Knowing When to Quit: February 16-28, 1922

Helen Ferguson

One hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley interviewed actress Helen Ferguson, ”a beautiful young woman with brains and a sense of humor that never misses a tick,” and learned all about shooting Westerns in out-of-the-way places in California. Ferguson let fans know that it really wasn’t glamorous:

When Miss Ferguson went recently to Big Bear to make a picture with William Russell, she was ill at the time with tonsillitis. “They kidded me into working,” she said. “I had to do some horseback stunts. Bill had to chase me around a tree on a horse. We had an awful time getting those scenes, because Bill’s horse was wild. Either I wouldn’t run around the right tree or Bill’s horse wouldn’t. I thought I should never get through those scenes.

Horses had caused her trouble for quite a while. She had learned to ride one on the first movie she made with Russell, Shod with Fire, in 1920. After her initial ride, of course she was sore. Her co-workers told her to walk five miles from the location to cure it, but that didn’t help. So Russell told her to come to a dance that evening, and she managed to dance a little with another limping actor, but she hurt more than ever. She told Kingsley, “The company said, ”Well, if you ride again tonight, you won’t be stiff.” That was the last straw. “When won’t I be stiff?” I demanded sarcastically.”

Of course, filmmaking wasn’t all working when you didn’t feel well. The crew sometimes made their own fun on horseback, but her story also showed why civilians should never let anyone film in their town:

Up at Pleasanton, where Miss Ferguson went with ‘Buck’ Jones, the company got started on a wild game of “Follow the Leader,” went right through the theater and onto the stage where a picture was showing. But the natives were good-natured, and received them with applause, made the players do stunts, and then ‘Buck’ treated everybody, audience and all, to ice cream cones.

She didn’t report what the theater owner had to say about the horses inside his theater. She also told Kingsley about another drawback to location shoots: if there was only one girl in the company, the men won’t pay any attention to her.

“For fear,” explains Miss Ferguson, “that the other men will think he is trying to steal her away from the others. So it’s not nearly as much fun as it sounds, being the only girl in the company. There’s a sort of sense of chivalry which binds the men together to protect the girl, but not to pay her too much attention.”

Helen Ferguson, 1917

Now she’s nearly forgotten, but Helen Ferguson had a pretty good career. She was born July 23, 1901, in Decatur, Illinois. * In her first interview in 1917 with Motography she told how she left high school and broke into films in 1915:

I visited the Essanay studio every day it was open for four months. They wouldn’t even give me a chance until one day, in a court-room scene, they had one vacant chair. They had pressed into service stage hands and everyone else obtainable to fill other seats and finally, in desperation, the director grabbed me for the last chair. That was the beginning. I made good as a court-room spectator, so I got extra work from time to time until finally I was a regular.

Her first credited role was as a pretty girl that Max Linder winks at in Max Wants a Divorce, a short comedy released in March 1917. She had a leading part in the feature Fools for Luck with Taylor Holmes which was released in October 1917, however Essanay soon closed their Chicago studio, so she first tried her luck on the East Coast, then moved to Los Angeles where she signed a contract with Fox. She was speaking to Kingsley because she’d gotten a new contract with Goldwyn in 1921. Her career was about to take off. She replaced the poor hopeful Ethel Kay in Hungry Hearts, and her good reviews for that helped her get the lead in dramas like The Flaming Hour (1922) and comedies like Racing Luck (1924).

William Russell and Helen Ferguson

She married her former co-star William Russell in 1925, but he died of pneumonia in 1929. She then married Richard L. Hargreaves, president of the Beverly Hills First National Bank, in 1930. She left film and became a stage actress, then retired from that in 1933. After Hargreaves died in 1941, she went on to a truly impressive second act: she became one of the top publicity agents in Hollywood, working with clients that included Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyek, Loretta Young, Pat O’Brien, Robert Taylor and Jeanette MacDonald. She retired from that in 1967 and died on March 14, 1977 in Clearwater, Florida.

Magda Lane

This month, Kingsley ran into someone who got out of acting even earlier in her career, and she also enjoyed her new line of work:

Some people aren’t worrying a bit about the fate of pictures, even if they did formerly work in them. Take Magda Lane, for instance, who used to play leads. Miss Lane has no wolves at her door these days. She has accepted a position as private secretary to a stock broker, and is not only doing that work but is also selling stock and taking in nice little commissions now and then. Yesterday when I met her on the street she showed me a check for $200 which she had just earned as commission.

“And I’m just as happy as I can be—wouldn’t go back into pictures for anything,” said Miss Lane. “No, I’m not a bit worried about people saying that I’ve gone into trade.”

I’m always impressed by people who know when to quit and try something new. Magdalene Baur was born on May 22, 1896 in Zurich, Switzerland to Sebastian and Marie Mangold Baur.** She immigrated to the United States on November 12, 1913 and went to her sister, Suzanne Linderman, in New York City. According to a studio publicity article, she was discovered by Carl Laemmle at the home of a mutual friend. She went to work for Universal in 1918 and she appeared in over 25 short Westerns there. Her biggest role was as The Mystery Woman in an Eddie Polo serial, Do or Die (1920). Better parts didn’t follow, so she got out of acting while the getting was good. A few months after she ran into Kingsley, the L.A. Times had another article about her post-Hollywood work. They wrote that after taking a course at a Los Angeles business college, she had:

forsaken a motion picture career for plain, honest-to-goodness, brass tacks business…Yesterday it was learned that the erstwhile star of the screen has accepted a position with the Motor Service Corporation. She is the Hollywood representative of that concern with offices at 6408 Hollywood Boulevard and has five—count ‘em, five—sales people working under her direction.

Baur married fellow car salesperson Percival Edward Chamberlin on June 13, 1924 in Detroit. He continued to work in the auto industry. By 1941 she was a housewife and they were living in Millersville, Maryland, near Baltimore, when she filed her naturalization papers. In 1944 he was working in the piston ring division of the Koppers Company. He died on May 3, 1946. She survived him for several decades, and died in Santa Barbara, California on August 6, 1984.

*Helen Ferguson was 8 years old when the 1910 census was taken, so I think that other online sources that give her birth year anywhere between 1892 and 1901 aren’t accurate.

Here’s Magda Lane’s passport photo from 1920. Even pretty actresses take bad ones!

**Other online sources have been led astray by Miss Lane’s hastily filed 1920 passport application.  On December 6, 1920 she was about to travel from New Orleans to Cuba to work on Do or Die, and she quickly needed a passport. It must have been more difficult for a foreign national to do the proper paperwork, so she signed an application that said she was born in San Francisco, and they got an assistant hotel manager as well as the company’s young stuntman, Jean E. Perkins, to attest that she and her parents were American citizens. I think the naturalization papers she filed in November 1941 are correct. They’re backed up by her 1924 marriage record and a 1913 passenger list.

“New Chicago Charmer,” Motography, October 6, 1917, p. 743.

“Quits Films for Business,” Los Angeles Times, May 24, 1922.

“Universal Favorite in New Polo Serial,” Moving Picture Weekly, May 21, 1921, p. 29.

100 Years of Speculation: February 1-15, 1922

William Desmond Taylor

One hundred years ago on February 2nd, Grace Kingsley wrote a brief item that with hindsight is really sad:

If William D. Taylor ever gets another vacation, I don’t suppose he will know what to do with himself. There’s none in sight now at any rate for him to stop and play marbles. He is to begin production Monday on W. Somerset Maugham’s original story, “The Ordeal,” adapted by Beulah Marie Dix, and in which Agnes Ayers will be the star.

Taylor never did direct The Ordeal, because the night before this appeared he was murdered. The crime still has not been solved. Paul Powell stepped in to direct the picture and it came out in May. The film business didn’t stop for anyone.

Mabel Normand’s photo appeared above the fold.

The following day the Los Angeles Times began to cover the story and Kingsley’s work was on the front-page for a second time (the first was about the Arbuckle scandal; the news about the deadlocked jury in his second trial shared the front page with the Taylor murder on February 3rd). She had attended a press conference given by the last known person who saw Taylor alive, Mabel Normand, and she described the event:

“Mabel Normand, seen at her home at Seventh Street and Vermont Avenue yesterday, was much agitated over the murder of her old friend, William D. Taylor. She gave a clear and frank statement of her movements Wednesday afternoon and evening. J.A. Waldron, the Mack Sennett studio manager, was with her all day, answering phone calls and receiving messages, Miss Normand stated.”

Mabel Normand, 1923

Kingsley went on to sum up Normand’s detailed statement. She had spent the afternoon downtown dealing with income taxes and banking, then she phoned home for messages. Taylor had called to say he had a book she’d wanted, so after buying some magazines and peanuts, her chauffeur drove her to his house. He was on the phone discussing his taxes, and she went in after he finished, at about five minutes after 7. The chatted about books, the upcoming cameraman’s ball, and his servant Henry Peavey’s legal trouble that meant he had to go to court the next day. She needed to be at the studio by 7 a.m. the next day, so he walked her out and they said good-bye. She went home, had dinner and was in bed and asleep by 8 p.m.

Normand first heard of his death from Edna Purviance, Chaplin’s co-star who lived next door to Taylor. She said, “Edna Purviance called me up this morning and said ‘Have you heard the terrible news? William D. Taylor’s valet is running up and down the court screaming he is dead. They say he died of heart failure.’ Afterward I learned he was murdered.”

Just like everybody else at the time, it seems like Normand was trying to put suspicion on Taylor’s former servant, Edward Sands.  She told the press, “I hear that Mr. Taylor told Mrs. Berger [his tax preparer] he wished that he had called off the warrant that he had against Sands. I understand that he felt apprehensive of harm from him. There were, I hear, all sorts of mysterious telephone calls and all that. Sands was one of those servile human beings apparently all devotion to Mr. Taylor.”

She said the legal trouble involved theft, blackmail and check forgery. She concluded her statement by denying that she and Taylor were engaged, though he had previously asked her to marry him. They had become “just good pals.”

Even the respectable L.A. Times sounded like a tabloid for this story. (February 3, 1922)

Normand was questioned, but police didn’t consider her a suspect. Nevertheless, her proximity to the scandal didn’t do her career any favors. It was still on her mind when she died of tuberculosis on February 23, 1930; she reportedly said, “Do you think God is going to let me die and not tell me who killed Bill Taylor?”

The unsolved murder of William Desmond Taylor has fascinated people for 100 years now. Since nobody has conclusively proven who shot him, the story has become an evergreen true-crime tale. I was astonished by how many theories there are out there: the sheer volume of research and writing produced from the case is impressive.  The most through examination is on Taylorology by Bruce Long, but there have been some podcasts, several books, and countless blog posts. Theories about the perpetrator have ranged from actress Mary Miles Minter, her mother Charlotte Selby, a mysterious group of drug dealers, and even the original suspect, Edward Sands, who was never heard from again. Simon Louvish has written a helpful summary of the case on his blog, William Desmond Taylor: His Life, Work, and Murder.

However, since even after years of research, Bruce Long couldn’t figure it out, I simply don’t have anything to add. Noted film historian David Bordwell wrote: “My own hunch is that too much evidence has been destroyed to permit a plausible conclusion.” Just like Miss Normand, nobody will be telling us who killed Bill Taylor.