I noted a wire story this morning that suggested that Britney Spears is “highly unstable” – the singer is “sensitive” and “insecure” and is in the last chance salon (AGAIN!). Flip back to the wire reports that were circulating about Barbara La Marr back in the 1920’s, and a story I mention in The Fame Formula.
In unchecked surroundings, cosseted by the film company, La Marr let her habits spiral out of control to the point that, in late 1924, Howard Strickling, MGM’s PR supremo, had her committed to a sanitarium after she was found unconscious in her house. It was widely, and correctly, believed that she was killing herself with her lifestyle.
In November 1925, La Marr was arrested whilst carrying 40 cubes of morphine and was so frail from her drug addiction that prosecutors realised that she wouldn’t live to see trial so, at MGM’s suggestion, she was taken to her father’s home to live out her final days and Strickling quickly set to work making use of her for publicity purposes.
He couldn’t allow one of the studio’s prize assets to appear flawed and unrepentant and, more pertinently, he couldn’t allow anyone to point an accusatory finger at the studio for allowing her to get herself into such a state, so he put her on a minor salary on the condition that she make regular appearances in the fan magazines giving interviews about the dangers of drug abuse.
On La Marr’s death, in January 1926, her poor state of health was put down to ‘vigorous dieting’ and the coroner was persuaded to attribute her death to tuberculosis, a disease that publicity agents often found useful to mask the effects of drug overdoses.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, I suppose, but Strickling’s immediate dousing of the flames of gossip, whilst being rather controlling, at least gave La Marr the chance to recover or die in dignity, whereas Spears is surely not being helped by the constant exposure her “decline” receives. Giving Spears some space away from the limelight, with occasional controlled interviews, might just help her find some dignity within herself. It’s just a question of whether anyone’s willing to step in to the breach and try…