The Sad Descent of Mary Nolan


Today is the birthday of Mary Nolan (Mary Imogene Robertson, 1902-1948). Nolan has to be one of the prime examples of good luck and bad luck simultaneously arising from the same source – – her extraordinary beauty. The beauty brought her opportunities she wouldn’t otherwise have had; it also brought on personal storms she might not have otherwise had to endure.

To psychoanalyze someone I only just met: she was put up for adoption by her parents as a child, because they couldn’t afford to raise her. That could make a person needy, don’t you think? Originally from Kentucky, she moved to New York City as a teenager, where she became an artists’ model for Arthur William Brown. In 1922 she was cast in the chorus of the Hammerstein show Daffy Dill, followed by the 1923 Ned Wayburn show Lady Butterfly, and finally the Ziegfeld Follies, where she was in the chorus under the name Imogene “Bubbles” Wilson from 1923 to 1924.

A stormy affair with the married comedian Frank Tinney resulted in mountains of bad publicity and her subsequent dismissal from the Follies. Tinney had also beat her, and she had attempted suicide, resulting in more bad publicity. Then Tinney left his wife, and “Bubbles” followed him to Paris where the two reconciled before Tinney began drinking and beating her again.


She left Tinney and moved to Berlin for two years, where she began to rehabilitate her reputation by acting in films under the name Imogene Robertson. In 1927, she moved to Hollywood and began appearing in movies under the deceptively wholesome name Mary Nolan. Her best remembered picture from this period is Tod Browning’s West of Zanzibar (1928) with Lon Chaney and Lionel Barrymore.

In 1930 she was fired from the picture What Men Want by arguing with the director about not receiving enough close-ups. This, combined with a rumored morphine addiction (which started as pain shots after she was beat up by yet another married boyfriend) resulted in the end of her film career by 1933. Along the way she’d gotten married to another man who lost his fortune on the eve of their wedding, then bought her a dress shop which failed, and then divorced her. She was arrested on several occasions for stealing, and the employees of the store sued her and her husband for back wages.

NOW! haha, is when she goes into American vaudeville (though she had also reportedly made appearances in the European equivalents of vaudeville in the 1920s) . There have been a few stories like this on Travalanche, people who went into vaudeville (or what was left of it) on their way DOWN. If you’ve contemplated the timeline (we’re at 1933), big time vaudeville is now dead, but there were certainly individual venues here and there across America, as well as nightclubs, roadhouses and the like. Picture “Susan Alexander” in Citizen Kane.

More arrests for such things as non-payment for bills followed, as did at least two psychiatric hospitalizations. Towards the end of her life, she was hospitalized for malnutrition. In 1948 she was found dead in her apartment of an overdose of Seconal.

And on that cheerful note, I bid you a Happy Christmas.

To learn more about vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on searly film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc.

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