Sunday, March 17, 2013
The Mysterious Death of Actress Florence Deshon, 1
CHRONICLES OF CROTON’S
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 Florence . 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. Hollywood
"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 in 1918. The young Hemingway fell in love with Agnes von Kurowsky, an American nurse seven years his senior. Milan
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
. 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 Mt. Airy . America
Their story would make a great screenplay and film. It would open on a hot summer day in
in 1916. New York City 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 will meet. Florence
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 in
. Held annually to raise money for the radical magazine edited by Max Eastman, the Masses Ball has become a Paris 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 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
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. Vernon
|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
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?”
She lived with her mother in a two-room apartment at
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
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
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.
She and her mother moved to a small apartment on
Max was so taken by
Their love affair continued, but