A Visit to Spahn Movie Ranch

By Michael G. Ankerich

My morbid curiosity is a side of me that most friends and family don’t understand. I simply had no choice, friends!  I grew up watching Dark Shadows, and the first scene from a movie I remember seeing was a decapitated head rolling down the stairs in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. I remember burying my head into my mother’s lap and not coming up until “The End.”

I’d rather see low-budget movies (just watched The Town that Dreaded Sundown for the fourth or fifth time) about hauntings and serial killers than comedy or the commercially popular latest and greatest epic.

The really fun part is when it spills over into real life.  I love hanging out in cemeteries and going to those places where creepy and bizarre things happened. On my first trip to Los Angeles, back in the 1980s, one of the first places I asked to visit was Cielo Drive, where Sharon Tate and friends were murdered in 1969. On my next venture west, I found the La Bianca murder house.

You cannot imagine the disappointment when I trekked to the corner of Alvarado and Maryland in Hollywood only to find the courtyard apartment where William Desmond Taylor was murdered in 1922 was a parking lot. Or, when I went to the apartment house where Marie Prevost died and was unable to go inside.  We learn to live with life’s little disappointments.

High on my list was the site of Spahn Ranch, which had once been a 500-acre movie ranch for filming Westerns and numerous television programs.

Spahn Ranch in the day

Spahn Ranch in the day

You know the story. By the late 1960s, little filming was actually done on the desolate property in the Simi Hills and Santa Susana Mountains above Chatsworth. Its owner, 80-year-old George Spahn, blind and ailing, now used the ranch for horse rentals.

It was in 1968 that Charles Manson and his followers, “The Family,” came to live at the ranch.  Spahn allowed them to stay rent free as long as they help out with chores. This abandoned, isolated ranch, 20 miles from Los Angeles, became the primary residence of Manson and the Family during the time they committed the Tate-LaBianca murders until Manson’s arrest in 1969 during a raid on the property.

The dilapidated buildings of Spahn Ranch burned to the ground in 1970. Mother nature reclaimed the property. It eventually became part of Santa Susana Pass State Historic Park.

On previous trips to LA, when I was traveling alone, I had been reluctant to explore the area. It was not on any tourist map, and I frankly was not excited about stepping on rattlesnakes or getting lost in the wilderness.

In October 2014, Charlie came with me. I was in LA for the second time. The first time was in the spring when I flew out to film an episode of The Ghost Inside My Child.

Charlie and Michael high above Hollywood

Charlie and Michael high above Hollywood

Garage where Thelma Todd was found dead

Now, I’ve coaxed Charlie into experiencing some rather wild adventures over our 23 years together, but I don’t think he took seriously my idea of visiting Spahn Ranch on this trip. When we left Hollywood for the coast that morning, just days before Halloween, I had the ranch on my radar for the afternoon.

On our way to Malibu, we stopped in Pacific Palisades and located the garage where Thelma Todd was found dead way back in 1935.

Later that morning, we hiked in Malibu Canyon and rested at the site where they filmed the exteriors for M*A*S*H.  After lunch at Duke’s on the coast in Malibu, we turned inland on Topanga Canyon Blvd. for the Valley.

As we neared Chatsworth, the terrain turned mountainous and rocky. Right before we reached Ronald Reagan Parkway,  we turned left onto Santa Susana Pass Road and headed west.  When we got to Iverson Road, I knew we were there. I looked to the left. Nothing to indicate it was Spahn Ranch. We turned right onto Iverson. Just ahead, we pulled into the parking lot at Church at Rock Peak. Leaving the car, we set out on foot, back down Iverson toward Santa Susana. Just passed the guardrail, we skidded down a bank and found ourselves in brush and brambles.

 

 

Spahn Ranch, then and now

Spahn Ranch, then and now

As the shadows grew longer in the waning light, I led Charlie down a trail toward the dry creek bed. It had to be here.  But where? At one point, the bed was at the bottom of a gully.  I had no choice but to go down and explore. Charlie said he’d wait on me. If I found what I was looking for, holler for him.

Clinging onto a branch, I lowered myself down toward the creek bed. When I let go, the leaves and loose rocks sent my feet out from under me (maybe the wine from Dukes had something to do with my unsteadiness).

I tumbled to the bottom, scrapping my shine and breaking the arm of a pair of Revos on the way down.

Scrapes and bruises, but no broken bones

Scrapes and bruises, but no broken bones

So overgrown with vines and limbs was the area, there was no way to travel along the creek. I carefully pulled myself out of the ravine and met Charlie back on the trail.

Daylight was fading, but not my determination. We walked back toward the road and took another trail that led down into the creek bed. Then it came into view, the cave where the Manson family took their now infamous photo.

The Cave, then and now

The Cave, then and now

It felt creepy being there, that’s about the best way I can describe it. Although decades had passed since the horrible crimes, a sense of evil still hung in the air like a fog. It was time to go.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at Iliad Books in North Hollywood — one of my favorite haunts, then had dinner in Studio City at Vitello’s Italian Restaurant. After we turned over the car to the valet, I motioned for Charlie to follow me around the corner from the entrance to the restaurant.

“You know what happened here, don’t you?  As I figure it, it happened right about there.”

“No, what happened here,” he asked reluctantly.

“This is the place where Robert Blake’s wife, Bonnie Lee Bakely, was shot to death while she waited for Blake, who had supposedly returned to the restaurant to retrieve a gun he had left behind.  Interesting, huh?”

Charlie had had enough.  “Come on, I’m hungry.”

My own directions to Spahn Ranch

In the event that you have an afternoon to spare and want to make your own visit to the site of Spahn Movie Ranch, follow my directions.

  • Type 22601 Santa Susana Pass Road into your GPS. That will get you close to the ranch.
  • Be careful if you park alongside the road.  Better yet, park discretely in the church parking lot (Church at Rock Peak).
  • Back on Santa Susana Pass Road, walk to the end of the white guardrail.
  • Leave the road and follow the trail into the brush.  You’re there! Now, explore. Be careful.  Watch for rattlesnakes.

 

Spahn Ranch, a bird's eye view

Spahn Ranch, a bird’s eye view

 

Your map to Spahn Ranch

Your map to Spahn Ranch

 

 

 

 

Jean Sothern: Her Strange Case of Mistaken Identity

By Michael G. Ankerich

Jean Sothern was beyond pissed; she was fit to be tied.  In the summer of 1921, the actress, no longer in films, was entertaining her fans in vaudeville houses around the country. Everywhere she went, they were the same questions. What is your connection to Beverly Chew, the Army captain, and his wife, the couple being investigated for forgery? Are you, as the headlines imply, married to Mr. Chew?

They were fair questions to ask. Beverly Chew and his wife were caught in the middle of an investigation that made national headlines for weeks. The worst part, Chew’s wife was identifying herself as film and stage actress Jean Sothern.

Here’s a sampling of the headlines:

Chew’s Wife an Actress

Jean Sothern is Identified as Wife of Chew

Mistaken Identity Figures in Chew Case

The 28-year-old actress who had worked hard to built a reputation and name for herself wanted to know what in the hell was going on.

“I am awfully mad,” she told the press at the time. “All my friends have been telephoning me and asking me if I am Captain Chew’s wife. My booking office called me up. Why, everybody knows that I have never been married. I never have been engaged and I never expect to be. I never heard of Captain Chew in my life. No person who ever saw me mistook me for another woman.”

Jean Sothern

Jean Sothern

During Chew’s court marshal on Governor’s Island in New York, Jean was eager to set the record straight. She showed scrapbooks of newspaper clippings and photographs from her films.

“I am the Jean Sothern who is the motion picture star. I am indignant that another woman should use my name for any purpose. This thing has gone far enough,” she told reporters.

Director Herbert Brenon testified that Jean had entered films when he hired her for a major role in The Two Orphans with Theda Bara and that she was not the wife of the accused.

When the waters cleared, Marjorie “Daisy” Brennan, whose father invented the bicycle carousel, was identified as the real Mrs. Beverly Chew. Taking the name Jean Sothern, Daisy apparently started in show business a decade before on the stage before making a few films in 1919 for Colorgraph Films in Arizona.

In July 1921, Chew was found guilty and sentenced to seven years — he served about a year and a half. Mrs. Chew was acquitted. In January 1924, she succumbed to the cancer she had fought for over three years. Variety reported her death under the name Jean Sothern. Further confusion!jean5

The mistaken identity plagued the real Jean Sothern for the rest of her life. Many assumed the actress who had starred in about a dozen films for Fox, Imp, and Pathe had died in 1924. At least two film references, Who Was Who on Screen (Truitt) and Who’s Who in Hollywood (Ragan), give 1924 as the death year of the actress. As of December 2014, the web site International Movie Database states that Jean Sothern, known for A Mute Appeal (1917), The Mysteries of Myra (1916) and The Cloud (1917) died in 1924 and was the wife of Beverly Chew.

PeScreen Shot 2014-12-05 at 8.31.59 AMrhaps Jean Sothern had the last laugh.  She lived another 40 years.

Sadly, few have taken the time to explore and get to know the real Jean Sothern, dainty star of the silent screen. The time has come. Here’s her story.

Jean Sothern was born Grace R. Bomberger on December 5, 1893, in  Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She was the only child born to William and Olivia (Eshleman) Bomberger.

By the time she was 15 and a sophomore in Coatesville High School, Grace was entertaining delighted audiences with her singing in neighboring towns. In 1909, the Philadelphia Inquirer lauded praise on the young entertainer, noting her “voice of great range and purity, besides which she plays both the piano and violin with considerable skill, and has exceptional ability as an elocutionist.”

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Edwin Liebman, orchestra leader for Loew’s America in New York City, and his family took Grace under their wing. The Liebmans “adopted” Grace. In interviews about her life, she often referred to Edwin Liebman as her father.Screen Shot 2014-12-05 at 9.02.21 AM

For a short time, she used Esther Robinson as her professional name — Robinson was the maiden name of her father’s mother. Theatrical manager Arthur Blondell gave her the name Gene Southern, which she changed to Jean Sothern.

By 1914, she had developed a stage act for Loew’s circuit. A little over five feet tall, Grace was billed as the Little Dynamo of Personality.

A stroke of fortune came to Jean when director Herbert Brenon hired her to appear as the blind orphan with Theda Bara in The Two Orphans (1915) — later remade as Orphans of the Storm.

Jean played the blind orphan in The Two Orphans

Jean (center) played the blind orphan in The Two Orphans

On the merits of that film, Jean was selected to play the title role in The Mysteries of Myra, a 17-chapter serial that tells the story of  Myra Maynard, the daughter of an Occult leader, who is repeatedly hunted by her dead father’s devil-worshipping Order. (See the lost trailer for Mysteries of Myra.)

Jean in The Mysteries of Myra

Jean in The Mysteries of Myra

Screen Shot 2014-12-05 at 8.43.01 AMThe authors of the series, Hereward Carrington and Charles Goddard, were said to have conducted a number of psychological tests on actresses testing for the part. They selected Jean because of her “extraordinary mental powers,” feeling that the leading lady “must be capable of portraying the emotions of one subject to the compelling influences of a superior will. She must have grace, poise and a personality which will actually reach out from the screen, take possession of the people and make them instinctively, irresistibly respond to each impulse and thrill with every emotion which the star experiences.”

Although the series was widely popular and made little Jean a star, she never wanted  to make another serial.  “I don’t like serials,” she said later. “There must be some sort of climax in each episode — a jump off the mountains or a fall into the river, and honest I had to be pushed off when I fell in the East River in one of the episodes.”

The actress stuck to feature films. In 1917, Jean contracted with Van Dyke Film Production Company. In rapid succession, she starred in Her Good Name, The Cloud,  A Mother’s Ordeal (in the roles of the mother and daughter), A Mute Appeal, and Miss Deception, all 1917 releases. She made her final film in 1918, Peg o’ the Sea.

Jean as she appeared in Peg 'o the Sea

Jean as she appeared in Peg ‘o the Sea

The actress devoted herself to the war effort.  She sold war bonds from the Liberty Bond booth at Penn station in New York.

By the late 1910s, Jean Sothern had acquired a legion of fans, who were saddened to read in the magazines that she had married a U.S. Army officer and was living at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Jean was quick to deny the rumor. Little did she know, this was the first incidence of mistaken identity that would explode in the papers four years later.

Jean in The Cloud

Jean in The Cloud

With no film work in sight, Jean put together a vaudeville act and hit the road to meet her public.  She was asked about her personal life and the decision she made to bob her flowing blonde locks.

“That was really ugly of me and you tell the other girls not to do it,” she told a reporter in 1919. “I had my curls in The Two Orphans and all the papers wrote afterwards of them being like Mary Pickford’s, as though nobody could have any curls but her. So one day I slipped away and cut mine off. My friends wouldn’t speak to me for two days. When I appeared at Birmingham, Alabama,  seven girls bobbed their hair like mine, and then I was sorry. Mine have grown out now and I’m glad. I’ll never be so foolish again.”

An exhausted and travel weary Jean Sothern arrived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in April 1919, around 1 in the morning. The next day, a reporter questioned her about films and stage work. Did she have a preference?

Jean didn’t hesitate. She preferred films because she could live in her family home in New York, not in cold and drafty hotel rooms in unfamiliar cities. “I love to clean house, to sweep and to get in the dirt and scrub — but I can’t cook,” she revealed. “I hate to travel. I love a home, and do tell the girls for me, especially those who think it would be nice to be a movie actress, that really and truly the nicest thing girls can do, I believe, is to grow up and get married and have babies. I just know that movie life is hard and, in vaudeville, the most unpleasant part is the traveling.”Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 3.41.44 PM

The most bizarre part of her travels came in 1921, less than a month before her name was linked with the other Jean Sothern and Captain Beverly Chew. When she arrived in New Orleans in May, Jean visited Matilda Levee in prison. Mrs. Levee was behind bars for murdering her husband, Fred Levee, the prominent New Orleans and Los Angeles attorney.  Jean interviewed the woman and wrote a lengthy story about the case for the local newspaper.

With little problem, Jean weathered the debacle over being mistaken for the wife of Beverly Chew. By the time the obituary of Chew’s wife appeared in Variety, Jean was entertaining audiences with a new vaudeville act: Girls Will be Boys. The show promised a “bit of femininity with a masculine twist.”

Jean was a hit.  One Oregon newspaper wrote in  January 1924, “She is a true comedienne and even her eyes talk. She dons boy’s apparel and is a real boy, once as a swaggering, boastful sailor, once as a scared-to-death hayseed, and again as a dashing, man-about-town. The audience loved Jean’s honesty and gifts and her personality cut a deep dent.”

Jean in the mid-1930s

Jean in the mid-1930s

In 1930, Jean embarked on a new adventure: radio.  Without revealing her true identity and vast experience in entertainment, she requested an audition with the Columbia Broadcasting network.  She provided  three or four versions of her act and spoke in some of the dialects she had perfected. The organization wisely grabbed her up.

Jean Sothern found her home in radio. She played the role of Edie Gray in the popular NBC serial Pepper Young’s Family.

She became an animal dialogue expert and provided Dutch, Irish, French, Southern dialects when needed.  She was once referred to as the “most versatile actress in radio.” Although she is credited with playing the role of a waitress in Down the Wyoming Trail (1939), after watching the film, I question whether the actress is the Jean Sothern of the silent screen.

Jean eventually returned to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she died of throat cancer on April 14, 1964. She is buried at Octorana Church Cemetery in Parksburg, Pennsylvania.

 

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Jean Sothern's final resting place

Jean Sothern’s final resting place

 

 

Interview: William J. Mann tackles murder, morphine, and madness in Tinseltown

Interview by Michael G. Ankerich

 

William J. Mann serves up a delicious plate of M’s in his new book, Tinseltown.

Mary, Mabel, and Margaret.

Murder, Mystery, and Madness.

Mary and Momma.

I devoured every morsel of the buffet.

The unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor in 1922 is one of the reasons I stepped back into the silent film era — and stayed! It’s the classic whodunit.

Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 3.17.09 PM

 

Who did it? Was it Mary Miles Minter? Mabel Normand? Charlotte Shelby, Mary’s mother? Starlet Margaret Gibson? His valet? Drug dealers? Gangsters?

Bill Mann, one of my favorite authors of old Hollywood, thinks he has solved the mystery.  You’re going to have fun with this one, friends! Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood reads like a novel, yet the dialogue is not drawn from the author’s imagination. The words between the quotation marks came from the mouths of those who spoke them.

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Bill reconstructs the riveting case using primary sources — including witness testimonies from police records, coroner’s inquest files, newly uncovered FBI records, and court records and transcripts.

Running alongside the murder mystery are complex and interesting portraits of legends like Adolph Zukor and Will Hays, the first czar of Hollywood.

So who killed William Desmond Taylor?  Listen in on my conversation with Bill and find out.

My collection of William J. Mann books

My collection of William J. Mann books

 

Michael: I first started reading your books in the 1990s.  I must have read The Men From the Boys when I was coming out or shortly after. Then I read your novel around the “afterlife” of Florence Lawrence. Two of my favorites are your William Haines biography and Behind the Screen, about gays and lesbians in Hollywood. I’m intrigued by your body of work and the range you’ve covered. Most writers find an era or genre, but you’re all over the place.  What do you look for you when you’re selecting a subject to write about?

Bill: It’s always about the story. Is it a good, compelling story? Can I say something new? I think being a novelist helped me discern the story within a life or within a topic. For example, when my editor wanted me to write about Streisand, I was reluctant. Not really my thing. But when he suggested we call it “Becoming Barbra” that hooked me — because I could see the story, of an unknown, unlikely kid becoming a huge star in just five years time. So it’s always Story, Story, Story for me.

Hello, Gorgeous

Hello, Gorgeous

Michael: So let’s talk about Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood. After over 92 years of wondering, do you really think you’ve solved the mystery of who murdered William Desmond Taylor?

Bill: Would my evidence stand up in a court of law? I don’t know. After nearly a century, so much of the evidence I present is necessarily circumstantial, since so much physical evidence is gone. I was fortunate to find FBI records —not on the Taylor case per se, but on some of the figures around him, which helped me to draw some key conclusions. Also, the fact that so many newspapers are now digitized I was able to find proverbial needles in the haystack that allowed me to make connections. There will be people who disagree with my conclusion, and that’s okay. I have always said that I submit Tinseltown into the lore of “Taylorology” and will let people draw their own conclusions. No one really wants cold cases solved. That strips away so much of the fun for armchair detectives. There was a lot of pushback to the recent claims that the identity of Jack the Ripper was discovered. But I do think that my solution is the only one that doesn’t contradict other available evidence and the only one based on surviving documental evidence, even if it’s circumstantial. That’s really important—to show where and how you drew your conclusions. I have got something like 800 footnotes and will be posting a lot of the primary documents I used on Taylorology, courtesy of the really brilliant Bruce Long, who more than anyone has kept the taylor case alive.

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Michael: In the history of Hollywood, has there ever been anything like the murder of a leading director, a mystery that has gone unsolved for so long?  The one that comes to mind is the mystery around the death of Thelma Todd.

Bill: I am very intrigued by the Todd case, but even that wasn’t as huge as the Taylor case. The reasons are a few: one, Taylor was really very prominent, a key figure high in the industry with the support of bigwigs like Zukor and Lasky. Two, the scandal ensnared so many other leading figures in the industry. Three, and most important, it occurred right at the moment when the stakes were so high for the film industry, when not only the threats of bad publicity and censorship hung over the movies but also federal regulation. That’s why it was so important to contain the fallout from all the scandals of the 1920-1923 period, and Taylor’s death was, in my opinion, chief among them.

Michael: Why are we still interested in a story that happened so long ago?

Bill: I think we’ll never tire of whodunits. And the characters in this story are just so complex and fascinating. Mabel Normand—I fell in love with her. So strong, so resilient, so full of integrity, so ahead of her time. Mary Miles Minter, so young, so deluded, so abused, so tragic. Margaret Gibson, so determined, so ambitious, so cunning. And Adolph Zukor— he created the movies as we know them, and he always so desperate not to lose everything and go back to being penniless and irrelevant. Will Hays, too, really fascinated me. Hardly the prude and puritan he’s long been considered, he was actually quite pragmatic, progressive, and nonjudgmental.

Mabel Normand

Mabel Normand

 

Mary Miles Minter signed this photo to "My Mammy"

Mary Miles Minter signed this photo to “My Mammy”

Margaret Gibson / Patricia Palmer

Margaret Gibson / Patricia Palmer

Michael: How hard was it to sell this type of idea to your agent / publisher?

Bill: I thought it might be terribly difficult. After chronicling three huge names — Hepburn, Taylor, Streisand — this was a bit of a departure and I know how publishing works. They always want an easy sell. So I worked on the idea for several years before I sold it. I’d stay up at night when I was tired of writing about divas all day. In that way, I had the story all fleshed out, and to my great surprise and pleasure, we had several editors bidding when we finally offered it. The editor I ended up with, Cal Morgan, at HarperCollins, is a real advocate of early film studies and popular culture histories. He’s been fantastic.

Mary Miles Minter and her mother, Charlotte Shelby

Mary Miles Minter and her mother, Charlotte Shelby

Michael: When I interviewed those still left from the silent film era, most believed that Taylor’s murderer was Charlotte Shelby, the mother of actress Mary Miles Minter. She was an easy scapegoat, not the most loved in Tinseltown. It doesn’t sound like, after reading Tinseltown, that Mary ever referred to her mother as Mommie Dearest. In the long line of stage mothers, was she really that bad? Does she get a bad rap from film historians?

Bill: I think she was pretty monstrous to Mary. Some of the things I write about in Tinseltown—like burning Mary’s doll when she was a child—are just shattering.

Mamma and Mary

Mamma and Mary

But I think we also have to respect her professionally. Pretty much all on her own, Shelby took on the system and won—a rare example of a woman succeeding in an industry dominated by men, and winning on her own terms at that. A strong, forceful woman is always going to attract more enemies than a strong, forceful man.

Michael: The murder of Taylor impacted so many lives. Besides the obvious, Taylor himself, who, in your opinion, ended up the biggest loser in the whole Taylor murder saga? How and why?

Bill: Well, so many suffered, but I would say it was Mary who really ended most tragically. Obsessive, a bit of a manic-depressive, terribly self-absorbed and delusional— but after her horrible childhood and the abuse she endured in the press, you can understand how she ended up that way. Her life after Hollywood was so sad. Taylor’s death followed her right until the end of her life.

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Michael: Another intriguing part of Tinseltown revolves around censorship and the influence of the religious right on the film industry during those days.  It seems that, every so often, this influential group latches onto a cause and creates headlines. I think of abortion and gay rights in our day, but in the early 1920s, it was the content of movies, movie stars, and bathtub gin, wasn’t it?

Bill: In many ways, Hollywood of 1922 reminded me so much of Hollywood in 2014. Stars becoming better known for off-screen exploits than their on-screen work; religious conservatives were decrying “Hollywood values” and the effect they were having on the nation; companies were buying each other up; and the government was trying to get a cut from all that cash. I think the reformers who were trying to censor movie content and censure star behavior recognized the secular, modern world that Hollywood was creating, and they were trying to stop it. Of course, the influence of the movies couldn’t be stopped. So much of the public in those pre-mass-market days hadn’t seen beyond their local communities. But Hollywood opened a window for them and after seeing the big wide world, they weren’t ever going back to more provincial views. I think an analogy can be made to movements today that are trying similarly to stuff the genie back into the bottle. Just ain’t gonna happen.

Michael: I want to touch on several of your other books. Was How to be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood the first biography that you wrote about a living person? How does that compare to writing about someone, say William Haines, who had already lived their life?

Bill: With Elizabeth, her people—her friends and family—were very cordial about me writing the book; some spoke to me; some did not. But Elizabeth was too ill at that point to cooperate. It does make it more sensitive writing about someone who’s still alive. Part of the reason I loved researching and writing Tinseltown was because I did not have to beg or cajole anyone to talk to me. They were all dead.

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Michael: I thoroughly enjoyed The Biograph Girl: A Novel of Hollywood Then and Now, which has Florence Lawrence, filmdom’s first movie star, who supposedly died in 1938, still alive at 106. Where did your inspiration for that book come from?

Bill: It was just a wild idea I had one day. Florence Lawrence had always fascinated me. She was so huge, so adored—and then so utterly forgotten. She had started this whole crazy business of stars and celebrity — well, with some help from Carl Laemmle who rigged up the first movie-star publicity stunts for her. I just felt she ought to get one more shot at fame.

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Michael: You dedicated The Biograph Girl to your mother and father who bought you your first typewriter when you were only nine. Were you writing then and how influential were they in your development as a writer?

Bill: I absolutely was writing then, back in those prehistoric days before computers. I thought a typewritten set of pages would look more like a “real book” than all the ones I’d been writing out in pen. My Mom and Dad absolutely loved that I became a writer. My Dad passed away last year but he would read every volume and ask lots of questions afterward. I just gave my Mom Tinseltown. At 88, she was insistent that all this was “before her time.”

Michael: You always credit your husband, Tim Huber, in your work. How interested is he in old Hollywood?  Does he share your interest?

Bill: He loves it through me. After 26 years together, he’s seen enough classic Hollywood films with me to know quite a bit. But every once in a while, while we’re flicking through Netflix, he’ll say, “Can’t we watch something from this century this time?”

Michael: How and when did you first become interested in Hollywood of the silent film era? Were there writers whose books inspired you back then? Who and which ones?

Bill: When I was a kid, those of us who loved silent film and early sound film really struggled to find anything to increase our knowledge about these wonderful movies, which were almost completely inaccessible. So I devoured the books of Kevin Brownlow and Anthony Slide. I was also really fascinated with the very early films, and had a correspondence with Charles Musser, whose research into the nickelodeon era was so groundbreaking. I remember him being surprised that this teenager was so interested in Edwin S. Porter and Georges Melies!

William J. Mann

Keep track of William J. Mann through his website, williamjmann.com

Michael: What’s next for you? Are there any projects in the works that you can tell us about?

Bill: My next book is my first non-Hollywood project. It’s called Alice & Eleanor: The Wars of the Roosevelts, about the rivalry between those two first cousins, one Republican, one Democrat, one beautiful, one plain, one gregarious, one shy—and both brilliant. But what I’m discovering is that Washington and Hollywood aren’t really all that different. They’re both about the creation and merchandizing of public images. That book will be out in 2016, hopefully in time for the presidential campaign.

* * *

Bill and I never got around to discussing who committed the murder.  That, my friends, is up to you to discover for yourselves!

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Can we tawk? Missing Joan

No one cracked me up like Joan Rivers, unless it was Carol Burnett and Vicki Lawrence as Eunice and Mama.

Back in the mid-1980s, when I could still stay up until 11:30 without taking an afternoon nap, I would catch Joan on The Tonight Show. Never cared much for Carson, but Joan made me lose my breath. I loved the jokes about slutty women — “Her thighs have landing lights”– and her sex life, which she said had dwindled to leaning against the washing machine on spin cycle.

I met Joan briefly several years ago when I was in San Francisco researching Dangerous Curves Atop Hollywood Heels. We passed each other on Castro Street. I realized the tiny blonde woman in big movie star shades was Joan Rivers. I turned around, followed her to the corner, and chatted with her while we waited for the light to change.

Many years before our brief encounter, I sent Joan an index card and asked her to autograph it and provide me a print of her lips, not knowing whether she could keep them still long enough to press them to the paper.  She did!

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I’m really going to miss this comic legend with the cutting tongue.  Give yourself a laugh this morning. Check out this monologue from 1984. Wherever Joan is today, I hope she’s lying on her back and seeing more ceilings than Michelangelo.

 

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Maurine Powers, “daughter” of Zorro, update

Several updates to my recent post, Maurine Powers: How the actress became Zorro’s daughter, that I had to share with you.

On my recent to trip to Los Angeles, I found a nice autographed portrait of Maurine. “To Rutgers, with best wishes, from Maurine.”

Maurine Powers autographed portrait

Maurine Powers autographed portrait

Also, after reading my post, photographer Jeremiah Ellsworth sent several photographs of a Maurine (Powers) McCulley painting that he purchased in Arizona. Have a look at his painting and check out Jeremiah’s website.

Painting by Maurine Powers

Painting by Maurine Powers

 

Portrait signed by Maurine McCulley

Portrait signed by Maurine McCulley

 

Thanks, Jeremiah! It’s super knowing that Maurine’s work is still being enjoyed and appreciated!

Ready for her closeup: Amy Pierce confronts her troubling past life as a silent film actress

By Michael G. Ankerich

In my last blog, Lucille Ricksen, Reincarnation, and my Television Debut, I shared a bit more about my May adventure in Shadowland and introduced you to Amy Pierce and her mother, Theresa.  Amy and Theresa are featured in an upcoming episode of  Ghost Inside My Child, a Lifetime Movie Network series that airs August 23. The show explores Amy’s revelation that the spirit of silent film actress Lucille Ricksen lives inside her.

I spent some time with Amy and Theresa when we were in Los Angeles filming scenes for the show. My time with them and the Ghost Inside My Child crew turned out to be the highlight of my trip.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Hollywood researching days long past, the parade gone by. I dig beneath the surface to see old Hollywood among the current chaotic world that the modern day movie capital has become.  I love the bizarre and out of the ordinary, but I have to admit that it was a bit surreal to talk with a 17-year-old teen from Minnesota who insists that she once lived as Lucille Ricksen.

What would it be like to discover you had once lived another life, a life that ended tragically and mysteriously almost 90 years ago?

I asked Amy, who has the beauty and glamour of old Hollywood, to share her story.

Amy

Amy

 
Michael: How were you first introduced to Hollywood of the 1920s and how did you make the connection between your past life and Hollywood?  Did you first feel it was a connection to Hollywood or to Lucille Ricksen?
 
Amy: I grew up watching Shirley Temple films (like many little girls) and Hal Roach’s Little Rascals. I was drawn to the silent shorts of Our Gang.  I was obsessed with the finger waves, lipstick and such. At a very young age, I could tell my family how each and every Rascal died. To say the least, I was obsessed with the tragedy that took place upon some of the Rascals. Scotty Beckett being my favorite. One day, while browsing the internet, watching Shirley Temple videos, I came across a picture of Mary Pickford. I was drawn to her immediately and I started to branch out and find more silent stars.
 
My mother let me dress up and supported my new interest in silent films. At first, I thought it was only a fascination, not connected with my life in anyway. But as I started to watch more and more silent films, it dawned on me that I knew about the people — almost instinctively. I became in love with the shadow people of 1920s. I enjoyed Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, and all, but I was more interested in Olive Thomas and Martha Mansfield. The unknowns. When I was 12, I bought the Olive Thomas biography with my birthday money. This was when my life changed.
Olive and Jack

Olive and Jack

I had no idea who Jack Pickford was before reading this book, I only knew he was Mary’s brother. However, when I read the chapters including Jack, I felt angry. The accusations and bad talking him – I knew in my heart that all of it was not true. Something inside of me told me that he was a nice man, just misunderstood. I became mad at myself for all of these things that I had felt. I wanted to save Jacks name but didn’t know why. Why should I care about a man who has been dead since 1933? 
 
Michael: Tell me a bit about your childhood and how it came about that you discovered you had lived before.  
 
Amy:  I never talked. I did not speak until I was about 5 years old. I could — there was nothing wrong with me, I only chose not too. I let my mother speak for me when it was needed. I was a bit of a loner, and still am. I enjoyed being alone, playing dress up and playing with my dolls. But I was a very happy child! I realized that I had lived before while I was watching old films. I was familiar with the hairstyles, the language and all. It wasn’t odd to me like most other children would find it. I would miss a lot of school because of difficulty sleeping. I need and love my rest.
 
My mom understood this so missing school was a weekly thing for me. I’ve always needed alone time. I didn’t have very many friends and I don’t recall ever telling them that I’ve lived before. I remember though, one day some kids were talking about the The Little Rascals. I jumped in, of course, and started naming off a bunch of kids — Jackie Cooper, Wheezer, and so on. They had no idea what I was talking about. Every other kid had watched the 1990s film version of the Rascals. I watched the 1920s and 30s Rascals. That was the first time it hit me that I was different than most kids. I mainly just kept to myself all that I was dealing with. I didn’t want to sound crazy.
 
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Michael: How did your friends react?
 
Amy:  I mainly just kept to myself all that I was dealing with. I didn’t want to sound crazy.
 
Michael: Do you remember the day that you came to the realization that you were once. Describe that day for me and the emotions you went through.
 
 Amy: I cannot remember the exact moment I realized I was Lucille. I wish I had an amazing story to tell, but I don’t. All I know is that I found a photo of her (when I learned of Lucille there were only two photos of her on the internet. It was before your amazing blog post of her) and I felt like my body was out of this world. I was so drawn to the photograph. I knew absolutely nothing about this girl, not even her name at that point, but I felt so connected.
 
I still have traits as I had when I was Lucille. I’m basically the same, only more shy. I was actually excited when I realized everything! It all clicked. I was obsessed with dying young and tragic child stars. It all made sense at that point. Jack Pickford! I worked with him in a film and was good friends with him. Of course, I wouldn’t like any bad talking about him. I knew him! The real him. And the never talking. I was a silent film star. I didn’t need words, just action.
Theresa and Amy

Theresa and Amy

 
Michael: How did your parents react over your revelation that the spirit of a silent film star lived in their daughter?  With your mother being psychic, perhaps they were 
a bit more understanding than other parents might have been.
 
Amy: When I told my mom, she did not say anything. I basically showed her a picture of Lucille and said, “Hey, see this girl? Her name is Lucille Ricksen and I believe that I was her in my last life. She was a famous actress in the 1920s. Her mom collapsed and died on top of her. She died when she was 14.” I left her with that. She didn’t have anything to say, really. Talking about it now with my mom, she says that she felt so sad and even a bit disturbed with the story. She didn’t want to believe that such a horrible thing could have happened. For her to think that it happened to her daughter — she was heartbroken. She didn’t really know how to act.
 
I’m not even sure when my father found out, to be honest. He’s not so much into past lives and such. He’s supportive. He’s never once doubted me; neither has my mother. They stand by me and I am thankful for that. One thing that I have to point out, even though my mother is a psychic, she has never once pushed me into that field. I have four siblings who have absolutely nothing to do with it. I found it on my own.
 
Michael: The crew from The Ghost Inside My Child came to Minnesota to film scenes in your home. Your niece played you as a young child and an actress portrayed you at age 
12.  Tell me about that experience.  Was it generally known in your neighborhood that the crew was coming?  Did your friends know?  
 
 
Amy: I was SO excited!! It was so much fun. They came on a Wednesday and I had to go to school that day. I had a French test which I probably failed. I was so excited thinking that a film crew was at my house. I got to skip school the next day and be there for the re-enactments.

The scene where Amy shows her mother a photo of Lucille Ricksen and tells her she once lived as the silent film actress

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Amy’s niece portrayed Amy as a five-year-old

I put pin curls in my niece’s hair and we watched Shirley Temple films. She had brought tap shoes and mimicked Shirley. It was so cute! They filmed her playing and watching Buster Keaton’s, The General. Mainly, she just got to play on camera! She did us all proud. The 12 year old, Sylvia, was fantastic! We filmed her getting dolled up and there was a Jack Pickford scene which I loved. The crew decorated my brothers room with a giant Jack poster with a bunch of little posters and pictures of him everywhere. It was a cute, sentimental scene. The neighborhood didn’t know about the filming. We did some filming outside and it was fun to see people’s reactions as they drove by. I felt like a huge movie star! It felt natural and normal. I like having the cameras, mics, and lights in my face. Only my close friends knew about the filming.
Amy comes to Hollywood

Amy comes to Hollywood

Michael: Was it generally known in your neighborhood that the crew was coming?

Amy: The neighborhood didn’t know about the filming. We did some filming outside and it was fun to see people’s reactions as they drove by. I felt like a huge movie star! It felt natural and normal. I like having the cameras, mics, and lights in my face.
 
Michael: Did your friends know?
Amy: Only my close friends knew about the filming.
 
Michael: The next week, you and your mom came to Hollywood to film you at Lucille’s final resting place at Forest Lawn and in front of Lucille’s home, the place where she died.  What 
were your general impressions of Hollywood? 
 
Amy:  I LOVED Hollywood! I had a blast. I miss it very much. It felt like home to me. 
Amy at Lucille's final resting place

Amy at Lucille’s final resting place

 
Michael: Tell me about visiting Lucille’s final resting place.  What feelings did you have when you visited the home where she died?
 
AmyI tend to look at my life as Lucille in a positive way. I was a movie star who worked with wonderful people. I don’t like to focus on the last months. I ignore my mother’s death and dying. I remember it but I don’t like to think about it. It’s still painful for me.  I was excited to see the urn. But once I saw it, I was overwhelmed. I was already in a panic because we couldn’t find the urn. We even called you so you could help us, and once we found it, I was hit with a million emotions. I did not know that my father’s ashes were mixed in with mother’s and mine. I saw our names on the urn.
 
The thing that got me the most is that the urn was turned towards the window, facing the sun. It was morning while we were there and the sun was shining directly onto the urn. I wondered who had turned the urn. I still wonder. I only stared at it for a few minutes. I couldn’t manage to do anything else. Then I finally broke down and started crying. It brought back memories of my mother dying. The last few weeks alive without my mom were filled with horrible pain. How could anyone cope when something like that happens? It was tough but I’m glad I saw the urn. I let it all out and have since moved on.
The crew film Amy and Theresa in front of the house where Lucille died

The crew film Amy and Theresa in front of the house where Lucille died

We went to the house were Lucille died and that was an odd experience in itself. We were not allowed to go inside — although we tried (I couldn’t resist asking the house owner), but I walked around the house and tried to take it all in. It felt odd just walking around it. I felt like I needed to be inside. It was my house, I should be inside of it. 
Amy and Theresa get a closer look at the house where Lucille died

Amy and Theresa get a closer look at the house where Lucille died

 
Michael: What additional revelations did the trip to California open for you? Did the trip affirm anything for you?
 
AmyIt was an honor just to be able to go. I missed more school, which was fine by me, and was treated wonderfully by the crew. And I got to meet you! Which was incredible and a dream of mine. You shared some amazing photos of Lucille with me and I am very grateful for that. I enjoyed walking around and seeing all of the history of LA. It was a nice experience. 
 
Michael: Thanks, Amy!  I enjoyed meeting you and your mom. How has the whole experience changed you?
 
Amy: It has changed me for the better. Going to LA and talking to you, I now have answers to some questions I’ve always had regarding my last life as Lucille. Some questions I have can never be answered, I realize now. I guess I learned not to dwell on things anymore. Desperately seeking pictures, videos and documents on every bit of Lucille’s life, is okay to do, but only in moderation. Basically, I would try to go back and live in those moments again. Be with the ones I loved again. I didn’t really live my life as Amy, who I am now. I’ve learned to embrace the girl I was and not to let it dictate my whole life. I have a new chance at a better life and living it right. I should not mess it up by trying to change things that cannot be undone.
Michael and Amy after the filming of our scene

Michael and Amy after the filming of our scene

 
Michael: How do you feel that, in a few short weeks, your story will be out there for all to, see and hear?
 
Amy: I am very nervous but excited! I feel that I am ready to share my story with the world and I am also prepared for any negative feedback. People may not “get” it or agree with it, but it was something that I needed to do. So I did it. I also feel that it’s definitely time to share Lucille’s story! People need to know and understand what happened to her. She will live in the shadows no more. Hopefully it will open people’s eyes about what could happen to a young child in Hollywood. The way the press and media handle the whole thing with Lucille was awful. They milked her death for all it was worth! At least, that’s what I think looking back.
Lucille Ricksen

Lucille Ricksen

 
Michael: There is still mystery around Lucille’s death.  What actually killed the actress? Tell me about the events leading up to her death as you know them. 
 
Amy: Now, this is all what I believe happened to me/Lucille. As I remember it. I have no proof and will likely never get validation about what I believe but I stand by it. I do not want to reveal too much, but I believe that tuberculosis was not the cause of death. Exhaustion — yes, but so much more than that. I remember one man who was not so kind to me. A man who loved young girls. You know who it is, but I think I’ll leave people in suspense for a bit. It may be on the show. I talked about him and what happened while filming.
 
In February 1924, I believe, I became pregnant. In May, the baby was gone. I think everyone can come to a conclusion about how the baby became “gone”. It was a lot of different elements that contributed to the untimely demise.  I would have made it if mother did not die. When she was gone, so was I. As Amy, I still feel regret and sadness for the things I had done. I adored Paul Bern as Lucille. He was so nice, but I treated him not so kind after my mother’s death. I became mean to everyone! Eighty nine years later, I can see how life played out for all my friends.
 
Finding that Paul committed suicide is hard for me. I had been unkind to him at one moment in time. But he stuck with me until the end. Though I had been bratty the last few weeks, I truly felt bad for Marshall. I knew and had decided that I was going to die, he was on his own.
Amy as Marilyn

Amy as Marilyn

I’m still trying to come to a conclusion about what exactly killed me as Lucille. I don’t think I am meant to ever find out what truly happened. What I remember were horrible memories, and there could still be more horrible memories to surface. I don’t know if I could handle any more. I don’t mean to not share or be sneaky or anything, I just haven’t come to terms with things that I had done as Lucille yet. I need to figure it all out in my head before I try to analyze and share it with the world. I only know pieces of it. Some, I’ve shared, and some I did not.
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Michael: Have you ever given thought to who you might have been before Lucille?  
 
Amy: Yes! I’ve always thought that I must have been living in England and was a seamstress. I’ve always had a thing, as Lucille, and even now, for all things British. And I’ve always adored fashion and clothing! 
 
Michael: What are your future plans?
 
Amy: I’m currently working on a book about my life as Lucille. It’s coming along nicely but it is difficult to write. I hope to finish it soon. As for school, I will be a senior this year, and I am thinking about attending acting schools for college. Acting or literature. I can’t make up my mind! I would like to write biographies on my favorite film stars. I’ve been thinking about doing one on Jack Pickford. I don’t think anyone else will so it shall be me!
Amy reclines with Jack Pickford's star on Hollywood Boulevard

Amy reclines with Jack Pickford’s star on Hollywood Boulevard

 

Don’t miss this thought provoking episode of Ghost Inside My Child on Lifetime Television Network, Saturday, August 23.

Lucille Ricksen, reincarnation, and my television debut

By Michael G. Ankerich

Destiny turns a dime, or so says the old Pam Tillis tune.

Three months ago, in early May, I thought my weeks ahead were inked into my calendar. I was busy working on my new book, Hairpins and Dead Ends , and packing the house for a move across town.

A phone call changed all that!  Welcome to Mi Vida Loca . . . and my television debut.

On the line was Sandra Alvarez, a producer for Ghost Inside My Child, a Lifetime Movie Network series. She talked about me coming to Los Angeles later in May to film a scene for an upcoming episode that would air in the fall.

I listened.

The company was developing a story around a 17-year-old teenager in Minnesota who, since the age of 12, believed that the spirit of silent film actress Lucille Ricksen lived within her. The crew had gone on location to Minnesota to film Amy and her mother and father in their home. The crew was then returning to Hollywood where Amy and Theresa, Amy’s mother, would visit some spots that might trigger memories.

Sandra was interested in filming a scene in Los Angeles where I meet Amy and Theresa and tell them about my research into the life and tragic death of Lucille Ricksen.

I devoted a chapter to Lucille in my book Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels. I have also written about her in Lucille Ricksen: Sacrificed to Hollywood, this blog. The story of the teenage actress who became a leading woman overnight has stayed with me since I dove into the details of her short life and tragic death.

Lucille’s mother, Ingeborg, brought Lucille and brother Marshall to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune on the silver sheets around 1920. Lucille was 10 years old.  Success came to the youngster. She played a happy-go-lucky juvenile in the serial The Adventures of Edgar Pomeroy for Goldwyn.

Lucille around 1920

Lucille around 1920

In three short years, Lucille became trapped and exploited in the industry’s publicity machine. Overnight, she went from being a 13-year-old spunky kid doing what she loved to a 16-year-old leading lady, portraying all the struggles of adulthood.  Those dramas spilled over into her private life.

In one year, Lucille completed 10 feature films. Exhausted from her work, the actress disappeared behind closed doors in her Hollywood home. Ingeborg kept vigil. One morning, the emotionally drained mother collapsed and died across Lucille’s sick bed. Less than a month later, the broken-hearted actress joined her mother in death.

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After all these years, the lingering question has not been answered.  How did the young actress really die?  Tuberculosis? Exhaustion? Botched abortion?

The invitation to meet Amy and to appear on the show had all the elements that intrigued me: a walk into the supernatural; a look back at early Hollywood; and contact with someone intensely interested in old Hollywood. But reincarnation?  I had given little thought to the subject over the years. I, too, feel pulled to Hollywood, especially the Hollywood of the 1920s. For some unexplainable reason, it feels like home to me when I am out there in the middle of all of it. Does a spirit who lived there in that time now reside in me?  If I were to even ask the question, my Baptist roots would wrap around me and yank me down the backslidden trail. Now, as an Episcopalian, I have room for exploration and wonder.

In the end, I decided to venture out to Hollywood and meet Amy and her mother. (Click here to read more about my most recent Hollywood adventure). I even filmed a scene for the show. Sandra, the producer, asked where I thought we could shoot our scene. I suggested the old Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Built in 1923, the grand hotel is steeped in Hollywood history. It provided the perfect setting for our meeting.

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The grandeur of the Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles

 

Sandra insisted that I not meet the Pierces until we filmed our scene. That way, our conversation would be fresh and spontaneous. As the cameras rolled, Amy and Theresa walked in and we introduced ourselves. CUT!  The action then moved to a table where, for the next 30 minutes or so (it seemed like days), I told Amy about my research.  I asked her questions; she asked me questions. It was everything Lucille!

 

Michael, Theresa, and Amy

Michael, Theresa, and Amy

When our work was done at the Biltmore, the crew took us to a deli for lunch. In the afternoon, we drove into Hollywood, to the home where Lucille died in 1925. The crew filmed Amy and her mother walking down the street, across the yard, and onto the front porch.

Amy and her mother get their first look at the house where Lucille died in 1925

Amy and her mother get their first look at the house where Lucille died in 1925

Amy was overwhelmed. She said she had definitely been in the house. It was in the front left room where she insisted she died almost 90 years before.

Meeting Amy and her mother was the highlight of my 2014 adventure to Hollywood. Amy has the glamour and look of old Hollywood. Her mother was fun to be around, down to earth, and engaging.

Does the spirit of Lucille Ricksen, who died so tragically from mistreatment in a profession she loved, live on in a 17-year-old teenager living quietly in Minnesota.  That is a question, my friends, that I can’t answer.  Decide for yourself.

Mark your calendars for August 23, only weeks away. Tune in to see this haunting episode of Ghost Inside My Child on Lifetime Movie Network, hear Amy tell her story, see my television debut (that is, if I don’t end up a face on the cutting room floor). Visit the show’s website and read my revealing interview with Amy in an upcoming blog entry.

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