The world according to Fontaine La Rue and other upcoming Hollywood adventures

By Michael G. Ankerich

If you know me at all, you know that I have a thing for actress Fontaine La Rue. I can’t call her my favorite actress because I’ve never seen one of her films.  I like her as a personality and for so many other reasons.

Fontaine La Rue

Fontaine La Rue

When I began searching for her about two years ago, I had no idea she would be so hard to track down. I devoted a blog to her early last year, Where are you, Fontaine La Rue?, when my frustration over dead ends almost led me to the attic on a quest for my old Ouija board.

Just about the time I opened the door and was headed into the dark attic to connect with the supernatural, the most amazing thing happened. Fontaine’s family got in touch and told me all about their grandmother, their aunt, their great aunt. It turns out that Fontaine was even more interesting than I realized.

The mysterious Fontaine La Rue

The ever mysterious Fontaine La Rue

I’m dusting off my wings and revving my engines for a flight out to Hollywood this weekend. I will continue the research for my new book, Hairpins and Deadends: The Perilous Journeys of 20 Actresses Through Early Hollywood, and will type away on some chapters that are ready to be written.

My main focus is getting better acquainted with Fontaine. I’m not meeting her face-to-face or chatting with her over tea, of course, but I’m visiting her final resting spot (since 1964) at Calvary Cemetery and those places that were special to her: her mansion on North Van Ness Avenue in Hollywood and St. Vincent de Paul, the church where Fontaine exchanged wows with her first husband, the father of her three children.

I’m devoting a chapter to Fontaine’s life and film career in my new book — how could I not? — so I’m not telling everything I know. I can tell you that everything I thought I knew about her at first was wrong.  How did Matilda Fernandez, a young immigrant from Mexico, survive family tragedy in her native country to find her way into the studios of the 1910s as Dora Rogers (later Fontaine La Rue) and vamp her way into the hearts of movie fans over the world.  That’s the story I want to tell.

There’s more in store for me in Los Angeles than just Fontaine. I’m doing some hiking and biking. I’m pouring through the Los Angeles Examiner archives, visiting friends, and dining at my favorite Chinese and Italian restaurants. Did I also mention that I am filming a scene for a documentary about a silent film actress I’ve written about in the past? Yes, my first experience before the camera, but I can’t miss the opportunity to talk about an actress whose heartbreaking story still haunts me.  I’ll fill you in on the details when I can.

Oh! Here’s another plea.  If you are a relative of actresses Vivian Prescott, Lolita Lee, Evelyn Gibson, or Lila Chester, please let me hear from you.  I have lots of clues, but I’ve reached a dead end on whatever became of them.  I’m also deep into research about Estelle Mardo. I want to know where she went after she disappeared and was never heard from again. Members of her family, equally perplexed, would also like to know.

There’s a lot of mystery about the early days of the film industry and those actresses who made their livings before the camera. It’s frustrating to someone who is researching and writing a hundred years after the fact.

That’s the way it is, my friends, with hairpins and dead ends.

 

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You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave

I’ve been back from Los Angeles for over a month now, but I feel that part of me is still there. Like that line from Hotel California, “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”

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I first came to Los Angeles almost 30 years ago. In many ways, part of me never left.

Hollywood, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, the Valley, they have a certain pull on me. They’re places where you can just be. I’m beginning to think my most recent former life may have been 1920s Hollywood.  Don’t ask me who I was in that time.  I’m still figuring it out.

My most recent trip to LA was late August.  It revolved around a speaking engagement at the annual Rudolph Valentino Memorial Service, a book signing at Book Soup on Sunset, and research at the Academy Library (or “Aunt Maggie’s” as Eve Golden likes to call it).

I’m working on a companion volume to Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels. The working title is Hairpins and Dead Ends: The Perilous Journeys of 20 Actresses Through Early Hollywood.  The book should have been on the shelves by now, but I keep adding new actresses to the marquee.  Fontaine La Rue and Mona Lisa have joined the table of contents. Yes, Mona Lisa!

My Mona Lisa autographed portrait

My Mona Lisa autographed portrait

When flying west, I try to get a window seat on the plane so that I can be sure to see Los Angeles and Hollywood when they come into view.

Here’s my first view of the Los Angeles area in the mid-1980s.

The first time I set my eyes on Los Angeles

The first time I set my eyes on Los Angeles

Here is my view last month as I approached the city.

Los Angeles from the air, 2013

Los Angeles from the air, 2013I think I see the Hollywood Sign in the middle left of this one

I think I see the Hollywood Sign in the middle left of this one

On the day that I fly into the wild blue yonder, I try to take the earliest flight I can get. That way, I am in Los Angeles by 9:30 a.m. By the time I get my luggage and the car and head into Hollywood, it’s lunch time and I’m pumped.

I’ll never forget the day in the late 1980s when I landed at LAX and had to rush to get to the Days of Our Lives set at Sunset and Gower, known in the 1930s as the Gower Gulch. As a newspaper reporter, I had interviewed Drake Hogestyn, the actor who played Roman Brady, at a charity baseball game in South Carolina earlier that year. I was also his bowling partner in a celebrity tournament.

Not sure what Drake and I were discussing in this photo.  Probably our pitiful bowling score. We didn't win.

Not sure what Drake and I were discussing in this photo. Probably our pitiful bowling score. We didn’t win.

Drake invited Denise (she worked with me at the newspaper) and me to stop by the set and say hello on my next trip to Los Angeles.

Drake signed this photo for my mom

Drake signed this photo for my mom

After we put the top down on our Chrysler LaBaron, we headed into Hollywood. Our traveling companions dropped us off at Sunset and Gower and went to check into the hotel while we visited with Drake. It was a fun afternoon with Drake cutting up with the rest of the cast. By the time he was ready to leave the studio for the day and drive home to Malibu, it was getting dark.

He asked us how we planned to get to the hotel.  We were hoofing it!  Concerned for our safety and the distance to the hotel, Drake insisted on driving us to the Holiday Inn. Before we left the studio, he drew a map of Hollywood and the surrounding area.

Drake's map and photo as he signed photos for his fans

Drake’s map and photo as he signed photos for his fans

I crawled in the back of his jeep; Denise took the front. Drake was stopped by fans as we drove out of the parking garage.  He sat behind the wheel and signed autographs and talked to his fans.  He was an awesome gentleman.

Drake and Michael at the Holiday Inn in Hollywood

Drake and Michael at the Holiday Inn in Hollywood

But, I digress. That was a long time ago. I want to tell you about August 2013.

It has become a tradition for me to watch the sun go down behind the Hollywood Hills on the first night I’m in town.  I find a place to prop at the Griffith Park Observatory and watch the sky turn purple and orange as the sun sinks behind the hills.

Here’s how it looked last month.

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The nightlife comes to life

The nightlife comes to life

The Sign rests for the evening

The Sign rests for the evening

The day after I arrived in Los Angeles, I was guest speaker at the annual Valentino Memorial Service. Read about that here.

The next day, Chris and I planned to drive around Hollywood until my book signing that afternoon at Book Soup on Sunset Blvd. We spent the morning hiking the Hollyridge Trail.  The walk up was hotter than the hinges of hell. We came with no water.  What were we thinking?

Michael and Chris on the Hollyridge Trail

Michael and Chris on the Hollyridge Trail

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The Hollywood Sign from above

The Hollywood Sign from above

After I dragged my hot, tired, sweaty self to the top, I stood amazed at the view.  I thought about the 1920s and what it must have looked like in those days of early Hollywood.  Take a look at this comparison. Look closely and you can see Beachwood Drive in the photos (in the middle left third of both photos). That long straight road takes you into the Hollywood Hills and near the Hollyridge Trail.

The view from the Sign in 2013

The view from the Sign in 2013

The view in the 1920s

The view in the 1920s

Mack Sennett Beauties enjoying the view

Mack Sennett Beauties enjoying the view

Before going the book signing, Chris and I hydrated ourselves and stopped off in Beverly Hills at Church of the Good Shepherd.  The sacred place is a who’s who of Hollywood when it comes to weddings and funerals.  In June 1926, Mae Murray married her prince, David Mdivani. Rudolph Valentino and Pola Negri were best man and bride’s maid.  Two months later, Hollywood’s brightest stars crowded into the church to say goodbye to Valentino.

Approaching the church from the side. Chris swore this beam of light my camera picked up was a  welcoming sign

Approaching the church from the side. Chris swore this beam of light my camera picked up was a welcoming sign

 

I took a seat in a pew.  Chris  stretched out at the altar to soak in the spirit of peace

I took a seat in a pew. Chris stretched out at the altar to soak in the spirit of peace

 

The book signing at BookSoup was fun.  I wish I could say I got writer’s cramp from signing so many books, but I’d be lying to you.

Michael and Mae at BookSoup

Michael and Mae at BookSoup

Here I am at the booksigning with Chris and Miles Kreuger. Miles knew Mae and provided the anecdote that opened Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips.

Here I am at the booksigning with Chris and Miles Kreuger. Miles knew Mae and provided the anecdote that opened Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips.

The rest of the week went something like this.  I did research at the Academy Library during the day. The library is closed on Wednesday, so Richard and I hiked the Hollyridge Trail to the Hollywood Sign.  This time, we saw some shirtless gents scale the fence and to get a better look at the Sign.

Two teens stripped bare-chested and scaled the fence. They took photos right before they went over.

Two teens stripped bare-chested and scaled the fence. They took photos right before they went over.

IMG_0338I was content to pose once more with all of Hollywood at my back. I could see me scaling that fence. I’d catch my privates halfway through the jump and have to shriek for a helicopter to fly over and pull me out of the links.

Michael over Hollywood

Michael over Hollywood

In the afternoon, I drove to the beach to spend a few moments with Thelma Todd. There in the sand, with her beach house in sight, I thought of poor Thelma and how her untimely death in 1935 stills cries for justice.

Michael and Thelma's house

Michael and Thelma’s house

Thelma’s house back in the day.  It’s changed very little over the years.

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Thelma's place

A panoramic view with my lone shadow in the middle

Malibu and Duke’s was my next stop. I got a table by the sea and sipped chilled white wine.

An old haunt of mine

An old haunt of mine

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Late in the afternoon, during a tedious rush hour, I went down to Culver City and found the old entrance to MGM. I looked around and wonder whether this was the street that a naked Mae Murray ran across during her war with Erich von Stroheim on the set of The Merry Widow.

The gates to MGM

The gates to MGM

The gates in Mae Murray’s day.

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Before my time in Hollywood ran out, I drove south to Holy Cross Cemetery. I looked for Pola Negri in the Great Mausoleum. The building closed before I could find her. I walked and walked in the baking sun looking for Ramon Novarro. The markers all began to look alike. I never found him.  Next time!  With the help of the cemetery office, I found one actress I had come here to find: Fontaine La Rue. If you have followed this blog, you know about my frustrating quest to determine what ever happened to this siren of the screen.  I will tell you more about her in my new book.

 

Fontaine La Rue, an screen siren who has held my attention for a long time

Fontaine La Rue, a screen siren who has held my attention for years

Of course, I spent time with friends. I had dinner one evening with writer Jim Parish and Allan Taylor, the godson of Margaret Mitchell. They are my oldest Hollywood friends. We’ve been buddies since the 1980s. I had lunch with Susie and Bob Archer. She is the niece of actress Marjorie Daw, to whom I am devoting a chapter in my book.

The last evening, I told myself it had to be an early night. I had a 5:25 a.m. flight to Atlanta, which means the clock was set for 3:30. Wishful thinking.  I sat up until almost midnight with Andre Soares, the author of Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro. We finished our Thai dinner, then went around the corner for a milkshake.  When Andre and I get to talking about silent film stars, the night slips away.

It’s always sad when I pull away from the hotel, enter the freeway and head for the airport. Part of me stays behind.

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The line from the old Eagles song is true. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

Where are you, Fontaine La Rue?

I admit that I’m a bit obsessed with Fontaine La Rue, the actress who started out in films in the mid-teens as Dora Rogers (Rodgers), a comedienne with Mack Sennett.  In the late 1910s, she changed her name to Fontaine La Rue and moved from comedy to vamps, vixens, sirens, and sorceresses.

When I say obsessed, here’s the story.  I want to include her in the book I’m currently working on, Hairpins and Dead Ends: The Perilous Journeys of 20 Actresses Through Early Hollywood, a companion volume to my 2010 Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels.

Michael's Fontaine La Rue puzzle

Michael’s Fontaine La Rue puzzle

I have a folder full of pieces of the puzzle that made up Fontaine’s life, but I don’t have the missing pieces that complete the picture. She is one of those rare subjects for which I have solid information for the middle of her life.  However, I don’t know whatever became of her. I don’t know (for sure) when or where she died. I don’t even know where and when she was born.

Fontaine La Rue, where are you?

fontaine

The International Movie Database has dates for her birth and death. That’s all well and good, but lay down your cards. Show me the proof. As a meticulous researcher, I need to match those dates with birth certificates and death records.

I can find neither for this enchanting woman.

I have followed her rather successfully  through the decades. There she is in the 1920 U.S. Census  and numerous  Los Angeles city directories. She called herself married to one Louis La Rue, but records and other pieces of information show she was  living with a professor-turned-screen actor she’d been living with since the mid-1910s.

When she signed with Goldwyn in the early 1920s, she fills out a personnel profile, giving her parent’s names as Diego Monroy Bourbon Ferrar and Charlotte Bouchet. Her ambition in life is to educate her three children. Where did they come from?

She claimed decorating her home was her hobby, but her home life seemed a far cry from knitting afghans and hanging curtains. Somewhere in the ’20s, she was walking along her street in Hollywood when she was approached by a man dressed as a cop. He told her he was trying to arrest a man who was following her — that old story!! When she stepped into an orange grove with him, the man grabbed her around the neck and attempted to throw her to the ground.  The whistle she carried in her handbag saved the day — and her neck!

By the early 1930s, she was living with a real estate broker from Iowa. He later returned to Iowa and died there in the late 1930s. Dead end. No one in his family will talk with me.

After Fontaine La Rue faded from the silver sheets in the late 1920s, a notice appeared in Variety that one Ruth Madonna Antonelli was splitting from her husband.  Professionally, she was Fontaine La Rue, a dancer.  Several death and marriage certificates later, I concluded there had been two professionals by the name of Fontaine La Rue. As disappointed as it was, this Fontaine La Rue was NOT the one I was looking for.

I’ve traced Ms. Rodgers/La Rue to 1946.  After that, the trail goes cold. Dead end!

Fontaine as Dora Rogers

Fontaine as Dora Rogers

This old researcher believes there must be numerous dangerous curves in the life of this actress.  I want to know her story.

So far, I’m stumped! What do I do?

I’m almost to the point of contacting the spirits. I realize there are problems with that idea.  I can’t afford a psychic, I broke my crystal ball, I’m too chicken to have a seance, and my Ouija board is somewhere in the attic.

I also run the risk of getting dear Fontaine on the line and not being able to get rid of her. My life is too complex right now to have a spirit who played sorceresses and vixens hanging around the house and scaring my poodle puppies.

Finding Fontaine online and buried in a census report sounds like the way to go.  I’ll keep trying.