Author Joan Craig Shares Her Memories of Theda Bara in New Book

Theda Bara, My Mentor: Under the Wing of Hollywood’s First Femme Fatale by Joan Craig, with Beverly E. Stout, is the book that I have been waiting for. They don’t come along everyday, these intimate and personal recollections of someone who actually knew the silent film greats, but when they do, they have my attention.

I was delighted that Joan agreed to talk with me about her new book. Read on . . .

From the back cover of Theda Bara, My Mentor:

As movie patrons sat in darkened theaters in January 1914, they were mesmerized by an alluring temptress with long sable hair and kohl-rimmed eyes. Theda Bara—“the vamp,” as she would come to be known—would soon be one of the highest paid film stars of the 1910s, earning an unheard of $4,000 per week, before retiring from the screen in 1926.

In 1946, the author met Bara-then 61-at her Beverly Hills home and the actress became her mentor. This memoir is the story of their friendship.

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Michael: First of all, tell me a little about yourself.

Joan: I attended Westlake School for Girls (now Harvard-Westlake School) in Holmby Hills. I graduated from Marymount High School, West Los Angeles. I attended Marymount-Loyola and UCLA. I raised my daughter in Newport Beach, California. We moved to New York City while my daughter attended The Professional Children’s School. I am currently retired and living with my husband Kurt Ruch.

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Joan Craig

Michael: Set the stage for us. Tell me about your childhood and how you got to Beverly Hills.

Joan: I was the only child of my parents’ marriage. I was born during World War II. My father was starting his own oil company on the West Coast at that time. My father had built one of the first gas stations in Las Vegas. During that time I grew up in the back seat of a car and staying at the finest hotels such as El Rancho Vegas, Mark Hopkins, Fairmount, Bel-Air Hotel, The Beverly Hills Hotel and others. My parents settled in Beverly Hills, when my father decided to build the largest gas station in the world with 24 pumps on Wilshire Boulevard in Miracle Mile in 1946.

Michael: How did you come to live on  Alpine Drive, Theda’s street?

Joan: My parents first rented a house owned by Adolf Spreckels II, the sugar king heir, located at 729 North Alpine Drive across the street from Theda. I was on my way to my first day at school with my nanny, when Charles Brabin (Theda’s husband) cut a rose from his garden to take to my teacher that day.

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Theda’s home in earlier days

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Theda’s home today. Joan lived in the house across the street. In this photo, Joan’s house is just above the stop sign.

Michael: What was the address of her house?

Joan: Theda’s house was 632 North Alpine Drive. Ours was 702 North Alpine Drive, Beverly Hills, which was directly across the street from Theda.

Michael: Who were some of your other neighbors? Anyone we might know?

Joan: Ben Hecht who was known as the Shakespeare of Hollywood lived directly behind us. Harold Adamson, a song writer, who was known for writing Around the World for Eighty DaysI Love Lucy, Frank Sinatra’s first Academy Award nomination I Couldn’t Sleep a Wink Last Night and others.  Dean Martin moved into 729 N. Alpine Drive after we vacated it, then Jerry Lewis. The dance team Veloz and Yolanda lived in a house in the middle of the block behind us on Foothill Drive. Across the way from that house lived Thurston Hall who played Antony in Cleopatra. In the 600 block on North Alpine lived Norma Talmadge.

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Theda and her crystal ball

Michael: Do you remember the first time you met Theda.  Tell me about it.

Joan:  I was on my way to school and in passing Mr. Brabin in his garden, I was told that the lady in the house would like to meet me. Upon entering the house I was ushered into the living room. Theda Bara entered the room and asked me to sit down. She sat on a sofa with a crystal ball covered with a cloth in front of her on the table. She asked me many questions while she looked under the cloth at the crystal ball. After meeting her, I felt that I had met someone with a very special gift! She told me to be very good because she could see everything.

Michael: What did you call her? Mrs. Brabin? 

Joan: No, I called her Aunt Theda.

Michael: Incidentally, how do you remember her name being pronounced? Like “Theeda”? 

Joan: Some called her that but she preferred like “Thayda”.

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Michael:  What was her physical appearance like? She actually kept her hair rather long, didn’t she? We think of Theda with white face powder and black kohl  around her eyes.

Joan: Yes, she kept her hair long. Theda processed her makeup in her kitchen. However, at that time in her life, she did not wear very much makeup.

Michael: As I understand it, she became a gourmet cook.  Did you ever dine with her?

Joan: I dined with Theda many times. She liked to cook. She also had a British cook.

Michael: Did she talk about her days in silent film and making movies?

Joan:  Yes. Sometimes we would go to the location where a film had been made. She and Charles would re-enact a special scene from that film as I read the story.

Michael: What were her general impressions of her image and work in Hollywood?

Joan: One of Theda’s favorite subjects was psychology. She was proud of her films since many of them exposed character personalities that may be devious. She felt the insight was beneficial to the public at that time.

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Theda in later years

Michael: How did that impact her work in films, do you believe? 

Joan: Theda was so good at portraying her characters, people really believed that that likeness was her in real life. This was a sensitive issue for Theda. She was not anything like the characters that she portrayed.

Michael:  We think of Theda as very dramatic, over the top, perhaps a Norma Desmond type. Did she come across as being eccentric or egotistical?

Joan: Theda was neither eccentric nor egotistical. She liked having many of the props from her movies around her in her house. Some of them were unusual. She had many friends, mostly celebrities. She loved to entertain and had many parties. She was very sweet, always concerned about the other person.

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Theda and Charles Brabin

Michael: Tell me about Charles Brabin, her director husband.

Joan: Charles Brabin was a highly principled man. He and Theda had a very happy marriage. They shared much of the film industry together.

Michael: Do you remember what he called Theda? 

Joan: They called each other “Moody”.

Michael: You gave me a insightful anecdote about Theda and Mae Murray for my biography on Mae.  Do you remember seeing others visit her from her era?  Who were they?

Joan: Most Hollywood stars came to her, too many to list here! Her close friends were from her era. Marion Davies adored Theda. They would have lots of laughs together.

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Theda and Mae Murray

Michael: Theda took a real interest in you as a child. What was her relationship to other children in the neighborhood? 

Joan: She seemed to like children very much, but didn’t have any of her own. Very interesting! Neither did her sister have children. I think that I was the only child allowed in her house. She and I had a very special relationship. I wanted to move into their house and told them that I could eat across the street so that I wouldn’t cost very much.

Michael: You mention she was a mentor. How was that?

Joan: Theda oversaw most of my lessons. She attended my school functions. I learned math quite quickly. She told me that I could read my fortune in the newspaper providing I could add up my numbers correctly! Both Theda and Charles taught me that it was important to have obtainable goals and good principles.

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From the collection of Michael G. Ankerich

Michael: Did she have a lot of photographs of herself around the house?

Joan: A few photos that were more portrait type.

Michael: Did she give you any autographed photographs of herself? 

Joan: No, she gave me her personal photo album and some of her costumes.

Michael: Is it true that Theda didn’t like candid photographs taken?

Joan: Candid photos of Theda were not allowed. During the forties and fifties, celebrities only allowed professional photos of themselves. If photos were taken they were torn up so that they could not be used in an unfavorable manner.

Michael: You mother didn’t mind that we went over to the Brabin house, but she didn’t want you to have your photograph taken with Theda.

Even in the late forties, some people shunned Theda Bara. Women were still afraid that she might take their husband! My mother told me that a photo with Theda Bara might affect my future life.

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Theda and her prey

Michael: From what I gather, she was someone who lived in the present, interested in present day events, not one to live in the past. Am I correct? 

Joan: Yes. While they didn’t live in the past, Theda and Charles enjoyed sharing their life experiences with me.

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An older Theda Bara

Michael: Do you remember the last time you saw her? Was she ill at that point?

Joan: The last time that I saw her was a few days before she died.

Michael: Did you ever meet Theda’s mother. I believe her name was Pauline.   

Joan: Yes, I meet her many times. She was an elegant appearing woman. She declined to learn English. She spoke several other languages. She and Theda would speak conversational Latin with me at the dining room table. Her native language was Francoprovencal French. This was a native dialect of Switzerland.

Michael: She outlived Theda by two years.

Joan: After Theda passed away, she moved into Westwood, in West Los Angeles, with her daughter Lori. She developed Alzheimers and soon passed away.

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An autographed photograph of Theda Bara. Collection of Michael G. Ankerich

Michael: Did you see much of Charles Brabin after Theda’s death?

Joan: My Mother and I oversaw the care and burial arrangements of Theda’s mother and Lori, her sister. We frequently looked after Charles Brabin and made his funeral and burial arrangements. This left me with a deep sorrow in my heart. The loss still brings me tears.

Michael: What do you want readers of your book to come away with?

Joan: An understanding of Theda in her personal life. Although she was retired, she was very much a part of Hollywood all during her life.

For more information, refer to Theda Bara: My Mentor and the McFarland website.

Life is Good at Hollywood Forever: A Chat With Karie Bible, Tour Guide

If you know me at all, you know I like to hang out in cemeteries. I’ve haunted graveyards all over the world, but my absolute favorite is Hollywood Forever Cemetery. In the middle of crowded and congested Hollywood, it is a haven of rest, for sure, but also a lovely park and a place to spend some quiet time with the Hollywood greats.

The truth is, friends, I’d rather be here than at Universal Studios or Disneyland — any day!

When I’m in Los Angeles researching a book, my pattern is pretty much the same. I have breakfast at Denny’s on Sunset and Western, then head down to Hollywood Forever to walk around and let the bacon and pancakes settle. Then it’s off to the Academy Library for a day of research.

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In 2013, I was a guest speaker at the annual Valentino Memorial Service at Hollywood Forever. I was so excited to meet Karie Bible, a devoted film historian who leads the Hollywood Forever Cemetery Walking Tour. As I figure it, she just about has the coolest job imaginable.

Let’s find out!

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Karie Bible

Michael: How long have you been tour guide at Hollywood Forever? 

Karie: I’ve been giving tours several times a month since February 2002.

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Michael  on his first visit (with Charlene) to Hollywood Memorial (now Forever), about 1986

Michael: My first trip to Hollywood was in the mid-1980s. Then it was Hollywood Memorial Cemetery and was among the first places I wanted to see. When was your first visit and what were your first impressions? 

Karie: When I first visited the cemetery, I was pretty emotional. A co-worker of mine had recently died at a young age and I was very upset about it. When I walked into the gates of the cemetery, I looked around and my mood started to change. I didn’t see the place as sad or morbid. To me it was a peaceful, beautiful oasis and a place to celebrate life. I fell in love with it immediately.

Michael: On that first visit, I was interested in one person: Valentino. Of course, I saw Barbara La Marr, William Desmond Taylor, and Marion Davies. But there really is so much more to see, isn’t there?

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A selfie at Valentino’s crypt, about 2014

Karie: There are tons of things to see! There is a story behind every single grave there. The cemetery has beautiful architecture, unique headstones and hosts a ton of creative people.

Michael: Tell me some of the highlights of your tours. Have you made any surprise discoveries? 

Karie:  One of my favorite things is seeing the look of joy and excitement that people get when they see the grave of a star that was meaningful to them. One day I was giving a tour and speaking to a large group about Valentino.

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Karie at Valentino’s crypt

There was a girl in the group who was about 20 years old. When I started talking about Valentino’s life, tears began pouring down her face. She finally turned around and ran out of the building. I was a bit shocked and couldn’t imagine what I could have said to upset her. I asked her boyfriend if she was ok. He said, “She just gets very emotional about Valentino.” It is a pretty big testament to his charisma and star power that ninety years after his death young girls still cry and react emotionally at his grave.

On another day I had an elderly lady who actually taught Jayne Mansfield’s children. She said that there were many celebrity kids at the school, and that Jayne was the ONLY famous parent who ever showed up in person. Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 4.08.46 PMShe said Jayne was active at the school and a really loving, caring mother. That was a beautiful story and certainly makes her seem much more human. While these people may be icons, sex symbols, etc. they are, in fact, people.

Michael: What questions do you get most from those taking your tour? 

Karie: People often ask me about the peacocks and many of the graves with the faces etched into the marble. Those things add so much character to the place.

Michael: Yeah, I want to get to the peacocks in a minute. Any estimate as to the number of tours you’ve given? 

Karie: I couldn’t even begin to tell you. I do about two or three tours a month and it has now been 14 years. That isn’t counting private tours, the special art deco tour and other things.

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Karie in tour!

Back in 2013, I started getting kidney stones right before I gave a tour. I didn’t want to let the people down who had booked and I figured that the show must go on! I gave a 2 ½ hour tour with massive kidney stones. I was in so much pain that I really don’t remember very much. I have done the tour so many times that I sort of went on autopilot. I was rushed to Cedar’s Sinai right afterward.

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Johnny Ramone’s monument

Michael: What’s the most unusual monument or tombstone? 

Karie: None of them seem unusual to me, but I think that Johnny Ramone’s grave seems to draw a lot of attention. I’ve given many tours to seniors who don’t even know who he is, but that can’t stop looking at his grave.

Michael: On a recent tour, I was looking for the grave of Mae Murray’s brother. I was almost attacked by a gigantic peacock. I’ve since seen their cages. I have to admit they are beautiful creatures. What’s the story behind them and their home at the cemetery? 

Karie: Someone told me that the peacock is a symbol for eternal life. That would make sense because cemeteries are always filled with symbolism and nothing is just there arbitrarily. If you look near the flower shop, there are peacocks in the stained glass and even peacock feathers painted on the dome over the building.

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Watch for the peacocks; they have the right of way!

Michael: What’s the story around the big, black car that sits up front?

Karie: That is an antique hearse that the owner Tyler Cassity purchased. I think it is from 1939. As far as I know it still works and is put to use.

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Michael: Are there any unmarked graves of silent film stars there? I believe Florence Lawrence’s grave was once unmarked, but she now has a marker.

Karie: Yes there are still unmarked star graves. Getting a marker can be a complicated process that involves getting permission from the family (if there are any still alive) and raising money. The cemetery has been great about helping make that process happen. I know that silent comic actor Ford Sterling was recently marked and Ann Sheridan was as well. Tyler and his staff recently got a marker for the grave of Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway, Ernest Hemmingway’s second wife. Historian Allan Ellenberger does an excellent blog about Hollywood history and written about it. http://allanellenberger.com/sins-of-the-mother-the-story-of-pauline-hemingway/

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Karie: To my knowledge, yes they have been identified.

Michael: Are there any missing old timers that may be there?

Karie: Not that I know of. I always preface things by saying that, as you never know!

Michael: What mysteries are there? What are your favorites? 

Karie: The grave of William Desmond Taylor would count as a mystery. It is one of the most famous unsolved murders in Hollywood history. There have been so many books about it, but I think it will always remain a mystery.

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William Desmond Taylor

I love Valentino, but I feel a deep connection to all of the people there. I spend a lot of time at the cemetery and I’m very passionate about film history. There are so many pioneers buried at Hollywood Forever who were at the ground floor as the art form and business of Hollywood was being created. Many of them worked behind the scenes as writers, cinematographers, composers and crew.

Michael: I understand. My passion is researching the lives of those from the very beginning.

Karie: So many of these people go unappreciated. A great number of them were discarded and forgotten. They deserve better.

Michael: Have you ever met any relatives of some of the permanent residents of Hollywood Forever on your tour? Who were they? 

Karie: Several years ago, I was giving a small tour and as I was at JScreen Shot 2016-04-01 at 4.02.20 PMohn Huston’s grave. I turned around and Angelica Huston was standing right there.
She was cleaning up the flowers and grass around her father’s grave. I didn’t want to bother her, but she was very gracious and a total class act.

Michael: If you were an early actor or actress died in Hollywood, what choices did you have? Rosedale, I know. What others? 

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Karie: Hollywood Forever (originally named Hollywood Memorial Park) was founded in 1899. Forest Lawn Glendale came along in 1906. Calvary Cemetery was established in 1896 and Evergreen Cemetery in 1877. I think that Home of Peace has been in their current spot since 1902. Grand View Memorial Park dates back to 1884. I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting, but those are the ones that come to mind.

Michael: Are there any haunted areas of the cemetery that you are aware of? Tell me the stories. 

Karie: People often ask me that question. I’ve been there a long time and I’ve never had a paranormal encounter of any kind. There have been rumors that Clifton Webb walks down the corridor of the Abbey of the Psalms Mausoleum or that you can hear actress Virginia Rappe weeping. Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 4.01.29 PMTo me, the history is fascinating enough and I really don’t want to focus on the paranormal. (By the way, read Room 1219 to learn more about Virginia Rappe, the actress who died after the party thrown by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. It is an excellent read!)

Michael: So, give the cemetery a little plug for my readers? Invite them to take the tour!

Karie: The “Cemetery of the Stars” tour at Hollywood Forever is a great overview of the cemetery. It includes the big names including Rudolph Valentino, Cecil B. DeMille, Marion Davies, Tyrone Power, Vampira, John Huston, Johnny Ramone, Peter Lorre, Mel Blanc and many more! Hollywood Forever is a beautiful place and one of the most unique cemeteries in the world! Learn more about dates and times for the tour at www.cemeterytour.com.

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Watch for these beautiful birds

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A stunning view of the Hollywood Sign awaits as you exit the cemetery.

 

 

Billie Dove and the End of a Nagging Question

It was one subject I couldn’t bring up to Billie Dove.  What I wanted to ask was, “Billie, how old are you?”  Well, I would have never asked it in those exact words. But I wanted to clear up the question of her year of birth.  To a researcher determined to set the record straight, asking those questions is critical, especially when film reference books cannot agree on one date.

"To you, Lenore, from me."

“To you, Lenore (her fan club president), from me.”

One can use the tactic of bringing up the most sensitive questions until the end of the interview. That way, you have the story in case they hang up on you and show you the door the moment the question rolls off your lips.  But I couldn’t ask it then, either.

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Billie and husband Bob Kenaston

I didn’t have to.  Billie addressed the subject herself near the beginning of our first interview.

“I simply don’t believe that the number of years a person has lived is how old they are,” she said to me. “Two people, exactly the same age, can be entirely different.  It’s what you have absorbed that counts.”

Fair enough.

I kept digging. The film reference books were all over the board on the question. They had Billie being born from 1900 to 1904. Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia suggested 1900 as Billie’s year of birth.  Her fan club president told me 1900 was the date. Billie’s maid had found the birth certificate when going through some papers.

Dewitt Bodeen’s excellent career article on Billie for Films in Review suggested 1901. The 1920 U.S. Federal Census indicated 1903.

Billie and Michael

Billie and Michael

When The Sound of Silence, the book that included the lengthy interview I did with Billie went to press, I played it safe. I presented the possibilities as I had uncovered them and put the information out for the readers to decide.

When Billie died, the mystery was still unsolved. Her obits indicated 1900 and 1901. Her death certificate gave 1901. In her 1954 application for a Social Security Number, Billie gave 1903.

Billie’s words came back to haunt me, “Even my husbands didn’t know how old I was,” she once said.

Last week, I was delighted to hear from Paul Melzer through Facebook, a reader who has acquired Billie Dove’s driver’s license and birth certificate. With his permission, I am sharing them with you.

One more mystery solved. Researching for the facts becomes obsessive. See how much fun we have!

Anyway, Billie Dove, according to her birth certificate was born May 14, 1903. Now we know. Everyone breathe a sigh of relief. Slow exhale.

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Billie’s birth certificate (Courtesy of Paul Melzer)

 

Take a look at her California driver’s license from 1979.

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Michael G. Ankerich: The SVM Interview

I was delighted to be interviewed for the February/March issue of Southern Views Magazine (SVM). For those of you who may not have access to the publication, I am providing some of what we discussed in this blog.

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You have been writing books about American silent film and early twentieth century actors and actresses for the last couple of decades now. What made you decide to write about this period and genre?

I was fascinated by the silent film era as a teenager and it was pure curiosity that prompted me to focus on that era. I simply wanted to know more. This was in the mid-1910s, a long time before the Internet. The curiosity I had led me to a dead end where I realized that the information I was looking for was still unwritten. I delved into my own research and, eventually, I wanted to share what I had learned and discovered.

During your investigations for the books you wrote, did you have the opportunity to meet personally with any of the actors or actresses, and if so who were they, what kind of unique treasures and memorabilia did they share with you?

When I began my research, there were a number of the actors and actresses still alive from that period, the 1910s and 1920s. My first objective was to make contact with those who had been there and worked at the period. I spent the next 15 years or so traveling back and forth to the West Coast and interviewing those fascinating individuals and recording their memories before the passage of time took away their stories.

Those interviews became the basis for my first two books: Broken Silence: Conversations With 23 Silent Film Stars (1993) and Broken Silence: Conversations With 16 Film and Stage Personalities Who Made the Transition from Silents to Talkies (1998).

They were quite generous in sharing their portraits and movie stills with me for the books.

Hard to believe that Muriel Ostriche started her career in films in 1911, a hundred years ago!

Hard to believe that Muriel Ostriche started her career in films in 1912.

I interviewed Muriel Ostriche, whose career in films began around 1912. I interviewed Maxine Elliott Hicks, who made her first film in 1914 and was still making films when I talked with her in 1990. I talked with some (Ethlyne Clair, Mary Brian, Anita Page, and Hugh Allen come to mind) who had not spoken that extensively about their careers since their retirement.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. talked about working in the shadow of his famous father (Doug Sr) and his relationships with Mary Pickford, his stepmother, and Joan Crawford, his first wife.

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Billie Dove

Billie Dove, once referred to as the Elizabeth Taylor of the 1920s, vowed over the phone that she would not answer questions about her romance with and engagement to millionaire Howard Hughes, but by the end of our conversation, she had invited me out to her home in Palm Springs to tell me the fascinating details of their relationship.  

While they were silent film stars, they were anything but silent when I talked with them. Their stories would make you laugh, cry and gasp!

One of your masterpieces is Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels: The Lives, Careers, and Misfortunes of 14 Hard-Luck Girls of the Silent Screen. What made you write this book?

Dangerous Curves was a departure from my first two books, in that the stories were not based on interviews with the subjects but on research, archives, and family interviews. I selected the subjects not because I was expert on them, but because I wanted to know more.

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Eve Southern

I choose 14 actresses from that era who had relatively difficult experiences in their careers. I traced their precarious routes through fame and uncovered how some of the top actresses of the day were used, abused, and discarded.

Many who read my books like Dangerous Curves best. It has certainly opened up new avenues for me. It led to several speaking engagements and my television debut on a Lifetime Movie Network series, The Ghost Inside My Child, in 2014.Screen Shot 2016-03-12 at 5.37.34 PM
One of your latest works is based on the biography of silent film actress Mae Murray. Why her and what does she mean to you?

First of all, Mae Murray was everything a movie queen in the days of silent films was expected to be: extravagant, vain, eccentric, egotistical, and temperamental.

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She was a biographer’s dream. There was much of her life I knew, some I thought I knew, and areas I didn’t know at all.

Mae’s life was truly a rags-to-riches and back-to-rags story. She escaped a childhood marred by poverty and alcoholism, divorced her family, and was reborn as a Ziegfeld Follies showgirl in the mid-1910s. In Hollywood, she became a huge movie star, but at the height of her fame, walked out on her $7,500-a-week film contract.

Mae and her prince, David Mdivani.

Mae and her prince, David Mdivani.

 

She married one of the “marrying Mdivani” princes who turned out to be a phony. She fled to Paris, became a mother, and returned to Hollywood only to be blackballed by her enemies. By the time Mae divorced her prince, her $3 million fortune was little more than pennies. Exhausted after countless legal battles and one-night stands on the road in vaudeville, she slept on park benches in New York’s Central Park. For the rest of her life, this poor woman fought poverty but continued to live in a fantasy world where time had not passed her by.

So, as you can see, her life read like a movie script, but it was real life for Mae Murray. I could not have asked for a better subject!

 Is there one particular silent film star that you are more fond of and why?

I am infatuated with Greta Garbo as an actress and screen personality. Her beauty is breathtaking. After spending more than two years researching her life and career, I also developed a genuine fondness for Mae Murray, if for no other reason than her will to survive. Lon Chaney, a master of disguises, is also up there on my list.

Thanks, Eric Rebetti!

Mae waving goodbye to her fans

Are there any classic films that you like to watch over and over?

Although she wasn’t from the silent film era, Bette Davis is my favorite film actress of all time. I can watch Now, Voyager and All About Eve over and over. Any Bette Davis film, for that matter!

How does the artistic value of a silent, classic film culture compare to the artistic value of today’s film culture?

Lillian Gish, the first lady of the silent screen and an advocate for silent film preservation until her death, said it best. Silent films were the marriage of film to classical music. It was during this era that films spoke a universal language, meaning they were done with action and music, not words. Part of the message is lost when a film’s plot depends on words and has to be translated into the language of every country where it is shown.

Silent films are generally misunderstood today because the clips people see are poor quality prints projected at the wrong speed. It is extremely unfortunate because the jerky motion and speed of projection give the impression that all silent films were bad slapstick.

Are you currently planning and working on any future projects or books?

I’m in the middle of writing my new book, Hairpins and Dead Ends: The Perilous Journeys of 20 Actresses Through Early Hollywood. It’s a companion volume to Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels. I have several other book ideas floating around, including a spiritual autobiography. There’s also a speaking engagement and book signing in the works for Los Angeles later in the year. So things are percolating right along!

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Bob Harned Remembers His Mother, Actress Sally Phipps

If you ever wondered what became of silent film actress Sally Phipps, you’re in luck.  Bob Harned has written a thorough and revealing biography of one of the cutest flappers to ever grace the silent screen. Bob is not just any writer; he just happens to be her son!

Sally Philips

Sally Phipps

A little about Sally and then I will introduce you to Bob and bring you into the conversation we had about his book, Sally Phipps: Silent Film Star.

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Her real name was not Sally Phipps, but Nellie Bernice Bogdon. When she came to Hollywood and signed with Fox Studios, she became Sally Phipps, a name that seemed to fit a care-free Jazz baby.

Sally was born in 1911 in Oakland, California. A brother, Lane, came along in 1913. Her father, Albert E. Bogdon, was a professional magician and quite easy on the eye (He later became a lawyer). Her mother, Edithe, a commercial artist, later worked at First National Studios coloring black and white photographs.

Sally's father, Albert E. Bogdon

Sally’s father, Albert E. Bogdon

When Albert and Edithe’s marriage fell apart, Sally went to live with her maternal grandmother, Nellie Lane. When she was not quite two, Sally was placed with a foster family, Warren and Eva Sawyer. Warren and Eva were employees at Essanay Film Corporation in Niles, California.

Sally’s career began as Bernice Sawyer at age four when she made three Broncho Billy films at Essanay: Broncho Billy and the Baby, The Western Way, The Outlaw’s Awakening, all 1915 releases.

Sally in about 1915

Sally in about 1915

A stagecoach accident ended Sally’s career at Essanay and sent her back to Nellie, her grandmother.

Edithe, Sally’s mother, began a new life in the 1920s and wanted Sally and Lane to be part of it. Edithe married Albert Beutler in 1922. In 1924, The family moved to Los Angeles.

Danny Borzage, a family friend, saw potential in 14-year-old Sally. Danny’s brother Frank, a director at Fox, gave Sally a screen test and the rest, as they say, is history.

Sally and Danny Borzage

Sally and Danny Borzage

After several uncredited roles, Sally began playing leads. The studio considered her image as that of a happy-go-lucky flapper and used her in comedies, often opposite Nick Stuart.

Sally was named a Wampas Baby Star in 1927, along with Patricia Avery, Rita Carewe, Helene Costello, Barbara Kent, Natalie Kingston, Frances Lee, Mary McAlister, Gladys McConnell, Sally Rand, Martha Sleeper, Iris Stuart, and Adamae Vaughn.

Wampas Baby Stars of 1927. Sally is pictured second from the left. How many others can you name?

In 1928, while filming None But The Brave with Charles Morton, , Sally developed the dreaded Klieg Eye, a eye irritation caused by the powerful lights used on studio sets.

A scene from None But The Brave with Charles Morton (R) and Billy Butts

A scene from None But The Brave with Charles Morton (R)

After her recovery, Sally went on vacation. She was away from the cameras for nine months, an eternity in filmdom.

Nick Stuart was soon making films and making out with Sue Carol. The actress grabbed onto Nick and wouldn’t let go. They were married in 1929.

Sue Carol and Nick Stuart (Michael G. Ankerich Collection)

Sue Carol and Nick Stuart (Michael G. Ankerich Collection)

In March 1929, 17-year-old Sally sued her mother and stepfather for the misuse of her money — she was earning $225 a week.

Soon after, Fox dropped Sally from its rolls. She tried Broadway, appearing as a starlet in the Moss Hart-George S. Kaufman hit Once in a Lifetime.

Sally onboard the Ile De France in 1933

Sally onboard the Ile De France in 1933

I will save the rest of her life for your reading pleasure. In short, she was briefly married to a Gimbel department store. By the mid-1930s, Sally was living in a one-room apartment in Manhattan and making $25 a week as a secretary.

She lived in India for a time and studied Eastern religions.  At a séance, she met Alfred Harned, whom she married in 1941. A daughter, Maryanna, was born in 1942, followed by Bob in 1944.

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It would be another 17 years before Bob saw his mother. Sally moved to New York and worked as a secretary. After Bob moved to the East Coast in 1967, the two saw each other at least twice a year.

Sally Phipps died of cancer in 1978.

After I read Bob’s fascinating book, you know me, I had questions.

Michael: So many film actresses from the 1910s and 1920s came from families where the father was absent.  This was Sally’s case. Her father, a magician and vaudevillian, was pretty much out the picture, as was her mother, who was a commercial artist. What impact did this have on her life, do you think?

Bob: Although Sally’s biological parents were frequently absent from her life, Sally lived full-time with her widowed grandmother, Nellie C. Lane from age three to age eleven. Nellie, whom Sally adored, was an intensely active civic leader during all the time Sally lived with her, and drove her own car as early as 1911. Nellie was the major stabilizing force in Sally’s life, was as a strong role model, and, although not a father, served as a good             parental substitute during Sally’s critical growing years.

Sally (L) and mother Edithe in January 1928, New York City

Sally (L) and mother Edithe in January 1928, New York City

 

Michael: Sally and her mother moved to Hollywood in 1924. Given that Sally had worked in the Broncho Billy films in the mid-1910s and performed in plays in school, it seems she was destined to become a film actress, doesn’t it?

Bob: According to interviews Sally gave, all she ever wanted to do was become a lawyer just like her father. However, Sally’s destiny was that she was too beautiful to live a normal life. When a family friend set up a screen test for her at Fox, which proved successful, Fox rushed to capitalize on her beauty and youth by immediately putting her under contract.

A Sally Phipps glamour portrait

A Sally Phipps glamour portrait

Michael: Tell me a little about your mother’s lifestyle after she went under contract to Fox and became a star.

Bob: According to Sally, it was all work, work, work. In a quote from a newspaper article, she said, “Hollywood is one of the most peaceful towns I have ever seen. Why, if wild parties and other things go on there, I’ve missed something. Most of us in the movies are too busy to think of anything but our work.”

Sally inscribed a photograph to Dorothy, her best friend, and explains her new name.

Sally inscribed a photograph to Dorothy, her best friend, and explained her new name, Sally Phipps

Michael: Sally became a Wampas Baby Star at age 15, I believe.  She must have been one of the youngest to receive this honor. Do you have any sense, based on your research and conversation with your mother, that she thought it was too much too soon?

Bob: Not at all. She loved every minute of it.

 

Sue Carol (Michael G. Ankerich Collection)

Sue Carol (Michael G. Ankerich Collection)

Michael: Nick Stuart was Sally’s frequent co-star at Fox.  Do you know whether there was a romance between them?

 

Bob: Sally was aware quite early that Nick and Sue Carol were smitten with each other and that a romance with him would be definitely out of the question.

Nick Stuart (Michael G. Ankerich Collection)

Nick Stuart (Michael G. Ankerich Collection)

Michael: Sally’s career in films was basically over by 1930, when she was only 19 or so. Did she have any sense of why her career ended? Was it the coming of sound?  Was it that Sue Carol came to Fox and played many of roles that Sally specialized in? Was it the lingering grief over her father’s murder in 1927? (Read the book to learn more).

Bob: Sally was always interested in giving the theater a try and found that the current upheaval in Hollywood gave her a chance to make a graceful exit. In the end, she triumphed by walking into a plum role in the 1930-1931 Broadway Kaufman & Hart spoof of     Hollywood, Once In A Lifetime.

Sally and Nick Stuart during the filming of The News Parade (1928)

Sally and Nick Stuart during the filming of The News Parade (1928)

 

Michael: One misconception I had about Sally was that, after her marriage to Ben Gimbel of Gimbels department store fame, she lived on “easy street” for the rest of her life.  That was not the case, was it? Without giving away a lot of the story, what direction did her life take after her divorce from Gimbel?

Sally in India

Sally in India

Bob: Sally moved on with her life after the divorce, having chosen to receive no settlement or alimony. She appeared in another Broadway show, did Shakespeare with a travelling company, joined WPA’s Federal Theatre Project, travelled around the world, lived in India for a year, and married again, giving birth to two children, including me.

Michael: One of the most unfortunate parts of Sally’s story was when she vanished from you and your sister’s lives in 1950 when you were youngsters. It’s interesting that Sally, as a child, was shifted back and forth between foster parents, her mother, and her grandmother.  Do you think her own childhood experience affected her idea of what it meant to be a parent?

Bob: It certainly seems possible.

Sally and Bob in Hawaii

Sally and Bob in Hawaii

Michael: Were you ever able to learn why she suddenly left you and your sister to grow up without their mother? Did she ever talk about it?

Bob: My sister and I were fortunate in that my father and my grandmother never imparted to us any blame or anger toward my mother. We always knew where she was and could keep in touch. Why she left and what precipitated it was never important to us. As for me, the time she spent with me as an adult was very precious.

Michael: Your sister had a bad experience when she was reunited with Sally, but you actually developed a friendship when you and Sally met again in the 1960s. Was it more of a friendship or was it a real mother and son connection?  How did growing up without your mother impact your life?

Bob: I was born into a show-biz family with bohemian attitudes. My father, who brought us up, was a musician, former vaudevillian, orchestrator, and composer. I grew up loving all            aspects of entertainment. Both my sister and I sang, danced, and acted. Meeting my mother later in life and hearing her stories about her own show-biz life was an incredible experience for a son like me to hear and enjoy. She and I became really good friends, and we spent many happy hours together, which I will always treasure.

Sally and Bob, May 1968 (Brooklyn, NY, atop St. George Hotel)

Sally and Bob, May 1968 (Brooklyn, NY, atop St. George Hotel)

 

Michael: Roi Uselton and I were very close friends when I lived in Atlanta in the 1990s.  He made contact with Sally in the late 1960s while researching the Wampas girls. Marion Shilling, another actress who had disappeared into obscurity, credited Roi as her “Christopher Columbus.”  Did Sally feel the same way about Roi, that he rediscovered her? She welcomed the attention, didn’t she?

Roi Uselton, actor William Janney, and Michael G. Ankerich, 1991

Roi Uselton, actor William Janney, and Michael G. Ankerich, 1991 (Michael G. Ankerich Collection)

Bob: I remember well the Roi Uselton period in Sally’s life in the late 60s and early 70s. Sally was very excited about being re-discovered by him and with his including her in his upcoming articles in “Films In Review” magazine. I have preserved all the letters from Roi in the Sally Phipps Archive, which I maintain.

Sally and Bob, October 1977, the night Sally was honored with a Rosemary Award

Sally and Bob, October 1977, the night Sally was honored with a Rosemary Award

Michael: How many of her films are available for viewing? Do you have a favorite Sally Phipps film?

Bob: All of Sally’s films were made at Fox except for the first and last listed (below). All are silent except the final, which is a Vitaphone talkie. I particularly enjoy the Fox comedy short Girls, because she has a chance to show off her comedic talents in physical comedy.

Broncho Billy And The Baby – Essanay – 1915 (drama short)

Light Wines And Bearded Ladies – 1926 (comedy short)

Girls – 1927 (comedy short)

The Cradle Snatchers – 1927 (feature)

Sunrise – 1927 (feature)

A Midsummer Night’s Steam – 1927 (comedy short)

The News Parade – 1928 (feature)

Why Sailors Go Wrong – 1928 (feature)

Where Men Are Men – Vitaphone — 1931 (comedy short

Sally with David Rollins in High School Hero (1928)

Sally with David Rollins in High School Hero (1928)

Michael: Is there an outstanding question that you would ask your mother if you could talk with her again? What would it be?

Bob: I feel that I got all of my questions answered during the time we spent together between the years 1967 and 1978.

Sally in Hawaii, 1941

Sally in Hawaii, 1941

 

All photos, unless otherwise noted, are courtesy of Bob L. Harned.

Losing Momma and Maebelle

Before the crystal ball dropped in Time’s Square last year, before the bubbles from the champagne flute tickled my nose, I knew 2015 was going to be one hell of a year, a year of heartbreak and change and one I would never forget. In fact, I made a New Year’s resolution for 2015:  “Survive it!”

Some of you have asked about my absence from the pages of this blog over the past nine or so months. I’ve tried to keep an upbeat and somewhat comical tone to my posts, but there’s no way to spin it.  2015 has been tough. What is that old saying, “Life happens when you’re making other plans.”  Well, friends, I guess you could say I’ve been living life.

Our New Year’s Eve party was as festive as ever, but something wasn’t right with Maebelle, our 16-year-old poodle. She’d once been the life of our parties, begging to be carried, hugged, and loved. After our parties, I would slow dance with her for the last tune of the evening. Tonight, she seemed to wander and stagger through the forest of high heels. Ms. Taylor, her twin, had long stopped enjoying parties. When she ventured out of her little bed, she went around in circles, blind and deaf.

Charlie with Ms. Taylor and Maebelle

Maebelle liked to stay close to me while I was writing; Tallulah is keeping watch

Maebelle liked to stay close to me while I was writing; Tallulah is keeping watch

Charle and I picked these little girls when they could lie comfortably in the palm of our hands. For 16 years, through good times and bad, they had been the closest we would ever have to children. Maebelle and I had a connection that went way beyond that of a canine and human. She was almost a soulmate.

And so, three days into the new year, Charlie and I arrived at that place where all animal lovers eventually come.  That nagging question: Are we keeping these darlings alive for our own pleasure when their quality of life had waned?

With Dr. Moshell’s help, our little babies went to sleep in our arms; Maebelle in mine, Ms. Taylor in Charlie’s. For you who have been through this, I don’t have to describe the gut-wrenching grief that comes from deep within your soul.

Charlie and I rallied around each other, treasuring Tallulah, our 5-year-old poodle girl.  She is black. We call her Tallulah Blackhead.

I waited a few days before breaking the news to my mom, who lived across the state. She was Mother Teresa to stray canines and felines in her neighborhood. She understood that strong bond between humans and animals. Mom cried when I told her about her “grandchildren.” “Poor little darlings,” she sobbed.

When we left my parent’s house after Christmas a few weeks before, I think Mom knew she would never again see Maebelle and Ms. Taylor. Did she know that morning when she held the puppies tight that none of us would ever again have Christmas with her? Mom knew she was sick; we all did, we just wasn’t ready to go there.

Michael and Carol

Mom and me

Mom and me in a rare Georgia snowfall

Mom and me in a rare Georgia snowfall

In October 2013, Charlie and I spent two weeks in Italy, our favorite vacation spot. I talked with Mom every other day or so while we were away. She said she was still fatigued, but “doing okay.” The afternoon we arrived home, Mom called. “Michael, I found out what is wrong with me.  I have leukemia. I didn’t want to tell you while you were on your trip.”

Not leukemia exactly, but something called Myelodysplasia Syndrome (MDS), a disease of the bone marrow that destroys the number and quality of blood-forming cells. The doctor was somewhat encouraging. While not a candidate for a bone marrow transplant, Mom could have some quality of life with chemotherapy. That is, weekly chemo treatments for the rest of her life.

Mom was a determined fighter. A red-headed hairdresser since the early 1960s, she was one tough 71-year-old. Chemo was the way it went for awhile. Fatigue seemed to be the primary side effect. Then came the fluctuating blood counts: hemoglobin, platelets, red and white blood levels. A monthly blood transfusion boosted her energy level.

Mom on Christmas Day 2015 with Lucinda and FeFe

Mom on Christmas Day 2015 with Lucinda and FiFi

By Christmas, Mom was clearly suffering from this disease. She’d get out of bed in the morning for a hour or two. Extreme fatigue and pain would send her back to bed, sometimes for the rest of the day. As a family, we’d never been that good at communication, so we all exchanged looks.  We talked about Mom’s illness among ourselves. My Dad and me. My Grandmother and me. What’s happening to her?

Before we left to come home, Mom called me into her bedroom. She wanted to talk. “I don’t want to die,” she said. “I’ve got to take care of your daddy and momma. I’m going to fight, Michael.  I’m not giving up, but you know I may not make it.”  Mom laid out her final wishes. Cremation. A memorial service at the funeral home. An Episcopal service was okay, “but not too many candles and crosses.” For music, she wanted Willie Nelson and Elvis Presley — luckily, their CDs would suffice. And one more question. Would Charlie and I consider taking Pancho, Lucinda, and FiFi, her rescue pups that never left her side?

Not surprisingly, Mom’s condition continued worsening into the new year.  Despite rain, sleet, or snow, my mom, driven by her saints (Dad, my Aunt, Peggy, and other close friends), made the 30-mile trek to the clinic to have chemo and her blood and platelet transfusions.

Mom getting one of her many, many treatments

Mom getting one of her many, many treatments

The transfusions that kept her alive from week to week were ordered more frequently. Nose bleeds, extreme pain in her bones, and crippling fatigue continued. We talked by phone most every day. The tone in her voice was becoming weaker and more somber. Our conversations were getting shorter.  In mid-February, I called Dr. Malik about her condition. As prepared as I thought I was for his report, it came as a jolt. “Your mom is now in the struggling phase, the decline phase, and approaching Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). I’m not throwing in the towel yet. There is one more treatment I want to try.”

In mid-March, Mom made the decision to close her beauty shop. Her customers had been loyal and had stuck by her. As hard as she tried, she no longer had the strength to keep going.

“Do you want to keep working?” I asked her.

In her weakest voice, she said, “I just want to lie down and go to sleep.”

Closing her business signaled a new chapter for Mom. She slipped into a depression that never left her. She cried more, became quieter and more withdrawn.

The next month brought weekly blood transfusions and iron injections, in addition to her chemo. Blood blisters developed in her mouth and on her tongue and lips. When blood began dripping from her nose, Mom wrote it off as a simple nosebleed. When she awoke one morning on a blood soaked pillow, her doctor ordered a platelet transfusion with a warning. “The next time this happens, Ms. Carol,” he said, “get yourself to an emergency room or you could bleed to death.”

Mom bottle feeding newborn kitties

Mom bottle feeding newborn kitties

In mid-April, a blood blister on her right wrist turned into a wound. The wound turned into a sore, the sore a hole. The flesh inside the sore turned black and smelled of dead flesh.

When I came home in late April to take her to appointments with her cancer doctor and a wound specialist, Mom was too weak to walk. I went into the bathroom where she sat. “There’s blood in my urine,” she said. “You know, Michael, this could be it.”

Mom made it to her appointment with the aid of a wheelchair. Blood tests were taken. Dr. Malik confirmed our fears.  “Oh, Ms. Carol,” he said, “your condition has progressed to Acute Myeloid Leukemia. Your white blood count is 280,000. I’m admitting you to the hospital.”

Lying in her hospital bed, Mom was a pitiful sight. Her arms black and blue from a year and a half of chemo and transfusions. Her lips caked with dried blood and sores in her mouth continued bleeding. A bandage protected the horrible sore on her arm. She was pale and weak, struggling to breathe. “I don’t want to die,” she cried. “What will become of my little babies? Gene and Momma need me.”

Mom's Hollywood pose

Mom’s Hollywood pose

Dr. Malik offered another type of treatment, a powerful infusion of chemo. No promises she would live through it, and if she did, she’d be in the hospital for three to four weeks with a poor quality of life.  “It won’t buy you much time,” he said. Mom made the sobering decision. “Dr, Malik, I don’t think I’m going to go through it. I think I’ve had enough.”

Mom went into hospice on Thursday, April 30. Her family never left her side. Before she slipped into the final coma, I said, “Thanks for being my momma. I love you.” “I love you, too.” she said. “Will you watch over me?” I asked. “Yes” she answered.

Charlie and I stayed with her through the night. We talked to her, held her hand. I studied her face as a painter studies his subject, trying to capture in my own mind’s eye the features of that beautiful face that I would soon never see again.

Mom died that morning at 9:50 a.m., May 1, 2015. “Go ahead, Momma, it’s okay,” I cried as she breathed her last. “It’s a beautiful day.” And it was a beautiful spring day. Mom’s suffering was over.

Holding Mom's hand

Holding Mom’s hand at the end

 

Her memorial service was a celebration of life. I spoke to the room full of Mom’s closest friends. “You’ve heard of Wonder Woman. My Mom was Wonder Woman. She could drive me to school on the back of her motorcycle, do three shampoos and sets in the morning, dig post holes in the afternoon, and make the best spaghetti supper that night.”

Grieving has been hard, my friends. Part of it is wondering how Mom is doing and where she is. The finality of it all is difficult. It’s the phone that never rings, yet I want it to ring with Mom on the other end. Why can’t Mom send a postcard to let me know she made it or send some kind of sign that she is okay.

I turned a corner in my grief about three months after Mom’s death.  I was lying in the floor somewhere between consciousness and sleep. Suddenly, with my eyes closed, Mom appeared. Her face was a younger Mom. Her voice so familiar. “Michael,” she said. “It’s just the way it is.” Then she was gone. I knew then that I was on a journey through grief, that I was not setting up residence there, that perhaps I would one day see a brighter day and not feel such consuming and overwhelming sadness.

As I write this, there is only three months left in 2015. It’s been nine months since Maebelle and Ms. Taylor went to puppy heaven. It’s been five months since Mom left. Life goes on, they say.

I am writing again after a long hiatus. My new book, Hairpins and Dead Ends, is coming along. I’m working on new interviews for this blog.  People ask me how am I doing.  By the grace of God, I am living my 2015 resolution. “I’m surviving,” I say.

 

Mom's one connection to the silent film era.  Through me, she knew actress Lina Basquette

Mom’s one connection to the silent film era. Through me, she knew actress Lina Basquette.