The third time Julia Graham tried to kill herself, she was in Ben Reynolds’ bedroom, and to make sure she got it right this time, she used one of his guns.
No one knows for sure when Julia met Reynolds, but it might have been in the summer of 1933, which Reynolds spent touring America as part of MGM’s national talent hunt to find new female stars. Reynolds had been one of Hollywood’s top cameramen in the twenties, after he’d been brought out west from Chicago by Erich von Stroheim because of his ability to crank a camera at exactly 16 frames a second, but he’d struggled to adapt to sound filmmaking. For one thing, he was tremendously fat, and could barely fit in the new soundproof camera booths – Frank Capra complained that it took two men to shove him in and six men to pull him out – and, when he worked with cameras that didn’t have to be hand cranked, he had a tendency to drift peacefully to sleep once the scene began.(1)
This talent-scouting job, travelling from small town to small town, shooting screen tests of hopeful would-be starlets, must have been a humiliating step down for Reynolds, and it proved to be his last job for MGM.
Only a few of the girls who sent in application forms and photographs would be selected to appear on stage in their town’s theater, where Reynolds would film them in what was billed as his “elaborate travelling motion picture studio.” In interviews for the local papers, Reynolds would describe the kind of face the studio was looking for: “A round face, but not a moon face. Fairly dark eyes, not necessarily black, but at least dark grey. Eyes exactly alike and perfectly spaced. Perfect and straight teeth. Soft, fluffy hair. A soft skin without any large pores. Regular features.”(2)
A face, perhaps, like Julia Graham’s:
That summer, Julia had just graduated from high school in Sistersville, West Virginia, a prosperous oil town on the banks of the Ohio, where she’d been one of the prettiest and most popular girls in her class. She had a job in the local library, performed in amateur productions in the Sistersville Little Theater, and sang every Sunday in the Sistersville Presbyterian church. She read the movie magazines and dreamed of being a star.(3)
We don’t know if Julia applied for one of the screen tests, but she was exactly the kind of girl who did. However, even if she was selected - if, like the other girls, she found herself on stage in the glare of the movie studio lights, in front of everyone she’d grown up with, gazing into the lens of Ben Reynolds’ camera as she performed some soliloquy from her high school play – nothing came of it. The summer ended, and Reynolds returned to the west coast with the hopes and dreams of dozens of pretty young girls rolled up in his film canisters. There’s no evidence that anyone heard from the studio again.
Such talent-scouting campaigns were fairly common. They allowed the studios to sprinkle a little stardust on the ordinary people of America and involve them in the glamour of Hollywood, stirring up fantasies of stardom while, perhaps, reminding them that only the special few can ever become stars. From time to time, they might turn up a young woman with screen potential, but that wasn’t their real purpose. Anyone who was serious about getting into the movies would have to do it on their own, which, by the end of the year, is what Julia Graham had decided to do.
Just after Christmas, Julia withdrew $200 from a savings account she’d kept since childhood, told her parents she was heading for New York to find work, and took a bus to California.
Julia had no idea what to expect in Hollywood, and no plan for getting work in the movies. Did she even know enough to go to Central Casting, or did she simply present herself at the studios’ gates and ask if they had any work for a girl who could dance and sing? Central Casting wouldn’t have been able to help her much, in any case. In 1933, there were 17,500 registered movie extras in the city, and only 600 jobs a day, at most. Even those who were lucky enough to get on the books seldom worked more than two days a week, at around $8 a shift.
Julia’s life savings lasted two months. By the beginning of March, just after her 19th birthday, she was broke and without hope, living alone in a cheap hotel room. She should have gone home to Sistersville, but it seems that was unthinkable. Instead, having looked at all her options and seen only one, she wrote a note saying she was tired of living and hated life, and took an overdose of sleeping powder.
She didn’t die, but came close. And she made the papers, for the first time in her life.
The press coverage brought her a strange piece of luck. The Broadway producer Earl Carroll, who was in Hollywood to oversee the production of a film that was being made of his play, Murder at the Vanities, read the news stories about Julia and went to visit her in hospital. Not long after, Julia was told that he had arranged for her to be given a screen test with Paramount and a part in the chorus line in his film.(5)
And, just like that, she was inside.
Julia was assigned to the chorus line in the film’s big production numbers. It must have been dazzling; an almost incomprehensibly fantastic experience for a girl who, the month before, had decided that her life was finished.
Following Murder at the Vanities, Julia got work as an extra in another musical comedy, Shoot the Works (1934). Philip Scheuer, a journalist who was visiting the set one day, interviewed her for his movie column, in which he introduced Julia to his readers as “the girl who attempted suicide and woke up with a picture contract.”(6)
“She was sitting off to one side, by herself, when we walked up,” Scheuer wrote. He asked her if she was disappointed with Hollywood, now she had seen inside a studio, but she assured him she wasn’t. “I didn’t have many illusions about it, you know,” she said. “I’d heard all about the – what shall I say – philandering that is supposed to go on, but there isn’t a bit, really. Just fun.” If anything, it was more wonderful than she’d thought it would be. For example, she had always had the idea that actors’ costumes were actually shabby, dirty garments that only looked the way they did on screen because the camera didn’t pick up all the grime and the flimsiness of the material. “But that was all wrong,” she explained. “They’re clean, sparkling and beautiful; really glamorous!”
Julia told Scheuer that she was still excited when she got to meet the stars, and still wanted to be one herself – a singing star, if possible. Scheuer asked whether she minded people knowing that she’d tried to kill herself, and she said that she was always surprised when people meeting her for the first time didn’t connect her name with that of the girl in the papers. She said that she didn’t mind people talking about that at all, though, because it was all over and done with, “and didn’t it have a happy ending?”
There’s no record of Julia’s life over the summer of 1934, but it can't have been good. She might have continued to get work as an extra, or she might have been forgotten about by Paramount once it had established that happy ending for her story and the papers had moved on. Whatever the case, by the end of September, Julia evidently felt that things were as bad as they had ever been, and she took another overdose.
At the time, she was living in the apartment of some friends, who found her in time to save her life. (Perhaps she had known they would.) This time, her note was longer. In it, she wrote, “Had I known what faced an inexperienced girl without dramatic training, I would never have left home for Hollywood. The fight is terrific. It forced me to choose death rather than carry on.”(7)
This second suicide attempt wasn’t reported by the press, but the studio would have known about it. Shortly afterwards, Julia was cast as a waitress in Love in Bloom (1935) – her biggest role yet:
Her dialogue consists of three lines - “Yes, ma’am”, “Thank you” and “Here’s your change, miss” - but it must have been quite a hard scene for her to get through, unless she had an unusually developed appreciation of irony.
The lead actors play a couple who have met each other in the big city after running away from home to try to make it in show business. He writes songs that the publishers won't even listen to; she sings and dances but can't even get a job in a chorus line. They've both just been evicted from their shabby rooming house because they can't pay the rent, and they have exactly one dollar between them.
As Julia clears tables in the background, the girl tries to convince the boy to give up his dreams and quit before he gets hurt. "I'm going to give you some good advice - go home! Be thankful you've got a home!"
"And admit that I'm a failure?" he says. "I'd rather starve."
"You'll starve, alright." She tells him how tough the music business is and says, "Gee, you'll never make it. You're not the type."
"Well, just the same, I'm going to give it a try," he replies. "I'm not going back licked - never."
And then Julia smiles sweetly and lays down their bill without a word.
The movie, a light comedy memorable only because it features George Burns and Gracie Allen in supporting roles, was released in April 1935. Julia probably saw it a lot that spring. Perhaps her family back in Sistersville did, too.
By this time, Ben Reynolds, the cameraman who had toured small towns back in 1933, had been dropped by MGM and found himself having to work on Paramount’s B-movie production line, shooting the kind of cheap programmers that Julia worked on as an extra. He would have seen Julia as she hung around the studio, and she would have seen him. He was a 44-year-old, balding, married man who weighed 360 pounds and whose career was on the slide, but he had nearly twenty years’ worth of connections in the industry; she was young and pretty and knew very well the kind of doors that influential people can open, if you give them a reason to. There was an obvious deal to be struck.
They began their affair early in 1935. However, any hopes that Julia might have had that Reynolds would be able to help her career soon turned out to be hollow. By the middle of the year, she was still scraping by as an extra, sharing a room at the Hollywood Studio Club, a hostel for single girls trying to break into the movies.
Julia’s situation was no different from that of hundreds of other struggling extras, and she was better off than the thousands of people who had been thrown out of work as the depression shut down industry after industry across the United States, but it was simply too much for her. She didn’t want to live like this. And she decided that she didn’t have to.
On Saturday 13 July, Julia was apparently taken violently ill on the set of a western called Rose of the Rancho (1936). Her illness might have been feigned, because she went straight from the studio to meet Ben Reynolds. They caught a bus to the Los Angeles harbour, where they boarded a steamer to a luxury getaway resort on the island of Santa Catalina. The two and a half hour journey would have been a splendid treat for the penniless girl. The liner was like something she might only have seen on a Hollywood sound stage – a vision of plush leather settees and polished teak, with couples dancing to swing bands on the upper deck while magicians and clowns entertained the children below. As the ship approached the island, Julia would have seen speedboats circling in the bay, water skiers skimming over the steamer’s wake and people waving from the quayside.(9) Perhaps it occurred to her that this trip was as close as she was ever going to get to the dream of success that had brought her out of Sistersville, that this was as good as it was ever going to get.
Julia and Reynolds spent the night on the island, under assumed names. On Sunday, they caught the last boat back to the mainland. “Miss Graham was drinking a great deal,” Reynolds later told the police. “She seemed to be in good humor. She had $15 of her own money. When I told her I didn’t want any more to drink, she went down to the bar to get some more for herself.”(10)
It was late by the time they got back to Los Angeles, Reynolds explained. “Miss Graham began to worry about getting to her studio by 7.30 in the morning. She said she was in no condition to go to her club and asked me if I could put her up at home. I told her that I could not, that my wife was away. She insisted, however. When we got there, she laid down on a couch and went to sleep immediately, and I retired to my own bedroom.”
The lie is so transparent that Reynolds may as well have told the truth.
Julia woke up before Reynolds, early Monday morning. She was expected at Rose of the Rancho, but she had no intention of going.
While Reynolds slept on, Julia laid out his three pistols on the dressing table. Standing naked in front of the mirror, she picked one up and must have looked at her reflection as she raised the gun to her temple. Then she pulled the trigger.
Reynolds was shocked from sleep by the blast. “I’m a heavy sleeper,” he said, “and when I first sat up in bed I could see nothing. Then I looked and there was the girl, crumpled in a heap at the foot of my bed. I rushed to the telephone and said, ‘For God’s sake, send the police.’”
Surgeons at the receiving hospital said Julia lived for about an hour after the bullet entered her head, but there was nothing they could do, and the police investigation returned a verdict of suicide. Reynolds was never a suspect, partly because of his apparently genuine distress at what had happened, but mostly because of an entry in Julia’s diary, which read, “Soon I shall die. I can’t live, but I’m too confused… I know what fiendish thing I shall do… I’ll steal Ben’s gun, and—”(11)
Reynolds was free of suspicion, but his involvement with Julia had destroyed his reputation, and he never worked on another film. He left town and lived the rest of his life in New Jersey, where he died in 1967.
Julia’s body was sent home to Sistersville by train. She was buried just after sunrise, to avoid crowds of onlookers, on 22 July, 1935, only a year and a half after she thought she’d left town for good.
Sources: (1)"The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography", Capra, Frank; Da Capo Press; 1997 (2)Wisconsin State Journal, 23 Aug 1933 (3)Indiana Evening Gazette, 16 July 1935 (4)Pittsburgh Gazette, 10 March 1934 (5)New York Times, 16 July 1935 (6)Los Angeles Times 22 April 1934 (7)Evening Independent, 25 July 1935 (8)Syracuse Herald, 16 July 1935 (9)Los Angeles Times, 20 June 2000, via wikipedia entry on SS Catalina (10)Most details of Julia's last weekend come from the Charleston Gazette, 16 July 1935 (11)Charleston Gazette, 30 July 1935 (12)Los Angeles Times, 16 July 1935. Julia's burial is recorded in the Oakland Tribune, 22 July 1935.