Category: general discussion

Collections Cataloguing: Box 6 (and other things)

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Collections Cataloguing: Box 6 (and other things)


I hope you’re all having a lovely summer and aren’t sweating it out in the heat too much. Maybe you’ve been on a nice beach holiday? Climate change: not a Chinese hoax (sorry, Trump). The past few months have been hectic. Here’s what’s been happening — in life and work — since my last update:

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James Abbe: Capturing the silent screen

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James Abbe: Capturing the silent screen

This post was written for the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon co-hosted by Movies Silently, Once Upon a Screen and Silver Screenings.


Since January, I’ve been employed as the Archivist for the estate of photographer James Abbe (I mentioned this a couple posts ago). With approximately 5,000 items including negatives, original prints, letters, scrapbooks and more, it’s a big and exciting  job scanning and cataloguing this treasure trove. But we’re making headway and eventually the estate hopes to transform it into a searchable, online archive dedicated to selling prints and providing information to researchers.

James Abbe grew up in Newport News, Virginia where he became interested in photography at an early age. In the 1900s Newport News was a busy shipping town and Abbe was often found wandering the streets with his handheld fold out Kodak, capturing events of local interest. He became so prolific that he was dubbed “The boy photographer of Newport News.”

In 1917, after a successful breakthrough into professional photography for the Washington Post, Abbe moved to New York where he set up his own studio on West 67th Street. It was there that he was introduced to the film world. His first film star subject was Marguerite Clark whose screen credits included The Crucible (1914), The Seven Sisters (1915) and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1918). He also photographed several actors who appeared on the New York stage before making a break in films, including Fred Astaire (and his sister/dancing partner Adele), Talulah Bankhead and Mae West.

As National Portrait Gallery curator Terence Pepper has noted, Abbe’s “most enduring relationship in the film world” was with Lillian Gish and her sister Dorothy. Indeed, many original prints of the sisters taken separately in New York, London, and Paris during the 1920s have surfaced in the archive. He first photographed Lillian in his New York studio for the 1917 D.W. Griffith film Broken Blossoms in which Gish played Lucy, the poor girl in London’s gritty East Wend who falls in love with a Chinese man. Abbe’s sittings with Gish led to a working relationship with director D.W. Griffith who produced films out of his studio in Mamaroneck, New York. At Mamaroneck, Abbe worked as a portrait photographer or stills photographer (sometimes both) on several of Griffith’s films.

In 1920, Abbe moved on to Hollywood where he worked closely with Mack Sennett at Keystone Studios, and contributed photographs to several fan magazines. He even had his own feature, “The Photographer Takes the Stage,” in Motion Picture Classic, a sister publication of other popular fan magazines like Shadowland and Beauty. Several future Hollywood big shots were employed by Sennett during Abbe’s tenancy in Hollywood. Among Abbe’s future-famous subjects were Gloria Swanson, Carole Lombard and Wallace Beery. He also captured legends of their own time like Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood, Charlie Chaplin during The Pilgrim, and Mary Pickford for Tess of the Storm Country and Suds.

Abbe’s film photography was not limited to the United States. He was first and foremost a freelance photojournalist and as the years went on he built up a roster of big name magazines and newspapers that accepted his photographic essays and often kept his photographs on file. In London, he contributed to The London Magazine, The Tatler and The Sketch. A notable essay that we’ve come across thus far was one he did about his time spent with director Herbert Wilcox at Elstree Studios where Dorothy Gish was employed for several films during 1925-1926. In Berlin, he photographed luminaries like F.W Murnau and Emil Jannings at UFA, frequently contributing to Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung. In Moscow, his subjects included Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein.

Although the breadth of Abbe’s work spans several decades and subjects ranging from theater to ballet, politics to war photography, his involvement in filmmaking during the era of silent cinema is significant enough to warrant discussion on its own. Here, then, is a selection of film-related images scanned from the archives of James Abbe.

I’d love to know your thoughts on these photographs, and if you’re big into silent film and recognize people or dates that we have yet to identify, please let me know!

Learn more about the Abbe Archive on Facebook.

Charlie Chaplin in The Pilgrim

Charlie Chaplin in The Pilgrim (1922), signed by Abbe in his signature crayon

Douglas Fairbanks Mary Pickford james Abbe

Abbe (right) with friends Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in France circa 1924. Photographer unknown.

Tom Mix

Tom Mix wearing his trademark cowboy attire, photographed in his suite at the Aldon Hotel in Berlin, 1925. Abbe managed to get Mix to pose with theatre impresario Max Reinhardt in another photo, despite him having never heard of Mix.

Tallulah Bankhead

Pre-Hollywood: Tallulah Bankhead photographed on her arrival in New York in 1918. She made her debut in The Squab Farm that year.

Frederich Wilhelm Murnau

Legendary German film director Friedrich Wilhelm (F.W.) Murnau photographed at UFA studios in Berlin cira 1926


Russian actor Erast Pavlovich Garin in Gogol’s Revisor, directed by Vsevolod Meyerhold. Moscow, 1927. Abbe called Garin “A cross between John Barrymore and Harold Lloyd.”

D.W. Griffith

American director D.W. Griffith photographed at his Mamaroneck studios in New York while filming Orphans of the Storm, 1919.

Jeanne Eagels

American film and stage actress Jeanne Eagels in David Belasco’s “Daddies,” 1919. A variant pose from this sitting was the first photograph to be published on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

Ivor Novello Gladys Cooper

Ivor Novello and Gladys Cooper in a still from Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Calvert, 1923)

David Belasco and Jessie Matthews

Theatrical producer C.B. Cochran with British songstress Jessie Matthews, star of Rogers and Hart’s “Ever Green,” photographed on stage at the London Pavilion circa 1930. Matthews would later make a smash hit singing “Over My Shoulder” in Victor Saville’s film adaptation.

The White Sister

Abbe’s (3rd) wife, former Ziegfeld Folly Polly Platt (Shorrock) as an extra in the 1922 film The White Sister. The photograph was taken on location in Italy.

Behind the scenes on London

American actress Dorothy Gish (seated, center) and the crew of Herbert Wilcox’s London (1926) take a break during location shooting in England.

Irene Bordoni Jack Buchanan

Irene Bordoni and Jack Buchanan take a smoke break on the set of their first talking picture, Paris (1929). Director Clarence Badger can be seen in the sound recording box behind them.

Theda Bara

Portrait of American silent film star Theda Bara. Photo is undated.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess

Still of Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish in Way Down East (D.W. Griffith, 1920)

Louise Fazenda and Wallace Beery

Louise Fazenda, Wallace Beery and unidentified woman in a publicity portrait for Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios. Fazenda (left) is in costume for her 1920 film Down on the Farm.

Marion Davies

Undated portrait of Marion Davies who was then starring in a revue at New York’s Amsterdam Roof.

Rudolph valentino and Natacha Rambova

The Latin Lover Rudolph Valentino and wife Natacha Rambova in a publicity portrait for their celebrated dance tour for Mineralava Clay Company, 1923.

Mary Pickford

America’s Sweetheart Mary Pickford photographed in Paris circa 1924.

Bobbie Vernon and Gloria Swanson

Bobbie Vernon, Gloria Swanson and an unidentified Mack Sennett player. The photo has been marked up for publication alongside a three-column story on Swanson’s life in an unspecified magazine or paper.

Emil Jannings

Emil Jannings in costume as Faust, photographed at UFA studio in Berlin, 1925.

Lillian Gish in The White Sister

Lillian Gish in costume for her role in The White Sister. Photographed on location in Italy in 1922. Notice the grates in the pavement.

Constance Talmadge

Undated portrait of American actress Constance Talmadge.

Being the scenes in British studio

Behind the scenes on a film shoot with director Herber Wilcox and crew (likely the 1926 film London at Elstree Studios). The man in the top hat on the right appears to be Adelqui Millar (Adelqui Migliar).

Betty Compson and Clive Brook

American actress Betty Compson and British actor Clive Brook in The Royal Oak (Maurice Elvey, 1923)

Dorothy Gish as Nell Gwyn

Dorothy Gish publicity portrait for Nell Gwyn (Herbert Wilcox, 1926)


Talking Vivien Leigh and The Future

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Talking Vivien Leigh and The Future

A couple weeks ago I was contacted by a youtube user called Jim Junot, who has started a web series called The Junot Files where he interviews authors of books related to old Hollywood. On Sunday we sat down to chat via Skype about Vivien Leigh and the research that went in to Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, why I didn’t shy away from writing about mental illness, and what’s coming up next in work and life. (About that: I can tell you that after many years of nail biting anxiety and low level depression, followed by about 8 months of proper “me time” during which I had to move back to California, got a new therapist, a proper diagnosis, went on medication, and spent last summer and fall getting to know me, the ball is finally rolling again and I feel stronger and ready to tackle the uncertainty of the future.)

The biggest news is that I’m happy to officially announce my next book, which I’m co-writing with my dear friend Anthony Uzarowski. We’re giving Ava Gardner the illustrated biography treatment! Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies (working title) will be published by Running Press in October 2016 and will be of the same format as the Vivien Leigh book. I’ve even requested the same designer who I thought nailed it on the first go around. What excites me about this project is that it’s a chance for me to learn about someone I didn’t know much about already, and to be able to branch off from Vivien Leigh in a professional way. This is not to say my interest in Vivien or Laurence Olivier has waned–in fact it’s only grown as more information and archives become available and there’s a lot of potential for future projects (including one I’m collaborating on at the moment). However, my goal is to be Kendra Bean: Historian rather than just Kendra Bean: Vivien Leigh Expert Lady, you know? So I’m eager to expand my knowledge in different areas of media history. Anthony and I are currently hard at work so if you enjoyed my first effort at book writing, we both hope you’ll stick around for the second!

The other big news is that I’m moving back to London in the fall to rejoin Robbie and Lulu the kitty, and also to pursue another MA – this time in Museum Studies at University College London as training to become a museum curator. After co-curating the Starring Vivien Leigh exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, followed by a Photographs Dept. internship under the guidance of Terence Pepper and Claire Freestone, I felt like I’d finally found an area of work where I feel “at home.” Subsequent involvement with goings-on at the Victoria and Albert Museum has added to my desire to go down that road. I’ve learned that the museum/archives sector is a tough area to break in to, especially with the economy (in the US and UK) being in shambles at the moment, so I’m trying to build up my CV.

Luckily, I was given a wonderful opportunity back in January to assist the estate of photographer James Abbe in digitizing and cataloguing his photographic archive. It’s been a very interesting experience so far and I’m proud to be involved with this large-scale project from the beginning. Abbe was a portrait photographer as well as a very active photojournalist from the 1910s-1930s. His subjects ranged from Lillian Gish and Charlie Chaplin to Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. His work has been exhibited a few times in museums, including a landmark show put together by Terence Pepper at the National Portrait Gallery in London back in 1995 that really brought Abbe back into the public consciousness. There is infinite potential for this material and we are working on ways to harness it. The first step is getting it all organized, so that’s what I’ll be doing for the rest of the summer.



The mystery of Suzanne Farrington

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The mystery of Suzanne Farrington

It was with sadness that I learned last week of the death of Suzanne Farrington, Vivien Leigh’s only child. She passed away presumably at home in Lower Zeals, Wiltshire, of unstated causes at age 81. Many people know of her, but few outside her family and immediate circle seem to know much about her. The death announcement in the Telegraph told us that she lived a life of love and laughter and is survived by her three sons, 12 grandchildren and numerous friends, while a longer obituary in the same paper focused more on Suzanne’s tenuous relationship with her famous mother than her individual accomplishments as a woman, wife and mother.

Who was Suzanne Farrington, really? While conducting research for Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, meeting Suzanne was like trying to reach the summit of Mount Everest when I wasn’t an experienced climber. There was a shroud of protective secrecy surrounding her that was carefully held in place by several gatekeepers.

Vivien Leigh and daughter SuzanneVivien with Suzanne in 1935

“Have you talked to Suzie?” many people asked me. I had not, I said, but I hoped to. I questioned everyone I interviewed about her. Is she nice? What’s she like? She was indeed nice, they said, but she never talks about Vivien, “I mean, she was basically abandoned by her mother.” And there was often the added reminder that “she doesn’t look much like Vivien.” Trader Faulkner told me of an embarrassing gaffe he made when he met Suzanne once at Notley Abbey. “You’re not like your mother, are you?” he said to her, without thinking. “No,” she responded. “Thank God.”

Whether Suzanne’s reluctance to talk about her life stemmed from lingering feelings of resentment over the atypical relationship she shared with Vivien, or the constant and unfair comparisons to her mother, or some other reason entirely, I was aware from the beginning and respected her want for privacy. And so I explained to my interviewees that my goal was not to push for information about her private life but rather to get her blessing for a project that was very near and dear to me. See, in my experience, I find it better to meet people in person rather than rely on formal letters through lawyers or other intermediaries. I feel that a face-to-face meeting (or even a direct email or phone call) allows people to see what I’m really about and helps me to assure them that I’m not some random crazy person out to write a tabloid-style exposé on their famous relative or friend.

Vivien Leigh and daughter SuzanneVivien and Suzanne at Suzanne’s wedding to Robin Farrington, December 1957

There were several of Vivien Leigh’s letters in the Laurence Olivier Archive that I was determined to use; I felt that even if I couldn’t quote the letters in full, extracts would add something special to my book. This being my first foray into book writing, I wanted to make sure I did everything the right away. I figured the powers that be would recognize that if I had wanted to write some sort of trashy tell-all about Vivien, I wouldn’t even bother asking permission for anything. Right? So I carefully drafted a letter to Suzanne stating my mission and telling her about myself and the work I’d done so far. Then I sent the letter via her lawyer, who passed it on for me (though not, I strongly suspect, with any sort of word of encouragement. It is, after all, a firm that represents high profile clients like Rupert Murdoch). Then I waited. And waited, and waited some more. There were moments of great stress thinking about what she might say, if anything. I even remember dreaming about it once – of receiving a letter that said yes, you can use my mother’s letters! After about three months, I received a curt email from the lawyer saying he regretted to inform me that neither Suzanne nor Joan Plowright (who I hadn’t enquired about) was willing to let me use anything under their copyright. No explanation as to the reason why. Just a swift “No, sorry.” I was at the BFI Library going through Vivien’s letters in the Jack Merivale papers at the time, and I went into the bathroom and cried. It seemed like the worst thing that could happen; that possibly all the time and effort I’d already put in to research and making contacts was for nothing and this book would never come to fruition.

It was a crushing blow, but I refused give up.

Some of my interviewees, after our meetings, were eager to help. Vivien’s sister-in-law, Hester St John-Ives (who sadly passed away just after Christmas last year), was friendly with Suzanne and offered to phone and vouch for me. She wasn’t able to reach her, but I greatly appreciated the kind effort. Others flat out told me that Suzanne wouldn’t want to meet with me; and there were also those who didn’t feel like they could even talk about Vivien because they were good friends with Suzanne and had already talked to x biographer ages ago.

Vivien Leigh with daughter and grandsonVivien with Suzanne and first-born grandchild, Neville Farrington, 1958

“I wish you had been doing this when Peter Hiley was still alive,” Hester said to me while we had lunch at her house in Devon one January day back in 2013. Hiley, who had worked for both the Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier estates since the two of them were still alive and married to one another, had been the link between biographers like Hugo Vickers (and I assume others) and Suzanne. Alas, Hiley died in 2008, just a year after I launched this website and a year before I decided I was going to embark on the journey of publishing a book about Vivien. Full disclosure: in 2009 I hadn’t the slightest idea how to go about getting a book published so even if Hiley had still been with us, I probably wouldn’t have known to get in contact anyway.

In the end, I never got to meet Suzanne. But as Mick Jagger once aptly pointed out, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try, sometimes you just might find you get what you need.” Days before my submission deadline, I was contacted by Hugo Vickers who had encouraged my enthusiasm from the beginning. Having presented Suzanne with second a letter I had written, she finally said yes. For that I’m eternally grateful.

This brings us back to the question “Who was Suzanne?” As a Vivien Leigh fan, I know I speak for many when I say that it would have been great if she’d opened up about her mom in a documentary or something. As a writer, in the absence of a direct interview, I relied on interviews and quotes she gave to the press in the years before Vivien’s death (this one continues to be one of the most popular posts on this site for some reason).

Gertrude Hartley and Suzanne farringtonSuzanne and her grandmother, Gertrude Hartley, early 1970s

I think it’s natural for us fans to wish Suzanne had spoken more about her relationship with Vivien, but I also believe her silence is to be equally respected and admired. By keeping herself from the spotlight, Suzanne was able to live her own life away from Vivien’s ever-present shadow. She put her family and friends first, and reaped the benefits. Those of us who never had the privilege of meeting her may never know who she really was. But she did bequeath us with an extraordinary gift in the form of her mother’s papers, now safely ensconced at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. And that, I think, is more than enough.

If any of you had the privilege of meeting Suzanne, please feel free to comment. I’d love to hear your story!

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Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait

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Afternoon tea with Renee Asherson

Renee Asherson in The Small Back Room

In 1961, a journalist asked Vivien Leigh why she found old people so fascinating. She responded by saying, “Their wisdom will do for a start; the fact that they’ve lived…What they say is so wise and good. They know what they’re talking about.”

Vivien’s words are so true. I’ve always loved old people, as well. They have the best stories–think of all the things people in their 80s and 90s have seen! My maternal grandmother was born in 1911 and I remember ringing her up when I was a kid to “interview” her for class projects about the Depression and the War. I was too young to appreciate what she had been through at the time. It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that my interest in history and the early half of the 20th century really melded together and blossomed into a passion. My grandma died not long afterward at the age of 94, and I have often regretted not having these conversations with her as an adult. In a way, I was given the chance to make up for my past lack of communication this afternoon when I had tea with 97 year old actress Renee Asherson.

The meeting was pure happenstance. Last week, a friend of mine gave me the number of Australian actor Trader Faulkner who acted in the Royal Shakespeare Company with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh during the 1955  Stratford season. He invited me around for a chat and was so warm and open, and most keen to help. We were speaking of our favorite actors and he mentioned Robert Donat, and that he knew his wife Renee Asherson quite well. I mentioned how I’d tried to get in touch with Renee a few months ago for this project so he rang her up right then and there and we made plans for tea. Small wold, indeed!

We showed up at a gorgeous flat near Primrose Hill and were greeted at the door by her caretaker and shown into the sitting room. There, in a comfy chair by the large window, surrounded by books and mementoes from a life well lived, sat the woman who starred opposite Laurence Olivier in Henry V and played Stella to Vivien Leigh’s Blanche in the London production of A Streetcar Named Desire. There was no mistaking her face.

Renee is remarkably sharp for nearing 100 and has a friendly, lively personality; the conversation was often permeated by her tinkling laughter. She had nothing but nice things to say about Larry and Vivien but I found her entire dialogue with Trader completely fascinating. She spoke about being born in Kensington and still remembering the bombs raining down during the war (WWI!); taking the early train from Marylebone to Denham and tramping through muddy fields from the station to report for work with Laurence Olivier in 1943; acting with Trevor Howard at the Old Vic; loving Gone with the Wind; being blacklisted from H.M. Tennant’s for complaining about her wig during a stage production at the Aldwych; doing the shopping in Thame with Vivien Leigh when she was invited to Notley for weekends; taking care of her husband Robert Donat when he was seriously ill with asthma in the mid-1950s. And the names that were dropped! It was like a book of who’s who of British film and theatre history! I was just happy to sit there and sip my tea, taking in the scene. They were having such a good time reminiscing, it was lovely to witness. I ended up showing Renee how my iPhone worked and we cooed over photos of my cat Coco, as every conversation with a famous person should end.

As Trader and I walked back toward Camden Town, I thanked him for taking me to see someone I’d wanted to meet for such a long time. He kindly reminded me that everything happens for a reason; that we’re put on this earth to help people. Perhaps, he said, wherever Vivien Leigh is right now, she’s giving me a gentle nudge in the direction of my goal.

Perhaps there are strange forces at work, but whatever happens, I feel very lucky to have had this experience.

*Photo via The Powell and Pressburger Pages

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Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait