It was the question mark ( ? ) that got my attention.
Over the years, when I researched the lives of silent film players, I would come across the name Eve Southern. Her entry, whether in film encyclopedias or on Internet blogs, would give a date of birth. There was always a question mark for the date of death. No one seemed to know whatever became of Eve Southern.
I like question marks. I am challenged by mysteries.
In 2009, I needed a challenge.
It had been a little over 10 years since I wrote my last book, The Sound of Silence. I seemed to have lost interest in writing. My good friend and inspiration, silent film historian Roi Uselton, who grew up in the 1920s a devoted film fan, developed Parkinson’s Disease and slowly slipped away. He had been my mentor. I thought, “what’s the use?”
My main thrust had always been documenting the memories of the remaining silent film actors. Barbara Kent was my last interview. By the late 1990s, the players of the silent screen were fast going the way of the dinosaur.
It was about that time that I embarked on a spiritual journey in an effort to figure out God and determine how I fit into life on this big rock called Earth. It was a circuitous route that took me around the world for some 10 years. Read about those years in my spiritual memoir, Drag Queens at the County Line and Other Spiritual Adventures.
I’m just not sure when I will get around to writing it, because I still haven’t figured it all out. Isn’t that the whole point of a journey? Maybe there’s no end to it!
It’s the question marks that nag at me.
Eve Southern was one big question mark.
What became of this odd-looking creature of the silent screen? With her enormous eyes and long lashes, Eve looked almost supernatural.
With her belief in reincarnation and spiritualism–she once claimed Mary Queen of Scots as a past life, how could this woman have vanished into history?
As an actress, she is little more than a footnote in history, but I love reading footnotes. It is there that you sometimes find the most interesting ingredients of a story.
Eve appeared in almost 30 films from 1916 through the mid-1930s. It seemed she was on the cusp of something big happening in her career, then it would be taken from her.
D.W. Griffith discovered her for the movies, but after he retired temporarily, she was set adrift. Another time, it was a director who had big plans for her. But, he left the studio. Charlie Chaplin gave her a plum role in A Woman of the Sea, but the film was never finished or released.
She got her chance to shine as the Miracle Girl in The Gaucho (1928) with Douglas Fairbanks and Lupe Velez.
She received the best reviews of her career. For several years, she played leads opposite such actors as Malcolm McGregor and Walter Pidgeon.
Then, a series of accidents from 1929 to the early 1930s finished her career and almost took her life.
From there, the trail of Eve Southern grew cold. She disappeared.
Beginning in 2008, that haunting question mark in her biography sent me searching through newspapers and archives. I would reach a dead end, become discouraged, and close her file. The question of her whereabouts would nudge me and I’d start afresh.
I won’t bore you with the details, but I was able to learn Eve’s real name from her short-lived marriage in 1925. From there, I researched her family and sent queries through the mail. “Are you perhaps a relative of Elva McDowell, who became Eve Southern in the movies?”
A phone call confirmed the identify. “Elva McDowell, or Eve Southern, was indeed my aunt. I knew her well.”
Wally McDowell filled in the gaps about his Aunt Elva. After her career ended in the early 1930s, she disappeared behind the camera and worked as a retoucher in the photography department of a movie studio. She continued to live with her parents in Hollywood for the rest of their lives.
Wally often asked his aunt, still a beautiful woman, why she didn’t return to the movies. Her automobile and toboggan accidents had left her with nagging pain that prohibited her from standing long periods of time. Wally’s father (Eve’s brother) kept a close eye on Elva over the years and made sure she had everything she needed.
She lost her battle to Parkinson’s Disease in 1972. She was buried in Valhalla Cemetery in Burbank.
Through my long search for the whereabouts of Eve Southern, I felt a strange, rather spiritual, connection to her.
Feeling the need to tell her story, I began researching the lives of other silent film actresses who had perilous journeys through Hollywood. The idea for a new book was born. The book, Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels: The Lives, Careers, and Misfortunes of 16 Hard-luck Girls of the Silent Screen, was released in 2010 and was named one of the top 10 silent film books that year.
I dedicated Dangerous Curves to Roi Uselton and Eve Southern. My dedication read, “For Roi Uselton, who first introduced me to many of these hard-luck girls of the silent screen; for Eve Southern, who finally introduced herself and inspired me again.”
Thanks, you two!