The career of Dorothy Gibson (Dorothy Winifred Brown, 1889-1946), is full of hair raising twists and turns, and not just the one that took place on April 15, 1912. A Hoboken native, she sang and danced in vaudeville, and then found her way to Broadway in the Frohman show The Dairymaids (1907). Frohman would later perish on the Lusitania in 1915. If the pair of them ever visited a fortune teller together, I hope she said, “Stay off boats!”
Gibson gained still more attention starting in 1909 as a model for illustrator Harrison Fisher, winding up in advertising art and other published material. Ironically, she was a “Harrison Fisher Girl”, and not a Gibson Girl (different Gibson). She was also in the Dillingham show The Old Town (1910), and in Shubert productions at the Hippodrome as a chorus girl.
Gibson’s movie career lasted scarcely more than a year. Her screen debut was in Lubin’s A Show Girl’s Stratagem (1911) supporting Florence Lawrence. A mere two dozen films followed, only one of which A Lucky Holdup (1912), has survived. But Gibson was a genuine star of her day, one of the industry’s first (for comparison, Mary Pickford’s career had begun in 1909; Lillian Gish’s began in 1912).
Gibson was returning from a six week vacation in Italy with her mother when the ship they were traveling on, the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank. Shortly after her rescue, she made the film Saved from the Titanic (1912), her biggest box office success and today her best known film. Sadly, the only known copies were burn in a fire in 1914. We wrote some more about this film here.
Interestingly, there was additional turmoil in Gibson’s life around the time of the storied disaster. In 1913, Gibsons was driving her lover’s automobile when she struck and killed a pedestrian. During the resulting trial it came out that the car was owned by Jules Brulatour, one of the founders of Universal Pictures, and the backer of many of her movies. He was a married man. Much scandal resulted, but they remained together for years. They were married in 1917, although the legality of the union was contested and they separated in 1919.
Meanwhile in 1912, Gibson had retired from the movie business in order to concentrate on her singing career. She is known to have performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1915.
In 1928 Gibson and her mother moved to Europe, living primarily in France and Italy for the rest of their lives, never returning to the U.S. Gibson has been alleged to have been a Nazi sympathizer (and even a Nazi spy) during the 1930s and ’40s, although in 1944 she renounced the association and was placed in a Fascist prison in Milan, from which she later escaped. Her lover at the time of her death two years later was Emilio Antonio Ramos, press attache for the Spanish Embassy in Paris. Spain was still under Franco at the time, so it seems like she didn’t stray too far out of the Fascist fold. At any rate, she seemed to have a knack for finding trouble!
To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube