Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels: The Lives, Careers, and Misfortunes of 14 Hard-Luck Girls of the Silent Screen is a compilation of biographies by Michael G. Ankerich that covers each of the following stars: Agnes Ayres, Olive Borden, Grace Darmond, Elinor Fair, Juanita Hansen, Wanda Hawley, Natalie Joyce, Barbara La Marr, Martha Mansfield, Mary Nolan, Marie Prevost, Lucile Ricksen, Eve Southern, and Alberta Vaughan. Each of the entries is illustrated with rare photos and Michael's research is footnoted throughout. An extremely well-written volume which sheds light on fourteen women who have mostly been forgotten.
You'll find more information about Michael G. Ankerich on his website plus a short biography at the bottom of this page. But for now, let's get to the questions:
Question: As mentioned right on the cover "hard-luck" is the unifying trait of the 14 silent actresses you chose to cover in Dangerous Curves Atop Hollywood Heels. When putting the selections together was "hard luck" something you were going for from the start or did the theme begin to develop around your initial selections?
Michael G. Ankerich: I had long been fascinated by a poem by Margaret Sangster, When Night-Time Comes, which paid tribute to the hopes and dreams of those young hopefuls who ventured West in the 1910s and 20s. It is published in the opening pages of Dangerous Curves, but it goes like this:
When night-time comes to Hollywood,
I think the lady moon looks down,
With kindness and sympathy,
Upon the silent, resting town.
She, gently swaying in the sky,
Bathes with a healing, silver fire,
The tired city that has wept,
And laughed, and worked, and known desire!
And all the faiths that have been lost,
And all the plans that went awry,
Are giving back to dreaming hearts,
Her benediction from the sky.
For, as the wistful breezes sing,
And as the clouds about her creep.
The lady moon is keeping guard
Above the earth-bound stars who sleep…..
In addition, I came across a book written in the 1920s (The Truth about the Movies) that warned young hopefuls about leaving their homes and taking a stab at the movie business. I was fascinated by a quote by Anna Q. Nilsson: “There’s a Heartbreak Lane in Hollywood, leading by a circuitous path to the gates of the many studios, strewn with the wreckage of those, possibly with ample beauty, ambition, and all other qualifications, who just couldn’t seem to make a go of it.”
So, I built the idea for Dangerous Curves around the When Night-Time Comes poem and some of the passages from The Truth about the Movies.
There were actresses that I wanted to know more about, particularly Marie Prevost, Barbara La Marr, Elinor Fair, Martha Mansfield, and Lucille Ricksen. I thought their trials made interesting stories primarily for film buffs, but also for anyone interested in the ups and downs of life, good human interest stories.
The idea for the Dangerous Curves slant came during a biking trip one Saturday morning. I had uncluttered my mind from the week’s work, gotten myself away from the computer keyboard and did some deep thinking about the idea I had for a book about the triumphs and tragedies of actresses from the silent screen. I have found that biking and running are ways I use to spark creativity. It was while peddling down the trail that the phrase “Dangerous Curves” and “Hollywood Heels” crept in, and I knew I had my title.
Q: Eve Southern is credited as the genesis for this compilation and you mention your work in tracing a path to her surviving relatives. Was this an easy path given the abundance of online resources today or was it one filled with dead ends? Once all of the dots were connected and you made first contact how receptive were the McDowells (Southern's family) to helping out?
MGA: I have a long fascination with Eve Southern because no one knew what became of her. After a serious toboggan accident in the early 1930s, she disappeared. The trail went cold. So it was the pursuit that cheered me on. Ancestry.com and various newspaper archives are great tools I used in my search for her. There were false leads and dead ends, but I discovered what became of her through her application for Social Security and her death certificate—she died in 1972. Using old addresses and the help of current residents of those addresses, I was able to identify leads for her remaining relatives. Through the phone book, I narrowed down to one person I thought might be her nephew. In a letter, I asked him if he was the nephew of Eve Southern, or whether I had reached a dead end. He called one afternoon and confirmed what I suspected. He was extremely helpful in filling in the gaps about his Aunt Elva and made himself available to answer any questions I had.
Q: Furthermore, why Eve Southern? I think I actually know why as I love researching a wild goose chase myself, thus I know there's usually an inciting incident/reference of some kind which begins the chase. Why were you pulled in particular towards completing Eve Southern's story?
MGA: You are correct, Cliff, about the wild goose chase. It was simply the challenge and the chase back through the decades that gave me the adrenaline.
At the time I was researching Eve, I didn’t know what I would do with the information I learned about her. But, as the Dangerous Curves theme emerged, she made a perfect candidate for the book, with her two accidents and a series of false starts in her career.
Before Eve came along, I had taken a hiatus from my research and writing. I had written two books in the 1990's (Broken Silence and The Sound of Silence), based on interviews with remaining silent film stars. Following their publication, we had lost so many of the ones I interviewed. They were already well into their eighties and nineties when I collected their memories. Then, my mentor and friend, silent film historian Roi Uselton, passed away after a long battle with Parkinson’s and I lost a lot of my enthusiasm for research. Then, along came the mystery of Eve Southern. I like to think I not only sought her, but she reached out to me in some mystical way.
Q: Beyond the McDowells you mention several other families and descendants who granted interviews. Did you have the opportunity to meet personally with any of them and if so what kind of unknown treasures and memorabilia did they share with you?
MGA: I tracked down the nephews of Lucille Ricksen through the same trial and error methods I used for Eve Southern. I was planning a trip to Los Angeles and they invited me up to Oakland to take a look at Lucille’s scrapbooks. We spent a couple of hours looking through the clippings and stills that Lucille and her mother saved. Since Lucille had been dead since 1925, those treasures were invaluable in helping me piece together her life and tragic death. Using documents they had from Forest Lawn, I was able, when I returned later in the week to LA, to locate the urn that held Lucille and her mother’s ashes. No one in her remaining family had ever seen it.
I was also fortunate to have lunch with Tom Gallery, the son of Barbara La Marr. The family of Wanda Hawley was also very helpful.
Q: I had mentioned to you in our correspondence that Mary Nolan and especially Lucille Ricksen were my favorites of your Hard-Luck girls. I don't mean the careers so much as the lives when I ask this, but did you become especially fond of any as you worked and if so were they the same who drew you to the project to begin with?
MGA: I came away with great compassion for Lucille Ricksen, who was a teenager when she died in 1925, and Marie Prevost, a tragic casualty of Hollywood who has been exploited since her death in 1937. I won’t go into the details, but Hollywood history buffs know about the myth that has built up around her death scene and her canine companion. Enough said. Marie was a very talented and successful comedienne in the silent era, but was discarded when addiction and hard times came her way. It was sad for me to see how she couldn’t let go and came back time and again for more punishment from what could be a cruel industry.
With Lucille, I believe she was preyed upon by at least two men in the profession known for their sexual interest in underage girls. While I don’t come right out and indict them in Dangerous Curves, their names are there for readers to see between the lines. Whether Lucille died of tuberculosis (as her death certificate indicates) or from a botched abortion, we will probably never know. Her brother, Marshall, never talked about it to his sons. A complicating factor might have been the fact that Lucille’s mother was a Christian Scientist, so perhaps medical attention wasn’t given to Lucille as quickly as it should have been. Whatever happened, I felt as though Lucille cried out for justice in the robbing of her childhood and in her early death.
I carried around, in my mind and heart, both Lucille and Marie for a long time.
Q: Your earlier books Broken Silence: Conversations with 23 Silent Stars and The Sound of Silence: Conversations with 16 Film and Stage Personalities Who bridged the Gap Between Silents and Talkies are very hard to come by but have extremely intriguing titles! What can you tell us about those two books that we won't find on their sparse Amazon pages?
MGA: The good news is that my first two books are being released in soft cover in late February. I’m thrilled that a new generation of film fans will be able to read my interviews with the remaining silent film stars. Broken Silence came along in 1993 and featured my interviews with such actors and actresses as Eleanor Boardman, Gladys Walton, Muriel Ostriche, Patsy Ruth Miller, Lina Basquette, George Lewis, Dorothy Gulliver, David Rollins, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Dorothy Revier, Baby Marie Osborne, Lois Moran, and several others.
The Sound of Silence was published in 1998 and features my interviews with Mary Brian, Barbara Kent, Billie Dove, Anita Page, Barbara Weeks, Barbara Barondess, Lupita Tovar, Hugh Allan, William Janney, Pauline Curley, Marion Shilling, and a few others.
I’m also proud of the book I wrote with Joyce Compton, The Real Joyce Compton: Behind the Dumb Blonde Movie Image. She tells an interesting tale about what life was like for a struggling actress in the 1920s and 30s. She is blunt and always revealing about her career, her often overly-protective parents, her romances, her one attempt at marriage, and her struggle to support her family after her film career ended.
Q: Are you working on anything new right now?
MGA: I am currently working on a full-length biography of Mae Murray. I’m also working on a companion book to Dangerous Curves, but this one focuses on actors from the silent screen who had hard luck and difficult challenges in their lives and careers.
Q: Why Mae Murray? More exactly why a full scale biography of Mae Murray rather than a shorter essay in the style of or included with the women you wrote about in Dangerous Curves?
MGA: Mae Murray was a major star of the silent era and there hasn’t been any serious look at her life and career since the Jane Ardmore biography in 1959. There have been a number of excellent career articles, but nothing on the scale I’m doing. She was interesting to me on several fronts. No one has definitively settled when and where she was born or what type of family circumstances she came from. Also, no one had been able to gain the cooperation of her son. In this upcoming book, I reveal her early life that she tried so hard to conceal and bring out my conversations with Daniel Michael Cunning, her son. He has been most helpful and encouraging in my work.
Mae fascinates me for a number of reasons. Her story has the Ziegfeld Follies, cabarets, major films, star temperament, four failed marriages (one to a penniless prince), countless court battles (including one for the custody of her son), self enhancement, and delusion. It’s a story that goes from rags to riches and back to rags, where she was depending on the kindness of strangers, but still living in her mind as if it were still the 1920s. Her story has all the ingredients for a wild ride through Broadway and Hollywood in the 1910s and 20s.
Q: Thanks so much, Michael! I'm really looking forward to getting my hands on those earlier books and will anxiously await publication of your Mae Murray bio!
Michael G. Ankerich is a writer whose work focuses on the silent film era of Hollywood. Before recording the memories of the remaining silent film stars in the 1980s and 90s, he was interviewing country music artists as a way to meet his favorites.
He later became interested in silent films and interviewed many of the remaining actors and actresses from that era. His efforts were published in two books: Broken Silence: Conversations With 23 Silent Film Stars and The Sound of Silence: Conversations with 16 Film and Stage Personalities Who Bridged the Gap Between Silents and Talkies.
His most recent book is Dangerous Curves Atop Hollywood Heels: The Lives, Careers, and Misfortunes of 14 Hardluck Girls of the Silent Screen. The Real Joyce Compton: Behind the Dumb Blonde Movie Image, written with the late actress Joyce Compton, was released in July 2009.
He is currently working on a biography of silent film actress Mae Murray, a book about ill-fated silent film actors, and a spiritual memoir, Drag Queens at the County Line and Other Spiritual Adventures.
A former newspaper reporter, Ankerich has written extensively for Classic Images, Films of the Golden Age, and Hollywood Studio Magazine, which featured his interview with Butterfly McQueen (Prissy) on the 50th anniversary of the release of Gone With The Wind.
An art history buff, he is determined to see every Vermeer at least once, where ever they are in the world. He's seen quite a number so far, but there's always one more to track down.
Find out more about Michael G. Ankerich and his work at michaelgankerich.com.