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The Last of the Silent Film Stars
By Eve Golden
The University Press of KentuckyCopyright © 2013 The University Press of Kentucky
All rights reserved.
So much of my youth was spent praying for a good season.
—John Gilbert, 1927
John Gilbert was—perhaps literally—born in a trunk. He was born John Cecil Pringle in Logan, Utah—about eighty miles north of Salt Lake City—on July 10, 1897, the son of a small-time stock-company manager and his young actress bride. Jack's father, John George Priegel, had been born in Missouri in 1865; by the 1890s he was known as "Johnnie Pringle" and was barnstorming around the country, managing (and acting in) his own stock company. Jack's mother, Ida Adair Apperly, had been born in 1877 in Colorado. She was living in Utah when Johnnie Pringle blew into town and swept her off her feet: the stolid, no-nonsense Apperlys were appalled when she announced that she wanted to go on the stage and that she had just married into "the show business."
Small traveling theater companies did not leave much behind in the way of press clippings; their shows were heralded by posters—torn down or covered over within days—and if they were reviewed at all, it was in tiny local papers that are now long since out of business. We get only a few glimpses of Jack's parents. The Spirit Lake (Iowa) Beacon of January 24, 1900, announced a presentation of "the great comedy success A White Elephant, headed by the popular favorites, Johnnie and Ida Pringle, and an excellent company. Everything new and up-to-date. Reserved seats now on sale at the City Drug Store. Prices, 25, 35 and 50 cents." In 1903 Ida—billed as "Ida Adair"—was "especially engaged for the role of Anne of Austria" in the Edward F. Albee Stock Company's production of The Three Musketeers. By 1905 Ida was the leading woman with the Empire Stock Company of Columbus, Ohio ("It has enjoyed a run of nearly two years, and its popularity is ever increasing," said Theatre magazine). Adair had "wide experience and unusual talents ... extremely popular with Columbus theatergoers," giving the lie to later descriptions of Jack's mother as a failed actress. In 1907 she turns up in Cincinnati: "Miss Ida Adair, as Miss Harriet Fordyce [in The Earl of Pawtucket], was extremely good," said Billboard.
Jack's parents had divorced by then; the boy stayed with his mother while his father continued to travel the country with the Johnnie Pringle Stock Company. Pringle could be seen in 1906 at the Seattle Theater, "greeted by an enthusiastic and appreciative audience. It is seldom the patrons of this theater have had the pleasure of witnessing such a well balanced and finished performance." Articles written at the time of his death, in the 1920s, had him running his own stock companies in "Chicago, New York and other eastern cities," though this cannot be confirmed.
Johnnie and Ida Pringle belonged to an old, if not revered, tradition: the traveling players. The first-known theater troupe in America predated the United States; there was a professional acting company in Virginia in 1752. Before the Civil War, companies traveled by horse and carriage or plied the rivers. But the railroads gave new life to the business—though not comfort or luxury. The trains of the Pringles' day were bumpy, they tended to derail or get stuck behind felled trees or fallen rocks, and schedules were so lax that connections were missed as often as they were caught. Train seats were not always padded, and windows had to be opened to let in fresh air (along with dust and cinders).
Rooming houses were sometimes not to be had at all, in which case actors had to beg rooms from the locals or sleep in the depot atop their luggage. The theaters themselves could be a trial if the booking agent was not to be trusted. Scenery sometimes didn't fit onstage or there was no "backstage" for entrances and storage. Small-town dressing rooms were notorious. Sol Smith, in the late nineteenth century, wrote that in Nashville his "dressing room" had been dug into the ground behind the theater. "Human bones were strewn about in every direction. The first night, the lamplighter being a little pushed for time to get all ready, seized upon a skull, and, sticking two tallow candles in the eye sockets, I found my dressing room thus lighted."
Not everyone slept on luggage or dressed in graves; sometimes it could be a lark. Some people thrived on the travel, the excitement, and the acting. The fact that John Gilbert's parents—and later his stepfather, Walter Gilbert—never gave up show business indicates that it was all worth the bother, at least in their eyes. Ida could have returned—with her babe in arms, like the classic melodrama heroine—to her solidly settled farming family, but she never did.
Other silent movie stars grew up on the road, among them John Gilbert's future costars Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish. "Actors, like soldiers, can bed down anywhere," Gish wrote in her memoirs. She recalled her troupe squeezing as many people into one hotel room as possible: "They would lie crosswise on the bed and sleep or sew or, if the water was hot, do their laundry. I would curl up in a chair or go for a walk alone and watch the children of the town playing." Sometimes there was no hotel, or a missed train necessitated a long wait in the town's depot. "My bed was usually the sloping desk that was used for writing telegrams," Gish recalled. "I often napped on a stone floor, with papers underneath my body."
It sounds Dickensian, and often was, but Gish also remembered happy times on the road, feeling sorry for children stuck in their schools and churches and dull, repetitive lives. Jack often bitterly recalled his childhood as loveless and impoverished, but in a calm, happy mood in 1927 he told Alma Whitaker of the Los Angeles Times that "we were often very poor, all right, but we often had intermittent luxuries. Mother would take me around with her. When we had good seasons we stayed at the best hotels and swanked it. When it was a poor one, we migrated to the cheap and nasty sections of the towns. So much of my youth was spent praying for a good season. I wouldn't like to be poor again, you understand, but if I ever were I could dramatize it for myself and see myself as a life's adventurer."
The late nineteenth century was the golden age of the touring company, and talented hard workers like the Pringles and Walter Gilbert could make a decent living, with a little luck. "Even in the one-night towns, there could be as many as 228 different shows through the winter and it was difficult and exciting to decide which you wanted to see," wrote theater historian and actor Philip Lewis. In those pre-movie, pre-radio days, one form of theater or another was the primary source of entertainment. Vaudeville, musicals, dramas, church revivals, lectures (sometimes with magic-lantern slides), circuses; even the smallest town had to have access to at least some of these. Broadway hits had three or four companies touring the country, with the "A" company boasting the original stars (Ida Gilbert toured in a "B" company version of Madame X, starring Marjorie Rambeau, in the early 1910s).
The December 1906 issue of the Theatre magazine contains contributions from local critics across the country, telling what shows were landing in their towns. Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and their like, of course, got major Broadway companies with big stars (Henry Irving, Marie Cahill, Julia Marlowe, Maude Adams). But stars were dragging their plays and their companies of struggling, hopeful supporting players all over the United States that month: Anna Held in Baltimore, Clara Bloodgood (who would kill herself while on tour in Baltimore a year later) in Cleveland, the black musical-comedy team Williams and Walker in Lincoln, Nebraska, Mrs. Fiske in Pittsburgh, French soubrette Yvette Guilbert in Oklahoma City.
The smaller towns were heard from, too. M. J. Wiggins reported to the Theatre that Oswego, New York, had "the best and most prosperous" season in history, with Porter J. White in The Proud Prince and such stars as Nance O'Neil, Eva Tanguay, and Helena Modjeska passing through—as well as motion pictures every Sunday at the Richardson Theater. Morgantown, West Virginia, saw the lesser-known Mildred Holland in A Paradise of Lies and John E. Henshaw in Captain Careless as well as offerings of melodrama and vaudeville. This was the world of Ida Gilbert—although she generally appeared not with the big stars in classic shows remembered today by theater aficionados but with the likes of Hans Roberts in Checkers, Max Figman in The Man on the Box, and Sadie Raymond in The Missouri Girl.
Whatever company Jack's parents were in at the time—their own or someone else's—the manager would book the season through a guide like Julius Kahn's, which listed some seventeen hundred theaters throughout the United States and what kind of shows they took (also their size, ticket prices, and so on). After the booking manager had a tour set up, the advance man would paper the town with posters and newspaper ads, make sure the theater actually existed, and usually hightail it to the next stop before the company overlapped him. Actors "could not afford to get sick," Lewis wrote. "The show had to go on, because otherwise there would be no salary."
Ida Pringle "married up" when she wed Walter Gilbert, an actor with slightly better connections and prospects than her hardworking first husband—Gilbert went on to enjoy a respectable, if not stellar, career. Gilbert also proved to be a more sympathetic father—he never discussed why, but young John Cecil Pringle began calling himself John Cecil Gilbert by his early teens. He mentioned his birth father only in unpleasant terms and referred to Walter Gilbert as his "father." He had a reliable grandfather to fall back on, too: when she was unable to take him on the road, Ida farmed her son out to her parents, the stable, if rather disapproving, Apperlys in Utah.
When he was old enough, Jack was shipped off to the Hitchcock Military Academy in San Rafael, northern California. Founded in 1907 by Reverend Charles Hitchcock, it consisted of five buildings, including dorms and a gym. Today the school is co-owned by the Marin Ballet School, the Marin Tennis Club, and Trinity Community Church. Scrawny, undernourished, and wary of boys his own age, Jack began to develop his social skills during these years, as well as his athleticism. He was never a big, muscular man—he grew up to be a very slim five foot nine—but given access to the sports facilities at Hitchcock, Jack discovered a love for tennis, swimming, horseback riding, and golf, all of which he enjoyed for the rest of his life. In the ninth grade, when he was about fifteen, Jack left Hitchcock—in later interviews, he never made clear whether he'd graduated or had needed to go to work to help support his mother.
Ida Gilbert's presence simply cannot be ignored in a discussion of her son's future life. Armchair psychologists—most of them fan-magazine writers—dragged poor Ida from her grave again and again trying to diagnose John Gilbert's tortured love life. "Lovely Ida, as profligate as a Winter wind, as vivid as a sunset," wrote Katherine Albert in a particularly purple magazine piece of 1930. The queen of the sob sisters, Adela Rogers St. Johns, brought out the heavy artillery in 1936: "Jack loved her—and bitterly resented things she had done to him. He never quite trusted love nor life.... And he never found in the women he loved, the mother he was always seeking." It's always easy and convenient to blame the mother (Jack had a father and a stepfather, too, but they were rarely mentioned).
Jack's daughter Leatrice, in her memoirs, quotes actress Marie Stoddard—later Leatrice's acting coach in Hollywood—as saying that Ida was "a good trouper ... but she had a blind spot about that boy. She hardly knew he was there. And he was such a nice little fellow, always polite, but his face was pinched-looking, too old for his years. You wanted to hug him and make him laugh." Leatrice Gilbert also claims Ida left Jack with a New York seamstress whose flat also served as a whorehouse for her own daughter: "I was only seven but I knew more about the world than many people ever discover," she quotes her father as recalling.
If travel was sad and lonely for little John Pringle—later Gilbert—it was sad and lonely for his single mother, too. Often on the road without a husband—or between husbands—she was still young and pretty and no doubt aching for company. Theater historian (and former trouper) Philip C. Lewis wrote movingly of life on the road: "The players were briefly the best-known people in town and yet they were lonely. Under the focus of lights and the spectators' concentrated gaze, they became vividly familiar in the short time between overture and final curtain. Yet no one knew them and they would be gone before they knew any of those who had been so close and friendly in the auditorium dark."
Filtered through Jack's dark memories told to wife Leatrice Joy and passed down to their daughter Leatrice Gilbert, Ida Pringle comes off as a monster: "His mother had not wanted him, his mother paid no attention to him," Leatrice Gilbert told film historian Kevin Brownlow in the fascinating, invaluable John Gilbert segment of his 1980 documentary series, Hollywood: The Pioneers. "She would lock him in closets for hours, all day, just to get him out of the way. She had many lovers, and would wake him up in the middle of the night to introduce him to his new 'daddy.'" "He hardly ever went to school, there would be two weeks here, three weeks there," his daughter added. "He never had toys. He was never allowed to carry toys or books with him."
Different people react differently to challenging childhoods, of course. Jack grew up to become an easily hurt, thin-skinned young man who needed badly to be loved and accepted. He also used his tough luck to educate himself, to mold himself into the person he wanted to be: smart, funny, accomplished, devil-may-care. But he always felt he was putting on an act, one that everyone could see through.
Around 1905, when John Gilbert was eight years old, the whole touring business began to slide downhill. A group of New York producers had banded together into a Theatrical Syndicate in the late 1890s, and by 1905 they controlled so many theaters nationwide that if you weren't under contract with the Syndicate, you had a terrible time finding work. Many star performers rebelled (Minnie Maddern Fiske, Richard Mansfield, Sarah Bernhardt, and others played in tents rather than buckle under). Given that there were fewer houses for independent companies, Ida Gilbert had to get herself cast in Syndicate shows or she was out of luck. Audiences were sparser, too, as the twentieth century rolled on: automobiles, record players, and moving pictures stole interest away from traditional theater. Philip Lewis wrote that there were 339 theatrical companies on tour in 1900; by 1910 that had dropped to 236—and by 1915, only 124. Still, Ida Gilbert, John Pringle, and Walter Gilbert all worked more or less steadily—supported themselves and their son, if not in style—and that in itself was an accomplishment and a testament to their talents and professionalism.
On September 29, 1913, thirty-six-year-old Ida Gilbert died in Salt Lake City, Utah. The cause was probably tuberculosis—at least, that's what her son recalled years later. She was buried in the family plot in Logan, and if sixteen-year-old "Jack C. Gilbert," as he called himself, felt any grief or regrets about her, he never let on. For the rest of his life, he recalled his mother and birth father with an unrelenting bitterness.
There followed a year of odd jobs, which he later claimed included working as a salesman for the B. F. Goodrich Company and as a copy boy at the Oregonian newspaper, the latter job giving him an appreciation for the press not common among film stars.
By early 1915 the teenaged Jack was working as stage manager for the Baker Stock Company in Spokane, Washington (not to be confused with the more successful Baker Stock Company in Portland, Oregon). Other Baker veterans included such future movie pioneers as screenwriter and director Melville Brown and actor Howard Russell. Jack later recalled his duties: "Ringing the curtain up and down, calling the overtures and warning to the actors that their cues for entrance are approaching, holding a manuscript at rehearsals, making out stage settings and property plots, and seeing to it that every prop or article used during each act is in its correct position. If, during the action of the play, a white-faced, suffering little mother says to the swarthy villain, 'Here is the will,' and there is no will—God help the stage manager." (The author, who worked as a stage manager for several productions when just a little older than John Gilbert was in 1915, can attest to the truth of these duties.)
Excerpted from JOHN GILBERT by Eve Golden. Copyright © 2013 The University Press of Kentucky. Excerpted by permission of The University Press of Kentucky.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 The Climb
Chapter 1 7
Chapter 2 17
Chapter 3 37
Chapter 4 66
Part 2 The Peak
Chapter 5 75
Chapter 6 88
Chapter 7 117
Chapter 8 129
Chapter 9 139
Part 3 The Decline
Chapter 10 183
Chapter 11 192
Chapter 12 215
Chapter 13 232
Chapter 14 251
Chapter 15 272