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The women, from outwardly feisty to quietly mutinous, who made the Edwardian era so colorful.

Fascinating Women: Florence Lawrence


Florence Lawrence

Though Mary Pickford is associated with the early days of American cinema, it was her fellow Canadian Florence Lawrence who is the first movie star. Born on New Year’s Day in 1890, the Hamilton, Ontario native entered show business at the age of four, traveling the vaudeville circuit as “Baby Flo – The Child Wonder Whistler.” Her mother, Charlotte A. Bridgwood, was a vaudeville actress known professionally as Lotta Lawrence and was both leading lady and director of the Lawrence Dramatic Company. After the death of Florence’s father in 1898, her mother moved the family–consisting of Florence and her two elder brothers–to Buffalo, New York, where Florence attended local schools and developed athletic skills, in particular horseback riding and ice-skating.

Florence continued to develop her acting talents, but like many hopeful actresses haunting the casting rooms of Broadway, success was elusive. The early years of the American cinema were both lean and abundant–lean of actors who were skeptical of this new medium (which, due to its start in cheap nickelodeons, were seen as entertainment for the poor)–and abundant in pioneers eager to enter uncharted territories and audiences eager for more movies. Florence was likely one of many unemployed young actresses who viewed the motion pictures as a last resort, but when she was cast in Daniel Boone; or, Pioneer days in America, an Edison Manufacturing Company film, it was the beginning of a marvelous career.

She portrayed Daniel Boone’s daughter, and her old riding skills came in handy as she got the part because she knew how to ride a horse. Her mother also found a role in the film, and they were each paid five dollars a day for two weeks of outdoor filming in freezing weather. In 1908, Florence went on to make 38 movies at Vitagraph, most roles given to her because of her equestrian skills. She turned briefly to the more legitimate and respectable stage, but after touring with Seminary Girls, Lawrence resolved that she would “never again lead that gypsy life.”

Her fortunes changed when a fellow Vitagraph actor, Harry Solter, sought a “a young, beautiful equestrian girl” for a D. W. Griffith production at Biograph Studios. When Lawrence learned of this opportunity, she quickly convinced Solter and Griffith she was the right actress for the part, and came to Biograph in 1908, where she earned a whopping $25 a week at a time when the average annual income was less than $500 a year. Her starring role in Griffith’s The Girl and the Outlaw was followed by starring roles in sixty-five films by 1909. She went on to marry Harry Solter, but ironically, this was when audiences began to clamor for her name. Florence, like the cinema’s other leading ladies, was known only by the name of her studio–the Biograph Girl–due to fears that film stars would demand higher salaries. But the cult of celebrity had struck the motion picture industry, and the name “Florence Lawrence” became more prominent than “Biograph Pictures.”

Now known by name, with the much-feared privileges that accompanied stardom, Florence and her husband decided to strike out on their own. They wrote to the Essanay Company to offer their services as leading lady and director, but rather than accept this offer, Essanay reported the offer to Biograph’s head office, and they were promptly fired. Now cast adrift, the Solters joined with Carl Laemmle’s Independent Moving Pictures Company of America, where Laemmle created the “star system.” In 1910, Lawrence left IMP, but not before choosing an 18 year old Mary Pickford as her successor at the company. Two years later, via a deal the Solters made with Laemmle, they formed their own studio, Victor Film Company, where they made a number of successful films before selling out to Universal Studios.

Things look promising for Florence’s career, and despite a brief period of retirement, she continued to remain the cinema’s top draw. However, tragedy struck during the making of Pawns of Destiny, when a staged fire got out of control and Florence was burned, suffered a serious fall, and fell into shock for months. She divorced Solter, blaming him for the accident, and to add to her problems, Universal refused to pay her medical expenses. She took time off to recover, but discovered that at 29, her days of stardom had ended. Subsequent comeback attempts were marred by her health and the public having moved on, and all of her screen work after 1924 would be in uncredited bit parts. Her personal life was in shambles, having divorced and remarried twice (the last husband abusing her physically), losing her mother in 1929, and the stock market crash depleting her fortunes. In 1936, sympathetic MGM gave her and other old stars small parts for seventy-five dollars a week, but alone, discouraged, and suffering with chronic pain from myelofibrosis, a rare bone marrow disease, Florence Lawrence decided to end her life.

On the 27th of December, she was found unconscious in bed in her West Hollywood apartment after she had attempted suicide by eating ant paste. She was rushed to a hospital but died a few hours later, and sadly, just nine years after she had paid for an expensive memorial for her mother, Lawrence was interred in an unmarked grave not far from her mother in the Hollywood Cemetery (now Hollywood Forever Cemetery, in Hollywood, California). Nevertheless, Florence Lawrence not only became the first motion picture star, she made an astounding 298 films between 1906 and 1936, and also invented the first turn signal for automobiles.

Further Reading:
Florence Lawrence, the Biograph Girl: America’s First Movie Star by Kelly R. Brown

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Fascinating Women: Maud Humphrey


Maud Humphrey Bogart

Maud Humphrey was yet another who took full advantage of the widening opportunities for educated young women at the turn-of-the-century. Though she is now known for being the mother of Academy Award winner Humphrey Bogart, I think it quite fair for her equally compelling life to be pulled out of the footnotes of history. Maud was born in 1868 to a prominent family in Rochester, New York. She displayed an early talent for art, which was fostered by evening art classes from the age of 12. By her late teens, the skilled artist landed her first commissions for black-and-white illustrations in children’s magazines, and at eighteen, she moved to New York, where she enrolled at the recently founded Art Students League. From there she journeyed to Paris for further study at the Julian Academy, and managed to train under James McNeill Whistler.

Maud’s chosen medium was watercolor, and her distinctive dry watercolor technique lent well to her sketches of babies and children. Unlike most drawings of the day, her toddlers and tots appeared active and alert, and they garnered great demand by advertisers of such products as baby food and Ivory soap, and were also seen frequently on greeting cards and calendars, and sold as prints. Her marriage to Dr. Belmont De Forest Bogart, a fashionable surgeon, in 1898 pushed them into the Social Register, and Maud’s talents–which included exceptionally popular books of her illustrations, and the ad campaign for Mellins Baby Food (for which baby Humphrey was used as model)–pushed her income to over $50,000 a year, far more than her husband’s salary. At the peak of her career, Maud Humphrey was a household name, and she soon turned to a more sophisticated field–fashion illustration–in the late 1900s as art director of The Delineator magazine, and did more fashion illustration, both for magazines and for pattern companies. Maud was most proud of this position because The Delineator published articles about her favorite cause, women’s suffrage.

A treasury of stories, jingles and rhymes. With one hundred and forty vignette illustrations in half-tone (1894)

Source: Bogart’s Mom: Maud Humphrey

Fascinating Women: Nell Brinkley


Nell Brinkley Though unfairly forgotten, Nell Brinkley was just as popular and successful during America’s “golden age of illustration” (1880s-1910s) as her male counterparts, Charles Dana Gibson, James Montgomery Flagg, and Howard Chandler Christy, to name a few illustration titans. The product of a solid Mid-Western upbringing and possessing no formal training, Nell’s natural talent came to the attention of no less than William Randolph Hearst, who in 1907 hired the nineteen year old Denver native to move to New York and provide illustrations for his various newspapers and weeklies. By the following year, Nell and her expressive and sophisticated drawings, particularly those of the “curly-haired everyday working-girl” dubbed the Brinkley Girl, were a runaway hit, and her Brinkley Girl actually eclipsed the Gibson Girl in popularity. Brinkley’s success was cemented by the use of her Brinkley Girl in Ziegfeld Follies of 1908 and her court illustrations of the infamous murder trial of Harry K. Thaw, where she was assigned to interview Evelyn Nesbit Thaw on multiple occasions. By the 1920s, Nell was one of the most popular and prolific of American illustrators, providing drawings and charming commentary for the Evening Journal and other publications that included Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and Harper’s Magazine, where she used her illustrations to promote working women and women’s rights. Though photographs began to supplant illustration in the mid-1930s, Nell remained prolific and sought-after, and her drawings highly respected. And in spite of her swift descent into obscurity after passing away at the early age of 58 in 1944, Nell Brinkley’s talent and success was unparalleled by the majority of her contemporaries, both male and female.

Further Reading:
Nell Brinkley and the new woman in the early 20th century by Trina Robbins
Nell Brinkley’s “Love Letters” by Tom J. Collins & Loise E. Collins
The Brinkley Girls: The Best of Nell Brinkley’s Cartoons from 1913-1940 by Trina Robbins