Francis Xavier Bushman, one of Hollywood’s first superstars who was known as the “Handsomest Man in the World” and thrilled 1920s moviegoers with his performance in the famous chariot race scene from “Ben-Hur,” was born in Baltimore in 1883, and grew up in a rowhouse at Argyle Avenue and Mosher Street in the city’s Upton neighborhood.
One of a dozen children of Roman Catholic parents, Bushman enjoyed telling listeners how in his younger days he threw bricks at a youthful H.L. Mencken and purchased from market stalls scraps of meat to feed his vast menagerie of pets that included dogs, cats, lizards and frogs.
While a student at the old Calvert Hall College on Mulberry Street in downtown Baltimore, Bushman began acting in 1896, taking walk-on parts with a Baltimore stock company, while modeling for the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Charcoal Club. After high school, he attended Ammendale Normal Institute in Beltsville.
Standing 6-feet tall, the beefy, blue-eyed, strong-jawed Bushman became the sex symbol of his time, whereas press agents referred to him as a “romantic idol” to describe the actor who was known as the “Handsomest Man in the World,” until being replaced by younger actors Rudolph Valentino and Ramon Novarro who had great female appeal.
In a remarkable career that spanned the stage, silent movies, talkies, radio, and television, Bushman who began appearing in movies at Chicago’s Essanay Co. Studios in 1911, when he starred in “Two Men and a Girl.” By the time of his death in 1966, had appeared in nearly 200 feature films and shorts.
His career soared after he began working at Metro Pictures studios in Hollywood, which later became a component of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Wherever he went, enormous crowds would gather, and he was forced to travel with bodyguards. Thousands of fan letters arrived weekly, so much so, he had to hire a roomful of secretaries to answer the mail.
“In his palmy days, Bushman rode in a 23-foot purple Marmon with his name in gold letters on the door, and he smoked eight-inch mauve cigarettes in a holder,” reported The Evening Sun. He often boasted that he purchased a new car after the car’s ashtray was full.
He lived in regal splendor at Bush Manor, his Riderwood estate that still stands on Landrake Road, until 1919 when he was forced to sell his home to pay off mounting debts and alimony.
In 1902, he had married Josephine Duval, with whom he had five children. But trouble was on the horizon when he began having a torrid affair with his longtime co-star Beverly Bayne. His fans had thought Bushman single and were shocked to learn that he had a wife and children.
His wife filed for divorce in Towson in 1918, and three days later after it was final, he married Bayne, who in turn divorced him in 1928.
After his romantic life became public, his popularity and film career began to wane, but perhaps one of his most memorable films was “Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ,” the 1925 film that was based on the novel of the same name that had been written in 1880 by former Union General Lew Wallace, who had been in charge of the occupation of Baltimore during the Civil War.
His rival Novarro played the role of Ben Hur while Bushman was Messala, who is remembered wearing his iconic winged-helmet in the memorable chariot scene, in which no stuntman was used, with Bushman handling the scene himself, because he knew how to drive a team of horses.
After losing his fans and celebrated clashes with studio moguls, including Louis B. Mayer, he found himself blacklisted and out of work.
“The realization that the public could crucify its ‘chosen big’ overnight, sobered me up,” he said in a 1947 interview with The Associated Press.
Between high living and the stock market crash of 1929, Bushman lost his estimated $6 million fortune.
He returned to the stage, performed on radio during the 1930s and 1940s and tackled the new medium of TV, making appearances in such 1950s and 1960s staples as “Gunsmoke,” ”77 Sunset Strip,” “Batman,” and “Dr. Kildare.” His last movie was “The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini” in 1966.
In later years, he owned and operated a Hollywood memorabilia shop and a hamburger stand. Not too content to become the male version of Norma Desmond, the faded silent movie era star in “Sunset Boulevard,” Bushman continued to attend The Oscars and film premieres, a celluloid relic from the early days of Hollywood.
Bushman continues to be a daily presence in Baltimore, as he gazes down to passing St. Paul Street motorists and pedestrians from his pedestal at the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse. That’s not Cecil Calvert, but rather Bushman, as he posed for the statue.
“I got $6 million worth of enjoyment,” he said, reflecting on his life. “Beside, I don’t think about yesterday. I love today and live it to the fullest.”