OUR HOLLYWOOD HISTORY (3/10)
The official story reads as follows:
Florence LaBadie was born in Montreal, Quebec on April 14, 1896, the daughter of a prominent banker. She was schooled at the illustrious Convent of Notre Dame. At the age of 8, she auditioned, without her parents' knowledge, for a part in a play. The director realized the little girl was not only quite talented but could memorize lines after a single read of the text.
The play was a stunning success. But despite other stage offers, Florence went back to just being a kid, albeit a very wealthy and privileged one. In 1909, following the death of her father, she and her mother moved to New York. A month later, she landed a part in a Broadway play that was seen on opening night by theatrical impresario, David Belasco.
Belasco introduced her to fellow Canadian actress and "America's Sweetheart", Mary Pickford. Pickford invited her to visit the set of a movie she was making for Biograph Pictures in New York for D. W. Griffith. A week later, Florence not only had a part in the film, she'd been signed to a Biograph contract.
She quickly rose to stardom with both Pickford and Griffith claiming she was the best actress they had ever worked with. Other companies offered her huge contracts to come work for them and she soon became the leading lady at the much respected Thanhouser Film Corporation.
Eight years later, after making an astonishing 185 films and challenging Pickford as the most popular screen actress of the day, LaBadie was driving her car one evening when the brakes failed and the vehicle careened out of control and rolled. She appeared to recover from the accident, was released from hospital, and then suddenly died of her injuries.
The entire New York film industry was stunned at her tragic passing -- and yet -- many of her closest friends and co-workers didn't attend her funeral and refused to speak about her with the press.
But after a decade of silence, intriguing details of Florence LaBadie's final months began to surface and a mystery which has never been solved was revealed.
In 1927, an editor for the Boston Globe was provided information gathered in the wake of LaBadie's death by New York Telegraph reporter James Baird.
Baird had gone to look at LaBadie's car after the accident and discovered from the police and the mechanic who looked it over that the brake lines had been cut. Indeed, the accident was identical to one which had killed Thanhouser's President, Charles J. Hite, a couple of years earlier.
When Baird brought his story back to the Telegraph, his editors were certain they had a front page scoop. But next morning, he discovered they had spiked it instead and he was specifically told not to do any more digging about either LaBadie or the accident.
Baird sensed somebody very influential didn't want the story getting out and went back to the garage where LaBadie's car was being stored. The vehicle was gone, as was the mechanic who had talked to him. The owner insisted he didn't know the whereabouts of either.
24 Hours later, Baird was fired by the Telegraph and found himself blacklisted at every other New York newspaper.
He finally landed a job in upstate New York, only to be visited late one night by two large and imposing men who wanted to make sure he had no more interest in LaBadie's car and reminded him that his health might depend on remaining disinterested.
Baird waited a couple of years, and then started digging again.
He eventually found LaBadie's maid, who confided that the star had secretly had a child in September of 1915. But no one would name the baby's father.
Baird quickly discovered that many of LaBadie's friends knew much more than they would reveal about his identity but were terrified of discussing anything related to the actress.
On more than one occasion, Mary Pickford was seen to become very agitated when someone asked about her friendship with Florence LaBadie. Once, she told a reporter, "There are some things better left unresolved!" and fled the room.
Baird hoped the Boston Globe article would get someone in authority to reopen the case. But once again silence enveloped the passing of Florence LaBadie.
Then in 1943, one of Florence's closest friends, actress Valentine Grant, was interviewed by Hollywood publicist Charles Foster for a book he was writing on the Silent Era -- and the floodgates opened.
According to Grant and several others Foster subsequently queried, Florence had caught the eye of the Governor of New Jersey shortly after going to work for the Thanhouser Studios. She couldn't stand the man but was encouraged to be nice to him because he was very helpful to both Charles Hite and the company.
Obsessed with the actress, the Governor made almost daily visits to whichever set LaBadie was working. She pleaded with Hite to keep him away, and Hite did the best he could, concocting a serial for LaBadie which was distributed to theatres in weekly episodes and had to be shot on a closed set so the cliffhanger endings and their resolution couldn't leak out in advance.
His own advances blocked, the Governor decided to run for higher office. And in November of 1912, Thomas Woodrow Wilson became the 28th President of the United States.
Two years later, Wilson's wife died and LaBadie confided to Valentine Grant, Pickford and others that she was certain he would ask her to marry him and her career would be over.
Not long after, she received an invitation to spend Christmas of 1914 at the White House. Seeing how stressed she was becoming, Hite promised to intervene. But his own fatal single car accident put an end to that option. Florence soon realized she could not turn down the nation's most powerful man.
She spent Christmas week in Washington and returned, in the words of co-workers, "a different person". She seemed almost in shock and would descend into fits of weeping. She refused to talk about the White House or the President. And suddenly, an actress known for never needing a second take stumbled through scenes, unable to remember which line or piece of business came next.
In March of 1915, she requested a six month leave of absence to which the studio immediately agreed, telling the Press she had been working too hard and had suffered a nervous breakdown.
In early 1916, Florence finally returned to work, seeming to be her old self again. But within a few weeks she requested another leave of absence. A month later, the Studio let it be known that she had retired from the business.
Nothing more was heard from her until her accident the following year. By which point, Grant and many of her other friends had almost lost contact with her. For LaBadie refused all invitations to see anyone and no longer even answered her phone. Her mother, with whom she still lived, did the same.
Those who tried to visit her in the hospital after her accident were politely turned away and told she was not in any danger. A few days later, she was sent home. But her friends learned nothing more about her or her condition until her obituary appeared in the New York newspapers.
And even then, the mystery deepened.
Florence's mother did not attend her funeral and those who asked after her were rudely told it was none of their concern by the Funeral Director.
Those who tried to find her at home found it abandoned. And a few weeks later, a van arrived in the middle of the night to remove all of its personal contents, purchased along with the house by a "Mr. George Smith of Washington, DC". Those who dug further discovered that Mr. Smith's Washington address -- did not exist.
A few of Florence LaBadie's final films were released in 1917, but they came and went with little fanfare. No one ever saw or heard from her mother again.
And although she had purchased a double plot in New York's Greenwood Cemetery as a final resting place for her and her daughter, to this day it only holds Florence.
Many of LaBadie's movie friends were certain she had been silenced. But as to why they could only speculate.
Some said Wilson could not have remained in office if the nation discovered he had fathered a child out of wedlock.
Others said LaBadie was staunchly opposed to America's entry into WWI. She had received letters and photographs of the horrors of the trenches from childhood friends fighting with the Canadian army. Many felt certain Florence had lobbied Wilson not to declare War and may have even threatened to reveal the truth about their child if he did.
Others wondered if both Charles Hite and Florence had been victims of those who felt the movie business was getting too competitive and wanted to take one of the studios out of the game. Less than a year after LaBadie's death, the respected and successful Thanhouser Film Corporation was gone.
Much as today, speculation, conspiracy theories and the threats of powerful and influential men fueled the Silent Era's showbiz gossip machine.
And Florence LaBadie's death remains a Canadian Hollywood mystery likely never to be solved.
Quality videos of Florence LaBadie's films are impossible to find online. But there's a fine site devoted to the Thanhouser Studio here where many of her movies can be viewed in their entirety. One of her last and best was "The Woman in White" in many ways as dark and unsettling as she must have felt during its production.