Jean Acker: Vaudeville, Valentino, Voluptuary

A spotlight this morning on stage and screen actress Jean Acker (Harriet Ackers, 1893-1978), better remembered today for her private life.

Originally from New Jersey, Acker performer in vaudeville and with stock companies before being cast in films by IMP (precursor to Universal) in 1913. Her roles in these films were good, usually about third in the billing. Her second film, In a Woman’s Power (1913) was directed by Herbert Brenon. When feature length came in, her billing was lower but she still landed many decent supporting parts. You can see her in such films as Are You a Mason? (1915) with John Barrymore, Arbuckle’s first feature The Round-Up (1920), and the first screen adaptation of Brewster’s Millions (1921). In some films, such as Checkers (1919) she is as high as second in the billing.

Acker was a bisexual. Grace Darmond and Alla Nazimova were among her lovers, and she was known as a member of the latter’s “Sewing Circle”. Nevertheless, in 1919 she married Rudolph Valentino (whose career was not then as far along as hers). She instantly regretted the impulsive move. The marriage was not consummated and the pair never lived together. Valentino proceeded to marry Rambova before the divorce with Acker was finalized, causing him a bigamy issue. The pair were finally divorced in 1923. By then Valentino’s career had exploded, and Acker’s was on the wane. In the 1923 film The Woman in Chains (in which she starred) she billed herself as “Mrs. Rudolph Valentino”. She toured vaudeville that year with a one act play called “How She Won the Sheik”. That same year she announced her engagement to  the Marquis Luis de Bezan y Sandoval of Spain (which marriage never happened) and began her longtime relationship with former Ziegfeld Girl Chloe Carter, ex-wife of Harry Ruby.

Acker had fairly decent parts in just two more films during the silent era, Braveheart (1925) with Rod La Roque, and The Nest (1926) with Pauline Frederick. She had mended ties with Valentino by the time of his death in 1926. She wrote a song to him when he passed, entitled “We Will Meet at the End of the Trail”, which actually became quite popular. In 1927 she was romantically linked with Fakir Rahman Bey, a stage magician and supposed Egyptian sheik. She was apparently “kept” for a time by a married politician named William Delahanty, whom she unsuccessfully sued in 1930 for promised sums after her losing her own savings in the stock market crash. Her significant other for the rest of her days, as we mentioned, was Chloe Carter.

Financial necessity drove her back to the film industry in 1933. During the sound era, she worked solely as a non-speaking extra and bit player. Movies she appeared in, in this capacity, included Torch Singer (1933), Follow the Fleet (1936), San Francisco (1936), A Star is Born (1937), Remember the Night (1940), My Favorite Wife (1940), The Stork Club (1945), Spellbound (1945), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and The Perils of Pauline. Her last was Nunnally Johnson’s How to Be Very Very Popular (1955). After this she managed an apartment building she co-owned with Carter.

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.