Thursday, November 21, 2013

Miss Lila Lee

Lila Lee is a name like so many others, that seems to be forgotten with time. It is surprising that she is hardly remembered today because she was a perfect embodiment of the cute flapper that is still idolized from the Roaring Twenties.

But, the silent films fans out there remember her name, which should count for something! And now, here is her story.

Lila Lee was born Augusta Wilhelmena Fredericka Appel on July 25, 1901 in Union Hill, New Jersey. She was the second daughter born to Charles/Carl (I've read both), and Augusta Appel. She had a sister, Paula/Pauline/Margaret (again, I've read a few different versions) who was a year older.

When she was still a child, the Appels moved to New York. Her parents noticed early on that their youngest daughter had a lot of energy and they wanted to find a place where she could put that energy into good use. So, they decided to get her involved in theatre. While performing on stage, the cute little girl earned the nickname, "Cuddles," which stuck with her for the rest of her life. The audience adored the little girl and soon she was working under the well known vaudevillian, Gus Edwards. Edwards soon because Lila's personal manager.

She reportedly got her big break in films by being spotted by Jesse Lasky himself. In 1918, she made her film debut in, The Cruise of the Make-Believes. Lasky clearly had a lot of faith in his new find because he started running advertisements in magazines lauding her praises and announcing her as the next big thing. In fact, one reason that Lila was signed so quickly was because the studio was looking to replace their biggest star, Gloria Swanson who had become temperamental and too high maintenance.

Lila had the chance to appear in some popular pictures early in her career and appear alongside some pretty big stars. In 1919, she appeared in Male and Female with her supposed rival, Gloria Swanson (the two actually became friends). In 1921, she was featured alongside Roscoe Arbuckle in Gasoline Gus, and the following year had her in the film she is probably the most known for nowadays, Blood and Sand, which starred Rudolph Valentino.

Her career was looking as promising as ever! Lila was even named a WAMPAS Baby Star of 1922 along with Patsy Ruth Miller, Bessie Love, and Colleen Moore.

In 1928, she took a brief break from making films to concentrate on caring for her young son. "For a while I had to stay home constantly because of my baby, Jimmy. He is old enough now so that I can leave home with his nurse while I work. I am going to work hard. I want to enjoy the happiness that can only come from success." ~~ Lila Lee to the San Jose News - December 22, 1928

Then, the inevitable happened - the talkies came to Hollywood! Lila faired better than a lot of her fellow actors and actually had a fine voice for the new medium. What happened with her career is that she made some bad career choices when it came to films. That coupled with a bout of tuberculosis and rumored alcoholism did not help matters.

On top of her film roles, Lila also appeared in various stage productions as well as some soap operas when tv became the craze. Unfortunately, she didn't make a splash in either category.

Her last film was 1967's Cottonpickin' Chickenpickers. She played a character by the name of Viola Zickafoose. If you can't tell by the title and her character's name, the film was not a success.

Lila Lee passed away on November 13, 1973 in Saranac Lake, New York after suffering a stroke.

She was buried at the Brookdale Cemetery in Elyria, Ohio. I am not sure why she was buried here, but I would be interested to know for sure.

Lila was married three times. Her first husband was actor James Kirkwood, who she married in 1923. They had a son, James Jr. the following year. The couple had problems from the beginning. Lila's mother was against the marriage because of the age difference between the couple (Kirkwood was 26 years older than Lila). After a few years, the tension became enough where Lila left him, and the public knew all about it. When questioned by reporters on the state of his marriage, Kirkwood stated that even though his wife had left him, they had no plans of divorce and he was confident that she would return to him. Well, it is good to keep your hopes high, but sadly it was to no avail. Kirkwood filed for divorce in 1931 on the grounds of desertion. HE was granted custody of their son.  

Her next husband was a broker named Jack Peine, who she was married to for a year (1934-1935). Her third and final husband was also a broker. She married John Murphy in 1944, but they divorced five years later.

In between husbands two and three, Lila was involved in a scandal when her then fianc√©, Reid Russell, was found dead from a gunshot wound while the pair were on vacation at a friend's cottage in Manhattan Beach. Lila's son, James Jr. was with the couple at the time and he was actually the one who found Russell's body lying in a hammock. According to a few newspapers at the time, a suicide note was found, but I am not sure if that was ever confirmed because I have read reports that the case could still either be homicide or suicide.

A less scandalous incident she was involved in took place in 1926 while performing on stage in London. Apparently, stage star May Moore Duprez refused to say the word "hell" that was part of a song she was performing. The audience praised her decision after the show with a standing ovation and flowers. The producer of the revue meanwhile was not at all amused and threatened to break her contract. When asked about the incident, Lila, who was working as Ms. Duprez's understudy, replied, "I see no objection to the word." (The Evening Independent - August 30, 1926). Gotta love that spunk!

"To lose whatever standing I have today would be a loss greater than the loss of my stardom. I've built my career thru constant study. It is me and I am it." ~~ Lila Lee, Motion Picture Magazine - February 1923


  1. Great post and beautiful pictures of a beautiful lady.
    Also, I have some suggestions to make. I'm very curious about Alice Lake ever since I read she was Buster's girlfriend in his early movie years. This is a claim I found in Marion Mead's book and therefore don't know which amount of credit this deserves whatsoever. It would be nice to know better. Keep the good job and greetings from Spain.

    1. All the way from Spain! I love it! And thank you so much for your kind words.
      I have added Alice Lake to my "To Do" list and an excellent selection I must say. An underrated young lady for sure.

  2. Lila was buried in Elyria, Ohio because her sister lived her and apparently she still does.