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.

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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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Hoarders (Not Quite) Anonymous!

By Michael G. Ankerich

Okay, I’m coming clean.  I am finally able to make a confession.

Several months ago, while packing the house to move across town, I began asking myself, “Do I have a problem with letting things go? Is it possible that I could be a hoarder?”

I was ready to admit that I had some sort of OCD when it came to books.  I packed 30 boxes of film biographies to go to my new library. That did not include film reference, signed first editions, classic literature, and modern day smut. I spent several agonizing days discarding some of my treasured biographies.

 

Books, books, and more books

Books, books, and more books

Who really needs 14 biographies of Elizabeth Taylor?  I got rid of three or four. Who needs one on Anna Nicole Smith?  Out it went.  I made some concessions, but I wouldn’t budge on my 15 Bette Davis bios. They all go with me!  End of discussion.

Not one Bette Davis biography was sacrificed in my recent move.

Not one Bette Davis biography was sacrificed in my recent move.

Moving forward, relocating to a new home, prompted me to look back over my life and the artifacts that I kept along the way. I found my ID badge from the 1970s when I was a bag boy at a grocery store. Keep it? Pay stubs from 1985 when I was a newspaper reporter fell from a folder. Those slips of paper went in the shredder. There are the neck ties that I wore back in the 1980s when I tried to be a fashion plate. They called me Mr. GQ in college. They were easy to let go.  What to do with the stubs from train tickets we used to cross Italy for the first time in 1995? What about the anniversary, birthday, and Valentine cards Charlie gave me over the past 23 years?

Underneath a big pile of clothes way back in the closet, I found my Greta Garbo tee-shirt from the early 1990s. Oh that memory! I was wearing that shirt the day Charlie and I were in line at an Atlanta art supply store. The elderly cashier smiled when she saw it. “They used to tell me I looked like Garbo.”  I didn’t see it.

What to do with the floppy disks which held files from my first book, Broken Silence: Conversations with 23 Silent Film Stars? They are the ones I grabbed when my apartment caught fire early one Saturday morning in 1991. Thirteen years later, what do you do with floppy computer disks?  Put them in the Smithsonian? Use them for coasters?

I discovered a box of my grandmother’s belongings.  I hadn’t looked at them in the 10 years since her death.  I found get well cards from the 1970s and a pair of false teeth.  What do I do with a pair of Mama Sue’s false teeth?

Through this ordeal, I kept thinking of Maxine Elliott Hicks, an actress I interviewed for Broken Silence, that day in Burbank when we had breakfast and went through her trucks full of stills and contracts and letters. She loaned me what I needed for the book, but needed them returned. “They’re all I have to prove who I was.” That’s kind of the way I felt throwing away my past.

In the middle of all this packing and sorting, I had to jet out to Los Angeles to film an episode of a television show (more details soon) and do a bit of research for Hairpins and Dead Ends, my new book.

I spent some time reflecting on all my stuff and whether I should classify myself as a hoarder.

In Venice Beach, taking  a rest from my bike ride

In Venice Beach, taking a rest from my bike ride

Cycling along the coast from Santa Monica to Hermosa Beach left me with nothing but a damned sunburn and irritation at two religious fanatics on the Santa Monica Peer shouting through megaphones that most of us passing by were going to hell.

“You liars are going to hell.” The other translated in Spanish.

“You gluttons are going to hell.”

“You adulterers are going to hell.”

“You drunkards are going to hell.

“You lesbians are going to hell.”

“You homosexuals are going to hell.”

“You fornicators are going to hell.”

“You covetnous are going to hell.”  Oh, hell, I wondered, does that include hoarders?

As I passed by, I couldn’t resist. “Well,” I said to one of them, “it looks like you’ve just about covered all of us.”

 

Hollywood Sign from Griffith Park

Hollywood Sign from Griffith Park

My life certainly felt uncluttered on my hikes in Griffith Park high above Hollywood or on my trek through Malibu Canyon.

Hiking in Malibu Canyon

Hiking in Malibu Canyon

 

Visited the site in Malibu Canyon where M*A*S*H was filmed.

Visited the site in Malibu Canyon where M*A*S*H was filmed.

I certainly didn’t feel shackled by stuff the day I went to Rosedale Cemetery to look for the graves of Louise Glaum, Marshall Neilan, Hattie McDaniel, and Evelyn Nelson, a victim of suicide in 1923 and a subject I’m researching for Hairpins and Dead Ends.

A selfie at Louise Glaum's grave.  Yes, I know I look like Jed Clampett. I am protecting my face from more sunburn.

A selfie at Louise Glaum’s grave. Yes, I know I look like Jed Clampett. I am protecting my face from more sunburn.

I sat sipping wine one afternoon in Duke’s, my favorite restaurant in Malibu.  As I recorded the events of day in my journal, I wondered who would ever read these memories.

Journaling at Duke's along the coast in Malibu

Journaling at Duke’s along the coast in Malibu

I had boxes of journals I had written during our travels over the years. Maybe I should go through and send them to the dump.  Then I remembered what  the beloved Mae West always said, “Keep a diary, and someday it’ll keep you.” I kept writing.

Back home in early June, I dove into the clutter and made some tough (for me) choices.  They say a man’s home is his castle, his kingdom. For me, home was my “hoardom.”

With everything I touched, I had to ask myself five questions. Do I:

Keep it?
Haul it to the street?
Put it in a yard sale?
Give it to Goodwill?

Friends, I must have made a million decisions since I began this grueling self examination. The good news is that we are settled in our new digs.

My new office

My new office

The office is in order and I’m back to writing. There are still boxes piled in what will one day be a spare bedroom. I am committed to tackling their contents and making rational decisions about what to keep and what to throw away.  Through all of this, I’ve decided I will no longer associate stuff I’ve stored away with me or my past. I don’t want any part of me to live in a closet or the bottom of a drawer. I am more than a box of old pay stubs or birthday cards going back half a century.

A close friend tried to console me. “Michael, you’re just sentimental,” she offered. “There’s nothing wrong with that!

I am sentimental, that’s true, but I also unconsciously collect things that don’t make a whole lot of sense. I confess, I am a hoarder, but a recovering one, committed to tackling my disorder one floppy disk, one dry ink pen, one old and yellowed magazine at a time.

Oh! For the record, I kept Mama Sue’s false choppers!

 

The world according to Fontaine La Rue and other upcoming Hollywood adventures

By Michael G. Ankerich

If you know me at all, you know that I have a thing for actress Fontaine La Rue. I can’t call her my favorite actress because I’ve never seen one of her films.  I like her as a personality and for so many other reasons.

Fontaine La Rue

Fontaine La Rue

When I began searching for her about two years ago, I had no idea she would be so hard to track down. I devoted a blog to her early last year, Where are you, Fontaine La Rue?, when my frustration over dead ends almost led me to the attic on a quest for my old Ouija board.

Just about the time I opened the door and was headed into the dark attic to connect with the supernatural, the most amazing thing happened. Fontaine’s family got in touch and told me all about their grandmother, their aunt, their great aunt. It turns out that Fontaine was even more interesting than I realized.

The mysterious Fontaine La Rue

The ever mysterious Fontaine La Rue

I’m dusting off my wings and revving my engines for a flight out to Hollywood this weekend. I will continue the research for my new book, Hairpins and Deadends: The Perilous Journeys of 20 Actresses Through Early Hollywood, and will type away on some chapters that are ready to be written.

My main focus is getting better acquainted with Fontaine. I’m not meeting her face-to-face or chatting with her over tea, of course, but I’m visiting her final resting spot (since 1964) at Calvary Cemetery and those places that were special to her: her mansion on North Van Ness Avenue in Hollywood and St. Vincent de Paul, the church where Fontaine exchanged wows with her first husband, the father of her three children.

I’m devoting a chapter to Fontaine’s life and film career in my new book — how could I not? — so I’m not telling everything I know. I can tell you that everything I thought I knew about her at first was wrong.  How did Matilda Fernandez, a young immigrant from Mexico, survive family tragedy in her native country to find her way into the studios of the 1910s as Dora Rogers (later Fontaine La Rue) and vamp her way into the hearts of movie fans over the world.  That’s the story I want to tell.

There’s more in store for me in Los Angeles than just Fontaine. I’m doing some hiking and biking. I’m pouring through the Los Angeles Examiner archives, visiting friends, and dining at my favorite Chinese and Italian restaurants. Did I also mention that I am filming a scene for a documentary about a silent film actress I’ve written about in the past? Yes, my first experience before the camera, but I can’t miss the opportunity to talk about an actress whose heartbreaking story still haunts me.  I’ll fill you in on the details when I can.

Oh! Here’s another plea.  If you are a relative of actresses Vivian Prescott, Lolita Lee, Evelyn Gibson, or Lila Chester, please let me hear from you.  I have lots of clues, but I’ve reached a dead end on whatever became of them.  I’m also deep into research about Estelle Mardo. I want to know where she went after she disappeared and was never heard from again. Members of her family, equally perplexed, would also like to know.

There’s a lot of mystery about the early days of the film industry and those actresses who made their livings before the camera. It’s frustrating to someone who is researching and writing a hundred years after the fact.

That’s the way it is, my friends, with hairpins and dead ends.