Chapter 8

The United States' involvement in World War I, as in Great Britain, mobilized many women on the home front, further increasing public support for feminist issues. One wartime activity for which American women in 1917 and 1918 gained particular recognition was ambulance driving, both overseas and in the States. Indeed, one leading silent star threw herself so wholeheartedly into "doing her bit" by driving an ambulance that it largely took her out of the movies.

In the 1910s, Edith Storey was one of the most celebrated actresses on the American screen. No less than Mary Pickford herself praised Edith for her vigorous dramatic performances. Like Mary, Edith was a child actress on the stage who entered films in the early nickelodeon days when she began acting in Vitagraph productions in 1908. Following a series of films in 1910 and 1911 for Gaston Melies' Star Film Ranch in San Antonio, Texas, Edith returned to Vitagraph's Flatbush studio where she became one of their biggest stars. She appeared in over a hundred films within a ten-year period, winning renown for her athleticism and her versatility in a wide range of works that brought her continued acclaim for her acting ability.

In late 1917, Edith moved to Metro Pictures, starring in a succession of features produced on the West Coast. It seemed as though she would continue her success for many more years at her new studio. But in the fall of 1918, the 26-year-old actress suddenly returned East and stopped making films. The movie-going public's curiosity about the star's whereabouts was finally resolved by "Motion Picture Classic." The June, 1919 issue of the magazine published an article by Harrison Haskins entitled "A Star Who Really Did Her Bit" which detailed Edith's wartime experiences:

  "A good many actresses have been photographed at the bedside of wounded soldiers. A whole lot offered much valuable advice on how to win the war. Half a dozen or so talked about volunteering as nurses and ambulance drivers. But Edith Storey actually did her bit.

For months Miss Storey has been driving a war ambulance in the streets of New York--a work no less valuable than handling one behind the Flanders lines. And when the influenza epidemic hit the metropolis, she deserted the steering-wheel with scores of other drivers to take the '"night nurse shift" in the crowded New York hospitals.

All of which gives you some idea of what a very real person is Edith Storey. The downright sincerity of Miss Storey has always shone from her work on the screen, lifting it into the unusual. She is just as honest and direct a young woman in real life. We know of no other star quite like her.

Last October she left a Metro starring contract. Film fans wondered what became of Miss Storey. She disappeared completely. Months later it developed that Miss Storey was quietly doing her bit. No dazzling announcements blazoned in the newspapers, no pictures of the star in uniform, not a single word appeared.

Indeed, Miss Storey doesn't want publicity for her war work. Why? Because "it's been such bully fun," as she explains it. "It thrills me and pleases me--and that's enough."

Miss Storey has been steadily driving an ambulance for the National League for Women's Service. This doesn't mean chauffeuring a motor-car thru the metropolitan streets in a natty uniform. Far from it. Miss Storey, like the others, reports at nine o'clock in the morning and devotes the day to meeting incoming transports and liners at the docks and transporting the sick and wounded to hospitals thru the maddening congestion of Manhattan street traffic, to transporting men from place to place and to special emergency work.

When the great Perth Amboy explosion occurred, Miss Storey drove her car for thirty-six consecutive hours, thru the night, the blinding smoke and the bursting shrapnel, in bringing the injured to safety. And that was but one of the things. The "flu" epidemic brought a mighty need for nurses, and Miss Storey, with many other young women, volunteered. These volunteers served from eight at night to eight in the morning in the city's overflowing hospitals.

One might think that these things would constitute a day's work. But not for the girl ambulance driver. The wounded boys in khaki must have amusement and recreation and the ambulances move the soldiers to and from the theaters at night. This means that the chauffeur turns in her ambulance at about one o'clock in the morning.

Brief furloughs find Miss Storey at her country place at Northport, L. I. Here she busies herself about the garden and "just relaxes." Sundays usually bring her brother, Dick, home and there's a family reunion. Dick is in the navy and the pilot of a submarine chaser. And not the least member of the Storey homestead is a Belgian Red Cross dog, found wounded on the roadside in Flanders by an American ambulance driver. Altho he was gassed in rescuing the dog, the driver got the animal to safety. And he later gave the dog to Miss Storey.

Is Miss Storey going to return to the screen? She's too busy yet to make plans. "Besides, ambulance driving isn't nearly as wearing as starring in the photoplay and it's a thousand times more fun," protests Miss Storey. "We all try to give the boys a good time--and you can bet none of them will ever forget my ambulance if I can help it."

Will they forget?

Just wait until these wounded lads see Miss Storey on the screen again! Just wait!"(AA)

Edith Storey, however, seems to have had a difficult time in reestablishing her career in films after the war. The courage and dedication that the pioneering actress had carried over into real life from many of her screen roles took her out of the cinematic limelight for too long an interval. She made three more films in the early 1920s for Robertson-Cole and then in 1921 at the age of 29 left the screen for good. Until her death many years later in 1967, she continued to reside near Northport, apparently preferring a quiet retirement in rural Long Island to the bustling activity of the expanding new studios in the Hollywood of the 1920s. While sharing other silent actresses' love of driving, Edith was unique in that her prowess at the wheel, by plunging her into the final days of World War I, proved to be the decisive interruption in a career that had been continually successful since her screen debut a decade earlier.

Copyright 1997, 2000 William M. Drew

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