Virginia Brissac

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Virginia Brissac
Virginia Brissac01.JPG
Virginia Brissac c. 1904
Born Virginia Alice Brisac
(1883-06-11)June 11, 1883
San Jose, California, U.S.
Died July 26, 1979(1979-07-26) (aged 96)
Santa Fe, New Mexico, U.S.
Occupation Stage and Screen Actor
Years active 1913–1955

Virginia Brissac (June 11, 1883 – July 26, 1979) was an American West Coast stage actress who came out of retirement in her early 50s to begin what would turn out to be a twenty-year career as a performer in cinema and television productions. She was known as an ingénue in her early theatrical years, in her latter career Brissac’s stern features often led her to play schoolteachers and other authority figures rôles. She is perhaps best remembered today as Jim Stark’s (James Dean) grandmother in the 1955 film, Rebel Without a Cause.

Early life[edit]

Virginia Brissac was born in San Jose, California, and later raised in San Francisco.[1][2] She was the daughter of B. F. Brissac, a well-to-do Bay Area insurance executive, and was said to be a niece of the actress Mary Shaw.[3][4] As a young girl she began a collection of autographs that would grow to include such notables as Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, Richard Mansfield, Henry Irving and Rudyard Kipling. When she wrote Kipling asking for his signature, his secretary wrote back informing her that the writer would grant her request if she would be willing to donate $2.50 to a certain London charity. In her reply some weeks later Brissac wrote:

Enclosed is the $2.50 for your Fresh Air Fund. I suppose you thought that when I saw $2.50 I’d give up the idea of your autograph, but I didn’t.You see I have had to save for soldiers here, for we have wars of our own once in a while, and as I’m only a little school girl with an income of 50 cents a week, you can see it has taken me some time to get the $2.50 together. But here it is and I am waiting for your autograph.

Brissac’s letter was forwarded to Kipling who was in India at the time. Her reply so amused him he sent her his autograph along with the following passage from his poem, In the Neolithic Age:

"But my Totem saw the shame; from his ridgepole-shrine he came, And he told me in a vision of the night: – "There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, "And every single one of them is right"[5]

Stage career[edit]

By 1902 Brissac was a lead player at San Francisco’s Fischer’s Theatre opposite the Bay area actor Reginald Travers (c. 1879–1952). In September of that year the two performed at a church benefit in a specialty act billed as Reginald and Virginia Brissac Travers. A month later they starred together at Fischer’s Theatre in a hit farce entitled A Pair of Lunatics. After his death in San Francisco nearly fifty years later, Travers was described by The New York Times as a pioneer little theatre impresario and civic leader.[6][7][8]

In February 1903, Brissac was with Ralph Stuart’s company playing Constance in a stage adaptation of The Three Musketeers at the Theatre Republic in San Francisco and that September she appeared with Florence Roberts at the Alcazar Theatre performing ingénue roles[5] in Welcome Home and Gabriele d'Annunzio's Gioconda.[9][10][11] After touring with Robert’s company Brissac appeared in June 1904 at the Alcazar with White Whittlesey in Soldier of Fortune and again that August in Clyde Fitch’s, Nathan Hale.[12][13]

In the fall of 1905 Brissac played Caroline Mitford in the William Gillette play Secret Service, and that December she played the title role in Leo Ditrichstein's Vivian's Pappas, both staged at the old Belasco Theatre, Los Angeles.[14][15] The following February she was declared a hit by a Los Angeles newspaper for her portrayal of Tweeny at the Mason Opera House in Paul Kester's Sweet Nell of Old Drury.[16]

In July 1906, Brissac married Eugene D. Mockbee, an actor with the Belasco players. The couple moved to Spokane, Washington, where on October 28, 1907, their only child, Ardel Mockbee, later known as Ardel Wray, was born. In May 1912 Brissac obtained a divorce from Mockbee, on grounds of failure to provide, and was awarded custody of their daughter.[3][17] Ardel Wray (1907–1983) later became a Hollywood screenwriter remembered for such films as I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man and Isle of the Dead.[18]

By the fall of 1906 Brissac was once again with Florence Roberts’ company touring Eastern venues in The Strength of the Weak, a play by Alice M. Smith and Charlotte Thompson.[19] By the end of 1906 Roberts’ company was touring the Pacific Northwest.[20] By Spring 1907 Brissac had joined the Jessie Shirley Company at the Auditorium Theatre in Spokane, Washington, with whom she would appear in productions of Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Bachelor’s Housekeeper, A Man of Her Choice, The Two Orphans and The Triumph of Betty.[21]

For the 1907/08 season she joined the Curtiss Comedy Company at Spokane’s Columbia Theatre performing leading rôles in The Life of an Actress, In the Palace of the King, The Transgressors, By Right of Sword, Ten Nights in a Bar-Room, Deadwood Dick's Last Shot, The Banker, the Thief and the Girl, Old Heidelberg and The Land of Cotton.[22]

By May 1908 Brissac was appearing with Grant Churchill in a vaudeville act at the Pantages Theatre, Spokane in a piece called The Billionaire.[23] On May 11 she opened Spokane’s new Natatorium Park theatre with her husband, Eugene Mockbee, a frequent co-star during their time in Spokane. Billed as Miss Virginia Brissac and Summer Stock Company, they filled out the remainder of the 1908 season there in productions of Sweet Clover, Troubles, Where Men are Game, School Days, Kathleen of Erin and Home Sweet Home.[24]

Brissac apparently chose to leave the stage after her finale engagement in June 1908 and did not return to it until March 1911.[25]

Brissac returned to the Alcazar on March 20, 1911, supporting Max Figman in Mary Jane’s Pa.[26] Three months later she starred in the Hal Reid play Human Hearts at the Seattle Theatre, Seattle, Washington,[27] and that July opened in Tacoma, Washington starring in A Yankee Doodle Boy with the Pringle Stock Company’s engagement at the Tacoma Theatre.[28]

In late 1912 Brissac joined the World’s Fair Stock Company and toured the Hawaiian Islands for a year or so, working with her future husband John Griffith Wray, a lead actor and stage director with the World’s Fair Stock Company[29] and a future MGM film director.[30] Brissac opened at Honolulu’s Bijou Theatre in Brewster's Millions on December 21, 1912, and closed her Hawaiian tour toward the end of 1913 with their finale performance in Honolulu coming on October 21 at the Grand Opera House. During their time in Hawaii Brissac and Wray made at least two short silent films together, The Shark God and Hawaiian Love, both directed by Wray. Brissac sailed home to San Francisco on January 28, 1914, aboard the steamship Wilhelmina.[31]

Brissac and Wray married in Santa Ana, California, on June 29, 1915.[32] They divorced in May 1927, some two years before Wray’s untimely death.[33]

Brissac remained active in primarily Bay Area theater for several more seasons. Perhaps her last stage performance, billed as a "Finale Farewell", came at the Bishop Playhouse, Oakland, California, on August 5, 1917, starring in The Eternal Magdalene.


SAN DIEGO, April 19.—Robert Shear, s sailor on the cruiser Maryland. leaped into the bay from the vessel's deck this afternoon and rescued Miss Virginia Brissac of this city from drowning. Miss Brissac was standing in the bow of a small boat taking a picture of the warship with a Kodak. The boat was overturned and she had gone down twice before Shear reached her. Commander Lang of the Maryland, in the presence of the crew, heartily praised Shear for his brave act. Shear is 22 years old. His home is in Michigan, but he enlisted In Los Angeles. San Francisco Call, April 20, 1912 [34]

Russ Columbo[edit]

Sometime after her divorce from Wray, Brissac served as a private secretary and assistant to the entertainer Russ Columbo until his death on September 2, 1934. Columbo died following a freak accident involving a friend's antique dueling pistol. Brissac was later called upon by the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office to testify and identify Columbo’s remains at the subsequent inquest.[35]

Film career[edit]

Brissac returned to film as Mrs. Van Twerp in the 1935 comedy Honeymoon Limited. Over her career she performed in over 155 big and small screen productions in mostly supporting and minor parts. During what is considered the American Golden Age of Television Brissac appeared in episodes of Dragnet, The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse, I Love Lucy, Crown Theatre with Gloria Swanson, Mayor of the Town (1954 series based on the 1940s radio show) and The Lone Wolf.[36]

Brissac retired in 1955 after filming Rebel Without a Cause and died nearly 25 years later in 1979 at the age of 96 in Santa Fe, New Mexico.[2]

Partial filmography[edit]


  1. ^ The Pacific Monthly, July, 1905, p. 586 accessed 5.3.13
  2. ^ a b Doyle, Billy H. The Ultimate Directory of Silent and Sound Era Performers: A Necrology of Actors and Actresses, 1999, p. 70
  3. ^ a b Virginia Brissac Granted Divorce. San Francisco Call, May 7, 1912, p. 1
  4. ^ Playhouse Paragraphs. Evening Star(Washington D. C.), July 22, 1906, Page 7,
  5. ^ a b Has Many Autographs. The Evening Statesman (Walla Walla, Washington), January 07, 1904, Amusements
  6. ^ Will Give Benefit. The San Francisco Call, September 25, 1902, p. 10
  7. ^ Amusements. The San Francisco Call., October 23, 1902, p. 7
  8. ^ Reginald Travers. The New York Times, January 6, 1952, p. 92
  9. ^ Ralph Stuart. The San Francisco Call, February 19, 1903, p. 14
  10. ^ Florence Roberts. The San Francisco Call, September 1, 1903, p. 4
  11. ^ Gioconda Given Warm Reception. The San Francisco Call, September 11, 1903, p. 4
  12. ^ Whittlesey is Welcome. The San Francisco Call, June 28, 1904 p. 16
  13. ^ Alcazar Company. The San Francisco Call, August 30, 1904 p. 14
  14. ^ Secret Service Fills Belasco Theatre, The Los Angeles Herald, October 31, 1905, p. 6
  15. ^ Sees Road to Quick Success. The Los Angeles Herald, December 11, 1905, p. 3
  16. ^ Refreshing is Nell of Drury. The Los Angeles Herald, February 27, 1906, p. 8
  17. ^ Prize Fighter Used Fists On His Wife. San Francisco Call, April 26, 1912, p. 26
  18. ^ Ardel Wray - Internet Movie Database accessed 5.5.13
  19. ^ Columbia - Florence Roberts - The Strength of the Weak. The Washington Times (Washington D. C.), September 23, 1906, Woman's Magazine Section, Page 7
  20. ^ Amusements. The Evening Statesman (Walla Walla, Washington), November 28, 1906, p. 4
  21. ^ Auditorium. The Spokane Press. May 25, 1907, p. 3; May 27, 1907, p. 3; June 29, 1907, p. 3; July 15, 1907, p. 3;
  22. ^ Columbia Theatre. The Spokane Press, December 28, 1907, p. 3; January 2, 1908, p. 3; January 6, 1908, p. 3; January 14, 1908, p. 3; January 30, 1908, p. 3; February 1, 1908, p. 3; February 8, 1908, p. 3; February 15, 1908, p. 3; February 22, 1908, p. 3; March 2, 1908, p. 3;
  23. ^ Pantages Theatre. The Spokane Press, May 2, 1908, p. 3
  24. ^ Natatorium. The Spokane Press, May 11, 1908 p. 3; May 19, 1908 p. 3; May 28, 1908, p. 3; June 3, 1908, p. 3; June 15, 1908, p. 3
  25. ^ Note: Brissac’s name appears to vanish from the newsprint articles during this period.
  26. ^ Mary Jane Finds Pa at the Alcazar. The San Francisco Call, March 19, 1911, p. 60
  27. ^ Seattle Theatre. The Seattle Star, June 17, 1911, Amusements p. 7
  28. ^ The Playhouses. The Tacoma Times, July 10, 1911, p. 8
  29. ^ Big Stock Company Coming Here. Honolulu Star-Bulletin., December 10, 1912, p. 5
  30. ^ John Wray - Internet Movie Database accessed 5.7.13
  31. ^ Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Great Interest in Opening of Stock Season. December 20, 1912, p. 7; Promises for the Playhouses. October 20, 1913, p. 5; Passengers Departed. January 28, 1914, p. 2
  32. ^ "California, County Marriages, 1850-1952," index and images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 25 Jan 2014), John Wray and Virginia Brissac, 1915
  33. ^ Movie Director and Writer Wed. Syracuse Herald, October 8, 1928,Syracuse,New York p. 10
  34. ^ Sailor Leaps From Ship and Rescues Girl. San Francisco Call, April 20, 1912, p. 15
  35. ^ Camden People, Russ Columbo accessed 5.7.13
  36. ^ Virginia Brissac - Internet Movie Database accessed 5.7.13

External links[edit]