Introduction: Meet Michael G. Ankerich
Over the past few years Michael G. Ankerich has become one of my favorite people in the community of film writers and historians. I first came into contact with Michael after posting a video review of his Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels. Our first interview sprang from correspondence at that time. The last question I asked Michael was about what he was working on next. A biography of Mae Murray, he told me.
Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips was published late in 2012. Like Dangerous Curves it is both meticulously researched and opens up new territory via interviews with surviving family members of its subject. That's all tied together by Michael's engaging writing style making The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips not only informative but a darn good read. You'll breeze through the first time but there's plenty to send you back for a more careful second reading.
Michael G. Ankerich has previously published two volumes comprised of his interviews with silent and early talkie stars, Broken Silence: Conversations with 23 Silent Film Stars and The Sound of Silence: Conversations with 16 Film and Stage Personalities. Those two books were originally published in the 1990s and most of the subjects have since passed away.
In many cases Michael provides the only written record about these stars. The press relied upon his work in The Sound of Silence when Barbara Kent died in 2011.
Michael also co-authored Joyce Compton's memoirs, The Real Joyce Compton: Behind the Dumb Blonde Movie Image, and prior to his Mae Murray biography wrote the aforementioned Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels, a collection of biographies covering "The Lives, Careers and Misfortunes of 14 Hard-Luck Girls of the Silent Screen."
Like the Mae Murray book Michael did not have access to the subjects covered inside Dangerous Curves. The 14 pieces within are very similar in style to the new Mae Murray biography, just shorter. If you've enjoyed one I highly recommend the other, though all of Michael's books come with my highest recommendation.
You'll find more information about Michael G. Ankerich on his website plus I also suggest visiting his blog, Close-ups and Long Shots. Michael regularly blogs about early and obscure film stars from that space where he posts original research and incredible photos.
Connect directly with Michael through his Facebook Page.
And now, on to the questions.
An Interview with Michael G. Ankerich
Question: Your previous books include three volumes of shorter biographies and interviews plus the longer Joyce Compton book. Compton was somebody you had access to prior to her death in 1997 which makes Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips something a little different for you.
How challenging was it to tackle a subject like Mae Murray, who's been gone so long, in an expanded book format?
Michael G. Ankerich: The Mae Murray bio was much different from the Joyce Compton book. I worked with Joyce on The Real Joyce Compton: Behind the Blonde Movie Image. It was written as a memoir, whereas the Mae Murray book is a biography.
Tackling Mae Murray as a biographical subject was not as challenging as it might seem. She had a long life, and she received a lot of press in her day. The challenge came from uncovering parts of her life that she concealed and never wanted brought to light.
Question: At what point did you decide Mae Murray needed her own book? Were you in contact with Mae's son, Daniel Michael Cunning, before that point or did you seek him out after making the decision?
Michael G. Ankerich: I made the decision to do a full-length book on Mae after making contact with and getting cooperation from her nephew, the son of Mae's brother, William. I can't over emphasize the importance of his contribution. He was able to put together the period in her life that had always been shrouded in mystery: her birth, family, and childhood.
I had lots of clues, but Bob (her nephew) provided details that completed the picture. From there, I was able to secure the birth certificates for Mae and her brothers, as well as the death certificate for her father.
Bob provided the background for Mae's immediate family that Mae's own son, Koran (Daniel), didn't know. Daniel had no idea that his mother had brothers until my interview with him. Mae gave him no information about her life.
Michael G. Ankerich: Yes, it was rather difficult to pin down Mae's son to an interview about his mother.
I had been interested in his experiences for a number of years and had written him out of curiosity. My letters had gone unanswered. When I decided to write a full-length biography, I reached out to one of Daniel's daughters, who put me in touch with her father and urged him, I think, to answer my inquiries.
His reluctance goes back 70 years to the early 1940s when he was thrust into the media spotlight and put in the middle of a custody dispute between his mother, father, and the family caring for him.
Not surprising, since those difficult days, Daniel has harbored a dislike for the press.
Question: Which part of Mae Murray's career wound up most fascinating to you in the end? Her early stage career, her time as a huge film star, or post-movie fame and fizzle?
Michael G. Ankerich: The period from about 1925 to 1928 was a roller coaster ride for Mae.
She was at the top of her ride in 1925 with the success of The Merry Widow, but soon found herself in a free fall professionally. She divorced Robert Z. Leonard, gave birth to her son in Paris, found herself a prince, signed and cancelled a contract with Germany's UFA studios, left and returned to M-G-M, and started a vaudeville act.
I suppose my favorite period to research was from the 1940s to her death in 1965. There were people still alive who remembered her and were able to help me bring her later life into perspective.
Question: Were you able to view all of Mae Murray's surviving films and did you have a favorite of the bunch?
Michael G. Ankerich: I viewed every available Mae Murray film I could set my eyes on. A Mormon Maid, The Delicious Little Devil, and The Merry Widow were my favorites because they gave Mae a chance to show the spectrum of her talent: drama, comedy, and dance.
Fortunately, more and more of her films are being discovered.
Question: Did Mae's most famous hit, The Merry Widow, provide any special inspiration while you worked?
Michael G. Ankerich: Mae's performance in The Merry Widow is stunning, and viewing the film while researching the development of the scenario and the battles fought on the set was particularly helpful.
Of course, it's Mae at her best: those glorious close ups, her furs and negligees, and the chemistry she obviously had with John Gilbert.
Question: For those who only know the Mae Murray legend, typically beginning and ending with those Bee-Stung Lips, can you give a better idea of just how big a star she was during her peak years?
Michael G. Ankerich: It's rather tricky to gauge someone's star power, not having been among the movie-going audience in the 1920s. How does one define stardom?
I suppose we could look at her weekly salary of $7,500 to get a clue. Also, her image was used on collective spoons and hand mirrors and to advertise products that appealed to her fans.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of her popularity was her box office appeal. Her films consistently made money, lots of money, for the studio.
Question: Mae Murray can be seen in a few talkies but her final films were released in 1931. Despite Louis B. Mayer's interference do you believe Mae Murray could have overcome her own ego and continued a film career in supporting and character roles over the next decade or so?
Michael G. Ankerich: I can see no reason why Mae could not have continued in character roles for the next decade or so. She had the offers, but she wouldn't allow herself to mature before the movie camera and her fans. The offers to play mothers and matrons were considered insults. Mae certainly could have made life easier for herself had she had someone in her life like another Robert Z. Leonard to keep her grounded. She didn't. It was easier to sleep on park benches than to play a woman of a certain age on the big screen.
Question: Now that your work is done do you come away liking Mae Murray more or less than you had when you began?
Michael G. Ankerich: It is impossible to live with a personality like Mae Murray for two or more years and come away disliking her or wishing I had never heard her name. It is also impossible to fully know another person's motivations, insecurities, and those other interesting traits that make us human.
I will say that I came away thoroughly disappointed, even angry, at the way Mae withheld information that every child has a God-given right to know as a member of the human race: parentage, birth date and birth place.
It's one thing to disown and deny siblings, but it's another thing to bring another human being into the world and provide them with so little information about their identity.
Question: What's next?
Michael G. Ankerich: Several ideas are materializing.
I am working on Hairpins and Dead Ends: the Perilous Journeys of 20 Actresses Through Early Hollywood, a companion volume to Dangerous Curves.
I am revisiting the truly sad story of Barbara La Marr, focusing on her childhood, family, and early professional years. Those early years set the stage for what became the downward spiral that eventually took her life.
As with Dangerous Curves, I am attempting to make contact with relatives and friends of my subjects to get their perspectives and gather some of their family photos and stories.
Question: Can you talk about some of the other actresses you are profiling in Hairpins and Dead Ends?
Michael G. Ankerich: Let's see, there's Belle Bennett, Katherine MacDonald, Corliss Palmer, Mary Miles Minter, Jetta Goudal, Valeska Suratt, and a number of others.
While I selfishly selected actresses that I wanted to know more about, I think readers will also be drawn in and captivated by these dazzling personalities.
Thank you once more to Michael G. Ankerich.
And be sure to pick up Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips (and thanks for using my Amazon affiliate link to do so!).
Michael also pointed me to the following group of videos that he posted to YouTube. They capture a rare 1960 radio interview with Mae Murray.