It's unimaginable to think that today's Hollywood A-List could someday die in obscurity. Just imagine, 50 years from now they'll be running one of those "In Memoriam" clip shows at the Oscars and your grandkid will turn to you and say, "Who was Angelina Jolie? She was kinda pretty." That's basically what happened to these ex-Hollywood starlets. Once A-Listers at the height of their fame, these celebs died in semi-obscurity - sometimes, especially in the case of our first actress, their anonymity was their own doing.
In the 1930s, Jean Arthur was known for her screwball comedies. You might know her from her three Frank Capra movies: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and You Can't Take It With You. Despite seeming like a carefree funnylady, though, Jean had terrible anxiety and would run to her dressing room and cry the second the film stopped rolling. The rumor is that when her contract with Columbia Pictures ran out in 1944, she ran through the streets joyfully screaming about her freedom. Jean made her last movie in 1953 - Shane with Alan Ladd - and then turned to television for a few years. She taught drama at Vassar from 1968 to 1972 (Meryl Streep was in attendance), and then retreated from the spotlight entirely, refusing all acting jobs and interviews. "Quite frankly, I'd rather have my throat slit" than do an interview, she famously said. Jean was living in Carmel, California, when she had a stroke in 1989, and then died of a heart attack in 1991.
Back in the silent movie era, Theda Bara was one of the biggest stars there was. She was kind of the Cher of her day, as far as fashion went - she wore extremely risque stuff that hardly covered anything. Some of it is eye-popping even by today's standards. But by the '20s, Theda was on her way out. She was sick of being typecast as the vamp character, but couldn't really get any work otherwise. She couldn't find a publisher to sell her memoirs to; she sold her life story to Columbia Pictures but they never made it. In 1954, she was diagnosed with cancer and died the next year, forgotten by the industry. Sadly, most of her work is lost to the ages - a 1937 fire at some Fox storage vaults in New Jersey destroyed all but three of her films, and even then, sometimes only seconds of the film have been saved.
Clara Bow was the It Girl of the '20s - the original It Girl, really, and definitely more interesting and talented than some of today's actresses with the title. But she suffered from insomnia and had nervous breakdowns all of the time - she even earned the nickname "Crisis-A-Day Clara." She married actor Rex Bell in 1932 and had two sons with him; she tried to commit suicide while he was running for the House of Representatives in 1944. After this, she holed up in her house and never left. She no longer lived with Rex; his political life in the spotlight was just too much for her to deal with. He died in 1962; she died in 1965 while watching an old Gary Cooper movie on TV.
Hedy is particularly fascinating, I think. Not only was she a gorgeous and talented actress, she was also an inventor. But we'll get to that in a second. At the height of her career, Hedy co-starred in movies with Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable and Bob Hope. After her 1951 movie with Hope, though, her career slid into oblivion. She was scheduled to make a comeback in the early '60s, but when she pulled a Winona Ryder and was arrested for shoplifting, the studio had her replaced in the movie with Zsa Zsa Gabor. Nothing much was heard from her for the next 30 years, then in 1991, she was arrested for shoplifting again. Tabloids immediately painted the picture of a destitute, washed-up starlet who couldn't even afford her $21 bill at a drugstore, but she insisted that the problem was that she was absent-minded, legally blind and just confused about the situation. But she wasn't poor: when she died in 2000, she left a $3 million estate to be split up among two of her children (the third later sued for his share). Before she died, though, she finally received some credit for her patriotic duty in 1941 - she and her then-husband had invented a device that would jam Nazi radar signals during WWII. The War Department declined, but when the patent later expired, they scooped it up to use on U.S. ships in 1962. Neither Hedy nor her ex-husband ever saw any money for it, or even an acknowledgment until a book mentioned the invention in 1992.
Now we're talking about the Brangelina of the first half of the last century! Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were probably the most celebrated Hollywood couple of the day. Their palatial mansion, Pickfair, was the place to be seen. Despite the same, she retired in 1933 at the age of 41, sick of the business. When Fairbanks left her for actress Sylvia Hawkes in 1936, she married Buddy Rogers, an actor 11 years younger than her. That's when she started withdrawing from Hollywood. She started drinking a lot (up to a quart of whiskey a day, some reports said), spent an inordinate amount of time in bed during the day and got up in the middle of the night to roam the halls of the mansion she and Fairbanks had once so happily shared. She was all but forgotten until 1976, when she was honored at the Academy Awards for her contributions to the industry. She came out of her Hobbit-hole to accept the award, but it ended up being weird - her wig was stuck on her head crooked and she muttered some unintelligible sentences into the microphone before wandering off stage. Mary died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1979. For more interesting information like this, check out The Hollywood Book of Death - it's morbid, yeah, but also full of fascinating (if not depressing) tidbits.