Nina Speight (1890-1965) of Hollywood, catarrh and colds

Above: 27 year old Melbourne girl Nina Speight on the cover of Lone Hand in October 1917. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Nina Speight arrived in California with her husband Rhodes Speight in April 1916. Within a year she was appearing in the supporting cast of Hal Roach comedies, especially those featuring Harold Lloyd, Bebe Daniels and usually in company with Snub Pollard, and sometimes at the direction of Alf Goulding.

Accurately tracing her films for the Roach studio is difficult, and the list provided by the IMDB today seems strangely incomplete and difficult to verify. In several of the films attributed to her, this writer was unable to identify anyone who resembled her. Several photos currently circulating on the net claiming to show Nina with Harold Lloyd may match known images of her, but by far the most reliable list of her work has been produced here by Jean Brisson, on the very comprehensive website run by Dave Lord Heath. It seems her most active years at the Roach studio were 1917 and 1918.

When Clubs are trump 19172 When Clubs are trump 1917

Above: Screen grabs of Nina Speight with unidentified actors in Hal Roach’s When Clubs are Trump, 1917. Both these are from low res Youtube versions of the film.

The flirt 1917 Hey There! 1918

Above: Screen grabs of Nina Speight  – a fleeting appearance in The Flirt (1917) and at right in a longer part as Bebe Daniel’s maid, poking out her tongue at her mistress, in Hey There (1918), both taken from Youtube versions of the films.

Growing up in Australia

Below: Nina Speight on the cover of The Lone Hand, March 1916. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove. The photo is attributed to Kenelm Stump. Readers interested in the challenge of identifying her in the Roach films are recommended to follow the link to the full scale photo.

Nina 1916Nina was born Simelia Präger in Fergie Street, North Fitzroy, Melbourne on 18 January, 1890. Her father, 39 year old Henry Präger, was a maker of waterproof clothing, describing himself on her birth certificate as a “mackintosh manufacturer.” Born in Prague in what was then part of the Kingdom of Austria-Hungary, he had migrated to Australia and in 1889 married 19 year old Isabella Nathan of Melbourne. In view of her age, Isabella’s father Samuel had to give permission for the marriage.

Although two other children were born of the union (Leslie in 1894 and Ruth in 1898), the marriage was not a happy one. In 1898 and now in Sydney, Isabella instituted proceedings against Henry because she feared he might abandon her and the children, and flee the colony. She had already been dragged from “colony to colony” at his whim – Victoria, South Australia, New Zealand and New South Wales. Her brother Isidore Nathan supported the family after finding Isabella and the three children destitute. None of this indicates a very happy or stable childhood for “Minnie” as Simelia now called herself (Minnie was also her grandmother’s name).


On to stage and screen

In 1910 in Sydney, New South Wales, Minnie married Reginald Rhodes Speight. Exactly how she drifted onto the stage we do not know, but from a young age she had been an artist’s model (Datillo Rubbio, Evelyn Chapman and Julian Ashton were mentioned as using her) and a vaudeville performer. The decorator for Brisbane’s Daniel Hotel reportedly based some of their murals on her. It is also likely that Minnie appeared in at least one early Australian film, Gaston Mervale‘s The Wreck of the Dunbar” with Louise Lovely (then Louise Carbasse) in 1912, but little is known of this lost film and the claim is impossible to verify.

Rhodes Speight was also an aspiring actor and elocutionist, with a high opinion of himself and dreams of establishing his own actors school. He was also an investor, and involved with films made by the Australian Life Biograph company in 1911-12. He apparently produced and starred in another lost Australian film entitled “Saved by a Snake,” which he took on tour to provincial theatres in 1913, providing a narration with each screening. In 1915 he took the bushranger film Thunderbolt” through northern Queensland, again providing audiences with an accompanying lecture. The concept of a live narration to a movie may boggle the mind today, but it was not uncommon practice in the early years of silent film.

Equally active in the partnership, Minnie Rhodes, as Nina then called herself, appeared in vaudeville troupes travelling through regional New South Wales, singing, dancing and acting as a foil for male comedians. By 1915 she had become Nina Speight and was performing on stage in Brisbane, Queensland. Both Rhodes and Nina were firm believers in the concept of re-inventing oneself, including by change of name, whenever necessary.

Nina in 1915

Above: Nina Speight appearing in Brisbane in July 1915. The Brisbane Courier, 3 Jul 1915.  Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Nina and colds 1915

Above: Well before arriving in the US, Nina had a high enough Australian profile to advertise a cold cure in the Brisbane Daily Standard Fri 24 September 1915 . Her achievements as a model were also listed. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

There is no conclusive evidence that Nina Speight was close to Louise Lovely , although they must have known each other through the Australian Life Biograph company. In December 1914 Louise Lovely and her husband Wilton Welch had sailed to the US and by early 1916 she was established in Hollywood, and her first film Stronger than Death, had been released. It was the start of a very successful career for Louise. It is very likely that this success, and that of other Australians working in the US like Enid Bennett and Arthur Shirley, played a part in what happened next. Nina and Rhodes packed up and left Australia for good in 1916.

The Vampire Dance

Above: Nina’s “Vampire Dance” as reported in The Lone Hand. Vol. 5 No. 6 (1 May 1916),  Yet there is no evidence she performed this popular dance anywhere on stage in Australia before she departed for the US. It is likely this was a posed photo-shoot for publicity. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Nina wrote home soon after, with all the good news from the US. She was modelling for artists again, and working with San Francisco’s Sarsi Studio. She expected work with a Movie studio soon. A further report on her career appeared in the June 1917 edition of “The Moving Picture World,” alongside profiles of five other aspiring stars. By this time, she had been signed to work with the Hal Roach studio, being possessed of much “beauty and charm” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Moving Picture World June 1917
Above: Nina introduces herself to fans via The Moving Picture World. June 1917. Here, she claimed to have been born in Austria, while the typsetter had misspelled her name. Via Lantern, the Digital Media Project.

Trying something else

In mid-1918, after appearing in, perhaps, 18 films for Roach, where she generally took secondary soubrette roles, Nina joined Arthur Morse Moon‘s company onstage in The Wrong Bird, commencing a tour that started in Salt Lake City. Sadly Moon died of pneumonia only a few months later, and the tour was suddenly over. Returning to acting for the screen under yet another name – Nina Rhodes, she appeared in two films starring Eddie Boland. And then, no more. Her marriage to Rhodes Speight founded soon after, although she may have found some solace in the fact her mother had moved to the US, as had her sister Ruth, who married a US sailor. Her brother Leslie also briefly lived with her in Los Angeles, before moving to Europe and raising a large family in Belgium, a country he had seen when in Australian army service during the war. Rhodes Speight changed his name again, and pursued other interests.

We know little of Nina’s later life. Sometime in the 1920s she partnered with Louis Wagner, a studio carpenter, and bore him two children, both of whom died prematurely. Strangely, she was not completely forgotten in her native country. For almost twenty years she was one of the many celebrity faces advertising medicinal products in Australian newspapers. The last of these advertisments – for Hean’s Tonic Nerve Nuts, appeared in 1934, more than ten years after she appeared in her last Hollywood film, and long after she had left it all behind.

The Bulletin 1917 Nina in The Sun 1932

Above – Nina endorsing Hean’s “Tonic Nerve Nuts” in Australia. Left: The Bulletin. 18 Oct 1917.
Right: The Sun 21 December 1932. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove. You can read more about Hean’s products in an extensive article at the Australian Variety Theatre Archive.

She died in California in March 1965, as Nina Wagner.


Nick Murphy

May 2020


Further Reading

Text

  • Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (1980) Australian Film 1900-1977. Oxford University Press/AFI
  • Andree Wright (1986) Brilliant Careers, Women in Australian Cinema. Pan Books

Web

Lantern, the Digital Media Project

National Library of Australia’s Trove

Newspapers.com

  • San Francisco Chronicle, · Thu, Mar 29, 1917 · Page 6
  • Los Angeles Times, APril 1, 1917 Page 31
  • Los Angeles Times, Dec 20, 1917 Page 15
  • The Salt Lake Tribune, · 12 Jun 1918, Wed · Page 9

US National Archives

  • Passenger arrival lists, applications for citizenship and US census returns via Family Search and Ancestry.com.

Births Deaths and Marriages Victoria.

Ena Gregory (1907-1993)- the WAMPAS baby star from Manly

Above: Ena Gregory as the Queen, In the Palace of the King, 1923. Author’s Collection.

The 5 second version
Ena Jessie Gregory was born in the Sydney suburb of Manly on 16 April 1907. She died at Laguna Beach, California, USA on 13 June 1993. She was active in Hollywood after moving there in 1920 with her mother. Her films included comedy shorts for the Hal Roach studio, and numerous Westerns. She also appeared in the Hollywood film The Bushranger in 1928. She adopted the stage name Marian Douglas in 1927. She retired in 1931 after a few sound films and became a Realtor.

Ena Jessie Gregory was born in Sydney on 16 April, 1907 to Arthur Gregory and Jessie nee Prior (see Note 1 for Birth Certificate). Arthur was described at the time as a “tobacconist” but in later years was listed as an importer of manufactured goods (presumably tobacco products) and Sydney’s Sands directory shows he had a large office on the 6th floor of 204 Clarence Street. As Ena grew up, the family lived in a house (that has since been demolished) at 48 Sydney Rd Manly, very close to the famous Manly beach. Arthur and Jessie had married in 1901 – Ena was the only child of the union.

Ena’s name is found in the cast of a few Sydney wartime fund raising shows, and performing in 1918 as a child in Eyes of Youth – with other child actors like Esma Cannon. However, the best evidence of a passion for acting is her appearance in student performances run by Sydney actor-elocutionist Harry Thomas, in December 1919. His students recited selections from Shakespeare, Tennyson and Longfellow at an annual concert.


1920- Moving to the US

Ena and her mother arrived in the US on the SS Ventura on 2 February 1920, listing their intended stay as “indefinite.” Given her very young age and relative inexperience, Ena’s success soon after is remarkable and one wonders whether her father and mother used some connections to help set her up. Arthur had travelled on business to the US a number of times during the First World War.

Both Variety and the San Francisco Chronicle carried articles about Ena soon after her arrival. Amongst the overblown claims about her experience in Australia, the Chronicle also quoted Ethel as saying she wanted Ena to learn the art of acting in the US, a comment that has a ring of truth. Most likely, the state of the Gregory’s marriage also had something to do with it, as the couple appear not to have lived together again after 1920. Ethel and Arthur finally divorced in 1928. However, moving to a new country with a teenager was still an unusual occurrence. Jessie had a large and well established family back home in Australia, but she and Ena were choosing to leave them all behind.


A Career begins

Camera 1922
Regrettably, over time, Ena’s US film career has been inextricably muddled up with another actress with a very similar name – Canadian born brunette Edna Gregory. Even during their lifetimes, their names were continually mixed up. Tracking down Ena’s early Hollywood appearances is therefore difficult – and made doubly so because many of her films have not survived. One of her first films was a supporting role to Gladys Watson in Universal’s Short Skirts  – but this film has also disappeared.

In January 1922, Ena’s press agent Don Hix illustrated just how much hot air was generated on behalf of up and coming actors, even during Hollywood’s silent era. Ena was, according to Hix, “adept at boxing, fencing, golfing, tennis, baseball, football and even wrestling”… She had been a “footlight favourite for six years in Australia.”

Above: Ena in Camera! Magazine April 1921-April 1922 aged 15. Note the accompanying text reminding readers this is Ena, not Edna. Via Lantern and the Internet Archive.

Comedies and Westerns

Ena’s early films included comedy shorts for the Hal Roach studio, some of which do survive today. On reviewing these, it appears her function was generally to play a straight role to the slapstick antics of the likes of Stan Laurel, Charlie Chase or Earl Mohan. Several of the surviving Stan Laurel films also include Mae Laurel (Mae Dahlberg), an experienced Australian vaudevillian and Laurel’s partner at the time.

Short Kilts 1924 Wide Open Spaces1 Wide Open Spaces Stan and Mae

Above left to right: Stan Laurel and Ena Gregory in Short Kilts (1924), Laurel and Gregory in Wide Open Spaces (1924), and at right Laurel and Mae Dahlberg in the same film. Source of screen grabs: Youtube.

Jefferies Jr with Charlie Chase 1924 Rupert of Hee Haw 1 Postage Due 1924

Above left to right: Gregory and Charlie Chase in Jefferies Jr. (1924), Dahlberg, Laurel and Gregory in Rupert of Hee Haw (1924) and Gregory in Postage Due (1924) . Source of screen grabs: Youtube

A WAMPAS Baby Star

In early 1925, Ena was announced as one of the new WAMPAS “Baby Stars”.  The Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers annually created a promotional campaign, profiling a dozen young women who were (possibly) on the threshold of stardom and providing them with publicity. At 18 years of age Ena was amongst the youngest, and the only foreign-born winner that year.

WAMPAS Baby stars 1925

Above: WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1925 including the very blond 18 year old Ena Gregory, seated centre. She had been in Hollywood for five years. Picture-Play Magazine, March-August 1925. Via the Internet Archive

Through 1925 and 1926 she continued to be busy on the screen – she was also well enough established to appear in advertisements for soap and bathing suits. She had roles in numerous Westerns – popular rodeo star Jack Hoxie being a regular co-star –  in such lurid macho titles as Red Hot Leather, Rough and Ready, Grinning Guns, Men of Daring and others. At the end of 1926 she married Al Rogell, the director of many of her films.


Becoming Marian Douglas

There are numerous newspaper stories associated with Ena at this time, almost all of them impossible to verify independently. In 1927 Picture Play magazine published an extraordinary piece written by staff regular Ann Sylvester, quoting Rogell as saying to an Ena disappointed with her career;

” ‘Now listen Ena, suppose we give you a new shuffle of the cards – a fresh chance – and see what happens…’ Ena sighed and there was a slight glitter of tears in her eyes. ‘Oh I don’t know’ she said listlessly. ‘I just haven’t the heart to keep on trying… I don’t believe in myself anymore.’ Well, mused Al… ‘maybe you could believe in yourself if you were someone else… ‘ “

It’s a cleverly written piece, interspersed with photos of The Shepherd of the Hills, her latest film, also directed by Rogell. The article explains she has just had an operation to beautify her nose, and has changed her stage name to Marian Douglas in an effort to remake herself.

    Ena no Edna gets married SF Examiner 17 July 1927     Ena Marion Photoplay 1927

Above: Left: The San Francisco Examiner still muddling Edna and Ena on 17 Jul 1927. This was Edna‘s marriage and the paper had not done their homework. Ena had been married to Rogell for six months. Via Newspapers.com.
Right: Photoplay July -December 1927, covers Ena’s change of name. Via Lantern and the Internet Archive

Of course, it’s absurd to think that an intimate conversation between Ena and Rogell would really find its way into a fan magazine. And a few weeks later the Daily News of New York was suspicious enough to start their report on Ena’s change of name by commenting on the “chicanery practiced by movie press agents.” All the same, the story gained ground that had she consulted a Hollywood mystic to determine a more “lucky” name, by some accounts one that had thirteen letters, or combinations of the names of other popular stars.

However, it is worth noting that at the same time all this was happening, Ena’s father was about to arrive in the US (they seem not to have seen each other for seven years), while at the same time Ena and Edna continued to be merrily mixed up by the press, as the example above shows – another compelling reason for a name change in itself. There is almost certainly much more to this event than we now know.

Ena Douglas perhaps
Above: Ena’s signature on a fan photo, where she signs her name Ena Douglas. This possibly suggests she was giving much greater consideration to a name change than reports of the time suggested. A number of these signed photos are circulating on the net. Author’s collection.

Ena made several films using the stage name Marian Douglas, including The Bushranger with popular cowboy star Tim McCoy.  Filmed in California but set in colonial-era Australia, it followed some plot points similar to For the Term of his Natural Life, which had been made in Australia only a few years before; a wrongful conviction of the hero in England, transportation to Tasmania, adventures in the bush, romance and eventual redemption. Unfortunately, again, the film no longer exists, and we are dependent on reviews of the day for an understanding of the plot. Ena’s final film appears to have been Aloha, a romantic drama also directed by Rogell. Then, in 1931, at the ripe old age of 24, it appears her Hollywood career came to an end. There were no more films. Did the huge changes brought on by the coming of sound play a role in the demise of her career? We have no evidence, but it is quite possible. There were the inevitable “comeback” stories about Ena, yet similar stories have been a feature of Hollywood for a century, and these came to nothing. However, Ena did not disappear from the public eye altogether.

Ena 3

Above: Ena Gregory, Tim McCoy and Frank Baker in The Bushranger (1928). Photo, author’s collection.

Unseemly Language

In mid 1934, Ena’s marriage came to an end. Rogell sued for divorce, claiming Ena stayed out late at drinking parties, while he had to go to bed so he could perform his duties at the studio the next day. He claimed that Ena “was possessed of a violent temper and used vile language to him” and was “overly familiar with other men, embracing them and displaying other signs of affection”.  The entire divorce played out for six very long months in newspapers across the US with claims and counter claims being made, before a divorce was granted in 1935. And a year later, Ena testified at the divorce of her friend Helen Twelvetrees from her husband Jack Woody. Twelvetrees had filmed Thoroughbred for Ken Hall of Cinesound in Sydney in early 1936, where the marriage had first run aground. Back in Hollywood, Ena testified that she had witnessed Jack using “unseemly language” with his wife.

Ena must have discussed Sydney and Australia before Helen Twelvetrees left the US to work on Thoroughbred. We can only wonder what she might have said.

Helen Twelvetrees in Aust 2  LA Times 28 Oct 1937

Above left: Frank Leighton and Ena’s friend Helen Twelvetrees filming Thoroughbred in Sydney. State Library of New South Wales, Sam Hood Collection. In his memoirs, Director Ken Hall writes at some length regarding their relationship.
Above right: Ena Gregory and Frank Nolan discussing plans for their wedding, with Helen Twelvetrees, at left, watching on. The Los Angeles Times 28 Oct 1937, Via Newspapers.com

Ena married twice more – briefly to Dr Frank Nolan in 1937-9 and later to businessman James Thompson Talbot in 1951.

If Ena ever did really believe in lucky numbers or lucky names, she did not allow this to dominate her decisions later in life. After the Second World War she joined her mother in business and became a successful real estate agent (Realtor), specialising in the Laguna Beach area, in Orange County California. She worked happily in this profession for almost thirty years, until the mid 1970s, her company logo being Pleasing you is our Pleasure. 

Ena died on 13 June, 1993, aged 86. She had become a US citizen in 1932. She never returned to Australia.

Ena in 1974

Above: Los Angeles Times, 3 February, 1974. Via Newspapers.com

Nick Murphy
May 2020


Note 1
It’s hard to believe biographers have struggled for so long with Ena Jessie Gregory’s name, place and date of birth. In the interests of clarity, part of her New South Wales birth certificate is given here:

Ena Gregory BC left part

Col 2- April 16, 1907, 53 Union Street, North Sydney [Date and place of birth]
Col 3 – Ena Jessie Not present
Col 4 – Female
Col 5 – Arthur James Gregory, Tobacconist. 30 years. [Born] North Sydney NSW
Col 6 – April 9 1901, Burrowa, NSW, Nil [Date and place of marriage, other children]
Col 7 – Jessie Elizabeth Prior, 30 years. [Born] Bourke NSW.
Source: New South Wales Births, Deaths & Marriages.

Further Reading

Text

  • Joy Damousi (2010) Colonial Voices: A Cultural History of English in Australia, 1840-1940. Cambridge University Press.
  • Ken G Hall. (1977) Australian Film: The Inside Story. Summit Books
  • George A. Katchmer (2009) A Biographical Dictionary of Silent Film Western Actors and Actresses. McFarland.
  • Andree Wright (1986) Brilliant careers. Women in Australian Film. Pan Books.

Surviving films

  • Many of the Hal Roach short comedies with Ena are available on Youtube. However, none of her full length films could be sourced.

State Library of New South Wales

City of Sydney 

Manly City Library Local Studies Blog

Immortal Ephemera website

National Library of Australia

  • The Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 17 December 1919
  • The Sunday Times (Sydney) 3 June, 1923
  • Sydney Mail, 30 May 1928
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 Dec 1928
  • Werribee Shire Banner (Victoria), 2 May 1929
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July 1929
  • Sun (Sydney) 7 February 1930 (a wildly inaccurate interview with Jessie Gregory)
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 April 1948

Newspapers.com

  • Oakland Tribune, 22 January 1922
  • The Los Angeles Times, 5 December 1924,
  • The Times Herald (Michigan), 20 January 1925
  • The San Francisco Examiner ,17 July 1927
  • Daily News (New York), 2 October 1927
  • The Los Angeles Times, 24 July 1927,
  • News-Pilot (California), 11 August 1934,
  • The Los Angeles Times, 18 Aug 1934,
  • The Los Angeles Times, 28 Oct 1937,
  • The Los Angeles Times, 3 February, 1974

Lantern – Digital Media Project – Internet Archive

  • Camera! Magazine, April 1921-April 1922
  • Picture-Play Magazine, March-August 1925
  • Photoplay Magazine, July -December 1927
  • Picture-Play Magazine, Sep 1927 – Feb 1928

Lotus Thompson (1904-1963) & her troublesome legs

Above: Young Australian Lotus Thompson, photographed in early 1923. Enlargement of a photo in author’s collection.

The 5 second version
Born Lotus May Thompson in Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia on 26 August 1904, she died in Los Angeles, California, USA, 24 May 1963. She was on stage in Australia from 1915, then appeared in five Australian films 1921-24. She moved to California in 1924 where she found some minor roles. She is mostly remembered today for a stunt in 1925, when she claimed to have splashed acid on her legs. She was then active in US films for four or five years, but after an unhappy marriage and with the coming of sound films she found only uncredited roles. This writer suggests her voice was regarded as unsuitable.

Lotus Thompson is remembered today largely because of a well-publicised incident in February 1925, when she supposedly poured nitric acid on her herself, frustrated with Hollywood producers only offering her parts where she showed off her attractive legs. ”I’ll go mad if they don’t stop it!” she had wailed to her mother. “I know I can play parts, but they won’t give me a chance. It’s legs-always legs! I hate them!” US Newspapers widely reported the event. Film Weekly produced a sensational half-page sketch showing the scantily clad but distressed actress dribbling the acid on her legs. The journal suggested theatre owners might use the event to promote her latest film, The Yellow Back. At the same time, a more sober account in The Los Angeles Times included a photograph of Lotus posed on a bed, “burnt legs” bandaged up, looking miserable. A month later the story was still running, as on March 8, The Detroit Free Press listed the four things that drove Lotus Thompson to “disfigure herself for life” – which included “displaying her bare limbs in an endless series of frivolous bathing pictures” some of which the paper helpfully reprinted. It’s such a preposterous story it is hard to believe it still has currency today.

Lotus's legs SF Examiner March 8 1925

Lotus, posed with heavily retouched “bandaged legs”, a month after the alleged event –  from The San Francisco Examiner. “Deliberately spoiled her too beautiful legs” the paper reported on March 8, 1925. Via Newspapers.com

Lotus May Thompson, was born in Charters Towers, Queensland on 26th August 1904. She first performed on the Sydney stage in juvenile theatre in 1915, and thereafter appeared in concerts, fancy dress balls and carnivals.

Lotus as a child

Above: Lotus Thompson at the age of about 12 or 13, about the time she first appeared on stage. Photograph courtesy of Melissa Anderson

By 1921 she had featured in her first Australian film for Franklyn Barrett, Know Thy Child,  the film and her performance gaining some good reviews. The Daily News of Western Australia suggested Lotus played her part with “admirable fidelity.”

Vera James and Lotus Thompson

Vera James (as the sickly “fallen woman” Sadie) and Lotus Thompson (as Eileen, her vibrant daughter with a rosy future) in “Know Thy Child” – Via Wikipedia commons. Find a beautiful photo of Vera James during her brief stint at Universal Studios here at the NFSA website.

She appeared in four more films in 1922-3;  The Dinkum Bloke for Lottie Lyell & Raymond Longford and several Hayseed family comedies for Beaumont Smith. Sadly, none of these are known to survive today.


lotus3 Lotus 1923s

By 1923 Lotus was well established as an up and coming Australian movie actress. There was endless positive publicity which largely focused on her physical appearance – as can be seen in these examples.
Via National Library of Australia’s Trove; The Sunday Times, 28 January 1923, and The Sun Monday 24 April 1923

Determined to pursue a career in film, on 5th March 1924 she sailed for California on the Matson liner Ventura, with her mother Sarah. A newsreel camera was on hand to capture the scene. (click here to follow link)

lotusabouttodepart

This newsreel footage of Thompson surrounded by well-wishers on the eve of departure for the US is unusual – and a testimony to her popularity in 1924.Source of screen grab Australasian Gazette newsreel via youtube.

She settled in Hollywood and a few bit parts followed, but she obviously found the going tough. The “acid” incident occurred on 1st February 1925 – she had been in Hollywood for ten months. Many fan magazines and newspapers in the US and Australia dredged the story out for the next few years, although not all papers accepted the story as fact. Everyones magazine seems to have identified it as nonsense in a May 1925 report.   Motion Picture Magazine also suspected it was probably a hoax, and announced (tongue in cheek) that as the “acid” had caused no lasting disfigurement to her legs she would have to use scissors to cut them off next time.

Smith Weekly Aug 19,1933

Above: Smiths Weekly, August 19, 1933, via National Library of Australia Trove

Eight years later, on a return to Australia, she told the truth. It was entirely a publicity stunt, she confirmed. She told Smith’s Weekly, the whole thing had been arranged by five men – ‘”publicity go-getters.’ She was told that the subtle hint that the directors couldn’t keep their eyes off her legs would provide a spicy and sensational story, and she would be overwhelmed with big film offers… The promise of fame lured her into agreeing to it… ” She added I was not much more than a kid at the time, or I would never have entertained the proposition.'”

Lotus and Olive1

Above: US actress Olive Borden (left) and Australian actress Lotus Thompson (right). The source of this postcard, very widely available on the net, is unknown, as is the exact date it was taken. It is reputed to have been the mid twenties, when Borden was at the height of her Hollywood popularity and Thompson was just beginning to make her way. Author’s Collection.

All the same, the event achieved the publicity she wanted and kick-started her career. And by October 1926 she was under contract to Paramount Studios – she was posed prominently in a photo lineup of major Paramount stars in late 1926. (See Daniel Blum’s Pictorial History of the Silent Movies, page 294 here). Over the next five years a string of movies followed, some of them Westerns, a few of them directed by Australian-born director J. P. McGowan.

Unfortunately it is often difficult to review the work of silent era actors – so many of their films have been lost. Even the ten episodes of Universal’s 1930 serial Terry of the ‘Times’ – which saw Lotus with a starring role, has disappeared. However, we know Lotus Thompson was noted for her work as a comedienne and her Westerns were well received in Australia. In the late 1920s there was speculation that she could soon become a leading star.

Paramount serials 1930

Above: Terry of the Times advertised as a talking serial. It wasn’t really – but it did include music and sound effects. Motion Picture News, April-July 1929 Via the Internet Archive.
               The Picture Show 1928    Motion Picture Mag 1927
Left: Lotus as Bessie Lang with Ranger the dog, in Flashing Fangs (1926). The Picture Show Annual 1928 , via the Internet Archive. Right – Lotus at right, as a Floradora Girl, in  Casey at the Bat (1927). Motion Picture Magazine Feb – July 1927, via the Internet Archive.

January 1929 saw another change in Lotus’ life when she married Edward Wilder Churchill in Manhattan. The 1930 US census showed the young couple settling down to live with E Wilder Churchill Senior and his wife Alice on the family estate in California’s Napa Valley. This year was also her busiest for acting, and then in 1930, she appeared in her last credited roll, as Eve in Cecil B. DeMille‘s saucy pre-code musical fantasy, Madam Satan.

Lotus in Madam Satan
Above: A screen grab of Lotus in the kissing competition scene of Cecil B DeMille’s Madam Satan (1930). The film is available through the Warner Archive Collection. Author’s Collection.

For the next three years she did not appear in any films. Then without much warning, in August 1933, she was suddenly home in Australia again, supposedly forced to leave the US because she had overstayed her 6 months visa by some 9 years!

lotussanfrancisoexaminer29april1936It was during this visit home that she owned up to the acid on the legs stunt. Yet she was not being entirely honest when she spoke of being thrown out of the US as an illegal immigrant, because it seems the return home to see her mother was more to do with the state of her marriage than her visa. She went back to the US in March 1934, but she followed this trip almost immediately with another to the UK, apparently to see if she could drum up any work. She returned to acting in the US, but the roles she was given were now un-credited – she had well and truly lost her currency in the new sound-era Hollywood. Her marriage to Churchill formally came to an end in 1936, and she remarried on April 18 1937, to Stanley Robinson at Tijuana, Mexico. Finally in 1939, she applied to become a naturalised US citizen. According to the Internet Movie Database, the last of her film roles was in 1949, although there is evidence she appeared in some films that are not recorded.

Lotus in The San Francisco Examiner, 29 April 1936. Via Newspapers.com

There is another story here of course – and it’s not to do with burned legs. Even if the event was a stunt, was Lotus a victim of a publicity machine that chewed up young women like her? Or was she creatively playing the system and trying to take some initiative to manage her own destiny? Self publicity was then, as it is today, an important activity for aspiring stars.

lotus2

The San Francisco Examiner ran this article with the photo shown above. It was very easy to be stereotyped.  29 April, 1936. Via Newspapers.com

Unfortunately, we know nothing of the last years of her life, except that she lived comfortably on Laurel Canyon Drive and later in Burbank. She had no children from either marriage. She died in California in 1963, aged only 59.  Both her parents had succumbed to pneumonia in late 1934, at Cootamundra, New South Wales. Her brother Eric and father Archie both worked at the Cullinga Mine near Cootamundra, New South Wales.

Lotus as Queen

Lotus’s advice on beauty appeared in The Buffalo Times (Buffalo, New York) 5 April 1924. “Get plenty of out of door exercise” she said. Via Newspapers.com

A voice not suited to sound?

With the advent of sound film, many famous screen actors of the 1920s found themselves “washed up”, although others who had some experience with dialogue from stagework seemed to have breezed through. This writer spent six months sourcing Lotus Thompson’s few pieces of dialogue in obscure films of the early 1930s. It is only speculation by this author of course, but one wonders whether Lotus’ voice was simply not regarded as suitable for sound.

Lotus’ one line in I Found Stella Parish, a Warner Brothers film of 1935. She plays the unnamed secretary to Mr Reeves. “What shall I answer?” she asks. Available through Warner Brothers Archive.
Lotus’ one line as a random person at a ball, in Anthony Adverse, a Warner Brothers picture of 1936. These few words – “Please talk about them” seem to have an noticeable Australian twang. Available through Warner Brothers Archive.

Note 1
Errors around her details of birth abound. Her DOB is regularly and incorrectly stated across the web to be 1906 or that she was born in Sydney. Queensland birth records are quite clear however.

Note 2
There is a tendency for modern accounts to take the newspaper reports of the acid incident literally. The current manifestation of the Wikipedia article deals with the event at very great length.

 

Nick Murphy, Updated April 2020

 

Special Thanks

Sincere thanks to Melissa Anderson, one of Lotus’ Australian relatives for her kind encouragement and feedback – and for unequivocal family feedback that the leg story was indeed, a stunt.

 


Further Reading

  • Daniel Blum (1982) Pictorial History of the Silent Movies. Perigee Books
  • Liz Conor (2004) The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s. Indiana University Press
  • George A. Katchmer (2009) A Biographical Dictionary of Silent Film Western Actors and Actresses. McFarland
  • Buck Rainey (1992) Sweethearts of the sage: biographies and filmographies of 258 actresses appearing in western movies. McFarland
  • John Tulloch (1981) Legends of the Screen. The Australian Narrative Cinema 1919-1929. Currency Press.
  • Andree Wright (1987) Brilliant Careers: Women in Australian Cinema. MacMillan

National Library of Australia, Trove

  • Sunday Times (Sydney) 28 Jan 1923 “Three Girls with Claims to Perfect Figures”
  • The Sun (Sydney) 23 Apr 1923  “Eyes that mock the violet”
  • Everyones Magazine Vol.4 No.271, 13 May 1925 “Lotus and her legs”
  • Smith’s Weekly (Sydney) 19 Aug 1933 “Inside story of a stunt that hoaxed world!”

Newspapers.com

  • The Buffalo Times (Buffalo, New York) 5 April 1924.
  • The San Francisco Examiner 8 March, 1925
  • The San Francisco Examiner 29 April, 1936

Lantern Digital Media Archive – Internet Archive

  • Motion Picture Magazine Feb – July 1925.
  • The Picture Show Annual 1928
  • Motion Picture Magazine Feb – July 1927
  • Motion Picture News  April-July 1929

Phyllis Gibbs from Coogee says “No” to Cecil B DeMille.

Above: Phyllis Gibbs on the front page of Table Talk, 14 April 1927. She had just won the First National Pictures “Quest for an Australian Star” competition. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The 5 second version.
Phyllis Gibbs was born on 24 July 1908 in Sydney. She won several competitions including the 1927 “First National Film Star Quest” which took her to Hollywood, and gave her a test with Cecil B DeMille studios. She appeared in Lois Weber’s The Angel of Broadway but after 10 weeks returned to Australia. She appeared in promotions for cinemas and then in Arthur Higgin’s first film – Odds On. After this she took no further interest in film making and died in Sydney on 4 May 1943.

Phyllis Gibbs was barely out of school and working as a hairdresser in the Sydney beachside suburb of Coogee, when she began to appear in competitions. Like some of the other women profiled on this website, Phyllis’s journey to very brief fame – including an appearance in several films – owed much to the support of an eager parent. And like many, it all lasted only a very short time.

Born to Ethel Cora Wynne in 1908, her mother married insurance salesman Henry Leslie Gibbs (or sometimes Salter – Gibbs) in 1910 (See Note 1). She attended Coogee Public School, not far from the family’s flat in Havelock Avenue. Her passions were tennis and ocean swimming – Sydney’s iconic Coogee beach was within easy walking distance of the family home.

In August 1926, the Sydney Evening News reported that Phyllis had just won first prize in the “unshingled” hair competition. Unshingled meant she kept her hair long, not cut short in a bob, as was the fashion at the time. The competition was partly sponsored by the Crystal Palace Cinema in George St, Sydney and part of the prize was a £10 per week payment to appear in a live prologue performed before the popular Douglas Fairbanks film Don Q, Son of Zorro. Ethel complained about the difficulty she had faced, trying to interest her daughter in competing.”She has never gone in for anything like this before,”  she told the Evening News. She is a real home girl.”


Phyllis Gibbs4  The Sun August 1926

Above left: Phyllis Gibbs with her spectacular “unshingled” hair, in Table Talk. 12 Aug 1926.  Above right: Appearing at the Crystal Palace in August 1926. The live prologue appears to have included sword-play.  The Sun (Sydney) 6 August 1926. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Such was the power of the fantasy of a “career in the pictures” that the Sydney Evening News had little difficulty attracting widespread interest in the First National “Film Star Quest” in March 1927. There were, reportedly, 2,000 contestants across Australia. As a representative from Sydney, New South Wales, Phyllis was amongst the favourites and her beautiful hair, good looks and pleasant personality impressed reporters. She was “unspoiled, unaffected, and sincere, with a love for her home, her work, and for all things beautiful” wrote the Evening News. Her untested performance skills and lack of acting experience seemed much less important than her good looks and admirable personal qualities. Not very surprisingly, Phyllis won the finals – with the prize being a trip to Hollywood and a test with Cecil B DeMille. The Evening News covered all the good news, with prominent articles and a big Page 1 photo.

In late May 1927, Phyllis and Ethel boarded the SS Sierra, bound for California and a new career – perhaps. US newspapers happily reprinted photos of the young Australian in bathers and at the beach – photos that could have only been supplied from Australia.


Phyllis at the beach Phyllis 1927Phyllis welcomed

Above: Phyllis received plenty of  publicity in the US in 1927, and the bathing suit photos may have helped. In the US, the competition had become “Miss Australia” and there had been 12,000 contestants. Left; The Princeton Daily Clarion, 24 June 1927. Centre; The Arizona Republic, 28 June 1927, Right; The Fresno Morning Republican 11 July 1927. Via Newspapers.com

Unfortunately, Phyllis’ fans had a hard time keeping up with her activities in Hollywood because there was not much to report. At the end of July, Australians read that she had started work in her first film for DeMille Studios, The Angel of Broadway, directed by Hollywood’s leading female director, Lois Weber. Several Australian papers claimed she appeared in as many as four films for the DeMille Studio, but this seems impossible to verify now. If she ever did appear in Forbidden Woman, Main Event or The Girl in the Pullman, it is likely she was an extra. Just how much time she really spent with DeMille himself is also difficult to determine. Sadly,  the censor would not approve The Angel of Broadway for release in Australia and unfortunately is now considered a lost film.

In late August and only eight weeks after arriving, Phyllis suddenly announced she had had enough, and was coming home. The official reason was that she and her mother were “homesick”. The contract DeMille’s studio had presented to her looked wonderful to Australian eyes – with its increasing rates of pay and the chance of a new contract if all went well. But she declined it – perhaps she realized it was just a typical contract of the time. By early October she was at home in Sydney again, embracing her friends.

Gibbs on return

Above: Phyllis Gibbs on her happy return. Table Talk, 20 October 1927. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

So what happened? Not surprisingly, she was careful to find the right form of words. She assured the Evening News it had been “like a dream” and that she had had a wonderful time. She was, after all, deeply indebted to the paper that had been her staunch advocate. She was also careful to say that everyone in the industry had been so welcoming. But, she explained, the whole Hollywood “atmosphere… was an environment I could not have lived in.” She wished she could have the same opportunity in Australia. 

And she did.  Within a few months, cinematographer Arthur Higgins had signed her up to appear as the love interest in his first film as director – a horse racing drama entitled Odds On, with popular actor Arthur Tauchert. The ever loyal Evening News claimed, apparently in all seriousness, that there was “little left in Australian literature but racing themes for film work.” Film historians Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper note that the film was made for a modest £2000 in mid 1928. It had a release in the UK as a “quota film” which means it probably returned its money. However, it was a silent film – which is possibly another reason it has not survived. Like The Angel of Broadway, it is now considered a lost film.

During 1928, Phyllis was employed on a lecture tour of provincial Australian cinemas, where she sometimes screened the footage of her test for DeMille’s studio and talked about her Hollywood experience. She was also paid to drum up publicity for Odd’s On after its release in October 1928. Again she appeared in person at some screenings.

Heenzo ad 1928Hats advertising

Above left: Phyllis advertising for Heenzo, a cough cure, in the Sydney Morning Herald 24 May 1928. Via Newspapers.com
At right: A full page spread modelling hats in Truth, 14 April 1929. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

She continued with advertising engagements but by 1933 had returned to hairdressing in Coogee, keeping her own business going until the late 1930s. She married Charles Young, a salesman, in April 1933. A son was born of the union in 1935.

1937 hairdressing

Above: Phyllis advertising for a new hairdresser in her salon- Sydney Morning Herald, 8 April 1937. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

What really happened to Phyllis in Hollywood? In the absence of meaningful interviews we can only speculate. Phyllis was not alone in rejecting a Hollywood contract – Margaret Vyner, John Wood and Janet Johnson all did this in the 1930s. This writer thinks Phyllis was probably astute enough to see how most actors ended up – in supporting roles, waiting around a lot and often far from family and friends, doing work that was nowhere near as exciting as some claimed. If that was what she thought, and she got out while she could, she is worthy of our admiration today.

Phyllis died unexpectedly in May 1943. She was 35 years old.

 

Nick Murphy
April 2020

 


Note 1
No father is listed on Phyllis’ 1908 birth certificate, and the place of birth given is 203 Albion St. Presumably this is Albion Street Surry Hills, an inner suburb of Sydney which had many boarding houses at the time. It appears likely that Ethel (a 19 year old from Ballarat in Victoria) went to a boarding house to give birth, probably one that specialized in hosting expectant women who were on their own. The 1840s cottage (with the cottage next door) is now preserved and owned by the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia.

 

Further Reading

Text

National Library of Australia Trove

  • Evening News 5 August 1926
  • Evening News 6 August 1926
  • The Sun 6 August 1926
  • Table Talk  12 August 1926
  • Evening News 13 August 1926
  • Evening News  30 March 1927
  • Evening News  31 March 1927
  • Table Talk 14 April 1927
  • Evening News 19 August 1927
  • Evening News 22 August 1927
  • The Mercury 9 September 1927
  • Evening News 7 October 1927
  • Table Talk, 20 October 1927
  • Daily News, 11 November 1927
  • Evening News, 16 December 1927
  • Forbes Advocate, 6 January 1928
  • Evening News, 24 January 1928
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 May 1928
  • Brisbane Courier 14 June 1928
  • Daily Standard  27 October 1928
  • Truth , 14 April 1929
  • The Daily Telegraph 26 July 1929
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 April 1937.
  • Truth, 9 May 1943

Newspapers.com

  • Intelligencer Journal, 18 June 1927
  • The Princeton Daily Clarion, 24 June 1927.
  • The Arizona Republic, 28 June 1927.
  • Lancaster New Era, 5 July 1927
  • The Fresno Morning Republican, 11 July 1927.

Shirley Ann Richards (1917-2006) – “This is not a laughing matter and don’t call me girlie!”

 Above: A screen grab of twenty year old Shirley Ann Richards in Tall Timbers (1937),  her second Australian film for Director Ken Hall. The by-line is from Dad and Dave come to Town (1938) and part of it is used as the title for a documentary made by Andree Wright in 1985. Source: Loving the Classics. Author’s Collection

The 5 second version
Born as Shirley Ann Delaforce Richards in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 20 December 1917, died California, United States, 25 August 2006. Known in the US as Ann Richards. After a short stint with amateur theatricals in Sydney, she moved to acting with Cinesound. There she appeared in six films directed by Ken Hall before moving to Hollywood. Between 1942 and 1952 she performed in a dozen films, including one directed by Edmund Angelo, her husband.
She pursued writing and philanthropic interests after 1952 and returned several times to Australia.
.

Growing up in Australia

Shirley Ann Delaforce Richards hardly qualifies as a “forgotten Australian” actor. Alone amongst Australians who went overseas to pursue an acting career in the 1930s, she returned to Australia later in life to discuss the experience and celebrate a new wave of Australian film making.

Her New Jersey-born father Mortimer Richards was the Australian manager of the successful US – owned S. F. Bowser Company, while her mother Marion nee Dive was a 24 year old from New Plymouth in New Zealand. Shirley Ann and her younger brother Roderick grew up in comfortable surroundings – first at Killara on Sydney’s north shore, then in Double Bay.

Mortimer regularly appeared in newspaper reports of the doings of Sydney’s small US community, sometimes addressing business groups about Australia’s great un-tapped potential (a favourite topic of the 1920s), while Marion was active in the newly established English Speaking Union.

Shirley Ann attended Ascham School in Edgecliff from 1925-1928, but left after the sudden death of her father in August 1928. She completed her Leaving Certificate at the Garden School, run by the Theosophical Education Trust in Mosman. Like Ascham, the school was educationally progressive, with a focus on the performing arts, literature and elocution.  These interests stayed with Shirley Ann all her life, together with a strong sense of social conscience and public duty. Later in life she reflected that her upbringing and education (and the untimely death of her father) had also exposed her to an amazing group of independent and opinionated women – her mother, teachers (Lily Arnold and Jessie MacDonald at the Garden School) and family acquaintances like social reformer and politician Millicent Preston-Stanley. Her first publicly reported appearance on stage appears to have been in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at the Savoy Theatre in October 1933.


A Cinesound Career

After leaving school and whilst working for the Russell Roberts Studio in 1936, she threw herself into amateur theatricals with the Sydney Players Club. While there she came to the attention of Ken G Hall, an Australian Producer-Director of enormous energy and capacity, with whom she maintained a lifelong friendship.

Truth Feb 1936By 1936, Table Talk was able to introduce her to readers, commenting on her  “lovely complexion and teeth…”  They also reported that she was an “excellent fencer and swimmer.” She was “very well read, being extremely fond of poetry… completely unpolluted; doesn’t drink or smoke; has splendid self-possession, but is always completely natural.” Some of these comments were true, even if they were all courtesy PR from Ken Hall’s Cinesound Studios, who had put Shirley Ann under long term contract as quickly as they could. Film historians Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper credit Cinesound’s “Talent School” for refining her skills.

18 year old Shirley Ann reported as interested in amateur theatricals, by Truth 23 Feb, 1936. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Her first film with Hall was It Isn’t Done,  a rags to riches comedy (or “bush to baronetcy”) with a script by Cecil Kellaway. The film was a great success, establishing Shirley Ann as a popular favourite with Australian audiences (and incidentally also providing Kellaway with a pathway to work in the US). Shirley Ann recalled that the established actors in this film, including British actors Frank Harvey and Harvey Adams, realizing the 18 year old was new to film, “spoiled her” on the set.

Shirley Ann Richards 1936 via Mitchell Library

Above: Shirley Ann Richards at the opening of Tall Timbers at the Sydney State Theatre in 1937. She toured much of Australia for Cinesound. Source: Hood Collection, via the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

TT on stage

Above: Shirley Ann Richards appears live on stage as a part of Cinesound publicity.  The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Oct 1937 via National Library of Australia’s Trove 

She appeared in a total of five feature films for Cinesound over the very busy period 1936-39. These were It Isn’t Done, Tall Timbers, Lovers and Luggers, Dad and Dave Come to Town, and Come Up Smiling. She also appeared in the surprisingly entertaining 100,000 Cobbers, a propaganda recruitment short made for the Australian Government by Cinesound after the outbreak of War. A 1984 audio interview, mostly focusing on her Cinesound years can be heard here.

L&L1   L&L2

Above: Screengrabs of Shirley Ann with Lloyd Hughes in Lovers and Luggers (1938). Unfortunately Hall’s Cinesound films have never been released on home video in Australia, they are only available via US specialist providers, often made from shortened and/or low-quality prints. Author’s Collection.

In addition to working with established Australians, the Cinesound films brought her into contact with a number of visiting British and US actors – including Cecil Kellaway, John Longden, Will Mahoney, Lloyd Hughes and James Raglan. Doubtless they talked of their experiences and the opportunities to be had working internationally. However the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 and the closure of feature production at Cinesound Studios hastened her decision to try her luck in the US. She continued with some work on the Australian stage in the meantime, having toured in Charley’s Aunt through Australia and New Zealand.


Film career in the US

Shirley Ann often recounted the story of being on the last passenger ship after Pearl Harbour. It was true. She had booked to leave Australia on 13 December 1941, on the Matson liner Mariposa. She did not cancel her travel after the sudden Japanese attacks in the Pacific and South East Asia. Shirley Ann’s name appears on the passenger manifest along with other US citizens anxious to get home from Australia, and from Hawaii where the ship had a brief stop. The ship docked in San Francisco on 31 December. She arrived with “the equivalent of $75, a weighty scrapbook…  film clips and introductions” courtesy Ken Hall. (The film clips were promptly lost somewhere in Hollywood, unfortunately).

And the risk she took?  The Mariposa had no defences, but it could manage over 20 knots, while Japanese submarines of the time might manage less than 7 knots when submerged. And a slight comforting factor also existed for Shirley Ann – both her parents were US citizens, and her own birth had been registered with the US embassy in Australia. Her father’s surviving sister Grace lived in the US –  although far from Hollywood California.

Years later Shirley Ann recalled that MGM signed her up quickly – they respected her Australian experience, but to avoid being confused with Anne Shirley, her screen name was shortened to Ann Richards. A small part in a short – to test her – followed, then MGM gave her a very, very small role in Random Harvest with Ronald Colman and Greer Garson – so small a role she doesn’t have any lines. Shirley Ann said later that most of her part ended up on the cutting room floor. But in Dr Gillespie’s New Assistant, another in the popular Dr Kildare series and also made in 1942, she played an Australian nurse working in US. This was also a small role, but at least she had a few lines and some close-ups. Richard Quine‘s “Australian-isms” are excruciating and Dr Gillespie’s (Lionel Barrymore‘s) every second comment unbelievably inappropriate for today’s viewers, but Shirley Ann manages her role with the characteristic class and good manners that she was to give all her roles.

Dr Gillespie 1  Dr Gillespie 2

Above: Screen grabs of Richard Quine as the Australian doctor and Shirley Ann Richards as the Australian nurse in Dr Gillespie’s New Assistant. TCM currently have a collection of the Dr Gillespie films for sale. 

Richard Quine and Shirley Ann in a short piece of dialogue. Quine, a US actor, tried hard to sound convincing as a young Australian doctor from Wooloomooloo, Sydney.

King Vidor‘s film An American Romance – a story of an emigrant who makes good in the US steel industry – could have been a breakthrough film for her, but it was expensive to make and at two and a half hours in length, way over-long. It was in technicolor, but it still met with a mixed reception. Australian reviewer Lon Jones felta trifle disappointed, for…(Ann Richards) is forced to compete with auto assembly lines and steel plants. The story is essentially one of men and machines and the camera is continually focused on them to the disadvantage of Miss Richards.”

Ann Richards postcard006

Above: Shirley Ann at the height of her Hollywood popularity. Her resemblance to Greer Garson was often noted. Post card in the Author’s Collection.

Despite claims that Shirley Ann was very busy in Hollywood, it seems that over the seven years 1942-48 she appeared in only eleven films – a modest output. While she was as selective as she could be with her roles, she later acknowledged that she also spent a lot of time waiting around for offers to come her way. However, it should be noted that compared to her Australian contemporaries, Mary Maguire and Constance Worth, the films she appeared in were quality films and she had credited roles in most. She worked with some of Hollywood’s leading players at this time, although Tom Vallance, her obituarist for “The Independent,” is correct in suggesting she was often consigned to “best friend” roles.

Unhappy with working for MGM, she negotiated a contract release. She then appeared in three films for independent Producer Hal WallisLove Letters (1945), The Searching Wind (1946) and Sorry Wrong Number (1948). Biographer Bernard Dick may be accurate when he suggests Wallis never intended to make a star of Shirley Ann, rather his need was for a talented actress with a faintly British accent who could also pass for an upper-class American. And although not paid at the same rate as Barbara Stanwyke or Burt Lancaster, she was still paid $US 1750 per week for her work on Sorry, Wrong Number according to Dick, the equivalent of $US 20,000 today.

Sorry wrong number
Above: Blonded-up for Hollywood,  Shirley Ann as Sally Hunt in the 1948 thriller Sorry, Wrong Number. Screen grab from the trailer, via Youtube. The film is still widely available.

In June 1946, Shirley Ann flew home to Australia for a visit to see her mother, and possibly also to convince her to move to the US. She was given a rousing welcome on arrival in Australia. The joy of her return disguised the fact that Shirley Ann and her mother had suffered some shocking news in late 1945. Her brother Roderick, who had been a Medic in the Australian 8th Division, had died as a prisoner of the Japanese in early 1945.

In early 1949 Shirley Ann married Edmund Angelo, a 36 year old theatre director and producer. In the same year, Angelo published a small book of his lectures on theatre-craft. He dedicated it to Shirley Ann, “whose brilliant artistry exemplifies what I have endeavored to express in this book.” However, the foreword by Shirley Ann makes it clear that the essays included were selected by her.

Curtain - You're On! cover

Above: Curtain – You’re On! by Edmund Angelo, with his portrait. It was dedicated to Shirley Ann, while she wrote the foreword. Author’s Collection.

She made one final film after this, with Angelo as director – a crime drama based on the boxing themed play “The Samson Slasher” – wisely re-titled Breakdown for the cinema. Angelo claimed it was made in just 11 days, on “a shoe-string budget,” and it ended up being shown as a B (supporting) feature. There was talk of further films being planned and more stage work, but the couple seem to have left Hollywood film-making behind soon after that.


After Hollywood

Following Breakdown, Angelo threw his efforts into engineering and the US aerospace effort. It could be forgotten today just how exciting this period of development and space exploration was – starting in the late 1950s and culminating in the moon landing of July 1969. Shirley Ann spoke with some pride about his work as early as 1956.

Shirley Ann turned her attention to raising her three children and pursuing some of the other interests she had always had. From the early 1950s she was active in Zeta Phi Eta, an organisation of female leaders in the arts, communication and science fields, that still describes itself today as “a friendly society of service”. Much of her work appears to have revolved around fund-raising activities for social justice causes, particularly for disadvantaged children and those with speech difficulties. Meanwhile, the family lived comfortably at W.C.Fields’ former home at 2015 De Mille Drive in Los Angeles. One of Shirley Ann’s best known (of many) anecdotes was of meeting Fields whilst peeking at the property some years before. (see Los Angeles Times, 3 December 1972)

Shirley Ann 1956
Above: Shirley Ann with her two sons Chris and Mark, photographed for the Australian Women’s Weekly 11 July 1956. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove

She also continued to write poetry – her first collection – The Grieving Senses and Other Poems, was published in 1971. The US journal Poet Lore reported that her poetry “reflected a rare sensitivity to the things around her…”


Rebirth”

Bind her close with roots of flowers
And leave her dreaming in the gloom
Where the light autumnal showers
Kiss the clover into bloom


Later life and visits to Australia

Shirley Ann returned to Australia in 1977, in part to appear in an episode of This is Your Life with Ken G Hall. It was her first visit since 1946 and again she was given a joyful welcome home, as she had been thirty years before. Her place as a living connection back to Australia’s fledgling film industry of the 1930s and to Hollywood’s Golden Age was well understood. She was interviewed at length and yet again on another visit in 1981. In 1986 she appeared in Andree Wright and Stewart Young’s documentary film about women in the Australian Cinema. Its title, Don’t Call Me Girlie, is part of the line she has in the film Dad and Dave Come to Town.

Following Edmond’s death in 1983, she remarried. She continued pushing personal boundaries until very late in life, writing poetry and lecturing on travel – for example being amongst the first Western wave of tourists into China and Tibet in the 1980s. We use the hyphenated term “Australian-American” often today, to describe Australian actors working in the US, probably because we cannot think of a more apt descriptor. In Shirley Ann’s case, she really did straddle two cultural environments with complete ease.

Much admired and always fondly remembered in Australia, she died in 2006, long after most of her Australian and Hollywood contemporaries.

Nick Murphy
March 2020 Updated September 2020


Note 1: The IMDB currently conflates Shirley Ann Richards with US-born actress Sally Ann Richards (1947-2005) – in doing so muddling up some of their appearances.

Note 2: The claim that Shirley Ann Richards “often appeared on TV” in the ’50s and ’60s appears to be another case of mistaken identity. The person referred to is almost certainly US-born Jazz Singer Ann Richards (1935-1982).


Special Thanks
To Ms Marguerite Gillezeau, Archivist at Ascham School, for her assistance on Shirley Ann’s schooling, and alerting me to her first credited public performance in October 1933.


Further Reading

Documentary films

  • Don’t Call Me Girlie (1986) Directed by Andree Wright and Stewart Young. Available from Ronin Films
  • History of Australian Film 1896-1940, Part 3 “Now You’re Talking” (1979) Directed by Keith Gow. Film Australia

Film Clips @ Australian Screen, an NFSA website

Youtube

Audio Interviews

Hollywood Forever Family Memorial Site

Text

  • Edmund Angelo (1949) Curtain-You’re On! Murray & Gee Inc.
  • Bernard F Dick (2004) Hal Wallis, Producer to the Stars. The University Press of Kentucky.
  • Ken G Hall (1980) Australian Film, The Inside Story. Summit Books
  • Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (1980) Australian Films 1900-1977: A Guide to Feature production. Oxford University Press/ AFI.
  • Ann Richards (1971) The Grieving Senses and Other Poems. Branden Press.
  • Andree Wright (1986) Brilliant careers. Women in Australian Film. Pan Books.

Australian Dictionary of Biography

National Library of Australia, Trove

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 October, 1933, Cast of Children.
  • Smith’s Weekly, 10 Apr 1937; The Rise of Shirley Ann Richards.
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Mar 1937; Amateurs carry on stage traditions.
  • Table Talk, 28 Oct 1937; Cinesound School for Talent.
  • Truth (Sydney), 23 Feb 1936; The Jottings of a Lady
  • Evening News, 14 Aug 1919; Young Australia. Needs Virus of Self Reliance.
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Sep 1944; Romance and Steel. Ann Richards’s role.
  • The Age, 4 July 1946. Advice to would be film stars.
  • The Canberra Times, 1 Jul 1977; An Australian star remembers

Newspapers.com

  • The Monrovia News-Post. 1 July 1988: Actress to speak of China and Tibet.

The Independent

Harry Allen (1877 – 1951) – a long journey to Hollywood

This screen grab shows Harry Allen as the photographer in “Ella Cinders”, a 1926 Colleen Moore film. He was 47 by this time this film was made. Source – author’s collection. The film is now in the public domain.

Born in Carlton, Melbourne, in 1877, Henry “Harry” Radford Allen’s story is a familiar one. A stage actor who worked hard to establish his name, Harry found himself in the later part of his career working in Hollywood, taking on minor supporting and often un-credited roles, generally as a cockney cabman, a doorman, a butler or similar. Harry had at least 100 film credits of this type, unfortunately many of these quite forgettable. It was an experience shared by other Australian actors in Hollywood, including Charles Coleman, Robert Greig, Clyde Cook and Snub Pollard, who had also arrived there after long and successful careers on stage – usually in vaudeville.

THe earl of Chicago Allen and Pollard
Above: A bald Harry Allen in his small speaking scene from The Earl of Chicago (1940), with fellow Melbourne actor Snub Pollard as an extra clearly in the background. The two children may be Allan’s own. Australians Billy Bevan and Frank Baker also appeared in the film. MGM and Warner Home movies re-released this film on DVD in 2011.

Harry was born in Barkly Street in the inner Melbourne suburb of Carlton, near the busy intersection of Johnson and Nicholson Streets, on 10 July 1877. Harry’s parents were Cordelia Potter, a singer and pianist from Fitzroy, and Robert Owen Allen, from Tasmania, a sometime storeman and clerk, who appears also to have been a comic singer. Although many of the small cottages in this area have been demolished, those surviving give us an idea of the area in the time Harry was born.


Harry as profiled in Melbourne Punch, March 1912. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove. At right – the remaining cottage near the site of his birth place in Barkly Street, Carlton. It is possible that with house renumbering and demolitions in the area, this WAS the family home. Photo – Author’s collection. 

Harry was almost certainly encouraged onto the stage by his parents, but of his upbringing we know little except that a sister, Georgina Ethel, died in infancy in 1880.  We also cannot easily trace what happened to his parents, although it appears Cordelia may have later remarried. Nor do we know much about Harry’s career in the late 1890s and early 1900s. We do know that by his late twenties, Harry had some stage experience with J. C. Williamson’s in Australia, although curiously, unlike so many of his contemporaries, he consistently avoided publicity. In June 1910, he married a fellow actor – Marjorie Josephine Condon, at the Brisbane registry office. Here, on a remarkably inaccurate marriage certificate, he gave his age as “27” (he was 32) and his birth place as “New York”.  In March 1912, Harry managed a J. C. Williamson’s fund- raising “monster theatrical carnival,” held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. But soon after this, he abandoned Australia and Marjorie forever. In May 1913 he set off for New York via Vancouver on the SS Marama, in company with well known comic Sam Rowley, who had considerable experience working in North America. On the ship’s manifest Harry again claimed he had been born in the United States.

While Sam Rowley continued to make a name for himself as “the little man with the big voice” in Canada, Harry settled into work for prolific producer William A. Brady in New York. His breakthrough role came in early 1919, when he was cast as Bert in the new British musical comedy, The Better ‘Ole. The play was based on three popular cartoon soldier characters – Old Bill, Bert and Alf, drawn by Bruce Bairnsfather for the British weekly “The Bystander” under the title “Fragments from France.” It was such a great success that several companies performed the show across the US and Canada at the same time.


Above left: Australian performer Sam Rowley, who travelled with Harry to North America. But once they were there, they seem to have parted company. The Saskatoon Daily Star. 25 Oct 1913.
Above Right: Harry Allen in character as Bert in The Better Ole. The Buffalo Times. 19 January 1919. Via Newspapers.com 

Following this success Harry was offered a string of important roles in musicals, comedies and farces  – including June Love, For Goodness Sake and Her Temporary Husband. The path to success had been a long one – he was 40 years old, but now an established actor. At the same time, he made a decision to stay in the US for good. In 1917 he began the process of applying for citizenship – his application noting he lived with his “wife Sue” and that the small finger of his left hand was missing.

The 1915 New York census also suggests Harry had married, or at least cohabited with, a woman named Susan W.

Harry Radford Allen

Harry Radford Allen’s Application for US citizenship, April 1917 (enlargement) Note the annotation “my wife name Sue she lives with me”. Via US National Archives, via Ancestry.com

Sometime in April 1920, Susanne Westford  (Susan Beatrice Leonard 1865-1944) of New York, the second youngest sister of the famous actress and political activist Lillian Russell (1860-1922), announced publicly that vaudeville actor Harry R Allen was “no longer regarded as a member of my family”. The problems were his straying affections and also a matter of money borrowed and not repaid. Susan (also known as Susanne and sometimes using the surname Russell), was performing at the time in the play Clarence at the Hudson Theatre. This writer has not found a marriage certificate for Susanne and Harry R Allen, but The Daily News of New York suggested at the time they were married and the matter was going to court. Today it’s easy to dismiss this as a mixed-up newspaper story.


Left: Lillian Russell in The Evening Statesman. Washington, 20 May 1907.Via Newspapers.com
Centre: Susanne Westford in The Daily News. New York, 19 April, 1920. Via Newspapers.com.
Right: Owen Westford and Susanne Leonard (Westford) performing together in Washington in 1902. Note the heading –
“Polite Vaudeville.” IS there such a thing!?  The Washington Times, 21 December 1902. Via Newspapers.com

And yet… there was a real connection. Susanne Westford had been married to actor Robert Owen Westford (1858 – 1908), a native of Tasmania, from the mid 1880s until his sudden death in Washington in February 1908. Owen Westford first appears as an actor in Australia in 1879-80, and was almost certainly Harry’s own father. Regularly praised for his versatility as an actor, Westford sometimes added Allen to his surname and had performed often with Susanne and Lillian Russell, having arrived in the US with the William Horace Lingard company c. 1880. The 1900 and 1905 US census from New York shows Susanne and Owen Westford living with Leona Ross, another sister, and her theatre – manager husband Fred.

When Harry died in 1951, his death certificate clearly listed an Owen Westford as his father. The reader will thus be wondering – did Harry really marry or cohabit with his step-mother? Or was this just all an arrangement to smooth his transition into the US that went horribly wrong?

Saskatoon Daily Star 18 March 1922

The Saskatoon Daily Star advertises Harry’s first film. 18 March, 1922. Via newspapers.com

Harry’s first film role was for Ralph Ince in After Midnight, made in 1921 – reviewers describing it as “finely staged, and highly acted, and …a thrilling story”, apparently set in New York’s Chinatown. Being quite well known he was listed as one of the film’s “popular players.” At the same time, he was still active in theatre – appearing in a string of light comedies and musicals.

In 1923 he married another actor, Dorothea Hyde, and in 1925 they moved to the Van Nuys area of Los Angeles in California. There, he began to appear regularly in entertaining character roles in a series of silent films. Two children were born of the union in the late 1920s.


Left to right: Harry as the photographer in Ella Cinders (1926), as Riggs the butler in The Enchanted Cottage (1924), and as Dad Mason, in The Adorable Cheat (1928). These films are widely available on the net and now in the public domain. (Click to enlarge)

As the 1920s came to an end, and as sound films arrived, the roles he found were more perfunctory.  This was hardly surprising – given his age and the fact that Hollywood was changing again. The impact of the depression and the rise of the Hollywood studio system saw thousands of small producers and independent theatres go under and fledgling national cinemas (like Australia’s) crippled. In this environment, film making became more formulaic and the opportunities for the old vaudevillians like Harry, were fewer. Thus many of his later roles hardly register on the screen. In 1943’s massive patriotic effort by Britons in Hollywood, Forever and a Day, when he plays an air raid watcher, or in 1945’s Hangover Square, his presence is so fleeting he is hard to notice.

The Internet Movie Database notes that Harry appeared in several Best Picture Academy Award winners and nominees in the 30s and early 40s. However, because he didn’t ever comment on his choice of role – we can’t assume this was anything more than good luck. Yet again – many of these roles are entirely unnoticeable. In Of Human Bondage (1934) for example, he apparently plays the taxi driver at the very end of the film – but its definitely a case of “blink and you would miss it.”

In 1951, Harry’s Melbourne contemporary Snub Pollard provided some perspective on the work he was now doing as an extra. “I have no…regrets, not a one. I get plenty of work and I live comfortably and sensibly. I am in good health and have lots of friends. The fact that I am not on top now does not bother me. Most people never get there at all.” Hopefully Harry Radford Allen shared this view.

Harry’s two children, Radford and Paula, made brief appearances in several of Harry’s later films but they did not pursue acting as a career. Harry died in Los Angeles in December, 1951 at the age of 73. He worked almost until the end of his life. As was often the case, his passing was reported in US newspapers, but in Australia it went completely unnoticed.


Note 1: Harry’s date of birth was 10 July 1877. The confusion on various websites may relate to freely existing documents that are not accurate and like many performers at the time, Harry may have contributed to this. There are various claims he was born in 1876 (citing his 1917 US naturalization application) and 1883 (citing his WWII registration card). However, his Victorian birth certificate is quite clear.

Harry Radford Allen birth cert July 10 1878

Above: Part of Harry Allen’s birth certificate, 10 July 1877. Via Births, Deaths and Marriages, Victoria. NB: The birth was not registered until 2 Jan 1878.

Nick Murphy
July 2019

Further Reading

Texts

  • Gerald Martin Bordman (1978) American Musical Theater: A Chronicle. Oxford University Press.
  • George Kemp Ward (1910) reprinted 2017. Andrew Warde and his descendants, 1597-1910. Forgotten Books.
  • Mark Evan Swartz (2000) Oz before the Rainbow. L. Frank Baum’s the Wonderful Wizard of Oz on Stage. John Hopkins University Press.
  • J.P. Wearing (2013) The London Stage 1890-1899: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Scarecrow Press.

Newspapers.com
National Library of Australia – Trove

Australian Variety Theatre Archive – Clay Djubal

Internet Archive

  • The Argonaut, Vol 84, January 1919. Review of The Better ‘Ole.
  • The Billboard, 24 June 1944. Susanne Westford obituary.

Saharet (1878-1964) The Dancer from Richmond

Above: Saharet in about 1898. Postcard in the Author’s Collection.

The 5 second version
Born Paulina Clarissa Molony in Richmond ( a suburb of Melbourne ) Australia on 23 March 1878, died Battle Creek, Michigan, USA, 24 July 1964. Of Chinese-Australian background, her training in Australia has not yet been identified. She first appeared as a dancer on stage in California in May 1891 and quickly gained great fame and notoriety. Thereafter she performed in New York and other US cities, also in France, Germany, Russia and Britain. She married three times, then retired to Battle Creek in 1947 to be near her daughter.
She made at least 9 and possibly more films in Germany and France before WWI.

 

(Note: The US spelling of theater is used throughout this article for consistency)


1878 in Melbourne, Australia

The celebrated dancer Saharet was born Paulina Clarissa Molony, on 23 March 1878, to Benjamin Robert Molony, an illiterate Irish tailor and Elizabeth (nee Foon), a 19-year-old of part Chinese ancestry from Ballarat. She was delivered at home in Rowena Parade, in the heart of the working class Melbourne suburb of Richmond. A sister, Martha Lily, was born in 1879 and another, Julia Millicent, in 1881. (see Note 1 below)

Paulina Clarissa (or Clarice as she preferred) made her way from the humblest of backgrounds in Richmond, to fame and fortune in Europe and the US in the early twentieth century. As Saharet, she was painted by leading European artists of the day and appeared on countless postcards, a clever and audacious dancer, and a vibrant young woman. Yet much of her life remains an enduring mystery and the few contemporary accounts of her life tend only to amplify errors made by others, such as the oft- repeated but incorrect claim she died in Melbourne in 1942. But when she lived at her home in the Michigan town of Battle Creek in the early 1960s, she left behind the key to her story. She had told friends her parents’ names; Benjamin Malony (note the variation of surname Molony) and Eveline “nee De Vere” which was at least, partly true.

 
Her 1964 obituary in the Battle Creek Enquirer, the local newspaper, noted the day of her Australian birth, but sadly, nothing was said of her illustrious career as one the world’s leading dancers before the Great War, when she was the toast of Europe’s theater society. This writer believes much of the mystery surrounding Saharet’s upbringing relates to her Ballarat Chinese ancestry, something she and her mother wanted to disassociate themselves from as quickly as they could.

Rowena Parade 2018 edited

Rowena Parade in 2018, looking West towards central Melbourne. The shop on the left was, coincidentally, built in the same year as Saharet’s birth – 1878. Author’s collection.
Boarding House Nicholson St Fitzroy  McCormack Place
Left: In November 1881, Saharet’s mother gave birth to another daughter – Julia Mallicino (Millicent), at 168 Nicholson St, Fitzroy – almost certainly a boarding house. Author’s Collection.
Right: On the birth certificate of Julia Mallicino (see Note 2 below), Saharet’s mother listed her residence as 4 McCormac Place Melbourne, then a part of the notorious”Little Lon” district, a “slum” neighbourhood now entirely demolished. The house would have been in the right middle distance. This then, was home for little Clarice.
This photo was taken about 1950 before the demolition, by a Public Works photographer.Click on the image to go to the State Library of Victoria record.

As an adult, she was an attractive looking woman with a powerful stage presence. Standing about medium height -168 cms tall (five foot five inches), with grey eyes and a mass of dark brown hair, she was a highly skilled and flexible dancer.

“What Saharet can’t do with her legs is not worth the average mortal’s worth while trying to learn” wrote one journalist. Another journalist described her as “really an expert gymnast and contortionist. What she does is to give a wild whirling dance, in the course of which she introduces somersault splits, fabulous high kicking, cart wheels and other difficult feats … It is a marvellous exhibition of gymnastic skill, but, at the same time, the dancer is mirthful and beautiful, and the dance a delight to the eye.”

Unfortunately, a critical part of Clarice’s early story in Australia currently remains unknown. Who taught her to dance and particularly, what were the circumstances surrounding the obvious change in fortune that occurred between her birth in Melbourne in 1878 and her appearance as a dancer in the United States in 1891. We do not know how she paid her way from Melbourne to California or exactly when this occurred. Her parents had been so poor they could not afford a memorial for her sister Martha Lily when she died in early 1881, after suffering “convulsions”, probably the result of typhoid fever, then so prevalent in Melbourne.

A later British account claimed she studied under US actress Minnie Palmer, who was in Melbourne in 1886-1887. Still another account claimed she worked for three years for well-known theatrical entrepreneur Harry Rickards. The most plausible accounts suggested she appeared on stage in Melbourne, performing in the corps de ballet at the Theater Royal, under the direction of English choreographer Marie Reddall (who worked in Australia with her husband, Actor – Director E. W. Royce between 1886 and 1892). There could be truth in all these claims.


                                          San Franciso Examiner March 1894        Los Angeles Times April 1894Garnett Journal Nov 13 1896
Left: Saharet appears in print in The San Francisco Examiner, California, March 4, 1894
Centre: Saharet, also known as Clarice Campbell, described as a “wonderfully lithe and graceful” high kicker in the Los Angeles Times, California, April 5, 1894.
Right: This November 13 1896 report in theGarnett Journal (Kansas) appears to be amongst the most accurate accounts of her early life.  Via Newspapers.com  (The Lilliputians referred to here are NOT the Pollard’s Lilliputians who arrived 10 years later) Thanks to Martin Goebel

1891 in San Francisco

Researcher Martin Goebel has found that as Clarice Campbell, she joined the “Liliputians (not the Pollard’s Australian Lilliputians), a company performing at San Francisco’s Baldwin Theater in May 1891,  indicating her likely arrival in the US earlier that year, almost certainly with her mother (see Note 4 below).

Over time, newspaper reports of dubious reliability appeared, recounting her early efforts to establish herself. She was only 13 and perhaps she really did appear as a dime museum fortune teller and then a mermaid, as the Detroit Free Press was to recount. However, it is well documented that by early 1894 she was using the stage name Saharet and in April she had joined M.B. Leavitt’s “Spider and Fly” vaudeville company – touring US cities. Through 1895 she was most closely associated with another popular touring vaudeville show – “The Night Owls”.


saharet016   saharet ike and daughter


Left: Saharet’s “fabulous high kicking” can be seen here in this postcard by Reutlinger of Paris. From the Author’s collection. Right: Saharet and Ike Rose, with daughter Carrie. From an unidentified German paper.c 1902. Rather than squandering her fortune as Rose was to claim, Saharet appears to have spent it caring for her daughter and her niece. Author’s collection.

1896 – Marriage in New York

In May 1896 18-year-old Saharet married New York entrepreneur Isaac Rosenstamm (later known as Ike Rose), while she was also three months pregnant to him. Over time, it was Rose who managed her career and passed around stories about her identity – that she was born in Melbourne – or perhaps it was Ballarat, the daughter of a well-known pastoralist (rancher). This constant narration about her all appears to be part of a concerted effort to advance her career and later, to create interest in Rose’s other professional activities, even after the couple separated. Rose appears to have written much of the commentary that was attributed to her and this, combined with the freewheeling use of different surnames by Saharet’s mother, only added to the confusion. Rose himself was creative with his own history, acknowledging his birth in Hanover, Germany in 1865 in his first US passport application, but in later documents not only anglicising his name, but also claiming to have been born in New York.

Not surprisingly, not everyone believed that the beautiful young dancer who could throw her leg over her head, do the splits, and winked cheekily to her audiences was an Australian, just because she said she was. At least some Australian journalists were suspicious, particularly as there appeared to be no family or friends back home to claim her. When renowned German singer Otto Reutter happily posed with one arm around her and the other around a bottle of Champagne in 1908, the sense of “foreignness” about her was only reinforced. Saharet had little to say herself, yet the story persisted everywhere that she was Australian – and when a British journalist writing for the London Daily Mail newspaper managed to meet her in 1898, he was left with no doubt she was an Australian, born in Melbourne.

Others, including Anglo-German Count Harry Graf Kessler, who met her in about 1900, believed this too. Surviving samples of her handwriting display the confident hand of a well-educated, native English-speaker.


Saharet signature

Above: Saharet’s well formed signature. Author’s collection.
Below: Saharet appears doubled on this postcard – a not uncommon device of the time. c1905. Author’s collection.

Saharet 3


Her stage turn, often part of a varied program, appears to have lasted for less than 15 minutes, and yet she seemed to speak to audiences of a coming era of freedom and joyfulness. Like Isadora Duncan, Saharet’s style can be seen as a fore-runner in the development of the modern dance movement. This was characterised by the rejection of traditional forms of classical ballet and the embracing of new concepts in dance – to express human emotions and realism.

The Austrian writer Hermynia Zur Mühlen saw Saharet perform whilst still a child. In her 1929 autobiography, she recalled “I have never again seen such natural grace and charm, the expression simultaneously, of a little wild animal and a beautifully refined woman.” German writer Eugen Wolf also seems to have been entranced. In 1899 he wrote “… I saw her dancing four times, on all four evenings I was in Berlin…A curious creature, the only one of its kind, this gazelle, this Kangaroo, this Australian Saharet with the big round eyes …”

The German artist Emil Nolde also recalled watching her dance, like some “primeval being.” Rose fed the story that she had been given a fortune in diamonds by European admirers, and was earning another fortune by performing. It was probably true. He also encouraged her to sit for numerous accomplished and emerging French and German artists, including Maurice Biais in about 1902, by Franz Von Stuck in 1906 and by Leo Rauth in 1911. Saharet’s relationship with Rose had drifted by 1907 and the couple separated, although Rose remained her manager for another five years and his influence on her career continued to be significant.


Photos of Saharet

Above: Saharet as she appears in the Jean Reutlinger (1891-1914) Album of various portraits. Source – Bibliothèque Nationale de France – National Library of France, Gallica -Digital collection.  via Wikipedia Commons

In fact, Saharet’s great notoriety was gained in Europe, not the US. She first appeared in theaters in the UK in 1897 and in France and Germany after 1898 where she was to become phenomenally popular. Rose also arranged for the couple to travel to Russia at least several times in the early twentieth century, where she developed a significant following. After much European travel and numerous trips to and from Europe and the US and England, she finally left Germany in late 1914, possibly as late as the outbreak of war in August. This seems to have marked the end of her European presence. Her adventures in German silent film, a career direction cut short by the war, were typical of the forays well-known stage performers made into film in the first few decades of the twentieth century. At the time no one could guess the power narrative film would come to have a few decades later. Saharet made at least nine films in Germany between 1907 and 1913. (See Note 2 Below). On their release in Australia, she was generally acknowledged as an Australian.

One very early film of Saharet has miraculously survived – a hand tinted rarity made in France by pioneering director Alice Guy-Blaché in 1905. In it, Saharet dances the Bolero for just a few minutes. The film would have been shown as part of a mixed vaudeville review show, one that consisted of live acts interspersed with short films.

Watch it here

When Rose visited Australia in early 1913, promoting his other acts, Saharet’s birthplace had become Ballarat. In an oft-repeated interview about her life, Rose claimed that she had left Australia as a youngster, after some work in theater in Melbourne. He had discovered her performing in New York in “The Night Owls”, earning a mere £7 per week. Through his influence he quickly got her £30 per week and from September 1897, an engagement in New York with Edward Rice’sFrench Maid,” which played at the Herald Square Theater.

Rose told reporters that Saharet received £750 for acting in her first German film, “In a Golden Cage,” and £1,000 for her second. But Rose had apparently advised against appearing on the screen as he felt the new medium did not suit her as a dancer. Rose claimed that her 1913 salary “was now £300 to £400 a week.” By this time he had also arranged for her to receive a percentage of the takings for her live performances.


1913 – Further Marriages

By the time Rose was saying this in Australia, the couple were professionally and personally separated. Citing desertion and his infidelity, Saharet began proceedings against Rose in October 1912, and the divorce was finalised in 1913. Soon after, she married German-born US millionaire Fritz von Frantzius. Von Frantzius had long been an ardent admirer of hers, but their marriage was a disaster, as she abandoned him after only a few days for a new partner on stage and off – Jose Florido. She performed with Florido in the US and Britain for several years and clearly intended to marry him, but never did. Variety magazine’s 1914 review of their new act was positive and outlined exactly what her program looked like;

“Saharet has lost none of her charm, nor indeed her stage looks…Her dancing partner, Senor J. Florido, is a lithe, slender, virile Spanish youth… Saharet alone does her first number, programed as a minuette. It consists of pirouettes and posing of the old- style ballet school. It is a trifle disappointing… Florido follows with a solo dance, The Sabaje, which is strident and of toreador inception. It consists of some twists and a series of rapid stamping and taps, all on the heels. Third is a Spanish castanet dance by both, with Carmen and Toreador entrance, well done but on old style lines. Nothing sensational until the fourth and final number, Tango Argentine. Saharet and Florido’s is the genuine South American, sensuous thing… It is a violent, living, palpitant affair that earns for them the applause it richly deserves.”

But by 1916, reviews of her New York performances in “Sesame of Love” were less enthusiastic. Perhaps, in the midst of war, the public appetite for performance was already changing.

In 1917 Saharet married again, to a third German-born New Yorker and her latest theatrical agent – Maxim P (Phideus) Lowe. Soon after, she retired from the stage for good.


Her Daughter – Carrie M Rose

Ike and Saharet’s only child, Caroline Madelon Rose  was born in New York in November 1896. Known to all as Carrie, she accompanied her parents throughout their first European tours. In time, young Carrie experienced a life as tumultuous as her mother’s. In 1906, she was placed in a convent school in Belgium and later, another convent in Essex, England. Carrie then had a go at following her mother onto the stage and performed in England under the unbelievably mundane stage name of  Dorothy Siddons. She closely resembled her mother in appearance and her choice of dancing and acting as a career seems understandable, although she only met with mixed success.

In the early 1920s, Carrie rebooted her acting career, this time as Madeline (also Madelon) La Varre. With this exotic name she appeared with greater success, in fleshy roles on Broadway and in two films. In 1927, Carrie changed course again, leaving the stage and entering a Carmelite Convent in the USA. She finally found her calling in 1944, when she joined the US Naval Reserve, becoming one of the first women to achieve the rank of Lieutenant Commander during World War Two. An amazing transformation.

In 1947, Carrie was appointed to a senior position managing the occupational therapy clinic at Fort Custer Veteran’s Hospital at Battle Creek, Michigan, a position she held until 1950. Saharet moved to Battle Creek to be near her daughter, and for a time lived with her at Brown’s Trailer (caravan) Park.


A Saharet Family Album

Maxim P Lowe c1921 carrie rosenstamm Archibald McKenzie passport 1919 Clarice Edith Roberts
From left: Third husband Maxim P. Lowe c.1920, Daughter Caroline “Carrie” Rose c.1920, Half brother Archibald McKenzie c.1920, Saharet’s niece Clarice Roberts. c 1920.
All passport photos shown above are via Ancestry, from the US National Archives

Death in 1964

Saharet, now calling herself Clarice Saharet Lowe, was 85 years old in 1964. When alert neighbours near 41 Ivanhoe Street, Battle Creek, realised they hadn’t seen her for some time, the local Police were called to break into her house. They found her body in the bath. It was 24th of July and she died alone and probably by her own hand, because sadly, daughter Carrie had also taken her own life after a catastrophic car accident, 14 years before. Her half-brother Archibald McKenzie was by then her closest living relative.

 

41 irving - ivanhoe st Battle Creek

Above; Saharet’s modest home at 41 Ivanhoe Street, Battle Creek (now demolished). Photo courtesy of Willard Library, Battle Creek, Michigan, USA.

What sense can we make of this Australian girl who really could dance so spectacularly she developed an international reputation in just a few years? Somewhere, hopefully, someone still has the photos and scrap books that she must have kept, detailing her extraordinary life, one that must have been rich in experiences.


Note 1- Her birth certificate

Birth Cert 1.jpgAbove: Part of Paulina Clarissa Molony’s Australian birth certificate, dated 23 March, 1878.  Via Births, Deaths & Marriages, Victoria

Transcription 
Columns

2 – 23 March 1878. Rowena Parade. Town of Richmond, County of Bourke
3 – Paulina Clarissa. Not present
4 – Female
5 – Benjamin Molony. Tailor. 25. Limerick Ireland [Father’s name, age, place of birth]
6 – March 17, 1877, Melbourne Victoria [Date of marriage]
7 – Elizabeth Molony formerly Foon, 19. Ballarat Victoria. [Mother’s name, maiden name, age, place of birth]


Note 2- Saharet’s known films


Professor Julie Allen of Brigham Young University has kindly shared the following information on Saharet’s films, released in 1912-13. Intriguingly, most of these were released in Australia soon after they opened in Germany and often before they opened in the US or Britain.

Im goldenen Käfig / (In) A Golden Cage, a three-reel Oskar Messter drama that opened at West’s Palace in Melbourne on November 23, 1912 (this might be the same film as Die Tänzerin)
Unter der Maske / Behind the Mask (aka The Black Mask) at West’s in Melbourne on December 26, 1912, just seven weeks after its German premiere and a month before it opened in London as a Gaumont exclusive
Hexenfeuer / Gipsy Hate, which opened at the Tivoli Picture Theater in Bendigo, Victoria on January 27, 1913
Fürs Vaterland / For Their Country (aka On the Altar of Patriotism), premiered at Spencer’s Theater Royal in Perth, WA on February 26, 1913, more than a year before the same film would open in the US
Mimosa-san / Madame Butterfly was first screened briefly at Armadale Theater in Melbourne on February 27, 1913 before appearing in suburban and provincial theaters in Tamworth, NSW and St. Kilda, Victoria on March 1.

The German Film Portal additionally lists these films

    • Bolero c 1907
    • Auf Dem Maskenball 1910
    • La Malaguena 1910
    • La Serenada 1910
    • Terpsichore. Die Macht des Tanzes 1921.

Note 3 – Not Saharet!

A heavily tattooed French dancer called herself “Saharet” in the 1920s. She is unrelated to the subject of this account.


Note 4 – Saharet and her Ballarat-born Mother

Saharet’s mother was born Elizabeth Ah Foon in Ballarat in 1858. She lived a tumultuous life and is probably worth an entire biography of her own. The evidence is strong that she travelled to the US with Saharet, and remained a forceful presence in her daughter’s life until about 1920.

Elizabeth, later to call herself Eveline, was the oldest of a large family born in Ballarat to 19 year-old Caroline Ramsay and her first husband, 24 year-old gold miner William Moy Ah Foon. She appears in the Ballarat Benevolent Asylum’s register as “pregnant and destitute” in September 1873 and reappears in the historical record in an authorised (but underage) marriage in 1874 followed by the birth of another child in 1875. Thus, she had already given birth to two children before she had Paulina Clarissa.

Caroline Ramsay Emma Foon

Above: Photos of two women Elizabeth/Eveline knew well, and probably also Saharet. Left: Her mother Caroline Ramsay (Saharet’s grandmother), who died in Ballarat in 1919. Right: Emma Dinah Foon (later Lepp), Elizabeth/Eveline’s sister, born 1866, with one of her children (and thus Saharet’s aunt and cousin)
Cropped photos courtesy Mark Lepp, both taken c 1885 – 1890.

Throughout her life, Elizabeth / Eveline went to great efforts to remain anonymous, consistently obscuring her identity by repeated changes of surname – Molony, Martella, Campbell, McKenzie, De Vere and claims that she was “born at sea”, or of Scottish or French-Canadian ancestry. It was remarkably easy to do this because until the First World War, people could travel internationally without formal documents.

Eveline’s motivation for the endless and confusing changes of identity can only be guessed now, but it’s most likely this was a means to control her own destiny and maintain her independence. Perhaps it also explains why she preferred the great cultural melting pot of Brooklyn New York, as her home. It is highly likely that Saharet’s part-Chinese ethnicity, combined with the fact her parents Eveline and Benjamin Molony were probably not married, explains Saharet’s reluctance to discuss her origins very honestly. In the deeply race conscious societies Saharet was having such success in, to be of mixed race background could have meant the end of her career.

In 1899 Saharet gave by far the most comprehensive account of her life to Eugen Wolf, a journalist for the Berlin magazine Die Zukunft. It contained elements of truth, but was still liberally embellished – for example, her mother’s numerous partners were all “husbands”, and while she acknowledged she had several siblings who had died – the details were fanciful. Saharet’s real family story remained as elusive for the public as ever. To reveal the details would mean she would acknowledge her mixed race background.

Saharet’s motherUS patented Child's carriage is almost certainly the same Eveline/Evelyn Campbell, “the Australian Sporting Lady,” who appeared in a rowing competition with a US woman in San Francisco in April 1893. In a lengthy interview with The San Francisco Call on March 28, 1893, this Eveline revealed her daughter was on the stage, and by her comments clearly had experience of living in Melbourne. But lacking the rowing experience she claimed, she lost the competition and missed the $250 prize.  Intriguingly however, it seems she received $14,000 for a patented “child’s carriage” at about the same time.

(see Stanley P.331. Also see US patent No. 495,301 Patented Apr. 11, 1893. The author wonders if the patent payout  figure is accurate. That is about $400,000 today)

Julia Mellicino Moloney

Above: Part of the birth certificate of Saharet’s younger sister Julia Mallicino Moloney, born November 11, 1881. Eveline gives her name as Elizabeth Eveline Ah Pack and no father is listed. Julia took to calling herself Millicent and died as a result of tuberculosis in New York in January 1906. Saharet took over the care of Millicent’s daughter Clarice Roberts after she died. Via Births, Deaths & Marriages, Victoria

Eveline Mckenzie travel to the US in 1919a

 
Above: An edited manifest for the SS Rotterdam, arriving in New York in 1919, reflecting the changes in travel requirements after the First World War. Eveline McKenzie’s age and birthplace – “Ballard” Australia are revealed, as she must have travelled on a British passport.  Note that her trip was paid for by her daughter, Saharet, “Mrs C.S. Lowe” of New York (right hand section enlarged below)  Via Ancestry, from the US National Archives

evelyn 3


Even in death Elizabeth/Eveline managed to maintain fiction. When she died in Brooklyn, New York on 11 March 1936, Caroline Ramsay was acknowledged as her mother on the death certificate. However, her father was listed as “Walter Besant”, here she had chosen the name of a well known C19th novelist and historian. Her real father, William Moy Ah Foon, was never acknowledged on any documents (nor Caroline’s second husband – traditional Chinese doctor, Lo Kwoi Sang.)

Elizabeth/Eveline did not maintain any connection with her extended family in Ballarat and neither did Saharet. According to Mark Lepp, a descendant of Caroline Ramsay, the family knew she had gone to America, but nothing more. Caroline waited patiently for news of her oldest daughter and grand-daughter, which never came. But its interesting that in far away New York, Saharet chose her grand-mother’s name – Caroline – for her only child.

                  Saharet in civvies 336-3 (jer)       Ramsay Sang Ballarat

Above Left: Saharet, on a postcard from about 1910, courtesy Jean Ritsema. Right: Caroline Sang (Ramsay) and her second husband’s headstone at Ballarat New Cemetery. She died in 1919 without knowing what had happened to her daughter and grand-daughter Saharet. Author’s Collection.

Nick Murphy, Updated June 2020


Special thanks to

  • Professor Julie Allen – Brigham Young University, Utah USA
  • Mark Lepp – Australia
  • Martin Goebel – USA
  • Jim Eldridge – Battle Creek, Michigan USA
  • Michael McCullough – Willard Library, Battle Creek, Michigan USA
  • An especially to Jean Ritsema – Jackson, Michigan, USA

Further reading:

Texts

  • Julie K Allen (2017) Divas down Under: the circulation of Asta Nielsen’s and Francesca Bertini’s films in Australian cinemas in the 1910s, Studies in Australasian Cinema, 11:2, 59-76. 
  • Wilhelm Benignus (1913) Woman’s Soul. Sonnets, Odes and Songs, p.70. Max Schmetterling, New York.(In a footnote in this book Saharet’s father is claimed to be a John Campbell.)
  • Edward Ross Dickinson (2017) Dancing in the Blood: Modern Dance and European Culture on the Eve of the First World War. Cambridge University Press.
  • Averil King (2013) Emil Nolde: Artist of the Elements. I.B.Taurus
  • Hermynia Zur Mühlen (1929) The End and the Beginning: The Book of My Life.
  • Autumn Stanley (1995) Mothers and Daughters of Invention: Notes for a Revised History of Technology. P. 331, Rutgers University Press.

Unpublished manuscript

  • Barbara L Hill (1973) The Quiet Campaign. A History of the Veteran’s Hospital, Battle Creek. Second Edition. Courtesy Jean Ritsema.

Websites

Newspapers via Biblioteka Elbląska Digital libraries federation, Poland

Newspapers.com

  • Battle Creek Enquirer July 24, 1964 reports Mrs Clarice S Lowe’s death.
  • Battle Creek Enquirer March 12, 1947 reports on Carrie M Rose
  • Variety Feb 1, 1914

Newspapers Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Argus, 19 Nov 1898. A report of a Daily Mail interview with Saharet.
  • The Daily Herald, Feb 3, 1913.
  • The Catholic Press, July 14, 1927.
  • Sunday Times, Feb 14, 1909
  • Numerous Australian papers covered Ike Rose’s 1913 visit. See for example, The Mail, 1 Feb, 1913