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Jeanne Eagels
Gilda Gray

James Abbe's Autobiography: Wonderful Years

JAMES ABBE’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY

David S. Shields

Very few of the significant camera artists who chronicled the American stage committed the story of their lives to paper. Few who make the visual the mode of their expression also cultivate verbal expression. While the lively photographic press of the 19th century gave rise to numbers of operator-authors who reflected on aspects of the art of picture taking, or even business building, in the pages of trade journals, few assumed the philosophical and historical perspective to muse on the shape of their careers and the mutations of the art they practiced. Arnold Genthe was the one artful penman among artful photographers who supplied a chronicle of his works and days--indeed two autobiographies: As I remember (1936) and Highlights and Shadows (1937). Their eloquence and learnedness no doubt daunted others who might have considered composing a memoir.

One who dared to capture the tale of becoming a successful photographer in the heyday of Broadway artistry was James Abbe. Yet because his life story appeared in serial installments printed over the winter of 1962 in the Oakland Tribune, and never issued from the press in book form, or any subsequent reprinting, t is something of a lost narrative of life in the studios and theaters of interwar New York, Hollywood, and Paris. Entitled "Wonderful Years," Abbe composed it while working as the television and movie critic of the newspaper, his final job in a singularly rich career. Abbe registered copyright in his own name, not granting it to the newspaper, as he did his daily contributions. Abbe's heirs did not renew the copyright when the original period of tenure ended. Hence it has come into public domain. Because of its unique insight into a moment of artistic ferment in Manhattan's theatrical world, and to Broadway's relations with the world of motion pictures, I think it useful to extract the portions of "Wonderful Years" that treat performing arts photography.

Abbe's career extended well beyond his early work generating publicity imagery for stage and screen. His sojourn in Paris in the latter 1920s and early 1930s forced him to confront the distressing politic currents at work in Europe. He became increasingly involved in photojournalism, chronicling the developing totalitarian cultures in Germany and the Soviet Union. Supplying images to The London Magazine and the Berliner Illustrirte Zietung, he developed a sufficiently potent reputation as a photojournalist to secure transit into the Soviet Union. He was the sole foreign photographer to secure a portrait of Stalin. His images of Soviet life were published in I Photograph Russia (1934).

Some things should be said about the representations below. In the memoir Abbe appears as a partying, flirtatious unattached male. No mention is made of the wife and children who accompanied him to New York and suffered his absences and final abandonment when he departed for Italy with Lillian Gish. James Abbe was a serial monogamist who married and left three wives before settling on a fourth. He had children by three of these women, and several of these offspring proved talented, making names and careers for themselves.

Abbe also chose to simplify his account of his interactions making movies for Mack Sennett. In my book Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography I detail Abbe's efforts as director for substantial portions of "Home Talent," the one movie he undertook that saw eventual release. Abbe clearly found the profoundly collective ethos of creation on the backlot alien to his autonomy as an artist enjoyed while shooting stills for plays and movies. And the one message one gathers reading this account is Abbe's relish for obtaining the special regard of theater managers, producers, and performers that gave him near universal and automatic entree to record the backstage.

While the original serial was illustrated with images, the fidelity of the newspaper prints was so poor that they would detract rather than enhance the narrative, so I have attempted to supply an alternative set of photographs bearing on the chapters. The transcription below gives all of chapters three through eleven of "Wonderful Years" with nothing excised or altered. He was seventy-six years old when he composed the narrative.

WONDERFUL YEARS

3. AH, THE SWEET TASTE OF SUCCESS!

I decided to burn my Virginia bridges and establish a photographer beachhead in the big city. The year was 1917. I was 34.

I rented a studio at 15 West 67th Street and began looking for business. There were 400 photographers listed in the phone book, so the outlook wasn’t promising.

I had arrived in New York with a portfolio bulging with pictures but had been unable to peddle them. The local magazine editors were still of a Victorian frame of mind, and the pictures were startling for those days: college girls with bare knees, the photographs I had taken of the ballet girls at Randolph Macon Women’s College.

Even fashionable Vogue magazine had turned me down. Its editor Edna Chase had received me cordially enough, but had not seen in me the makings of a fashion photographer.

Much later I learned to appreciate Edna Chase, even shot some fashion photos for her in New York and Paris. It was Edna’s head man in Paris, Lucien Vogel, who once remarked that my photos of mannequins always suggested him that I had just arranged a rendezvous with the girl. He said I impressed him as one who felt more at home derriere la coulise (behind the scenes) at the Folies Bergeres than I did chez Lanvin or any of the ateliers of the Paris haute couture.

Finally my New York luck changed. I managed to seel 30 less revealing photos of college girls for five dollars each to be used for illustrating fiction stories. All of them were later published, and as a result of them I began to get a name around New York.

Down in Philadelphia the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal got wind of my success and perhaps remembering the brief contact I had with them that day I stopped en route to New York, asked me to submit some of my photographs to them. I did.

One of those I submitted was of actress Jeanne Eagels, and became a Post cover. For that picture I received $75. It was the first time the Post had used a photograph on its cover.

Months afterward, a poet called upon me in my New York studio with some of the prints I had sold the Post and the Journal. He had been assigned to write verses around them I had never heard of him previously, but got to know him later. His name was Christopher Morley.

[Oakland Tribune, February 6, 1961, p. D 19]

4. I PHOTOGRAPH THE GREAT

Many famous persons sat for me in my 67th Street studio during the years I lived and worked there. David Belasco was one of the earlier subjects.

My pictures of Frances Starr, Lenore Ulric and Ina Claire, taken for Belasco, then at his peak as a producer, had been published in big-time slick magazines, and in the N. Y. Times rotogravure section which had more or less adopted me as its stage photographer.

In my studio I worked only with daylight, a traditional artist’s north skylight.

Party Guests: Many of my younger subjects became my Sunday afternoon party guests. They sometimes became noisy, but I kept out of trouble with my neighbors by including them in the parties—nearly all painters and illustrators like Howard Chandler Christie and James Montgomery Flagg, or party-givers like Jimmy Breeze.

On of my afternoon parties lasted until early morning. We had all gone to Jensen’s restaurant on 57th and Columbus, where we wined as well as dined.

Returning to 15 West, Dick Barthelmess led a contingent up the fire escape to my fifth floor, dropping the tenants’ milk bottles crashing to the paved courtyard.

Critics on Stage: This was the year the New York drama critics staged their own show on Broadway on a challenge from the producers. The critics had been panning one show after another and the producers finally said, all right, see if you can do better.

Among the critics of that day were Heywood Broun, Burns Mantle, Franklin P. Adams, Alexander Woollcott, and Robert Benchley. Only hit of the show was Benchley, whose uproarious portrayal of a crooked corporation treasurer launched him as actor and comedian.

In the chorus line of this not-so-memorable show were Tallulah Bankhead, June Walker and Lenore Ulric, among others.

All that sort of thing was at the beginning of what is now called ‘the roaring twenties’ of prohibition, speakeasies, postwar (No. 1) night life, bootlegging and leggy chorus girls. We didn’t feel we were roaring too much; we merely adjusted to a changing world, as painlessly as possible.

Received Nod: As a theatrical photographer this one merely received a ‘good evening’ not entering any stage door, be it Ziegfeld’s (New Amsterdam) Theater, John Murray Anderson’s Greenwich Village Follies, or the Macdougal Street Playhouse, where I photographed Eugene O’Neill himself, his ‘Hairy Ape,’ ‘Emperor Jones’ and others.

I had opened up a new field of stage photography, using the thousand watt lamps and spots to be found in every theater. It was John Barrymore who unwittingly opened the way.

[Oakland Tribune, February 7, 1962, D-23]

5. BARRYMOORE’S REBELLION

Because John Barrymore refused to pose for publicity stills in my studio, he opened up a new field of photography for me, and changed the style of camera publicity for the entertainment world.

Barrymoore had put his temperamental foot down when producer Arthur Hopkins and his publicity lady Ruth Hale (Mrs. Heywood Broun in private life) pleaded with him to visit my studio for publicity shots. The year was 1919.

Final Stages: Hopkins’ production of ‘The Jest’ was in the final stages of rehearsal at the Plymouth Theater. John and Lionel were co-starred in one of their infrequent appearances together.

During a discussion—which became an argument—in John’s dressing room, John held out against Hopkins, Lionel, Ruth and me. He said, ‘It is damned foolishness shooting pictures of performers in costume in some photographer’s studio. If photographers had any imagination, they’d learn how to shoot in the theater, on the stage, with the sets and props that provide an adequate atmosphere.’

The crack at the likes of this photographer sounded like my cue. So, I brashly offered to work on the stage provided Hopkins would provide the full stage crew, including electricians and the portable thousand watt lamps. I never had done it before but I’d juggled lights shooting Norma Talmadge in a New York movie studio, so why not on a theater stage?

Put on Spot: The offer put Hopkins, John, Ruth (and to a lesser degree Lionel, who was amenable to anything) on the spot.

Overtime for the crew after a rehearsal would run into money; especially as I insisted upon at least three hours of time.

John was unhappy, because actually he didn’t care if the papers published a single picture of him. Hopkins didn’t relish the overtime. Ruth wasn’t convinced that this type of publicity photo would make a hit with the press. But they all reluctantly agreed to go through with it.

Paid Off Big: The four-hour, midnight to morning session paid off big. The papers went all out with the pictures. The magazines berated Ruth and me for not saving them eclusives. From then on virtually every show that opened on Broadway afforded me the exclusive shooting rights on stage, and I was seemingly on the way to live high on the hog, ever after.

Archie Selwyn sent me to Detroi to shoot Jane Cowl in “Smilin’ Through.” John Murray Anderson sent me to Atlantic City for the pre-Broadway start of ‘Greenwich Village Follies.’ Then to Washington for ‘Tangerine,’ with Julia Sanderson and Frank Crummit.

[Oakland Tribune, February 8, 1962, p. 23]

6. HOLLYWOOD BECKONS

In 1919 I moved from 67th St. to Tin Pan Alley on 47th St. outfitting a big room over the roof of the Romax Building with motion picture lights like an undersized movie studio.

I was in fast company in that location, what with neighbors like Irving Berlin and ex-champion heavyweight of the world Jack Johnson.

Posing for stills in my new studio, film stars like Lillian Gish, Theda Bara, Mabel Normand and Pola Negri would ask, ‘Jim, why not move to the picture-making capital of the world?”

When D. W. Griffith said he thought I should pay the film colony a visit, my mind was made up.

Had it Made: Since I had established a reputation in New York, you might say I ‘had it made” when I went to Hollywood.

I checked in at the Hollywood Hotel with its old-fashioned rocking chair front porch facing Hollywood Boulevard, and its rock-em and roll-em Saturday night dance parties.

It was here the movie elite flock on Saturday nights, along with the movie-struck girls from far and wide longing to be elite.

Feeling the need of feminine companionship, I looked up Helen Weir, who was new to Hollywood.

We went to an obscure (as I recall it) Los Angeles hotel with a five-piece dance orchestra, led by a man who played the violin as he directed his players.

I had got acquainted with the diminutive and gentle Helen while shooting photos for David Belasco in New York—publicity stills for a revival production of ‘The Music Master’ with David Warfield. Helen played the young girl the aging music master adored. (No wonder!)

Danced Divinely: Helen, a charming diminutive blond, danced divinely. As we moved about the floor I was in dreamland, or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

Back at our table between numbers, holding Helen’s hand, I said, ‘By rights we should tell that ‘music master’ that he and his orchestra are tops.’ So we did.

We asked him why, with all his talent, he wasn’t playing New York for big money. (Speaking like the sophisticated New Yorker I considered myself in those days.)

Yen for N.Y.: ‘I have always wanted to play in New York,’ he replied. ‘But when I left Denver, it took less carfare to get to Los Angeles. Besides, movie studios were looking for orchestras to play mood music.’

I hinted I had connections in New York. ‘Would any of them pay our way back there?’ he asked. I said I thought they might.

“But would they stake us to fare back to L.A. if they were not pleased?” I wasn’t so sure of that.

But Helen and I agreed, returning to our dancing, that New York would warm to this man. His name: Paul Whiteman.

[Oakland Tribune, February 9, 1962, p. 25]

7. THE DAY I MADE A MOVIE

I met comedy king Mack Sennett while taking publicity stills of Mary Pickford. It was Mary’s birthday. Sennett had come to the movie set where Mary was making ‘Suds’ to wish her well. I forgot the year, but the date was April 8.

Mary had sent the cast home early, but not until all had put in a good day’s work: she was ambitious and devoted to her art, a perfectionist in everything. Even in my still shots she insisted on perfection.

Sennett watched me at work, then asked me to go over and take some shots of his bathing beauties (only three of the fourteen could swim). I worked all one day with those gorgeous beauties, each hand-picked by the comedy king himself. Afterwards Sennett, who had been standing by all day, suggested that we all repair to the cafeteria for coffee and sweets ‘on the house.’

I was elated at having made the grade with this world-renown figure, not to mention his lovely creatures!

After coffee we all returned to the set and Mack said, ‘Now I want you to make up a story, whatever comes to your mind. Direct the girls and I’ll send in Ben Turpin or Ford Sterling or any man you want if you need male performers.’

‘How about a script?’ I asked innocently.

Mack said, ‘We never have scripts here, never story-lines: nothing is written down. Our directors (he had five) are paid to have an idea for a two-reeler to start with and be able to stage and direct their scenes. If they get stuck along the line they let their ompany off for 10 minutes while they hurry to the gag-room. In the gag-room are three idea men, (paid $1,00each a week I learned later). They hear what the director needs, supply him immediately with a sequence and back he goes directing our slapstick in which take great pride. But,’ he added quickly, ‘They won’t help you now, because you are on trial. I want to see what you come up without outside help.’

I concocted a spur-of-the-moment piece about goings-on in New York’s Greenwich Village, of which I had some firsthand knowledge, and we were off for another two or three hours work.

I mixed love and slapstick, suspense, surprise and a few other ingredients I’d seen worked out while watching dress rehearsals on New York stages.

The impromptu movie I made for Sennett is not likely ever to be played back, even as a relic on newfangled TV.

In fact, it was not suitable for showing even in the slapstick days of silent movies, but it impressed Sennett, his assembled directors and a few of the girls.

‘How much do you want a week to make movies for me?’ asked my boss-to-be.

I picked $500 a week as an asking price.

‘When can you start?’ he asked.

I started mumbling something about previous engagements.

‘Your dates will wait,’ said the man who made millions laugh. ‘Come tomorrow, with your own idea of a story.’ And he walked away.

I racked my fluttering brain for a story idea. An English author had written ‘Water Babies,’ a fantasy beamed at children. I suggested a slapstick version of it, incautiously adding ‘Let’s inject a little subtle comedy into stapstick.’

He shook his head sadly, this genius who launched Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Gloria Swanson, Ben Turpin, Marie Prevost and Marie Dressler; who made the Keystone Kops immortal.

‘Abbe,’ he said, ‘there is only one basic comedy situation in life, a kick on somebody else’s shins.’

I ran into Mack Sennett years later, after the talkies came in. The talkies, of course, spelled the end of pantomime in the movies and the end of Mack Sennett’s type of comedy.

The boss was dejected. I tried to tell him he would soon adapt to the talkies, but he didn’t think so. The man who made millions laugh and lost millions of dollars speculating outside of Hollywood. He was a pushover for wildcat projects.
In 1960 Mack Sennett died broke in Hollywood. God rest his soul in heaven where surely there is a market for laughs.

[Oakland Tribune, February 11, 1962, p. FL-3]

8. BIRTH OF A STAR

My friendship with Lillian and Dorothy Gish, screen idols of those early twenties, led me to D. W. Griffith for whom I was soon shooting publicity stills in his Mamaronek Studios. It was 1922, and I had returned to New York after my ‘fling’ in Hollywood.

One of my favorite stills is of Lillian swimming the old-fashioned breaststroke with a wooden clothespin clipped to her photogenic nose. (Unfortunately this photo is lost.)

One day in October when this great star of ‘Broken Blossoms,’ ‘Way Down East,’ and ‘Birth of a Nation’ was in my studio for closeups, she asked if I would accompany her to Italy as still photogorapher among the all-American company that was to make ‘The White Sister.’

She asked another favor—would I hunt up a leading man for her, preferably an Italian.

I got Rudolph Valentino on the phone in Hollywood, already a star on his own, but willing to co-star with Lillian whom he considered the greatest of the screen actresses.

He’d see if his contracts would permit. He found that they wouldn’t, so I searched New York’s leading theaters, finally winding up in The Empire where what looked to me like an Italian was playing opposite Ruth Chatterton in ‘La Tendresse.’

In his dressing room Scotsman Ronald Colman did look as Italian to me as Valentino! I phoned Lillian, who phoned her director, Henry King. Lillian’s cameraman, Roy Overbaugh, joined them with a movie camera in my studio next day for the movie test of Colman.

The Scotsman got the job. In a couple or three weeks, we all sailed for Naples on the little Fabra Line Ship Providence (fated to be sunk filled with Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in World War II)

It was in ‘The White Sister’ that I played the part of a dying soldier on a desert in Africa. King had selected me because he said I looked the part.

Since it was a silent movie, Colman, like any other silent actor, could actually say whatever he wanted.

What he actually said as I lay dying was, ‘To think that I should have to play a scene with a still photographer!’

We spent seven wonderful months in Italy shooting ‘The White Sister’ in Rome, Naples, Tivoli, Frascati, Sorrento and even across the Mediterranean in Tripoli.

All the while another drama was being enacted in Italy as Mussolini was making the country over in his own image.

Next stop Paris, where I spent another wonderful eight years and incidentally became the father of three more children.

[Oakland Tribune, February 12, 1962, p. D-13]

9. PARIS, OO, LA, LA!

Paris was ripe for stage photography and I was ripe for Paris.

The year was 1923. My studio was in an ancient cluster of houses that date back to Louis XV. In fact Louis’ Madame Lavaliere resided in on of them on the Rue Val de Grace after her departure from Versailles.

During the winter months the big stove in my studio warmed many a subject. One lovely visitor was Bessie Love, top-flight American movie star of the silent era who was visiting Paris.

The Dolly Sisters, at the peak of their success, came too. In this Paris of the 20s they had taken over the Moulin Rouge with an expensive song-and-dance girlie ‘spectacle’ which sold out for months.

It was the Dolly Sisters, along with Mistinguette and Sascha Guitry, who launched me in Paris merely by permitting me to photograph them in their respective shows.

The Hungarian-born Dollys, who achieved fame in New York then settled in Paris, parlayed their song-and-dance talents to international heights, being astute businesswomen, showmen, publicity-minded and photogenic.

I remember that both spoke French with an American accent, and English with Hungarian accent.

Old friends and photo subjects from the States were always turning up in Paris. Chaplin. Marc Connolly. Jack Dempsey. Gilda Gray. Mary Pickford and Doug Fairbanks. Lillian and Dorothy Gish. Murray Anderson. Fred and Adele Astaire and many others.

Fred and the captivating Adele I had first known as teen-agers appearin at New York’s Globe Theater with Fred Stone, circa 1919. They posed in my Paris studio, and later posed again on the stage at the Prince of Wales Theater in London.

Once in 1924 when I was shooting Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence after their performance of “London Calling” in London, Fred, Adele and Beatrice Lillie dropped in.

After pictures, Noel corralled the Astaires and me for advice. He had never been in the U.S.A. He said he had written some plays he wanted to produce or sell, that he had saved enough money to live a month at the Ritz in New York, or perhaps three months in less expensive surroundings and maybe make a sale. Which course did we advise?

With some hesitation and debate we voted for the Ritz.


[Oakland Tribune, February 13, 1962, p. 21]

10. PAVLOVA’S DREAM

Anna Pavlova told this admirer one day in Paris, “I am still Russian. I dream of dancing again in my native land, even though the Russia I knew has gone with the revolution.

At her request on my first visit to Russian in November, 1927, I conveyed her sentiments to Soviet Commissar of Art and Culture Lunarcharsky, and to the great stage producer, Stanislavsky. Both declared Pavlova would not only be welcome, but permitted to depart the land of her birth without hindrance.

Returning to Golders Green near London, were Pavlova maintained residence, I passed on the messages from Lunarcharsky and Stanislavksy. The reluctant expatriate was deeply moved. With tears in her eyes she listened as I describer her Russia as I saw it.

But she never returned there.

I photographed Pavlova in many cities—first of all in New York at the old Manhattan Opera House on 34th Street, where young Sol Hurok looked on in some amazement as Madame willingly posed for me through the early morning hours after her opening performance.

Later she was to pose again at the Theatre de Champs Elysees in Paris, on the stage of London’s Covent Garden and at her home in Golders Green.

It was during my eight year stay in France that I caught up with Anna Pavlova again, in Deauville, where she performed at the Casino Theater.

Turning up as always at the stage door, Madame’s husband Monsieur Dandre shrugged his shoulders, asked me to wait while he asked Madame if she would pose after the performance. She would. That night Anna Pavlova said something that I’ve never forgotten.

Greeting me as always by extending her hand to be kissed, she remarked in French what translate as ‘I am sure that when I am in heaven Dandre will say Anna, Abbe is below, telling St. Peter he wants to photograph yiou.”

“Ah, Madame,” I of course replied, “now I know how I will get into heaven. St. Peter couldn’t resist if you recommended me.”

Anna Pavlova surely went with her great talents to heave.

[Oakland Tribute, February 14, 1962, E 23]

11. AL JOLSON IN PARIS

I wonder if Al Jolson ever forgot the day I walked him to the top of Notre Dame Cathedral and photographed him alongside the gargoyles. I never have.

As Al posed he brought me up to date on the Broadway folk we knew in common, and I guess that included just about everybody. The posing over, we walked to the Savoy Hotel where Jolson was staying.

Stretched out in a barber chair at the Savoy Hotel for a shave, Al sang “Yes, We Have No Bananas” after I asked him to explain the significance of the title which was catching on in Paris as “Oui, Nous N’Avons Pas, des Bananes” and billed as a ‘chanson Americaine.”

The French in the barber shop, like true Frenchmen, enjoyed something for nothing—an impromptu concert by Al Jolson, already known for his ‘Jazz Singer’ movie that ushered in ‘the talkies.’

Another great of those jazz days who posed for me in Paris was Gilda Gray, the Polish-born girl who shimmied her way to fame via Chicago, Reisenweber’s in New York, the Ziegfeld Follies and Hollywood moviedom.

In the late 20s Gilda, accompanied by her husband-manager, Gil Boag, made yearly pilgrimages to France fro recreation and purchase of the latest and finest of Paris fashions for her wardrobe.

This photographer’s photos of Gilda being fitted at Worth’s, Lanvin’s, Lelong’s, or painted by artist Drian, were played up by the chic magazines of Europe and the United States.

I accompanied her on a photo-shooting tour of France in 1929 (maybe it was ’30), during which delightful tour we dined sumptuously where William the Conqueror had eaten and slept before moving across the Channel to conquer England.

[Oakland Tribune, February 15, 1962, p. 23]