Gene Vazzana and the Courage of Pearl White

I doubt that even serial queen Pearl White would have had the courage to undertake the adventure that writer Gene Vazzana tackled.

For some mysterous reason, Gene has been on my mind these past several days. Gene, that swashbuckler of sorts who, despite the obstacles in front of him, devoted his life to research and dared to put together a necrology of silent film industry personnel.

Gene’s landmark book, Silent Film Necrology, now in its second printing by McFarland & Company, is one of those books that is rarely out of my reach. It never finds its place on my sagging bookshelves, but has made its home beside my computer.

Gene’s book rests on my desk within my reach. The beautiful actress in the photograph? I’m featuring her in an upcoming blog.

This type of book — Billy Doyle’s The Ultimate Directory of the Silent Screen Performers is also one of them — is my favorite. I can’t get enough of them.

When I first met Gene in the fall of 1991, he was in the middle of researching and organizing his masterpiece.

Gene Vazzana (L) and Michael G. Ankerich with Gene’s manuscript for Silent Film Necrology.

 

I was in New York City to interview Douglas Fairbanks Jr. for my first book, Broken Silence: Conversations with 23 Silent Film Stars. Gene insisted I spend several nights at his second floor apartment on 7th Avenue in Lower Manhattan.

Although he was not scheduled to come to his office that day, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. made a special effort to meet me one cold and rainy afternoon at his office in Manhattan. What a story, but for another time!

As grateful as I was, the air in Gene’s apartment, thick with smoke from the ever-present cigarette that dangled from his lips, was a bit much for my virgin lungs.  I made my way to the Edison Hotel the next day, but visited Gene again before I left town.

The first time I laid eyes on the necrology, the manuscript was in its baby stage: it was nothing more than several hundred typewritten pages with notes scribbled in the margins and strewn over his living room that served as his office. I helped him with a few entries, and he sent me home with a fresh copy of his work in progress. The Olive Borden entry was one I remembered polishing. I struck out all references to her being born Sybil Tinkle in Texas.  Gene’s is one of the few reference books to get poor Olive’s beginnings straightened out.

Over the next few years, Gene finished his manuscript and released the first edition in 1995 through McFarland. Between its covers were the entries of over 9,000 performers, directors, producers, and other filmmakers of the silent era.

Never viewing his work as really complete, Gene continued his work. With his telescope focused on a bygone era and his microscope  centered on the individuals who made silent films come to life, Gene expanded his manuscript to cover thousands more.

His final goal in life was seeing the second volume in print.  As he prepared the introduction to the new volume in October 2000, he realized his work was a lifelong pursuit. Quoting from Andrew Marvell’s poem, To His Coy Mistress, Gene wrote,

” But at my back I always hear

Times’s winged chariot hurrying near . . .”

Gene lost his battle with stomach cancer in January 2001. Later that year, his second edition was released. It boasted an extraordinary 18,500 entries.

A page from Silent Film Necrology.

Silent Film Necrology is not a book you’d want to sit and read cover to cover. You are not invited to sit and feast on the main course. Reading Gene’s book is more like the cocktail party, where you mingle around and sample the hors d’oeuvres.

“His greatest strength, Annette D’Agostino Lloyd wrote in her foreword to the book, “was his ability to unselfishly conduct research, nitpicking and scrutinizing each and every detail — Minutia should have been his middle name — all with an end towards a significant contribution to film scholarship. This Vazzana did, day in and day out.”

The back cover of Gene’s book.

Gene Vazzana was inspiring to this aspiring writer. I have never met anyone with more passion, drive, and vision for their work.  He was a role model for me.

There’s a nagging tug at my heart today, reminding me that I still miss my friend Gene, but his book is never far from my reach.

 

Sybil Tinkle Found!

Excerpt from my previous post: Olive Borden: The Sybil Tinkle Connection

“In an interview from his home in Texas, a nephew of Sybil Tinkle said his aunt ran away from home in the early 1920s following a disastrous marriage and found her way to California, where she attempted to break into the movies. Once in Hollywood, she wrote notes and sent portraits but, after a while, the family lost touch with her–forever!  For some reason, unexplained by the nephew, the family believed Sybil Tinkle became Olive Borden.

In 1928, when Sybil’s brother, Joe Alton Tinkle, was killed in an accident, it was reported to the Texas press that the death revealed screen star Olive Borden’s true identity as that of a local girl, Sybil Tinkle. The family told reporters that “Miss Borden was notified of her brother’s death, but will not return to Texas for the funeral.”

♥ ♥ ♥

“So, Olive Borden and Sybil Tinkle were two different people from two totally different walks of life–will writers ever correct their errors? The resolution of one misunderstanding, however, leads to other questions.

How did the Tinkle family link their loved one to Olive Borden? Why was the mix-up reported in the press so widely in 1928 after the death of a Tinkle? Did Sybil write to the family that she was Olive Borden? Or, could she have been Olive’s stand-in or double for a time? Did Sybil, as the Tinkle family has suggested, take over and carry on Olive’s name in the 1930s, after Olive Borden, because of excessive drinking, could no longer function on the screen–how preposterous!

We know what happened to Olive Borden–she rests beside her mother at Forest Lawn in Glendale. But, whatever became of Sybil Tinkle? Hollywood can concoct some bizarre tales, but this mystery only proves one thing: truth IS stranger than fiction.”

To refresh your memory, reread that post!  https://michaelgankerich.wordpress.com/2011/11/30/olive-borden-the-sybil-tinkle-connection/

 

Whatever did become of Sybil Tinkle? The story can now be told.

A teenage Sybil Tinkle while still in Texas

On July 16, 1920, Sybil Tinkle, just 18 years old, married Herman Downs Clark, the brother of  Edward A. Clark, the famed Texas lawyer, banker, and diplomat.  The marriage fell apart, and as soon as she could, Sybil made her way to Hollywood, where she tried to break into the movies.

In June and July of 1926, it looked as though Sybil had potential. She had portraits made by Witzel and caught the attention of casting agents.

Sybil Tinkle in Hollywood

Variety reported in June 1926 that Sybil and Della Sawyer were appearing in A Good Citizen, to be directed by Robert Dunlap. The next month, Variety reported that Sybil had been selected as the feminine lead in Old Dad. Robert Dunlap was directing for Benhall Productions.  I could find no reference to these films ever being made in this period.

Several months later, Olive Borden hit the big time in John Ford’s 3 Bad Men. Sybil, unable to find work in films, got in on the action. In the San Augustine Tribune, an advertisement boasted that Sybil Tinkle had become a big star . . .  by becoming Olive Borden!

Olive Borden’s star continued to rise into the late 1920s. Nothing was heard of Sybil Tinkle until 1928, when her brother, Joe Alton, died in a car accident in Texas. Newspapers widely reported that the dead man was the brother of Olive Borden.  If she knew the story, this must have been very baffling to Olive and her mother, Sibbie.

The mention of Sybil Tinkle ended here, with the news of her brother’s death. Her trail disappeared into the pages of Hollywood history, only to reemerge when her name started showing up in film reference books as the real name of Olive Borden.

Her family had no clue what became of their loved one who had gone to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune. When the Tinkle family heard rumors that Sybil had died, one of her brothers came West to track down whatever clues he could find. Sybil’s nephew, who made the trip with his father, said they came home empty handed. They never found Sybil or learned what happened to her.

After I finished my Mae Murray biography and before I started researching the sequel to Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels, I gave Sybil Tinkle another glance.  Seeing her name as Olive’s birth name in film references, particularly Katz (The Film Encyclopedia), continued to nag me.  Plus, I love a good mystery!

The mystery is solved!

I located Sybil Tinkle in the 1928 Los Angeles Marriage Index.  She married screenwriter Clarence J. Marks the day after Christmas in 1928.

Sybil Tinkle in the Los Angeles Marriage Index for 1928.

Assuming she dropped her hopes for fame and settled into married life, I looked for the Marks family in the 1930 Census.  Clarence Marks was listed as a widower.

Not long after their marriage, Sybil Tinkle became ill with tuberculosis. The couple moved to Monrovia, outside Los Angeles, so that Sybil could be near the Pottenger Sanatorium, an institution devoted to the treatment of diseases of the lungs. She was there with an actress who had made good in Hollywood, but who was also dying from her disease: Mabel Normand.

Mabel died February 23, 1930. Sybil Tinkle followed her five days later, on February 28.

Sybil Tinkle's death certificate

Her death certificate gives clues as to why the Tinkle family never found out what became of Sybil.  Her informant, Clarence Marks, apparently didn’t know much himself about her family. Perhaps Sybil kept the details of her early life from him.

Poor Sybil! With all her hopes and dreams of becoming somebody in films, she died just plain Sybil Tinkle from Texas.

 

 

 

 

 

Holiday Greetings From Yesteryear — And Today!

Before there were cell phones and instant messaging, before there was Twitter and Facebook, there was only the mailbox. It was through that little box that I kept in touch with friends who lived in other parts of the country and world. One of the best parts of the holiday season was going to the mailbox every afternoon in December to see if there were cheerful greetings coming my way. I loved to see the card they chose, the greetings they selected, the familiar handwriting.

After I interviewed someone for my books or for my column in Classic Images, I wanted to stay in touch. That included Christmas cards.  As the years passed, I received fewer and fewer holiday greetings from my silent film buddies. Sadly, there weren’t any cards in my mailbox this year from those who made their livings before the movie cameras in the 1910s and 20s. I suppose that my last Christmas greeting from someone in that era came from Dorothy Janis, who died a couple of years ago.

I make it a practice every year to pull out my files and look through the cards from years passed. It fills me with nostalgia, but also a bit of sadness, realizing that the era that feel I connected to has passed into history.

I want to show you some of my favorites.  Oh! I saved a few surprises for the end.

Greetings from Esther Ralston

One of my favorite Esther Ralston photos.

Esther by the pool

I didn’t have much correspondence with Muriel Ostriche after our interview in 1988 for my book, Broken Silence. She died in 1989.

Greetings from Muriel

Hard to believe that Muriel Ostriche started her career in films in 1911, a hundred years ago!

I made a trip to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1991, to spend the afternoon with Hugh Allan. What an interview!  What a guy!

Holiday wishes from Hugh Allan

Hugh Allan, a handsome leading man of the mid to late 1920s.

Read my interview with Pauline Curley in The Sound of Silence. Like Muriel, her career started in 1911!

Christmas greetings from Pauline Curley

This was one of Pauline’s favorite portraits.

Pauline Curley

You may remember I told you about the gorgeous Ethlyne Clair in a previous post (https://michaelgankerich.wordpress.com/2011/12/04/a-soon-to-be-groom-checks-out-past-hollywood-ceremonies/). I recounted her wedding to Ernest Westmore and the fiasco that happened on the steps of the church when the happy couple emerged from the ceremony only to find his previous wife and their child begging for money.

Ethlyne loved sending holiday greetings.  She had a unique signature. The little curl at the bottom of her signature was an expression of love, she said.

Ethlyne's unique signature

The ravishing Ethlyne Clair, who got her start in a Barbara La Marr film, hated playing in Westerns near the end of her career. Her idea of being a film star was playing the vamp. “I thought I was above all that (serials and Westerns). I wanted to do more than ride horses through the desert.”  Want to know about her run-in with Louise Brooks? Check out Broken Silence. Her story is there.

Ethlyne Clair, my idea of a vamp!

Okay, I promised you a surprise at the end.  Here it is, courtesy of Benjie Wood, perhaps the most avid Olive Borden fan there is.  He treasures this 1927 Christmas card from the lady herself.

Merry Christmas from Olive Borden

The stunning Olive

I would be remiss if I didn’t offer holiday cheer from the Sheik himself, Rudolph Valentino.

Rudy's holiday card

Finally, I close with holiday greetings from Charlie and me. The Santa hats aren’t photoshopped. We took them thousands of miles in a suitcase  just to put them on at the opportune moment. I couldn’t wait to get to the Sphinx to see the shadow where Theda Bara was born. Then, I happened to remember Eve Golden’s book that said Theda was no more born in the shadow of the Sphinx than I was!

Anyway, I wish all of you the best holiday season ever and a year filled with peace, love, happiness, and prosperity.

Olive Borden: The Sybil Tinkle Connection

Holidays are great times for reconnecting with old acquaintances. This past weekend, I spent some time with my best friend growing up.  In the early 1980s, we would sit up until all hours of the night researching silent movie stars, wondering who was and who wasn’t still alive. Benjie and I developed a particular interest in Olive Borden, a talented and gorgeous young actress of the silent screen.  I devoted a chapter to her in my latest book, Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels and she is the subject of a well-researched biography by Michelle Vogel.

My favorite Olive Borden portrait

While catching up with Benjie this weekend, he and I went on the Internet to trace down a reference about Sybil Tinkle, a woman from Texas whose identity became linked with Olive in the late 1920s. For years, reference books have reported that Olive Borden was a Texan whose real name was Sybil Tinkle.  I devoted my column in Classic Images in November 1993 to unraveling the confusion and proving that Olive Borden and Sybil Tinkle were two individuals whose pasts were not linked.  I thought it was settled. I had printed the truth and Michelle Vogel set the record straight in her excellent biography. Great book!  Get it for your library.

While researching for Tinkle on the Internet last Thursday afternoon, just after a hefty Thanksgiving feast, the name Sybil Tinkle popped up as Olive Borden’s real name. Not once, but countless times!  My Thanksgiving vittles almost re-emerged in disgust. Will those turkeys ever get it right? It has been on my mind since, that strange story of how Olive Borden and Sybil Tinkle became entwined. Someone didn’t pull the name out of nowhere. It was a calculated move in the late 1920s to purposely connect the two women.

When I returned to my home, I retrieved the old column I wrote for Classic Images.  I am reprinting it here with additional commentery. Be patient; it sets the record straight. It unravels the Olive Borden and Sybil Tinkle connection.

Original story in Classic Images

“Bank teller, Brother of Star, Killed.”

“Death Reveals Identity of a Noted Actress.”

“Auto Accident Fatal to City Bank Teller, Kin of Olive Borden.”

Such headlines were splashed in newspapers throughout Texas in 1928, linking Olive Borden to a secret identity in Texas. The articles identify Olive Borden’s real name as Sybil Tinkle, a Texas girl and the sister of the dead man.

One account reads, “Olive Borden, whose movie tears have stirred the emotions of thousands of screen fans throughout the world, was registering genuine grief in the far-off Hollywood colony Sunday night over the death of her brother in Houston.”

But, wait a minute. Wasn’t the actress in question supposed to have been born in Virginia and raised in Norfolk as an only child by her widowed mother, Sibbie?

It wasn’t unusual for studio publicists to alter the ages of its stars, to change their names, or to invent glamorous beginnings. However, the confusion over Olive Borden and Sybil Tinkle being the same person is one of Hollywood’s most puzzling cases of mistaken identity.

The name Sybil Tinkle has been tagged as Olive Borden’s real name for over 60 years. Writers, such as Katz (The Film Encyclopedia), Halliwell (Halliwell’s Filmgoer’s Companion) and Truitt (Who Was Who on the Screen), have printed the assumption as fact in reference books over the years; and now, the error is part of Hollywood history.

That suits the Tinkle family, still living in Texas, just fine. They’ve spoken of Olive as their relative for years and today are convinced their Sybil was the dark-haired beauty of the silent screen. After all, don’t they have the yellowed newspaper articles to prove it?

By close examination and extensive research, and interviews with Borden and Tinkle family members, however, it is clear that Olive Borden and Sybil Tinkle were NOT the same person.

First, who was Olive Borden? Film fans know her as The Joy Girl of the Silent Screen, named as such from The Joy Girl (1927), a film she made at the height of her fame. She started in small comedy roles in 1923, was a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty, and for a while, worked for Hal Roach and Christie Comedies.

Olive’s star finally ascended when she was cast opposite George O’Brien in Three Bad Men (1926), which turned out to be her finest film role. A Fox contract ensued and, for the rest of the silent era, she skipped merrily across the silent screen. She, the epitome of the wild and careless youth, the perfect flapper, a Jazz Baby.

By the time movies learned to talk, Olive’s career was on the skids. First, film-going audiences tired of the carefree flappers Olive portrayed so well. Her ego and false sense of security tricked her into refusing to take a salary cut–she was dropped from her $1,500 a week contract. Then, her love affair with and engagement to George O’Brien ended.

It was more than the Joy Girl could take. Although she continued to appear in films sporadically throughout the early 1930s, it was clear her star had fallen. For much of the decade, she saw life through the bottom of a bottle. She went through money, booze and men–she married twice; her first marriage to Theodore Spector was annulled once it was learned her husband was already married. A later marriage to John Moeller ended in divorce.

Olive in 1932

In the 1940s, Olive joined the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). Eventually, she dropped out of sight, only to wake up one day in a cheap hotel on Hollywood Boulevard with an empty bottle and a head full of past glories. Her mother rescued her in 1946 and took her to live with her at the Sunshine Mission.

In 1947, a liver ailment, caused by years of drinking, claimed the life of the actress who had charmed millions only 20 years before. She was only 41 years old.

Olive on her deathbed. Olive’s mother, Sibbie, holds her hand.

Poor Olive! With such a tragic turn of events in her short life, being confused with Sybil Tinkle had been the least of her worries.

Sybil Tinkle. Who was she? What is her story? How did her identity become so confused with that of Olive Borden that her own family came to believe they were the same person?

She came from Texas, remembered by those who knew her as a “peculiar” girl who had a burning desire to be a motion picture actress. They say Sybil was the first girl in Timpson to smoke and often painted outdoors, clad only in lingerie.

A teenage Sybil Tinkle while still in Texas

In an interview from his home in Texas, a nephew of Sybil Tinkle said his aunt ran away from home in the early 1920s following a disastrous marriage and found her way to California, where she attempted to break into the movies. Once in Hollywood, she wrote notes and sent portraits but, after a while, the family lost touch with her–forever!  For some reason, unexplained by the nephew, the family believed Sybil Tinkle became Olive Borden.

In 1928, when Sybil’s brother, Joe Alton Tinkle, was killed in an accident, it was reported to the Texas press that the death revealed screen star Olive Borden’s true identity as that of a local girl, Sybil Tinkle. The family told reporters that “Miss Borden was notified of her brother’s death, but will not return to Texas for the funeral.”

Not long after the local publicity, a Houston man, Lee Bailey, wrote a letter to Photoplay informing them of the connection between Olive and Sybil. I could find no mention of the letter in subsequent issues of the magazine.

At sometime during the 1930s, the family heard rumors that Sybil, or Olive, had died in Los Angeles of tuberculosis and was cremated. The nephew said he remembered going with his father (Sybil’s brother) to Los Angeles to look for some records or evidence, but nothing was ever found. It was years later, after doing some research of their own, that the Tinkle family learned of Olive Borden’s death at the Sunshine Mission in 1947. So, that’s what happened to Sybil, the Tinkle family concluded. Such a sad ending for a girl who had so much ambition.

It all sounds rather convincing until you look at the facts. It’s like a puzzle with all the pieces laying so neatly on a table. There’s only one problem, pieces just do not fit.

On file with the Virginia Department of Health is a delayed birth certificate from Olive Mary Borden, born July 14, 1906, in Richmond, to Harry (Henry) and Sibbie Shields Borden. The document shows Olive used her baptismal certificate, dated September 9, 1906, to obtain a birth certificate in 1942. It is known that Harry Borden died in 1907. Also, in 1942, in her own hand, Olive completed an Application for Social Security Account Number listing her place of birth as Richmond, Va., and her parents as Harry and Sibbie Borden.

The 1908 Norfolk city directories show Olive’s mother living in Norfolk. The 1910 Norfolk, Virginia, portion of the U.S. Census shows Olive Borden living with her mother (Sibbie) in Virginia at the home of Olive’s great aunt. That same census lists Sybil Tinkle (born 1902) living in Timpson, Texas, with her father (James), her mother (Carrie), and her six brothers, one of whom was Joe Alton Tinkle.

Olive in the 1910 U.S. Census

Sybil Tinkle in the 1910 U.S. Census

Also, in the 1920 U.S. Census, Olive is listed living with her mother in Virginia and Sybil with her family in Texas. In addition, Olive’s mother is listed in the Norfolk city directories from 1917-1922. For several of those years, her mother is recorded as having been a hotel housekeeper. No mention of Sibbie Borden in the subsequent city directories supports Olive’s early studio publicity that they left Norfolk in the early 1920s, and went to Maryland, before going to Hollywood in 1923 to try films.

In an interview from her home in southern California, former silent film actress Natalie Joyce confirmed she is the first cousin of Olive Borden (their mothers were sisters) and that the family (including her own) was from Virginia. Natalie said that when Olive and her mother came to California, they stayed in their home until they could settle into a place of their own.

Olive and Natalie (fourth and fifth from the left) with other 1925 Wampas Baby Stars

The two were Wampas Baby Stars in 1925, but Olive’s career far surpassed that of her cousin’s. “She was really something there for a while,” Natalie said of Olive. Natalie retired from films at the advent of sound, moved to Hawaii, and became a beautician.

What was Olive’s connection to Sybil Tinkle? “I’ve never heard it,” Natalie said. “I’ve never heard anything but Borden.”

Olive Borden’s death certificate mentions nothing about Tinkle nor a Texas connection. It supports the facts that she was a Borden from Virginia.

The portraits the Tinkle family supplied of Sybil are definitely not the actress Olive Borden.

Sybil Tinkle

So, Olive Borden and Sybil Tinkle were two different people from two totally different walks of life–will writers ever correct their errors? The resolution of one misunderstanding, however, leads to other questions.

How did the Tinkle family link their loved one to Olive Borden? Why was the mix-up reported in the press so widely in 1928 after the death of a Tinkle? Did Sybil write to the family that she was Olive Borden? Or, could she have been Olive’s stand-in or double for a time? Did Sybil, as the Tinkle family has suggested, take over and carry on Olive’s name in the 1930s, after Olive Borden, because of excessive drinking, could no longer function on the screen–how preposterous!

We know what happened to Olive Borden–she rests beside her mother at Forest Lawn in Glendale. But, whatever became of Sybil Tinkle? Hollywood can concoct some bizarre tales, but this mystery only proves one thing: truth IS stranger than fiction.