Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Mysterious Death of Actress Florence Deshon, 1


      "All great love affairs end in tragedy."
So wrote Ernest Hemingway, a 19-year-old volunteer ambulance driver wounded in Italy and recuperating at a Red Cross hospital in Milan in 1918. The young Hemingway fell in love with Agnes von Kurowsky, an American nurse seven years his senior.
Although she was passionately in love with him and they had planned to marry, Agnes later wrote to end their relationship. To assuage the hurt, Hemingway fictionalized the affair in his 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms, in which Catherine Barkley, the beautiful young nurse, dies.
A similar tragic love affair was played out on Croton's Mt. Airy. One of the lovers was revolutionary editor and lecturer Max Eastman, whose political odyssey from radical to conservative was recounted recently in these pages. The other was Florence Deshon, a young stage and screen actress of breathtaking beauty, considered by many to be the most alluring woman in America.
Their story would make a great screenplay and film. It would open on a hot summer day in New York City in 1916. America has not yet been drawn into the fierce war being waged in Europe. Eastman, separated from his wife, was heading down Madison Avenue. At 34th Street he spied a dark-eyed young woman walking under a gaily painted Japanese parasol.
In Max's own words, "She was by far the most beautiful thing I had ever seen." Impetuously, he turned and walked beside her on 34th Street, attempting to start a conversation.  She quickened her pace and kept her eyes down. A rebuffed Max dropped back, regretting the lost opportunity.
Cut now to Tammany Hall, the local Democratic Party’s headquarters, on East 14th Street, a large brick building built in 1830. The graft-ridden Tammany Society retained only one room for itself and rented out the rest as a theater and ballroom, where Max and Florence will meet.
The date is December 15, 1916. The occasion is the extravaganza known as the Masses Ball, modeled after the Beaux Arts Ball, the scandalous saturnalia inParis. Held annually to raise money for the radical magazine edited by Max Eastman, the Masses Ball has become a Greenwich Village institution popular with gawkers from uptown.
Admission is one dollar for those in costume and two dollars for those without. One account described it as “a procession of sheiks, cave-women, circus dancers, and the like, frequently showing for the times, generous amounts of flesh. For reasons of economy as well as titillation, hula skirts, ballet costumes, and ragged beggars’ garments were favored.”
John Fox, Jr., author of the bestselling 1908 novel The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, and a donor of $1,000 to The Masses, is among the attendees at the 1916 Masses Ball. He is accompanied by Florence Deshon, recently acclaimed by critics for her performance in the film Jaffery. The title role was played by imposingly tall British actor C. Aubrey Smith, who would be remembered for a succession of parts as stiff-upper-lipped British generals, businessmen and government officials.
Florence is "at liberty,” having just played on Broadway in the drama Seven Chances. Also in this play were two actors, Frank Craven and Otto Kruger, who would both have long careers on Broadway and in Hollywood. Opening in George M. Cohan's Theatre on August 8, 1916, it moved to the Belasco Theatre, playing a total of 151 performances before closing in December.
Florence Deshon was no stranger to Broadway. Three years earlier, she had scored a hit singing and dancing in The Sunshine Girl, a musical comedy starring dancers Vernon and Irene Castle and actress Julia Sanderson. It opened at the Knickerbocker Theatre on February 3, 1913, and closed on September 30, after a respectable run of 181 performances.

File:Broadway theatres 1920.jpg 
Looking north up Broadway at 38th Street. The Knickerbocker Theatre is on 
 the far right. The buildings on the left are the old Metropolitan Opera and 
the New York Times tower.

Born Florence Danks on July 19, 1893, in Tacoma, Washington, she took the stage name Deshon. With the emphasis on the last syllable, she thought it sounded French. When her British father, a Linotype operator, deserted the family, Florence quit high school to support her Hungarian mother, Caroline. 
Max Eastman immediately spotted Florence and invited her to dance with him. "Her incomparable colors and precisely carved features," as Max later described them, had made it easy for her to become a model for advertising photographers. Max also detected "the merest suggestion of something wantonly sulky in her beauty."
Eastman later captured the excitement of their first meeting. He recalled: "We talked fervently as we danced, and our minds flowed together like two streams from the same source rejoining. She was 21, and in exactly that state of obstreperous revolt against artificial limitations which I had expressed in my junior and senior essays in college." 
“What do I care about a flag?” Florence told him, describing the day she had refused to rise for the national anthem. “I’m living in the world, not a country!” Max went to sleep later that night “believing that I had miraculously found what all young men forever vainly dream of, the girl who is at once ravishingly beautiful and admirable to what lies deepest in their minds and spirits.” 
She lived with her mother in a two-room apartment at 111 East 34th Street, not far from where Max had seen the young woman with the Japanese parasol months earlier. On their first date several days later, he took her to Mouquin's, a classic French restaurant under the 6th Avenue elevated, near 28th Street. The more Max talked with Florence, the deeper he fell in love with her.

Florence Deshon

During dinner she expressed her scorn for men's attitudes toward women. "You can't do any little thing to please your own taste in this town without starting a riot," she told him. "I once got a present of a little Japanese silk parasol. It was becoming to me, and I thought it would be fun to carry it. Do you know I never got any farther than Fifth Avenue? I had to turn back home, it caused such a commotion!"Max was thunderstruck. "This young, gay, theatrical creature, with her bold mind and beauty, her magnetism and her inimitable laughter," as he later depicted her, was the same young woman who had captivated him on that warm summer day. He told her about the house he owned in Croton, and she agreed to drive there with him in the dilapidated Model T Ford he had bought for such trips.

Max described how they made love in the Croton house, a former cider mill. "We slept side-by-side in the corner bed by the big moonlit window, a very tranquil tenderness filling our hearts." (The former Max Eastman house at the head of Mt. Airy Road was later enlarged by owners Dr. and Mrs. Daniel Salzberg with the addition of a second story.)

Meshing the lives and careers of two creative personalities was not easy. Max was traveling around the country speaking against war and for women’s suffrage.Florence was busy in Boston and Washington with the road company of a David Belasco production.

She and her mother moved to a small apartment on West 9th Street, off Fifth Avenue, in Greenwich Village. The few moments Max and Florence could share, they spent at Max's room at 12 East 8th Street or at the house in Croton.

Max was so taken by Florence's infectious laughter, he began writing a book, The Sense of Humor. Published in November of 1921, it bore the printed dedication, “To Florence Deshon.” Fifteen years later, in the first chapter of an expanded work titled The Enjoyment of Laughter, he would write, "It must suffice to say that I never in my life saw or heard anything more beautiful, more joy-conveying, than Florence when she laughed."

Their love affair continued, but Florence rebelled at the idea of marriage and its constraints. She was intensely proud, yet annoyingly careless about punctuality in appointments.

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