By Michael G. Ankerich
Jean Sothern was beyond pissed; she was fit to be tied. In the summer of 1921, the actress, no longer in films, was entertaining her fans in vaudeville houses around the country. Everywhere she went, they were the same questions. What is your connection to Beverly Chew, the Army captain, and his wife, the couple being investigated for forgery? Are you, as the headlines imply, married to Mr. Chew?
They were fair questions to ask. Beverly Chew and his wife were caught in the middle of an investigation that made national headlines for weeks. The worst part, Chew’s wife was identifying herself as film and stage actress Jean Sothern.
Here’s a sampling of the headlines:
Chew’s Wife an Actress
Jean Sothern is Identified as Wife of Chew
Mistaken Identity Figures in Chew Case
The 28-year-old actress who had worked hard to built a reputation and name for herself wanted to know what in the hell was going on.
“I am awfully mad,” she told the press at the time. “All my friends have been telephoning me and asking me if I am Captain Chew’s wife. My booking office called me up. Why, everybody knows that I have never been married. I never have been engaged and I never expect to be. I never heard of Captain Chew in my life. No person who ever saw me mistook me for another woman.”
During Chew’s court marshal on Governor’s Island in New York, Jean was eager to set the record straight. She showed scrapbooks of newspaper clippings and photographs from her films.
“I am the Jean Sothern who is the motion picture star. I am indignant that another woman should use my name for any purpose. This thing has gone far enough,” she told reporters.
Director Herbert Brenon testified that Jean had entered films when he hired her for a major role in The Two Orphans with Theda Bara and that she was not the wife of the accused.
When the waters cleared, Marjorie “Daisy” Brennan, whose father invented the bicycle carousel, was identified as the real Mrs. Beverly Chew. Taking the name Jean Sothern, Daisy apparently started in show business a decade before on the stage before making a few films in 1919 for Colorgraph Films in Arizona.
In July 1921, Chew was found guilty and sentenced to seven years — he served about a year and a half. Mrs. Chew was acquitted. In January 1924, she succumbed to the cancer she had fought for over three years. Variety reported her death under the name Jean Sothern. Further confusion!
The mistaken identity plagued the real Jean Sothern for the rest of her life. Many assumed the actress who had starred in about a dozen films for Fox, Imp, and Pathe had died in 1924. At least two film references, Who Was Who on Screen (Truitt) and Who’s Who in Hollywood (Ragan), give 1924 as the death year of the actress. As of December 2014, the web site International Movie Database states that Jean Sothern, known for A Mute Appeal (1917), The Mysteries of Myra (1916) and The Cloud (1917) died in 1924 and was the wife of Beverly Chew.
Perhaps Jean Sothern had the last laugh. She lived another 40 years.
Sadly, few have taken the time to explore and get to know the real Jean Sothern, dainty star of the silent screen. The time has come. Here’s her story.
Jean Sothern was born Grace R. Bomberger on December 5, 1893, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She was the only child born to William and Olivia (Eshleman) Bomberger.
By the time she was 15 and a sophomore in Coatesville High School, Grace was entertaining delighted audiences with her singing in neighboring towns. In 1909, the Philadelphia Inquirer lauded praise on the young entertainer, noting her “voice of great range and purity, besides which she plays both the piano and violin with considerable skill, and has exceptional ability as an elocutionist.”
Edwin Liebman, orchestra leader for Loew’s America in New York City, and his family took Grace under their wing. The Liebmans “adopted” Grace. In interviews about her life, she often referred to Edwin Liebman as her father.
For a short time, she used Esther Robinson as her professional name — Robinson was the maiden name of her father’s mother. Theatrical manager Arthur Blondell gave her the name Gene Southern, which she changed to Jean Sothern.
By 1914, she had developed a stage act for Loew’s circuit. A little over five feet tall, Grace was billed as the Little Dynamo of Personality.
A stroke of fortune came to Jean when director Herbert Brenon hired her to appear as the blind orphan with Theda Bara in The Two Orphans (1915) — later remade as Orphans of the Storm.
On the merits of that film, Jean was selected to play the title role in The Mysteries of Myra, a 17-chapter serial that tells the story of Myra Maynard, the daughter of an Occult leader, who is repeatedly hunted by her dead father’s devil-worshipping Order. (See the lost trailer for Mysteries of Myra.)
The authors of the series, Hereward Carrington and Charles Goddard, were said to have conducted a number of psychological tests on actresses testing for the part. They selected Jean because of her “extraordinary mental powers,” feeling that the leading lady “must be capable of portraying the emotions of one subject to the compelling influences of a superior will. She must have grace, poise and a personality which will actually reach out from the screen, take possession of the people and make them instinctively, irresistibly respond to each impulse and thrill with every emotion which the star experiences.”
Although the series was widely popular and made little Jean a star, she never wanted to make another serial. “I don’t like serials,” she said later. “There must be some sort of climax in each episode — a jump off the mountains or a fall into the river, and honest I had to be pushed off when I fell in the East River in one of the episodes.”
The actress stuck to feature films. In 1917, Jean contracted with Van Dyke Film Production Company. In rapid succession, she starred in Her Good Name, The Cloud, A Mother’s Ordeal (in the roles of the mother and daughter), A Mute Appeal, and Miss Deception, all 1917 releases. She made her final film in 1918, Peg o’ the Sea.
The actress devoted herself to the war effort. She sold war bonds from the Liberty Bond booth at Penn station in New York.
By the late 1910s, Jean Sothern had acquired a legion of fans, who were saddened to read in the magazines that she had married a U.S. Army officer and was living at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Jean was quick to deny the rumor. Little did she know, this was the first incidence of mistaken identity that would explode in the papers four years later.
With no film work in sight, Jean put together a vaudeville act and hit the road to meet her public. She was asked about her personal life and the decision she made to bob her flowing blonde locks.
“That was really ugly of me and you tell the other girls not to do it,” she told a reporter in 1919. “I had my curls in The Two Orphans and all the papers wrote afterwards of them being like Mary Pickford’s, as though nobody could have any curls but her. So one day I slipped away and cut mine off. My friends wouldn’t speak to me for two days. When I appeared at Birmingham, Alabama, seven girls bobbed their hair like mine, and then I was sorry. Mine have grown out now and I’m glad. I’ll never be so foolish again.”
An exhausted and travel weary Jean Sothern arrived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in April 1919, around 1 in the morning. The next day, a reporter questioned her about films and stage work. Did she have a preference?
Jean didn’t hesitate. She preferred films because she could live in her family home in New York, not in cold and drafty hotel rooms in unfamiliar cities. “I love to clean house, to sweep and to get in the dirt and scrub — but I can’t cook,” she revealed. “I hate to travel. I love a home, and do tell the girls for me, especially those who think it would be nice to be a movie actress, that really and truly the nicest thing girls can do, I believe, is to grow up and get married and have babies. I just know that movie life is hard and, in vaudeville, the most unpleasant part is the traveling.”
The most bizarre part of her travels came in 1921, less than a month before her name was linked with the other Jean Sothern and Captain Beverly Chew. When she arrived in New Orleans in May, Jean visited Matilda Levee in prison. Mrs. Levee was behind bars for murdering her husband, Fred Levee, the prominent New Orleans and Los Angeles attorney. Jean interviewed the woman and wrote a lengthy story about the case for the local newspaper.
With little problem, Jean weathered the debacle over being mistaken for the wife of Beverly Chew. By the time the obituary of Chew’s wife appeared in Variety, Jean was entertaining audiences with a new vaudeville act: Girls Will be Boys. The show promised a “bit of femininity with a masculine twist.”
Jean was a hit. One Oregon newspaper wrote in January 1924, “She is a true comedienne and even her eyes talk. She dons boy’s apparel and is a real boy, once as a swaggering, boastful sailor, once as a scared-to-death hayseed, and again as a dashing, man-about-town. The audience loved Jean’s honesty and gifts and her personality cut a deep dent.”
In 1930, Jean embarked on a new adventure: radio. Without revealing her true identity and vast experience in entertainment, she requested an audition with the Columbia Broadcasting network. She provided three or four versions of her act and spoke in some of the dialects she had perfected. The organization wisely grabbed her up.
Jean Sothern found her home in radio. She played the role of Edie Gray in the popular NBC serial Pepper Young’s Family.
She became an animal dialogue expert and provided Dutch, Irish, French, Southern dialects when needed. She was once referred to as the “most versatile actress in radio.” Although she is credited with playing the role of a waitress in Down the Wyoming Trail (1939), after watching the film, I question whether the actress is the Jean Sothern of the silent screen.
Jean eventually returned to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she died of throat cancer on April 14, 1964. She is buried at Octorana Church Cemetery in Parksburg, Pennsylvania.