Thursday, November 7, 2013

Corliss Palmer, The Million Dollar Beauty

Every girl is born a princess, blessed by the fairies with beauty, health, joy, the same time, the evil fairy also was present with her curse.

--Corliss Palmer, "In League With the Fairies", Motion Picture Magazine, March 1921

Corliss Palmer was aimlessly thumbing through a fan magazine, just like any other teenager, when something caught her eye:  an unassuming little column at the back of the book, announcing the “Fame and Fortune Contest” for 1920.

“Fame and fortune,” she thought to herself.  “Could you just imagine?”  She could see herself swathed in furs, eating at the finest restaurants, admiring the diamond bracelet on her wrist – and the man on her arm. 

She was pretty, this she already knew.  So did everyone else, since she was crowned “Miss Georgia Peach”.  Sending a photo in seemed like a long shot, but it was worth a try, right?  She cut the coupon out of the ad and set to work.


Eugene Brewster, publisher of Motion Picture Magazine, sat listlessly at the heavy wood table.  He’d been rifling through the photos for that infernal contest all morning; he was tired, bored, and his patience was wearing thin.  Until he saw this:

Brewster was known for his eye for the ladies, but he had never seen one like her before.  He was speechless.  He was smitten.

He was also married. 

Had been since 1916.  At that moment, though, his wife was the furthest thing from his mind.


So begins the tale of Palmer and Brewster, a sordid little story all too common then – and now. 

Corliss would (surprise!) go on to win the “Fame and Fortune Contest” and was touted as “The Most Beautiful Woman in America”.  Her photos took up a good chunk of the publication.  She’s mentioned so frequently that, if you didn't know better, you’d think her the most famous woman in Hollywood! 

She appeared in a few films, most of which are lost and/or forgotten, save one comedy short: BROMO AND JULIET (1926), featuring a pre-Laurel Oliver Hardy and considered one of Charley Chase’s best.  

[image courtesy Fandor]

Brewster continued to make Corliss his personal project.  He founded a studio for her, CORLISS PALMER PRODUCTIONS, and gave her a (almost certainly ghostwritten) monthly beauty column in Motion Picture Magazine.  These columns led to a spinoff publication, BEAUTY, with you-know-who on the cover.  All his time was tied up in Corliss…and, by this time, the two had become a romantic item as well.

[image courtesy eBay]

“But Jennifer!” you might be saying.  “Didn’t you say he was married?”

Yes he was, Dear Reader.  Eleanor Brewster was NOT happy with the way things were going, calling Corliss “beautiful but dumb” and “nothing but trouble”.   You can't blame her;  Brewster continued to funnel money into Corliss, creating a cosmetics line he heavily promoted in his magazine...

...and buying her a $250,000 mansion to live in (with her mother, of course).  This house was the last straw:

Let him buy whatever houses he wants.  Let him move all over the country.  Let him get a divorce from me.  I'll let him -- at last!  But it will cost him EVERY CENT he has, and that means quite a lot of money.  No woman has ever been through such racking mental stress, such spiritual agony, as I have.  And I intend to see that I get some recompense. 
--"Woes of Lovesick Brewster." Buffalo Sunday Courier, circa 1924.

Eleanor sued for alienation of affection, naming Corliss as co-respondent, and the Brewsters divorced in 1926.  That October, Brewster and Palmer were married.

[image courtesy Fanpix]

From here, things went downhill rapidly.  After the success of BROMO AND JULIET, the rest of Corliss' films did poorly.  Didn't help that Eleanor was true to her word, draining Eugene of most of his fortune.  By 1931, he had filed for bankruptcy (citing "bad investments") and he and Corliss were living in a tiny one-bedroom bungalow.  Not long after, Brewster asked Palmer for divorce.  She agreed, admitting that she never really loved him.

Corliss turned to alcohol to numb the pain and confusion of losing her entire world.

[image courtesy Pieces of our Past]

I was blinded by self-pity...I thought if someone pitied me, they would again give me the fame, love, and fortune that I had let slip through my fingers.

While she did find true love towards the end of her life with Bill Taylor, a rodeo cowboy, she never truly came back from the spectacular rise and fall of the Brewster years.  Corliss Palmer died in 1952, in a California state hospital for the mentally ill.  She was only 50.

[image courtesy Movieart]

Bonus:  Fashion News of 1928.  Skip to 1:44 to see Corliss.

Other Sources:

The Most Beautiful Girl in the World / Love at the End of the Rainbow: Corliss Palmer - An Epilogue -- posted by Scott Thompson at PIECES OF OUR PAST

Lowe, Denise. An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Women in Early American Films, 1895-1930. New York: Haworth, 2005.

"Husband Broke, Beauty Still at Side".  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 7, 1931.

Slide, Anthony. Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine: A History of Star Makers, Fabricators, and Gossip Mongers. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2010

Corliss Palmer -- IMDb

All images (unless otherwise noted) courtesy the Media History Digital Library.