Today is the birthday of ill-fated actress Martha Mansfield (Martha Ehrlich, 1899-1923)
Born in NYC, Mansfield took her stage name from the town on Ohio where her mother was raised. As a teenager she began working as an artist’s model, dancer, vaudeville performer and actress. By 1912 she was already appearing in Broadway in shows like Little Women and Hop o’ My Thumb. She later appeared in two Ziegfeld shows: the Follies in 1918 and the Midnight Frolic in 1919.
Her rise in films was rapid. Signing with Essanay Studios in 1916, she appeared opposite Max Linder in several comedies. In 1918 she was in the original film version of Broadway Bill and in 1920 she appeared opposite John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
She continued to star in major features for the next three years until that fateful day (November 29) in 1923 on the set of The Warrens of Virginia. Somehow the period dress she was wearing (all hoopskirts and ruffles and frills) caught fire and she suffered extensive burns that proved fatal. She was only 24 years old.
For more on silent film history don’t miss my 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