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One of America's most talked about Jazz Age personalities, Peggy Hopkins Joyce was the quintessential gold digger, the real-life Lorelei Lee. Married six times, to several millionaires and even a count, Joyce had no discernible talent except self-promotion. A barber's daughter who rose to become a Ziegfeld Girl and, briefly, a movie star, Joyce was the original modern celebrity — a person famous for being famous. Her scandalous exploits — sping a million dollars in a week, conducting torrid love affairs with both...
One of America's most talked about Jazz Age personalities, Peggy Hopkins Joyce was the quintessential gold digger, the real-life Lorelei Lee. Married six times, to several millionaires and even a count, Joyce had no discernible talent except self-promotion. A barber's daughter who rose to become a Ziegfeld Girl and, briefly, a movie star, Joyce was the original modern celebrity — a person famous for being famous. Her scandalous exploits — sping a million dollars in a week, conducting torrid love affairs with both Charlie Chaplin and Walter Chrysler — were irresistible to tabloid journalists in search of sensation and to audiences hungry for the glamour her life seemed to promise.
Joyce's march across Broadway, Hollywood, and the nation's front pages was only slowed by the true nemesis of the glamour girl: old age. She died in 1957, alone and forgotten — until now.
"I Am Not Going to
Have a Dull & Dreary Life"
Peggy Hopkins Joyce, heartbreaker, gold digger, and international celebrity, was invariably described by reporters as a barber's daughter from Norfolk. Her audience took this sort of narrative to their hearts, for Peggy's story vindicated their belief in the possibility of limitless achievement and showed that even a person of humble origins could escape the confines of her class. As it happened, for once the description was true. She was born and primarily raised in Virginia, or more precisely Berkley, a community across the river from Norfolk that was later incorporated into its larger neighbor. And her father, Sam Upton, was indeed the local barber, although the village in which he plied his trade shifted over the years as he moved from one part of the South to another.
Peggy never objected to mentions of her roots, but her family was less enthusiastic about publicizing its ties to their loose-living progeny. Once the scandals started and Peggy began accumulating and shedding husbands, relatives on both her parents' sides were reluctant to acknowledge her as kin, especially in front of their children. When her movies came to town, even first cousins kept quiet about her being one of their own. In the conservative small towns of the South where her forebears lived, a person had little to gain by admitting a connection with a girl like Peggy Joyce.
Her father's people, the Uptons, were country folk who lived close to the land and tended to marry the girl or boy next door or at leastdown the road. Their roots were in the Albemarle, a cluster of communities in northeastern North Carolina that, like the people who inhabited them, possessed long histories. Its largest metropolis, bustling Elizabeth City, had been a seafaring town since the seventeenth century; residents boasted that the pirate Bluebeard once hid there. On the other side of the Pasquotank River lay the tiny crossroads of Camden, dominated by a traditional redbrick courthouse facing a tidy town green. It was in and around this speck of a village that generations of Uptons made their homes, raised their families, and tilled a living from the rich, loamy soil.
The family patriarch, Mark Upton, with his wife, Margaret Boushall, produced five children in the early years of the nineteenth century. Their son Samuel also married a local girl called Margaret, siring seven children in the space of a decade. His namesake, Samuel Boushall Upton Jr., Peggy's father, was born in 1864. Following family tradition, at the age of twenty-four he married a young neighbor named Maggie Sawyer.
The bodies of many of these early Uptons rest in a family burial ground just off Camden's main road, the weathered slabs of granite almost hidden in the thicket of honeysuckle, periwinkle, and wild grape. Even to a sharp eye, the names of the dead and the traditional Baptist inscriptions that comforted their loved ones are barely legible. "Sallie H. Upton, born April 14, 1858, died August 29, 1891. Weep not, she is not dead but sleepeth." "Samuel Upton, 1830-Feb. 27, 1896. Asleep in Jesus."
Little information survives beyond the dates on which these stolid Southerners entered and left the world. But the Uptons of Camden are remembered by their descendants as a pious, God-fearing lot, strict Southern Baptists who were dutiful worshipers at the local Shiloh Baptist Church and attended to their earthly duties by producing generous harvests of cabbage, potatoes, and soybeans on their small family farms. Though not particularly rich, they were industrious. And for country people with little time to fuss over their appearance, they were also remarkably attractive. Family photographs reveal that young Sam Upton was an especially fine-looking specimen, a tall, lanky fellow with regular features and thick brown hair parted neatly in the center. The women tended to be blonde and blue-eyed, blessed with fine skin, inviting smiles, and an unexpected air of glamour that would have turned more than a few heads in a quiet Southern town.
If Peggy's family on her father's side represented the enduring traditions of nineteenth-century rural America, her mother's people exemplified the life of the nation's burgeoning towns and cities. They were more adventurous, more restive, and more willing to move and marry outside the small circles in which they had been raised.
Peggy's grandmother Emma Jane Sykes, the rebel of the family, was born in 1850 in Princess Anne County, the part of Virginia later known as Virginia Beach. At the age of fifteen she shocked her little world by marrying Laderna Wood, a feisty Union soldier from Elmira, New York, who had come south during the Civil War and stayed after his discharge. It was bad enough for a Southern girl to marry a Yankee, and this particular Yankee had a reputation as a wild man. He had a celebrated temper, going after his enemies with a pair of brass knuckles, and his pugnacity was exacerbated by his taste for liquor. "Emma Jane used to say Laderna was fine until he started hitting the bottle," their grandson Francis Price recalled years later. "But then he'd be mean as the devil."
Emma Jane herself was a stern figure. In a formal photograph, she presides unmistakably as the family matriarch, a dour, unsmiling woman in a dark, high-necked dress, wedged into an ornately carved chair. With her pince-nez glasses hanging on a chain around her neck, her white gloves clenched tightly in her hand, and a grim expression in her beady eyes, she has the decided appearance of someone not to be trifled with.
After their marriage in 1865, the Woods settled in Berkley, then a small town that was fast becoming a thriving center for shipbuilding and lumber mills. It was there that Emma Jane bore sixteen children, four of whom survived. Dora Selena, born in 1873, was the eldest. Although she had a soft side, earning the family nickname Pattycake for the hours she spent playing clapping games with her nieces and nephews, she had inherited her mother's sturdy backbone, not to mention a generous dose of Emma Jane's rebellious spirit.
Dora was a teenager when Sam Upton left his people for reasons no one remembers exactly. Perhaps he wanted to escape ghosts of the past; according to some accounts, a child born early in his marriage did not survive infancy, and his wife may have died in childbirth. In any event, by the early 1890s he had made his way north to Berkley. A garrulous man, Sam found cutting hair more to his taste than farming and before long he was the chief attraction at the most popular barbershop in town. He also found time to walk out with the dark-haired, high-spirited Dora Wood, and in April 1892 the local paper reported "a large crowd present at the Christian Church" for the wedding of the twenty-eight-year-old Carolinian and his nineteen-year-old bride.
The Uptons set up housekeeping in a buff-colored bungalow with a peaked roof at 318 Lee Street, one of three identical houses on a quiet residential street. Except for a rose arbor by the back porch, both the house and its neighborhood were utterly nondescript, although they did offer the comforting advantage of proximity to family: Emma Jane lived next door, and Dora's sister Evelyn lived one house down from Emma Jane. Census documents indicate that in 1893, thirteen months after her marriage, Dora gave birth to a daughter. The infant was christened Marguerite, a prettified version of the name that had been in the father's family for generations. Like many of her Upton cousins, the baby had silky blonde hair and memorable blue eyes. Although she would always celebrate May 26 as her birthday, no official certificate survives to mark the actual year—a lucky stroke of fate for a woman who would start fudging her exact age the moment she became famous.
Marguerite Upton's timing was excellent. She entered the world together with the modern age, her arrival happily coinciding with a series of profound social, cultural, and technological changes of which the most pertinent involved the transmission of information. The Graphic Revolution, as historian Daniel J. Boorstin calls it, was based on the rapid and inexpensive dissemination of both word and image by a number of common technologies. The invention of the telegraph helped give birth to the modern news service. The rotary press made it possible to print newspapers faster and more cheaply. Halftone engraving meant newspapers could publish pictures as well. The railroad and automobile enabled rapid distribution. Whether earthshaking or trivial, news would soon travel incredibly quickly and cheaply and be consumed voraciously by an increasingly urban and literate populace. Movies, too, would become an enormously powerful cultural force. Not long before Marguerite Upton's birth, Thomas Edison had demonstrated a device he called a Kinetoscope, a box in which a strip of film was moved past a light to create the illusion of moving images, and the first public showing of a motion picture had taken place two years later.
Taken as a whole, these developments would hasten the emergence of a "culture of personality" and affect the very nature of fame. The definition of what made a life worthy of note would begin to shift rapidly. The emphasis was less on achievement and increasingly on behavior, on the image one projected—on personality. Adorable Mary Pickford and sultry Theda Bara would be as well known and at least as interesting as the men who commanded armies and waged wars. A face, even a voice, from the worlds of politics, sports, and especially show business would be instantly recognizable to millions of people.
Across the country, Americans would soon have access to motion pictures, phonograph records, mass-circulation magazines, and many more newspapers. So significant would the newspaper be that by the 1920s up to a dozen would compete furiously in a single metropolis, with new editions spewing out every few hours.
Still other momentous changes were afoot in those waning years of the nineteenth century when Marguerite Upton was playing with her dolls under the cigar tree in her backyard and listening to carriage wheels clatter along the cobblestones of Lee Street. Henry Ford's contraption would make a vast nation smaller. The Wright brothers were fooling around with kites. Far to the north, a great bridge would help give birth to the metropolis of New York. The fresh-faced Gibson Girl was striding into public consciousness, tennis racquet in hand and a purposeful gleam in her eye. Women were still wearing voluminous long skirts and pounds of heavy cotton petticoats, but they would shed them, along with their stiff hats and even stiffer manners, in the century ahead. The music would change. The beat would quicken.
But Marguerite Upton was born in the deeply traditional South. It would be years before the modern age reached Berkley. In the meantime, life there was dull and constricting, with little to excite the soul or tempt the spirit. Marguerite Upton would seek to make her escape as fast and as completely as possible.
For a girl who dreamed of going places, nothing mattered more than a pretty face, and in that respect young Marguerite Upton was supremely blessed. "She was a smashingly beautiful child with flawless skin and enormous blue eyes," George Tucker, a local newspaper columnist, wrote nearly a century later in an article about Berkley's most famous daughter. Some dyspeptic naysayers claimed she had hair the texture of straw and the gait of a turkey, but a photograph taken when she was not yet in her teens reveals an angelic-looking creature with classically even features—a high forehead, straight brows, large, wide-set eyes, a shapely, slightly turned-up nose, and exquisitely sculpted lips. Her blonde hair is swept back from her face and held with a ribbon; around her neck is an ornate lace collar. She looks both innocent and knowing, a combustible mixture.
Though Margie, as she was called, had a willful streak, she also had a quick smile and pretty ways, and when in the mood she could be the most agreeable of children. "She learned early that smiling rather than bawling got her the candy suckers that she craved," George Tucker wrote, and classmates remembered her as bubbly and good-natured, an easygoing youngster who rarely took offense. "She had nice manners and people liked her," her father once told a reporter. "She would do anything in the world to please anybody, and she never cried unless she was sick." She charmed her crusty grandfather—Daddy Wood, as she called him—who bought her candy and took her walking, and she endeared herself to the imperious-looking Emma Jane. She also became a frequent visitor at her father's barbershop, bringing his dinner in a basket and receiving a nickel for her trouble. "The men getting haircuts talked to her, and they used to be carried away with her," her cousin Elizabeth Nixon recalls. "People said she was real cute when she was little."
As a child, she had scant interest in her studies at the local one-room schoolhouse, but she did adore an audience, and happily for such a youngster she could sing, dance, and recite better than most of her peers—at least that became the accepted wisdom. "Every Friday we had to speak a piece, and Margie would always speak the nicest piece of all," a classmate remembered. "When we had plays, Margie was always better than the rest of us.... We all used to say Margie will someday be an actress." Townspeople invariably uttered such comments after a local offspring made it big on the stage, but in this case, the people of Berkley recognized that, at the very least, the gangly extrovert with the unruly golden curls had a passionate appetite for the spotlight.
Early on, Marguerite realized that her appearance would be her passport. In a rare moment of candor she admitted years later in her memoirs that she knew her beauty could be an asset and was determined to use it, however shamelessly, to achieve her goals. "Deep inside me ever since I was a little girl I have always wanted nice things and luxuries and love," she wrote, "and I suppose once or twice I have said to myself, why be beautiful if you can't have what you want." The child had good looks, charm, ambition, and a taste for an audience, all attributes that could help a girl make her way in the world.
Around 1900, Sam Upton packed up his little family and moved back to Camden, North Carolina. He set up his shop next to the courthouse and established his wife and daughter in a modest house down the road, not far from his brothers and sisters. Maybe he was homesick; more likely his marriage was in trouble and a change of scene seemed advisable. But the shift in environment did nothing to improve relations in the Upton household; the tedium of life in turn-of-the-century rural North Carolina surely exacerbated the tensions, as did Dora's own personality, for she had always been the wildest and most rebellious of Emma Jane's children. After three years in her new home, Dora took off, leaving her husband and daughter, and headed north to Richmond, Virginia. She settled into a boardinghouse, where she met a young railroad worker named Arthur Hudson, and after a brief courtship, she divorced her first husband and remarried. Sam left Camden as well. With his ten-year-old in hand, he too went north, to the central Virginia hamlet of Farmville, where he promptly took a third wife, a straitlaced fellow Baptist named Josephine Bowman. Within a few years the household included a baby girl called Lucille.
Sam did the best he could with his elder daughter. He sent her to Sunday school and urged her to read the Bible, giving her a palm-sized New Testament with the words "Marguerite Upton, a preasant from Papa" written in a childish hand inside the back cover. He arranged for her to take piano lessons; she practiced her scales on an elaborate old upright decorated with gold scrollwork. And for a time, she found ways to amuse herself. She made something of a local reputation reciting poems at parties and other get-togethers, and at a charity benefit for the Baptist church she offered a memorable portrayal of a mechanical doll. Wearing a pink organdy frock and matching ribbons in her hair, her vivid features accented by dabs of red chalk and burnt cork, she held herself rigid as she was carried onto the jerry-built stage for her grand entrance. Despite the primitive setting and the harsh glow of the flickering kerosene lamps, her performance brought down the house.
But Farmville was a backwater, and an unpleasant one at that. Marguerite quarreled with her stepsister and fought even more bitterly with her strict stepmother, who was none too happy to be saddled with another woman's strong-willed child. By the time she entered her teens, Marguerite had persuaded her father that the best place for her was back with her grandmother in Berkley. It would be her fourth home in thirteen years.
There is no indication that Peggy was particularly troubled by the domestic upheavals of her early years. And despite the stigma attached to divorce in early-twentieth-century America, Sam and Dora's separation taught their daughter one crucial lesson: if a marriage was not working, there was an out. If a woman grew tired of her husband, for whatever reason, she could leave and make a new life for herself elsewhere; though shameful, such things were possible. Few girls knew that, at the dawn of a new century in the sleepy small towns of the South.
For Peggy, as she began calling herself back at her grandmother's house, the return to southern Virginia had come at the perfect moment. Norfolk in the early 1900s had much to offer a pretty, impressionable teenager, particularly in the way of men, entertainment, and a deliciously teasing mix of excitement and danger.
Unlike most Southern municipalities of the day, the city was a lively, cosmopolitan place. As part of the Port of Hampton Roads, one of the world's great naval and shipbuilding bases, it derived much of its energy from the endless waves of sailors who descended on the metropolis. With its heavy population of transients, Norfolk also had its predictable share of urban vices: bootlegging, drugs, prostitution, political corruption. A wide-open town, it didn't lack for the unsavory, and this, of course, was part of its charm.
The city was entering its boom years as Peggy was entering her teens. She had returned just in time for the Jamestown Exposition of 1907, a lavish world's fair that attracted an international crush of dignitaries and was capped by the star-studded departure of Theodore Roosevelt's Great White Fleet for its journey around the globe. The Ocean View Amusement Park offered so many diversions local people dubbed the resort "the Coney Island of the South." And most important there was vaudeville, which by the early twentieth century had established itself as the country's premier form of entertainment.
Norfolk had always had theatrics of a sort, primarily genteel, sedate versions of Shakespeare and other classics, but there was nothing genteel or sedate about the dazzling array of performers that paraded across the vaudeville stage—singers, dancers, musicians, ethnic comics, jugglers, acrobats, ventriloquists, animal acts, kid acts, novelty acts, and much else. Though the fare was relatively tame, especially in the hinterlands, where audiences included women and even children, vaudeville was richer, more urbane, more sophisticated, and certainly more amusing than anything Virginians had seen before. With its verve, impudence, and undeniable flash, it served a critical cultural function as well, doing much to destroy any lingering notions of Victorian propriety.
Norfolk was an important stop on the vaudeville circuit. As girls like Peggy strolled around the town, along thoroughfares bustling with pedestrians, trolleys, and that newfangled invention called the automobile, they could not have helped but be riveted by the temples to entertainment lining the streets. At the Majestic Theater, a Tudor Gothic building on East Main Street, nearly a thousand people could plunk down a dime or a quarter to watch not only the latest in vaudeville but also its seamier cousin, burlesque. Rising on Tazewell Street was the two-thousand-seat Wells Theater, its orange brick facade punctuated by accents of stained glass, grinning theatrical masks, bright copper lighting fixtures, and other Beaux Arts froufrou.
Also on Tazewell Street was the palatial Colonial, with its vaulted ceiling, gold wallpaper, and maroon velvet curtain that fell to the stage in huge scallops. After opening in 1907 with thirty-two performances of Pocahontas, the Colonial went on to present such vaudeville stars as Al Jolson, wearing blackface and down on one knee as he belted out his signature "Swanee"; Harry Houdini, dripping wet as he emerged victorious from the tank of water in which he had been bound and held captive; and, slightly later, Eddie Cantor and a blonde bombshell named Mae West, who always drew a standing ovation from the crowd.
Even more compelling were the stories about the women of the stage. The curvaceous singer and actress Lillian Russell was famed not only for her spectacular gowns but also for her four marriages and numerous love affairs. It was impossible not to have heard of her: her picture was in all the magazines, and toward the end of her career, when Peggy was a teenager, she even performed in Norfolk. Legendary, too, were the Florodora Girls, those six charmers in frilly pink skirts who twirled their parasols so saucily on the stage of the Casino Theatre up in New York and went on to marry millionaires, every last one of them.
Equally memorable, not to mention shocking, was the showgirl Evelyn Nesbit, the "Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" who flashed into the headlines in 1906 when her wealthy husband Harry K. Thaw murdered her celebrated lover, the architect Stanford White. Parents whispered about Nesbit in hushed tones: Was it true she wasn't wearing so much as a garter when she cavorted for Stanny White on that swing? And how extraordinary that the scandal actually helped her career, propelling her back onto the stage for a brief turn as a vaudeville star. Young girls, too, were enthralled by the men and women of the silent screen; by 1909 nine thousand theaters nationwide offered picture shows, and the Norfolk newspapers were filled with advertisements for coming attractions.
Photographs show that Peggy herself was growing up to be quite entrancing, if a bit gawky, with long legs and a slender figure, her hair tied back from her face in a style that accentuated her chiseled features. Shortly after her return to Norfolk around 1906, she had dropped out of school and shaken off her grandmother's authority by leaving home, freeing herself to explore the city's varied amusements, ponder her future, and experiment with various roles, if only in her imagination.
Peggy hungered for adventure, and her hunger was fueled by the rich lode of fantasy mined by the magazines and newspapers she consumed. Although Norfolk offered more than Berkley, a girl's options were limited in the traditional South. If she did not have to earn her living, which generally meant as a servant or factory worker, or care to settle down to a humdrum life of marriage and motherhood, what then? Getting a job, even as a respectable schoolteacher, was much frowned on, an admission that a father could not support his family.
The theater, by contrast, held an undeniable glamour. The stage was considered a wicked place, and the men and especially the women who peopled that world were considered more disreputable still, but the thrills it offered were considerable. The theater could take one to exotic cities like New York, where women wore glossy fur coats and the thinnest of silk underthings. It brought women adoring men in smart evening clothes who showed up at stage doors with diamond bracelets discreetly wrapped in romantic notes. The thunder-clap of applause, the warmth of the amber spotlight, the lavish bouquets, the intoxicating compliments—all this the theater made possible. It was hardly surprising that vaudeville offered Peggy her ticket out of town.
|1||"I Am Not Going to Have a Dull & Dreary Life"||9|
|2||"I Would Do Anything for a Real Silk Chemise"||28|
|3||"I Am a Celebrety"||43|
|4||"It Is Marvelous to Be Rich"||76|
|5||"A Vampire with the Sting of Death"||104|
|6||"The Most Famous Woman in the U.S."||122|
|7||"Life after the Sun Went Down"||155|
|8||"That Strange Art of Being a Woman"||174|
|9||"The Most Preferred Blonde"||192|
|10||"The Last Generation's Celebrity"||222|