Hair Pins and Dead Ends, Ankerich’s new book, on the horizon

Relax, friends, I have not pulled a Howard Hughes or Doris Duke on you and slipped into seclusion on some exotic island in the Pacific. If I ever became a recluse, it would be in Manarola, Italy, but that’s another story.

Michael in Manarola

Michael in Manarola, 2013

I am hunkered down and working on my next book, Hair Pins and Dead Ends: The Perilous Journeys of 20 Actresses Through Early Hollywood. This book is a companion volume to Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels, which was released in 2010.

Hair Pins and Dead Ends tells the stories of 20 young women from all walks of life who, despite the odds against them, rose above thousands of other hopefuls to enjoy various level of success in films.

 

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Like Dangerous Curves, I selected the names for this book because I wanted to know more about their struggles in Hollywood. Some were well known and it was fairly easy to research their lives. Others existed only in fragments, a mention in Variety here, a photo in Motion Picture Classic there. Family members and public documents brought these women back to life.

I wrote extensively about Barbara La Marr  in Dangerous Curves, from her birth in 1896 to her death in 1926. She lived life so fast that I thought we should slow the action down and focus on her formative years, her life before  films.

barb03

In Hair Pins and Dead Ends, I piece together those years using La Marr’s own diary and the unpublished memoirs of Robert Carville, an early lover. I discovered that the “girl who was too beautiful” was really the girl who was too unhappy.

 

Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa was equally as mysterious on the silver sheet as she was on canvas. Like Barbara La Marr, this shadowy figure from silent films lived fast. Her publicity campaigns and brushes with the law made her private life more interesting than any films she made.

 

Gibson1

Margaret Gibson’s 1965 deathbed confession brought her name back to life. A neighbor who had been with Margaret as she lay dying recalls her confessing to the murder of director William Desmond Taylor. While playing virginal maidens on the screen, Margaret drifted into Hollywood’s underworld.

 

Marjorie Daw

Marjorie Daw

Both Marjorie Daw and Virginia Lee Corbin had mothers who brought their families to Hollywood in search of fame in the flickers. Marjorie’s mother died in 1917, leaving the 15-year-old  to raise her teenage brother.

 

 

Virginia Lee Corbin

Virginia Lee Corbin

By the time Virginia could crawl, her starstruck mother was pushing her into the spotlight. Virginia married young to escape her mother’s talons, but found it difficult to let go of her career.

 

Alice Lake

Alice Lake

 

Alice Lake, Helen Lee Worthing, and Lottie Pickford drowned their broken dreams of Hollywood in booze. Alice clung to a career long gone.

Helen Lee Worthing

Helen Lee Worthing

Helen rebounded from mental illness and suicide attempts, but her major sin in life was falling in love with the wrong man.

Lottie Pickford

Lottie Pickford

Lottie never gave a damn about much, preferring to party life away in the shadow of her sister, Mary, America’s Sweetheart.

 

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Sisters Katherine McDonald and Mary MacLaren were the Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine of silent films. They were as different as night and day. Early tension in their lives led to a rift that never healed. Katherine struggled with alcoholism.

Mary MacLaren

Mary MacLaren

Mary, referred to (by some) as a crazy cat lady, spent her last days in her dilapidated home in the heart of Hollywood.

 

Fontaine La Rue

Fontaine La Rue

After a tragedy in their native land, Fontaine La Rue and her mother came to the United States. Fontaine soon married and became the mother of three children. Defying the odds against her, she found her place in the motion picture industry as a comedienne and vamp. I devoted a post to Fontaine when I was searching for her story.  I knew bits and pieces, but lacked the critical piece needed to put her life together.  Her family got in touch and filled me in. Her remarkable story is ready to be told.

 

Belle Bennett

Belle Bennett

Belle Bennett became a teenage mother while appearing in her family’s traveling circus. Once in Hollywood, she denied her motherhood, passing her son off as her brother. Ironically, an accident took the boy’s life, just as Belle was preparing for the mother-of-all roles in Stella Dallas (1925). Belle was stricken with cancer and died at the dawn of talkies.

 

Edwina Booth

Edwina Booth

While Edwina Booth survived the mysterious illness she contracted in the wilds of Africa while on location for Trader Horn, the beautiful blonde was never the same. She disappeared from public view. For years, the world believed she had succumbed to her illness. Edwina, comfortable in her seclusion, never came forward to prove them wrong. Her family sheds light on her illness and later life.

 

Marie Walcamp

Marie Walcamp

Florence Deshon

Florence Deshon

 

Evelyn Nelson

Evelyn Nelson

Marie Walcamp, Florence Deshon, and Evelyn Nelson escaped illness, heartbreak, and disappointment by bringing down the curtain on their own lives. Suicide, it seemed, was the only way to set themselves free.

 

Jetta Goudal

Jetta Goudal

Valeska Surrat

Valeska Suratt

Jetta Goudal and Valeska Suratt committed professional suicide through out-of-control temperament and typecasting.

 

Peggy Shannon

Peggy Shannon

Peggy Shannon came to Hollywood as a successor to Clara Bow, The It Girl, who had broken down from too much “It.” In time, Peggy lost her own way. Hollywood was particularly cruel to this former showgirl and helped her realize that, while she might have been a replacement for Clara, she was a poor imitation.

 

Lolita Lee

Lolita Lee

Lolita Lee, a struggling dancer and movie extra, was hired to replace Barbara La Marr in the film Barbara was making when she finally burned out. Being an imitation of or replacement for anyone never guaranteed success. Lolita soon vanished.

Look for further information about the release of Hair Pins and Dead Ends.

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Mary MacLaren’s Twisted Heart

By Michael G. Ankerich

For several weeks, I’ve been trying to twist my mind around The Twisted Heart, a novel by silent film actress Mary MacLaren. Mary is one of the actresses I am including in my new book, Hairpins and Dead Ends: The Perilous Journeys of 20 Actresses Through Early Hollywood.

Mary MacLaren at the height of her film career.

As part of my research, I felt compelled to pick up a copy of The Twisted Heart. Picking up a copy in not quite how I’d put it, as the book had been published in 1952 and has been out of print for decades.

Mary MacLaren (L) and Tallulah Bankhead exchange books.

Unable to find a copy on my recent journey to Hollywood, I searched the net and found a copy in an online bookshop.

The Twisted Heart’s cover.

I could hardly wait to settle into Mary’s story about a woman, Barbara Moray, who finds love after the death of her husband and child.

Advance publicity hinted that Babs’ love affair was a shocker. The subtitle, The Revealing Story of a Strange Love, gave little away. The back jacket text rambled on about Babs finding all she wanted in Dee Richards: good looks, magnetic personality, lover of the outdoors.

After jumping between the covers of the book, we soon share Babs’ concerns as she discovers Dee’s lack of expertise under the sheets. She’s further rattled by his flirtations with everything on two legs.

Babs’ dilemma, Dee Richards, referred to as a “halfman”, isn’t all she thought she was getting in a companion. The man she’s given her heart to turns out to be homosexual. Not a topic of discussion in the days when father knew best and we loved Lucy.

MacLaren’s heroine tells her story in first person, and so, we follow her torment for over 200 hundred pages as if she were spilling her guts while sitting at our dining room table or swinging on the front porch.

Dee Richards, the man of her dreams, turns out to be the man of her obsession. She’s eager to test their budding relationship by taking a trip together. In an intimate moment, Dee confesses that an accident has robbed him of his ability to adequately satisfy her smoldering needs.

Babs goes blindly forward, checking on Dee’s every move, begging him not to leave her, then pining for him when he’s gone. She catches him exchanging odd glances with, what seems to be, every man he encounters, whether single or in the company of their wives.

We begin to wonder if poor Babs is simply imagining it all. Maybe she’s paranoid, or just plain crazy. The thought crosses Dee’s mind. As a deflection, he accuses Babs of being mentally imbalanced. “Either you’re crazy, or I am,” Babs counters. “But I have cause.  Look what I’ve got in life’s lottery.”

It isn’t until page 80 that Babs works up the courage to confront her man. “You’re a queer, aren’t you?” Dee slaps her; she hits back.  All she needs is Dee’s denial for her to reconnect her blinders and secure her rose-colored glasses.

To prove his devotion to her, Dee takes Babs on a road trip to the High Sierras, where they, alone in nature, can kindle their passion in the warm glow of a campfire.

Babs, almost wild-eyed with lust, comes close to forgetting her suspicions. A few days into the trip, however, Dee and Babs are fishing when, supposedly by chance, they run into one of Dee’s male friends. Babs is all eyes and ears. To hear her tell it, Dee falls into a trance as he and Tommy lock eyes. Then, Dee “obeys a given signal and follows him to the road.”

“My heart sank,” Babs laments. “Oh, God! I thought. I can’t go through this agony again. I waited with pounding heart and I saw them go up the hill and disappear from sight.”

Poor Babs. She does go through the agony again — and again. Finally, she sees a psychologist, who advises her to release Dee from her obsession and find herself a “normal man.”

Babs is inquisitive. “On what grounds do you psychologists condemn homosexuality?” she asks.

“We condemn it because it has no survival values,” he says, “because of its uselessness, its utter unproductiveness. Of what good are a lot of keys without locks? It is the fitting of the keys into the locks which opens the door to life . . . which makes both the key and the lock functional.”

The professional assures Babs she will not be able to “solve the problem of homosexuality in its entirety.”

“I simply wish to solve my problem with one homosexual man,” she replies.

Her agony continues to the final pages. She loves Dee; she hates Dee. She can’t live with him and her suspicions; she can’t live without him.

Babs finally gets some relief when an old flame reconnects with news that he is being released from the Army and is headed her way with romance on his mind. (Let’s hope that he, too, was not working out his sexuality at her expense.)

What became of Dee?  MacLaren makes sure that Babs’ tormentor suffers for his “sins”. Dee is found sprawled, naked and mutilated, across the bed of a hotel room in a sleazy auto court.  Babs was not surprised. “I sensed the end would be something like this.”

So, the loose ends are tied up; the story is finished; the bad guy gets what is coming to him. Isn’t that how most stories ended in the day?

While The Twisted Heart shed light on homosexuality in the mainstream in a time when the subject was taboo, the book did nothing to widen the narrow understanding and acceptance of gay men in the early 1950s. MacLaren’s timing could not have been more perfect. Her book was released during the national hysteria spurred on by the shameful McCarthy witch hunt into Communist sympathizers.  Gay men, too, were demonized, and became yet another part of society to be investigated, ostracized, and marginalized.

The obvious question I had, after reading the book, is where is Mary MacLaren in this story? Is it purely fiction or was she working out part of her own story, grinding her own ax? There are many parallels between MacLaren and Babs Moray. Both shared a love for animals; both married men with military careers; both ran boarding houses.

Mary MacLaren’s bio on the back cover of The Twisted Heart.

MacLaren’s niece, the daughter of silent film actress Katherine MacDonald, had little light to shed on her aunt’s story. While she remembers reading The Twisted Heart years before and recalling that it was quite controversial when it was released, she never heard, through family history, that any of Mary’s husbands were gay. There was no talk, either, of Mary being a lesbian.

Mary MacLaren’s work of fiction is only a tiny piece of her story. While reading it was an important part of my research for Hairpins and Dead Ends, the true and tragic story of Mary MacLaren’s own life and career makes The Twisted Heart seem like a tame story from The Reader’s Digest.

Truth, with all its guaranteed twists and turns, is, my friends, stranger than fiction!