Valeska Suratt: Fashion Provocateur

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.

Valeska Suratt

Valeska Suratt

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.

A young Valeska Suratt in 1906.

A young Valeska Suratt in 1906.

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.”

Valeska Suratt strikes a Gibson Girl pose.

Valeska Suratt strikes a Gibson Girl pose.

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.”

Advertisement for The Girl With the Whooping Cough.

Advertisement for The Girl With the Whooping Cough.

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.’ ”

Many of Suratt's costumes were reportedly valued at $20,000 apiece.

Many of Suratt’s costumes were reportedly valued at $20,000 apiece. (Photo courtesy Joseph Hall/ Shields Collection ex-Culver Service)

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!”

An unadorned but strikingly handsome Valeska Suratt in this 1919 passport photo.

An unadorned but strikingly handsome Valeska Suratt in this 1919 passport photo.

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.

Suratt with a male partner in a rare publicity still.

Suratt in a rare publicity still with a male partner.

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.

Alone and showing off a lithe figure, Suratt's affection for the camera is apparent.

Alone and showing off a lithe figure, Suratt’s affection for the camera is apparent.

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.”

Valeska Suratt, the vamp.

Valeska Suratt, the vamp.

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.

Elaborate styling was Suratt's trademark.

Elaborate styling was Suratt’s trademark. (Photo: Underwood and Underwood)

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.

Playing the femme fatale was Suratt's strength through the 1910s.

Playing the femme fatale was Suratt’s strength through the 1910s.

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.

Surrat in mid-career (Photo: Underwood and Underwood)

Suratt in mid-career (Photo: Underwood and Underwood)

Valeska Suratt Internet Movie Database Filmography

SOURCES:

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

Lia Torá: Worst Timing Ever

Lia Torá, a beauty and celebrated dancer in Spain and her native Brazil, may go down in cinematic history as arriving in Hollywood at the very moment her brand of talent became obsolete.

Fluent in Spanish, Portuguese and French, but hardly speaking a word of English, she arrived in New York City on Sept. 13, 1927, en route to Hollywood to begin a career as an actress. Three weeks later, “The Jazz Singer” premiered and overnight the need for silent film Latin bombshells was relegated to the dustbin.

Lia Torá in 1929.

Lia Torá in 1929.

Latin actors were de rigueur in Hollywood following the whopping success of Rudolph Valentino and Gilbert Roland. And film studio press agents were not particularly interested in actors’ ethnic backgrounds, lumping anyone’s name that ended with a vowel into the category of Latin lover.

If Torá had mastered English before her arrival, she very well could have had a career that would rival Dolores del Rio, Rita Hayworth, Dolores Costello and even the comedienne Lupe Velez. Her future likely would have taken a different route.

Rather, Lia Torá gained infamy as a suspected Nazi, or at the very least a fascist, who may have been complicit in a conspiracy to overthrow the Brazilian government in May 1938.

Torá’s role in the messy affair is murky, but it overshadowed her more positive contributions as an early female pioneer in auto racing and effectively ended a promising future in entertainment and on the race circuit.

Born Horácia Corrêa D’Ávila on May 12, 1907, in the São Cristóvão neighborhood of Rio de Janerio to Portuguese and Spanish parents, Torá was sent to Spain to study dance at the Dance Academy of Barcelona. When she was 18, she returned to Brazil as a dancer for the Velasco Dance Company where she gained considerable attention for her fluid dancing.

In late 1924, she met Julio De Moraes, a Brazilian newspaperman and son of Viscount De Moraes, an immensely wealthy Portuguese immigrant who made his fortune in Brazil. De Moraes was 26 years Torá’s senior, married and had a son. But Torá and De Moraes flouted the social mores of the predominately Catholic country and wed. In 1925, twins Marie Julio and Julio Mario were born.

Vida Doméstica magazine covers Lia Torá's dancing career in 1924.

Vida Doméstica magazine covers Lia Torá’s dancing career in 1924.

Independent, intelligent and ambitious, Torá had hoped to capitalize on her popularity as a dancer by transitioning to a lucrative movie career. A year after her children were born, Torá entered a contest sponsored by Fox Films’ foreign offices, which was looking for new talent from Brazil, Spain and Italy. The prize was an expense-paid trip to Hollywood and a film contract. Torá won the contest only after Egyptian expatriate Eva Nil was disqualified for not being a native Brazilian.

De Moraes objected to Torá going to Hollywood as a contest winner. Screenland magazine reported that Torá, in fact, had rejected the prize and wanted the contract based on her own merits.

Whatever the case, Torá arrived in New York in September 1927, and took the train to Los Angeles.

Torá was a striking woman, with dark brown hair, olive skin and brilliant green eyes. Yet Fox executives didn’t know what to make of her or how to best use her talents. It may have been at this point that the studio lost interest in Torá as it geared up for sound.

Screenland magazine features the new wave of "Latin" actors.

Screenland magazine features the new wave of “Latin” actors.

However, director Wallace MacDonald cast her in the comedy “The Low Necker” (1927) featuring Marjorie Beebe and Trixie the Horse. Fox released the film just three moths after Torá’s arrival in the United States. The fledgling actress was then virtually idle for a year aside from some bit parts before appearing in a small role as a girlfriend in “Making the Grade” (1929).

Frustrated, Torá co-scripted with De Moraes and Douglas Z. Doty “The Veiled Woman” (1929) and featuring Paul Vincent and Bela Lugosi. The plot focused on Torá’s character who rescues a young woman from a notorious womanizer. She then tells the young woman of the men in her own life, including one lover who left her because of her history with men and a Briton who was a gambler and seducer, but also her true love.

Lia costarts with Bela Lugosi in The Veiled Woman.

Lia co-stars with Bela Lugosi in The Veiled Woman.

The film garnered tepid reviews. Daily Variety, misidentifying the film as “Veiled Lady,” noted that the movie would be remembered for its unfamiliar actors and it would play better in the overseas market. The film was silent, although Fox had considered inserting talking sequences to widen its appeal.

When Fox decided not to renew Torá’s contract, she formed Brasilian Southern Cross Productions and set up offices at Tec-Art Studios on Melrose Avenue. The new production company’s first project was “Mary, the Beautiful” (possibly retitled “Soul of a Peasant”) with De Moraes directing and Torá in the lead role. But the production company did little after its initial film.

After working briefly for Universal on the film “Don Juan Diplomático” (1931) and earning third billing, she returned to Fox to film the Spanish-language version of “Charlie Chan Carries On” (“Eran Trece”), which was released in December 1931.

Torá never mastered English. Her efforts to produce quality Spanish-language films through Brasilian Southern Cross failed, and Fox’s lukewarm relationship with her effectively put an end to her American acting career by 1932.

Studio press agents push cheesecake photos to heighten interest in Lia's bombshell looks.

Studio press agents push cheesecake photos to heighten interest in Lia’s bombshell looks.

She returned to Rio de Janerio and began to indulge in auto racing, usually joining her husband as a co-driver and navigator. A year after her return to Brazil, organizers of the Grand Prix Cidade de Rio de Janeiro mapped the Gávea Circuit, better known to drivers as “The Devil’s Springboard.” South American motorsport, with its mountainous terrain, rough roads and roadside cliffs that dropped into vast valleys, was a dangerous endeavor for any race driver. The European circuits paled in comparison.

The 279-kilometer Gávea Circuit had 101 curves with many tight hairpins that challenged the courage of any driver. Steep slopes gave way to deep dives on roads that varied from sand to cement to asphalt. The debut race on Aug. 8, 1933, ended with no injuries.

However, for the Oct. 3, 1934, event, Nino Crespi, driving a Bugatti T37A, crashed into a pole on the 25th lap. Both of his legs were crushed. They were amputated, but he died at the hospital. Crespi’s mechanic had his left foot crushed and it also was amputated.

Lia Torá in an unidentified film.

Lia Torá in an unidentified film.

De Moraes, behind the wheel in a Chrysler Adaptado, flipped his car on the sixth lap. Torá, riding in the passenger seat, was seriously injured, but she recovered. Driver Irineu Correa won the race in 3 hours, 56 minutes and 23 seconds in a Ford V-8 Adaptado.

Four years later Torá’s auto racing career effectively came to an end with her arrest on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government of President Getúlio Vargas.

With the rise of Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s, Germans in Brazil formed the Integralista, an organization of intellectuals and artists, along with bankers and industrialists, to support a fascist agenda. Taking cues from fascist regimes in Germany and Italy, street brawls and thuggery erupted throughout Brazil, especially in Rio de Janerio with many conflicts between the Communist Party of Germany and the National-Socialist German Workers’ Party.

Early in Lia's career in Hollywood.

Early in Lia’s career in Hollywood.

On May 11, 1938, the Integralists orchestrated an uprising, later known as the “Pajama Putsch.” The overthrow attempt failed and police rounded up more than 1,000 civilians and nearly 500 military men. About 600 were released, but the National Security Tribunal tried the remaining participants. Among them were Torá and De Moraes.

The court convicted De Moraes of participating in the revolt, but it found Torá not guilty of conspiracy to overthrow the government on March 1, 1939. Yet the evidence was damning. Belmiro Valverde, one of the ringleaders of the revolt, was arrested at Torá’s home and law authorities seized a large quantity of dynamite from his car. He was also convicted on charges stemming from the uprising.

De Moraes continued to race at least through 1941. He died in 1956 at the age of 75. Torá appeared in one more movie, “The Confessions of Frei Pumpkin” (1971), a Brazilian production. She died in May 27, 1972.

Lia Torá Internet Movie Database Biography

SOURCES and BOOKS:

Vida Doméstica, August 1924
Motion Picture Classic, September 1927
Motion Picture Classic, October 1928
The Evening Independent, Sept. 8, 1928
The Evening Independent, Nov. 22, 1928
Picture Play Magazine, 1929
Reading Eagle, June 30, 1929
Reading Times, July 2, 1929
Screenland, October 1929
Cine-Mundial, February 1931
Cine-Mundial, June 1932
The Milwaukee Journal, Oct. 4, 1934
The New International Year Book, 1938
Mexia (Texas) Weekly Herald, May 20, 1938
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, March 2, 1939
San Bernardino County Sun, March 2, 1939
Tuscaloosa News, March 30, 1943
Vargas of Brazil: A Political Biography by John W. Dulles (University of Texas Press), 1967
Autos and Progress: The Brazilian Search for Modernity by Joel Wolfe (Oxford University Press), 2009
Muheres do Cinema Brasileiro (accessed Sept. 10, 2014)