Hollywood: it chews you up, and then spits you out. This proverb was never more true than in the case of Barbara Bates; a psychologically fragile Old Hollywood actress who managed to withstand several career disappointments, until a final tragedy drove her to grim suicide.
Born in Denver, Colorado in 1925, Barbara always had a gift for glamour. She was a dark-haired, shy and demure enchantress, who modelled as a teen and studied ballet, eventually winning a beauty contest that changed her life. The prize? Round trip tickets to Hollywood, of course.
In 1944, Barbara and her mother went to L.A. in search of fame and glory. Two days before they were due to return home, they met a publicist for United Artists studio named Cecil Coan.
Barbara was only 19-years old, and Cecil was 45 and married with four children. None of this deterred the pair, who began a torrid affair that unexpectedly turned into a successful 22 year marriage. He divorced his wife as soon as possible to marry Barbara, 26 years his junior. Despite the initial creepiness of the pairing, they were deeply in love and would stay together until Cecil’s death.
Immediately, Cecil began working his magic and turned Barbara into a budding starlet. In September of 1944, Barbara signed a contract with Universal Pictures.
Cecil had introduced her to producer Walter Wanger, who was looking to cast “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” for his upcoming picture Salome Where She Danced. Barbara received a role as one of the seven dancing girls, alongside Yvonne De Carlo. She seemed set for stardom, but her career would stall in the next few years.
In 1947, producer William T. Orr convinced Barbara to dye her hair blonde. After she did, however, he told her, “You are not the blonde type. Be yourself.” Asshole, much?
At this time, she also began pin-up modelling on the side to make some extra cash. Shy and reserved Barbara resented doing sleazy cheesecake shoots, but they caused her to catch a thirsty Warner Bros. rep’s eye, and she received her first big role alongside Danny Kaye in the 1949 musical comedy The Inspector General.
Sadly, much of her part was lost on the cutting room floor. To add insult to injury, Warner Bros. tried to force Barbara to go to New York to promote the release of The Inspector General, but she was too proud to submit to the studio’s whims and they fired her. An exasperated Barbara then attempted suicide, but the studio managed to cover it up and hide this from the press. This was the beginning of a repeated series of suicide attempts by Barbara, prompted by either personal or career lows.
In 1949, she discussed the ins and out of being a star with a newspaper. She described how:
“Every Hollywood newcomer goes through a sex school. They have regular exercises to bring out your…uh…fire. They told [drama coach] Sophie Rosenstein to ‘put some sex into me.’ She did. Sophie made me throw back my shoulders and stick out my chest.
Then I had to sit in front of a mirror and breathe deeply—for hours and hours… They want you to become conscious of your body and to…well…to throw your curves at the world. And all the while you’re supposed to be thinking sexy thoughts. They don’t tell you what. That’s one thing they leave up to you.”
If that sounds grotesque to you, you’re not the only one! Barbara was already in a unstable state: she was known to suffer from depression and mood swings from the very start, clearly due to untreated mental illness. Instead of being honest with her about realistic career goals, various Hollywood studios treated Barbara like a cheap floozy, giving her only tiny insignificant bit parts as a meager reward for signing on with them.
Barbara had also developed a reputation of being difficult on set. Jeffrey Hunter, who co-starred with Barbara in 1952’s Belles on Their Toes, claimed that she was “very disturbed. I felt uncomfortable in her presence and felt she was a very troubled young woman.” However, Ray McDonald, who starred alongside her in the 1953 Mickey Rooney musical All-Ashore, claimed that “she was easy to work with but had moods of depression.”
In May of 1949, another sleazy yet typical Hollywood incident occurred: Notorious lech Harry Cohn (head of Columbia Pictures from 1919 to 1958) offered to sign a contract with Barbara on one condition: she divorce her husband. She refused. He called her two nights later, and drunkenly invited her to his yacht. She refused again.
In E.J. Fleming’s book The Fixers, he describes how Harry Cohn “was said to have verbally or physically raped every woman that ever worked for his studio.” Harry was a known pervert who was rumored to have forced the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak to sleep with him in order to be cast in starring roles. His track record makes Harvey Weinstein seem chaste in comparison, and would be definite cause for a #MeToo hashtag in the 21st century.
However, it was the late 1940s, and since Barbara refused to play Hollywood’s licentious game of casting couch bingo, she would never gain the big-name stardom she had always dreamed of.
But alas, there finally came a small light at the end of the tunnel: Barbara managed to land a contract with 20th Century-Fox, who cast her in the biggest picture of 1950, the Bette Davis classic All About Eve.
Barbara’s role was minor, but it was the one she would always be remembered for. The Hollywood Reporter described her memorable appearance in the final scene as “sum[ming] up the whole action and point of the story. It’s odd that a bit should count for so much, and in the hands of Miss Bates all the required points are fulfilled.”
With the money from her big role, she bought a 51-foot yacht named The Bayadère, which cost $45,000 (adjusted as $480k for modern inflation). Barbara spent 8 months learning how to sail and navigate the yacht at a Coast Guard School. Hollywood did have a few perks after all! The studio even installed a radio-telephone on the yacht to
enslave contact her at all times.
Barbara had a few more notable roles left: the 1950 cheesefest Cheaper by the Dozen, and the brainless 1953 Jerry Lewis-Dean Martin comedy The Caddy. She was frustrated with these moronic films, lamenting to gossip columnist Erskine Johnson on how “I thought great things were going to happen [after All About Eve]. So far—nothing. They keep casting me as a 16-year-old; I can’t seem to get up to 20.”
Then came her dream role: Barbara was screen tested for the suicidal ballerina character in Charlie Chaplin’s 1952 comedy-drama Limelight. As a former childhood ballerina, she would have been perfect for the part. Chaplin was delighted with her audition, and offered her the role himself.
Unfortunately, dictatorial Fox refused to loan Barbara out to United Artists to film the picture, due to the fact that they resented Chaplin for his supposed communist ties. Barbara was left heartbroken and destroyed after losing the role of a lifetime.
After this, Barbara’s career tanked. She was fired from the 1954 sitcom It’s a Great Life for “erratic behavior.” What set her off? Well, let us examine an interview Barbara gave columnist Lydia Lane on the set of the TV show, just months before she was canned:
“I have had such trouble keeping thin. I dearly love anything sweet—especially chocolate—and to say no really takes discipline. But it isn’t healthy to be dieting all the time… The thing to do is find the weight at which you are comfortable and level off.
I keep a check by weighing in every morning, and if I’ve gained even a pound, I start cutting down. I have a calorie chart which I carry in my handbag and this helps me limit myself to 500 calories a day until I’m back to normal. I haven’t had to diet for quite a while, and it’s a wonderful feeling.”
500 calories a day? Who wouldn’t feel like shit on this diet? Obviously, Hollywood has an obsession with thinness and actresses are required to stay in shape. But this was eating disorder territory, and it was no wonder poor Barbara was losing her mind from the pressures mounting all around her.
Out of work and desperate, Cecil arranged for Barbara to go to England and sign on with the Rank Organisation in 1956. The studio felt she was too old at the age of 31, and advertised her as being a 24-year old. She was cast in a few films, but suffered a nervous breakdown and health issues which caused her to abandon the sets while filming. Many suspected that Barbara attempted suicide once again. Nevertheless, she was fired by Rank in 1957, and was forced to return to the USA.
She played in several TV commercials to make some quick cash, as the couple had lost money due to bad land investments in Spain. Barbara’s old friend Rory Calhoun landed her a final movie part in his 1958 western Apache Territory. Her last TV appearance was in a 1962 episode of The Saint. An unceremonious end for a troubled career.
In 1960, the couple converted to Catholicism and moved to a modest Beverly Hills apartment. Throughout her chaotic life, Cecil had proven to be an unmoving rock of support for Barbara. He was her manager, agent, husband, lover, best friend and closest confidante for most of her adult life. Tragically, Cecil was diagnosed with cancer, and the last sane threads of Barbara’s life quickly unraveled.
She put aside her career to loyally care for the ailing Cecil, but the stress of being his constant nurse caused Barbara to snap. She attempted suicide by slitting her wrists, but survived yet again. These were very dark times for her, and the final straw was when Cecil died in January of 1967. She was at his bedside, romantic and steadfast until the very end. But when Cecil passed, something in Barbara died with him.
If she was already suicidal even in the presence of Cecil, now she was completely lost. Feeling aimless, Barbara left California for good and returned home to Denver. To her credit, she did attempt to rebuild a life: she attended a secretarial school by night, and worked as a nurse’s aide in the daytime. She was also a dental assistant at one point, and often volunteered at church.
What does this tell us? Barbara was dead broke. Cecil’s hospital bills must have drained her Hollywood fortune. Being relegated to the boring common life of a wageslave after starring alongside Elizabeth Taylor in films and purchasing half a million dollar yachts was disastrous.
At the end of 1968, she remarried: to a sportscaster named William Reed, who also happened to be a childhood friend. The marriage did not seem to be very romantic, and was most likely just an arrangement of convenience to prevent the onset of late-age loneliness.
So here was Barbara: back in her hometown, aging, married to a man from her youth, her Hollywood career totally faded; as she worked obscure random jobs to rake up pitiful sums of cash she would have laughed at in her days as a top actress.
It was all too much.
On March 18, 1969, Barbara’s mother returned to their suburban home, and found the garage was locked and sealed from the bottom. Upon unlocking the door, she found Barbara dead in the front seat of her Volkswagen. She had committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of 43.
This came after a mere four months of marriage, indicating Barbara’s unhappiness in her newfound relationship. There are also reports that she was pregnant at the time and that this may have set her off. She was quietly buried in Crown Hill Cemetery, Colorado.
Barbara once said “I have no illusions about being a star. Every time I did something really important, they ended up cutting it.” This was an accurate summation of her life and career: she lived a brief, painful and beautiful existence full of heartbreak and malady. Hollywood had drained her and then tossed her aside when they deemed her too old, mentally ill, and washed up. She was the victim of the monstrous machine of cinema, but she managed to free herself with death.