Today is the birthday of one of the great vamps, Valeska Suratt (1882-1962). I find it notable that her first work was as an assistant in an Indianapolis millinery shop — her knowledge of clothes would be central to her future career. Early attempts to break into vaudeville in Chicago and New York in the early oughts were unsuccessful until she met met up with South African vaudeville vet Billy Gould, who apparently saw something interesting in the strangely groomed and dressed woman (she created all her own fashions). He hired her as a replacement partner in his act, the highlight of which was an exotic Apache dance. The couple married in 1905 and toured South Africa and the US with their act.
In 1906, Suratt was cast in The Belle of Mayfair, where she first became viable as a solo performer. She designed her own sexy costumes and began to tour the Keith circuit as one of its highest paid performers. For the rest of her career, she would alternate between Broadway shows and headlining in big time vaudeville. (Gould was out of the picture by 1907). She became known in vaudeville for her risque, revealing original fashion creations, which were much talked about and copies, as well as her suggestive singing and dancing. She developed full-on melodramatic skits to showcase her talents.
From 1915 through 1917, she starred in 11 silent movies with titles like The Siren and The Slave, trading on her notoriety on the stage. Ultimately, both she and studios decided that it was little use being an also-ran to Theda Bara as a vamp, and she returned to vaudeville, where she had a few more good years before being overtaken by younger women and newer fashions that were beyond her sensibility. By the early 30s, she was broke, on a religious kick and living in a New York fleabag — and remained in that condition for three more decades.
I’d love to have a film clip to share with you at this point to recover from this all-too-typical downer old vaudeville ending, but I can’t. Every one of her Hollywood films has been lost!
To find out about vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc