Leila Marie Koerber was born on November 9, 1869 in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada to her parents, Alexander Rudolph Koerber and Anna Henderson. She was the youngest of two daughters born to the Koerbers. Her older sister Bonita was born 5 years earlier. Alexander was a former military officer from the Crimean War, and had immigrated to Canada around 1851, and worked in Cobourg as a music teacher. He also played the organ at the St. Peter's Anglican Church. Anne was a musican and it seemed only natural that Marie would be inclined towards a performance art.
Marie often would stay with her father at a young age, helping him with the organ and singing in the church. She even had her first known performance in a church play at the age of 5. As she grew up, she often performed in a number of local amateur theatrical shows, which seems to have irritated her parents.
At the age of 14, she and her sister Bonita left home to pursue a career as actors. They joined the Nevada Stock Company and Marie told them she was 18. While Marie used the name Leila up till now, it was during this time that she changed her name to Marie Dressler for her film and theater career. She claims it was because her father would not allow her to use the name Koerber as a theatrical performer and that the name was based off an Aunt, but there is room to speculate. Marie stayed with the troupe for 3 years, while her sister Bonita married English playwright Richard Ganthony and left her career behind.
Marie traveled from town to town throughout the US, and after leaving the Nevada Stock Company, joined one after another theater companies until around 1891 (around age 22) when she stopped in Chicago, where she starred in a couple of productions, then chose to move to New York City. In NYC, she appeared on Broadway in 1892 and while all her productions were not completely successful, she continued to gain in popularity.
It was during this time that Maurice Barrymore recommended she pursue comedic roles. Because she was not a typical skinny model, she had always been sensitive about people laughing at her. But she took his advice and found that she was quite good at comedy. As her career began to take off, her personal life was about to change. She married George Hoppert in 1894. This marriage was not to last, and some biographers have shown their marriage over by 1896 - others by the early 1900's. There is also some evidence that they attempted to have a child together, but the child did not survive.
She continued to perform in the theater and on Broadway throughout the period from 1900 to 1920, occasionally starring in films. But she began to experience money trouble. In 1900, due to mounting bills and inconsistent income, she was forced to declare bankruptcy. She recovered, but would declare bankruptcy again in 1909. She also lost her mother in 1902 and her father in 1908. It was during this time that she met James H. Dalton. He was a businessman from the Massachusetts area who wanted to help with her career. They moved to London where they were married in 1907. Marie would find out many years later that Jim had paid off a friend to pretend to be a preacher, and so the marriage was never real.
After her failures in England, she returned home and continued to perform and tour. Her husband Jim accompanied her. By 1920, she had discovered his deception at the altar, but he was dying of kidney failure, and struggled to keep up with her busy schedule. Jim had begged his estranged wife for a divorce, and she refused. In 1921, while Marie was in St. Louis performing and Jim in Chicago, he died. She left the tour to return only to find that Jim's legal wife had laid claim to his body and was returning him to New York to be buried in the family plot. Marie was devastated.
She buried herself in her work, but found it hard to find employment in the theater. After inconsistent job offers, she made her final performance in 1926 on Broadway. At the same time, her film career began to take off. She had first appeared in a feature length film in 1914, but after a couple of sequels, stopped for awhile after 1918. It wasn't until 1927 that she began to see starring roles in feature films again.
In 1930, she appeared in a feature film called "Min and Bill", and her role would win her an Academy Award for Best Actress. Her career continued to be successful, but her health began to take a turn for the worse. She was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1934, but Louis B. Mayer found out the doctor's diagnosis before Marie, and ordered him not to tell her. Louis tried to keep her from travelling during this time to protect her. By the end of her career, she had appeared in over 40 films. She passed away in Santa Barbara, California on July 28, 1934.
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