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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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!

Mae Murray: The intriguing photos you won’t see in her biography

One of the best parts about Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips are the photographs that are intermingled throughout the book’s 392 pages.  My publisher, The University of Kentucky Press, was very generous with their allotment.  I started out with about 150 that I felt should be part of the final product.  We negotiated and settled on just under 100.  Just under a hundred images of Mae at her best (portraits, candids, production stills) and of her family and friends.

In this post I share some of the photos that didn’t make the book.  I think they are fascinating and interesting to anyone reading the her biography.  Special thanks goes to Eric T. Rebetti, a loyal Mae Murray collector, for his generosity in providing some of the images in this blog and for the book.

Here we go!

I originally had this one in mind for the cover. It’s one of my favorites.

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One of the earliest images I had of Mae. From a 1908 news clipping.

May Murray 1908

Mae and her first husband William Schwenker

Mae and her first husband William Schwenker

In the 1915 Ziegfeld Follies

In the 1915 Ziegfeld Follies

In costume for Sweet Kitty Bellairs

In costume for Sweet Kitty Bellairs

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Mae in The Dream Girl, her third film.

Fannie Ward, Blanche Sweet, and Mae Murray

Fannie Ward, Blanche Sweet, and Mae Murray

Mae Murray, Jack Pickford, and Vivian Martin

Mae Murray, Jack Pickford, and Vivian Martin

Mae Murray in one of her best roles: Mary McGuire in The Delicious Little Devil.

Mae Murray in one of her best roles: Mary McGuire in The Delicious Little Devil.

Mae's passport photo, 1920

Mae’s passport photo, 1920

In costume for a Halloween party at Hotel Des Artistes

In costume for a Halloween party at Hotel Des Artistes

In a scene from The Right to Love (1920).

In a scene from The Right to Love (1920).

Mae and Vincent Coleman clowning around on the set of Fascination.  The two actors switched roles. The story is in the book.

Mae and Vincent Coleman clowning around on the set of Fascination. The two actors switched roles one afternoon. The story is in the book.

Mae strikes a pose at the studio with one of her automobiles.

Mae strikes a pose at the studio with one of her automobiles.

From a color screen test.

From a color screen test.

The screen test can be found here.

Edsel Ford, president of Ford Motor Company, and wife Eleanor visit Mae on the set of Jazzmania (1923).

Edsel Ford, president of Ford Motor Company, and wife Eleanor visit Mae on the set of Jazzmania (1923).

Mae posing at the Broadway entrance to Grauman's Metropolitan Theatre in Los Angeles.

Mae posing at the Broadway entrance to Grauman’s Metropolitan Theatre in Los Angeles.

The day in July 1926 that Mae (L) injected herself into the crown prince and princess of Sweden's visit to MGM.  Mae and  Louis B. Mayer are shown on either side of the royals.

The day in July 1926 that Mae (L) injected herself into the crown prince and princess of Sweden’s visit to MGM. Mae and Louis B. Mayer are shown on either side of the royals. The episode is told in detail in Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips.

Mae fights for custody of her son (1940).

Mae fights for custody of her son (1940).

Mae is carried from her apartment after suffering a stroke in 1960. Hollywood thought it had lost its Girl withthe Bee-Stung Lips.

Mae is carried from her apartment after suffering a stroke in 1960. Hollywood thought it had lost its Girl withthe Bee-Stung Lips.

One of the final chapters in Mae's life came in 1964 when she got off a bus in St. Louis. She thought she had arrived in New York City. She is pictured in St. Louis with a representative from the Salvation Army.

One of the final chapters in Mae’s life came in 1964 when she got off a bus in St. Louis. She thought she had arrived in New York City. She is pictured in St. Louis with a representative from the Salvation Army.

Mae lands in Los Angeles after her sad adventure in St. Louis (1964).

Mae lands in Los Angeles after her sad adventure in St. Louis (1964).

Mae with paramour Guido Orlando in 1939.

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Mae Murray’s 1960 Radio Interview

As I celebrate the publication of my new book, Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips, I wanted to share with you an interview Mae Murray gave in 1960 as she celebrated the release of her first biography by Jane Ardmore, The Self-Enchanted.

The interview can be found on YouTube in three parts.  Follow the links below.  Enjoy!  It is great to hear her voice!

Mae Murray Radio Interview — 1960 (Part I)

Mae Murray Radio Interview — 1960 (Part II)

Mae Murray Radio Interview — 1960 (Part III)

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Michael G. Ankerich talks about Mae Murray and his upcoming biography

Lottie, my film buff friend who lives in Atlanta, interviewed me several years ago about Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels.  Last week, while I was working on the index for Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips, Lottie asked me whether she could read the proofs. I let her have a look. After reading through the text, she asked if she could have the first interview I gave about the book.  I said, “Okay.”  Here is some of our conversation.

Lottie: Why Mae Murray and what intrigued you about her?

Michael: Why not Mae Murray?  I couldn’t think of a better subject to explore and spend a couple of years with.  I think what intrigued me most was the span of her career. She worked in every phase of entertainment. She was on the stage as early as 1904; she was in the Follies of 1908 and 1909; she was there for the birth of cabarets and exhibition dancing; she worked again for Ziegfeld in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1915; she began huge star in silent films; she worked in vaudeville; she did radio and television.  What an amazing career this woman had, yet so much is unknown about her today.  There are many misconceptions about her career and her private life.

Mae’s reflection

Lottie: Why is that?

Michael: That’s the way Mae wanted it.  She was very clever about concealing the truth: the truth about such incidentals as her beginnings, immediate family, the details around the birth of her son. Early in my research, I came across a quote from a writer who had interviewed Mae in 1920. The writer, Delight Evans, began her story this way: “To begin with, everything, or nearly everything that has been written about her, is wrong.”  She was right.

On the set of Fashion Row.

Lottie: So, she was a challenge from the start?

Michael: From the very start.  When I set out to write this biography several years ago, I became a little queasy when fellow writers would say things like, “How you write a biography when no one knows when and where she was born?” Or, how can you complete her life story without talking with her son, who has refused to talk with the media about his mother?”  Those were valid questions that only made me more persistent in uncovering the facts.

Lottie: In the end, you were able, as I understand it, to locate those important documents in her life.

Michael: Yeah, I had the marriage certificate of her parents before I found Mae’s own birth certificate.  In time, I was able to examine the marriage certificates for all four of her marriages and death certificates of her immediate family.  These documents were critical in piecing together Mae’s path through history.

The ever mysterious Mae Murray

Lottie: From what I’ve read about Mae, she could have been born in Portsmouth, Virginia, New York, or Europe.

Michael: Yes, she said once she was even born on her father’s yacht as they sailed around the world. She said often that she was in a convent in Chicago.

A very young Mae Murray.

Lottie: Right, so how did you pinpoint where to look for her?

Michael: I dug down into the weeds and found a person I thought might be her nephew, Mae’s brother’s son.  I made contact and he verified that he was indeed Mae’s nephew.  He basically told me the story of the family and all the pieces of her early life fit together. Sadly, this nephew died about six months after we spoke. He was the closest member of her family left who knew the story.

Lottie: What about her son, Koran? Didn’t he know the story?

Michael:  Koran, or Daniel Cunning, as he is known today, knew nothing about his mother’s early life.  Mae never told him the circumstances around her own birth.  When I told Daniel about a first cousin, he had no idea he had one.

Lottie: So, in addition to silent film buffs, Mae’s son will also learn a lot from your book?

Michael: I think he will. Mae all but divorced herself from her immediate family when she was a teenager.  So don’t believe claims that she had a fairy tale upbringing.

Lottie: The early publicity says that Mae’s son has never spoken to the press.  How did you score the interview with him?

Michael:  By his own admission, he has not spoken to the press.  He has a dislike for the press that stems back to the early 1940s when he was thrust into the middle of the spotlight as a teenager. After living with a family who cared for him (following a double mastoid operation), Mae decided she wanted her son back. She fought the Cunning family and Koran’s father, David Mdivani, in court for several years.

Lottie: Why did he talk with you?

Michael:  I believe I sent him a letter, which he didn’t answer.  I then made contact with his daughter, Cee Cee, who helped me make contact with her father.  I think Daniel came to realize that I wanted to write a biography about his mother that told the truth. It would not be a hatchet job, but it would also not be a whitewash.

The cold, rainy day that Mae’s granddaughter, Cee Cee, and I went looking for Mae’s relatives in a local cemetery.

Lottie: Given the research you’ve done, when and where was Mae Murray born and what type of childhood did she really have?

Michael:  Next question.  All that is in the book.

Mae and her first husband married in 1908. He didn’t make it to her selective memory.

Lottie: How does The Self-Enchanted, Mae’s biography, compare with your book, Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips?

Michael: I’m glad you said biography.  Many people make the mistake of saying that The Self-Enchanted was an autobiography.  It wasn’t. Jane Ardmore worked with Mae over a year in the late 1950s to bring her life into print. Ardmore did the best she could with a subject who remembered what she wanted to remember. Mae was terrified of dates, so she never wanted to talk about the Follies of 1908. There is also the story where Jane Ardmore asked Mae about her first husband, William Schwenker.  “Never heard of him,” she  replied. Mae had a very selective memory.

Mae Murray, more than simply a series of poses

Lottie: She’s also been written off as a flake, not much of an actress.

Michael: Nothing could be further from the truth.  I hope my book will encourage film buffs to view the films of Murray’s that are widely available.  I’m not only thinking about The Merry Widow, which was certainly her finest performance, but others, such as A Mormon Maid and The Delicious Little Devil.  A Mormon Maid is very much a drama and she carries the role of Dora brilliantly.  The Delicious Little Devilgives Mae a chance at comedy, and she runs with it!  She’s delightful in it. Her talkies, I admit, are rather hard to watch.  Here was a women pushing fifty and still wanting to play 20-year-old ingenues on the screen. She is over the top in Bachelor Apartment.

Mae and Bob Leonard (R) meet with writer Vicente Blasco Ibáñez on the roof of the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. The writer penned a screenplay for one of Mae’s films.

Lottie: Were her alleged fights with director Erich von Stroheim on the set of The Merry Widow for the sake of publicity?

Michael: They were not fights, they were battles. It was a very stressful and tumultuous set for most of the production. To his credit, von Stroheim was able to tame Mae in a way that he pulled from her the best performance of her career. At least from the films we can see and use to judge her work.  It is unfortunate that they never gave each other the credit they deserved, but Mae was one who could hold a grudge. There is a radio interview with Mae in 1960 that I was able to transcribe for the book.  Even at that late date, she was still boasting about “that man” and how she fought him tooth and nail.

Mae with Erich von Stroheim (L) and Benjamin Glazer. shortly before the filming of The Merry Widow began. Take a close look. They are smiling. Not for long!

Lottie: What impresses you about Mae Murray?

Michael: It has to be the commitment she had for her work.  No one worked harder at being a star than Mae Murray.  I’m not only talking about her work in front of the camera. While she was married to Robert Z. Leonard, she had her hands in everything. She produced some of her films; she wrote some of the scenarios; she would travel to New York to personally select gowns, furs, and negligees she would wear in her pictures. With Bob Leonard, she was there helping to sell her early pictures for Tiffany to distributors. She would confront critics if she didn’t like a review and she would blast any talk of censorship. There are many examples of her dedication to her work in the book. She was very serious about her profession.

Mae and Bob Leonard outside the Manhattan studio (1921).

Lottie: She was called temperamental.

Michael: And she was!  She could be impossible at times. When asked about it, she would insist that she was simply protecting what had been given to her: the chance to bring  joy and entertainment to her fans.

Mae and other major stars did a cameo in Married Flirts. (L-R), Norma Shearer, William Haines, Mae, Bob Leonard, May McAvoy, Conrad Nagel, Robert G. Vignola, Pauline Frederick, Harry Rapf, Hobart Henley, Mae Busch, John Gilbert, Mario Carillo, Aileen Pringle, Paul Nicholson, and Patterson Dial.

Lottie: What disappoints you about Mae Murray?

Michael: It would have to be the way she treated her family, especially her son, Koran. Without going into too much detail, because it’s thoroughly documented in the book, she withheld valuable information that every human being has the right to know. Mae went to her grave without ever telling her son when he was born or the circumstances around his birth.  It’s one thing to keep those details from the press, but it’s another when the information directly impacts someone you bring into the world. Knowing those details gives us context and a solid footing into our place in the human race. To have withheld that information, in my opinion, bordered on cruelty.

Mae adored her close-ups.

Lottie: Her son’s birth created a  lot of buzz around Hollywood.  What’s the real story?

Michael: We wouldn’t have time in this interview to cover it.  Those details are in the chapter “The Lion’s Roar, the Baby’s Cry.”

Mae and her prince, David Mdivani.

Lottie: If you could invite Mae to cocktails and spend some time with her, what would you ask her?

Michael: Those things she refused to discuss. I would want to know more about her early years.  Chances are, however, that I wouldn’t get very far.

Lottie: What would Mae think of your book?

Michael: I’ve asked that question with every line I’ve written in that book. I don’t think she would particularly like it.  I spent a lot time uncovering facts and details that she tried to cover up. She would sue someone at the drop of the hat, so we’d probably end up in court.  Not that there’s anything that would hold up in court, because I have the research and documents to back up what I’ve concluded.  Let me reinforce that this book is not a shredding of a silent film icon.  Last year, on a research trip to Los Angeles, I spent time at Mae’s grave at Valhalla Cemetery.  I sat there and had a conversation with her.  Well, it was pretty one sided.  I think I said something like, “Mae, I don’t think you’d like this book very much.  It will not always be flattering, but it will be fair.”

Mae Murray

Lottie:  Do you think you came close to understanding who Mae Murray was as a person?

Michael: That’s a question I didn’t expect, Lottie. I think I have come close to uncovering the real Mae Murray. Who knows?  How does a biographer ever capture something as complicated as the life of another human being. It seems an almost impossible feat.

Mae was not all seriousness. She could have some fun. One Sunday afternoon, on the set of Fascination, she and Vincent Coleman (L) switched roles. They filmed the scene. Sadly, it didn’t make it into the final film.

Lottie: Having read the proofs of Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips, I can say truthfully she had anything but a normal life.

Michael: Reminds me of the quote, “Everyone is normal, ’till you get to know them.”

Mae Murray: Through the Eyes of Artists

Artists and illustrators over the years have tried to capture the essence and beauty of silent film actress Mae Murray.  In anticipation of the release of my new book, Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips, in the fall, I wanted to share with you some of the best examples of Mae Murray in art. Enjoy!

By Bob Harman

Bob Harman‘s caricature of Mae Murray is one of my all-time favorites.  He was truly the Artist of the Stars.

A 1920s caricature.

As seen through the eyes of artist Nell Brinkley.

Another Nell Brinkley sketch.

Mae in silhouette in an ad for Sans Souci (mid-1910s).

By James Montgomery Flagg.

Advertisements for Mae’s films were some of the most interesting depictions of the actress.

A. L. Ewine’s 1924 drawings of Mae in Mademoiselle Midnight.

A 1927 sketch for the Los Angeles Times.

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Mae advertises Pepsodent (1924).

Sketch for one of Mae’s gowns in The Merry Widow.

At the height of the Murray-Negri feud (1927).

A drawing from a 1941 article relating to Mae’s struggles. The quote underneath reads, “Throughout all her difficulties Mae’s glamour was like an umbrella protecting her and helping her survive the deluges of woe through the years.

An artist envisions Mae sleeping homeless on a park bench in Central Park.

A 1946 illustration that advertised Mae’s lecture series.

Mae graced the covers of the most popular movie magazines.

August 1920

March 1923

November 1924