Silent Star Alma Rubens: “I am a Dope Fiend But Not a Jewess!”

Alma Rubens, early studio portrait.

Alma Rubens, early studio portrait.

Many persons who have followed my career on the screen and stage mistake me for a Jewess. This belief perhaps was strengthened when I married Ricardo Cortez, my third husband, the only one I ever really loved, and whom I am now trying to divorce.

Although I didn’t find it out until almost a year after our marriage, Ric, instead of being a gallant Spanish caballero which I believed him, was the son of a kosher butcher, with a shop on First Avenue, New York City. His real name is Jacob Kranz.

Alma Rubens, silent film star turned hopeless drug addict, penned a fascinating, lurid confessional, This Bright World Again, that was serialized in newspapers in 1931.

Her insistence of her non-Jewish roots comes early in Chapter One. She wanted to get the Jewish thing out of the way—fast. She assured her readers that she was of French and Irish ancestry, reared as a strict Catholic. Alma was educated at the Sacred Heart Convent in San Francisco.

But the truth is her father was Jewish. According to halachah, Jewish law, matrilineal descent decides who is a Jew and who is not. Thus, Rubens was not Jewish. But she certainly went out of her way to deny her father’s Jewish roots.

Rubens, in a nasty move for the times, outed her husband Ricardo Cortez. No doubt, Alma wanted to damage his fast rising career as a handsome leading man. Cortez, now sadly forgotten, played private eye Sam Spade in the original The Maltese Falcon (1931) and he is perfect. Cortez is far more dangerous and charming than the mannered, lip-curling Bogart.

Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, 1931.

Ricardo Cortez (b. Jacob Kranz) as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, 1931.

Interpolation:

There’s another Cortez film, practically unknown, but hugely interesting, Symphony of Six Million, (1932) where he plays a brilliant Jewish surgeon—as if there’s any other kind. And Irene Dunne, not yet a star, is cast as, get this, a Jewish girl from the Lower East Side who, from childhood, faithfully loves Cortez. This is a Fanny Hurst yarn so naturally Cortez gets greedy, abandons his poor Jewish community for the “Park Avenue trade.”

Dunne’s got a limp and she teaches blind kids. Obviously not the bad girl of the story. Viewer whiplash sets in for yours truly watching Dunne do Jewish with that subterranean Kentucky twang. It’s the only Hollywood film I’ve ever seen that has a Pidyon Ha-ben, a Redemption of the First Born ceremony, featured in the narrative.

Though melodramatic and at times stiff, Symphony of Six Million—the title refers to New York’s population—is well worth seeking out and screening. It’s Hollywood dealing affectionately with Judaism, immigrant Jewish culture and characters.

Not too many years later, prominent Jewish movie moguls Irving Thalberg, L.B. Mayer, Paul Bern, Harry Cohn and the Warner Bros. stifled genuinely Jewish narratives and such stories almost disappeared from American movies. This ethnic black-out neatly coincided with The Production Code. Hollywood Jews were running scared, anxious to be perceived as loyal Americans, not clannish Jews, and the self-censorship of the Hays Office over issues of sex and race bled directly into the insecure Jewish psyche of the secular, assimilationist Hollywood Jewish elite.

End Interpolation:

Alma Rubens is a lost star of the silent screen. Her memoir, almost certainly ghost-written, is absolutely riveting. Now, it’s been edited by Gary D. Rhodes and Alexander Webb and published as Alma Rubens, Silent Snowbird.

Translation:

Silent = silent films.

Snowbird = female cocaine addict.

As Rhodes and Webb write in their splendid introduction:

By 1918, actress Alma Rubens was a noted screen personality. By 1920, she was a major star. By 1929, she was hospitalized for drug abuse. By 1931, she was dead from its effects. Little more is generally said of Rubens, one of the great female stars of the emergent feature film industry of the 1910’s and one whose popularity continued over a fifteen year period.

Rubens, exquisitely doe-eyed and dark-haired, broke into the film industry in 1914 with appearances in two three-reelers, The Narcotic Spectre and The Gangster and the Girl. In 1915 Rubens starred in The Lorelia Madonna produced by Vitagraph. Rubens got strong reviews for this film and producers noticed. D.W. Griffith cast her in Intolerance (1916) as one of the girls of the marriage market in the Babylonian sequence—I can’t pick her out. She also worked with cowboy star William S. Hart in The Cold Deck, (1917).

From these associations, Rubens was offered a contract with Triangle, the studio formed by D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennet, and Thomas Ince. Rubens starred in films opposite Bessie Love and Douglas Fairbanks. Ironically, the three actors appeared in one of the most notorious pictures of the silent era, The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916) in which Fairbanks is a cocaine using detective named “Coke Ennyday.”

Alma Rubens at the height of her fame.

Alma Rubens at the height of her fame.

From 1918 until 1925 Alma Rubens became a Hollywood star before stardom was understood, before Hollywood celebrity was common. She was comfortable in front of the camera and didn’t display the formal stiffness that characterized so many early film stars. In a way, Alma was the girl next door. Except she was drop-dead gorgeous, sensuous without the threatening Theda Bara vamp thing that was all the rage at the time.

Interesting to note that Bara was promoted as the exotic Egyptian-born daughter of a French actress and an Italian sculptor. In fact, Bara was a smart, hard-working Jewish woman from Cincinnati: Theodosia Burr Goodman.

Rubens starred in Humoresque, 1920, according to the silent film historian Kevin Brownlow, the “first [Hollywood] Jewish classic,” produced and financed by William Randolph Hurst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures. The movie was directed by the twenty-seven year old Frank Borzage, an Italian-American from Salt Lake City. Borzage, one of Hollywood’s finest directors, was a former Shakespearean actor who toiled for a while as an extra at Universal, and then signed by Thomas Ince as a leading man. Gradually, Borzage found his way to the director’s chair. The script, based on a Fannie Hurst novel, was penned by the great screenwriter Frances Marion.

Adolph Zukor, the head of Paramount, hated the film and could not understand why anybody would want to see a movie about, what he perceived, as lower-class Jews. As Brownlow reports in Behind the Mask of Innocence, Zukor wrote to screenwriter Francis Marion: “If you want to show Jews, show Rothchilds, banks and beautiful things. It hurts us Jews—we don’t all live in poor houses.” Humoresque was almost shelved, but when finally released, it was a popular sensation, a big money-maker, and Rubens was catapulted to the deadly Hollywood stratosphere.

Alma Rubens (center) in Humoreque, 1920.

Alma Rubens (center) in Humoreque, 1920.

Typical of so many Hollywood actresses—the Gish sisters, the Talmadge sisters, and countless others—Alma Rubens was impoverished and fatherless for most of her childhood.

Her love life was a series of disastrous, ill-considered marriages. She married stage actor Franklyn Farnum in 1918. He was 20-years her senior. The marriage lasted about two weeks. He was, she said, drunken, and violent. In 1923 she married Dr. Daniel Carson Goodman, but separated after a few months. He too, she charged, as physically violent and mentally abusive. While working for Fox in 1926, she married the handsome leading man Ricardo Cortez. The only Hollywood actor ever to get credit above Greta Garbo, in The Torrent, 1926.

Ruben’s mother, Teresa, was a powerful influence who manged to sock away money and buy some valuable real estate. Rubens, in her memoir, admits that if not for her mother’s wise investments, all her Hollywood earning would have gone into her veins.

Rubens claims that her addiction to morphine began in 1923, after marriage to Dr. Daniel Carson Goodman, screenwriter and head of production for Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures. Rubens has just signed a contract for a thousand dollars a week.

Then came an illness, painful and nerve-wracking, though of short duration, but which proved to be the ultimate stumbling block upon which my career was wrecked.

It marked the beginning of my addiction to the use of narcotic drugs.

So, what exactly was the nature of Ruben’s illness?

Ruben’s goes on to explain:

My first shot of morphine, administered to ease my suffering, was given me by Dr. A., now one of the leading gynecologists in the country and a professor in one of our great universities.

Later, when my husband learned the exact nature of the treatment for my womanly weakness—the use of morphine—he called in another great physician, Dr. B., who said it would be a crime to operate on a girl of my tender age—and conceded that his contemporary’s treatment was a most proper one.

Womanly weakness.

There is no further explanation.

But a friend who is a physician has this compelling diagnosis:

Rubens may have been referring to Endometriosis, a gynecologic condition where there is thought to be hormonally responsive tissue within the abdomen (endometrial fragments, hence the name), which can become extremely painful at different times during a woman’s cycle.

In the days before hormonal therapy injections, and even now, when hormones don’t work, narcotics were often prescribed.

The definitive surgical therapy—drastic, last resort, but 100% curative—is ovarian removal, but completely understandable why physicians would be reluctant to perform this on so young a woman.

We know that Rubens was first arrested for narcotics possession as early as 1919. Clearly, she was using before she was given her first shot of morphine in 1923 as she claims.

Okay, addicts lie. They like to blame others for their addictions. No surprise there. But let’s give Alma the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she was just partying like so many Hollywood starlets then and now, and only got seriously hooked later on.

Rubens blames only herself for becoming a “dope fiend.”

A weak, worldly girl, who hadn’t sufficient will power to cast aside the treacherous needle; the insiduous [sic] liquid, responsible for my loathesome [sic] yearning.

Shockingly frank about her frequent violence, Rubens stabs a physician with a pen knife as he attempts to treat her. When she comes home from a sanitarium, pretending that she’s cured, she snarls to her mother and Cortez: “You’re both fools. I’m still an addict. And now I’m going straight to hell.”

Rubens marches right into her bedroom and injects the narcotics she purchased from a corrupt sanitarium physician.

Talk about a full service treatment center.

The actress tracks down a black maid she recently fired for dishonesty from her Beverly Hills home. Rubens trades a $4,000 mink coat for a few day’s supply of dope. Rubens catches the look of perfect revenge on her former maid’s face as the exchange is finalized. Soon, Rubens is handing over expensive evening gowns, sable and ermine capes, silk lingerie and fine jewelry. Most of the time, Rubens sadly admits, she gets just enough narcotics to get through a few days.

There are wild, public incidents. Frequent violent outbursts. There’s a loud, drunken orgy in a hotel room. Court orders to have Rubens committed are filed by Ruben’s mother. Counter appeals are filed by Alma. At last, an ambulance pulls up to her ranch, Rubens is strapped into a strait jacket and whisked away for a “cure.” Before you know it Rubens escapes and hides away in a cheap hotel with a supply of dope, bathtub gin, and some bad boy junkie she picked up in Chinatown. Reporters from The New York Times—what, you expected The National Enquirer?—get wind of her addiction, and like jackals track her descent.

It’s a life so out of control that when she writes about the fist-sized infected abscesses on her thighs, I shivered. Reading the memoir I had a hard time believing that this was taking place in the roaring twenties and not today, in the Hollywood Hills, or some crime-ridden ghetto.

Of course, like so many true confessions, much of what Alma writes is self-serving, and the reader has to pluck kernels of truth from some pretty sensational fiction cooked up by professional ghost writers anxious to sell a sordid yarn in order to boost newspaper circulation. But the core of the memoir reeks of truth—she’s a sad, desperate Hollywood type I fully recognize—and Rubens pulls no punches as she details a harrowing plunge into addiction and moral chaos.

Alma’s addiction became public knowledge in 1929 and film roles dried up. She played Julie in the 1929 part-talkie Show Boat. But really, it was all over. Her angelic looks were ravaged by drugs and hard-living.

In 1930 she was arrested in San Diego with narcotics sewn into the lining of an evening gown. She had purchased the dope in Mexico and tried to smuggle it back into America. Rubens claimed that she was framed.

A few weeks later, Alma Rubens (February 19, 1897- January 22, 1931) died of drug-induced pneumonia. She was 33 years old.

Alma Rubens IMDb

Alma Rubens cover, Motion Picture magazine, August 1920.

Alma Rubens cover, Motion Picture magazine, August 1920.

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10 Comments

  1. Bill Brandt
    Posted September 6, 2014 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    Reading the memoir I had a hard time believing that this was taking place in the roaring twenties and not today, in the Hollywood Hills…

    Indeed. Hollywood hasn’t changed all that much has it?

    Once morphine was prescribed in those days how would you leave it?

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  2. sennacherib
    Posted September 5, 2014 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    “a ham out of the smokehouse.” Love that Barry, it’s into the file for future use.

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    • Barry
      Posted September 5, 2014 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

      I am so happy someone likes something I say. Thanks.

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  3. Miranda Rose Smith
    Posted September 5, 2014 at 12:06 am | Permalink

    Dear Robert:

    Didn’t you run this story before?

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted September 5, 2014 at 5:22 am | Permalink

      About five years ago. I have a new readership.

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  4. Michael Kennedy
    Posted September 4, 2014 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    The links don’t seem to work.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted September 5, 2014 at 5:18 am | Permalink

      Michael:

      Indeed, the links to my profiles are not working. I have deleted them. Will rework for future posts.

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  5. STW
    Posted September 4, 2014 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Interestingly, she’s buried in the Ararat Armenian Cemetery in Fresno.

    http://preview.tinyurl.com/nro6qck

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  6. Barry
    Posted September 4, 2014 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Fine and harrowing as intended. I have seen Symphony of Six Million, and thought the fragment of scoring done by Max Steiner brilliant, as usual in his case, the film bordering on caricature so broad as to be thought anti-Semitic. Only Irene Dunne, with or without Jewish roots, plays with dignity, intelligence and charm. Ricardo Cortez was, I thought, a ham out of the smokehouse.

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    • Barry
      Posted October 11, 2014 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      I have just, by neurotic chance, re run Symphony of Six Million, and stand by my assessment of Irene Dunne’s work and that of Max Steiner’s, the film as a whole was far superior to my memory of it. As for Ricardo Cortez, yes, sandwiches could be made from his work.

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