Sunday, January 5, 2014

Miss Martha Sleeper

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


  1. Jessica I just came across your comments on Martha and I'd like to add some of my own as I have been researching Martha's life story for awhile. Her true year of birth was 1910 as confirmed by her birth certificate. She did make her film debut in 1923 in "The Mail Man" but this was not a Roach studio film - it was produced by an independent producer named Emory Johnson who had seen a portrait of the young Martha as a ballerina, looked her up and placed her into his film. Martha then appeared in 4 Buddy Messinger child comedies at the Century studio before being signed by Hal Roach. At the Roach studio she quickly outgrew the Our Gang series and was playing adult roles as a 15-16 year old, primarily opposite Charley Chase, in the mid 1920s. She was a very busy actress at the studio during this time and appeared in many of the best of the studio's silent shorts but her contract was terminated in 1928 as a cost cutting move. Martha then appeared in 6 silent features at the FBO studio before being signed by MGM at the advent of the talkie era. Her roles in talkie features were primarly forgetable supporting roles and, as you noted, Martha was unhappy with the type of roles she was being offered. She began doing live stage work and, in 1936, she and husband Hardie Albright left Hollywood for New York where she began a long run in both on and off-Broadway stage work. It was during this period that she took a hobby of creating whimsical costume jewelry and turned in into a very lucrative business. She was at the forefront of a fashion trend in the late 1930s of "gadget jewelry" and her "hobby" became a $300,000 a year side business. In 1949 she and her second husband Harry Deutschbein (a civil engeineer) were on a cruise in the Caribbean and, when the came to Puerto Rico, they decided they had found their "paradise". They sold their home in New York by phone and set up residence on the island. Looking for a new career Martha began designing women's clothing and resort wear. She designed the clothing, had it manufactured locally, then sold it through a boutique she maintained in Old Town San Juan. She quickly became a world renown clothing designer and her boutique became one of the top tourist attractions on the island. She finally retired in 1969 with her third husband Col. Howard Stelling. Col. Stelling owned a small plantation outside of Charleston SC and that's where Martha spent her remaining days.

    The portrait you've posted just after the paragraph on the WAMPAS program is not Martha - I don't know who the actress is but the portrait is from DeMille's early talkie "Madam Satan". Martha has a cameo in that film as "The Fish Girl" - one of 6 young beauties to be "auctioned off" at a lavish ball aboard a moored dirigible (!).

    Martha deserves to be remembered today - she led a most interesting life and I'm happy to see your recognition of her. It has always floored me that so few people remember Martha today - being a success in 4 different careers in one lifetime is certainly worthy of celebration!..

    Bob Duncan

    1. My goodness! Thank you for the extra info and clarification, Bob. I appreciate it! Glad we can all remember Martha on here :)