Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Mary Miles Minter, Hollywood Silent Movie Star, circa 1920

The story of Mary Miles Minter is full of drama, one might even say melodrama, as seems appropriate for an early silent film star. It's almost as if she were living in a movie, herself.

Born Juliet Reilly in Shreveport, Louisiana on April 25, 1902 (her birth date is often misremembered as April Fools Day), she was the second daughter of Joseph Homer Reilly and Lily Pearl Miles. Her parents divorced while she was still very young, and her mother moved with her children to New York City, where she became the popular Broadway actress Charlotte Shelby. But, Charlotte's aspirations were not only for herself, but for her daughters, as well. From the time they were very small she had engaged Margaret and Juliet, only two years apart, in play acting "little parts" that would prepare them for a life on the stage.

Mary Miles Minter, Hollywood Silent Movie Star, circa 1920
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In an interview published in Movie Weekly on May 7, 1921, Mary told the story of how she was to get her first part on Broadway, in 1907, when she was just 5-years-old.
Before I forget it--let me tell how it was that [as a small child] I got my part in "Cameo Kirby." It's really funny and mother and I have laughed over the incident many times. We had come up from Dallas to New York, and one day a friend told mother that a little girl was to be engaged for "Cameo Kirby," so down to the theatre we went.

Margaret, my sister, had been successful in other child roles, and it was she who was to be the applicant for the part. I was just taken along as there was no one to leave me with.

Margaret, however, did not prove to be just the type and Mr. Arnold Daly went slowly down the row of sixty-five children--while I stood over in one corner.

They told me to be quiet--but all of a sudden I cried out, "Oh, mamma, see what a funny face that man has!"

Mr. Daly whirled--and instead of annihilating me with a glance walked right over to my corner and said, "This is the little girl I want." Then mother told him I had never acted. But I was given the part.
From that moment on, Mary, who at that time was still called Juliet, was the star of the family and making the biggest earnings. While her mother and sister continued to act, it was Juliet who was most in demand. Under that name, she appeared in her first film, a short drama called The Nurse, released in 1912, but when she got a part in a play in Chicago that same year, child labor laws would have interfered with her appearance, and so her mother used the birth certificate of Juliet's cousin Mary, who was no longer living. The ruse worked, and so began the career of Mary Miles Minter. Over the course of the next 11 years, she would appear in 54 silent films.

In 1919, when she was 17, she made her first film for director William Desmond Taylor. Taylor lauded the young star's work, publicly promoting her. Minter developed romantic feelings for Taylor, despite the fact that he was 30 years her senior. The two worked together on several films and Mary sent him love letters, but friends and colleagues reported that he never returned her feelings with anything more than friendship.

Despite the apparently chaste relationship the two maintained, Taylor was to prove the young star's undoing, albeit in death, rather than in life. On February 2, 1922, at 7:30 a.m., Taylor was found dead in his home. He'd been shot in the back. The police case, involving a large number of high-profile stars, generated a media frenzy which grew even more virulent with the discovery of Mary's three-year-old love letters. Although the police don't seem to have considered Mary a likely suspect, the news media found her a wonderfully satisfying suspect. And, if not her, her mother.

Mary managed to complete four films that year, three the next, and then made her final film, "A Sainted Devil," as a supporting actress, with Rudolf Valentino and Nita Naldi as the leads, before ending her career with the claim that she was content without it.

Taylor's murder was never solved, but the constant strain of the aftermath wore on Mary's family. Mary fell out with her mother, suing her in 1925 for an accounting of the funds she'd managed during Mary's minority. The two settled out of court and reconciled, eventually living together again. Some years after Mary's suit, in 1937, her sister Margaret brought a similar suit against her mother, then making public accusations that her mother had killed Taylor. But, by this time Margaret's alcoholism was surely affecting her judgement, for she died of related causes in 1939.

In its January 1928 issue, Photoplay published an article based on an interview with Mary and her mother, who were at the time living in Paris. The author, Jane Dixon, claimed that she saw "no evidence of any hard feelings during [her] visit," but went on to paint a picture of two bitter women at odds with each other, with Mary complaining of a toothache and her mother ostentatiously over-solicitous.

In 1957, Charlotte died in Mary's Santa Monica home, and a year later Mary wed Brandon Hildebrandt, a real estate investor. The couple shared interests in astrology and numerology, and, in accordance with numerological recommendations, changed their surname to O'Hildebrandt. After her husband died in 1965, Mary was left with no close family. She suffered from a number of medical complaints, including diabetes, but lived until 1984, when she was 82-years-old.

And so it was that bright little Juliet Reilly had suffered more twists and turns than the heroine of "The Perils of Pauline" over the course of her life, but she had proved stronger than any of them and lived until a ripe old age.


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