Gene Vazzana and the Courage of Pearl White

I doubt that even serial queen Pearl White would have had the courage to undertake the adventure that writer Gene Vazzana tackled.

For some mysterous reason, Gene has been on my mind these past several days. Gene, that swashbuckler of sorts who, despite the obstacles in front of him, devoted his life to research and dared to put together a necrology of silent film industry personnel.

Gene’s landmark book, Silent Film Necrology, now in its second printing by McFarland & Company, is one of those books that is rarely out of my reach. It never finds its place on my sagging bookshelves, but has made its home beside my computer.

Gene’s book rests on my desk within my reach. The beautiful actress in the photograph? I’m featuring her in an upcoming blog.

This type of book — Billy Doyle’s The Ultimate Directory of the Silent Screen Performers is also one of them — is my favorite. I can’t get enough of them.

When I first met Gene in the fall of 1991, he was in the middle of researching and organizing his masterpiece.

Gene Vazzana (L) and Michael G. Ankerich with Gene’s manuscript for Silent Film Necrology.

 

I was in New York City to interview Douglas Fairbanks Jr. for my first book, Broken Silence: Conversations with 23 Silent Film Stars. Gene insisted I spend several nights at his second floor apartment on 7th Avenue in Lower Manhattan.

Although he was not scheduled to come to his office that day, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. made a special effort to meet me one cold and rainy afternoon at his office in Manhattan. What a story, but for another time!

As grateful as I was, the air in Gene’s apartment, thick with smoke from the ever-present cigarette that dangled from his lips, was a bit much for my virgin lungs.  I made my way to the Edison Hotel the next day, but visited Gene again before I left town.

The first time I laid eyes on the necrology, the manuscript was in its baby stage: it was nothing more than several hundred typewritten pages with notes scribbled in the margins and strewn over his living room that served as his office. I helped him with a few entries, and he sent me home with a fresh copy of his work in progress. The Olive Borden entry was one I remembered polishing. I struck out all references to her being born Sybil Tinkle in Texas.  Gene’s is one of the few reference books to get poor Olive’s beginnings straightened out.

Over the next few years, Gene finished his manuscript and released the first edition in 1995 through McFarland. Between its covers were the entries of over 9,000 performers, directors, producers, and other filmmakers of the silent era.

Never viewing his work as really complete, Gene continued his work. With his telescope focused on a bygone era and his microscope  centered on the individuals who made silent films come to life, Gene expanded his manuscript to cover thousands more.

His final goal in life was seeing the second volume in print.  As he prepared the introduction to the new volume in October 2000, he realized his work was a lifelong pursuit. Quoting from Andrew Marvell’s poem, To His Coy Mistress, Gene wrote,

” But at my back I always hear

Times’s winged chariot hurrying near . . .”

Gene lost his battle with stomach cancer in January 2001. Later that year, his second edition was released. It boasted an extraordinary 18,500 entries.

A page from Silent Film Necrology.

Silent Film Necrology is not a book you’d want to sit and read cover to cover. You are not invited to sit and feast on the main course. Reading Gene’s book is more like the cocktail party, where you mingle around and sample the hors d’oeuvres.

“His greatest strength, Annette D’Agostino Lloyd wrote in her foreword to the book, “was his ability to unselfishly conduct research, nitpicking and scrutinizing each and every detail — Minutia should have been his middle name — all with an end towards a significant contribution to film scholarship. This Vazzana did, day in and day out.”

The back cover of Gene’s book.

Gene Vazzana was inspiring to this aspiring writer. I have never met anyone with more passion, drive, and vision for their work.  He was a role model for me.

There’s a nagging tug at my heart today, reminding me that I still miss my friend Gene, but his book is never far from my reach.

 

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3 thoughts on “Gene Vazzana and the Courage of Pearl White

  1. Hello Michael. Thanks for the veryinteresting updates. Could you please tell me if thereis any biographical data for Edna Marion/Marian (1906 – 1957) in the book you mention, Silent Film Necrology? Thank you. Best wishes, Peter Mikkelsen

  2. I miss Gene each and every day. He was one of my special circle of the most trusted friends. I can still hear his voice in my mind … I really miss him. And I have both editions of the Necrology – the first one autographed by him – and his brother gave me some of his stuff after he died. I gave him permission to purge my Moving Picture World Index for some Necrology entries. He wound up practically copying my entire book into his. I never minded. That’s how special he was to me.

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