Barbara Barondess is one of those people whose life story can easily serve as a movie script. A versatile, vivacious woman who gave up movies for marriage – as most of the girls did – she nonetheless rose again as a prominent interior decorator and acting coach. Quite a feat for someone who was born in 1907!
Barbara Barondess was born on July 4, 1907, in New York City, to Benjamin Brandes and his wife, the former Stella Sirkis. She came from a wealthy Russian Jewish family which made it’s fortune in lumber trade. The family moved back to Russia after being persuaded by Barbara’s grandfather. They lived in Shitomir, Ukraine, where her younger sister, Rosalie , was born in 1911. Hard times befell on the family in 1914 when the Russian revolution stated – they were both Jews and capitalists. Her father was shot in the throat the same day Barbara was shot in the shoulder. He survived due to an emergency operation, but was unable to speak normally for the rest of his life.
Her sister Lucienn was born on May 16, 1919. Afterwards, the family fled to Poland where Benjamin and Barbara were arrested and imprisoned. Barbara was eventually released and joined her mother and two sisters (who had crossed the border separately). Her father remained in custody for close to a year and a half while the family struggled to prove that Barbara was an American citizen. Her mother argued to authorities that at the time she and her husband were born, the Ukraine was part of Poland and therefore they were Polish citizens. Eventually, the family was allowed to leave for the United States.
They settled in New York where the girls attended school – Barbara went to Erasmus High School. She started working in a bank at the age of 16. While working by day, Barbara attended night classes at New York University. At the age of 19, she entered a beauty contest and won the title of “Miss Greater New York” which in turn led to a role in the stage play Gay Paree . Barondess went on to appear on Broadway in a handful of parts, including Crime (1927) and, most notably, the ingénue role in Topaze (1929), . The recognition she received from these plays landed her a chance to try her luck in Hollywood in the mid 1920s.
Barabra appeared in several silent movies, All Aboard, Summer Bachelors, The Sorrows of Satan. The Reckless Lady , A Kiss for Cinderella but made no splashes in the sea of Hollywood starlets, warranting her no fame nor fortune.
Her career really started in 1932, when she made her sound movie debut in Rasputin and the Empress. Notable mostly for getting the colorful Barrymore family in one movie, it’s still a stodgy, over the top piece of work with a totally distorted history. Her second feature was Luxury Liner, an interesting if flawed account of a passengers aboard a (yep, you guessed it), a luxury liner!
Sadly Barbara’s next two features, Soldiers of the Storm and When Strangers Marry are very hard to get and moslty considered lost today, so we have no idea what kind of movies they are. Barbara had a credited role in Hold Your Man, a Clark Gable/Jean Harlow movie. This one is an unusual one – what starts as a typical rom com with Gable as a con man and Jean as a gun moll turns into a touching drama about life choices and change. Harlow is superb in the movie, as a woman who undergoes a major transformation, never an easy feast for any actor playing such roles. The Devil’s Mate, her next movie, is considered lost.
Queen Christina is such a tour de force movie that it needs no introduction for anyone at least marginally interested in classic movies. Barbra continued appearing in credited roles, but small ones and in small movies. Eight Girls in a Boat, made just months before the code went into effect, dealt with teenage pregnancy and had a charming female lead in Dorothy Wilson, a WAMPAS Baby Star. Unknown Blonde is a movie about a con man who almost frames his own daughter (unknowingly, of course). The movie is worth watching if nothing than for Edward Arnold, a fine actor, in the lead role. Change of Heart was a level up for Barbara, as a gentle slice of life drama about young people starting their professional lives in New York. It’s interesting see and contrast it with the way New York functions today in movies and series. The movie also features the perennial movie couple, Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. Beggar’s Holiday is a lost movie about a woman falling in love with an embezzler.
The Fountain has an impressive cast (Brian Aherne, Paul Lukas, Ann Harding) but not much else going for it – as an adaptation of a stage piece, it’s stilted, formulaic and often too slow. A must for Ann Harding fans (I love the actress, she was such a kind but strong personality) but hardy recommended for anyone else. The Pursuit of Happiness is a happy-go-lucky, charming movie with Charles Lederer in the lead.
Barbara downgraded to uncredited roles after that. The Merry Widow is a Lubitsch classic, but not worth a notch for her career. Life Begins at Forty is a mild movie, a perfect showcase for the comedic talents of Will Rogers. People Will Talk is another comedy, this time with Charles Ruggles/Mary Boland comedy duo, dealing with martial squabbles in a lighthearted way. Diamond Jim is a very good biographical film – no wonder, when you have Edward Arnold and Jean Arthur in the leads and Preston Sturges as the director! A Tale of Two Cities, from 1935, still remains the best adaptation of Dicken’s classic novel, in large part thanks to Ronald Colman impeccably playing the dual main roles.
Barbara managed to revive her career enough to get credited roles again. Easy Money gave her a meaty roles of a bride trying to set her wayward husband straight. The film is is a crime movie with an unusually intricate plot dealing with insurance fraud, not something Hollywood covers every day. Sadly, it remains one of many well made but obscure movies from the 1930s. Lady Be Careful, her next feature, is another movie completely forgotten today. The Plot Thickens is a delightful detective movie with the Inspector Piper/Hildegarde Withers sleuthing team. James Gleason plays the Inspector, and is matched every step of the way by the indomitable Zasu Pitts playing Miss Withers. There is plenty of 1930s dry humor and wit in this one!
Make a Wish is a type of a movie Deanna Durbin excelled in – with a juvenile lead whose mischievous nature pushed him/her into various adventures and misadventures, mostly concerning their matchmaking skills. Instead of Deanna we have child star Bobby Breen, and the objects of his matchmaking are his widowed mother, playing by soprano Marion Claire (her only film role) and Basil Rathbone (known today as the ultimate Sherlock Holmes). Fit for a King is a good enough comedy with Joe E. Brown and Paul Kelly as the funny guy/straight guy pair.
Barbara left her pursuit of movie stardom afterwards, and made only one feature, Emergency Squad, a solid, fast paced action film from 1940. Barbara turned to other revues and managed quite a career outside the limelight.
Barbara was a society butterfly who mingled with the elite of both the East and the West coasts. She knew everybody in Hollywood in the 1920 and 1930s, and afterwards was a doyenne of New York society in the 1940s and 1950s. She later switched to Palm Beach, Florida, in the 1960s and 1970s. Any way you put it, her social life was HIGHLY impressive.
Upon finishing work I very carefully remove all screen make up with cold cream, soap and water. Afterwards I run in just a little cold cream because I like the highlights this gives to one’s face. I use only lipstick for street.
Unlike many starry eyed girls who land in Hollywood and expect miracles to happen, Barbara was a hard bitten realist. Years after her experiences as a minor actress, she said:
“In those golden years of Hollywood, women were treated like disposable Kleenex. My experience started at MGM in 1933. I made two dozen pictures in five years and my hair color changed in each one. We had nothing to say about our appearance. I had to lose weight, although I was a size 8. The strain of the working conditions was almost beyond endurance. I don’t know how we survived making Eight Girls in a Boat (1934) for Paramount. We had to jump into a cold lake 20 times for a take.”
Barbara’s first husband was theatrical producer Irving Jacobs whom she wed in 1929 in New York while working as an model/Broadway actress. The marriage fell apart by the time she came to Hollywood in 1932.
Barbara met Douglas MacLean shortly after she came to Hollywood. He was separated from his second wife, actress Lorraine Eddy. Before Eddy he was married to the east coast socialite Faith Cole. Soon they were a constant duet, and in February 1938 eloped to Tijuana, Mexico and got married. They lived in Beverly Hills, in a hotel. Barbara was a good friend of many famous actors, like Gary Cooper, Clark Gable and Douglas Montgomery.
Barbara and Douglas wanted a baby badly, but at first she was unable to conceive, and when she did get pregnant in 1943, she suffered a miscarriage. Sadly, in the end, no children were born out of the marriage.
Barbara enrolled at UCLA, studying art and design. By 1940 she started an secondary career as an interior decorator, designing homes for celebrities like Garbo, Norma Shearer, Gail Patrick, Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper, Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan. She was so successful that she expanded her business to the East Coast, opening a branch in New York in the mid-40s. Barondess later branched out into fashion, designing and manufacturing clothing, and even added cosmetics manufacturing to her growing empire.
Barbara’s soaring career as a n interior decorator and fashion designer ruined her marriage to MacLean in cca 1947. They divorced in 1948, after ten years of marriage. Her next beau was Roger Dann, a French singer. He gave her a diamond ring, but it did not last long.
Barbara re-meet Phillip Reed, whim whom she went to school on the East coast, and the two started dating in July 1948. They broke up in early 1949. That year she also dated a fabolously wealthy Spanish, Alfred De Vega.
Barbara also dabbled in real estate. She was the owner the apartment where Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe spent some of the happiest days of their brief marriage.
In 1952, Barbara married Nathaniel Rouvell. The marriage made front page news and it was not surprising that their separation a few months later spread like forrest fire among the press. They divorced in 1953. At the divorce proceeding she claimed that Nathaniel criticized her constantly but never constructively and was always dissatisfied with everyhing she did.
Barbara married her fourth husband, a wealthy Pal Beach man, ladies’ apparel executive Leonard Knaster, in 1955. He divorced his previous wife in 1952. They divided their time between Palm Beach and New York. As many wealthy dames, Barbara was looted from a chunky part of her jewelry collection in 1957. The marriage did not last – they divorced in 1974. Barbara never married again.
In 1984 she founded a non profit organization to help theatrical professionals move on in their chosen areas. She produced several off Broadways plays. Among the alumni of the school is the notable actor Morgan Freeman.
Barbara Barondess died on May 31, 2000 in New York.