mind, but if you don’t take me back at once, I’m getting out of this car!”
When he didn’t answer me, but kept driving, I opened the car door and jumped out, and began walking back down the road. I heard him drive a bit further, then turning his car around, he gunned the motor and, with headlights blazing, drove straight at me. I screamed and jumped into the ditch, then stood staring in shock as Ted stopped the car and, putting his head down on the steering wheel, began to sob.
Esther ponders the strange trajectory of her life:
What was there about me, I grieved, that made me fail in three marriages? Why had each of my three husbands wanted to kill me?
Esther, American Patriot
Sadly, Esther’s memoir breaks off at this point in her life, 1950.
What did this resilient woman do next?
Esther continued with her radio work. She managed the boy’s department at B. Altman’s in Manhasset, Long Island. She was lured to television for a role in The Verdict is Yours
, and then a steady role as Helen Lee in the 1962 soap opera Our Five Daughters
. Esther was a consultant and decorator for The Lighting Studio, in Glen Falls, and then in 1978 she returned to Los Angeles where she found work in numerous television commercials.
Her son Ted, a 1970 article in The Troy Record
informs us, was a captain in the U.S. Air Force.
In 1992, film historian and biographer Eve Golden
interviewed Esther and etched a vivid portrait of a lively and generous woman with not an ounce of bitterness or self-pity.
“I have fifteen grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. They’re all over the world, so I can’t see them now, but I write to them and talk to them… I have had a very long and brilliant life. I’ve been very, very grateful…”
It’s hard to evaluate Esther Ralston’s Hollywood career. So many of her films have been lost. But what we do have reveals a luminous presence whose understated and subtle performances are among the most skillful of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Esther Ralston in Old Ironsides, 1926.
In almost every interview I’ve read with Esther, she cites Old Ironsides, 1926 as her favorite movie. It’s an adventure film, and also the story of the U.S.S. Constitution, known as Old Ironsides. Said Esther to silent film historian Anthony Slide, who maintained a friendship with Esther and edited her memoir:
“My favorite is Old Ironsides… My people came over on the Mayflower, and they fought in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War and the World War and Vietnam. I think because Old Ironsides is history—American history—that meant more to me than any of the other pictures.”
Esther’s pride in her American roots, her unabashed patriotism seems a fitting tribute for this Hollywood star.
Esther Ralston never again married.
The American Venus passed away on January 14, 1994, in her 92nd
Esther Ralston's filmography.
Copyright Robert J. Avrech