Setting the Record Straight

Ever since I read Edward Wagenknecht's heartfelt tribute to Florence LaBadie in his "Movies In The Age Of Innocence" almost 40 years ago, I've been intrigued by the brief but significant career of this lovely silent-film pioneer who died tragically young.  Thanks primarily to the restoration activities of Ned Thanhouser and the Thanhouser Company, we can enjoy many more of her films than would have seemed possible a few decades ago.  Florence now has new admirers whose tributes can be found on the internet.  Unfortunately, these tributes are often accompanied by biographical sketches that perpetuate sensational claims regarding Florence's life and death, claims that originate in Charles Foster's "Stardust And Shadows", a collection of biographical essays on Canadians in silent film published in 2000.  

In the 18 pages devoted to Florence, Foster makes a number of erroneous statements about simple matters of fact.  For example, the name of Florence's mother was Amanda, not Helene.  Her father did not die in 1907 before she and her mother moved to New York -- Joseph LaBadie was alive and active in Florence's career when she became a Thanhouser star.  Florence was born in 1888, not 1893, and she joined the Chauncey Olcott stage production of "Ragged Robin" in 1908 at the age of 20, not as an eight-year old prodigy.  In addition, Foster utilizes extensive quotes to buttress some of his more extravagant claims about Florence and the LaBadie family without giving specific sources for their origin:Much as I appreciate Florence's film performances, I'm skeptical that D.  W. Griffith called her the most talented actress he ever worked with!
But far more significant and controversial is the central theme of Foster's account:that Florence LaBadie was stalked, harrassed and impregnated by President Woodrow Wilson, then murdered, by implication, on his orders!The main source for these astounding accusations was a silent-film actress named Valentine Grant, who allegedly revealed the scandalous details to Foster when he visited Hollywood in 1943.  According to the author, Miss Grant (also Mrs. Olcott, as she was married to director Sidney Olcott) was a close friend of Florence's, thus privy to her heart-rending tales of persecution by Wilson during the years from 1912 to 1917.  
However, Valentine Grant was not a Thanhouser actress, nor is there any evidence that she was involved in film production before 1914; also, during that year and 1915, she was on location with her husband for long periods in Jacksonville, Florida and Ireland.  Under the circumstances, it doesn't seem likely that she and Florence would have had the opportunity for many confessional conversations; wouldn't it be more reasonable that Florence would have turned to female colleagues at Thanhouser such as Jean Darnell, Marguerite Snow, Mignon Anderson or Muriel Ostriche? If they had knowledge of such disturbing events, would they all have remained silent in the face of Florence's persecution?  And would all of them, and likely many of her other colleagues, have maintained their silence about such dramatic incidents in the decades that followed, long after both Florence and Wilson were dead?

Leaving aside the issue of Valentine Grant's credibility, there are several major problems with Foster's shocking revelations:

Florence LaBadie - from mural
Florence LaBadie as the Madonna, in Star of Bethlehem
Portion from a Florence LaBadie mural
Artist: Katya Kompaneyets

1) CLAIM: As a result of favors Woodrow Wilson did for the Thanhouser Company as Governor of New Jersey and President during the 1912 to 1914 period, Edwin Thanhouser encouraged Florence not to reject Wilson's advances.
FACT: For most of that period, Charles Hite was the head of the Thanhouser company; its founder was out of the country until Hite died in an auto accident in August of 1914!
2) CLAIM: Because of Wilsonian complications, Florence asked for and received a six-month leave of absence at Thanhouser from April through September of 1915. 
FACT: Florence's filmography for the late spring and summer listing 13 releases in which she starred argues that she was hard at work before the camera.  
3) CLAIM: Florence's retirement was announced in April of 1916, after which nothing is heard of her until her auto accident in April of 1917!
FACT: No contemporary newspapers or trade magazines report Florence's retirement as of April 1916, which would have been a significant story given her stature in the film industry.  In addition, eleven more films starring Florence were released after April 1916; these were primarily feature-length moving pictures, including "The Woman In White" and "The Man Without A Country", both of which which are available on DVD today.  All papers and periodicals report that Florence's ultimately fatal accident occurred in August 1917, not April of that year.  
4) CLAIM: In the moments after Florence's accident, an unknown man jumped out of the car and ran off!
FACT: The only other man actually involved in the accident was not unidentified; he was Dr. Daniel Carson Goodman, Florence's fiancee, and he could hardly have gone on the run because he suffered significant leg injuries when the car overturned.  
5) CLAIM: Florence's death certificate gives her age as 24 and her death as a result of suspiciously vague "natural causes". 

FACT: The copy I have clearly indicates that she was 29 and specifies cause of death with painful accuracy as "septicimia [blood poisoning] due to compound fracture of the pelvis as result of accident."
6) CLAIM: Florence's funeral in October 1917 was a quiet one with most of her peers absent. 
FACT: The New York Times for October 18, 1917 reported that there was throng of film industry figures at the funeral with numerous floral tributes in evidence
7) CLAIM: Florence's funeral plot in Brooklyn's Greenwood Cemetery was purchased for her and her mother, implicitly by powerful anonymous figures, and there's a grave marker that can be clearly read. 
Florence LaBadie Certificate of Adoption

FACT: Florence was buried in a plot owned by the Russ family, a result of her birth as Florence Russ in 1888 (she became the LaBadies' adopted daughter in 1891).  Sadly, the plot is currently bare of any memorials, though that will change in April of 2014!

Foster's second key source was supposedly a former newspaper reporter named James Baird; he claims to have spoken with Baird in 1993 and quotes him at length.   As a 17-year-old cub for the New York Telegraph in 1917, Baird allegedly uncovered evidence that the brake lines on Florence's car were cut.  Baird asserted that his efforts to develop this eye-opening story were stymied by cover-ups, blacklisting and intimidating thugs.  Along the way, however, he just happened to run into a maid who worked for the LaBadie family in 1915; she let slip that Florence had given birth to a child in 1915.  His further research led to a Washington, D.C. birth certificate in the name of . . . George Woodrow Smith!  The scoop of a lifetime, but apparently Baird kept his silence over the decades as did all the other likely witnesses to the LaBadie-Wilson affair.   The alleged journalist tells a colorful tale, but when so many other details don't stand up to examination, it's difficult to credit a story that seems too reminiscent of a paperback thriller to be true.  

And it's this issue of credibility that's crucial.  Based on the alleged testimony of Valentine Grant, dead since 1949, and the imaginative (or imaginary?) 93-year-old James Baird, Foster spins a sensational narrative that, if true, would be a significant addition to the dark side of American history! Yet would such a long-drawn-out sequence of sinister activity from 1912 to 1917 by the most powerful man in the country -- Wilson supposedly visited New Rochelle dozens of times in pursuit of Florence and invited her to the White House for a fateful Christmas 1914 visit -- have been ignored by so many witnesses?America in the WWI era was not saturated by media as it is today, but it was a great age of the newspaper and many reporters as zealous as Baird would certainly not have ignored the President's numerous visits to the film studio.  Foster refers to a 1927 article in the Boston Globe (no specific date given) that questioned the standard account of Florence's accidental death.  The alleged article sparked no further investigation, so he implies that once more people in high places made sure that any potential response was squelched.  Yet Wilson had been dead since 1924 and in the Republican-dominated 20s, a scandal focused on the Democratic President's criminal behavior might have been welcomed in "high places."
As an admirer of Florence LaBadie who's researched her career, I've critiqued "Stardust And Shadows" from her perspective.  My knowledge of Woodrow Wilson's life and career is limited, but as one of the major political figures of the 20th century, he's been the subject of many biographies and a collection of his papers that's reached 69 volumes!The papers include thousands of letters that reveal a passionate man behind the severe facade that his Presidential photos convey; biographers indicate that he was probably involved in an extra-marital affair from 1908 to 1910 that he later deeply regretted.  After Woodrow Wilson's first wife died in 1914, he remarried in 1915 and there seems to be no evidence that he was anything but a faithful husband for the rest of his life -- certainly nothing to indicate that he would jeopardize his eminent public position with the kind of predatory behavior that Foster attributes to him.  To suggest on the basis of innuendo and dubious evidence that their paths crossed in the lurid way depicted in Foster's imaginative account does a shameful injustice to the memories of a great man and of a lovely young woman whose life ended far too soon. 


Florence LaBadie from mural
Florence LaBadie from Promotional Still
Portion of a Florence LaBadie mural
Artist: Katya Kompaneyets

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