3/9/10

Phyllis Haver, when STARS BURN OUT


As too often happens when I scan something I find that what I figured was going to be a quick flippant post ends up being something else when I start digging. A short post suddenly needs more in order to do justice to what I'm showing.

This ad for Maybelline is from a 1929 Cosmopolitan. I thought upon seeing it, "Oh, cool. The woman looks vampy like Mae West. I can slap this on the blog, make a few snarky comments, and get back to work." That would be cruel.

Maybelline_Phyllis Haver_tatteredandlost
Click on image to see it larger. And yes, somebody drew all around her hair, eyebrows, and dress with a pencil.

First, Maybelline. When I started buying makeup in the late '60s I always thought of Maybelline as the cheap-o product. They ran horrible ads in the magazines. They were never the hip product to buy. Yardley had that market with Jean Shrimpton as their model. And then the '70s came along and Maybelline was stuck in the early '60s with horrible ads showing women wearing blue eye shadow when nobody was wearing blue eye shadow. I kept thinking there had to be something wrong with the company. How was it they couldn't see what was going on all around them? Each year I mentally relegated them to the cheap-o bin. That's what advertising can do. Then suddenly they changed. Somebody woke up at the wheel right before it seemed they'd crash. The days of the ads of a woman's closed eyes with long lashes and blue eye shadow were gone. Suddenly they knew their market and were advertising for the woman of today, not twenty years in the past. Turns out over the years the company went through a lot of owners. Some apparently were clueless, unlike the original owner who recognized a market and went after it.

Seeing this ad gave me a new perspective. When I think of Hollywood and make-up I've always thought of Max Factor. Maybelline would never have crossed my mind. But Maybelline has a history I never knew about.
The Maybelline Company was created by New York chemist T.L. Williams in 1915. Williams, then in his early 20s, noticed his younger sister applying a mixture of Vaseline and coal dust to her eyelashes to give them a darker, fuller look. He adapted it in his small laboratory and produced a product sold locally called Lash-Brow-Ine. The product was a local hit, but the awkward name held it back. His sister, who inspired the product, was named Maybel. So T.L. Williams re-named it Maybelline, a combination of Maybel and Vaseline. It is under this name that Maybelline has achieved its now legendary status in the field of cosmetics. In 1917 the company produced Maybelline Cake Mascara, "the first modern eye cosmetic for everyday use" and Ultra Lash in the 1960s, which was the first mass-market automatic mascara. (SOURCE: Wikipedia)
I had no idea they were the first company to market mascara. I ask you...coal dust and Vaseline? Who knew? We'd probably all be better off using coal dust and Vaseline instead of the myriad of chemicals we now use on those little wands.

So I learned something about Maybelline and cosmetics. Fine and dandy. Let's move on to the babe coyly looking over her shoulder with the vampy eyes, Phyllis Haver. Sorry, never heard of her. But I figured if she was featured so prominently in an ad she must have been somebody. Maybelline was going after a market and she was the image they chose.

Phyllis Haver was born Phyllis O'Haver in Douglass, Kansas on January 6, 1899. When she was young her family moved to Los Angeles. She attended Polytechinc High then, according to Wikipedia, she got work playing piano as an accompanist for silent films in local theaters. At some point she auditioned for Mack Sennett, the famous film director.

Sennett was known for his comedies, specifically the Keystone Cops. Several people started their film careers working for him, such as Gloria Swanson and W. C. Fields. He was also famous for the Sennett Bathing Beauties, of which Phyllis Haver was one, as was Gloria Swanson. To see photos of Haver and Swanson cavorting as Bathing Beauties click here. Without Max Sennett would she have ever done an ad for Maybelline?
Fresh out of Los Angeles Polytechnic High, Phyllis Haver paid a visit to the Mack Sennett studios, hoping to get a job as an actress. According to Haver, her "audition" consisted of having the attractiveness of her knees assessed by a bored Mack Sennett. Slightly more talented than most of the Sennett bathing beauties, Haver quickly worked her way up to leading roles, then left 2-reelers for a substantial career in silent features. Among her best roles were accused murderess Roxy Hart in the first film version of Chicago (1927) and the no-better-than-she-ought-to-be Shanghai Mabel in What Price Glory? (1927).
So now I'm thinking, "Hmmmm...Roxy Hart. I knew of the Roxy Hart film starring Ginger Rogers, but had no idea there was a silent film called Chicago. Looking at the face in the ad I thought, "Yeah, I can see it." She's got a Roxy vibe going on. And apparently the film will be re-released sometime this summer on DVD.

So Phyllis was doing really well in silent films from 1914 until her retirement in 1930, one year after this ad. If you check her listing at IMDB you'll find a list of 106 films. Now, many of them were Sennett Shorts, not full length films. Apparently talkies came along and either she decided to end her career or talkies did. I'm not finding anything definitive. But I did find the following:
Sensing that her career would end when talkies began, Haver retired in 1929 to marry a New York millionaire. According to one story, she invoked the "act of God" clause in her contract, cracking "if marrying a millionaire ain't an act of God, I don't know what is." (SOURCE: Fandango.com)
The millionaire she married was William Seeman, the White Rose Tea tycoon. Okay, I have no idea who that is. Never heard of the company. Apparently it is well known in New York. Anyway, they divorced in 1945. They had no children. She left the marriage with enough money to live in:
...wealthy retirement, appearing before the cameras one last time during a 1954 TV testimonial to her old boss Mack Sennett. (SOURCE: Fandango.com)
Sadly, life proved empty for Phyllis Haver, and on November 19, 1960 she committed suicide at her home in Connecticut by taking an overdose of barbiturates. Below is an account of her death from the November 20, 1960 Sunday Herald. You can see the full newspaper at Google News.

Phylis Haver Obit
Click on image to see it larger.

Once again ephemera took me someplace I never expected.

7 comments:

  1. fascinating! thanks for digging into this. I never heard of Phyllis Haver, and I love reading about these one-time stars who have been lost. So sad that she killed herself, alone at the end. I'll have to rent the old Chicago.

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  2. There appears to be chatter online about the film being re-released. Fans of Haver are excited.

    I watched most of the movie with Keaton until my connection gave out. Sure enough, she was in a swimsuit. A bathing beauty.

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  3. I enjoyed that, thanks.

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  4. Fascinating! You got me hooked, so tomorrow I'm posting a Sennett bathing beauty. I'm not sure who it is though. I don't think it's Phyllis Haver. My bets are Mabel Normand or Marie Prevost, but maybe you'll know.

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  5. I probably won't have a clue as to who the bathing beauty is. I'd never heard of this woman until yesterday. Now a whole world has opened up and I'm anxious to see her version of Roxy Hart.

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  6. Well. you certainly diverted my morning!

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  7. Rosie, blogger won't let me see your revised version of Phyllis! It says the page doesn't exist. Oh whoa is me. I want to see the super fluttery lashes!

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