Barbara Moffett, younger sister of the much better known Lili St. Cyr, was a stunningly beautiful woman whose expert riding skills landed her a brief flash of Hollywood publicity, a roles in a few movies, and that was it. Her movie career faltered, she continued dancing, then got married to a wealthy man and had five children. Sounds perfect? It did to me too, when I first started reading about it. But, behind the surface… Let me spoil it for you, but the story of Barbara Moffett is a tragic story. Most actresses I profile on this blog had (more or less) normal lives and most died past the age of 60. Barbara was just 60 years old when she died and her story is tragic. It’s a perfect example of what happens when a nice, meek and gentle girl ends up with the wrong man. While I am the first to sympathise with classic actresses and I certainly feel sorry for what happened to her (as you’ll see), I have to say that people must take responsibility for their actions and that most people in unhappy situations are there because they chose to (of course, there are those who truly are victims of circumstances, but we don’t need to go there for the sake of this post, perhaps some other time), so it’s much Barbara’s fault as it is her husbands. When you read stories like this, you understand why Margaret Mitchell, in her masterpiece Gone with the wind, so vehemently despised and criticized the role of a genteel southern belle. That trope just breeds women like Barbara – incredibly sweet, feminine, good-natured – but so fragile and delicate they are unable to live on their own, easily broken by either life or other people. If such a woman is able to find a man who will treat her like a flower and help her bloom – the world would be a much better place. Sadly, this does not happen every time. It did not happen to Barbara, and you’ll see where it got her.
Idella Ruth Blackadder was born on April 11, 1924, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Idella Marian Klarquist and John Alfred “Ian” Blackadder. Her father was born in Scotland to a noble but impoverished family, immigrated to Canada when he was 19 years old and came to the US via Minneapolis. Her mother Idella was married twice before. Her first husband was Edward Van Shaack, South Dakota born traveling salesman. They had a daughter, Marie Frances (she later added Willis to her birth name, but it’s probably just a publicity stunt), born on June 3, 1917, known in the future as the burlesque legend Lili St. Cyr. Edward enlisted int he Army not long after and Idella divorced him. She was quick to remarry in 1919, to Lois Sherman Cornett Jr. However, she never revealed to anyone she was wed once before, opting to tell Lili her grandmother, Maud, was her mother. Too young and inexperienced, she felt she was not ready to bring a child into her second marriage. She wanted a fresh start, sure that Maud could take great care of Marie. Wrong or not, life went on. The Cornetts had two children: daughter Bettaleee, born the same year, and son Louis “Jack” Cornett born in 1921. The Cornetts moved to Louisiana and then to Texas, but divorced in 1922. The Blackadders married the next year, on May 5.
Her younger sister, Rosemary, was born on August 19, 1925. She would become another burlesque star, Dandy Orlandoa and marry famous impressario Harold Minsky. Colorful family for sure! They lived in Minneapolis until 1927, where Ian worked in the linseed oil industry, then moved to Pasadena, where he worked as a garage mechanic. Unable to pay the rent and support his large family, Ian moved them to a less costly Eagle Rock. There Marie visited the family almost daily, and soon became a teacher to both Idella and Rosemary.
Idella inherited her love for horses from her father, whose father was an expert equestrian back in Scotland. He was instrumental in shielding the girls from household chores but pushing them toward being fearless horsewoman. Ian saved a large number of horses from the local glue factory, and “adopted” them despite a total lack of funds to keep them. Unable to buy a saddle, Idella learned to ride bareback, and became a highly accomplished rider before she hit her teen years.
Both Rosemary and Idella had a difficult relationship with their mother, who had grown bitter as a result of a life she never wanted – shackled with too many children and never enough money. Her marriage was also highly unhappy. Interesting side note is that Barbara was considered the beauty of the family – Dardy was always second in her mothers affections, and their older sister, Bettelee, who was scarred in a traffic accident when she was a teen, was often shoved aside.
Dardy and Idella attended every rodeo they could and participated in many of them. The fact that both were six foot tall stunner, one blonde, other brunette, made them easily recognizable among the crowds. That, plus another fact, that Lili started to strip in the Florentine Gardens in Los Angeles, gave Idella the wanted boost to start dancing on the stage too. Soon, she was noticed by a talent scout and went to try her luck in Hollywood when she was just 18 years old.
Slim pickings here, sadly. Barbara made her movie debut in Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost, one of the Mexican Spitfire series (duh!), playing a secretary. As per usual, Lupe Velez, the Spitfire of the title, plays a secondary role – Leon Errol always steals the show with his double feature (altough he gets boring pretty fast). Perhaps the best role in the movie goes to Donald McBride, a who plays a deliciously over the top nervous man, ready to explode at any minute. The plot is moronic, involving a spooky old mansion, enemy agents and a formula for some kind of explosive device (you fill in the blanks). Not better not much worse than any other Spitfire movie, it will never endear to anyone who wants sophisticated, high-class comedy. But, it’s still far from a complete waste of time. Velez was a true “fire woman” and will not appeal to everyone, but to those she does, she’s the best of the lot.
Barbara then landed her only credited role, in Red River Robin Hood. Anyone who reads this blogs knows I’m almost allergic to low-budget western, and this one, almost completely forgotten, isn’t a sterling example of the genre that would make me rethink my opinion. Yet, it seems it’s not a totally bad movie either, firmy etched somewhere in the middle. The low-budget is a constant constraint, but the story actually seems level up from the usual insipid fare.
Barbara’s last film turned out to be her best – This Land Is Mine. Yep, she’s uncredited in this one, but it’s a very good anti-war movie, one of the best to come out of Hollywood at that time, with a superb cast – Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara, George Sanders, Walter Slezak and so on. It tells a story of a gentle school teacher who has to choose sides when the war comes into his peaceful village. Yes, it’s easier to remain on the sidelines, not fighting but watching, but Laughton soon comes to understand the old proverb “If you don’t involve yourself with politics, politics will involve herself with you”. Directed by Jean Renoir, one of the best directors ever to grace the seventh art, it’s an elegant, melancholy movie, perfectly made for the message it wants to send. Highly recommended!
Barbara returned to the nightclub racket after her movie career failed. She would retire from that career five years later, in 1947, upon her marriage to Louis Marx.
Barbara was fairly publicised in the papers during her heyday in 1942, and her cowgirl image was especially put in emphasis. Compared to the great cowgirls of yesterday like Ruth Roland and Pearl White, she, along with Joan Barclay and Ann Summers were lionized as true successors of male western stars, most of whom were drafted for WW2. Of the three girls, only Joan Barclay had any success to speak of – but even she is but a footnote in Hollywood history today, known only to hard-code low-budget western fans.
In 1940, when she started her carer in earnest, she was seen around with Franchot Tone, who seemed to date every pretty girl in Hollywood (I think that almost half of the girls I profiled on this blog dated him at one time or another…). Of course, it never grew into a serious relationship…
In 1941, she caught the eye of Forest Tucker, who send her flowers. However, Tucker did the same with her fellow chorine Nancy Hale, and their relationship was quickly terminated. John Carroll came next. In late 1942, Barbara almost married the wealthy young Jay Gould, who would end up as the husband of the alluring songstress, Elena Romay. In 1942, the appears reported that Barbara was married to a Los Angeles businessman, but I found no records of such a union so I’ll have to go with the fact that the papers lied a great deal back then (and today?).
In 1944 she got mixed up with Errol Flynn for a brief time, and then he moved on (Errol never stayed ont he same place for too long, not even with his wives!) to Corky la Feuch, a Texas beauty queen, and she took up with famed wrestler, then a Lieutenant in the US army, Bob Gregory. The affair lasted for some time, But Bob was hardly the only one interested in Barbara. She was also heavily involved with Harry Crocker, a dashing New York based millionaire.
Another admirer was Count Alfred de Marigny, a noted dissolute European noble who figured prominently in the Sir Harry Oakes murder (remember, it’s the major scandal in the Bahamas while Edward, Duke of Windsor was the governor. Check it on Google if you want to find out more). He allegedly wanted to come to the US just to be with her. Who know is it even remotely true, but it sound kinda mysterious and dangerous, right?
Then, in 1944, Barbara met Louis Marx. and here begins the most interesting part of our story.
Now, something about Marx. He was born on August 11, 1896, making him almost 30 years older than Barbara. Son of a poor family, in sheer deference to his matherially slim upbringing and with tons of willpower and determination, he became a millionaire in his 20s – with the help of his brother, he opened The Louis Marx Toy Company, which became the largest toy company in the world. His first wife, Renee, was a submissive woman who died in 1944 from breast cancer. They had four children together: Louis Jr., Barbara, Patricia and Jacqueline.
Marx wanted to marry again – and set his sight on Barbara. As Barbara was such a doormat personality, Lili took over the role of a “lifestyle lawyer” for her – negotiating not only her business deals but also her relationships. She persuaded Marx to give her a job as his social secretary, and even got her a fair wage. Barbara went wholeheartedly into her new position, changing her milieu of dancers and showbiz people for high flyers Marx involved himself with – politicians, military men, eminent artists. For Marx, this was a trial period to see if Barbara can do it – for Barbara, it was a refreshing alternative career. She liked to work and even enjoyed being a social doyenne. Marx also liked to impress her with his far-reaching influence and introduced her to high living, something she never experienced before – fast cars, expensive restaurants, jaunts around the world. Barbara was easily impressed, and combine that with an overwhelming desire to have a stable family – and she was under the older man’s spell.
After a long courtship, Marx was finally ready to web Barbara in early 1947. The decision was not an easy one – many of his friends viewed Barbara as a gold digger, and Lili herself was not thrilled with Louis, trying to dissuade her sister from dating in on a few occasions.
Barbara said yes, and plans for a big ceremony were under way. However, she had no idea of what she was entering. All the qualities that made Marx such an excellent businessman made him a difficult and often unlikable human being – egoistic, patronizing and a control freak, his greatest kick in life was being the puppet master everyone obeyed without a word. Yet, he was generous to a fault, loved his children without compare and was very devoted to his first wife. So, there is no black and white answer – Marx was a highly nuanced, grey personality. With the right woman, he could have been a great husband (June 2016: Note: After reading a great deal about domestic violence, I have completely changed my mind about this. And yes, while I could be wrong, I think that Barbara was a victim of DV. Marx (perhaps) never physically abused her, but trying to control somebody and ebbing at their self confidence is mental abuse. After researching Barbara and Marx, I was sure that they were terribly ill suited, that he needed a woman who wouldn’t take his c*** and would not let him push her around. However, today, I am sure that MARX WOULD NEVER MAKE A GOOD HUSBAND. People who abuse their husband/wives are simply not good spouses. This is a very relevant topic that should get more coverage, but not here. To sum it up, Marx treated Barbara badly. Barbara never had the strength to leave him.).
But Barbara was hardly such a woman. As for Barbara herself, she must have known to some extent, what his personality was – she knew him long enough – but she wore blinkers around such a man, who promised her stability and a family – so she caved in to his ever-increasing demands.
Barbara married Marx on March 29, 1947 in Miami, Florida. She wore a stunning brocade dress, her matron of honor was Lili – his best man was baseball legend Hank Greenberg. They honeymooned in Moscow, where his good friend was a noted diplomat. When they returned home, Barbara moved into Marx’s huge estate in Scarsdale, New York. While many must have thought – she is finally Mrs. Marx, she can relax now – quite the contrary, her troubles were just beginning!
To accommodated her demanding alpha husband, Barbara completely changed her lifestyle. Gone was Barbara Moffett, the cheerful cowgirl, and in came the perfect wife Idella Marx. She never again used Barbara as a moniker – and to finish the transformation, she completely alienated herself from her showgirl past. This created a serious rift between herself and Lili. Marx himself is as much to blame – he tried to buy Lili off, giving her money to give up on her burlesque lifestyle and have a decent career. However, unlike the mellow, easily manageable Barbara, Lili was made from sterner stuff, and no man could tame or control her, least of all not her short, balding brother-in-law. I consider this Barbara’s fault – trick me once, shame on your, trick me twice, shame on me! (June 2016: I have changed to some degree my opinion of this too. Once you fall into the circle of abuse by a spouse, it’s hard to break it. While people have to take responsibility for themselves, I understand how how very, very hard it is to take the high road and leave such people. If they don’t want to change, then there is truly no other option that will benefit the abused person that to leave it all behind.) Giving in to his demands was her choice alone – not an easy one to make, for sure, but when he crossed the line for the first time, she chose to keep going instead of trying to remedy the situation. This is a very shortsighted tactic and always blows up at a later time, when the balloon inflates so much it has to pop.
Barbara miscarried twin daughters not long after her wedding and this caused her much grief. Ultimately, the couple had five children, five sons: Spencer Bedell (born August 1949), Emmet Dwight (born November 15, 1950), Bradley Marshall (born February 6, 1952), Curtis Gruenther (born August 27, 1954) and Hunter Bernhardt (born May 30, 1959).
Barbara’s marriage ended to be a tragic and sad story. Always a happy-go-lucky, simple and sweet person, unable to stand up to anyone, she was ill matched to the tyrannical Marx. He completely controlled her, not just financially but also psychically, and tried to mold her into his vision of what Mrs. Marx should have been. She was alienated from her family, without a career, drifting from one interest or hobby to another without doing anything substantial. She found only solace in her children and step children.
Then, something pretty bad happened in 1971. Barbara was always close to her stepdaughter Patricia, who had married to Dr. Daniel Ellsberg, a promising MIT graduate who worked in the Pentagon. It’s a complicated story, and only somebody with full knowledge to the intricate US inner and outer policy of the time (the height of the Cold War) can understand it, so I’m not going to go into any detail (you can read more about it on Wikipedia and other numerous sites on the net), but, in a nutshell: Ellsberg, who became a anti war activist in the 1960s, leaked the top-secret Pentagon Papers and was put under trial for treason. Marx, a freverent anti Communist and right-winger, was absolutely furious. He refused to talk to either Patricia or Daniel ever again. The kind-hearted Barbara, on the other hand, could not envision doing a thing so far removed from her own nature. For the first time in decades, she did something she should have done much sooner – she defied Marx when he crossed the line. She was asked to testify against Ellsberg and she refused. She quarreled with Marx constantly afterwards, and the situation did not get any better as time went by.
Deeply unhappy, Barbara embarked on a few affairs with persons unnamed. Marx found out and left her, kicking her out of the house. They did not speak for the rest of his life. Barbara was alone, penniless and absolutely devastated. She was unable to take care for herself after years of living with someone who dominated every facet of her life. She found solace in Dardy, who lived alone in California. The two decided to live together again, and both hopes the arrangement would alleviate their fallen spirits. However, Barbara’s mental state only detoriated as the months passed. She spent her days crying in bed, unable to function like a normal human being. Dardy, sick from worry, finally persuaded her to visit a doctor. She was diagnosed as a maniac depressive and given shock treatment. On a sad side note, Barbara’s dad, Ian, also suffered from the same disease and killed himself in 1977.
However, the vicious circle only continued. Barbara would get a new drug, get electro shock treatment, get better for a month and then things would revert to the old hopeless state. Then another round od drugs and treatments, and so on. I can imagine how Dardy felt – she was the most resilient, realistic of the sisters and must have found the situation absolutely heartbreaking – her sister was wasting away, and there was nothing anyone could do to help her. Barbara’s children came to visit her sometimes, but Dardy found them to be a dissolute bunch, unworthy of having such a wonderful mother. It seems that all the years of mental abuse had caught up with Barbara, and she did not have the willpower nor the strength to move on.
The sad story reached its conclusion on March 25, 1986, when Barbara shot herself in the head with a revolver. It was a last desperate cry of a woman who didn’t know how to continue living. She was cremated and her ashes were scattered into the ocean. Marx had died in 1982, a lonely old man, after he was forced to sell his company in 1976 due to declining business profits.
Sadly, two of Barbara’s sons are dead today: Bradley died in 2002 and Emmett in 2015. Lili St. Cyr died on January 29, 1999. Dardy is still live and kicking, a true survivor of the family.
PS: Most of the info comes from the superb book on Lili St. Cyr, named Goddess of love incarnate, by Leslie Zemeckis. You can find more information about the book here