Born in Yakima, Washington, La Marr spent her early life in the Pacific Northwest before relocating with her family to California when she was a teenager. After performing in vaudeville and working as a dancer, she became a screenplay writer for Fox Film while living in New York City. Her work as a writer would lead her to Los Angeles, California, where she signed a contract with Metro Pictures and began to forge a career as an actress. She would make her first major appearance in The Nut (1921) opposite Douglas Fairbanks, and also had roles in The Three Musketeers (1921) as Milady de Winter, and The White Moth (1924), the latter of which she co-wrote.
Throughout her career, La Marr became known for her hedonistic lifestyle, marked by heavy drug use and a lack of self-care; she once remarked to the press that she only slept two hours a night. In 1923, she developed an addiction to heroin and cocaine that jeopardized her career and left her with significant health problems, ultimately leading to her death of tuberculosis and nephritis at age 29.
La Marr was born in 1896 as Reatha Dale Watson to William Wallace and Rosana "Rose" Watson in Yakima, Washington (La Marr later claimed she was born in Richmond, Virginia). Her father was an editor for a newspaper, and her mother had a son, Henry, born in 1878, and a daughter, Violet, born in February 1881, from a previous marriage. The couple wed some time during 1884, and had a son, William Watson, Jr., born in June 1886 in Washington. In the 1920s, Watson became a vaudeville comedian under the stage name of "Billy Devore." The Watsons lived in various locations in Washington and Oregon during La Marr's formative years. By 1900, she was living with her parents in Portland, Oregon, with her brother William, her half-sister Violet Ross, and Violet's husband Arvel Ross. As a child, La Marr also performed as a dancer in vaudeville, and made her acting debut as Little Eva in a stage production of Uncle Tom's Cabin in Tacoma, Washington in 1904.
By 1910, La Marr was living in Fresno, California, with her parents. Some time after 1911, the family moved to Los Angeles, and La Marr took a job working at a department store. In January 1913, La Marr's half-sister, now going by the name of Violet Ake, took her 16-year-old sister on a three-day automobile excursion with a man named C.C. Boxley. They drove up to Santa Barbara, but after a few days La Marr felt that they were not going to let her return home. Ake and Boxley finally let La Marr return to Los Angeles after they realized that there were warrants issued for their arrests accusing them of kidnapping. This episode was published in several newspapers, and La Marr even testified against her sister, but the case was eventually dropped. La Marr's name appeared frequently in newspaper headlines during the next few years. In November 1914, she came back to California from Arizona and announced that she was the newly widowed wife of a rancher named Jack Lytell and that they were supposedly married in Mexico. She also stated that she loathed the name Reatha and preferred to be called by the childhood nickname "Beth."
After marrying and moving with her second husband, Lawrence Converse, to New York City, La Marr, who at one time had aspirations of being a poet, found employment writing screenplays at Fox studios using the name "Folly Lyell." She would write numerous scenarios for studio shorts at Fox as well as United Artists, many of which she based on her own life, earning over $10,000 during her tenure at the studios. She was credited as a writer on the films The Mother of His Children, Rose of Nome, The Little Grey Mouse, Flame of Youth, and The Land of Jazz, all released in 1920.
After Converse's death less than a year into their marriage, La Marr continued to write short screenplays for the studio, and also supported herself by dancing in various cities across the country, including New York City, Chicago, New Orleans, and at the World's Fair in San Francisco. Some of La Marr's dance partners included Rudolph Valentino and Clifton Webb.
While working in the writers' building at United Artists, La Marr was approached by Mary Pickford, who reportedly embraced her and said, "My dear, you are too beautiful to be behind a camera. Your vibrant magnetism should be shared by film audiences." Her association with filmmakers led to her returning to Los Angeles and making her film debut in 1920 in Harriet and the Piper. Though a supporting part, the film garnered her attention from audiences. La Marr made the successful transition from writer to actress with her supporting role opposite Douglas Fairbanks in The Nut (1921), playing a femme fatale. The same year, she signed a contract with Metro Pictures (later Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), and appeared in a substantial role as Milady de Winter in The Three Musketeers.
Over the next several years she acted frequently in films, and became known to the public as "The Girl Who Is Too Beautiful," after a Hearst newspaper feature writer, Adela Rogers St. Johns, saw a judge sending her home during a police beat in Los Angeles because she was "too beautiful and young to be on her own in the big city." This publicity did much to promote her career. Among La Marr's films are The Prisoner of Zenda and Trifling Women, both 1922 releases directed by Rex Ingram. Although her film career flourished, she also embraced the fast-paced Hollywood nightlife, remarking in an interview that she slept no more than two hours a night.
In 1923, she appeared in the comedy The Brass Bottle portraying the role of the Queen, and Poor Men's Wives. She also had a supporting part in Strangers of the Night, and was noted in a New York Times review for her "capable" performance. She also had the lead role opposite Lionel Barrymore in The Eternal City (1923), which featured a cameo appearance by Benito Mussolini.
In late 1923 while filming Souls for Sale, La Marr sprained her ankle and was administered doses of morphine, heroin, and cocaine by a studio nurse to dull the pain for the remainder of the shoot. This would mark the beginning of a serious addiction to both heroin and cocaine. La Marr's lifestyle quickly began to affect her career; after being found unconscious in her home on multiple occasions, she was committed to Banksia Place sanitarium in Hollywood by MGM executives Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling, who told the press La Marr was suffering from "exhaustion." La Marr's contract with the studio would eventually be terminated over her lack of sobriety. In 1924 during the filming of Thy Name Is Woman—her final film with the studio—producer Irving Thalberg made regular visits to the set to ensure that La Marr's drug and alcohol consumption was not interfering with the shoot. The same year, she had the title role in the drama Sandra, which received negative reviews.
La Marr would write one more screenplay, My Husband's Wives, before signing a contract with First National Pictures where she appeared in three films which proved to be her last. While shooting The Girl from Montmartre in the fall of 1925, she collapsed on set and went into a coma as the studio scrambled to finish the production.
La Marr was married five times. She met her first husband, Jack Lytell, while visiting friends in Yuma, Arizona in 1914. As legend goes, Lytell became enamored of La Marr as he saw her one-day riding in an automobile while he was out on horseback. The couple were married the day after they met, but Lytell died of pneumonia only three weeks into their marriage. La Marr married for a second time, on June 2, 1914, to Lawrence Converse. Converse was already married with children when he married La Marr and was arrested for bigamy the following day. While in jail, Converse repeatedly banged his head on his cell wall while calling for La Marr and knocked himself unconscious. He died of a blood clot in his brain on June 5.
On October 13, 1916, La Marr married Phil Ainsworth, a former child dancer. Ainsworth was incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison for passing bad checks, and the couple ultimately divorced in 1917. During this time, La Marr was rumored to have had an affair with Ernest Hemingway. She married for a fourth time to Ben Deely, also a dancer, in 1918. Deely, who was over twice her age, was an alcoholic and a gambling addict, which led to the couple's separation in April 1921. Before the divorce from Deely was finalized, La Marr married actor Jack Dougherty in May 1923. They remained married until La Marr's death.
Some years after her death, it was revealed that she had given birth to a son, Marvin Carville La Marr, on July 29, 1922. The name of the boy's father has never been publicly released. During her final illness, La Marr entrusted the care of her son to her close friend, actress ZaSu Pitts, and her husband, film executive Tom Gallery. After her death, he was legally adopted by Pitts and Gallery, and was renamed Don Gallery. Don Gallery died in 2014.
La Marr suffered from a series of health problems through the latter part of her career that were attributed to her extensive cocaine and heroin addiction that began around 1923. Her hedonistic lifestyle was widely reported in the press; she once told an interviewer: "I cheat nature. I never sleep more than two hours a day. I have better things to do." In addition to her drug addiction and lack of sleep, La Marr was also known to go on extreme liquid diets that she would pair with cocaine use in order to lose weight. It was rumored that La Marr at one time ingested sugar-coated tapeworms to help her lose weight.
By late 1925, La Marr's health had deteriorated significantly. In November 1925, she was arrested in Los Angeles for possession of 40 cubes of morphine, but her health was so poor that the prosecutors did not believe she would live through a trial and her case was dismissed. The following month while filming The Girl from Montmartre, La Marr had been ingesting large amounts of cocaine, heroin, and alcohol, which led to her collapsing on the set and lapsing into a coma. In mid-December, after coming out of the drug-induced coma, she was diagnosed with nephritis, an inflammation of the kidneys, as well as tuberculosis. La Marr was bedridden through Christmas, and by late December had reportedly weighed less than 80 pounds (36 kg).
On January 30, 1926, La Marr died of complications associated with tuberculosis and nephritis at her parents' home in Altadena, California, at the age of 29. Her friend, film director Paul Bern, was with her when she died. La Marr's son would later speculate that Bern may have been his biological father, though this was never proven; Bern committed suicide six years later.
La Marr's funeral at the Walter C. Blue Undertaking Chapel in Los Angeles attracted over three-thousand fans, and five women reportedly fainted in the crowd and had to be removed by police to safety. After her removal from the church, hundreds of fans flooded the chapel hoping to obtain flowers from the decorative funeral arrangements. She was interred in a crypt at Hollywood Cathedral Mausoleum, in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. For her contribution to the motion picture industry, La Marr has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1621 Vine Street.In the 1930s, Louis B. Mayer named the actress Hedy Lamarr after Barbara La Marr, who had been one of his favorite actresses.
La Marr is referred to in the Flanagan and Allen song "Underneath the Arches" during the break when Ches Allen reads out the headlines from a 1926 newspaper.
La Marr's former Hollywood Hills home was featured on the HGTV series Secrets from a Stylist. The house was featured in the 2011 episode "Hollywood Regency Meets Country Club Chic."
Children's author, Edward Eager, sets an episode of his 1954 book, "Half Magic", at a showing of Barbara La Marr's "Sandra" and includes some ironic description of the movie.