Madge Bellamy was the interview that came to me.
I was writing a column for Classic Images magazine in 1989. She had just published her memoir, A Darling of the Twenties. Her publisher, Vestal Press, called to see whether I’d interested in interviewing Madge for my column.
Delighted? You bet I was. I had written Madge several times over the years, but my letters had gone unanswered. Suddenly, in the fall of 1989, Madge was ready to talk.
One of the great beauties of the silent film era was really an intellectual at heart. Like, me, she was also a deep thinker. The surface may look calm and steady, but underneath, a lot is going on.
We, Madge and I, talked for hours. When we concluded the interview, I felt a connection with her. There was an understanding that is still hard to explain. Madge said, “I think I’ve made a new friend.”
The interview came out in Classic Images in December and was well received. It made the cover that month. I was looking forward to reconnecting with Madge when I returned to LA in the spring. It wasn’t meant to be. Madge passed away January 24, 1990, only three months after our interview.
Today is the day Madge Bellamy was born, 114 years ago. She came into the world as Margaret Philpott in Hillsboro, Texas, on June 30, 1899.
In remembrance of this great beauty of the silent screen, I am sharing some of our interview in a miniseries. Her quotes are in italics.
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I discovered early on that Madge and I had a passion for writing.
I have been writing my life story since I was 22 or 23. I have a room full of stories that I have written but never sent in. I only wrote my book about eight years ago. I didn’t know whether to burn it up or who to give it to. It wasn’t until about seven months ago that I decided to give it to a publisher. I can hardly bear to read it now. I cry. It’s very depressing for me now. It was very difficult for me to open up my past. I’ve been writing it all in my mind for all these years. When I finally decided to write, it only took me six months. It’s kind of like a fever and it must come out. That’s the secret of why people write, I think. It gives them a high.
Madge settled on a title. A Darling of the Twenties. I have never read a more self-revealing book.
I was a little shocked about the book. I wrote it in what I call a spasm. When you’re really serious about being honest, it’s scary. I thought that people might hate me after it’s released. The title I used, A Darling of the Twenties, sounds vain, but at one time, Time magazine did a little story about me. They referred to me as Madge Bellamy, a darling of the Twenties.
Madge was not always a darling of the movies. She grew up in Texas.
I always said that the prettiest women were from Texas. Then, I’d say, but the prettiest guys are in Texas.”
Madge typically gave 1901 or later as her year of birth, but she decided to come clean late in life and admit to 1899.
In writing the story of my life, I saw it showed that I was lying, so I had to put those two years back on.
Madge grew up a fan of the movies. Her mother encouraged her.
My mother told me that I ought to go and see a motion picture, that there’s a little girl named Mary Pickford playing in a picture downtown. I didn’t care about it. She said it had horses in it. I said I’d go see it. I was crazy about horses. My grandmother was very religious and wouldn’t allow me to go to the movies. Unless it was Harry Carey. So I did see a few Westerns, but I was never enamored over pictures.
Madge grew up an only child. It would be easy to think this little beauty was spoiled. She wasn’t!
I think I the opposite of spoiled. I don’t remember my mother or father ever paying me a compliment. I don’t remember them ever saying they liked me in a picture. My father said, ‘You may be prettier than your mother when you’re made up, but without make up, she’s better looking.’
It was Madge’s idea to leave Texas when she was 17. She went to New York to try for the stage.
I wanted to run away and mother said, ‘Well, I’ll run with you. I took her with me. I was determined to go. We left my father behind, but she always sent for him. They never got along. I used to always beg them to get a divorce. I told them I would pay for it.
Madge’s parents were later devoted to one another.
She never left his bedside. He was bedridden for about four years. She warmed his bed before he’d get into it. She was the most devoted person you’ve ever heard of. Human beings are very strange. They’re two sided. I think everybody is part devil and part angel.
Daniel Frohman changed her name from Margaret Philpott to Madge Bellamy.
I didn’t really like it. I’ve never liked the word Madge.
When she was only 19, Madge played the lead role in Pollyanna in New York and in the touring show. The cast made life difficult for her. She suffered through the animosity.
I understood it even at that early age. What if you had been a stage star playing in this company with this little girl who’d never been on the stage before. She gets all the headlines in the paper saying how wonderful Madge Bellamy was in Pollyanna and they don’t mention you. Don’t you see that? It was not hatred of me. It was hatred of their fate.
Going on the road with the play was also taxing.
It was simply horrible. We did one-night stands and sometimes we played in barn-like places. Sometimes we’d have to wait for a train in the freezing rain.
Madge got to the point where she was convinced she’d made the wrong decision about leaving Texas for the so-called glamorous life of the theater.
I always say that people choose the wrong career. I think I should have been a librarian. I’m shy. I’ve always been scared to death before I faced an audience. The more scared I am, the more pert I become.
Ambition kept Madge grounded.
I wanted to succeed. I notice a lot of young people who don’t have a lot of dreams today. I have about five or six neighbors who come to see me and we’re friends. I never give them advice. You don’t know what advice to give to young people. I’m surprised at the smallness of their dreams. They don’t have big dreams. They don’t say, ‘I want to write a great book or I want to be a great violinist or I want to be a great dancer.’ No. They just say that maybe they’ll get a job at the fast food store.
I don’t know what’s the matter with the world, but I still have a great deal of hope for progress. Haven’t you? That’s my main religion, believing in the progress of mankind, that we will eventually become finished men and women. Mankind is not finished yet. We have not yet arrived at humanity.
Madge got off topic frequently. I let her talk, realizing she was enjoying the conversation and wasn’t limiting our time. I eventually returned the discussion to her career, to the time when she abandoned the stage for films. We follow Madge to Hollywood in the installment.