This is an edited, expanded version of an entry on my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, written around 2005–07.
Pauline Beatrice Frederick (née Libbey) (12 August 1883–19 September 1938) was born in the great city of Boston, to Richard (a yardmaster for Old Colony Railroad) and Loretta. When she was a toddler, her parents separated. They divorced in 1897. Pauline was mostly raised by her mother.
She attended Miss Blanchard’s Finishing School, where she studied acting, dance, and singing. Pauline adored show business, and passionately wanted a theatre career. She also was said to have a great soprano. Sadly, her dad discouraged this passion, and pressured her into becoming an elocution teacher.
Pauline was soon drawn back towards the stage. When her dad discovered she was acting, he disowned her. Because of his hostile attitude towards acting, Pauline legally changed her surname to Frederick in 1908. Her dad never forgave her, and disinherited her on his deathbed in 1922.
Pauline débuted in 1902 as a chorus girl in the musical comedy The Rogers Brothers at Harvard, but was presently fired. She performed in small roles until famed illustrator Harrison Fisher discovered her and helped her to get bigger and better roles. Pauline soon became a hit sensation.
She began film acting in 1915, at age 32. She couldn’t resist the $1,000 a week contract offered by Adolph Zukor. On Broadway, she only made $200 or $300. Though she was quite a bit older than most beginning film actors, Pauline was accepted because of her prestigious reputation. She was just as popular onscreen as onstage.
Pauline mostly played Vamps (i.e., femme fatales).
Pauline also continued stage acting. In her later years, she directed many of her own plays. As she said, “I don’t like plays about sordid or objectionable people, no matter how well they are written.” She didn’t like being shocked or depressed at the theatre, preferring to be exalted and entertained.
As she got older, Pauline developed more and more of a preference for the stage. In the autumnal years of her career, she frequently portrayed dowagers and mothers.
Pauline survived the transition to sound exceptionally well, owing to her stage background. Sadly, all but about a dozen of her many, many silent films are lost. (When I wrote the original version of this post, only seven of her silents were known to exist.) Her eight sound films have all survived.
Pauline had much less luck regarding marriage. Her first four marriages ended in divorce, and her fifth lasted only eleven months, ending with her husband’s death. This final husband was already dying when they married.
She also had a two-year affair with Clark Gable (18 years her junior) starting at age 43.
Pauline also wasn’t so lucky regarding her finances. Though she initially insisted she didn’t want a penny of her estranged dad’s money, she later filed suit against his will and lost. Her lawyer in turn sued her for $36,000 for legal services. Pauline filed a countersuit for $46,647, which she lost. Her New York property was used to pay off the suit.
In 1933, the guardians of three minors sued her for $38,500, blaming her for an accident they were injured in. Later that same year, Pauline filed for bankruptcy. Her assets were listed at a mere $1,600; her liabilities, $3,244.14.
On 17 January 1936, Pauline had emergency abdominal surgery. Her health went into a downward spiral after this, and she suffered a great emotional blow when her beloved mother died in 1937.
On 16 September 1938, Pauline had an asthma attack and was taken to an aunt’s home in Beverly Hills to recover. Three days later, Pauline had a second asthma attack, this one fatal. She was only 55.