A sister act! These ladies were both suggestions from a reader and I was able to dig up some interesting stuff about them in their later years. Mary's story especially is a reminder of what happens to many film stars that fade from the spotlight and just become lost.
Katherine Agnew MacDonald was born on December 14, 1891 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Mary MacLaren, born Mary MacDonald, was born on January 19, 1896. Katherine was the eldest daughter of William and Lillian MacDonald, followed by sister, Marian, and then youngest sister, Mary. Their parents divorced sometime during the 1900s because Lillian is listed as such in a 1910 census record. (According to another census record from the 1920s, while the sisters were working as actresses, they shared a home with their mother and sister, Marian, who didn't have a career listed).
The girls grew up with their mother in Pennsylvania and also spent a lot of time working as models in New York.
Katherine moved to Los Angeles in 1917 and made her film debut the next year in The Spirit of '17, which was directed by William Desmond Taylor. Surprisingly, a print of this film still exists in archives.
Katherine's career took off quick! In 1919, she formed her own production company called (appropriately) Katherine MacDonald Pictures and it was here she became one of the highest paid stars. She wasn't seen as a great actress, but hey, she paid her own bills, so who the hell cares? People did think she was beautiful though, and the public nicknamed her the "American Beauty."
One of her most well known films that she was in was 1918's The Squaw Man. I remember hearing/seeing a lot about this film when I visited the Lasky-DeMille Barn in California. The film is an important one because it was the first film to be produced in Hollywood and Katherine MacDonald, along with Monte Blue, Noah Beery, and Ann Little were a part of that.
Mary meanwhile had been appearing on stage with Al Jolson starting in 1914. She eventually moved out to Hollywood with her sister and made her first credited film debut in 1916's The Shoes.
Like her sister, Mary was also seen as a beauty on the screen and she was given a slighter edge in the acting category over Katherine. Unlike her sister though, Mary appeared in talkies while her sister did not.
Katherine made her last film appearance in 1926's Old Loves and New with Lewis Stone and Walter Pidgeon. After retiring from films, she spent her days selling cosmetics.
Mary meanwhile kept acting until her final film appearance in the 1941 film, Prairie Pioneers . She didn't want to retire, but she was forced into after getting into a car accident.
So, judging from what I have read and the information I have gathered, it seems like the girls' personal lives were more intriguing than their film careers.
Katherine and Mary were the silent version of Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine. Their dislike of each other became a source of gossip among the public but it was mostly in their later years after Katherine spoke about the current living conditions of her sister (Oh, just wait. We will get to that!).
Around 1919, the rumor mill was buzzing that Katherine was having an affair with a prominent married man. Who was the man? Oh, just the President of the United States himself, Woodrow Wilson. He really did get around! First Florence La Badie, and now Katherine MacDonald? Sorry, JFK! Looks like you weren't the first President to have an eye for movie stars! Anyway, there is no hard proof of an affair but Wilson did say that Katherine was one of his favorite actresses, and I am sure there is more to the story because just saying that can't imply an affair. If that was the case, then I had an affair with Buster Keaton! The rumor is also kind of shaky because 1919 was the year that Wilson had a stroke and, I mean, the man couldn't even take care of himself let alone carry on a secret torrid affair!
Mary appeared in the headlines again in the 1970s and not for any star studded film gala. Oh no. She was being brought to court so that someone could be given conservatorship over her because she was living in squalor. A St. Petersburg Times article from November 17, 1979 states:
"Now 79 and alone, caught in a web of court appearances for health and fire safety violations, she [Mary] spends her days on the porch of a house she no longer owns, dressed in clothes bought in thrift shops, surrounded by dogs, cats, Kentucky Fried Chicken boxes and a buzzing squadron of flies and pigeons drawn by food scraps and animal waste...To Miss MacLaren, the situation she finds herself in is 'just unbelievable."
Mary of course thought it all ridiculous and told another newspaper, "I'm not going to leave my house...I'll sleep here till I die." I should note that this quote was said after a fire broke out in her room and she STILL wanted to stay there. She was finally convinced to move to a different building on the property. Wow.
Katherine MacDonald passed away on June 4, 1956 in Santa Barbara, California. She was buried at the Santa Barbara Cemetery.
Mary MacLaren passed away on November 9, 1985 in Hollywood, California. She was buried at Forest Lawn in Glendale.
When it comes to marriages, the sisters had five between them. Mary's first husband was Colonel George Herbert Young and they were married from 1924 until 1928. She married again to a man named Robert Coleman but I am not sure when they were wed or when they divorced. Neither marriage produced children.
Katherine's first husband was K. Malcolm Struss, an artist she met during her years working as a model in New York. They marriage in 1910 but they were soon living apart. The couple officially divorced in 1919. Her second marriage was to a young playboy named Charles Johnston in 1924. And although they had son together named Britt, they divorced in 1926.
Her third and final marriage was to Christian Holmes, one of the heirs to the Fleischmann's yeast company. The couple married in 1928, but divorced three years later after one big divorce trial that cast them both in the spotlight. In the divorce proceedings, Katherine charged that Holmes would burn her with cigarettes, lock her in a cage, and shoot at her! Holmes fired back saying that this was all because she was having affairs and it was embarrassing him. Get this, two years later in 1933, the couple reconciled! Anyway, the marriage did produce a daughter named Ann around 1929.
The car accident that stopped Mary's film career was the second she had to face. The first accident was in 1917 and she was near death for almost two weeks until she had surgery on her skull that saved her life.
In 1983 at a memorial service for Rudolph Valentino, Mary revealed that because of her mother's intrusion, she did not have a romantic relationship with Rudy. Apparently her dressing room was next to his and one night he asked her to go dancing with him in downtown Los Angeles. Her mother forbade her to go, and that was the end of that!
Mary also later told a newspaper that she adored Douglas Fairbanks, but not in the romantic sense.
"Whenever I read a review of one of my pictures that roasts me unmercifully, I think of how many worse things I could have said about the same picture. Often, I am not only in entire agreement with the reviewers, but I think they haven't gone far enough. They say I am beautiful, but dumb. That is almost a formula now for reviewing my pictures; it is so much easier to say that than to think up anything new." ~~ Katherine MacDonald, Picture-Play Magazine - April 1923