Before Marilyn: Star-Maker Ben Lyon’s Path to Fame

Ben Lyon visits Marilyn during filming of The Seven Year Itch, 1954

Monroe fans know Ben Lyon as the talent scout who first signed Norma Jeane Dougherty to Twentieth Century Fox in 1946. Lyon had once been a movie star in his own right, starring with Jean Harlow in Hell’s Angels (1930), before marrying another beautiful actress, Bebe Daniels. By the early 1950s, the couple were settled in London and starring in a popular sitcom, Life With the Lyons. He died in 1979, and is remembered with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Marilyn never forgot the man who suggested her name (after Broadway star Marilyn Miller.) A photo inscribed to him by Marilyn was sold for $37,500 during the ‘Essentially Marilyn’ event at Profiles in History in 2018. And a 1960 letter in which Lyon thanked Marilyn for a bottle of whiskey fetched $256 at Julien’s Auctions in 2019.

An article by Jimmy Tomlin for the High Point Enterprise looks back on Ben’s surprise visit to the North Carolina town in 1934, giving a flavour of the future starmaker at the height of his own fame.

Ben Lyon and his wife, Bebe Daniels

“On the evening of May 19, 1934, some 5,000 residents swarmed the city depot to see if they could catch a glimpse of husband-and-wife movie stars Ben Lyon Jr. and Bebe Daniels — a crowd so large and enthusiastic that police had to be called in to protect the young couple from the teeming masses.

Now, you may not recognize the names of Lyon and Daniels, but in 1934 everybody — and we mean everybody — knew who they were. These two were Hollywood royalty, a pair of silent film stars so beloved that even their fellow movie stars swooned in their presence.

Furthermore, when Lyon and Daniels tied the knot in 1930, about 200 celebrities attended the wedding, including the likes of Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Irving Berlin, Clara Bow and Lionel Barrymore.

So what was a couple of that magnitude doing in little ol’ High Point? Well, it turns out Lyon’s parents, Ben Lyon Sr. and Alvine Lyon, lived in High Point for more than a decade — from at least the early 1920s until the mid-1930s — brought here by Ben’s job in the bedding industry. The younger Lyon visited as often as his Hollywood schedule allowed. The dashing young star wasn’t born in High Point, but his ties here were strong enough that the Enterprise poignantly described him as ‘High Point’s contribution to the cinema’ and ‘High Point’s adopted son.’

That was the case on that crazy Saturday evening in 1934, when a crowd of 5,000 — mostly women — showed up at the depot.

Actually, though, the craziness began on Friday. The city had caught wind that the Hollywood power couple was in town visiting Lyon’s parents, so that afternoon and evening a constant stream of rubberneckers drove by the Lyons’ home on Johnson Street, trying to catch a fleeting glimpse of the stars. Eventually, a crowd of about 2,000 people gathered at the house, just standing there in the front yard, until finally the idols came to the front porch and greeted the cheering throng.

The Enterprise not only reported that incident, but also tipped off readers as to when ‘Ben and Bebe,’ as their loving fans called them, would be boarding a train to leave town. That’s why there was such a huge crowd at the depot the next night.

Unfortunately for the Lyons, their train was 20 minutes behind schedule, which gave the crowd even more time to close in on them.

‘As they appeared upon the platform, the crowd moved forward, milling around them, crowding and pushing in an effort to secure a glimpse,’ the Enterprise reported. ‘A policeman fought his way to their side but was helpless.’

Daniels, who was pregnant, apparently nearly fainted from the crush and heat of the crowd — the Enterprise headline said she ‘almost suffocated’ — so she and her husband retreated to the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel opposite the depot. Police reserves were called to the scene, and they escorted the couple through the mob when the train arrived. The somewhat unnerved couple waved farewell from the platform, ‘appreciative perhaps of the sendoff, but undoubtedly sorry that the train was late,’ the Enterprise wrote.

The reporter even recorded a few comments from the starstruck crowd.

‘I actually touched his coat,’ one swooning young girl gushed.

‘It must be terrible to be so famous,’ an elderly woman lamented. ‘I imagine it is the same everywhere they go.’

Oh no, not everywhere. Remember, this frenzied farewell happened in High Point, their ‘adopted’ home away from home.”