This pet project 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 and their relationships in Hollywood, particularly during Hollywood’s golden age from the 1910s to the 1950s. The actress Alla Nazimova coined this usage. Some 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. Decide for yourself.
NOTE: I am only profiling actresses who were prominent enough in their day to have a relatively detailed Wikipedia page (including a photo.) There are many more secondary and character actresses who could be added to the list.
As we know, fewer women have children than at any other time in recorded history. Still, between the years 2006 and 2010, 6 percent of women ages 40-44 had no children (biological, adopted, or stepchildren) in their house. It’s a small percentage, but it’s statistically significant since, in 1988, only 4.5 percent of married women were childless. Also, based on a 2013 study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 1.5 percent of women self-identify as lesbian and 0.9 percent as bisexual. These numbers certainly don’t jive with Hollywood women (and the men they were married to.) Is it any wonder then that Tinsel Town pushes the LGBTQ agenda? From the very beginning, the mainstream entertainment industry has been a pro-gay and anti-family institution.
Here’s where we stand (statistically) after Part One
Alla Nazimova (1879-1945) was a Russian actress who immigrated to the United States in 1905. She was born Miriam Edez Adelaida Leventon, the youngest of three children of Jewish parents. We are given the usual sob story about the divorce of her parents causing the shuffling of Alla among boarding schools and foster homes. Despite these hardscrabble beginnings, she was a major star in Moscow by the age of 23. Even though this ingenue could not speak English, Alla moved with her “flamboyant” boyfriend to New York City in 1905, where they founded a Russian-language theater on the Lower East Side. She learned to speak English in six months and immediately became a major Broadway star. Nazimova made her silent film debut in 1916. In 1917 she negotiated a contract that included a weekly salary of $13,000 ($280,000 adjusted for inflation.)
From 1912 to 1925 Nazimova maintained a “lavender marriage” with Charles Bryant, a British-born actor. When Bryant married another woman and listed his current marital status as “single” on the marriage license, the revelation that the marriage between Alla and Charles had been a sham from the beginning embroiled Nazimova in a scandal that damaged her career. Women that Nazimova is confirmed to have been romantically involved with include Rudolph Valentino’s first wife, Jean Acker (Part 1,) film director Dorothy Arzner, writer Mercedes de Acosta, and Oscar Wilde’s niece, Dolly Wilde.
Another of Nazimova’s confirmed lovers was Eva Le Gallienne (1899-1991) a British-born American stage actress, producer, director, and author. Noted for her boldness and idealism, she became a pioneering figure in the American Repertory Movement. Her father was an English poet of French descent, and her mother was a Danish journalist. La Gallienne never hid her lesbianism inside the acting community, but reportedly was never comfortable with her sexuality.
Alla Nazimova took young Edith Luckett (pictured) under her wing when Edith was starting her career on Broadway. Later, Edith asked Alla to be the godmother of her daughter, the future First Lady, Nancy Reagan.
Nazimova’s lifestyle gave rise to widespread rumors of outlandish and allegedly debauched parties at her mansion on Sunset Boulevard, known as “The Garden of Alla.”
Meet the V.A.M.P.S. (Very Averse to Male Penile Secretions)
At the turn of the century, the combination of women’s liberation and the erotic potential of cinema produced a female archetype known as the “vamp,” a new breed of woman who burned fast and bright in the big city, doing as she pleased. None of the prominent actresses who took on these roles as seductress and devourer of men ever pro-created in real life. At least, not to our knowledge.
Valeska Suratt (left) Dubbed “The Vampire Woman” on the silent screen, began her wicked ways on film in 1915. The “flapper age” put an end to her obsolete vampy style and she was forced to retire in the late 1920s. She is now all but forgotten. Valeska Suratt married twice but had no children.
Virginia Pearson (center) was an American stage and film actress. She made fifty-one films in a career which extended from 1910 until 1932. In her silent heyday, she was known as “the screen’s heretic” and reigned along with Theda Bara, Louise Glaum, and Valeska Suratt as Hollywood’s most notorious vamps. Yes, childless.
Louise Glaum (right) Called “The Spider Woman” or “The Tiger Woman” as one of the silent screen’s most infamous and exotic vamps. As the vamp fad began to outstay its welcome, her popularity also declined. In 1916, she and director Harry J. Edwards were married. They were divorced in 1919. She then married Zachary Harris in 1926, and they remained married until his death in 1964. Neither marriage produced offspring.
Theda Bara (born Theodosia Burr Goodman, 1885-1955) was one of cinema’s earliest sex symbols. Her femme fatale roles earned her the nickname The Vamp. Her father, Bernard Goodman, was a prosperous Jewish tailor born in Poland. For unknown reasons, Theda was named after the daughter of U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr.
After studio publicists noted that her name was an anagram of Arab death, they billed her as the Egyptian-born daughter of a French actress. They claimed she had spent her early years in the Sahara Desert under the shadow of the Sphinx. They called her the Serpent of the Nile and encouraged her to discuss mysticism and the occult in interviews. Bara married British born American film director Charles Brabin in 1921. Theda appears to have had the “Mommy’s Curse.”
We Now Return to Regular PROGRAMMING
Margaret Illington (left) was an American stage and film actress. After her film and theater career were over, she settled down as the wife of Major Edward Bowes, her second husband whom she married in 1910. There were no children with either husband.
Cleo Madison (center) was a theatrical and silent film actress, screenwriter, producer, and director who worked heavily in early Hollywood in a career spanning from the late 1910s to the mid-1920s. After leaving the film industry, she lived her remaining (childless) years with her husband, Don Peake.
Lottie Briscoe (right) was an American stage and screen actress who appeared in over 94 motion pictures. Her first husband Henry McRae Webster was a director of some note before he was sued over the unauthorized use of nude models in one of his movies. She married a second (childless) time.
Stella Adams (left) Although Adams appeared in only 12 feature films, she acted in almost 150 shorts during the silent era, mostly in starring or featured roles. Adams was involved in one (childless) marriage.
Polly Moran (center) was an American actress of vaudeville, stage, and screen. After a marriage that ended in divorce in 1917, Moran married again in 1933. She had one child who was adopted between her two unions. Gossip suggested he was her son by a black or Hispanic lover.
Elsie Ferguson (right) was born the only child of prominent lawyer Hiram Benson Ferguson. Due to her father’s wealth, hers was a privileged childhood. Well known as difficult to work with, temperamental, and argumentative, she married four times. Since she died with no heirs, she left a large part of her considerable estate to animal charities.
Blanche Friderici (1878-1933) was married to her only husband when she died childless at the age of 55.
Geraldine Farrar (1882-1967) was an American soprano opera singer, and film actress noted for “the intimate timbre of her voice.” She had a large following among young women, who were nicknamed “Gerry-flappers.” Her only marriage was to actor Lou Tellegen. Tellegen reportedly committed suicide by stabbing himself to death with a pair of sewing scissors while standing in front of a full-length mirror. When asked to comment on Tellegen’s death, Geraldine Farrar replied, “Why should that interest me?” In 1967, Farrar died childless at the age of 85.
Is it odd that she looks like a man yet sang soprano? Not really.
A castrato is a type of classical male singing voice equivalent to that of a soprano. The voice is produced by castration of the singer before puberty. Castration before puberty (or in its early stages) prevents a boy’s larynx from being transformed by the normal physiological events of puberty. As a result, the vocal range of prepubescence (shared by both sexes) is largely retained, and the voice develops into adulthood in a unique way. Prepubescent castration for this purpose diminished greatly in the late 18th century and was made illegal in Italy in 1870.
Truly Shattuck (1875-1954) was a soubrette star of vaudeville, Broadway, and film. In 1894 Truly’s mother Jane Shattuck murdered her boyfriend after she had admitted to her mother that she had spent the night with a Harry Poole (get it?) Jane Shattuck then lured Mr. Poole to her bedroom by having Truly compose a letter stating that her mother was on her deathbed. When Poole showed up, he assured Jane that he would make amends by making Truly his wife. The next instant a pistol shot rang out. Truly rushed into the room to find Poole lying on the floor dying (in a Poole of his blood, no doubt.) Jane Shattuck was hysterical and declared she had killed Poole because he had taken her “baby girl.” Jane was ultimately acquitted of the crime.
We can see where Truly gets her handsome good looks. In 1899, Truly Shattuck wed Stephen A. Douglas, and according to the press, they spent very little time together over their marriage. Douglas was granted a divorce in 1914 some four years after he filed on the grounds of desertion.
Kate Lester (born Sarah Cody 1857-1924) was an English theatrical and silent film actress. Her family had been well known for some five hundred years. One of her ancestors, Sir William Butts, was the medical doctor to King Henry VIII. She was never married.
Irene Rooke (1874-1958) was an English theatre and film actress. She was the daughter of a prominent London journalist. Rooke was married twice but had no children.
Alison Skipworth (born Alison Mary Elliott Margaret Groom 1863-1952) was an English stage and screen actress. Nicknamed “Skippy,” she was involved in one (childless) marriage.
The Drag Kings
Vesta Tilley (1864-1952) became Britain’s most popular male impersonator in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tilley, whose real name is Matilda Alice Victoria Powers, eventually took her act to the U.S. in 1894, performing in major cities like New York City and Chicago. During World War I, Tilley teamed up with her husband who wrote patriotic songs for her to perform as ‘Tommy in the Trench’ and ‘Jack Tar Home from Sea.’ Tilley performed songs like “The Army of Today’s All Right” and ‘Jolly Good Luck to the Girl who Loves a Soldier.’ These portrayals are how she got the nickname ‘Britain’s best recruiting sergeant.’ This effort got both of them knighted. She could do this since she had no fear that her non-existent children would ever die in a war.
Ella Shields (1879-1952) Though American-born, Shields achieved her most significant success in England at about the same time as Vesta Tilley. Shields became a prominent male impersonator in Britain’s music hall scene, often performing in male military attire. It is very likely Julie Andrews used Ella Shields as her role model for ‘Victor’ in the film and stage musical, Victor/Victoria.
Annie Hindle was the first popular male impersonator in the United States. She was born in the mid-1840s to unknown parents. Her first marriage was to singer Charles Vivian, and it lasted six months. In 1886 Hindle married her dresser Annie Ryan while on tour through the mid-west. Hindle dressed in male clothing and gave her name as Charles, and a Baptist minister performed the ceremony.
Maude Ewing Adams Kiskadden (11/11, 1872 – 1953), known professionally as Maude Adams, was an American actress who achieved her greatest success as the character Peter Pan. Adams’s personality appealed to a broad audience and helped her become the most successful and highest-paid performer of her day, with a yearly income of more than one million dollars during her peak.
Adams was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, the daughter of Asanath Ann “Annie” (nee Adams) and James Henry Kiskadden. Adams’ mother was an actress, and her father died when she was young. Adams once wrote of her father as having been a “gentile.” On her mother’s side, Adams’s great-grandfather Platt Banker converted to Mormonism. Adams was also a descendant of Mayflower passenger John Howland. It is not clear whether she identified as a member of the Mormon church as her mother did. She was never baptized Presbyterian, although she attended a Presbyterian school. Later in life, Adams took long sabbaticals in Catholic convents. She never converted to Catholicism or discussed the topic in any interviews. Her modest lifestyle, including the absence of any relationships with men, contributed to the virtuous and innocent public image which was promoted and reflected in her most successful roles. Biographers have concluded that Adams was a lesbian. She had two long-term relationships that only ended upon her partners’ deaths: Lillie Florence, from the early 1890s until 1901, and Louise Boynton (1858–1951) from 1905 until 1951. She is supposed to have had a romantic relationship with Spring Byington (part 1). She died, aged 80 and Louise Boynton is buried alongside her.
We’ve still got a lot of ground to cover, so let’s move things along with some,
Valli Valli (born Valli Knust, 1882-1927) was a silent film performer who descended from an old English family. She died in 1927 at the age of 45, survived only by her husband.
Estelle Winwood (born Estelle Ruth Goodwin, 1883-1984) was an English stage and film actress who moved to the United States in mid-career. Winwood was married four times, and she had no children by any of her marriages. She was very good friends with confirmed lesbians Tallulah Bankhead and Eva Le Gallienne.
Madlaine Traverse (born Mary Businsky, 1875-1964) was an American stage and screen actress from Cleveland, Ohio. She was a leading lady of the Fox Film Corporation in the second decade of the twentieth century. Her only (you guessed it) marriage was to Max Traverse, who died in 1906.
Beulah Poynter (1883-1960) was an American author, playwright, and actress whose career touched on Broadway and Hollywood. She was a paternal descendant of James Nevill, a veteran of the Revolutionary War from Virginia. She was married three times, and you know the rest.
Mary Alden (1883-1946) was an American motion picture and stage actress. She was one of the first Broadway actresses to work in Hollywood. She never married.
Edna May Oliver (born Edna May Nutter, 11/9/83 – 11/9/42) During the 1930s, she was one of the better-known character actresses in American films. She was a descendant of President John Adams and was married for three (unproductive) years.
Texas Guinan (1884-11/33) She loved publicity and frequently improvised facts about herself when she felt they made better stories than the truth. Her catchphrase was, “Hello, Suckers! Come on in and leave your wallet on the bar.” She married and divorced three times though she never improvised a story involving children.
Fay Tincher (1884 – 1983) was an American comic actress in motion pictures of the silent film era. Tincher inherited $25,000 ($374,000) from the will of Mrs. Julian Dick, who died from inhaling “illuminating gas” on 12/22/30. Her husband, Captain Dick, was a member of the New York Cotton Exchange. He had been “accidentally” shot to death by a friend in 1922. Tincher never married, but she “roomed” with a female writer named Maie B. Havey. (So Fay Maie B. Havey a lesbian lover.)
Olga Petrova (born Muriel Harding, 1884-11/3/77) Olga became a highly popular diva through the 1910s starring in more than two dozen movies. She also wrote several scripts and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Final score: Husbands 2 Children 0.
Lillian Worth (born Lillian Burgher Murphy, 1884-1952) She appeared in 58 films between 1913 and 1937. Husbands 2 Children 0.
Emily Stevens (1883-1928) was a stage and screen actress. She appeared on celluloid for the first time at the age of 33 and in her final film aged 38. Emily died in her New York apartment in 1928. She was 45, unmarried, and childless.
The article shown above explains that Emily’s regular physician was unavailable for the holidays, so a Dr. Wilson was called to attend to her a week before her death. He claimed to have found her in a “nervous state” so he administered “a hypodermic injection of a narcotic” to which she reportedly responded. On the day of her death, Miss Stevens was found seated in a chair unconscious, so Miss Katharine Roberts, a publicity agent and several other friends of the actress were called. “It was obvious that the condition of the actress was serious,” Miss Roberts said, “and Dr. Wilson was summoned.” Miss Roberts and the other friends remained at the apartment until Miss Steven’s death. Dr. Charles Norris, Medical Examiner, said there were indications that the actress had taken an overdose of a drug. Dr. Wilson said, however, that pneumonia which developed after her lapse into a coma, probably had been the direct cause of death.
Why was a publicity agent the first person notified upon the discovery of an unconscious actress? Why wasn’t an ambulance called? And if she had lapsed into a coma causing her to develop pneumonia, why wasn’t she already in a hospital? My best guess is that Emily Stevens was an addict, “Dr. Wilson” was her supplier, and her fatal overdose was covered-up. Stevens was closely associated with her actress cousin Minnie Maddern Fiske (Part 1) who was widely considered the most important actress of the American stage in the first quarter of the 20th century. Stevens’ died on Monday, was autopsied on Wednesday, and cremated on Friday.
What a lame excuse. Firstly, Fiske would have had an understudy. And secondly, what theater company is going to forbid their star from attending the funeral of not only a family member but a fellow actress? The answer is they wouldn’t. And what 45-year-old “frequently” expresses their “wishes” to be cremated or buried?
More Quick Hits
Linda Arvidson (1884-1949) was an American actress in silent films and the first wife of film director D.W. Griffith. The pair married in 1906, separated in 1912, but didn’t divorce until 1936 when Griffith wished to remarry. So essentially it was a 30-year long lavender “marriage.” (Griffith never produced offspring. Most of these “husbands” were likely gay.)
D.W. Griffith (on Douglas Fairbanks), “He has such verve. He can use his body.”
D.W. Griffith (to Mary Pickford), “You’re too little and too fat, but I might give you a job.”
Florence Turner (1885-1946) was known as the “Vitagraph Girl” in early silent films. She is considered to be one of the first film actors to achieve name recognition. After appearing in more than 160 motion pictures, she died unmarried and childless.
Nella Walker (1886-1971) In 1931 her film career took off and her only childless marriage ended shortly after that. Her last acting role was in the film “Sabrina” alongside Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn. She died on 3/22.
Pauline Bush (1886-11/1/1969) She was nicknamed “Madonna of the Movies.” She was married to director Allan Dwan from 1915-1919, her only marriage. (Dwan’s extraordinarily long career lasted from 1911-1961. Alas, there were never any little Dwans to follow in his footsteps.)
Allan Dwan (on Douglas Fairbanks), “With him it always looks right.”
Mabel Ballin (born Mabel Croft, 1/1/1887-1958) She was married to her husband Hugo Ballin for four decades, but his last name appears to be a misnomer (at least around her.)
AND ON THAT NOTE, we’ll close out this edition. Have I worn you out yet? If you’ve been paying attention to the birth dates, we’re not even past 1887! I promise you that eventually, I will begin to profile people you’ve heard of before.
See you next time.