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Valeska Suratt


Valeska Suratt was one of four women in show business the first 20 years of the 20th century who controlled every aspect of her visual presentation and representation. She, Annette Kellerman, and Eva Tanguay share certain career trajectories. Suratt, Kellerman, and Tanguay all made their reputations in vaudeville and determined the signal features of their styles there. All were daughters of lower middle class families and lacked refined voices and easy manners. All would play leads in Broadway musicals and revues. All would make films during the second decade of the century. All cultivated reputations as sexual provocateurs.

Suratt is now best known as a silent screen vamp, a black widow in a spider web gown. Yet she was the most adventurous explorer of feminine visual personae on stage or screen. Born in Owensville, Indiana, on June 28, 1882, she moved with her family to Terra Haute, Indiana. As a teenager, she first encountered the world of fashion working as a retoucher in the Clare Sisters Photography Shop. Avid to own the sorts of dresses worn by the fashionable subjects of the Clare Sisters' sittings, she saved her money, moved to Indianapolis, and trained as a milliner. An acute student of design and a skilled seamstress, she was hired at age seventeen to be a wholesale buyer for W.H. Block's Department Store in Terra Haute. She began making knock-offs for herself of the latest New York and Parisian frocks.

Seized by a desire to be a stage performer, she convinced her mother in 1904 to move to Chicago to secure dance and voice training. After two years of intense tutelage, she moved to New York City. Designing a gown that combined the most striking features of the year's fashion, she made a stairway descent at a swank hotel favored by theatrical producers and caught the eye of Edward Edleston who featured her in "The Belle of Mayfair." She stopped the show singing, "Why do they all call me a Gibson Girl?" When the show closed, she ventured into vaudeville, where her throaty singing, rambunctious dancing with comic Billy Gibson, and her smart ensembles made her by 1910 the hottest name on the Keith Circuit. She interrupted her continual touring to appear on Broadway in 1907's musical comedy "Hip! Hip! Hooray!" and 1910’s "The Girl with the Whooping Cough" whose risque business prompted a police shut-down.

The patrician proprieties of Gibson Girl dress quickly palled. In vaudeville novelty and audacity had to be mixed with glamour. The skit format of vaudeville encouraged continual experiment and adjustment. Suratt exploited the permissions, seizing control of all aspects of her production. She designed sets, costumes, instructed writers on content, hired collaborators, and determined her publicity.

As Suratt grew older, her face and figure grew more removed from youthful charm. She compensated with more extravagant costume and gesture. With the World War I vogue for female vampires ignited by Theda Bara in "A Fool There Was," Suratt saw an opportunity to prolong her career. Having first appeared in movies in 1915, she urged Fox to make her a siren in 1917. They did and in a series of films - "She," "The Slave," "The Siren" - she became a feminine incarnation of danger. With Bara, Louise Galum, and Virginia Pearson, Suratt is accounted by film historians as one of the four classic silent screen vamps. Her film career was relatively brief, in part because she was never granted the control over production she desired. Only Alla Nazimova would secure that privilege. Suratt returned to Broadway and the vaudeville houses where she would tour until the late 1930s.

Among Valeska Suratt's photographs a high percentage feature her standing full figure. They advertised her shape (the hourglass figure that would be supplanted by the slimmer profile of Irene Castle and Lillian Loraine in 1914) and the ensemble that she designed. While she frequently appeared with props, stage portraiture does not show her with any other performer, except for a series of dance routine production shots taken early in her career. The purpose of a photo for Suratt was to demonstrate that she was the whole show. David S. Shields/ALS