Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Born Today June 28: Valeska Suratt


Silent film starlet and fashion icon Valeska Suratt (yes that was her birth name) was born on this date in Owensville, Indiana.  When she was aged 6, her family moved to Terra Haute (a town that is sometimes mistakenly listed as her birth place), she grew up attending schools there, but dropped out in 1899 to go to work in a photography studio.  She eventually made her way to Indianapolis and went to work in the hat department of a department store there.  This lead to making her way to Chicago, which is where her stage career began.  Working in vaudeville until 1906 when she made her Broadway debut in a musical; she would go on to be one of the city's biggest star--due in no small part in her own successful self-promotion.  In fact, she became such a sex symbol that the mayor had one of her productions shut down, deeming it "Salacious."  All during this time, she was noted for her high sense of fashion--both on and off the stage.  And today she is well remembered pretty much for that alone.  That is due in part to the sad fact that not one single film appearance that she made has survived--none.  Yet, one cannot pick up a book on silent films without encountering her photographs in various fashion "get-ups"--many of which were deliberately intended to be "vampy."  Her fashion promotion earned her the nickname "Empress of Fashions."  Suratt signed with Fox in 1915 and made her film debut in The Soul Of Broadway, with Herbert Brenon in the directing chair. What follows below is the complete list of her films, again, all of them sadly lost; and a few of her more memorable fashion moments caught in photographs.  Suratt herself did not make any more motion pictures after 1917 and her star began to fade throughout the 1920's.  The nail in the coffin of her career came when she and Mirza Ahmad Sohrab sued Cecil B. DeMille in 1928 claiming that he had stolen the scenario of King Of Kings--which he had made into a film in 1927--from them.  The suit was settled out of court in 1930, with a gag order attached to it; so no one really knows the outcome (I suspect there was a payout).  The outcome of this case effectively blacklisted Suratt--one of the first of it's kind in Hollywood--it certainly ruined her career!  She was found a short time later living in a run down hotel in New York.  A benefit for her was held by novelist Fannie Hurst, which raised around $2,000.  Suratt disappeared with the money, returning to the same squallid hotel a few weeks later in the same state she was in before the benefit; apparently, she had lost all of the money on gambling.  At one point she tried to sell her self penned memoir to William Randolph Heart; but the manuscript contained so many outlandish claims--such that she was the Virgin Mary and the mother of Jesus--that the attempt failed.  This might give away that she was suffering from some sort of mental illness that was only getting worse; this especially worth speculating on given that her actual faith was Bahá'í.  Not much is known about her life after this, she eventually somehow wound up in a nursing home in Washington D. C., where she died at the age of 80 on the 2nd of July 1962.  She was buried in the Highland Lawn Cemetery in Terra Haute, Indiana with her mother.

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