Portraits of forgotten stars who died young
“One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”
And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”
The history of the silent cinema is littered with young corpses, especially suicides. A very few achieved a kind of immortality through dying: Rudolph Valentino springs immediately to mind, but for most who died young, death brought more than a figurative long silence. They were soon forgotten. It is unfair to expect people born decades after they died to remember who they were, but fame, we are told, is somehow eternal. And we are so often being asked to imagine perpetually sunlit fields where the dead stars wander in a kind of bliss, pausing only to look down upon us indulgently. Among these portraits Pearl White’s is the only name I was familiar with before I bought the photo. Saying that, the image I had of her was of a woman tied to rail tracks as the steam engine bore down, and I cannot remember I saw that in one of her films or got it from Rocky and Bullwinkle. One’s memory doesn’t have gaps so much as rough patches, don’t you find? In any case, Ms White’s story is sad and we should not make light of it. In the early years of silent film she did her own stunts. Having been a bareback rider in the circus she didn’t think much of jumping from heights and rolling out of moving vehicles but she broke bones in the process, with the result that she took to painkillers and alcohol, with the extended result that she died from liver failure aged 49.
Who today knows anything of Lillian Hall Davis? Not me – at least, not until I found this photo, yet we read that for a time she was one of budding director Alfred Hitchcock’s preferred actresses and starred in his third and fifth films, The Ring and The Farmer’s Wife; films that British cinephiles hold as keys to understanding everything he did that followed.
Some of us can imagine a suicide’s final minutes; the preparation and the execution. What remains utterly mysterious are the days leading up to that; the bleakness, the compact someone makes with themselves. Lillian Hall Davis’s death was particularly horrible. She slashed her wrist and her throat then put her head in a gas oven. Such determination is terrifying.
In the early 1920s Bruno Kastner was a huge star in Germany, with women. Men found it hard to reconcile his attractiveness with his self-evident anti-masculinity. I mean to say; what are the frauleins thinking when a fellow doesn’t have biceps and can’t down three beers without needing a bathroom break? Like Lillian Hall Davis, he was a victim of a sudden shift that saw him regarded as Germany’s most popular cinema hero one year and then a couple later being reduced to selling photo opportunities for a few pfennigs. In Kastner’s case the cause was self-evident. He stuttered, which obviously was an issue when cinema turned to sound, and a source of great humour to the beery chaps when they gathered at the bar after a day blasting at quail with shotguns. One of his last films was Angst, based on a Stefan Zweig novel, and in a scene that could have belonged in the Zweig inspired Grand Budapest Hotel, in 1932 he travelled up to the resort of Bad Kreuznach with its gingerbread houses surrounded by forest, booked into a hotel and hanged himself.
If you tell Americans that in the early 1920s Gösta Ekman was the biggest star in Swedish cinema, they’ll probably laugh and say, ‘yeah, right. Swedish cinema.” The phrase “1920s Swedish cinema” may not mean much to most Americans but there are some – usually thin, pallid young men with skin conditions – who know that in the 1920s Swedish cinema was everything Hollywood was supposed to be. While Chaplin was pumping out one-reel soufflés, the Swedes were filming two hour long epics. When the Americans imagined the emotion expressed in a starlet’s batting eyelashes said it all, the Swedes were dredging the human soul for every bit of squalor they could find. What would you expect? This was the land of the sunless winter. Henrik Ibsen and Hedda Gabler were neighbours just across the border. Ekman was an artist. He made that clear to the point he was willing to neglect his family for his art. In 1926 he went to Germany to star in one of the expressionist classis, Faust. While working long hours, he started taking cocaine to deal with fatigue. Twelve years later he died of a heart attack after years struggling with chronic addiction. He was 48 years old. Tears of a clown.
In late September of 1912 a funeral procession trundles through the streets of Paris. The coffin is covered in wreaths but it is considered “tenth class”, or ‘very simple’ in Parisian terms. Among the mourners at the head are a Rothschild, a Baron Ceccaldi and several others whose surnames are enough to impress the reporters gathered on the sidewalk. Some of the press have already filed stories expressing outrage that the police would dare question France’s most exemplary citizens on this sombre day. As for the raids on the drug dens; why implicate the nation’s best names when, clearly, her demise was her doing?
Inside the coffin is Pierrete Fleury, 22 year old aspiring dancer who, it is true, wasn’t a household name until today. What went on in her house in Le Vésinet, a wealthy suburb on the outskirts of Paris, has scandalized a city that likes to think it has seen it all. For months a procession of limousines drove out to the house and unloaded their human contents on the steps. Once inside, the sons of France’s finest indulged in behaviour that appalled the staff. Opium, cocaine, sex, more opium, more cocaine, more sex: the place must have resembled a Normandy farmyard at feeding time. Let’s not hold back on Pierrete; she and the other dancers living at the house had instigated this scenario but just a couple of days ago, one of the male staff members alerted that she hadn’t answered the maid’s knocks, took a ladder and climbed up to look in her window. Her cold body lay on the bed, her face wrapped in an ether soaked sheet. Technically it was filed as accidental suicide. As usual, the Government vowed that no one would be spared in its efforts to put an end to these notorious drug dens.
It is tiresome to read yet another claim that the behaviour of Someone Cyrus or Someone Kardashian is liberating for women, especially when it’s a woman writing. Said perp should have to spend a week, at least, walking around with a placard that reads: ‘Culturally speaking, I’m really uneducated’.
Diana Karenne, (born Leucadia Konstanti in Danzig, 1888), was a star of Italian, French and German films in the 1910s and 1920s. Her artistic control extended to directing and producing and she organized her own promotions down to designing the posters. Add to that the detail that she often played a woman with a pragmatic attitude towards her lovers and we have the makings of a feminist icon – except we don’t. Where in all the guff about post-modern feminism are the discussions about women like Karenne and Fern Andra? If the Ms Someones have it so difficult today, what was it like back then, when women couldn’t even vote? Well, there is a situation with Ms Karenne that some posing as feminist intellectuals could have a problem with, but only if they wanted to. In the 1930s, when Germany was the centre of Europe’s film industry, Ms Karenne moved to Berlin and continued her success until she married and moved with her husband to Aachen, where she turned her attention to painting and poetry. In July 1940, she was badly injured in an Allied air raid and died a few weeks later. Aachen is a spit away from the Dutch and Belgian borders. Would things have been different had she been in Holland or Belgium when the bombs hit? Maybe, but the overriding sense is that she has simply been forgotten. Besides which, it is easy to blame the Germans, but we on the winning team still have a problem admitting that our bombs and our actions needlessly killed innocent people.
On March 3 1908, 34 year old Lily Hanbury gave birth to a stillborn child and two days later she died from complications. These are the empirical facts. The actual facts are that her death was horrific. We have no idea what it is like to first realize the child you are carrying has died and then for you to suffer the physical and emotional consequences, attended to by witless doctors in a grubby London hospital.
Ms Hanbury was born into an acting family. Indeed, those of us who remember Edward Fox shooting watermelons in The Day of the Jackal might also recall his brother James in the fabulously unwatchable Performance and pause to realize there is a direct family connection going back to Ms Hanbury, and beyond. The point was made at the beginning that people who believe that fame brings immortality are buying an illusion, yet one of the great things about the internet is the way that small groups whose interests are too peripheral to even be considered niche can find support. Maybe the notion that a handful of people can not only perpetuate the memories of Edwardian actresses but provide the rest of us with solid information is something anyone born in the age the internet can’t appreciate. We who are toppling towards our dotage can only express our gratitude, but there is a curious aspect to all of this. Investigating the not so obscure 19th century French photographer Etienne-Jules Marey recently, I was struck by how many websites simply cut and pasted the same (unverified) information. With the great forgottens like Ms Hanbury however we find people who are passionate and want to share their discoveries. They put up photos, old reviews and newspaper articles. In the process they bestow upon her a kind of eternity.