The Heiress: Week of April 5th, 1919

Nell Shipman

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley heard about some good fortune coming to an actress:

Some people do have all the luck. As though it were not enough to have her own company and a tremendous salary, now Nell Shipman, star of the Shipman-Curwood Picture Company, has become an heiress.

Miss Shipman, who has just returned from Canada, learned of her good fortune only a few days ago, when a letter from England apprised her of the fact that a grand-aunt on her mother’s side whom she did not even know, had died leaving Miss Shipman a fortune amounting in American money to something over $100,000.

A few days later, Kingsley did an interview with her, and got a corrected version of the story. It seems that Shipman hadn’t actually inherited anything yet, but she found documents (probably among her recently deceased father’s papers) that said she and her brother would be splitting her grandmother’s estate, which was valued at one million pounds.* Because her grandmother was in poor health, Shipman was already planning to make a film in the West Indies, because “the inheritance of the fortune would not prevent her going on with her work, but would merely offer her greater opportunities to pursue her profession.” She also had some charitable schemes.


Nell Shipman was counting her chickens before they hatched. Her grandmother, Eliza Jevons Foster-Barham, lived until 1924. Furthermore, her father was one of eleven children, so Shipman was well-supplied with surviving aunts and uncles as well as cousins who had a claim to the estate. There was no mention of any inheritance in Shipman’s autobiography, The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart.


This was a tumultuous time in Shipman’s life. She had been sick with influenza and nearly died during the 1918 epidemic. Her mother Rose had died in December, 1918 and her father Arnold died in March, 1919. Her only brother Maurice had been wounded fighting in France and he’d just traveled back to the States on a hospital ship, arriving in Hoboken on April 2nd. She had just spent two very cold months north of Calgary, Canada shooting what became her most successful film, Back in God’s Country. Later this year, she divorced her husband and business manager Ernest Shipman and moved in with her Back in God’s Country co-star Bert Van Tuyle. They decided to form an independent production company, Nell Shipman Productions. They went on to make The Girl from God’s Country (1921) and The Grub Stake (1923). You can learn more about her at the Women Film Pioneers site. The Boise State University Archives, where her papers have been preserved, also have a short biography.


Kingsley got to have a very good time at the movies this week:

Oh boy! Whenever you see by the signboards that Tom Mix has mixed in, there you’re going to find drammer that’s pep in the original package. And just the thrillingest, hair-raising-est, breeziest of ‘em all is Treat ‘em Rough at the Alhambra. It’s the essence of all other Wild West dramas boiled down, and yet having so distinctive a flavor of its own you won’t forget it. A crowded house saw it yesterday, and frequently got so excited it applauded.

It’s too bad that critics don’t get to be so enthusiastic these days. The thrills included great riding, roping and branding, as well as a cattle stampede during a prairie fire – and they were running straight for the heroine, of course. You might be able to find out if Tom Mix saved the day, because two reels have been preserved at the Eastman House in Rochester New York. Remarkably, this was just one of EIGHT films he released this year.

Not yet

Kingsley left a reminder that Prohibition was only eight months away. A wine merchant made a big delivery to one of the studios, because everybody was stockpiling supplies.

One of the stars, on his way home, stopped to pick up his little case of sherry. He was glancing around at the names on the cases.

“What are you doing,” asked a director. “Can’t you find yours?”

“Certainly,” responded the star. “I’m only studying my visiting list for next year.”

Unlike modern blind items, Kingsley gave no hint of who the star was.



*This wasn’t quite as heartless as it sounds. Her parents had moved from England to Canada before she was born, so she only met her grandmother once on a family trip.

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