Mary Miles Minter and Her Maybe Murderous Mother

It is pretty much universally agreed upon that Charlotte Shelby (Lily Pearl Miles, 1877-1957) was a grasping, ambitious and domineering stage mother. What’s more controversial is the belief of some that she was also a murderer.

Like many a stage mom, Shelby was actually a frustrated actress. Her one Broadway credit was a walk-on as a maid in a play called Love Watches (1908). Fortunately, she had two daughters: Margaret (Alma Margaret Reilly, 1900-1939), and Juliet (1902-1984), who became better known to the public as Mary Miles Minter. Both daughters acted upon the stage as young children, but Mary enjoyed the greater success, in such plays as Cameo Kirby and The Littlest Rebel, featuring Dustin Farnum and William Farnum, later made into a Shirley Temple movie.

In 1912 both girls broke into films, Margaret as the star of an Edison film called Billie, and Mary as the star of The Nurse. Then Mary rapidly shot ahead, starring in over 50 films over the next decade. The run started with The Fairy and the Waif in 1915 (Minter was the Fairy, Percy Helton was the Waif). Among her parts were the title characters in Emmy of Stork’s Nest (1915), Barbara Frietchie (1915), Dimples (1916), Lovely Mary (1916), Dulcie’s Adventure (1916), Faith (1916), The Innocence of Lizette (1916), The Gentle Intruder (1917), Annie-for-Spite (1917), Periwinkle (1917), Melissa of the Hills (1917), Charity Castle (1917), Peggy Leads the Way (1917), The Eyes of Julia Deep (1918), Rosemary Climbs the Heights (1918), The Amazing Imposter (1919), The Intrusion of Isabel (1919), A Bachelor’s Wife (1919), Yvonne from Paris (1919), Anne of the Green Gables (1919), Judy of Rogue’s Harbor (1920), Nurse Marjorie (1920), Jenny Be Good (1920), Sweet Lavender (1920), The Little Clown (1921), and Tillie (1922). With her innocent persona and fashionable ringlets, she was considered a principal rival to Mary Pickford.

Affairs with two of Mary’s directors resulted in heartbreak. The first was James Kirkwood Sr, who directed her in Dulcie’s Adventure, Faith, The Innocence of Lizette, Anne-for-Spite, etc. Mary was only 15 years old at the time of this relationship. She was impregnated; an abortion resulted.

Minter and Taylor

Starting with Anne of the Green Gables, Minter’s frequent director had been the popular William Desmond Taylor. Minter was smitten with him, and had written him love letters. Which proved embarrassing when Taylor was found shot dead in his bungalow in 1922 (see previous post). Minter was considered a suspect for a time, but the more lasting villain in the piece proved to be her mother, who had a stronger motive, and possessed a gun similar to the one which killed Taylor. Some have other theories, but most people take the view that Shelby was the most plausible perp.

Mary continued to make movies through The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1923) and then retired. She had offers of studio contracts at the time, but was burnt out by the controversy and negative publicity. This effectively ended the movie careers of Charlotte and Margaret, who’d appeared in some of her films as well.

From 1925 through 1927, Margaret was married to Hugh Fillmore, grandson of President Millard Fillmore. In 1928 she returned to the screen for a bit part in Clothes Make the Woman with Eve Southern and Walter Pidgeon. A decade later there was a rapid downward spiral, consisting of a two-month marriage, a lawsuit against her mother for theft, public accusations against her mother for the murder of Taylor, and finally, alcohol-related death in 1939.

Mary lived off her real estate investments (and a financial judgment against her mother) and was married from 1957 through 1965. In 1981, her former personal assistant and three accomplices beat her nearly to death and boosted $300,000 worth of valuables from her home. (They were later caught and charged). Mary died three years later.

For more on silent film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.