Helen Bertram and Progeny: From Broadway to Bond Parodies

I love and hate it when this happens — exploration of the life of an interesting person uncovers a warren of their fascinating relatives and associates. Love it because it’s a gold mine. Hate it because it’s more work.

Thus is the case with the touchstone of today’s post, stage star Helen Bertram (Lula May Burt, 1865-1953). Bertram performed for decades with comic opera companies around the country, including Barnabee and MacDonald’s “Bostonians”, managed by Klaw and Erlanger, where she was prima donna. More germane to our own predilections, between engagements she toured big time vaudeville as a single and with her own starring sketches.

Bertram spent her early life in rural Illinois and Indianapolis, and studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. Her first husband (1888-1894) was a musician named Achille Tomasi. Their daughter Rosina was born in 1910. Bertram divorced Tomasi and was married to actor Edward J. Henley from 1894 to 1897 (his death). Edward was the younger brother of the British poet and editor William Ernest Henley (1849-1903), a fascinating character who deserves his own bio-pic some day. A key figure in London’s literary set, Henley is best remembered for his poem “Invictus”, which gave us the phrase “bloodied, but unbowed”. He was a sickly, dwarfish person whose left leg had been amputated when he was a boy. Robert Louis Stevenson cited Henley as the inspiration for Long John Silver. In a parallel development, Henley’s young daughter Margaret is known for indirectly suggesting the name “Wendy” to J.M. Barrie for a character in his book Peter Pan. At any rate, Bertram’s husband for three years was Henley’s younger brother. Helen’s daughter Rosina took his surname; it wasn’t a bad association to have.

From 1900 to 1907 Bertram starred on Broadway in a series of shows including Robin Hood (1900), The Prince of Pilsen (1903, with John W. Ranson) and The Gingerbread Man (1905). The latter also featured an actress named Harriet Burt, whom I can’t help but speculate may have been a relative. During this period (1903-1906) Bertram was married to an English actor named Edward J. Morgan. News of Morgan’s death in 1905 caused Bertram to faint in public. It was a tumultuous time for her; the previous year she had filed for bankruptcy due to her debts.

“Sign of the Cross”

By 1907, Rosina had made her own stage debut, and Helen starred in the last Broadway show of her early period The Land of Nod and the Song Birds. In 1908 she was working the circuits billing herself as “The Queen of the Comic Opera”.

In 1910, mother and daughter moved to Los Angeles, which was only just beginning to become America’s film capitol. The pair made their screen debut in the same movie, The Lightning Conductor (1914) starring Dustin Farnum. The ladies were fourth and fifth in the billing. From here the burden of work seems to shift to the daughter, who next starred in The Sign of the Cross (1914) with William Farnum. Rosina appeared in seven more movies through 1919, several of them with Madge Evans, and directed by Harley Knoles (1880-1936), who became her husband. From 1920 to 1922, Rosina wrote scenarios for Knoles’ films Guilty of Love (1920), A Romantic Adventuress (1920), Carnival (1921) and The Bohemian Girl (1922), which featured stars like Dorothy Dalton and Ivor Novello.

The Knoles had a son, William Henley Knoles in 1926, and relocated to London (where Knoles was from) the following year. (There was also a daughter named Diana, but I haven’t found the birth year). Harley Knoles’ last few films were made in the UK. The last he directed was The Rising Generation (1928) with Alice Joyce. He subsequently produced Venetian Nights (1931), a remake of Carnival, and Norah O’Neal a.k.a Irish Hearts (1934). Knoles died in 1936.

Meanwhile, in 1932, Bertram returned to Broadway for a short-lived revival of Robin Hood. In 1940 she appeared in two Hollywood movies with all-star casts: The Captain is a Lady with Charles Coburn and Beulah Bondi, and Rhythm on the River with Bing Crosby and Mary Martin. The widowed Rosina had returned to Hollywood with her two kids by this point, and worked as a script reader for studios. Helen passed away in 1953, when she was 88.

There us yet one more generation to talk about. William Knoles (1926-1972) became an author of humorous pulp smut in the 1960s under the pseudonym Clyde Allison. He is best known for a series of James Bond parodies starring a spy named “0008”. He has a cult of devotees nowadays, but the sad reality is that (according to those that knew him) he was bipolar, a reckless spender and had problems with drugs and alcohol. He died by his own hand in 1972. There is an extensive article about him on eFanzines.com (you have to scroll down to find it). It was written by pulp specialist Lynn Munroe who knew him well, so it is insightful about Bill Knoles, though inaccurate in some details about Helen and Rosana.

As for Diana, all I’ve been able to find is this estate sale on Etsy, wherein she sold off all the photographs and correspondence of the rest of her family. She was possibly an actress, though I can find no account of any plays or films she may have appeared in.

For more on vaudeville, where Helen Bertram performed please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film, where Rosina Henley and Harley Knoles toiled, read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.