Chapter 9

For all their skills in driving, silent film actresses were no more immune to automobile accidents than the rest of the motoring public. The Los Angeles Herald of September 5, 1918 reported that Olive Thomas, former Follies girl and Triangle star, had a narrow escape:
  "The other day Miss Thomas and a friend were motoring to the home of Julian Eltinge for tea.

Eltinge lives in a castle on top of one of the picturesque Hollywood hills and in making the steep climb the Triangle star lost control of her car, crashing into a stone wall.

The machine is now in the "hospital," although Olive and her companion escaped injury."(75)
While Olive did not have a serious accident in an automobile, she was unable to escape a tragic fate. Just two years later, she died of poisoning in Paris under circumstances which remain uncertain to this day.

Mary MacLaren, the Universal actress who emerged as a leading star under Lois Weber's direction, had a more serious auto accident in Hollywood in 1917 when the Stutz she was driving was hit by another car. The New York Dramatic Mirror reported that "Mary MacLaren has been near death for the past ten days, owing to an automobile accident. She was driving home from the studio when a car driven by a seventeen-year-old boy at the rate of forty miles an hour was driven into her. A delicate operation on her forehead to lift the frontal bone has been the problem of the surgeons attending her."(76)

Fortunately, Mary's condition proved to be not as dire as first feared. She soon recovered and resumed her career in films.

For one major star, however, there would be no escape or recovery from an automobile accident. In 1917, Florence LaBadie was one of the most popular stars in the American cinema. Beginning her film career under D. W. Griffith's direction at Biograph, she joined the Thanhouser Company in New Rochelle, New York in 1911 and rapidly emerged as their leading star. A luminous, gifted actress, Florence was sensitive and poetic but was also known as a girl who feared nothing. Before switching to autos, she had at one time raced motorcycles. Characteristically, she exulted in speed when driving a car and was often ticketed. In 1917, Florence, with a seemingly bright future, was still starring in films under the Thanhouser banner and was engaged to scenarist Daniel Carson Goodman. On August 28, 1917, Florence was driving her roadster near Ossining, New York with Goodman as her passenger. With her customary daring, she drove her car down a steep hill. But when she stepped on the brakes, they failed to hold. The car plunged down the hill at a terrifying speed and overturned at the bottom. Goodman was not seriously hurt but Florence, who had been thrown from her car, suffered critical injuries. Hospitalized in Ossining, she did not recover despite the efforts of specialists and on October 13, 1917, she died at the age of 29. (77)

Both the film industry and the movie-going public mourned the passing of the lovely, sweet-natured Florence, the first great feminine star to die. But neither the individual tragedy of Florence LaBadie nor the collective tragedy of the World War which now involved the United States could snuff out the film actresses' love of a good time that included fast cars--none more than the brilliant light comediennes, Dorothy Gish and Constance Talmadge. Nothing could dim the spirits of those inseperable friends who enjoyed driving their cars down the streets of the rapidly expanding film capital, Hollywood, in the late teens.

As the war years gave way to the rebellion of the post-war years, younger actresses also found the automobile a symbol of the new woman. The golden-haired Paramount star, Mary Miles Minter, rebelling more and more against her mother's control, used the new red roadster she acquired at the age of eighteen to express her independence. In an interview published at the end of the twenties in The Los Angeles Examiner, Mary's mother, Mrs. Charlotte Shelby, recalled the one occasion she had visited the home of Mary's director, William Desmond Taylor, in 1920:
  " 'About the time of this much-discussed visit Mary bought a new car. It was a big, fast roadster, and Mary liked speed. She used to go out, tearing along the roads at 60 and 70 miles an hour. I was her mother and it worried me--naturally.

'We were living on Fremont place. At that time of the year there was lots of fog at nights.

'One night Mary did not come home to dinner. We waited and waited. She did not call. We tried to reassure ourselves of this, but somehow I kept worrying about getting no telephone call and about that big, fast car and the foggy roads.

'We began to call up persons at the studio. We called the cameraman and the assistant cameraman. . . .No one could remember seeing her leave the studio.

'We thought Mr. Taylor perhaps would know.' "
Mrs. Shelby and her chauffeur drove to William Desmond Taylor's house where the director received Mrs. Shelby. She continues:
  " 'Mr. Taylor showed much interest. He, too, appeared worried over Mary's absence . . .

'I remember that he stepped into a sort of a telephone room--an out of the way nook, and called. He talked to an assistant director, I think his name was Frank O'Connor. And he called several others. None had seen Mary or knew where she had gone.

'By this time we both were considerably worried.

'After some conversation, in which I mentioned my fears of an accident, I left.' "
Sometime afterwards, Mary returned home.
  " 'She never told us where she had been that night. We were relieved to learn that there had been no accident and that she was well.

'But months later we learned about that trip. Frank Urson, a dear friend of the family, and an old associate from Santa Barbara days, told me that he had run across Mary, driving her big roadster at 55 miles an hour and that he took her in tow and finally sent her home. He told me he feared she would meet with an accident and warned us against her habit of speeding.' "(78)
Mary's love of speeding resulted in nothing more serious than an accumulation of traffic tickets. Yet the same thirst for independence that led her to step on the gas ultimately had an adverse effect on her career when her love letters to William Desmond Taylor were found in his house after he was murdered. Mary was innocent of anything other than a desire to establish a life of her own in partnership with the director and free herself of parental domination. Much of the public, however, was unprepared to see the innocent young girl in the role of a defiant rebel and she became a victim of circumstances in the wake of Taylor's murder in 1922.

Copyright 1997 William M. Drew

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