By accident of birth, Valeska Suratt missed her calling as the leading femme fatale of the silent screen. That honor went to Theda Bara. By the time Valeska made her screen debut in “The Immigrant” in 1915, she was already 32 years old and her youthful glow was fading.
Suratt made only a handful of films as a second-tier vamp in the shadow of Bara, but if she minded she never let it show. She had a full-throttle career in vaudeville and on Broadway in the first two decades of the 20th century and wore her reputation as a clotheshorse with pride. Suratt may have astonished movie audiences as she had onscreen men for breakfast, but she was better known for tearing to shreds the constrictions women faced in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.
Although her given name rings exotic, Valeska Suratt (originally spelled Surratt) was a Midwestern girl to the bone. In separate passport applications, Valeska claimed she was born on June 28, 1883, or 1884, in Owensville, Indiana. Her father, Ralph Suratt, was a native of West Virginia and her mother, Anna Mathews, was born and raised in Owensville.
Ralph and Anna married in 1878, and Valeska was the second of four children. Her brother, Austin, was born in 1879, followed by Valeska, and then Leah in 1884. The baby of the family, Richard, arrived in 1890. The siblings also had a half-sister, Myrtle, from Anna’s first marriage to Dr. James Strickland. Myrtle was 11 years older than Valeska. When Valeska was 5, the family moved to Terre Haute.
Valeska was a bundle of contractions. A member of the Bahá’í Faith, she was deeply religious and a devoted student of the Bible. She possessed a keen business sense and was adventurous. But she was also eccentric and unpredictable, which often undermined her business acumen. At a time when it was scandalous for a small town girl to become stage actress, Valeska was a pillar of the community in Terre Haute. She looked after her parents and siblings and she donated $500 a week to the Red Cross during World War I.
She was tall compared to most women of the era, standing 5 feet, 8 inches in her stocking feet. She had chestnut brown hair, gray-blue eyes, full lips, a broad forehead and an oval face. She was mistaken for a Gibson Girl, but she wasn’t. She did, though, play one on stage.
The Suratt family was lower middle class, and despite two years of voice and singing lessons in Chicago her speech and mannerisms remained rough around the edges. Yet it was perhaps the only major criticism of her stage performances. Her throaty singing voice, high-priced New York and Parisian costume designs and her act as a sexual provocateur made her wildly popular.
An indifferent student, she quit school at 16 to work for Clare Sisters Photography Studio retouching photographs. Her work on photos of elegantly dressed women inspired her to pursue a fashion career. She took a job as an assistant to a milliner at a department store in Indianapolis where she learned design and apprenticed as a seamstress. She also worked as a wholesale buyer for the W.H. Block Department Store.
While developing her fashion design skills, she first appeared on the stage in Chicago, and by 1900 was working in vaudeville and touring South America and England with Billy Gould, whom she would marry in 1904. But her career had stalled. She was not getting roles that displayed her fashion sense with a figure to pull it off.
In 1906, she designed an elegant tight-fitting blackless black dress. In a move that has since become a Hollywood cliché, she chose a high-end New York hotel frequented by theatrical producers and made a grand entrance down the staircase to the hotel lobby to attract attention. It worked. Producer Edward Edleston spied her and made her his lead in “The Belle of Mayfair.”
Suratt made her Broadway debut in “Mayfair” on Dec. 3, 1906, and her show-stopping song “Why Do They Call Me a Gibson Girl?” became her signature tune. She followed with “Hip! Hip! Hooray!” in 1907.
On April 25, 1910, she appeared in “The Girl with the Whooping Cough” that promised to scandalize the East Coast with Suratt’s “corsetless New York debut” at the New York Theater.
A critic for the New York Sun was unimpressed, but gave Suratt credit for sort of saving the day: “Dramatic art had a boost last night through the modest effort to entertain offered by Valeska Suratt in corsetless gowns. Miss Suratt had long promised the waiting world that on this occasion she would positively appear without corsets. Whether she did or not does not matter much. The effect on dramatic art was the same … “Without Miss Suratt the piece would have been unutterably dull and stupid. With her it wasn’t refined. There wasn’t anything in it that hadn’t been served up in similar farces for the past three generations. The lines that made the most frantic effort to be suggestive fell flat, even with an audience, which was hungry and thirsty for that particular kind of nourishment. The members of the cast, particularly the women, were coarse and strident, and needed stage managing.”
However, New York Mayor William Jay Gaynor enhanced Suratt’s reputation for pushing sexual boundaries when he determined “Whooping Cough” was “salacious” and shut down the production.
Whatever vulgarities in her performances were trivial compared to her sex appeal and fashion sense. Suratt was perhaps the first performer in modern theater to establish fashion fetishism that prompted magazines like “Vogue” to obsess over every minute detail of her elaborate wardrobe that required multiple changes during a single performance. Earning as much as $3,000 a week, she had full control over production, stage design, costumes and the writers. Audiences lapped up these over-the-top displays although Suratt would have been better served if she employed a disciplined wardrobe supervisor.
In their book, “Musical Comedy in America,” Cecil A. Smith and Glenn Litton noted that the play “The Red Rose” (1911) “was a window display for the overdressed Valeska Suratt, who designed her own innumerable costumes, the most overpowering of which were a Spanish affair in canary yellow and black … and a flaming harem skirt with the effect of a ‘perpendicular rainbow.’ ”
By late 1910, Suratt was appearing in 30-minute mini-revues. One such playlet was the “Bouffe Variety” at Hammerstein’s Victoria Theater. She co-starred with Fletcher Norton, who she would also marry. With “Bouffe Variety,” Anthony Slide described Suratt in “The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville” as “a sultry and exotic leading lady of generally tawdry melodramas.”
These productions led to her femme fatale persona – usually young women of modest means or from the slums who yearn for the finer things in life – that eventually garnered Suratt leading parts in William Fox’s films. These roles were not a stretch for Suratt given her own modest background. She couldn’t pull off the sophisticated seductress because her Midwestern lower middle-class roots usually gave her away. One critic noted that every time she opened her mouth to sing a lusty song, out came a Chicago accent. Not that she cared much.
Critics might have described her acts as “coarse” and “vulgar,” but Suratt, fully aware of her limitations, was marketing a brand that commanded full houses. For Green Book Magazine, she wrote in 1915 that, “It’s my personality that wins for me. I’m no singer. Heaps of people can beat me dancing. Precious few of them, though, get the salary I do. Why? Because I’m me!”
Suratt’s individuality was paramount to her success. She and she alone commanded the stage and loathed to share it with anyone else. A review of her stage production photos and studio portraits reveal her singularity: Full length portraits displaying her hourglass figure, elaborate costumes and a handsome face. Photographs of Suratt with leading men were rare and Suratt sharing space with another woman were almost non-existent.
And therein lies the core of Suratt’s initial success and her ultimate failure in films: Her demands for complete control of her image and her reluctance to compromise inevitably led to conflicts while working in films.
She only appeared in 11 movies, mostly as vamps and femmes fatales, between 1915 and 1917. William Fox had purchased the film rights to “A Fool There Was” about a young diplomat seduced and ruined by a woman only known as “The Vampire.” Fox considered and rejected Suratt for the part and then chose Theda Bara. The role launched Bara into superstardom as a “vamp” and relegated Suratt to similar parts in lesser films. Fox, though, thought enough of Suratt’s business sense to send her to France, England and Monte Carlo in March 1916 to act as his representative in future projects.
For a performer like Suratt, filmmaking at best was a collaborative effort and at worst a vision held solely by the director. The medium forced her to relinquish control of the script, choice of costumes and how she presented herself on the screen.
Time and changing tastes among moviegoers also robbed her of a sustaining film career. The Gibson Girl was no longer fashionable in modern America. By 1915, the popularity of Suratt’s hourglass figure, which was beginning to fill out after she hit 30, gave way to the slimmer, more boyish bodies of performers Lillian Lorraine and Irene Castle. Suratt played vamps with great success in “She,” “The Slave” and “Siren” in 1917, but the more alluring and youthful-looking Theda Bara, although only two years younger than Suratt, stubbornly held the vamp mantle. Yet, even by 1917, moviegoers were already bored with vamp characters and moved on.
Another reason for Suratt’s failure in films that can’t be ignored was her erratic behavior throughout most of her young adult life that may have evolved into mental illness as she got older. Suratt was very well a diva with an artistic temperament that probably made working with her difficult. But there were signs before she was 30 years old that she was unstable. By January 1911, Suratt had divorced Billy Gould and was engaged to Robert T. Mackay, a real estate manager deeply in love with the actress.
On Jan. 14, Mackay watched his fiancée’s Saturday matinee at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and then stayed for a rehearsal. Suratt asked Mackay to fetch her some sandwiches. He demurred, complaining he wasn’t a servant, but she sweet-talked him into getting the food.
While Mackay was on his errand, Suratt left the theater with co-star Fletcher Norton in a limousine and drove to the New Jersey shore where a justice of the peace married the couple in a brief ceremony. Meanwhile, Mackay arrived at theater with sandwiches in hand only to find his girl missing. Suratt’s maid took pity on him and said his fiancée had married Norton. Mackay collapsed in a heap and cried. Moments later Suratt arrived with her new husband, observed Mackay’s anguish, and fell to the floor with a theatrical flourish at Mackay’s side to weep uncontrollably with him.
In December 1911, Norton, citing infidelity, filed for divorce. Suratt’s maid testified at the trial that Suratt told her that she married Norton in a “fit of pique” because Mackay had annoyed her. Mackay later became Suratt’s lover. When Suratt filed for bankruptcy on June 29, 1912, Mackay was her biggest creditor at $14,750.
Suratt’s stage career sputtered in the 1920s. She peaked as the headliner in “The Dynamic Force of Vaudeville” in 1920 and appeared in the Broadway production of the “Spice of 1922” during that summer. Her last performance was in “The Frolics of 1929.”
Recognizing that there was not a much of a demand for 46-year-old sexual provocateurs, Suratt contemplated retirement in the late 1920s, but she wanted at least another shot at a film career. She commissioned author Mírzá Aḥmad Sohráb, leader of the Reform Bahá’í Movement in the United States, to co-write a script on the life of Mary Magdalene. The film would serve as a vehicle for Suratt’s comeback. Sohráb completed the script and Suratt showed it to Cecil B. DeMille. The director kept the scenario for some months and then returned it without comment.
When DeMille’s “The King of Kings” hit movie theaters in 1927, Suratt believed the film was based on Sohráb’s script. She sued DeMille alleging plagiarism.
Before the lawsuit went to trial, Suratt met her friend, Julia Chanler, a fellow Bahá’í and co-founder of the New History Society, in New York. Suratt had hoped Chanler’s introduction to New York Governor Alfred E. Smith would help further her cause against DeMille. Smith was powerless to do anything other than give Suratt a letter of recommendation, which Suratt thought was important. During the New York visit, a stage version of “The Kings of Kings” was playing on Broadway. Suratt and Chanler decided to attend a performance.
It was immediately clear to Chanler the production was based on the Gospels taken directly from the Bible, but Suratt saw the story as a blatant rip-off from the Sohráb script. Chanler and Suratt agreed to disagree on the origins of the script.nThe lawsuit went to trial in 1930 and it was eventually settled out of court.
Students of silent cinema claim that DeMille probably blacklisted Suratt in Hollywood, preventing her from acting in films. This is highly unlikely. By 1930, Suratt had been absent from movies for 13 years. Her glory days in vaudeville and on Broadway had long since past, and she was approaching 50, which severely limited her appeal in the kind of roles she was accustomed to having. DeMille hardly needed to go through the trouble of keeping Suratt off studio lots.
Yet the Mary Magdalene script was indicative of her obsession with the Bible and the life of Virgin Mary. Later in her life, Suratt attempted to interest publishers to produce her autobiography. She also approached the Hearst newspaper chain, which sent a reporter to read her manuscript. The reporter discovered the autobiography was about the Virgin Mary and Suratt believed she was Mary. “She was completely batty,” the reporter later said.
No one knows, aside perhaps surviving members of the Suratt family, whether Valeska suffered from mental illness and whether she really thought of herself as the mother of God. It’s entirely possible she wrote of the Virgin Mary as an “autobiography,” which is not an uncommon writing technique. What is known is that she immersed herself in the study of the Bible and wrote frequently about her religious beliefs.
Suratt died in nursing home in Washington, D.C. on July 2, 1962, and buried in her beloved hometown of Terre Haute at the Highland Lawn Cemetery.
Today, Suratt is credited for popularizing the Gibson Girl with a sexual edge and had helped loosen the boundaries of acceptable mass entertainment offered by female performers. On film, she remains one of four original silent screen vamps with Theda Bara, Louise Glaum and Virginia Pearson.
New York Times, Dec. 10, 1911
New York Dramatic Mirror, November 1914
Motion Picture World, Nov. 21, 1914
Valeska Suratt passport application, Feb. 2, 1916
Motography, Vol XVII, No. 10, 1917
Motion Picture World, July 21, 1917
Valeska Suratt passport application, June 27, 1919
Motion Picture World, Sept. 17, 1927
Indianapolis Tribune-Star, Nov. 19, 2006
Indianapolis Tribune-Star, July, 3, 2011
Valeska Suratt, ancestry.com (accessed Oct. 3, 2014)
Broadway Photographs website, The Visual Culture of American Theater 1865-1965 by David S. Shields (accessed Oct. 9, 2014)
Sarrett/Sarratt/Surratt Families of America (SFA), freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com (accessed Oct. 10, 2014)
“The Revolution in Christian Morals”: Lambeth 1930-Resolution #15 History & Perspective” by Theresa Notare (Catholic University of America), 1930
“From Gaslight to Dawn,” an autobiography by Julie Chanler (The New History Foundation), 1956
“Musical Comedy in America” by Cecil A. Smith and Glenn Litton (Routledge), 1987
“The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville” by Anthony Slide (Greenwood), 1994
“Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara” by Eve Golden (Vestal Press) 1998
“Blue Vaudeville: Sex, Morals and the Mass Marketing of Amusement, 1895-1915” by Andrew L. Erdman (McFarland & Co.), 2007
“Theda Bara: A Biography of Silent Screen Vamp, with a Filmography” by Ronald Genini (McFarland & Co., reprint edition), 2012