The Silence of the Femmes

Silent screen stars Pola Negri, left, and Araminta Durfee, right

Publicity shots of Pola Negri, left, and Araminta Durfee, right


It is often said that the USA is the land of reinvention.

Identity in America has been malleable and saleable for centuries, whether it be fake preachers and prophets, or incoming congressmen claiming to be the progeny of Holocaust survivors.

Yet nowhere allows, indeed encourages, self-reinvention like Hollywood.

Since the earliest days of silent film, cinema goers had been obsessed by their imaginings of the sights, sounds, and scents of the Orient – a dreamland far from the rapidly industrialising USA.

Because there was no sound to give away a person’s accent in the 1920s, film-makers could pluck a person from any background and portray them as just about anything…

Most people are still at least vaguely aware of early screen legends like English-born Charlie Chaplin and Italian heart-throb Rudolph Valentino, both of whose level of stardom back in the 1920s is hard to exaggerate.  Adjusted for inflation, Chaplin would have been roughly as wealthy as someone like Tom Cruise or George Clooney today – with a net worth approaching 500 million dollars.

Strangely, the lovers and leading ladies of these men seem largely forgotten.

During the silent screen era, when a producer or director needed an actress to radiate and exude a sense of the exotic, they could draw on a roster of talent…

Pola Negri, a Polish immigrant girl whose Slovak Romani father had been transported to Siberia.  Born Apolonia Chalupec, she counted both Valentino and Chaplin among her lovers (Chaplin himself is believed by many to have had English Romani ancestry).

Theda Bara was also the daughter of recent immigrants – in this case a Polish Jewish father and a Swiss mother.  Ms. Bara played roles such as Cleopatra, and her revealing costumes led in part to the introduction of the Hayes Code by conservative America.  Theda’s real name?  Theodosia Burr Goodman.  Yes, that’s right. An Ohio girl named after a US vice-president famous for killing US Founding Father Alexander Hamilton in a duel.

Valentino’s greatest love, though, was the mysteriously named “Natacha Rambova“, dancer, erstwhile actress and extremely gifted set and costume designer, and later, a published scholar of Egyptology.  A woman born in Salt Lake City, Utah, whose real name was in fact Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy.   Daughter of a New York Irishman and his Mormon wife, Winifred Kimball, a woman whose grandfather was one of the so-called “Twelve Apostles” of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon sect.

As an actor and director, Charlie Chaplin‘s first leading lady was Araminta Durfee, a young woman married for a time to the scandal-haunted comic actor and director “Fatty” Arbuckle.  With her suitably foreign-sounding name – at least to city ears – Ms. Durfee’s “exotic” pedigree in fact stretched back to colonial Rhode Island and the Adkins people from the hills of Eastern Kentucky.

As to the complex origins of the Durfee and Adkins families?  That’s a long story for another day…


#BeforeWeWereWhite #Hollywood #SilentScreen #CharlieChaplin #RudolphValentino #AramintaDurfee #PolaNegri







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