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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Remembering Valentino, making new friends

The highlight of my recent Hollywood adventure had to be the annual Valentino Memorial Service, an event that pays tribute to the life of Rudolph Valentino on the anniversary of his death,  August 23, 1926.  Not only was I there this year, I also had the honor of speaking about the friendship of Valentino and Mae Murray, who is the subject of my most recent book.

I had a reserved seat right up front. Incidentally, Valentino's "autograph" was made by a stamp that once belong to Valentino. He used it to stamp photographs. It is now in Tracy Terhune's awesome collection.

I had a reserved seat right up front. Incidentally, Valentino’s “autograph” was made by a stamp that once belong to Valentino himself. He used it to “autograph” photographs. It is now in Tracy Terhune’s awesome collection.

On my first trip to Hollywood way back in 1986, the first thing I had to see was not Universal Studios, the footprints in the cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, or even the Hollywood Sign. It was the tomb of Rudolph Valentino.  Since then, no trip to Hollywood has been complete until I have visited Hollywood Memorial Cemetery, now Hollywood Forever.

In a lot of ways, the event was like a reunion. I met many friends that I had only corresponded with through Facebook and email. I also made scores of new buddies.

Chris Cipollini took this Polaroid photo during the service.  The more I look at it, the more I think Chris captured a ghost or two

Chris Cipollini took this Polaroid photo during the service. The more I look at it, the more I think Chris captured a ghost or two

I enjoyed meeting and talking with actor Christopher Riordan, who is just as handsome and charming today as he was in television and films going back to the 1950s. He’s still active today in television and is working on his memoirs. 

Christopher and Michael after the service

Christopher and Michael after the service

Christopher in a GQ layout

Christopher in a GQ layout

Sharon Evans and Rick Rogers sang Sheik of Araby

Sharon Evans and Rick Rogers sang Sheik of Araby

Chris Cipollini read his own piety

Chris Cipollini read his own piety

Michael Espinoza and Bracha Loren brought the house down with their Argentine Tango

Michael Espinoza and Bracha Loren brought the house down with their Argentine Tango

For those of you who didn’t make the service this year, I am providing a transcript of my remarks (in italics).  I intermingled a number of readings from Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips.

For those who didn’t get to the service this year, mark your calendar for next year! It’s a must!

The program

The program

I bring you greetings from all the Valentino fans in Georgia. It is an honor for me to be with you.

I’ve been coming to LA for almost 30 years doing research and interviews for my books. On each of these trips, I’ve visited Valentino’s crypt. Sometimes twice or more in one visit. So I have lost count of the number of times I have been here.

My very first visit to Valentino's tomb. This was the trip that I interviewed Dorothy Revier. But first, I had to see Rudy's tomb.

My very first visit to Valentino’s tomb. This was the trip that I interviewed Dorothy Revier. But, first, I had to see Rudy’s tomb.

Another visit from several years ago

Another visit from several years ago

Today is different, of course. It’s usually just me, Rudy, Barbara (La Marr), William Desmond Taylor, and a few others hanging and floating around.  I can usually hear my footsteps echoing down the corridor. Today, the room is full and I am a little nervous.

I want to talk briefly about Valentino’s friendship with Mae Murray, who is the subject of my new book.  

Their friendship was a unique one. It lasted from the day they met until his death in 1926. About 13 years.  Longer than any of Mae’s four marriages.

They met while they were both dancers in New York.

(From Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips)

“It was while out with Olive Thomas at the Knickerbocker one afternoon that a young Italian caught Mae’s eye. She pointed him out to Olive.  ‘Damn beautiful, isn’t he?’ Olive said.

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Valentino

 ‘He was a magnificently built man and his disposition was as delightful as his physique,’ Mae remembered. ‘Just to see his expressive hand lying on the back of a chair was art. Rudy and I had a unique understanding. We were attracted to each other from that first afternoon. Call it sex if you will, but more correctly, call it a dancing friendship, which is why our bond lasted.’

Their paths went in different directions when Mae came to California to make films in 1916.

Mae used to take credit for discovering Valentino for the movies when they worked together in The Delicious Little Devil and The Big Little Person. He was, however, already working in films when they became reacquainted.

She had always been attracted to Valentino. She especially liked the Latin lover type. She urged him, on the set of The Delicious Little Devil, to take charge of his magnetism. 

(From Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips)

‘Because magnetism is like a light,’ Mae told him. ‘Some people have a 60-watt bulb. Some have 150 watts. You have a full one hundred and fifty. Never doubt it.’

In the fall of 1924, two monumental events happened in Mae’s life. She was awarded the starring role in The Merry Widow and she divorced Robert Z. Leonard, her husband, director, and business partner.

After the filming wrapped on The Merry Widow in May 1925, Mae took a walk on the wild side. She was back and forth to Europe and was rather reckless in her personal life. Perhaps it was inevitable that her friendship with Valentino exploded into passion. The press hinted at marriage. Their responses are telling.

(From Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips)

‘Marry again? Absurd!’ he said. ‘While I am what you might call domesticated, I have observed that a man in my profession is happier when he is single. I have no present intention of marrying Miss Mae Murray or any other woman.’

Mae was a little more cryptic. ‘Everybody just loves Rudy.’ ‘Do you?’ a reporter asked. ‘Ah — you see — I think he’s wonderful. Of course, I have to admit that marriage is possible. Tomorrow, who knows what might happen. Rudolph and I are very old friends. We knew each other before we went on the screen–when we were both dancers.  Why we’re childhood friends. Sweethearts?  Well — ‘

Somewhere along the way, Mae, as her nephew so eloquently put it, ‘got knocked up’ and slipped away to Paris to give birth to a son. She returned alone to the States, an unwed mother, a major Hollywood star, a gullible, vulnerable woman, desperate for love and attention.

You know the story. Prince David Mdivani stepped in to fill the void — and his pockets. He became her fourth husband.

Rudy and Pola Negri (L and R) were best man and maid of honor at Mae's marriage to David Mdivani

Rudy and Pola Negri (L and R) were best man and maid of honor at Mae’s marriage to David Mdivani

The day she said, ‘I do,’ Valentino invited the bridal party to his Falcon Lair estate. The two rode together to the church. On the way, Rudy leaned over to Mae. ‘Do you really want to do this?’ he asked.

With Pola (Negri) as maid of honor and Rudy as best man, Mae became Hollywood royalty.

Only two months later, Hollywood lost its greatest lover. Mae said she had lost her soulmate. 

‘Rudy Valentino has become an immortal,’ she later told a radio interviewer. ‘While many didn’t see him or know him, they, through the years, have felt him because he was a true mystic. I don’t mean a sanctimonious mystic, but a force. With us, it was an even deeper quality because I think I have a little mysticism in me, too.

Rudolph Valentino and Mae Murray, fall of 1925.

Rudolph Valentino and Mae Murray, fall of 1925

Mae blamed her friend’s death on his professional ups and downs and his torrid personal life. ‘You can be hurt so deeply in life, she said in 1960. ‘He, like me, had a few enemies who wanted to destroy him, and he was super sensitive, just like John Gilbert. I thank God that what happened to me didn’t take my life. It was a hard fight, but it didn’t take my life.’

I believe Mae was at Valentino’s funeral, but I wonder whether she came here to mourn his loss over the years. She had connections here. Both her brothers are here, but she attended neither funeral.  That is, however, another story for another day.

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After the memorial, we all drove over the hill to Tracy’s home in North Hollywood. Here’s a peek into the afternoon festivities.

Caroline Rupprecht, Michael, and Rebecca Eash get acquainted while sitting on Valentino's sofa

Caroline Rupprecht, Michael, and Rebecca Eash get acquainted while sitting on Valentino’s sofa

Chris Cipollini poses in  Valentino's chair and with his shirt

Chris Cipollini poses in Valentino’s chair and with his shirt

Here I am with Jeremy Terhune, Tracy Terhune, and Frank Labrador

Here I am with Jeremy Terhune, Tracy Terhune, and Frank Labrador

If you haven’t already, check out Tracy’s book, Valentino Forever: The History of the Valentino Memorial Service.

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Tracy and everyone involved in this great event, thanks for a lovely time and for the fitting tribute to the life of Rudolph Valentino.

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Mae Murray Biographer, Michael G. Ankerich, to Speak at Valentino Memorial Service this Friday, August 23

I’m making my way cross country tomorrow morning.  Not the crack of dawn, friends, but the butt-crack of dawn.  I will arrive in LA in time to speak at the annual Valentino Memorial, set for Friday, August 23, at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, in Hollywood, at noon.

I will talk briefly about Rudy’s friendship with Mae Murray, a close relationship that lasted over 10 years.

Although I have been coming to Valentino’s crypt for almost 30 years, this is my first memorial. Hope to see you there.

Rudolph Valentino and Mae Murray, fall of 1925.

Rudolph Valentino and Mae Murray, fall of 1925.

 

Mae Murray biographer to speak at Valentino Memorial, sign books at Book Soup

By Michael G. Ankerich

My friends in Los Angeles and surrounding environs, mark your calendars for these dates: Friday, August 23, and Saturday, August 24. I want to meet you!

While I am in LA doing research for my new book, Hairpins and Dead Ends: The Perilous Journeys of 20 Actresses Through Early Hollywood, I am making appearances at two events.

I am delighted to have been asked to speak at the annual Valentino Memorial, set for Friday, August 23, at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, in Hollywood. I will talk briefly about Rudy’s friendship with Mae Murray, a close relationship that lasted over 10 years.

Rudolph Valentino and Mae Murray, fall of 1925.

Rudolph Valentino and Mae Murray, fall of 1925.

In preparation for the release of my latest book, Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips, I posted an interview on YouTube that Mae did in 1960. In this segment, she talks at length about Rudy.  Check it out here!

I have visited Rudy’s crypt countless times over the decades, but this is my first time attending the annual memorial. I’m looking forward to being there.

The next day, Saturday, August 24, at 4 p.m., I am signing my Mae Murray biography, Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips, at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood.  I would love to meet you!

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Recap – 

  • Friday, August 23, 2013 – Valentino Memorial
  • Saturday, August 24, 2013, at 4 p.m. – Book signing at Book Soup

More details to come about these events!

Journeys in Classic Film reviews Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips

I am always elated and very appreciative when reviewers of my work take the time to ponder the message I am trying to get across in my writing. Journeys in Classic Film, in their review of my latest book, Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips, does just that.

For me, the greatest compliment a writer can receive is summed up in Kristen’s (the author’s) thoughts about my introduction. She writes, “The introduction by author Michael Ankerich is heartfelt, genuine, and is aware that by the end of his research he had to present a biography, warts and all.” 

Heartfelt, genuine, and objective!

I remember sitting at Mae’s gravesite during the writing of Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips and talking to her about the approach I was taking in telling her story. It would be neither a whitewash or a hatchet job.

“Mae, my story about your life won’t always be flattering, but it will be fair.”

Maybe I was talking to the grass and a bronze marker that afternoon, but it helped me clear the cobwebs and get on with telling the story.

Thanks, Kristen and Journeys in Classic Film.

Read Kristen’s review here.

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Interview with Mae Murray Biographer Michael G. Ankerich

It is always a please to talk with Immortal Ephemera and Cliff Aliperti.  He recently talked with me about Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips.  After you read the interview, check out this site.  It’s one of the best!

 Interview with Mae Murray biographer Michael G. Ankerich

 

Introduction: Meet Michael G. Ankerich 

Michael G AnkerichOver the past few years Michael G. Ankerich has become one of my favorite people in the community of film writers and historians. I first came into contact with Michael after posting a video review of hisDangerous Curves atop Hollywood HeelsOur first interview sprang from correspondence at that time. The last question I asked Michael was about what he was working on next. A biography of Mae Murray, he told me.

And now it’s here!

Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips was published late in 2012. Like Dangerous Curves it is both meticulously researched and opens up new territory via interviews with surviving family members of its subject. That’s all tied together by Michael’s engaging writing style making The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips not only informative but a darn good read. You’ll breeze through the first time but there’s plenty to send you back for a more careful second reading.

Mae Murray circa 1917 Kromo Gravure Trading CardThe hardcover volume from the University Press of Kentucky numbers 376 pages plus a foreward by Kevin Brownlow. It includes several rare photographs and reproductions of Mae Murray collectibles.

Michael G. Ankerich has previously publishedtwo volumes comprised of his interviews with silent and early talkie stars, Broken Silence: Conversations with 23 Silent Film Stars andThe Sound of Silence: Conversations with 16 Film and Stage Personalities. Those two books were originally published in the 1990s and most of the subjects have since passed away.

In many cases Michael provides the only written record about these stars. The press relied upon his work in The Sound of Silence when Barbara Kent died in 2011.

Michael also co-authored Joyce Compton’s memoirs, The Real Joyce Compton: Behind the Dumb Blonde Movie Image, and prior to his Mae Murray biography wrote the aforementioned Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels, a collection of biographies covering “The Lives, Careers and Misfortunes of 14 Hard-Luck Girls of the Silent Screen.”

Mae Murray 1923 Neilsons Trading CardLike the Mae Murray book Michael did not have access to the subjects covered inside Dangerous Curves. The 14 pieces within are very similar in style to the new Mae Murray biography, just shorter. If you’ve enjoyed one I highly recommend the other, though all of Michael’s books come with my highest recommendation.

You’ll find more information about Michael G. Ankerich on his website plus I also suggest visiting his blog,Close-ups and Long Shots. Michael regularly blogs about early and obscure film stars from that space where he posts original research and incredible photos.

Connect directly with Michael through his Facebook Page.

And now, on to the questions.

Question: Your previous books include three volumes of shorter biographies and interviews plus the longer Joyce Compton book. Compton was somebody you had access to prior to her death in 1997 which makes Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips something a little different for you.

How challenging was it to tackle a subject like Mae Murray, who’s been gone so long, in an expanded book format?

Michael G. Ankerich: The Mae Murray bio was much different from the Joyce Compton book. I worked with Joyce on The Real Joyce Compton: Behind the Blonde Movie Image. It was written as a memoir, whereas the Mae Murray book is a biography.

Tackling Mae Murray as a biographical subject was not as challenging as it might seem. She had a long life, and she received a lot of press in her day. The challenge came from uncovering parts of her life that she concealed and never wanted brought to light.

Mae Murray 1920s era 5x7 Fan Photo

Question: At what point did you decide Mae Murray needed her own book? Were you in contact with Mae’s son, Daniel Michael Cunning, before that point or did you seek him out after making the decision?

Michael G. Ankerich: I made the decision to do a full-length book on Mae after making contact with and getting cooperation from her nephew, the son of Mae’s brother, William. I can’t over emphasize the importance of his contribution. He was able to put together the period in her life that had always been shrouded in mystery: her birth, family, and childhood.

I had lots of clues, but Bob (her nephew) provided details that completed the picture. From there, I was able to secure the birth certificates for Mae and her brothers, as well as the death certificate for her father.

Bob provided the background for Mae’s immediate family that Mae’s own son, Koran (Daniel), didn’t know. Daniel had no idea that his mother had brothers until my interview with him. Mae gave him no information about her life.

Mae Murray 1925 BAT Tobacco CardQuestion: Was it very difficult to gain Daniel Michael Cunning’s participation?

Michael G. Ankerich: Yes, it was rather difficult to pin down Mae’s son to an interview about his mother.

I had been interested in his experiences for a number of years and had written him out of curiosity. My letters had gone unanswered. When I decided to write a full-length biography, I reached out to one of Daniel’s daughters, who put me in touch with her father and urged him, I think, to answer my inquiries.

His reluctance goes back 70 years to the early 1940s when he was thrust into the media spotlight and put in the middle of a custody dispute between his mother, father, and the family caring for him.

Not surprising, since those difficult days, Daniel has harbored a dislike for the press.

Question: Which part of Mae Murray’s career wound up most fascinating to you in the end? Her early stage career, her time as a huge film star, or post-movie fame and fizzle?

Michael G. Ankerich: The period from about 1925 to 1928 was a roller coaster ride for Mae.

She was at the top of her ride in 1925 with the success of The Merry Widow, but soon found herself in a free fall professionally. She divorced Robert Z. Leonard, gave birth to her son in Paris, found herself a prince, signed and cancelled a contract with Germany’s UFA studios, left and returned to M-G-M, and started a vaudeville act.

I suppose my favorite period to research was from the 1940s to her death in 1965. There were people still alive who remembered her and were able to help me bring her later life into perspective.

Question: Were you able to view all of Mae Murray’s surviving films and did you have a favorite of the bunch?

Michael G. Ankerich: I viewed every available Mae Murray film I could set my eyes on. A Mormon MaidThe Delicious Little Devil, and The Merry Widow were my favorites because they gave Mae a chance to show the spectrum of her talent: drama, comedy, and dance.

Fortunately, more and more of her films are being discovered.

John Gilbert and Mae Murray in The Merry Widow

Mae Murray and John Gilbert in The Merry Widow (1925), from Photoplay, July 1925.

Question: Did Mae’s most famous hit, The Merry Widow, provide any special inspiration while you worked?

Michael G. Ankerich: Mae’s performance in The Merry Widow is stunning, and viewing the film while researching the development of the scenario and the battles fought on the set was particularly helpful.

Of course, it’s Mae at her best: those glorious close ups, her furs and negligees, and the chemistry she obviously had with John Gilbert.

Question: For those who only know the Mae Murray legend, typically beginning and ending with those Bee-Stung Lips, can you give a better idea of just how big a star she was during her peak years?

Mae Murray 1920s Motion Picture Magazine Paper Premium Photo

Michael G. Ankerich: It’s rather tricky to gauge someone’s star power, not having been among the movie-going audience in the 1920s. How does one define stardom?

I suppose we could look at her weekly salary of $7,500 to get a clue. Also, her image was used on collective spoons and hand mirrors and to advertise products that appealed to her fans.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of her popularity was her box office appeal. Her films consistently made money, lots of money, for the studio.

Mae Murray 1910s Kinema Theater Advertising CardQuestion: Mae Murray can be seen in a few talkies but her final films were released in 1931. Despite Louis B. Mayer’s interference do you believe Mae Murray could have overcome her own ego and continued a film career in supporting and character roles over the next decade or so?

Michael G. Ankerich: I can see no reason why Mae could not have continued in character roles for the next decade or so. She had the offers, but she wouldn’t allow herself to mature before the movie camera and her fans. The offers to play mothers and matrons were considered insults. Mae certainly could have made life easier for herself had she had someone in her life like another Robert Z. Leonard to keep her grounded. She didn’t. It was easier to sleep on park benches than to play a woman of a certain age on the big screen.

Question: Now that your work is done do you come away liking Mae Murray more or less than you had when you began?

Michael G. Ankerich: It is impossible to live with a personality like Mae Murray for two or more years and come away disliking her or wishing I had never heard her name. It is also impossible to fully know another person’s motivations, insecurities, and those other interesting traits that make us human.

I will say that I came away thoroughly disappointed, even angry, at the way Mae withheld information that every child has a God-given right to know as a member of the human race: parentage, birth date and birth place.

It’s one thing to disown and deny siblings, but it’s another thing to bring another human being into the world and provide them with so little information about their identity.

Mae Murray July 1916 Photoplay

Mae Murray dances in Photoplay, July 1916

Question: What’s next?

Michael G. Ankerich: Several ideas are materializing.

I am working on Hairpins and Dead Ends: the Perilous Journeys of 20 Actresses Through Early Hollywood, a companion volume to Dangerous Curves.

I am revisiting the truly sad story of Barbara La Marr, focusing on her childhood, family, and early professional years. Those early years set the stage for what became the downward spiral that eventually took her life.

As with Dangerous Curves, I am attempting to make contact with relatives and friends of my subjects to get their perspectives and gather some of their family photos and stories.

Barbara La Marry 1920s Cerveza Polar Cuban Premium

Barbara La Marr pictured on a 1920s era Cuban beer premium issued issued by Compania Cervecera Internacional, S.A. with a product called Cerveza Polar (Clara Especial)

Question: Can you talk about some of the other actresses you are profiling in Hairpins and Dead Ends?

Michael G. Ankerich: Let’s see, there’s Belle Bennett, Katherine MacDonald, Corliss Palmer, Mary Miles Minter, Jetta Goudal, Valeska Suratt, and a number of others.

While I selfishly selected actresses that I wanted to know more about, I think readers will also be drawn in and captivated by these dazzling personalities.

Thank you once more to Michael G. Ankerich.

You can check out an earlier interview with Michael about his Mae Murray biography at Film Threat and read a review of the book by Matthew Kennedy at the Bright Lights Film Journal.

Once more don’t forget to connect with Michael G. Ankerich at Facebook and be sure to read (I really mean subscribe!) to his blog.

And be sure to pick up Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips (and thanks for using my Amazon affiliate link to do so!).

Michael also pointed me to the following group of videos that he posted to YouTube. They capture a rare 1960 radio interview with Mae Murray.

 

 

Mae Murray — The Movie?

Could it be that Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips is headed for the big screen?

Maybe!  The publisher and I got our first nibble this morning. An independent filmmaker read the Murray bio and is interested in developing a screenplay and film about her life.  Certainly, nothing definite, but some movement forward, wouldn’t you say?

Perhaps it’s a bit too premature, but I can’t help but wonder, who would play Mae Murray in all her glory?

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Through the years, Mae had various ideas of her own.

In the 1940s, she was once in talks with Twentieth Century-Fox about Betty Grable bringing her story to a new generation. Those plans crumbled.

Betty Grable as Mae Murray?

Betty Grable as Mae Murray?

When The Self-Enchanted, Mae’s biography by Jane Ardmore was released in 1959,  Marilyn Monroe was Mae’s first choice. That didn’t happen, either! Neither did the book buy Mae and Ardmore castles in Spain, as Mae had predicted.

Marilyn Monroe as Mae Murray?

Marilyn Monroe as Mae Murray?

I’m a huge Monroe fan, but I never saw MM playing MM.  Perhaps Grable would have been more believable as Mae in the late 1940s, I don’t know.

Here it is 2013.  Who would play Mae Murray on the screen? Sharon Stone (too tall) and Drew Barrymore were my first thoughts.  Can’t you tell I’m out of touch with today’s female vamps and sirens?

So, Mae Murray fans, who would be your choice?

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Bright Lights Film Journal reviews Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips

Brights Lights Film Journal recently reviewed Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips.

Check it out here or below.  I love Matthew’s final summation of our Miss Murray. Read to the end.

 

By Matthew Kennedy

Not too many remember Mae Murray. Not a one of her films is on Netflix, and she’s scarcely available at Amazon. But she was big – very big — in her day. She spawned fashion crazes and erotic fantasies, perpetuating and defining a 1920s ideal of film womanhood. Michael G. Ankerich’s revealing new biography, Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips, covers all that and more with unflattering detail.
She began life as Marie Koenig in 1889. Raised in New York City tenement squalor, her father died of alcoholism when she was 11, and her mother worked as a housekeeper. Pretty Marie meanwhile dreamed of becoming a dancer. She was on Broadway by 17 as one of Vernon Castle’s bevy of chorus girls. From there she appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies, where she gained widespread attention for her buoyant, sexy charm. Then came a contract at Universal for her film debut in To Have and to Hold. Under director Robert Z. Leonard, she starred in eight films through their Tiffany Productions at MGM. With titles like Peacock Alley, Fascination, and Jazzmania, they featured Murray as actress-dancer exotically costumed in baroque ensembles of peacock feathers, beadings, and bull’s horns. Alas, the Tiffany features are either forgotten and/or lost to time and neglect. It’s a shame, for Leonard was as important to Murray as von Sternberg was to Dietrich. Her career pinnacle arrived in 1925 with the title role in The Merry Widow. Her spats with director Erich von Stroheim were legendary, but years later this was the one she fought to keep in the public eye.
Mae and her 'prince'Ankerich’s fastidious research leaves the conclusion that Murray was petty, vain, delusional, and perhaps even slow-witted. If there was a poor decision to be made, Mae made it. She married for money very young, and dumped the guy when he didn’t deliver the goods. Her second marriage fell apart so fast reporters barely knew it happened. Her third marriage, to her Tiffany partner Robert Z. Leonard, lasted as long as their professional union was solid. Her fourth collapsed when she learned her husband was a fortune hunter, not a Georgian prince as advertised.
She threw public tantrums, and found some kind of solace from marital and/or professional injustices by repeat litigation. The talkies did her no favors, her florid style clashing with the microphone. In 1931’s Bachelor Apartment, she is a bespangled over-emotive anachronism next to a lovely young Irene Dunne. On the advice of her “manager” and fourth husband, she walked out on Louis B. Mayer at MGM. That would kill anyone’s career, and in Murray’s case, it exiled her to vaudeville. It must have been a dispiriting spectacle to witness a former silent film star treading the boards when everyone knew both her and her stage genre had appointments with extinction.
A certain “she made this movie and Variety said that, then she made that movie andVariety said this” rhythm sets in to Ankerich’s prose, but with some irony, Murray’s story gains interest after her career hits the skids. In her decline we see a cavalcade of show business neuroses. She had a fear of aging, yet insisted on maintaining, not updating, her image. Her many court appearances look like surrogate film performances, with opportunities to face the flashbulbs in movie star glad rags. There was a custody battle between her and a husband, with their son adopted by a surgeon and his wife. Murray by then had lost most of her money and scruples, becoming ever more moody and reclusive.
Dancing Mae, long after her heydayAnkerich recounts scenes in Murray’s later life that ache with pathos. Murray had once mentored Loretta Young. Broke in the 1950s, Murray paid a visit to her old protégé, then a lavishly successful TV star. Murray needed money, and Young wrote a check. Living in the Motion Picture House in Woodland Hills, a confused Mae boarded a Greyhound bus for New York. She got off in St. Louis, believing she had arrived, and wandered the streets without an identity. The Salvation Army took her in and determined that the addled old woman with the corn-yellow hair once danced with Valentino and Gilbert. Right up to her death in 1965, she maintained a once a star, always a star attitude against an indifferent world.
Murray’s story fuels the idea that Hollywood is a place of monstrously large lives taking gruesome crash landing through bankruptcy, infidelity, addictions, and career failings. It’s not pretty, be it Murray or Judy Garland or Lindsay Lohan. In Murray’s case, she doesn’t appear to have ever been a warm or compassionate person, so while we may pity her, there’s no sense of great injustice. It’s a terrifying spectacle, really, all about a self-made woman who lived and died by her own delusions.
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Film Threat interviews Michael G. Ankerich

I am very pleased with the  interview that Phil Hall did with me for Film Threat in connection with Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips.  Thanks, Phil!

Check it out.

Michael G. Ankerich: The Lost World of Mae Murray

By Phil Hall

Say the name “Mae Murray” and most people would probably respond with confusion. But back in the late 1910s and 1920s, Mae Murray was among the world’s most recognized and beloved film performers. With her distinctive beauty – highlighted by her trademark “bee-sting” lipstick design – and extravagant acting style, Murray was an incandescent presence on the silent screen. Indeed, she lived a movie star life to its fullest, with a tumultuous off-screen existence that rivaled the flash and glamour of her roles.

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But, almost abruptly, it all fell apart. A disastrous decision to walk out on her MGM contract at the peak of her popularity all but killed her movie career, while an unwise marriage to a phony Georgian prince redirected her life into an endless skein of legal and financial problems. Ten years after her most famous performance in the title role of Erich von Stroheim’s 1925 epic “The Merry Widow,” Murray was broke and unemployable. Until her death in 1965, she struggled with mental health issues and relied on the kindness of show business friends to rescue her from destitution.

Film historian Michael G. Ankerich recalls the rise and fall of this long-forgotten icon in his new book “Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips” (published by University Press of Kentucky). Film Threat spoke with Ankerich about this once-luminous star and her unique place in movie history.

What inspired you to write a book about Mae Murray?
Mae Murray has intrigued me since my fascination began with silent films in the 1970s. To me, she was everything a star from the 1920s was supposed to be: Extravagant, gorgeous, impossibly egotistical, not quite human, but not quite God.

I had intended to devote a chapter to Mae in “Dangerous Curves Atop Hollywood Heels,” the book immediately preceding “Mae Murray.” After solving the mystery of her birth and getting cooperation from her son and nephew, I knew the time had come for a full-length biography and study of this icon of the 1920s.

Her life has everything that makes for a juicy novel. In fact, I have been told that Mae Murray reads like a novel. One doesn’t have to be a film fan to be pulled into her story. You only have to be open to a rollercoaster ride through an extraordinary life of someone who came from nothing, made something of herself on the stage and screen, and lost it all through poor choices and bad luck.

Mae’s was a story that waited for decades to be told. After writing her story, I’m still haunted by this one question: was she Norma Desmond, Baby Jane Hudson, or a combination of the two?

What films are considered to be Mae Murray’s finest? And are these films easily accessible for film lovers to view today?
In spite of the legendary battles she fought with director Erich von Stroheim on “The Merry Widow” set, that film turned out to be Mae’s finest screen performance. It is the most available of her surviving films.

Two other Mae Murray films, which are available, offer glimpses into her acting ability. “A Mormon Maid” gives her a chance to display her dramatic ability and “The Delicious Little Devil” shows her comedic side.

I would also recommend two of her talkies: “Bachelor Apartment” and “High Stakes.” They are critical viewing for anyone interested in seeing a star in twilight.

After reading countless reviews of her other 35-plus films, I sense that some of her best performances have disintegrated into dust or are waiting for rediscovery at the bottom of swimming pools or in private collections.

Why didn’t Mae Murray make a smooth transition from silent movies to sound films? And was there ever the possibility that she could have enjoyed a late-life comeback – if not in film, then maybe on stage, radio or TV?
A number of factors contributed to the collapse of Mae’s film career in the early 1930s. From a broad perspective, Mae had simply burned too many bridges to ever hope for a smooth transition.

Louis B. Mayer, her boss at MGM, wielded tremendous power. When she walked out of her contract after “The Merry Widow,” he vowed to make her professional life miserable. He stuck to his work, threatening anyone who hired her.

At the dawn of sound, Tiffany Productions and Mae joined forces to recreate some of her most successful silents. When the first of them, “Peacock Alley,” was released in 1929, Mayer approached the Tiffany brass and assured them their financial backing would dry up if they used Mae in future films.

Mae’s old friend, Lowell Sherman, defied Mayer’s threats and hired Mae for what turned out to be her final films: “Bachelor Apartment” and “High Stakes.” Mayer spewed threats at Sherman.  Who knows what happened behind the scenes, but Sherman, who vowed to stand behind Mae, never used her in another picture.

Mae’s frequent lawsuits, particularly the one against Tiffany after the studio voided her contract, did nothing to help her chances for a successful career in talkies.

There was nothing wrong with Mae’s voice. Critics pronounced hers a successful transition to talkies. Her voice was almost childlike, a bit like Billie Burke. I can see where she might have moved into quality character roles had she beat Mayer’s curse and allowed herself to play more mature roles: mothers, society matrons, for example. Unfortunately, she saw herself in the same roles she’d been playing for over 15 years: youthful chorus girls and Broadway ingénues. It became increasing hard for Mae, approaching fifty, to continue playing dancers in their twenties.

Later in life, Mae did television. Those were limited to guest appearances. When she was really down on her luck, she had friends who offered her stage work. She was insulted and threw up to any potential employer that she had once made $7,500 a week in films.

From what I can determine, pride and the inflated enchantment she had for herself convinced her that occasionally sleeping on park benches and depending on handouts from friends were superior to earning a modest living on a $350 a week job in summer stock.

A great deal of Mae Murray’s troubled life in the late 1930s and 1940s seems to mirror the emotionally frayed behavior of the Norma Desmond character in “Sunset Boulevard.” Did Billy Wilder model Norma Desmond on Mae Murray? And, for that matter, was she ever considered for a role in that film?
I could find no concrete verification that Wilder patterned Norma Desmond after Mae Murray. People who knew her noted the similarities.  David Hamilton, brother of actor George Hamilton, said that, while she might not have been the model for Norma Desmond, she could have been. She was someone, he said, who was transfixed in the 1920s.

Louise Brooks saw similarities between the two in the film’s scenes with Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and Cecil B. DeMille. George Hamilton, also interviewed for the book, said Desmond was hopelessly lost in the past. He felt that Mae might have been playing a role she felt obliged to play, but didn’t necessarily believe herself.

I could also find no reference that Mae was ever asked to play one of the “wax works” in Wilder’s film, nor could I tie Mae to the quote often attributed to her after she saw the film: “None of us floosies were ever that nuts.” She was very ladylike and never used that type of vocabulary.

What was the most surprising thing that you learned about Mae Murray in your research on her life?
In addition to my discovery of the facts surrounding her birth and her immediate family, I was surprised to learn that there was much more to Mae Murray than a series a poses and temperamental outbursts.

I was not expecting to discover an actress who took her work at the studio so seriously that she became involved in every aspect of the film.  She wrote scenarios, planned her wardrobe, dealt with financial backers, confronted critics when she felt they were wrong, and stood against censorship of any kind in the film industry.

Mae said that she never fought casually, but always for the good of the picture she was making. She fought to protect what she felt she had been given by the movie-going public, to whom she always felt indebted.