Lahr was a trooper in the truest sense of the word. Like many of his contemporaries, his career began on the stages of burlesque and vaudeville. During the Roaring Twenties, he partnered up with Mercedes Delpino, a pretty, dark-haired dancer. Together, they established an act that included the sexy Delpino as a gyrating dancer who catches the eye of a bumbling, beat-walking policeman played by Lahr. Their chemistry and their antics made them one of vaudeville’s most popular duos. Offstage, Lahr was smitten with his partner and a romance blossomed. The couple married on August 23, 1929 and they soon had a son, Herbert.The new Mrs. Lahr, however, had never been well. She suffered from what was probably some form of schizophrenia that caused abrupt mood swings and sudden black-outs leading to memory loss. She was prone to breaking things and starting fires. At one point, she even shaved her head. Lahr was at a loss. He desperately wanted to help his wife, but had no idea how. When she tried to hurt the baby, he had no choice, but to admit her to an asylum—most likely in 1930. Lahr spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in an effort to find a cure for Mercedes, but back in the early thirties little was known about mental illness. Beyond any help that was available at the time, she was eventually declared insane.
In 1932, Lahr met the striking Mildred Schroeder, a Ziegfeld Girl. She thought he was a perfect gentleman and he thought she was simply wonderful. Knowing that a normal life with Mercedes was not possible, Lahr promised Mildred that he would divorce his wife and marry her, but it wasn’t so easy. Divorce laws in New York were problematic and the process extremely slow. Four years later, Mildred got tired of waiting and married another man. Lahr was crushed, but he refused to give up. Mildred soon realized the mistake she’d made and in October, 1937, she divorced her husband who accused Lahr of being a ‘love thief’.As filming of The Wizard of Oz took place, Lahr was still trying to end his first marriage to Mercedes who remained institutionalized. He was anxious and worried that Mildred would run out of patience and leave him once again—this time permanently. It wasn’t until February 8, 1940 that Lahr finally received an official annulment and only after three doctors in White Plains, New York testified that Mercedes had been incurably insane for the past five years. Three days later, Lahr and Mildred married. Despite their long union, which produced a son, John, and a daughter, Jane, Lahr never forgot his first wife. It was reported that when Mercedes died, a morose Lahr didn’t speak a word to anyone for three days.
Dressed as The Cowardly Lion, he endured the grueling make-up sessions that forced him to sip his lunch through a straw because he couldn’t open his mouth wide enough to eat. He tolerated the elaborate wig and long, heavy costume made out of actual lion fur, which caused him to overheat under the studio’s hot lights. But it wasn’t the hazards of the job that bothered Lahr. Beneath that oversized wig and the awkward lion’s clothes, a gentleman quietly struggled to rebuild his life with as much dignity as he could muster.