Here we have another WAMPAS Baby Star, Martha Sleeper! In my opinion, she is one of the most beautiful ladies that ever graced the silent screen, but she always gets pushed to the back burner because she wasn't as famous as say Clara Bow or Olive Thomas. But, I am remembering her and hopefully after reading this, you will remember her too!
Martha Sleeper was born on June 24, 1910 (I've also read 1907) in Lake Bluff, Illinois. She was the second daughter born to William, office manager for the Keith-Albee-Orpheum Vaudeville circuit, and Minnie Sleeper. Her sister Annette was four years older. The family would eventually move to New York, where Martha spent her childhood, and later to California for William's health.
When she was around seven years old, she began appearing on stage. She fell in love with acting and theater and wanted to make it a career. Her parents, like many others at that time, were against this. They did allow her to study ballet for a few years and she actually appeared at Carnegie Hall as a ballerina.
As luck would have it, her uncle was a friend of Cecil B. DeMille and he arranged for Martha and DeMille to meet. DeMille liked what he saw but told her that she needed some 'comedy training.' She had two options for said training. She could either go to Mack Sennett and Keystone or the Hal Roach Studios. "I wasn't about to have pies thrown at me, so I went with Hal Roach," Martha told the Palm Beach Daily News in 1964.
Martha made her film debut in the 1923 film, The Mailman. She would appear in various other Hal Roach productions including Our Gang, Charley Chase, and Laurel and Hardy shorts. Roach really wanted her to be molded into an slapstick comedienne, but it just never turned out that way. After she appeared in these early shorts, she would go on to playing the part of the other woman in most of her later films.
In 1926, when she was only 16 years old, Martha wrote and published a book called Hollywood Be Thy Name. It was about a young girl who grows up in Hollywood and goes through the star system. Hmmmmm...wonder where she got her inspiration?
In 1927, Martha was named a WAMPAS Baby Star. Among the other actresses selected that year were Barbara Kent and Sally Rand. According to a Photoplay article from 1927, Martha was not an original choice for the 1927 Baby Stars. "Martha Sleeper, the young comedienne, has been substituted for Jean Navelle, the French entry. Miss Navelle was too ill to accept the honor. At least, that's the reason given for the change." I tried to find out what the story was behind the switch but I can't find a thing anywhere about Jean Navelle! I did see a picture of her, and she looked like she was absolutely gorgeous, but I can't find any information about her. This both intrigue and annoys me...
During her years in Hollywood she had the chance to act alongside big names like Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, and all three of the Barrymores!
She made her final screen appearance in the 1945 film, The Bells of St. Mary's with Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman. Martha later told a reporter that she had known Bing for years and that the film was a lot of fun to make.
After she retired from acting on the screen, she went back to performing on the stage. She also began designing jewelry and clothes and eventually opened her own shop in Puerto Rico after she visited the island and fell in love with it. She stated that she adored it so much that she would never return to the states...but she eventually did.
Martha Sleeper passed away on March 25, 1983 in Beaufort, South Carolina.
She was buried in the Brotherly Association Cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina.
Martha was married three times, but the details are kind of muddled. Her first husband was an actor named Hardie Albright, who she married in 1934 and divorced in 1940. Her second husband is a mystery. No one seems to know who he was or when they were married. I have read that a man named Harry Dresser Deutschbein could have been the second spouse, but I haven't seen it confirmed.
Her third husband was Colonel Howard Stelling. They were still married at the time of Martha's death.
In 1933, she reportedly had a fling with Don Alvarado, the one time fiance of Marilyn Miller. The two were spotted out at the Beverly-Wilshire dancing and getting the gossip mongers talking. She also dated actor Randolph Scott.
Along with Bing Crosby, her other Hollywood friends included designers Irene and Adrian who she met during her early days in the movie business.
"I had to go out and find my own work. I got permission to take jobs in the theater in downtown Los Angeles. That's unheard of, a contract player wanting to have time for stage work. Don't ask me why, but once they land a contract they want to cut loose from the stage forever." ~~ Martha Sleeper to the New York Times