When destiny directed me to Pasadena in 2003, I never imagined I’d own a house loaded with old Hollywood history. I was drawn to the 1926 Spanish bungalow (above) for its abundance of character and amazing gardens, not, as the realtor eagerly disclosed, because it was built by silent film legend and cowboy star, Tom Mix. I was further surprised to learn it was moved from Brentwood to Pasadena in 1991. Like all dutiful historical fiction writers, I did some homework and discovered that in 1926 Mix was living in a Beverly Hills mansion with his wife Victoria. Hmmm. More digging revealed my “new” house was a gift to his mistress Dorothy Sebastian who I soon learned was much more interesting than ole Tom. A Southern beauty who came west with thousands of others hoping for a film career, Dorothy had a streak of rebelliousness that would’ve made Scarlett O’Hara proud.
Married at 17, Dorothy dumped her husband four years later and headed for New York where she became a Ziegfeld Girl and appeared in George White Scandals of 1924 with new friend Louise Brooks, another unconventional actress. Offstage she had an affair with famed British cabinet member, Lord Beaverbrook. Dorothy landed in Hollywood a year later and after a string of forgettable movies struck gold in Arizona Wildcat (1927) with real-live lover Mix as her leading man. She got third billing after Tony, “the Wonder Horse.”
Dorothy’s star continued to rise with Our Dancing Daughters (1928) teaming her with another young Hollywood hopeful named Joan Crawford. She and Joan (below) became close pals, but it was her string of flings that earned Dorothy’s notoriety and some said unraveled her film career. Here’s where our tale gets tricky.
While dallying with Mix, Dorothy had comedic genius Buster Keaton on the side, working with him on several films, notably Spite Marriage. Their liaison lasted until 1935 with Keaton’s spectacular fall from superstardom to alcoholic has-been. When Mix also rode off into the sunset, Dorothy got herself engaged to Clarence Brown, Oscar-nominated Best Director in 1930 for Anna Christie. Calling off the marriage, Dorothy quipped, “A girl needs more than an emerald ring and an ermine coat to make her happy.” She then set her sights on another cowboy megastar and this time married him and vamoosed to Beverly Hills. He was none other than William Boyd, better known as Hopalong Cassidy, and they also co-starred in films. The stormy marriage lasted from 1930-36, culminating in a rancorous divorce which fatally tarnished Dorothy’s star. She dropped from sight and died of cancer in 1957 at the Motion Picture Home. She was only 53. Looking back over her turbulent career, I can’t help wondering if her nickname, “Little Bam,” had more to do with her romances than her Alabama roots.
Dorothy’s little love nest fared far better. The owner before me, artist Michael Marquez, not only relocated the house to Pasadena but meticulously restored it as well. He paid tribute to its colorful past by painting a mural of Monument Valley (above). Covering an entire wall of the Cowboy Room, it depicts a silent film crew shooting a stagecoach hundreds of feet below. I can’t imagine a better example of art imitating life and feel sure Dorothy would be pleased. I never saw her ghost but I easily imagined her canoodling with Tom, Buster and Hopalong before the fireplace or sipping cocktails with Joan on the porch and…well, let’s just say when I watched their old movies on TCM I never felt alone.
Part 5 of a series on living with history.