This article is just my opinion based on the lifestyles of the subjects profiled.
“Sewing Circle” is a phrase used to describe the underground, closeted lesbian and bisexual film actresses of Hollywood, particularly during Hollywood’s golden age from the 1910s to the 1950s. The actress Alla Nazimova (godmother of former first lady Nancy Reagan) was the one credited with coining the term. Many of the actresses that I will be profiling in this series were rumored or admitted lesbians. The remainder were childless and/or unmarried throughout their lives. Since women can have several reasons for not having children, this does not prove anything. You may decide for yourself. Keep in mind, though, that over the course of the 19th century, the average American woman gave birth to six children, not including children lost to miscarriages and stillbirths. And globally, up to 1965, the average woman had more than five children.
None of the birth control methods of the 19th century (aside from infanticide and abortion) were particularly effective, and none of them were new. Withdrawal by the male, douching and vaginal suppositories were around in ancient times and common in the 19th century. In 1838 condoms and diaphragms were produced with vulcanized rubber. It was second in popularity to withdrawal but was not advocated as birth control. Instead, it was to be used to prevent venereal disease. The most effective form of birth control was (and still is) abstaining from sexual intercourse (with men).
In the first half of the 20th-century contraceptive methods like condoms and diaphragms were expensive and hard to find. Douching was cheap, accessible, and widely advertised as a feminine hygiene product; it was also the most common form of birth control from 1940 to 1960 when the oral contraceptive pill arrived on the market. The most popular brand of douche was Lysol – an antiseptic soap whose pre-1953 formula contained Cresol, a phenol compound reported in some cases to cause death.
”Often a wife fails to realize that doubts due to one intimate neglect shut her out from happy married love.”
“For complete Feminine Hygiene rely on LYSOL. A Concentrated Germ-Killer”
Considering that the first case of artificial insemination by donor occurred in 1884 and the sperm bank was developed in Iowa starting in the 1920s, all bets are off regarding Hollywood couples who DO produce offspring. But the inordinate amount of non-childbearing women in Hollywood could be the result of any number of factors including:
- Physical inability to give birth
- Vanity / Selfishness / Disinterest
- Frigidity / Chastity
- Abortion / Infanticide
Because I believe that the Hollywood elite is capable of sordid and depraved behavior, child sacrifice and cannibalism are also on the table (no pun intended.) Whatever the reason for the aversion to pro-creation, the phenomenon exists and has existed since the days of vaudeville. Since I’m intrigued by this subject, I’ve decided to return to those formative years and examine these childless actresses on a case by case basis to see if some pattern emerges. If you share my curiosity, please join me in this endeavor. At the very least, we will stumble upon some interesting stories and unknown “facts” about these hand-picked puppets.
DISCLAIMER: I am not a qualified transvestigator. The methodology I employ when speculating about gender is called “gut instinct.” You may take it or leave it.
Marie Dressler (left) was a silent and Depression-era film star who was born Leila Marie Koerber. Her father was a German-born former officer in the Crimean War. She was a descendant of colonist Edmund Rice, a founder of Sudbury, Massachusetts. Though married twice, Dressler was thought to be a lesbian. Some sources indicate Dressler had a daughter who died as a small child, but this cannot be confirmed.
Elizabeth Patterson (center) was a dainty but feisty character actress who gained widespread recognition late in her career playing the elderly neighbor Matilda Trumbull on the television comedy series I Love Lucy. Her father, Edward DeWitt Patterson was a judge and former Confederate army veteran. As a prisoner of war on the island of Lake Erie, he composed a detailed journal recording his thoughts about the war. Elizabeth Patterson never married and lived at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel during her 35-year film and television career.
Josephine Hull (right) had a successful 50-year career on stage while taking some of her better-known roles to film. She was born Marie Josephine Sherwood and married Shelley Vaughn Hull (all three names are peerage) until his “death” at the age of 34. Josephine never remarried and never had children.
Adele Ritchie (1874-1930) was born as the daughter of Quaker parents of French descent. Adele was an American prima donna of comic opera and star of Edwardian musical comedies and vaudeville. Her career began in the early 1890’s and continued for nearly twenty-five years.
In 1908, Ritchie arranged the release of Alice Crowninshield Rogers from involuntary confinement at a Connecticut mental institution. Rogers came from a wealthy family and was the ex-wife of Boston millionaire Thomas Pierce. Adele Ritchie and Alice Rogers appear to have been the Nicole Ritchie and Paris Hilton of their day. The two took up residence at Adele Ritchie’s farm in upstate New York. But after causing a disturbance at a theater due to “alcoholic hysteria,” Rogers was once again confined. Two months later both women were arrested after Ritchie allegedly interfered with officers trying to give Rogers a minor traffic citation.
Following her “lavender” marriage and divorce from actor Guy Bates Post in 1929, the 52-year-old actress relocated to Laguna Beach, California, where she became “close friends” with Doris Murray Palmer, dubbed the “most beautiful woman in Laguna Beach.” Even though Palmer was twenty years her junior, the pair were “inseparable companions” until Palmer’s popularity began to eclipse that of Ritchie’s. The pair’s relationship reached a flashpoint when Ritchie learned that Palmer had been invited to a luncheon and she had not, so Ritchie pulled a .32-caliber revolver from her purse and shot the 34-year-old woman once in the back. Ritchie apparently made a futile attempt to stem the flow of blood from Miller’s wound before cleaning up and then taking her own life with a shot to the mouth. Guy Bates Post, informed of his former wife’s murder-suicide before a performance of The Play’s the Thing in Hawaii, said, “We lived together fourteen years, but frankly I never felt I knew her. She was very proud.”
Louise Dresser (1878 – 1965) was born Louise Josephine Kerlin. She was married twice. Neither union produced any children. In Vaudeville, Louise Dresser, like many other white women, used African-American children – known on stage as “pickaninnies” – as a chorus of eccentric singers and dancers. The white women associated with “pickaninny” acts traditionally used some type of racial masquerade, such as heavy ethnic dialect in their songs or blackface makeup. This appropriation of blackness was particularly popular with Jewish actors, including such famous Jewish female performers as Sophie Tucker. Historians have noted that this racial borrowing helped Jewish performers establish an American identity.
Edna Wallace Hopper (left) was an American actress of stage and silent films. She was born as Edna Margaret Augusta Wallace, and nothing is known about her family since she claimed that her birth records were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Hopper was one of the first actresses to undergo plastic surgery, and she often lied about her age to capitalize on her image as the “Eternal Flapper.” During her frequent trips to Paris Edna received rejuvenating medical treatments involving injections of blood plasma taken from a young person, possibly even a child. This article, Edna Wallace Hopper- Cosmetics, provides an entertaining overview of her life. Edna Wallace Hopper was married twice but had no children. She also went on to be the only woman on the thirty-six-member board of L. F. Rothschild & Company.
Mary Boland (center) was an American stage and film actress. We know the names of her parents (William Boland and Mary Cecilia nee Hatton) but nothing else about her family history. She never married or had children.
Maude Fealy (right) was born as Maude Mary Hawk. She was an American stage and silent film actress whose career survived into the talkie era. No family history is available. Fealy was briefly married three times, and she bore no children in any of the marriages. According to the website lunagirl.com “There are unsubstantiated rumors that Maude Fealy was at one time romantically involved with fellow actress Eva La Gallienne and may have been a lesbian.”
As you can see, Florence Reed (left) and Blanche Yurka (right) are together forever in eternity. Reed was born in Philadelphia to comedy actor Roland Lewis Reed and his wife Joanna (nee Sommer). The only thing we know about Reed’s mother, Joanna Sommer, is that she is buried at Mount Sinai Cemetery in Philadelphia, a Jewish cemetery that also includes the remains of Hearst newspaper publisher Moses Annenberg and the founders of the Gimbels department store chain. Florence Reed and Blanche Yurka were each married once, and neither bore any children. Concerning fame, Blanche Yurka stated, “I never met a single person who lived the way the public believed we lived.” Blanche Yurka took her first Broadway bow in a minor role in the 1907 play “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” and, under the careful guidance of its “star-turned-friend and mentor” Jane Cowl, moved to increasingly larger roles.
Jane Cowl (1883 – 1950) was born as Jane Bailey in Boston. Her family history is scrubbed. In 1906 Cowl married Adolph Edward Klauber, former actor and drama critic of the New York Times. Adolph Klauber “died” in 1933. Jane Cowl never remarried and had no children.
Beulah Bondi (left) Her father’s name was Abraham Bondi, and that is all we know about his lineage. Beulah’s maternal grandmother was a Fisher, and she had a great-grandmother named Bishop, but these lines are not traceable beyond the 18th century. Even though she was known for playing mother figures, Bondi never married in real life.
Jeanne Eagels (center) Initially it appeared that her genealogy would soar, but the eagle quickly landed. She was born Eugenia Eagles, and her mother’s name was Sullivan, but that line does not extend beyond her grandmother who was from Ireland. Eagels was married twice, and she reportedly had a son during her first marriage who either died (causing Eagels to have a nervous breakdown) or who was given up for adoption. Her second marriage lasted for less than three years and produced no offspring. She “died” at the age of 39 and the medical examiner who performed her autopsy concluded that she died of “alcoholic psychosis.” Many believe that Eagels was bisexual.
Jean Acker (right) Born Harriet Ackers, she had a career dating from the silent film era through the 1950s. She was perhaps best known as the estranged wife of silent film star Rudolph Valentino. She married Valentino in 1919 but quickly had regrets and locked him out of their hotel bedroom on their wedding night. The marriage was reportedly never consummated. Acker met Chloe Carter, a former Ziegfeld Follies girl. She would remain with Carter for the rest of her life.
Katharine Cornell (1893 – 1974) is regarded as one of Broadway’s most celebrated leading ladies, garnering the nickname of “First Lady of the Theater.” Wikipedia informs us that she was born into a prominent, wealthy Buffalo society family. Cornell’s mother was a Plimpton, but that line ends with her grandfather George Plimpton. The name George Plimpton reminds us of that stuffy American journalist who had a father that was U.S. deputy ambassador to the United Nations. He appeared in the film “Good Will Hunting.”
Damon: “Do you find it hard to hide the fact that you’re gay?”
Plimpton: “What are you talking about?”
Damon: “Two seconds ago you were ready to give me a jump.”
Plimpton: “I’m sorry to disappoint you.”
Damon: “I don’t have a problem with it. I don’t care if you putt from the rough.”
General George C. Marshall asked Cornell to do a play to entertain the troops in Europe. We are supposed to believe that G.I.’s lined up three hours ahead of time to see Cornell perform in a three-hour costume drama called The Barretts of Wimpole Street. The press even reported that after one show in Italy, the manager overheard a tough, burly paratrooper say to his buddy, “Well, what I tell ya? Told ya it would be better than going to a cat house.” Now get out your hankies because reports indicate that the cast made a point of visiting hospitals every day throughout the entire tour. Despite being told she had done enough and that she should stay in Paris, Cornell demanded to be taken as close to the action as possible. The company then performed in the Netherlands, just eight miles from the front. The tour concluded in London amid exploding German V-2 bombs. How dramatic! Not surprisingly, I could not find any photos from this fantastic USO tour. In fact, I could find no images of Cornell with any military personnel at any time in history, except for this WWII propaganda. If you watch it, I’d advise having a bucket within arms reach.
Cornell married Guthrie McClintic in 1921 in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada. Cornell’s family often summered there among other wealthy Americans. Broadway aficionados acknowledge that Cornell was a lesbian and McClintic was gay, and their union was a lavender marriage. She was a member of the “sewing circles” in New York and had relationships with Nancy Hamilton, Tallulah Bankhead, and Mercedes de Acosta, among others.
Just for fun, let’s interrupt the regular program with a segment I’m calling:
Edna Mae Cooper (1867-1986) was an American actress of the silent era. She appeared in 79 films between 1911 and 1927. She never married or had children.
Supposedly, Edna served as co-pilot for the female aviator known as Bobbi Trout (born Evelyn.) They were successful in flying straight for 122 hours and 50 minutes, only to end the run on January 9, 1931, due to the spitting of fuel. And, oh yeah, pigs fly.
Clara Blandick (1876-1962) was born Clara Blanchard Dickey. I wonder what media mogul decided to combine Blanchard and Dickey. Whoever he was, he’s a comedic genius. Clara Bland-dick is most famous for her role as Aunt Em in the Wizard of Oz. Her only marriage lasted two years and produced no offspring. Blandick died in 1962 after overdosing on sleeping pills in dramatic fashion. Dressed immaculately in an elegant royal blue gown, she laid down on a couch, covered herself with a gold blanket and tied a plastic bag over her head. Her body was discovered by her landlady, Helen Mason.
Constance Collier (1878-1955) was an English stage and film actress. In the late 1920s, Collier relocated to Hollywood where she became a voice coach. Wikipedia assures us that as a young woman Collier was very beautiful and so tall that she towered over all the other actors. Constance was married to a man who went by the stage name Julian L’Estrange. In the middle ages, the name Julian was also a feminine name and L’Estrange translates as “the Strange.” Of course, the pitter patter of little feet was never heard in “the strange” household.
Sybil Arundale (1879-1965) was an English stage and film actress. From age 11, Arundale appeared with her sister Grace billed as “The Sisters Arundale.” (Note how Sybil towers over her sister.)
Florence Auer (1880-1962) was an American theater and motion picture actress whose career spanned more than five decades. She was born on March 3 (33) and never married.
Since I’m still swimming in a sea of thespian lesbians and trannies, some quick closet cleaning appears to be in order.
- Effie Ellsler (1855-1942) was an American actress of stage and screen whose career had its beginnings when she was a child and lasted well into the 1930s. Her father John was an actor and theater manager who had once been a friend and business partner of the assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Effie Ellsler married fellow actor Frank Weston in 1881, and they remained married until Weston’s death in 1922 from pneumonia after a three days illness. Ellsler received the news of her husband’s death while she was appearing in a play and chose to go on with the next performance because the company lacked an understudy. Her children were equally unaffected by the death because, well, they never existed.
- Louise Beaudet (1859-1947) was an actress, singer, and dancer for more than 50 years. She appeared in 66 silent films and died at the age of 88. She is buried with her sister and left no descendants.
- Minnie Maddern Fiske (1865-1932) was one of the leading American actresses of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. After marrying Harrison Grey Fiske, she took three years off from the stage. To have a child? Not a chance. Her only parenting involved the mysterious adoption of an infant boy when she was in her fifties. She supposedly died poverty-stricken at the age of 66. Her cousin was Elizabeth Maddern, the first wife of author Jack London.
- Marie Cahill (1866-1933) was a Broadway stage actress who also appeared in four silent films. Cahill married Daniel V. Arthur in 1903, a union that lasted until she died at the age of 66 in 1933. No children were left behind to mourn her loss.
- Viola Allen (1867-1948) was an American stage actress. She starred in over two dozen Broadway productions from 1885 to 1916. Allen also appeared in three silent films. She was married to the same man for 39 years. She and her husband are buried in Sleepy Hollow. Alone, together.
- Lucy Beaumont (1869-1937) was an English actress of the stage and screen. She was married twice and had no children. She died at the Royalton Hotel in New York City.
- Ethel Clayton (1882-1966) was an American actress whose career spanned more than 30 years and comprised of more than 180 films. She was married first to actor Joseph Kaufman until his death. She later married actor Ian Keith twice, and they divorced twice. In both cases, Clayton claimed cruelty and excessive drinking. Clayton died childless on 6/6 1966.
- Mona Darkfeather (1883-1977) was an American actress who starred in Native American and Western dramas, appearing in 102 movies. Darkfeather was married once to a banker, and she was twice married to film director and actor Frank Montgomery. Her papoose remained barren.
Jane Darwell (left) was born Patti Woodard to William Robert Woodard, president of the Louisville Southern Railroad and Ellen Booth. Despite her father’s prominent position and her mother’s infamous last name, nothing is known about her ancestry beyond her parents. Darwell made her stage debut in 1933 and later appeared in more than one hundred major motion pictures spanning a half a century. She is best remembered as the matriarch of the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. Nobody can say how she came up with stage name Darwell since her husband’s name were Null and Void.
Marie Doro (center) was an American stage and film actress of the silent film era. She was born Marie Katherine Stewart. Her mother’s name was Virginia Weaver. Were her ancestors active in the weaving trade in Virginia? Who knows? Marie Doro’s paternal great-grandmother’s name was Hipple, changed from Appel by her 4th great-grandfather upon his immigration from Germany. Appel is an Ashkenazic Jewish surname and many prominent people with that surname are listed at Wikipedia. Doro was briefly married to actor Elliott Dexter; the marriage soon ended in divorce. The marriage produced no children and Doro never remarried. Doro’s friendships with confirmed lesbians Maude Adams and Mercedes D’Acosta prompted rumors that she was lesbian.
Marguerite Clark (right) As a movie actress, at one time, Clark was second only to Mary Pickford in popularity. As for Clark’s family, they shunned the spotlight since nothing is known about them. Clark was ten and thirteen years old when her “mother” and “father” supposedly died, respectively. Her “sister” removed her from public school to further her education at Ursuline Academy in Cincinnati, Ohio. Ursuline is a Roman Catholic prep school. The current annual tuition to attend this school is $13,000. It seems surprising that these orphans could manage such a financial burden.
Marguerite Clark married Louisiana plantation owner and millionaire businessman Harry Palmerston Williams, a marriage that ended with the death of Williams at the age of 46 in an aircraft crash. Williams was a partner in the Wedell-Williams Air Service Corporation. We are told that in 1933 at the International Air Race in Chicago, the 44 piloted by Williams’ partner Jimmy Wedell set the new world speed record of 305.33 miles per hour. The deaths of Williams and both Wedell brothers in plane crashes left Marguerite Clark as the sole owner of the company. She sold the assets of the company in 1937 to Eastern Airlines. (Red flags are a-flyin’. I may soon be posting an article about this company.)
After the death of her husband, Clark moved to New York City where she lived with her “sister.” The same sister who enrolled her in private school. In 1940, three years after selling Wedell-Williams Air Service Corporation, the 57-year-old “died” of pneumonia. A private funeral was held, she was cremated and buried with her husband. Done deal. And tax-free.
Just look at that face. Would she lie?
Marguerite’s profile seemed the perfect place to conclude this first installment, but it dawned on me that all of the men who married these women are more than likely gay. I went back and checked all husbands with Wikipedia pages and employed the same non-child producing criteria.
- Shelley Hull was married to Josephine Hull for nine years until his death at the age of 34. We know how that turned out.
- The only husband of Adele Ritchie with a Wikipedia page was the actor Guy Bates Post. Post married actress Sarah Truax in 1897 and the (childless) couple divorced amicably some ten years later.
In 1907, Guy Bates Post married Jane Peyton. This (childless) union ended with an annulment seven years later.
Following his marriage to Adele Ritchie, Post married Lillian Kemble-Cooper. This (childless) union lasted for over thirty years. Not only does Lillian “look like a man.”
So does her sister, Violet.
That’s enough! Let me just make a bold assumption. All of the husbands were gay and/or some kind of hybrid.
Thank you for joining me and see you next time. Maybe we will be able to get to the 20th century in the next installment.