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The fickle finger of fame

Ah, the vicissitudes of life. You can be up one day, down the next, or as Forest Gump memorably noted,”Life is like a bunch of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get next.” Take for example Lou Tellegen. What’s that? You never heard of Lou Tellegen? Perhaps you may recall some of his more notable films, such as The Things We love, or The Woman and the Puppet. Who can forget his performance in The Sporting Chance. You can be forgiven if you don’t recall these films, since they were made in 1918, 1920, and 1925 respectively. Tellegen is all but forgotten today, but he was the George Clooney of the silents, causing female hearts to swoon when Rudy Guguelmi, better known by his stage name of Rudolph Valentino, was working as a busboy and dancing for dollars in New York.

Tellegen was born as Isadore Louis Edmon Van Dommelen in Holland in 1881, the illegitimate progeny of a Dutch army lieutenant and his girlfriend. He made his stage debut in 1903, and developed enough of a following to the point where he was invited to perform on the Paris stage. But when he arrived in Paris, he got into a scrape with a woman, and wound up in prison. While trying to make it as an actor, he worked various odd jobs, including working the high trapeze in a circus. He was once jailed in Russia for selling pamphlets about birth control to women. One wonders if this was done in his own self-interest rather than any concern about overpopulation. After his short performance in the French penal system, a friend hooked him up with the biggest female star of her day, Sarah Bernhardt, with whom Tellegen soon developed a romantic relationship. He made his silent film debut along co-starring with Bernhardt in a 1910 French silent film. That same year, he traveled with Sarah to the United States, where the New York Times announced the impending marriage of Bernhardt and Tellegen, despite Bernhardt beingĀ  37 years his senior. He never married Bernhardt, but did marry a well-known opera star named Geraldine Farrar in 1916. The marriage lasted seven years, but Tellegen had previously been married to a countess for two years. He later married two more times, with both marriages also being short-lived.

Tellegen was a major star in the early silent films, most of the time playing a dashing leading man in intensely romantic films. But life took a turn for the worse for Tellegen when his face got severely burned in a fire. With the advent of “talkies,” Tellegen was out of a job, since his high, squeaky voice didn’t lend itself to the new talking pictures. He soon went into deep debt and bankruptcy. Tellegen, once a major

Lou Tellegen and Geraldine Farrar in happier times

star, was reduced to selling hot dogs at a stand located just outside of the studio where he made many of his popular films. Overnight, he was all but forgotten. Then he found out that he had cancer. That proved too much for Tellegen. On October 29, 1934, the 50-year-old former star locked himself into a bathroom at a house located near the fabled Hollywood and Vine streets. He then proceeded to shave and powder his face. The bathroom was lined with newspaper articles about his past theatrical triumphs. In front of a full-length mirror, Lou Tellegen performed his final dramatic scene as he plunged a pair of scissors into his chest seven times. When asked to comment on his death, wife #2, Geraldine Farrar replied,”Why should that interest me?” Three years earlier, Tellegen had published his autobiography, entitled,”Women Have Been Kind.” Dorothy Parker, a leading wit at the time, said that the book should have been called “Women have been kind–and dumb.”

Tellegen was cremated and his ashes were scattered at sea. But he’s made a comeback of sorts. Today he has a blog appearing on My Space. One can only wonder if he’s still ready for his close-up.

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