The Girl on the Cover
She sits demurely posed on a rock, one black-stockinged toe carefully dipped into the water. Behind her, in the background, ocean and sky stretch out peacefully toward the endless horizon. But the year is 1914, the month is August, and the peaceful aura is illusory. Beyond the horizon lies Europe, where the first shots of the Great War are being fired. The carnage would last for another four years, ending forever the Age of Innocence.
The exquisite young woman so calmly oblivious to the guns of August would not live to see the war's end, like millions closer to the front. Florence La Badie, heroine of The Million-Dollar Mystery, lived for six weeks after her automobile overturned and pinned her in the wreckage, suffering the slow agony of blood poisoning in a pre-antibiotic era. Florence died early on the afternoon of October 13, 1917.
Seventy-five years after her death, Florence LaBadie is only one shadowy name among many others for most silent-film admirers. But she can still captivate viewers in the handful of her films that survive. Photographs testify to the haunting beauty that inspired Edward Wagenknecht's heartfelt tribute in his wonderful The Movies In The Age Of Innocence. Evidence of her unique allure abounds in fan and trade magazines from the teens. Other actresses were more highly praised for dramatic prowess or comedic flair, but for fans and journalists alike, Florence was the essence of exquisite femininity.
Was Florence nothing but a dainty Victorian doll? Hardly! Time and again, the languid beauty who turned heads at film exhibitors' balls was described as a daredevil, a young woman of the new century who sought out thrills on land, sea, and air -- and on the dance floor! Photoplay, Moving Picture Magazine, and Moving Picture World are sources to be used with care, since studio publicists were already expert at molding the reality of star personalities to public expectations by the second decade of the twentieth century. But there's a unanimity to these tales of Florence's thrill-seeking bent that lends them credibility.
Little remains of her filmic legacy, but those remnants reveal an energetic and endearing figure forever alive in unfailing patterns of light and shadow. The person behind the screen persona inevitably remains more elusive, though she hasn't been entirely lost to us. What follows is only the first step in exploring Florence's regrettably brief existence on-screen and off, and reviving her memory for those who may care.
WHO WAS FLORENCE?
The outlines of Florence's film career can be sketched quickly. After playing in a handful of 1911 Biograph one-reelers, often under the direction of D. W. Griffith, she moved to the Thanhouser company in the late summer of 1911. While the film industry expanded inexorably and her colleagues flew from company to company in pursuit of exponentially escalating finacial rewards, Florence remained with Thanhouser until her death. During those six years at Thanhouser, she grew along with the medium, appearing in over a hundred one- and two-reel films from 1911 to 1915, usually in starring or leading roles, then graduating to five- and six-reel starring vehicles in 1916 and 1917. By 1917, she was unquestionably THE Thanhouser star -- though the company itself, overshadowed by aggressive newcomers like Zukor and Selznick, was no longer an industry leader.
Florence herself could accurately be characterized as a leading star of the second magnitude, one who was outshone by contemporaries like Mary Pickford, Pearl White, Clara Kimball Young, and Alice Joyce, but whose name, face, and and delightful presence drew thousands into theaters throughout America and beyond.
A tangible Florence emerges from tidbits gleaned from film magazines of her day. She was 5-4 and 125 pounds, with light brown hair and bluish-gray eyes. She loved swimming, horse-back riding, and driving fast cars and boats. Despite these vigorous pastimes, her manner was quiet and her face serene -- at least when magazine interviewers came to call! Her heritage was French-Canadian, though it's still unclear just where she was born (Montreal or New York) or when. Her death certificate specifies a birthdate of April 27, 1888 in New York City, five years earlier than the 1893 usually given in Photoplay or Moving Picture Magazine answer columns. Did our young actress -- or her parents, or studio -- knock off those five years to make herself seem even younger? Quite possibly -- but the New York Municipal Archives has no record of her birth in 1888, or 1893 for that matter. [1998 addendum -- As it turns out, Florence's origins were not what they seemed. Her birth certificate was not available because it had been placed in a sealed adoption file in 1891. She was actually born Florence Russ on April 27, 1888; her birth mother Marie C. Russ attested to the relationship on October 8, 1917 when her daughter was dying. The adoption by Amanda and Joseph LaBadie took place on November 4, 1891. Why did Marie Russ give up her child? It's easy to infer that she was a single mother pressured by a "respectable" family. Florence was 3-1/2 years old when she was adopted; what memories did she retain of her first family?]
There's no comparable doubt when or why Florence died. The death certificate speaks succinctly of "septicimia [blood-poisoning] due to compound fracture of the pelvis as result of accident." She lingered from August until October before being released from what could only have been a pain-filled, semi-conscious shadow of her former vigorous life. Florence was laid to rest at Greenwood Cemetary in Brooklyn on October 17, 1917. There is, strangely, no evidence or record at the cemetary of any grave marker or memorial.
Following the time-honored example of the fairy-tales, studio publicists have often supplied their stars with radically embellished genealogies (nobody would have laughed harder than Mabel Normand to learn that she was the offspring of "one of the leading families of Massachusetts," as claimed by an early Photoplay!). So it's difficult to judge whether Florence's lofty familial legacy owes more to the historical record or to the imagination of Thanhouser PR wizard Leon Rubinstein.
As the story goes, her father Joseph LaBadie was the scion of a French-Canadian family renowned in Montreal for both commercial and political accomplishments. Even so, Amanda Victor LaBadie could have justifiably felt she had married beneath her station since she was the descendant of French nobility, both of the Napoleonic and pre-Revolutionary ilk! Of course, eminent families may fall on hard times. So even if the LaBadie-Victor heritage was authentic, grocery money may have been hard to come by in turn of the century New York.
But why New York? The LaBadies wouldn't have been the first Canadian family to seek their fortune by trekking down the Hudson. After all, Mrs. Mary Smith of Toronto brought her talented daughter Gladys to New York, dramatic capital of the Western Hemisphere, in pursuit of stage stardom -- and reaped success beyond her wildest dreams when Gladys became Mary Pickford. Florence's family may have pursued the same dream when it became clear that their only child was a girl beautiful and gifted above the norm.
Sheer speculation -- as noted, Florence may actually have been born in New York [She was; see 1998 addendum above]. But Florence does seem to have been a child of two cities, returning to familial roots in Montreal for religious education at Villa Maria, then back to New York for study in the public school system that was undoubtedly both more secular and livelier than convent tutelage -- certainly Florence claimed that she preferred the New York high school.
We don't know whether she graduated from high school or if she had any interest in higher education. Laudatory fan magazine profiles insisted that Florence was fluent in several languages; it's certainly plausible that she was bilingual in English and French. But nothing in these articles arouses more skepticism than the pious contention that she was a devoted reader of Dickens, Thackeray, and Bulwer-Lytton. How could the busy actress have perused their bulky tomes amidst leisure time devoted to automotive daredeviltry and dance-floor exploits? Her choice of a fiancee, as we'll see later, hints that Florence's taste in fiction may have been as daring as her other recreations. Few young women attended college at the turn of the century. It's unlikely that Florence, by her mid-teens already a model sought after by prominent illustrators such as Penhryn Stanlaws and Harrison Fisher, aspired to be one of them.
There's no evidence to suggest that Florence trod the boards as a child as did contemporaries Mary Pickford and the Gish sisters. She did claim, according toseveral magazine reports, that her good friend Mary Pickford was responsible for introducing her to Biograph. If the girls were acquainted, where else but onstage, backstage, or between stages could Florence and Mary have cultivated that friendship?
Thanks to a "Where-were-they-then?" feature from a 1914 Motion Picture Magazine, we do know that Florence was a theatrical professional as early as October 6, 1908. Attired as one of the little fairies in Chauncey Olcott's Ragged Robin, she was scampering about the stage of the Lexington, Kentucky Opera House that long-ago evening. The Smith/Pickfords could have encountered Florence as part of this or a similar Olcott tour -- the kind of 40-week marathon, by the way, that caused Florence to explain a few years later why she was so ready to give up the stage for the more artistically dubious but less itinerant (though not necessarily safer) moving-picture profession. photoplayer, she was also a confirmed New York City girl, living with her parents in a comfortable apartment located on the then-fashionable Riverside area. Was she also the chief breadwinner for a family with pretensions to gentility but few economic resources?
A January 1913 Motion Picture Magazine "Chat" convincingly presents her as the center of the family circle; her position may have been due to reasons economic as much as emotional. Both parents remain shadowy figures and it's unlikely that Florence's mother influenced her as decisively as Mrs. Pickford and Mrs. Talmadge did their daughters. But, when her fatal accident occurred in 1917, Florence was reportedly still living with her mother at the St. Andrew's Hotel on respectable upper Broadway. Her father, though listed as a survivor on the death certificate, apparently wasn't in residence.
VENUS AND MADONNA
By 1912, Florence was well-established with the Thanhouser Company. Commuting to the New Rochelle studio daily from her Manhattan home, she appeared in at least 30 films that year, sometimes starring, sometimes playing a leading role in support of colleagues like James Cruze and Marguerite Snow. As did most early film companies, Thanhouser carried on the traditions of the theatrical stock companies from which many of the players had sprung. Founder Edwin Thanhouser had originally made his mark as the impresario of a regional stock company in Milwaukee, and he had strong reservations about the star system. But certain players, through skill, attractiveness, or some mysterious charisma , stood out from the rest of the company. Plot, photography, direction -- viewers and exhibitors alike valued these components of film production. But by 1912, it was the fascinating male or female screen persona, the STAR, that was coming to overshadow all else in the eyes of the audience. For Thanhouser, Florence was one of a half dozen leading players. For many in the audience, she was a star, the reason they'd plunked down their money at the box office.
She displayed the versatility characteristic of many early film stars. As Thanhouser's resident glamor girl, she filled 1912 roles such as Miss Robinson Crusoe and Undine that required daringly skimpy costumes, and played the sexy siren Venus in 1913's Tannhauser. Edward Wagenknecht has testified to the impact made on his 12-year-old psyche by the bare-legged Florence in Miss Robinson Crusoe. Yet, aside from it and Undine, the only other LaBadie film he mentioned by name in ...Age of Innocence was The Star Of Bethlehem, a production appealing, at least theoretically, to much different emotions! In this Christmas film, Florence essayed an ethereally lovely but, of course, fully-clothed Madonna. Between these two extremes lay dozens of roles, comedic, dramatic, alluring, reverent, fantastic, and realistic. Like any actress, Florence had her hits and misses, and she may have winced at the misses more than she relished the hits. If the January 1913 Motion Picture Magazine can be believed, Florence often viewed her work: "I sit with my hands clenched and watch myself, seeing where I might have done better and longing to walk into the picture again and improve my acting." Those skeptical of her conscientiousness should remember that only a 15-30 minute investment was necessary for stars to review their work in the days of one- and two-reelers.
Early film critics gallantly tossed bouquets to their favorites, but they didn't hesitate to throw bricks when appropriate. Louis Reeves Harrison of the trade journal Moving Picture World was a literate representative of the genteel tradition who applied his high standards to the photoplays that most cultured folks held in contempt. Judging Florence miscast in Thanhouser's 1912 production of The Merchant of Venice, he dismissed her Portia as too light and girlish, thus lacking the force necessary to a successful interpretation.
But Harrison by no means considered Florence just another pretty face -- though to judge from his language, he believed her very pretty indeed. Later in 1912, Florence's title performance in Aurora Floyd elicited from Harrison this glowing but insightful estimate of her dramatic potential:
"The interiors are a delight to the eye, and so is Flo LaBadie. This young beauty...has at last struck her true gait. I do not mean to say that she has ever limped. Au contraire, her breaks have been of exuberant spirits, like those of a happy child jumping rope......[She] has grasped the value of self-repression in her impersonation..., has curbed the restless smile always trembling on her lips and has made a creditable effort to simulate the sentiments she is supposed to express. She is nearing the absolute necessity of being the character she is called upon to depict."
If not yet a true mistress of her trade, Florence was learning her lessons well. How well can be inferred from Harrison's praise of her contribution to a June 1913 Thanhouser drama, The Snare Of Fate. Relentlessly deglamorized, Florence interpreted her role as an impoverished young mother with "delicacy and sympathetic intelligence."
Less discerning fans and exhibitors undoubtedly overlooked the subtle growth of her craft. For them, it was Florence the "young beauty" who mattered. Speaking for them was the perhaps smitten journalist who reported her personal appearance at the Second Motion Picture Exhibitors Ball on November 14, 1912. For him, Florence was "a rare picture of delicate beauty and refinement as she sat in quiet dignity, enfolded in a rose-colored satin wrap, taking in the situation."
A favorite at the numerous exhibitors' balls of the era, Florence later dazzled in a context to which the phrase "quiet dignity" could hardly apply. At the Madison Square Garden Ball of February 19, 1916, she was observed riding a float and "lolling gracefully in a golden chair, carried on the shoulders of Nubian slaves." Glamor was no stranger to the booming film industry of the teens, and in playing this role as well as Swanson or Negri could have done in the 20s, Florence was simply relying on one of her strengths -- but by no means her only one.
From the middle of 1912, after Edwin Thanhouser's retirement, the Thanhouser Company was headed by Charles Hite, an energetic partner in the great Mutual distribution combine. Led by Hite, Thanhouser struck gold in 1914 with The Million Dollar Mystery, perhaps the most finacially successful of the early serials. As Florence Gray, the serial's heroine, Florence LaBadie reaped a substantial share of the glory. Menaced, abducted, bound and gagged, forced to dive from speeding boats: Florence experienced all the perils that any self-respecting chapter-play heroine could expect! But Florence and her stalwart hero James Cruze were equal to all pitfalls prepared for them by villainess Marguerite Snow and her henchman. Together they escaped death, solved the mystery, and joined hands at the altar before the serial's last fadeout. Florence's career reached its zenith in the summer of 1914.
Early that summer, Mabel Condon, a leading Photoplay contributor, interviewed her for the August issue whose cover features Florence in that demure cheesecake pose so well-suited to post-Victorian America. While the personality of any subject undergoes distortion, gross or subtle, when filtered through the words and perceptions of an interviewer, Condon's article convincingly portrays a unself-conscious young woman preoccupied with the mundane matters of her own life. The energetic "young beauty" emerges with piquant authenticity in a stream-of-consciousness monologue that savors the perquisites of stardom while dutifully accepting its responsibilities:
"We had an awfully nice time [at the Chicago Exhibors Ball]. I think I'd like Chicago, only they don't dance there. We were at the La Salle Hotel and both Peggy [Marguerite Snow] and I must have showed our disappointment at there being no dancing, as the people we were with took us to a smaller restaurant for supper, and when nearly everybody had left at 12 o'clock, the chairs were removed and the few of us who remained were allowed to dance......I wore this head-dress, and I love my coat-- I like its gold collar......We didn't go to Chicago for a rest, so we didn't rest. One afternoon -- we were there only three afternoons -- there was a tea-party and all the women talked about their babies and some of them adored house-keeping. That was one occasion on which I had absolutely nothing to say."
The young New York star obviously did not envy the life of a Chicago exhibitor's wife! In 1914, the turkey-trot and jaunts to Coney Island attracted her far more than the joys of motherhood. If she gave any thought to the subject at all, Florence must have assumed that she had plenty of time before she need concern herself with motherhood and children.
In the very month that her cover-image enticed Photoplay readers, however, Florence's extended Thanhouser family suffered a disastrous loss. Foreshadowing her own fate, Charles Hite was killed in August 1914 when his car plunged over a New York City embankment. Though Edwin Thanhouser returned to lead the company that bore his name, Hite's loss undoubtedly weakened the New Rochelle studio just as the film industry was becoming increasingly competitive. (For a fuller account of the Thanhouser company's decline, see Muriel Ostriche: Princess Of Silent Films by Q. David Bowers.)
One symptom of that decline was the embarrassing failure of Zudora, sequel to The Million Dollar Mystery. Starring James Cruze and Marguerite Snow, the much-ballyhooed serial apparently disappointed the expectations of the audience that had flocked to its predecessor. Zudora may have been irredeemably awful, but Florence's absence from the cast must have baffled and irritated fans. Florence's non-participation could had a physical basis: a surprisingly brief magazine item of 1915 claimed that she had been severely burned while filming a fiery Million Dollar Mystery scene.
Though stunt people and extras have always been placed in greater jeopardy than credited players, danger was more democratic in film's first decades. Florence was widely publicized for making a daring boat leap during Million Dollar Mystery; given her affinity for the water, she probably did the stunt herself. Most early players preferred the risk of injury to that of unemployment or humiliation, though stunt substitutes may have been provided for especially hazardous scenes. Yet even scenes not considered troublesome could prove deadly: witness Martha Mansfield, who merely brushed against an open flame while wearing a gauzy gown and was fatally burned in 1923. Far less tragic, Florence's accident could still have caused second or third degree burns requiring months of recuperation. If she weren't actually injured, why would Thanhouser have broken up the LaBadie-Cruze-Snow team that had performed so spectacularly well in Million Dollar Mystery ?
Whatever the reasons for not casting Florence in Zudora, the team was dissolved permanently in 1915 when James Cruze and Marguerite Snow, by then husband and wife, left Thanhouser for greener pastures. Now undeniably the studio's mainstay, Florence was showcased in 20 releases during 1915, most of them still two-reelers, but a few, like Monsieur Lecoq, full-length features. For 1916, Thanhouser responded to the film revolution spearheaded by the Griffith and DeMille with a LaBadie program of six feature releases. Hesitations about the star system flung to the wind, the studio emphatically promoted Florence's star persona: the message to filmgoers was, in effect, "Go to see Florence LaBadie in this film" rather than "Go to see this film with Florence LaBadie."
Judging by complaints in Photoplay, Florence's presence may indeed have been the only reason to buy a ticket for many of her later films. Julian Johnson, in Photoplay's Shadowstage column for April 1916, noted that Thanhouser's January release The Five Faults Of Flo benefitted from "an original concept and the exquisite Florence LaBadie," but failed because it was "clumsily carried out, badly staged, and inefficiently directed." In August, a fan letter asked "Why don't they put Florence LaBadie in better plays?" The editorial response concurred that she hadn't had a really good vehicle since The Million Dollar Mystery! The following month, Julian Johnson surveyed the entire acting field from his Shadowstage and categorized Florence with Henry Walthall, Anita Stewart, Mae Marsh, and several other players whose careers were stagnating for lack of good roles. Mae Marsh's problem was solved with the release of Intolerance that very month of September 1916, but Florence was not to be as fortunate. Her only opportunity to work with a great director came at the very beginning of her career.
Dissatisfaction with the Thanhouser product was apparently not confined to fans and critics. Mutual severed relations in the summer of 1916, forcing Thanhouser to turn to Pathe for distribution. The departure of publicity chief Leon Rubinstein, presumably for a more lucrative post elsewhere, was another blow to the studio's reeling fortunes. As Thanhouser continued to flounder in the shark-filled waters of the 1916 film industry, did Florence too begin to look elsewhere? Except for a tantalizing notice in Motion Picture World that Marcus Loew invited her to Loew's 1916 Halloween party, no evidence exists hinting at negotiations with another company. Thanhouser's only remaining major star, Florence must have been well-paid, though probably far below the rarefied Pickford-Chaplin level.
New York loyalist Florence may also have hesitated at the prospect of relocating to a still-provincial Los Angeles. She'd traveled west with Griffith in 1911 and with a Thanhouser group in 1913; perhaps those sojourns had convinced her not to stray from the Hudson if she could help it! New York was far from finished as a film production center in 1916, but with pioneer companies like Biograph and Edison struggling just as desperately as Thanhouser, the industry's center of gravity was inexorably shifting westward. Perhaps Florence simply refused to follow the trend.
FLORENCE AND DANIEL
Florence may have had other reasons for preferring New York. It's not known just when she became engaged to Daniel Carson Goodman, or how long they'd been friends before the engagement. Goodman was credited -- if that's the correct term! -- for the scenario of Zudora, so they may have met in late 1914 when he performed that assignment for Thanhouser. But Goodman was a celebrated figure in certain New York circles well before 1914, and their acquaintance could have preceded the Zudora fiasco.
Born in Chicago on August 24, 1883, Daniel Carson Goodman was a man of many careers. He received his M. D. in 1905 from Washington University of St. Louis, then traveled to Europe for post-graduate work. Returning to St. Louis in 1908 with a diploma earned at Vienna, he practiced medicine and did cell research.
He also wrote novels of a kind that were bound to provoke controversy in early 20th-century America: Dr. Goodman was a literary analyst of what was euphemistically termed the Sex Problem. In 1913, his Hagar Revelly was a cause celebre, titillating readers and infuriating censors. Goodman's fondness for the book -- and its presumably gratifying sales -- can be inferred from the name he gave his New jersey estate, Revelly Farm.
Physician and author Goodman may have made his first significant film contact with D. W. Griffith, whose April 1914 release The Battle Of The Sexes was based on one of his novels (presumably either Hagar Revelly or an earlier work entitled The Unclothed). The Zudora incident apparently didn't damage his reputation too badly because, according to a Moving Picture World item of July 31, 1915, Lubin in Philadelphia acquired his screen-writing services. In return for $60,000, Goodman was to deliver 12 scenarios to Lubin during the next year. It's not clear if this agreement was actually fulfilled, but Goodman may well have been kept busy by the film industry; his next novel didn't appear until 1918.
Goodman continued to publish novels at irregular intervals until the mid-1940s and had several of his plays produced. Graduating from screen-writer to studio executive in the 1920s, Goodman remained no stranger to controversy. When his marriage to troubled actress Alma Rubens ended, her divorce action included the accusation that he had beaten her.
Dr. Goodman was also a central figure in the murky Thomas Ince affair of 1924. Los Angeles and San Diego officials judged that Ince died of natural causes after his removal from William Randolph Hearst's yacht, but rumors of foul play and coverup have yet to subside. As chief executive of Hearst's Cosmopolitan Productions, Goodman was aboard the Oneida for the fatal cruise. As a physician, Goodman was naturally charged with caring for Ince after he was stricken. If anyone could have told the world exactly what did or did not happen to Thomas Ince, it was Daniel Carson Goodman. But he apparently maintained a discreet silence on the matter, at least in public, to his death in 1957.
As Florence LaBadie's fiance in 1917, however, Goodman was still just the slightly scandalous author of Hagar Revelly. A photo accompanying the 1915 Lubin announcement suggests an intelligent and forceful man. From what's known of Florence's personality, we can imagine their relationship was an intense one, vibrant with both physical attraction and emotional tensions. We can only speculate whether the attachment between Daniel and Florence would have endured through the years because automotive disaster in the Hudson River village of Croton severed it with violent finality.
The Hudson River and its often spectacular scenery must have been familiar to Florence; the railroad between Montreal and New York ran parallel to its course for over 100 miles. Once Canada entered the Great War, she may have travelled north along the Hudson and the lakes beyond to troop camps outside Montreal where conscripts were trained for the trenches of the Western Front. T. Harry Happeny's 1978 Classic Images article on Florence indeed states that she supported the Canadian war effort by entertaining in these camps, just as Pickford, Chaplin, and Fairbanks enthusiastically sold war bonds after America became entangled in 1917. French Canadian troops were less than enthusiastic about fighting what was seen as a British war and came close to mutiny in the great Valcartier camp on one occasion. The presence of a star whose films and French Canadian heritage were surely well-known in her father's homeland may have taken an edge off the disgruntled soldiers' hostility -- or so the Canadian government probably hoped.
But when Florence rode the train north in August 1917, she traveled only as far as Albany. There she met Daniel Goodman, who'd been vacationing in the Adirondacks while she'd remained in New York, perhaps finishing Man Without A Country, which was to be her last film. They returned south along the Hudson, bound for New York, in his automobile. Was Florence, the daredevil, at the wheel, or had the intermittent burns and bruises of six years full of film-making diminished her taste for excitement? The driver, whether Florence or Daniel, couldn't control the car as it swerved to avoid an overturned brewery truck and a fire engine on a hill in Croton about six o'clock on the evening of Tuesday, August 28. When they were pulled from the wreckage, Daniel was bleeding heavily; a collarbone and a rib had been fractured, and his Achilles tendon severed. Florence was less fortunate. Crushed between the overturned car and the ground, she had suffered a smashed pelvis and damaged internal organs. They were taken to Ossining, site of the nearest hospital, where Daniel remained for over a month until discharged.
Because Florence's injuries evidently precluded her removal to New York, eminent specialists traveled the 30 miles north to Ossining. She received the best medical care available in 1917; indeed, with the help of hastily-performed surgery, she survived the initial trauma. But the extensiveness of her injuries left little room for error, and once blood-poisoning took hold, Florence lost any chanceof returning to her home and career and the hope of a life with the man she loved. Even as her screen image was enthralling her public once more in Man Without A Country, Florence LaBadie faded out of the life she'd lived so energetically.
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