Saturday, February 7, 2015

Alma Rubens

I recently had the privilege of visiting the grave of Alma Rubens, a silent film star who left this world far too soon. I had never been near Fresno where she is buried but I happened to be close last week so I knew I had to go and visit. 

The mausoleum at the Ararat Cemetery in Fresno really looks like a long forgotten Egyptian tomb. The cemetery keeps the mausoleum locked due to vandalism (I seriously hate people sometimes) so I had to ask someone to open the giant metal doors. I walked into a dark and cold building that looked like it hadn't been entered in years! I found Alma's grave at the end of the corridor on the left hand side and was delighted to see that she had flowers on her tomb. So glad that someone out there still remembers her some 84 years after her death. I of course left her a kiss before I said goodbye and closed the metal door behind me. 

I wrote an entry about Alma back in 2011 but I wanted to revise that entry and create a new one with more information, especially since she is fresh on my mind.

Alma Rubens was born Alma Genevieve Ruebens on February 19, 1897 in San Francisco, California. She was the second child born to John Ruebens and Theresa Hayes. Older sister, Hazel was born four years earlier. I couldn't find any other information on John Ruebens other than he predeceased his daughter. From what I have read, it seems like Mama Theresa was the one in charge.

Alma was interested in performing from an early age, but she didn't get her real break until she was in her teens and was hanging around the theatre one day (I read that it was Grauman's, but I don't think it was) and the producer stepped out, spotted Alma and asked her if she could replace one of the chorus girls who had taken ill. Alma stepped up and took the girl's place not just that night but she eventually went on tour with the acting troupe. 

She got her big break in 1916's Reggie Mixes In, starring Douglas Fairbanks. This proved to be a winning combination because she was paired with him again later that year in The Half-Breed. These would be the two biggest hits of her career. 

I should note that prior to this Alma decided to change spelling of her last name by removing the first "E." She stated that the reason behind the change was to make it easier for newspapers and magazines to get the spelling of her name right. 

In 1921, Alma sought treatment for her worn out state and was prescribed morphine, which was the go-to cure for the stars of the day. Alma said that she began using the drugs for any and all ailments, real or imagined. Of course, the morphine addiction later snowballed to include alcohol, heroin, and possibly cocaine. It was around this time she was signed to William Randolph Hearst's film company, Cosmopolitan. Hearst was advertising Alma as being his next big star, the next big thing in Hollywood! However, Hearst saw what addiction was doing to his new star and he was forced to fire her from the film she was working on. Alma was friends with Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies, so he did take pity on her enough to where she was still on his payroll even if she wasn't really working. Newspapers took this not as a sign of goodwill but rather as a sign that Alma and Hearst were having an affair, something Hearst came right out and flatly denied. Alma eventually became stable enough to where Hearst felt comfortable putting her back in play.

Around 1924-25, Alma could see that her career was going downhill, owing in no small part to her ongoing drug and alcohol addiction. All the money she earned from her films were going to feed her addictions and she spent a lot of her time in and out of sanitariums. 

One of her last film appearances was the 1929 part talkie adaptation of Showboat. Sadly, the soundtrack for the film is lost. Alma went back to the stage where she had a wonderful reception from the audiences, sometimes getting eight curtain calls a night! She would tell reporters that her addictions were in the past and that she was doing great and planned on touring in the coming months. This was not meant to be, unfortunately.

In early 1931, Alma was arrested in San Diego for cocaine possession and for trying to smuggle drugs from Mexico into the United States. Alma proclaimed over and over again that she was being framed and that she was clean, a claim that was backed up by various physicians. She was eventually released on bail and was scheduled to appear in court in a few weeks. She would not survive that long.

Alma Rubens passed away on January 22, 1931 in Los Angeles. While at a friend's house, Alma collapsed and was soon diagnosed with pneumonia, her body worn out from years of alcohol and drug abuse. She soon lapsed into a coma and never regained consciousness, dying with her mother and older sister, Hazel by her side. She was only 33 years old.

Good friend Marion Davies stepped in to help Mrs. Rubens plan and organize Alma's funeral, helping take some of the stress off the grieving mother. A funeral was held at Forest Lawn in Glendale which was attended by some of her closest Hollywood friends like Claire Windsor and Norma and Constance Talmadge. A second service was held at the Christian Science Church in Fresno. Alma was eventually interred at Ararat Cemetery in Fresno. Her mother would later be buried in the tomb beneath her. 

Alma was married three times. Her first husband was actor Franklyn Farnum, who she met in her early days of stage acting. Farnum was 20 years older than Alma, so they decided to secretly marry in 1918 and not bring a lot of attention to their relationship. Little good the secrecy did because the marriage ended up lasting only two months before Alma filed for divorce. She claimed in the divorce petition that Farnum was physically abusive and even dislocated her jaw at one point.

Her second marriage was to Dr. Daniel Carson Goodman from 1923 until they divorced in 1925. Goodman, on top of being a physician, was also an author and screenwriter and was pretty well known in Hollywood because of his involvement in two high profile movie industry deaths. The first was in 1917 when he was driving with his then fiancee', actress Florence La Badie, and the brakes on the car failed sending the car flipping down a hill. Goodman managed to escape with only a broken leg, but Florence was pinned under the car with multiple traumatic injuries. She would die almost two months later. The second death involved producer Thomas Ince, who fell ill on William Randolph Hearst's yacht. Goodman, who was on board the yacht as well, treated Ince until they reached the shore. Ince would eventually succumb to his illness/injury en route to the hospital. Goodman was the only witness called to testify about what happened on board the Oneida, and he claimed that Ince was fine when he boarded and must have gotten sick during the trip. End of story!

Alma's third and finally husband was actor Ricardo Cortez, who she married in 1926. The couple did some touring on the vaudeville circuit before they decided to separate. The couple had little or nothing to do with each other after they stopped touring. In fact, Cortez wasn't even aware his estranged wife was sick and actually found out that she passed away after reading it in the newspaper! 

Shortly after her daughter's death, Theresa Rubens sued Photoplay magazine for a million dollars after they claimed Alma and Cortez were divorced at the time of her death and also that Alma's funeral was not well attended. In court, the reporter, James Quirk (husband of silent actress May Allison) claimed that yes, he did write the article but that he didn't have anything against Alma or her family. Ironically, a few days after his testimony, Quirk developed pneumonia and died. The case was eventually settled, but the outcome was kept quiet. 

For the most part, Alma's struggle with addiction was kept quiet from the public. However, in 1929 the story broke in full force when it was reported that Alma tried to stab a doctor at a sanitarium who tried to examine her. She later broke out of this facility only to be admitted to another sanitarium, where she lasted for 10 days. Eventually, in May, her mother and then husband, Ricardo Cortez, had her admitted to a facility in Pasadena where she would stay until the end of the year. It is also interesting to note that in movie magazines her addiction was referring to as the "narcotic habit." 

Toward the end of her life Alma wrote a memoir entitled, The Bright World Again, which was released as a serial in newspapers beginning in 1931. In 2006, the memoir was re-released as Alma Rubens, Silent Snowbird, and also included a biography and filmography. I definitely plan on picking this up!

"...Those who know what life meant for Alma Rubens will not sorrow because the quiet fluttering of death's wings brought peace to her at last. Drugs brought her no beautiful dreams - only dark oblivion. All her life she fought the spell they had over her...sick in body and soul, she fought a losing fight." ~~ Silver Screen, March 1931.


  1. She had such a sad life due to drugs and morphine claimed so many lives (Wallace Reid etc..). She was quite beautiful and it is such a shame her life ended so fast. Stars of today should know about the stars of the 20's and take heed

    1. It really is awful how she is another sad footnote in the early history of Hollywood.

  2. It is fascinating to study historical figures and see how often history repeats itself. Still today, so many who seem to have it all fall into destructive habits of addiction. Fortunately today there is much hope for those who seek recovery from their addictions to heroin, cocaine and other drugs and help available for them. Recovery is possible.

    1. People think that Hollywood only became sordid in this century, but really it began when Hollywood was still in it's infancy. They just had people who helped clean it up a lot better!