Valeska Suratt

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Valeska Suratt
Valeskasuratt.jpg
from The Girl with the Whooping Cough Broadway play 1910
Born (1882-06-28)June 28, 1882
Owensville, Indiana, U.S.
Died July 2, 1962(1962-07-02) (aged 80)
Washington, D.C.
Resting place
Highland Lawn Cemetery
Nationality American
Other names Valeska Surratt
Occupation Actress
Years active 1906–1922
Spouse(s) Billy Gould (m. c.1905–c.1911)
Fletcher Norton (m. 1911–41)

Valeska Suratt (June 28, 1882 – July 2, 1962) was an American stage and silent film actress. Over the course of her career, Surrat appeared in eleven silent films all of which are now lost.

Early life and career[edit]

Suratt was born in Owensville, Indiana to Ralph and Anna Suratt. Her paternal grandparents were French immigrants and her maternal grandparents immigrated to the United States from England. She had one stepsister, one older brother and a younger sister. At the age of six, her family moved to Terre Haute. She dropped out of school in 1899 and worked at a photographer's studio. Suratt later moved to Indianapolis where she worked as an assistant in a millinery at a department store.[1][2]

Career[edit]

Publicity photograph by Gerald Carpenter, c. 1916.

Suratt began her career as an actress on the Chicago stage. Around 1900, she began appearing in vaudeville. She soon paired with performer Billy Gould (whom she later married) and the two created a successful act that included an exotic Apache dance performed by Suratt. In 1906, she made her Broadway debut in the musical The Belle of Mayfair, followed by a role in Hip! Hip! Hooray! the following year. By 1908, Suratt and Gould had parted ways and Suratt began a successful solo act which featured her singing and dancing while wearing glamorous costumes and gowns. Suratt's success in vaudeville continued and she began billing herself as "Vaudeville's Greatest Star" and "The Biggest Drawing Card in New York".[3] In 1910, she appeared in the show The Girl with the Whooping Cough. New York City mayor William Jay Gaynor claimed that the show was "salacious" and had it shut down because of its sexually suggestive themes.[4] In December 1910, she teamed up with Fletcher Norton (who became her second husband) in a playlet titled Bouffe Variety. She became noted for appearing in playlets where she played a variety of roles in comedies and melodramas.[3]

During her years the stage, Valeska was noted for the high fashion clothes she wore on stage and her name became synonymous with lavish gowns worldwide. Among the items which were most commented about was an $11,000 Cinderella cloak. She was sometimes called the "Empress of Fashions". She possibly was another model for the famous Gibson Girl sketchings. Vogue magazine later named her "one of the best dressed women on the stage" and routinely wrote about the gowns she wore in her stage shows in detail.[5]

In 1915, Suratt signed with Fox. Like fellow Fox contract players Theda Bara and Virginia Pearson, Suratt was marketed as a "vamp" and was cast as seductive and exotic characters.[6] Suratt made her film debut in The Soul of Broadway in 1915. Suratt reportedly wore more than 150 gowns in the film which cost $25,000 each.[7] That same year, she made The Immigrant followed by The Straight Way (1916), Jealousy (1916), The Victim (1916), The New York Peacock (1916), and She (1917). She made a total of eleven silent films during her career, all of which are now considered lost.[8]

Decline[edit]

By 1920, Suratt's career had began to wane as the popularity of vaudeville fell out of a favor with audiences as did the vamp image craze.[9] In 1928, Suratt and scholar Mirza Ahmad Sohrab sued Cecil B. DeMille for stealing the scenario for The King of Kings from them.[10] The case went to trial in February 1930 but eventually settled without publicity.[11] Suratt, who had left films in 1917, appeared to be unofficially blacklisted after the suit.[1]

By the end of the 1920s, Suratt disappeared. In the 1930s, she was discovered living in a cheap hotel in New York City and was broke. After novelist Fannie Hurst learned of Suratt's situation, she organized a benefit for her which raised around $2,000. Suratt disappeared for a few weeks after receiving the money and later returned to her hotel room penniless having squandered the money gambling. In an attempt to revive her career, Suratt tried to sell her life story to one of William Randolph Hearst's newspapers. A reporter who read Suratt's manuscript later said that Suratt wrote that she was the Virgin Mary and was the mother of God.[12] Suratt never revived her career on the stage or in films and fell out of public view.[1]

Personal life[edit]

Surratt married twice and had no children. Her first husband was William J. Flannery (1869–1950), known as Billy Gould, a vaudeville comedian known for his minstrel roles. She reportedly married him around 1904. They later divorced. In 1911, she married actor Fletcher Norton to whom she remained married until Norton's death in 1941.

She was a member of the Bahá'í Faith.[13]

Death[edit]

Valeska Suratt died in a nursing home in Washington, D.C. on July 2, 1962. She was 80 years old. Suratt is interred in Highland Lawn Cemetery in Terre Haute, Indiana.[1]

Broadway credits[edit]

Valeska Suratt in "The Belle of the Boulevard", by Jean Paleologue, 1910
Date Production Role Notes
December 3, 1906 – March 30, 1907 The Belle of Mayfair Duchess of Dunmow
October 10 – December 7, 1907 Hip! Hip! Hooray! Mrs. Vera Shapeleigh
April 25 – May 1910 The Girl with the Whooping Cough
June 2 – September 1911 The Red Rose Lola Costume and scenic design
July 6 – September 9, 1922 Spice of 1922

Filmography[edit]

Year Title Role Notes
1915 The Soul of Broadway Grace Leonard, aka La Valencia Lost film
1915 The Immigrant Masha Lost film
1916 The Straight Way Mary Madison Lost film
1916 Jealousy Anne Baxter Lost film
1916 The Victim Ruth Merrill Lost film
1917 The New York Peacock Zena Lost film
1917 She Ayesha, aka "She" Lost film
1917 The Slave Caroline Lost film
1917 The Siren Cherry Millard Lost film
1917 Wife Number Two Emma Rolfe Lost film
1917 A Rich Man's Plaything Marie Grandon Lost film

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d McCormick, Mike (March 14, 2009). "HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Looking at the twists and turns in the life of Valeska Suratt". tribstar.com. Retrieved March 4, 2013. 
  2. ^ Waterbury, Ruth; Vaux Bacon, George (1915). "Valeska Suratt of Terre Haute". Photoplay: The Aristocrat of Motion Picture Magazines, Volume 9 9. Photoplay Magazine Publishing Company. pp. 89–91. 
  3. ^ a b Slide, Anthony (2012). The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville. Univ. Press of Mississippi. pp. 484–485. ISBN 1-617-03250-6. 
  4. ^ Erdman, Andrew L. (2004). Blue Vaudeville: Sex, Morals and the Mass Marketing of Amusement, 1895-1915. McFarland. p. 118. ISBN 0-786-41827-3. 
  5. ^ Erdman 2004 p.117
  6. ^ Front Cover Fort Lee Film Commission (2006). Fort Lee: Birthplace of the Motion Picture Industry. Arcadia Publishing. p. 76. ISBN 0-738-54501-5. 
  7. ^ Solomon, Aubrey (2011). Fox Film Corporation, 1915-1935: A History and Filmography. McFarland. p. 230. ISBN 0-786-48610-4. 
  8. ^ International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House; Pratt, George C. (1982). Faces and Fabrics/Feathers and Furs. George Eastman House. p. 3. ISBN 0-935-39805-8. 
  9. ^ Slide 2012 pp.485
  10. ^ The Helena Independent (Helena, Montana), 25 Feb 1928
  11. ^ Terre Haute Tribune Star website (March 14, 2009)
  12. ^ Slide 2012 pp.485-486
  13. ^ Julie Chanler (1956). From Gaslight to Dawn: an autobiography. New York: New History Foundation. pp. 152–153. 

References[edit]

  • "Startling Secrets of the World's Most Famous Self-Made Beauty." Cedar Rapids Republican. June 16, 1912, Page 13.
  • "Valeska Suratt Thursday." Fort Wayne Journal. July 29, 1917, Page 37.
  • "A Journey Through Queen of Night's Apartment." Oakland Tribune. April 5, 1914, Page 10.
  • "The Kiss-Waltz." Racine Journal-News. February 5, 1913, Page 10.
  • "Rothwell-Smith, Paul. Silent Films! the Performers (2011) ISBN 9781907540325
  • "Star In The Soul of Broadway." Wichita Falls Daily Times. Page 16.

External links[edit]