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Posted: Monday, November 6, 2006 12:00 am

Fleeting Star

by John R. Allen, Jr.

Like a number of other tragic film figures, Ross Alexander seemed destined for stardom. Considered one of Warner Bros.’ most promising young players of the 1930s, off-screen tragedy would dog Alexander throughout his adult life. However, the 6’ 1”, wavy brown-haired, blue-eyed romantic juvenile appeared to have overcome the worst of the notoriety and looked to be headed for the top as the new year of 1937 dawned. It was not to be. A busy career at Warners (more than 15 films in less than three years) ended with his tragic death shortly before his biggest film, opposite popular Ruby Keeler, was even released.

He was born Alexander Ross Smith in Brooklyn, New York, on July 27, 1907, the son of a leather merchant. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Rochester, where Ross spent his childhood and attended school. His hobbies were swimming, soccer and, most notably, theater. While still in school, he pursed his thespian hobby by studying acting under the auspices of Hugh William Towne, who operated a little theater in Rochester.

Seeking bigger opportunities, the stage-struck youth, at age 17, returned to New York City to study at the Packard Theatrical Agency. His legitimate stage debut was as a juvenile in Enter Madame, starring the renowned Blanche Yurka, which had first opened in 1920. He followed that auspicious start with stock company experience in Boston and Louisville.

It was around this time that the first of several mysteries in Alexander’s life occurred. At age 18, he supposedly married a woman said to be far more poised and sophisticated than the brash young actor. According to a Movie Mirror article published after his death, for which Alexander had supposedly cooperated, the couple had a daughter before he terminated the short-lived union. If true, the names of his first wife and only child have never surfaced.

Three years later, he was back in New York as one the stars of producer Brock Pemberton’s The Ladder, which opened on Broadway October 22, 1926 for a run of 798 performances. He was fourth billed under Antoinette Perry (of Tony Award fame), Hugh Buckler, and pretty Irene Purcell. Unfortunately, the play, which dealt with reincarnation, was not the smash hit its lengthy run would imply. It was backed by Texas millionaire Edgar B. Davis who reputedly spent more than $500,000 to attract the public. On December 19, Pemberton’s office announced that two Christmas Day performances would be staged for free at the play’s new home, the Waldorf Theater. By the end of its run, the public was being admitted free to all performances.

Following The Ladder, according to later studio publicity, Alexander appeared onstage in Night Hostess in September of 1928, a play notable today as the stage debut of Katharine Hepburn (billed as Katharine Burns). Alexander is not listed in any available cast lists, nor mentioned in any reviews.

Alexander certainly appeared in Let Us Be Gay, produced by the renowned John Golden, which opened at the Little Theater on February 21, 1929. It marked the beginning of his intense association with the 54-year-old producer, playwright, songwriter and actor. Considered an “enjoyable new comedy,” the play enjoyed a moderately successful run.

During the summer of 1930, Alexander wandered into the now legendary University Players Theater in Cape Cod, and hung around for a season. Although he couldn’t officially join, never having attended college, he participated in skits and charmed the entire company, particularly an ingenue from Smith College, Aleta Freile.

Aleta, who used the stage name Freel, was born June 14, 1907, the daughter of socially prominent Jersey City physician William Freile and his wife, Minnie Uchtman. In August 1931, shortly after graduating from Smith, she would make her Broadway debut in Three Times the Hour, which only enjoyed a short run. The last play in her brief career (which included Strange Interlude and Both Your Houses), was also her most notable, Double Door, which opened in September 1933. Off-Broadway, she played with several eastern stock companies.

Meanwhile, Alexander’s talent was wasted in a minor role in After Tomorrow, produced by John Golden, which opened in Atlantic City the first week of August 1930. Back in New York, he was sixth-billed in another Golden production, That’s Gratitude, a “nimble-witted and often uproariously comedy,” which premiered in September.

A year after its less-than-auspicious debut, Golden revived After Tomorrow at his New York theater on August 26, 1931, with Alexander fifth-billed. While critics wrote that Alexander, as the juvenile love interest, was “likeable and youthfully cynical,” they also added, “the ingredients of After Tomorrow are hostile. No band of actors could compound them into a genuine play.” The revival would be Alexander’s last association with Golden, to whom he had been closely linked for over two years.

Following more work in stock, and while conducting an often long-distance romance with Aleta, Alexander made his screen debut in Paramount’s The Wiser Sex. Directed by Berthold Viertel, he was fifth-billed in an interesting cast that included Claudette Colbert, Melvyn Douglas (a last minute replacement for Robert Ames, who had died suddenly in November of ‘31), and the worldly blonde Lilyan Tashman, with Franchot Tone in a small supporting part. The film was shot at the studio’s financially troubled Astoria studio and was released in March 1932. Colbert carried the unusually shy and insecure Alexander, whose broad stage gestures, when translated to the medium of film, seemed overblown and mannered. In a 1935 Photoplay interview, Alexander graciously acknowledged her assistance, stating that following her lead and accepting her hints about underplaying to the camera had enabled him to give a performance attractive enough to eventually lead to his Warner Bros. contract. Melvyn Douglas would later sadly recall Alexander’s nervous, high-strung and extremely sensitive nature, noting, as did Colbert, an inherent vulnerability.

The guidance of his co-stars notwithstanding, Alexander’s role in this passable gangster drama went virtually unnoticed by the press and also, apparently, by Paramount: while he had been listed as a contract player there in 1932 before the film’s release, he was apparently quietly dropped from the studio roster shortly thereafter.

Despite this less than phenomenal screen debut, Alexander bounced back to Broadway, in his first top-billed role, in The Stork Is Dead, which opened September 23, 1932. Unfortunately, his first starring role was in a tired, ponderously risque bedroom face, considered by critics to be made from an “old musty formula.” It had a mercifully short life, small wonder, in the depths of the Great Depression, when even a Ziegfeld show had trouble enjoying a decent run.

Less than three months later, on December 5, 1932, Alexander’s next play, Honeymoon, was previewed at Philadelphia’s Broad Street Theater. Reviewers noted it was a “thoroughly modern, adult comedy of gossamer weave that is cut and patterned exclusively for the sophisticate . . . pitched in a cynical key.” The play moved on to New York, where it opened two days before Christmas. Alexander was sixth-billed in a cast that included Katherine Alexander (a member by marriage of the powerful Brady theatrical family) and Thomas Mitchell. While Alexander attacked his part with “considerable spirit,” The New York Times reported, “. . . you are likely to feel that it would be in good taste to walk quietly out, hoping that the characters will ring you up when they are in better humor again.” As might be expected, Honeymoon closed after a short run.

As usual, however, Alexander wasn’t out of work for long. On March 27, 1933, he opened in producer Daniel Kusell’s The Party’s Over, starring veteran Effie Shannon. Other cast members included Katherine Alexander, from Honeymoon, and a young Claire Trevor. While an amusing and timely comedy about the Depression, the new generation, and the Daughters of the American Revolution, it was considered less than successful, although Alexander garnered respectable, if brief, notices for his role as a crooner. During the play’s run, Claire Trevor wisely listened to an offer from Fox Studios and, two months later, headed west to Hollywood, a route followed by Katherine Alexander at the same time.

During the summer of 1933, Alexander returned to stock, at the Westchester Playhouse in Mount Kisco. He and his fellow performers, who included Aleta, Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan, lived in a sprawling inn known as Kittle House. Alexander and Fonda became fast friends that summer, as Fonda, still carrying a torch for former wife Margaret Sullavan, was in need of an understanding companion. When the summer season ended, Alexander headed back to New York.

On October 31, 1933, Alexander opened in Under Glass, being third-billed. Also in the supporting cast was a scion of Broadway’s Royal Family, Ethel Barrymore Colt, and Robert Keith (whose ex-wife, Peg Entwistle, had jumped to her death from the Hollywoodland sign 13 months earlier). While he was credited with giving a “jaunty performance,” critics considered the play “not a subject worth dawdling over . . . singularly ill-chosen cast . . . acting is slovenly.” With his less-than-stellar career onstage thus far, Alexander also did not appear to be headed toward a film career: two days before Under Glass opened, in an article about stage actors in film, Alexander was not listed as having any studio affiliation.

However, it was during this time that Alexander’s second film, Social Register, written by Anita Loos and husband John Emerson, was completed. Marshall Neilan, one-time golden-boy film director whose drinking had virtually ended his career, had convinced old friend Colleen Moore to star in this independent film. As a favor to him, Moore performed for no salary, but for a percentage of any profits. Lensed at Paramount’s Astoria plant, the cast also included Pauline Frederick, Charles Winninger and Robert Benchley. A release was negotiated with Columbia, where the film was allegedly edited drastically. Columbia head Harry Cohn made no effort to promote the picture, and it received few bookings when it eventually opened on March 10, 1934.

Prior to its release, on January 3, 1934, The Wooden Slipper, a variation on the Cinderella tale, with Alexander as the romantic lead, opened and garnered him the best reviews of his career. “Not only an engaging personality,” penned one critic, “but an infectious sense of humor and considerable skill as an actor.” Unfortunately, Depression-weary audiences weren’t interested. Just over a month later, Alexander was reduced to a featured role in a less than candid melodrama, No Questions Asked. The play, which would prove to be his last production with John Golden, bowed on February 5. Despite elegant sets and splendid mounting, No Questions Asked folded after 16 days. It was during this brief run, however, that Alexander signed a stock contract with Warner Bros. and began preparing for a move to the west coast.

At the same time, his romance with Aleta culminated in a February 28 wedding at the East Orange, N.J. home of her sister, Mrs. Stuart Benedict, with Henry Fonda serving as best man. The nuptials rose more than a few eyebrows in Broadway circles, as it was no secret that Alexander was becoming an increasingly tormented and confused young man. Rumors began to arise he had been seduced by several older actors and two prominent directors since his career began. Between professional engagements, he had been financially supported by a series of wealthy men, for which he had attempted to compensate with several prominent actresses, who were attracted by his looks and cynical charm. In any event, wedding Aleta would hopefully quash the rumors, and immediately after the ceremony the newlyweds departed for Hollywood. He would never return to Broadway.

Upon their arrival in the film capital, the couple settled into a modest hillside home at 7357 Woodrow Wilson Drive, in Hollywood Hills’ Laurel Canyon, a far cry from the mansions of Beverly Hills. Soon it was filled with a complete menagerie of dogs, ducks and goats.

As soon as they were unpacked, Alexander reported to Warner Bros., a studio famous for their off-the-front-page crime dramas, snappy comedies and Busby Berkeley musicals. Among his male cohorts those first years were George Brent, James Cagney, Ricardo Cortez, Leslie Howard, Al Jolson, Paul Muni, Pat O’Brien and Edward G. Robinson, a most respectable line-up of talent by any standard.

His first film at the studio, Gentlemen Are Born, released in November of ‘34, was a drama about college students facing the real world. With stars Franchot Tone, Jean Muir and Margaret Lindsay, Alexander appeared in a supporting role as one of Tone’s school chums, and gave an “agreeable performance.” Later that same month, he appeared in Flirtation Walk, one of the popular Dick Powell-Ruby Keeler musicals. As a military comrade of Powell, the New York Times noted he was one of the “attractive young men” in the picture. The good reviews, combined with extensive studio publicity, resulted in excellent exposure and the beginning of national notice.

His satisfactory notices thus far led the studio to hand him his first starring role, in the B film Maybe It’s Love, based on Maxwell Anderson’s play, Saturday’s Children. The domestic comedy-drama about life with the in-laws was released in February 1935. Together with leading lady Gloria Stuart (who had top billing), Alexander tried in vain to bring something new and exciting to what was already an outdated chestnut, but talent alone was not enough to revive this dead horse, even though Alexander himself got sympathetic reviews.

When old friend Henry Fonda landed a contract with the Fox studio in March 1935, he stayed at the Alexanders’ Laurel Canyon home upon arriving in Hollywood. Aleta, who had hopes of a film career herself, had little to do professionally and offered to help Fonda settle into the film colony and find an apartment in Beverly Hills. It was Fonda’s impression that the year-old Alexander marriage was already going sour. Alexander was spending days (and nights) away from home, supposedly at the studio, and Aleta seemed just a little too eager to boost her husband’s career at the expense of her own. Uncomfortable with the deteriorating situation between his friends, Fonda moved out while making his film debut, relocating to a Brentwood home with John Swope and another old friend, Jimmy Stewart.

After the disappointment of Maybe It’s Love, Alexander was tossed back into supporting status in Going Highbrow, released in August 1935, a farce about the nouveau riche, starring Guy Kibbee and ZaSu Pitts. Alexander’s role was, if anything, limited in scope. He continued his featured status in We’re in the Money, also released that August, a tired variation of the gold digger theme, starring Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell. Farrell would become a close friend.

Alexander, along with a sizable contingent of the Warner roster, next appeared in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, starring, among others, James Cagney and Dick Powell. Included in the young beauties of this star-studded extravaganza (in addition to Verree Teasdale, Olivia de Havilland and Jean Muir) was blonde ingenue Anita Louise. Alexander and the stunning actress were soon rumored by inside sources to be more than “just friends.” It was the first semi-public whisper on the west coast of any impropriety on Alexander’s part. However, due to the standard morals clause in the players’ contracts, they made certain they never gave real cause for public speculation. In fact, at the same time of the rumored romance with Alexander, Louise was being linked by studio publicists with Italian tenor Nino Martini, with whom she was appearing in a film at Fox, Here’s to Romance. Alexander, meanwhile, would soon turn his roving eye to a much bigger fish in the Warners’ pond, Bette Davis.

While these romantic interludes, and perhaps untold others, were playing out, Alexander appeared for a third time with Dick Powell in Shipmates Forever, released in October. Filmed primarily on location at Annapolis Naval Academy, Powell’s leading lady was, as usual, Ruby Keeler, but Alexander garnered better notices than the nominal stars. The columnists were keeping his name in print, and the studio ensured he was seen with all the right people, with photos of the Alexanders with such Hollywood royalty as Errol Flynn and Lili Damita at swank filmland soirees appearing in newspapers and magazines across the country.

The quantity, if not quality, of his work thus far had gained the attention of other studios, a sure sign of success, and on December 6, 1935, the trades announced he had been loaned out to the newly formed Twentieth Century-Fox for an important role in Everybody’s Old Man. This Irvin S. Cobb production was to star Cobb and Rochelle Hudson. However, 24 hours after the announcement, Alexander’s life changed forever. The roles he might have played in the Cobb production eventually went to Johnny Downs and Norman Foster.

On the night of December 6, Aleta, frustrated and severely despondent over her inability to break into films after having failed several important screen tests, had what Alexander would later describe as a “small spat” of “minor consequence” with her husband. She decided to return to New York and resume her stage career and Alexander, irritated, dismissively told her to get on with it and leave. After he went to bed, Aleta took a rifle from a gun rack, walked out into the chilly December night and shot herself in the temple. Awakened by the blast, Alexander rushed into the yard, stumbling over his wife’s prostrate body. She died later that morning, December 7, at Emergency Hospital. Alexander found himself not only a widower at age 28, but with a career that could possibly be in serious jeopardy.

Although her death was clearly a suicide, her father, Dr. William Friele, in Jersey City, immediately placed a phone call to Los Angeles police, demanding an official investigation and an inquest. He also hired an attorney to institute a private investigation into his daughter’s marriage and death, his anger no doubt fueled by gossip linking “jealous” Aleta and Alexander’s “friendly” relationships with other women.

Following Friele’s call, police ordered the coroner’s office, which was about to release Aleta’s body to a local mortuary, to return the body. The coroner’s office complied and announced that an inquest would be scheduled that day. However, Friele’s inquiries provided no incriminating evidence about the marriage or her death, and a seemingly devastated Alexander escorted his wife’s body back to Jersey City for burial.

Upon his return to Hollywood Alexander was taken by Henry Fonda to the Brentwood home he was sharing with John Swope and James Stewart, where, according to Fonda, he temporarily “gave up women for port” to assuage his guilt. Three weeks after Aleta’s death, while Alexander was still in seclusion, his latest film, Captain Blood, starring Warners’ new swashbuckler, Errol Flynn, premiered. Although billed fourth, Alexander’s small role went unnoticed for the most part.

After a few weeks stay with Fonda, Alexander had recuperated enough to not only return to his home on Woodrow Wilson Drive, but also to embark upon a heated pursuit to conquer one of his studio’s, and indeed Hollywood’s, best known and very married, stars, Bette Davis.

As 1936 dawned, Bette Davis’ career was in high gear, but her private life with husband Harmon (Ham) Nelson was rapidly disintegrating into shambles. In order to maintain the proper facade, the couple was living in Greta Garbo’s former Brentwood home, surrounded by staff, luxurious automobiles and all the necessary accouterments. Despite their marriage being terminal, any rumors of his wife’s infidelity with other men, the latest being Franchot Tone, enraged Nelson. While he had convinced himself those rumors were probably groundless, he wasn’t so certain when, in early 1936, reports surfaced that the newly widowed Alexander had developed an obsession with his wife. While Davis was said to be vulnerable to the bisexual Alexander’s overtures, she wisely turned down his advances. Nevertheless, Nelson’s smoldering jealousy erupted.

In the meantime, Alexander began a persistent campaign for a role in any Davis film, convincing himself that if he had the opportunity to do a love scene with her, she would respond “like a wildcat.” According to writer and Davis friend Jerry Asher, Alexander was “forever maneuvering to get cast in a picture with her. It was really pathetic, so self-deceptive when he went on about if he ever held her in his arms and kissed her onscreen, he’d kindle a wild response in her. I knew Bette well enough to know that Ross wasn’t her type. He was a handsome enough kid, with a good body and a wry, offhand, cynical charm that made him great in certain roles, but she could always spot a bisexual component in a man and that she needed like a hole in her head at that stage. And he wouldn’t have been masculine enough for her—not that he was effeminate, that he wasn’t, but there was something feminine and feline about the way he put himself across on screen, especially in comedy parts.”

As word of his pursuit spread across the Burbank lot, the studio knew, if they had ever considered it to begin with, that they would be asking for trouble by casting him in any Davis film. Thwarted at that turn, Alexander began writing her love letters, sliding them under her dressing room door. “She’d read them, laugh at them and throw them in the wastebasket,” Asher recalled. “Ross was a real masochist. He didn’t know when he was getting no—a big loud no—for an answer, and the fact that Bette was married to Ham Nelson didn’t seem to bother him at all.”

The situation came to head when Alexander foolishly left yet another florid love letter pinned to her dressing room door, with the envelope boldly addressed “To My Beloved One, Bette.” The letter had been written in such a way as to imply that Davis was equally interested in him, even insinuating that their passion had been consummated. As luck would have it, Ham Nelson chose that day to pay a rare visit to his wife at the studio, where she was filming Satan Met a Lady. Nelson read the letter and, furious, confronted his wife on the set, waving the note in her face and demanding an explanation. Davis pulled her husband aside, read the letter and crumpled it her hand, telling Nelson, “That queer is having pipe dreams. He’s trying to prove his manhood, or something, and he knows I see right through him.”

Nelson sputtered that he would kill Alexander then and there, to which Davis replied, “I’ve got to get back to the set—deal with him as you like. Just get him off my back!” Nelson found Alexander in a studio mens’ room. Grabbing him by the lapels, Nelson screamed, “It’s my wife you’re writing that slush-and-mush to, and she wants no part of it! If you’re any kind of man, you’ll back off!” Although Alexander raised his fists to defend himself, the taller and stronger Nelson knocked him to the floor. The resulting black eye delayed the start of his next film for a few weeks, but, as it developed, the fracas only served to increase his obsession over the coming months.

In the midst of this turmoil, his latest film (the last completed before Aleta’s death), Boulder Dam, was released in February. It was his first solo starring role. A fairly good, albeit predictable, B feature, he played a selfish mechanic turned decent while on the lam. He was supported by a respectable cast which included Patricia Ellis (the self-proclaimed Queen of the Bs at Warner Bros.), Lyle Talbot and Eddie Acuff. More than one critic noted that Alexander appeared “somewhat tired of it all.”

Alexander was next reunited with his former love interest, Anita Louise, in Brides Are Like That, which premiered the same month as Boulder Dam prior to general release in April. Although definitely another B, it was a pleasant domestic farce and Alexander garnered good reviews for his humorous and impudent personality. Continuing on an upswing, Alexander then co-starred with Pat O’Brien and Josephine Hutchinson in the second film adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ “Main Street,” which the studio retitled I Married a Doctor. He again earned good reviews from the critics for his role in this competent little drama.

Armed with continuing good reviews, increasing fan mail, growing popularity, and with the tragedy of Aleta’s death fading, Warners again promoted him to starring status, in the nondescript Hot Money. The film, which opened in July, had Alexander playing a super promotions expert who becomes involved with his secretary, newcomer Beverly Roberts. Although it was a perfect role for the witty Alexander, the film itself was only notable in passing. Also in the film was a young actress playing a small role, the dark-haired and charming Anne Nagel.

Daughter of a Technicolor expert, Nagel was born Ann Dolan in Boston, probably in 1912, although other sources state 1915 and 1916. Her Hollywood career began with bit roles in 1933, but had been progressing very slowly through 1935. Her career picked up significantly when she joined the contract roster at Warners. Although they had been in the same film, Alexander and Nagel had not met until mutual friend Glenda Farrell arranged for him to escort her to a party. Despite his still public mourning for Aleta, Alexander and Nagel were immediately attracted to each other, beginning a discreet friendship, which soon blossomed, at least on her part, into romance. Despite constantly bemoaning the loss of Aleta, friends noted he seemed happier than he ever had since his wife’s death six months earlier.

Warners tossed Alexander back into supporting status in China Clipper, with Pat O’Brien and Beverly Roberts. Released in August, Alexander’s fellow supporting players were Humphrey Bogart, Marie Wilson, Marjorie Weaver and Anne Nagel, now his primary off-screen interest. Alexander was deemed merely credible in his role as a pilot, receiving the most lackluster reviews of his recent films.

Less than a month after the release of China Clipper, the couple took the film colony by complete surprise, flying to Yuma, where they were married on September 16. Screen commitments precluded a honeymoon, and back in Hollywood they settled into a picturesque Encino ranch home at 17221 Ventura Boulevard.

Perversely, despite his new marriage, Alexander’s obsession with Bette Davis continued to fester. He often stayed home, brooded and drank excessively. Anne, deeply in love, quietly left him several times when she discovered unfinished love letters to Davis under his desk blotter. The greater his obsession, the more annoyed Davis became, and she openly began taunting him at the studio, casting aspersions on his manhood. Once again, Davis friend Jerry Asher tried to reason with him. Despite their frank talk, Alexander continued to sink into spells of profound depression, which his naive wife was unable to understand.

In October 1936, Nagel underwent an appendectomy at the hands of Dr. Franklin Thorpe, prominent Hollywood physician and one-time husband of Mary Astor. Without her knowledge, during the surgery she was rendered sterile, a fact she was not made aware of for eleven years. Whether Alexander was aware of Thorpe’s actions is unknown.

Despite his personal problems, Alexander got perhaps the best reviews of his career that November with the release of Here Comes Carter. Portraying a radio commentator, he was declared “grand” by Photoplay, and he was even favorably compared with Jack Benny, it being noted that he displayed amazing self-assurance and glib delivery. Supporting him was pal Glenda Farrell and his wife Anne, who had a solid featured role as a radio singer. With the film’s success assured, he immediately went into production on his most important film yet. He was to co-star with Warners’ dancing queen Ruby Keeler in what was said to be one the studio’s more important films of the coming year, Ready, Willing and Able.

His rising status and importance to the studio were confirmed when he was named one of the “White-Ribbon Stars” of 1936. Others in that category included Lew Ayres, Charles Boyer, George Brent, Bruce Cabot, Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, John Wayne and Robert Young, without question a remarkable pool of talent. He also ranked fifth in fan-mail volume at Warner Bros., perhaps the best barometer of popularity.

Unfortunately, his professional success was not reflected in his private life. On December 7, 1936, the first anniversary of Aleta’s death, his butler, Cornelius Stevenson, discovered the young star, obviously intoxicated, loading cartridges in his pistol, stating he wished to shoot some sparrows. As it was already nightfall, a suspicious Stevenson remonstrated with Alexander, who admitted he was set on killing himself. Stevenson wrested the gun from Alexander, who moaned, “I know I will never find a wife as good as Aleta.” Alexander’s father, who along with his mother, was visiting from New York, counseled his son. It was an omen of things to come, but only three days later Alexander was back at the studio in seemingly good form, being photographed by Scotty Welbourne in the still gallery. He had never looked better, with his handsome face reflecting a new maturity. It was to be his last photo session.

Shortly before Christmas, during one of his increasing spells of depression, Alexander went for a drive, picking up a male hitchhiker on the highway. After a sexual encounter, the obliging hobo immediately threatened him with exposure unless handsomely compensated. Despite being on the verge of stardom, Alexander, frantic over the obvious ramifications, did not have sufficient funds and was forced to confess the situation to his studio publicist. The publicity department and studio attorneys shifted into high gear and successfully “took care” of the situation, which didn’t become public knowledge for more than fifty years. However, his mortification and humiliation were apparently more than he could bear.

Filming on Ready, Willing and Able, near completion, had suspended for the holidays and the Alexanders spent a quiet week at home with his parents before their departure back to New York. On January 3, the couple took down their first Christmas tree. The seemingly lighthearted (and possibly drinking Alexander) discussed with Anne a belated honeymoon to New York. They spent a quiet day together, with Alexander playing the guitar Anne had given him for a Christmas present. Shortly before dinnertime, Alexander took a .22 pistol from the gun rack and told Stevenson, the butler, he was going to shoot a duck. Stevenson’s wife, Elta, who served as housekeeper, later related that as Alexander left the house, he ran into the gardener, who advised Alexander it would be better to chop off the duck’s head rather than shoot it. Alexander returned inside the home, saying he didn’t like the sight of blood.

Shortly thereafter, he left the house again, telling Stevenson to call for him at the ranch’s barn when dinner was ready. When the butler did so, he entered the barn to find Alexander slumped over bags of grain in the hayloft over the hen roost, a pistol in his left hand and a lighted torch by his side. He had shot himself in the temple, apparently dying instantly.

It was Elta Stevenson who was faced with breaking the news to Anne, awaiting her husband’s return for dinner. Her mother, Veronica Nagel, rushed from her nearby home in Reseda, as scores of friends, notably Glenda Farrell, began arriving. Other visitors, who arrived even before the police, and under the instructions of Jack Warner, searched the house in order to remove any unsent letters or mementos that might incriminate Alexander, or, more importantly, Bette Davis. The pathetic Nagel sobbed to officials, “The least you could have done was let me see Ross before you took him away.”

Alexander’s body was taken to the W.M. Strother Mortuary, 6240 Hollywood Blvd. Although the results were a foregone conclusion, the Van Nuys police having already closed their investigation, Coroner Frank Nance announced on Monday there would be an inquest on Wednesday, January 6. Alexander’s business manager said that Anne was still in shock and, that while funeral plans would not be completed until Thursday, it was initially thought the body would be returned to Rochester for burial, possibly accompanied by his parents. The senior Alexanders were in Arkansas, en-route back to their home in New York, when news of their son’s death reached them, and they were returning to Los Angeles by automobile with all possible haste.

On the morning on the inquest, the Los Angeles Times, in an article “Hearts Go Out to Young Star,” stated, “Hollywood showed its true colors in extending sympathy to little Anne Nagel, widow of Ross Alexander. To a man and woman they joined in condolences and did everything possible for this young woman left stranded, through no fault of her own, on tragedy’s shores. However important his reason, Ross certainly left Miss Nagel in a tough spot, and those who rallied to her side when she most needed it are to be commended. . . Everybody expresses the hope that this sad event will not hinder her future.” The article concluded that Warner Bros. executives were attributing the suicide to his “sensitiveness.”

The inquest was held in the chapel of the mortuary, with a jury of six listening to the testimony of Anne, Cornelius and Elta Stevenson, and to a detective lieutenant who described the events just before and after Alexander’s death. Stifling sobs, Anne testified, “After passing a quiet day at home last Saturday, we sat in our front room. I was crocheting. Ross was toying with his pistol. Pretty soon we both started playing with the gun, after he removed the cartridges. Finally Ross told me he was going upstairs to write some poetry. The house was filled with little verses he composed. But after scribbling for a moment, he went out to the barn. He planned to shoot a duck for dinner the next day.” She concluded by stating that was the last time she saw her husband, and insisted that not only did he not seem despondent, but instead appeared “happier than ever.”

When questioned, Stevenson publicly told, for the first time, that Alexander had attempted to kill himself in December, and that he was intoxicated both then and on the day he died. After listening to the balance of the testimony, the jury declared the 29-year-old star a suicide. Simultaneously, it was announced the funeral would take place the following day at Forest Lawn’s Little Church of the Flowers.

Scores of friends and young filmland personalities paid Alexander their final respects at the simple, open casket ceremony, with, as one report put it, “the sound of their footsteps past his coffin” serving as his requiem and Hollywood remembering a “favored son” with scores of floral tributes. Interment was to be delayed at least a day, to allow for his parents to arrive back in Los Angeles. Instead of being returned to Rochester, Alexander was then laid to rest in a simple grave on the Sunrise Slope, just outside Forest Lawn’s Great Mausoleum.

There were many reasons, both personal and financial, instrumental in Alexander’s decision to end his life. Maintaining a staunch loyalty to her late husband, Anne was always adamant that she could think of no reason why Alexander, whom she felt most people considered a terrific guy, would kill himself.

A sad postscript was added on January 10, 1937, when the New York Times revealed that his parents had been deprived of $31,500 by his not delaying his suicide by a month. Instead, they received only $3,500, due to a suicide clause in his life insurance policy, in which their son had pledged not to end his life within two years of its issuance.

In March 1937, Ready, Willing and Able was released to tepid reviews. Keeler was not at her best, nor was the rest of the supporting cast. Following his death, Warner Bros. had played down Alexander’s role. Even though they moved his name far down in the credits, he was undeniably the leading man and, thought many, had never shown brighter. Alexander (dubbed by James Newill) sang Richard Whiting and Johnny Mercer’s now-classic “Too Marvelous for Words,” and even forty years later former Warner executives could recall the potential he had displayed in his final film. At a 1981 reunion party for Warner Bros. alumni, all those who had known him remembered him as fast-talking and jaunty, perhaps a little cocky, but with tremendous talent.

It didn’t take the studio long to replace Alexander with another affable newcomer with the same clear baritone that had once impressed them with Alexander. In March, an agent met with a visiting sports announcer. Warner Bros. casting director Max Arnow also met with the young man, who, within weeks, was signed to a seven-year contract. The newcomer’s name was Ronald Reagan.

Anne retired from the screen for nearly three years following her husband’s death. When she resurfaced, she joined Universal, becoming one of their more notable “scream queens” in B-horror films. A second marriage, to James Kenaston, ended in divorce. She had long been living in obscure retirement when she died of cancer in 1966 and was buried in an unmarked grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City.

Little trace of Alexander remains in Hollywood. The home he shared with Aleta in Laurel Canyon still exists, but the ranch on Ventura Boulevard was long ago demolished. Although the building is still there, the W.M. Strother Mortuary closed decades ago, and Warner Bros. certainly isn’t the same studio it was in Alexander’s heyday. Few people visit his grave, marked by a simple flat monument and unlisted in any guidebooks. However, on rare occasions, this forgotten star still can be rediscovered on screen, a reminder of a talent that blossomed briefly during Hollywood’s Golden Age.