She was born Helen Elizabeth MacGlashan in Buffalo, New York in 1890 to a family
of staunch Presbyterians. As her brother and sister were much older, Bess spent
most of her childhood alone, reading, writing and playing the piano. At age twelve,
she marched into the local newspaper and asked to write a fiction column. The
bemused editor agreed, and she was paid a dollar for each story.
Bess loved to startle people. At age 15, on a dare, she married
a young man on the high school football team. The union must be the shortest on
record, for the shocked families had it annulled before the ink had dried on the
marriage certificate. Bess soon put her talents to another use, playing "Pianologues"
in the local vaudeville house.
Acting on the vaudeville axiom that the three worst weeks
in the year were "Christmas, Easter and Buffalo," she left to try her
luck in New York City. When she learned that silent films, the “flickers,”
were being produced at D.W. Griffith's Biograph studios in New Jersey, she gave
the new medium a try, daily riding to work on the streetcar with another of Griffith's
protégées Mary Pickford.
Bess followed Griffith and Biograph out to California, where
she starred in a weekly comedy/adventure serial, playing Bessie Pinkerton Holmes
in Bess the Detectress. She also began selling story ideas to Biograph.
In 1917 she met another multitalented artist Wilfred Lucas,
and this time her wedding went off without a hitch. Two years later they produced
a son, John Meredyth Lucas. Although the marriage dissolved several years later,
Bess and Wilfred remained on good terms. In 1929, she married a new director that
Warner Brothers had imported from Hungary, Michael Curtiz.
Bess was one of the top scenario writers of the day, with
credits from Ben Hur, with Ramon Navarro, to Don Juan
starring John Barrymore, The Sea Beast and When a Man Loves,
and to the 1940 Mark of Zorro starring Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone.
It was an open secret in Hollywood that as well as writing her own films Bess
had a hand in doing production rewrites on all of Mike Curtiz’ projects.
Always a larger-than-life character, she was known
for her wit and word play. Her granddaughters remember that "other people’s
grandmothers taught them to make cookies. Ours taught us how to cheat at cards."
Bess died in 1969.