Death of a Movie Star (Part One of Two)

They called him “the screen’s most perfect lover” and a matinee idol.   Though Wallace Reid is largely forgotten today, nobody ever suspected that the scandal surrounding his 1923 drug death would shape the kind of movies Hollywood made about drug abuse for decades to come. 220px-Wallace_Reid_head_and_shoulders_1920[1]

 With his powerful physique and rugged good looks, Wallace Reid was one of the first great stars of the silent screen era.  Beginning with his first film, The Phoenix, in 1920, Reid was also one of Hollywood’s golden boys, equally comfortable before the cameras as he was working behind the cameras as a writer, cameraman, and director (I tend to think of him as a silent film combination of Clark Gable, Clint Eastwood, and Harrison Ford). 

His marriage to actress Dorothy Davenport, quickly followed by the discreet adoption of an infant girl of, ahem, obscure origins, did nothing to detract from his reputation as a major heartthrob.  With romantic movie roles cast alongside glamorous starlets such as Gloria Swanson, Lillian Gish, and Geraldine Farrar, women of all ages crowded into movie theatres to see the handsome Reid in one role after another.

Ironically enough, Reid hated being thought of as a matinee idol.   “May the Lord forbid that anyone ever think I’m a matinee idol,” he said in one interview “If I ever thought I’d have that label attached to me, I’d start to direct tomorrow. That’s one reason why I like the race-track stuff— it gives me the chance to get mussed up and honest-to-goodness dirty!”   Reid’s racing movies, including The Roaring Road in 1919 to Excuse My Dust in 1920, also established him as a major action star making him one of the rare stars who appealed to men and women alike. 


An accident involving a train wreck that happened while he was filming The Valley of the Giants in 1919 left Reid in severe pain.  To keep the film on schedule, doctors prescribed large doses of morphine and, sure enough, Reid was addicted before long.   At least, that was the official story.   Most of the information relating to Reid’s drug use came from his wife, Dorothy Davenport who, to put it kindly, was not completely reliable due to the often contradictory stories she would provide the press about her husband.

Whatever the real cause of his addiction, Reid was regularly abusing drugs and alcohol by the early 1920s and he was hardly the only one.  Much like the rest of America coming to terms with easily available drugs which had only recently become illegal, many of the early Hollywood stars, despite appearing  beautiful and glamorous on the screen, had turned to drug use to help cope with the hectic work schedules forced on them by the studios.  For Wallace Reid, that pressure was apparently relieved by morphine, alcohol, and perhaps some other drugs as well.  Through it all, he continued to make movies though meeting the demands of his fans and the studios became harder than ever.

On October 21, 1922, Reid was hospitalized for what studio sources described as a “nervous breakdown.”   According to film director Henry Hathaway, who had been working with Reid on what would be his final day as an actor:  “He sort of fumbled about, and bumped into a chair, and then just sat down on to floor and started to cry,”  Hathaway said.  “They put him in a chair, and he just keeled over. They sent for an ambulance and sent him to the hospital.”

While rumours of drug use had been circulating for months, his press secretary emphatically denied any suggestion that Reid was seriously ill.  The newspaper stories I’ve found tended to describe his condition as being a “nervous breakdown” though the details were sketchy at first.  The “official” story later released by the studio was that he was suffering from the ill-effects of the powerful lights used in filming and that his wife had taken him to the mountains to recover.  This story only worked for a while though.

After weeks of misinformation (including planted news stories of Reid at the Mayo Clinic, “recovering” at a mountain retreat, etc.”), the full extent of Reid’s drug problem because public knowledge.  Not only had years of drug and alcohol abuse ravaged his body, but he was also dealing with the effects of a weakened immune system.   Despite the newspaper coverage describing the valiant Reid “fighting for his life,” public revelations about his drug use created a major problem for Reid’s studio and threatened to provoke a backlash against the entire Hollywood film industry.  

Just a short time earlier, Will H. Hays had become President of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) and charged with “cleaning up” Hollywood.   After major sex scandals involving stars such as Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Hays had established what later become known as the “Hays Code” establishing rigid rules of conduct for actors on and off the screen.   Though this initially applied only to inappropriate sexual behaviour, changes in the laws relating to narcotics meant that Hays was obliged to crack down on drug and alcohol use as well.

Not surprisingly, the newspaper stories leaking details of what was happening downplayed any suggestion that Wallace Reid was an addict.  No, he was in recovery.   According to the Los Angeles Time article titled, “Narcotics Given Up,” Reid was described as making a “determined attempt to win out over drugs and alcohol.”   Reid’s alcohol problems were blamed on “uninvited guests” who insisted on conducting wild parties at his house and he had been too polite to kick them out.    His wife, Dorothy Davenport described her husband as a “sick, sick, boy.”   She went on to say that “he has broken his habit and won his fight. He made this fight of his own free will and has won it by the strength of his own mind and will. I know that he will come back.” 

But the story had become much bigger than Wallace Reid.  Immediately after the public announcement of his addiction, newspaper stories came out speculating about “Hollywood dope parties.”  Some “insiders” accused studio executives of encouraging drug use in stars to make them more manageable.  

Evelyn Nesbit Thaw, who was already notorious for her role in the Harry Thaw scandal that broke a few years previously, made new headlines with talk of a “Hollywood dope hell.”   Saying that “a dope peddler and their victims are waiting there at every corner, in every home, at every party, for a chance to trap another victor,”  she described parties she attended where cocaine was served to guests in a large bowl.  Thaw also claimed that she had become addicted as well, courtesy of the Hollywood studio machine.  

Though few Hollywood insiders took Thaw’s claims seriously, her story, on top of all the other rampant speculation about what was happening behind the scenes, was a major public relations disaster for the studios.  Will Hays, the man  who was supposed to be in charging of cleaning up the movie industry, placed his own reputation on the line by publicly promising that he would end any narcotics trafficking still happening in Hollywood.   As for Wallace Reid, Hays insisted that he should be treated as an invalid rather than a criminal.   He also added that should “not be censured or shunned. Rather, let us all sanely and sympathetically try to help him, try to restore him to health.”

Except that Reid’s drug problem appeared to far worse than what his family had been telling the press.   They admitted to the morphine addiction but rumours circulated that he was also abusing heroin as well.  

Even though heroin had been legally available as a pain reliever only a few years before, things were very different by the 1920s.   The crackdown on narcotics, not to mention the junkie subculture that flourished after World War I, had made the buying and selling of heroin a criminal offense.    While morphine could still be legally obtained, heroin was a “criminal’s drug” that only true “dope fiends” would take.   Only two years earlier, a young scriptwriter, Claude Tyner Waltman, had been arrested for selling heroin right on the studio lot and Reid was rumoured to have been one of his customers.

There were also rumours that Reid had been heavily involved in the New York drug scene (New York being the centre of the heroin trade at the time) though his wife flatly denied this.   She insisted that her husband was a morphine addict only and would never attend “dope parties” (she later backtracked and admitted that he had been to “a couple”).   By insisting that his morphine addiction was caused by his injuries, Reid’s family managed to portray him as a tragic victim despite rumours that he was relapsing.  One report even had him slipping away from his nurses and sneaking into Los Angeles to buy an ounce of morphine for $300 (just to give you an idea of how much street drugs were going for in 1922).  Dorothy Davenport denied that rumour too.

But their ordeal was only just beginning.

To be continued




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