IF THE WILD life of Lina Basquette had been filmed, it would have been dismissed as absurdly melodramatic.
She was born Lena Baskette in 1907 in San Mateo, California, and began her career at the age of eight, dancing at the San Francisco Exposition to advertise the Victrola phonograph. Universal signed her to a six-year contract to make 'Lena Baskette Featurettes'. There were several women directors at Universal City in those pioneering days, and the most talented, Lois Weber, happened to be making a film with the great Anna Pavlova. Not only did Pavlova predict a fine career for Lena as a dancer, but Lois Weber directed her in a classic of American realism, Shoes (1916). While Lena idolised Pavlova, she disliked Weber because she resembled her mother too closely.
During the making of Shoes, her beloved father committed suicide. Lena blamed her mother's hunger for money. 'He was the handsomest man who ever walked this earth. I was nine years old, but I have never forgotten him. I guess I've spent the rest of my life looking for a man who could match him.'
The day after the suicide she had to return to the studio. 'I had to do scenes outside the penitentiary when we wait for the body of the father. Lois Weber wanted this big close-up of this child . . . crying, and I couldn't do it - I was just numb. Finally, my mother went over and said something to her and the musicians on the set began to play my father's favourite song, 'The End of a Perfect Day', and this child put on a scene to end all scenes, and they got what they wanted. Then I collapsed and went to bed for a week.'
Her mother remarried within a year, and Lena's new stepfather was Ernest Belcher, a choreographer. Lena approved of him. A few years later, her mother had a daughter (who became famous as the choreographer and dancer Marge Champion).
Dark and sultry, Lena was seen as a potential successor to the vamp star Theda Bara. She played Spanish and gypsy roles and was alarmingly precocious. At the age of 12, she fell in love with her director, Marshall Neilan, but he was having a fling with Gloria Swanson and failed to notice.
In 1923, she and her mother went to New York, where Lena danced for John Murray Anderson - it was he who altered her name to Basquette, and the producer Charles Dillingham who changed Lena to Lina ('Lena is a cook', he explained, 'Lina is an artiste]'). Lina Basquette was promptly lost to Florenz Ziegfeld, who made her a featured dancer in the Follies, where she danced with Louise Brooks. More significantly, Anna Pavlova saw her again, and wanted to groom Lina to become her successor, but Lina's mother rejected the offer.
'Pavlova said I was like her when young,' said Lina. 'I dreamed of being in a ballet company and it broke my heart.'
In 1925, Lina Basquette was playing in two Ziegfeld productions at once - racing from one Broadway theatre to another with a motor-cycle escort. The second youngest of the four Warner brothers, Sam, saw her in Louie the 14th, fell in love and proposed. This time her mother encouraged the arrangement, having fallen for his dazzling self-promotion, and imagining he was as rich as other Hollywood producers. (The Warner Bros pictures were losing money.)
Lina did not want to marry a man twice her age and wept bitter tears, but once it had happened she grew to like and admire the man. It was Sam Warner who secured Vitaphone - talking pictures - for Warners, bringing the fortune Lina's mother assumed he already had.
Sam Warner died the day before the historic premiere of The Jazz Singer, in 1927, which brought the era of silent pictures to an end. Lina, who had given birth to a daughter, Lita, the year before, was distraught. She had made a curious agreement with Sam. If she had a boy, he would be raised as a Jew. If a girl, she would be raised, like her, a Catholic. The Warner family were determined to bring the girl up in the Jewish faith and insisted that Lina give up the child. They offered large sums of money, but Lina refused. She only gave in when Harry Warner and his wife agreed to become guardians and to increase Lita's trust fund to dollars 300,000. 'I didn't sell my baby or give her away for adoption,' said Lina, 'I only tried to make her future secure.'
But she quickly regretted her decision and fought to recover her child through the courts. She blamed her failure on crooked lawyers who, she said, wound up on the legal staff of Warner Bros. She took her defeat so badly that she tried to commit suicide. She did not see her daughter again for more than 30 years.
I met Lina Basquette 10 years ago, after seeing her in a Frank Capra film about Jewish immigrants called The Younger Generation (1929). Her performance was so striking that I wondered why her work was so little known. A friend tracked her down to West Virginia, where she had become far better known as a judge at dog shows than as a movie star. I arranged to meet her at Pittsburgh airport - and walked straight past her, because I expected someone who looked much older. She had tremendous energy and a wicked sense of humour. She was able to laugh at herself - even at her politics, which were aggressively right-wing. She never thought of herself as an important star, and was surprised at my interest in her career. The one film she took pride in was directed by Cecil B. DeMille, The Godless Girl (1929).
This was an expose of the
reform-school system. DeMille, who liked Lina's tough but sensual acting style, cast her opposite George Duryea as Judy, a high- school tearaway who is given a jail term. DeMille staged a fire during an escape attempt. 'I got burned in that fire,' said Lina. 'DeMille admired my guts, because when the fire got too hot, George Duryea became scared and took off and DeMille yelled at me, 'Stay there, Judy]' and the cameras were grinding and I was screaming and DeMille was very impressed with that kind of guts. My eyelashes and eyebrows were singed - my eyebrows never grew back
DeMille's press agents invented a romance between Lina and Duryea, but she actually fell for the cameraman Peverell Marley, and married him, to DeMille's annoyance - he felt a cameraman was too humble a partner for a DeMille star.
The picture lost money in the United States, but it was very popular in Germany and Austria. 'I received a fan letter written from Austria in 1929 from Adolf Hitler,' she said. 'The name meant absolutely nothing - it came to mind only later when he became famous. It said I was his favourite American movie star.' She received confirmation of this when she was invited to Germany in 1937, to be considered for UFA stardom. She was driven to Berchtesgarden where she met Hitler, with Goebbels and Hess.
'This talk about him not being interested in women,' said Basquette, describing how Hitler made a play for her. 'But he had a terrible body odour; he was flatulent. The man repelled me so much. But he had a sweet smile, and above all he had these strange, penetrating eyes. I do remember thinking, 'Oh, here's another actor - look at the gestures, the way he's using his eyes.' ' When Hitler's approach became too close for comfort, Basquette insisted, she kicked him in the groin and when he still wouldn't give up, she told him she was partly Jewish. She felt she was lucky to get away alive.
Is there a sliver of truth in this? Barry Paris, who wrote a profile on Lina in the New Yorker in 1989, is convinced. 'Granted there is no one alive who can corroborate it. But Lina is not a liar.' He was able to check all her other claims, and found them accurate. Marge Champion said she never heard the story until the 1970s. 'Lina has total recall,' she said. 'Except of course, it's her own recall.'
Having been blacklisted by Warners, Lina managed to get few parts in Hollywood. She went on a theatrical tour of Australasia with her new husband, Henry Mollinson, but he turned out to be an alcoholic and she decided to divorce him. She had an affair with an American-educated Japanese, which led to an involvement in espionage during the Second World War - no one was quite sure which side she was on - but she said she knew about Pearl Harbor before it happened.
Lina Basquette's last Hollywood film was A Night for Crime, released in 1943. That same year she returned to the headlines, as a rape victim. The soldier who raped her went to prison for life. After the war, she began a new career - breeding Great Danes. 'Dogs saved my life,' she said. She became one of the most respected figures in the world of dog shows - she won more awards than anyone. When the New Yorker profile appeared, she was given a great deal of attention and even played in one last film, Paradise Park (1991). She published an autobiography, Lina: DeMille's godless girl (1991), and dealt with a resurgence of fan- mail. 'I've had quite a life,' she wrote to me, 'but these sunset years are truly the best. Somebody Upstairs must love me and have forgiven my sins, because I'm blessed with phenomenal health, energy, stamina - comfortable but not wealthy - have many tried and true friends and the respect of my son, daughter and grandchildren. So much for which to be thankful.'