The Movie Star You Never Knew


Casa Paloma is a classic 1920s California Spanish bungalow.

When destiny directed me to Pasadena in 2003, I never imagined I’d own a house loaded with old Hollywood history. I was drawn to the 1926 Spanish bungalow for its abundance of character and amazing gardens, not, as the realtor eagerly disclosed, because it was built by silent film legend and cowboy star, Tom Mix. I was further surprised to learn it was moved from Brentwood to Pasadena in 1991. Like all dutiful historical fiction writers, I did some homework and discovered that in 1926 Mix was living in a Beverly Hills mansion with his wife Victoria. Hmmm. More digging revealed my “new” house was a gift to his mistress Dorothy Sebastian whom I soon learned was much more interesting than ole Tom. A Southern beauty who sought to parlay her looks into fortune and fame, Dorothy had a streak of rebelliousness that would’ve made Scarlett O’Hara proud.

At 15, Dorothy fled Birmingham for New York and immediately took elocution lessons to tame her heavy drawl. After a short, forgettable marriage, she appeared in the George White Scandals of 1924 with new friend Louise Brooks, another unconventional actress. Offstage she had an affair with famed British cabinet member, Lord Beaverbrook. That valuable dalliance reportedly earned her a film contract in Hollywood a year later. After a string of forgettable movies, she struck gold in Arizona Wildcat (1927) with real-live lover Mix as her leading man. She got third billing after Tony, “the Wonder Horse.”


Dorothy’s star continued to rise when Our Dancing Daughters (1928) teamed her with another young Hollywood hopeful named Joan Crawford. She and Joan became close pals, but it was her string of flings that earned Dorothy’s notoriety and some said unraveled her film career. Here’s where our tale gets tricky.

Dorothy and Joan in a Malibu photo shoot.

While dallying with Mix, Dorothy had comedic genius Buster Keaton on the side, working with him on several films, notably Spite Marriage. Their liaison lasted until 1935 with Keaton’s spectacular fall from superstardom to alcoholic has-been. When Mix also rode off into the sunset, Dorothy got herself engaged to Clarence Brown, Oscar-nominated Best Director in 1930 for Anna Christie. Calling off the marriage, Dorothy quipped, “A girl needs more than an emerald ring and an ermine coat to make her happy.” She then set her sights on another cowboy megastar and this time married him and vamoosed to Beverly Hills. He was none other than William Boyd, better known as Hopalong Cassidy, and they also co-starred in films. The stormy marriage lasted from 1930-36, culminating in a rancorous divorce which fatally tarnished Dorothy’s star. Left broke, career in tatters, she found work in a defense plant where she met her third husband, Herman Shapiro. Their marriage was apparently a happy one and lasted until her death from cancer in 1957 at the Motion Picture Home. She was only 53. Looking back over her turbulent career, I can’t help wondering if her nickname, “Little Bam,” had more to do with her romances than her Alabama roots.

Michael Marquez's Cowboy Room mural paid homage to silent filmmakers.

Michael Marquez’s mural pays homage to silent filmmakers.

Dorothy’s little love nest fared far better. The owner before me, artist Michael Marquez, not only relocated the house to Pasadena but meticulously restored it as well. He paid tribute to its colorful past by painting a mural of Monument Valley. Covering an entire wall of the Cowboy Room, it depicts a silent film crew shooting a stagecoach hundreds of feet below. I can’t imagine a better example of art imitating life and feel sure Dorothy would be pleased. I never saw her ghost but I easily imagined her canoodling with Tom, Buster and Hopalong before the fireplace or sipping cocktails with Joan on the porch and…well, let’s just say when I watched their old movies on TCM I never felt alone.


Part 5 of a series on living with history.


  1. yangszechoo
    Feb 4, 2013

    What a great post! I really enjoyed reading it and am so impressed with all the research you did!

    • Michael Llewellyn
      Feb 4, 2013

      Thanks so much. Learning about Dorothy was like peeling an onion, i.e., there was always another layer waiting beneath.

    • Michael Llewellyn
      Feb 4, 2013

      Forgot to mention I enjoyed your piece on Japanese mayonnaise. News to me and I love learning new things.

  2. Perry Bird
    Feb 20, 2013

    Hi Michael – a blast from the past here. Richard and I were talking about you the other night and remembering the great dinner parties you held in New Orleans. Good to find you! Love the blog and your writings as always!

    Perry Bird

  3. Sylvia
    Mar 23, 2013

    What a great place to live. May their spirits inspire you!

    • Michael Llewellyn
      Mar 23, 2013

      Thanks, Sylvia. I’ve been blessed to live in so many interesting places in my life. And it ain’t over yet!

  4. Ciji Ware
    Mar 23, 2013

    Even though I’ve been in a guest in your former house in Pasadena, I learned so much in this recent blog! And LOVED the pictures! I think there’s a book in here somewhere…

  5. Judy Leger
    Mar 24, 2013

    I agree with Ciji–there is a book in there somewhere! And, you might find out that her friend, Miss Louise is a long-lost Brooks relative of ours.

  6. Darlene Leyba
    Jun 10, 2013

    I saw that this lovely house is for sale, and there was the intonation that Tom Mix built it for Dorothy Sebastian. Thinking there may be a juicy tidbit here I Googled both of their names and found your website and the… of the story. Very interesting indeed, I love the old Hollywood history. I live in Altadena, in a 1904 Mission Revival home. In doing the research on this house I found such interesting information about the first owner who built it. His name is Clinton Churchill Clarke, he came from Chicago Ill. and brought his new bride to the home in 1906. They stayed until 1910 moving later to the Arroyo Vista Hotel. He is responsible for the development of the Pacific Crest Trail. Neither the Altadena or Pasadena Historical Society have info on him and all that he brought to Pasadena.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *