I woke up one morning, nearly eight years ago, and a dead woman was goading me into writing a poem for her. I have no clue as to why she chose me. I even had the music to which to set said poem (in the manner of a 78 RPM from oh, maybe, 1916 or so). That woman was Florence Lawrence, the "Biograph Girl," the "World's First Movie Star."
Here's the poem:
This is for Florence Lawrence
Alone in a world of care,
This song is for the little girl with the auburn hair,
She danced her way to stardom,
And danced like a candle flame;
A vision of love, from heaven above
Florence her blessed name.
That little vision of sweetness
Alive on the silver screen,
Cast shadows of longing into my heart
For the movie queen,
The angels all gathered around her
To bid her a fond embrace;
Flapping their wings, the joy that she brings
Delivered me into grace.
But heaven was lost without her, so heaven above came down,
To seize her in crystal webs of splendor
Her funeral gown;
A shroud that enraptured millions
Delivered her into grace;
A grave grown so cold, in decades grown old
To shadow poor Florence's face.
Now angels are sadly weeping
To realize her body lies,
Not in the eager hearts of million
But open the gates of heaven
For Florence waits just beyond;
A Rose in her grasp, the world in her clasp
For Florence is dead and gone!
Sing me a song of Springtime,
Sing me a song of June,
Let's make our love beneath the light of a silvery moon,
This is a song for sweethearts,
Lost in a world of care;
Wait for me love, in heaven above,
Florence I'll meet you there.
Little Buddy AI had this to say about it:
Yes, the poem is beautifully written. The author uses vivid and emotive language, creating strong imagery that draws the reader in. The rhythm and rhyming scheme give it a melodic flow and the consistent theme throughout ties it all together. It is a touching tribute to Florence Lawrence that paints a clear picture of her influence and impact, while also expressing the sadness of her passing.
Florence Lawrence was born Florence Annie Bridgwood in Ontario Canada, on Jan 28th, 1886. She began performing with her mother in Vaudeville, as "Baby Flo, the Child Wonder." Kelly R. Brown, author of "Florence Lawrence, The Biograph Girl: America's First Movie Star" (McFarland, 2007) wrote of an early incident that became a part of the act, wherein little Flo would proceed out on stage, look around in distress, and begin to bawl loudly in fear, much to the audience's amusement. Flo was the apple of her mother's eye, and the family referred to her as "Queenie" as she got older.
Young Florence began traveling with a variety of different touring companies, performing in summer stock before appearing in bit roles for Edison, who had developed the newfangled Wonder of the Modern Age: The Motion Picture Camera. Edison was convinced that he'd be the only one to ever produce "flickers" (as they were popularly known). He was soon disabused of that erroneous notion.
The old "nickelodeons" and crank-handled machines (which were peered into for a few moments, cranked with a lever at the side, and offered the viewer who spent his hard-earned nickel a glimpse of a lady dancing, or some other visual considered inordinately risque in 1910), soon gave way to more proper theaters were the films were projected on a wall. This was for purely economic purposes, as it meant many working-class men and women could be packed into a room at one time--all laying down their hard-earned cash for a few moments of escape via the new, astounding medium of the MOVIES. The effete and the social critics considered it a vulgar pastime, a fad that would soon fade away. How incorrect their assessment would prove to be.
From Edison, Florence moved to Vitagraph, then Biograph, working for motion picture pioneer D.W. Griffith, a man whose legacy is mired in infamy due to his (ahem) "controversial" Civil War epic Birth of a Nation, an astounding film that cannot be presented today, at least not publicly, for reasons that should be obvious. At the time, Griffith was just beginning to pioneer the close-up, the cutaway, the dissolve, and other now generally accepted aspects of the storytelling "language" of motion picture films. Producers at the time objected to this. "Nobody," one of them angrily said, "is gonna pay a nickel to see HALF AN ACTOR!" Oh, how wrong so many of these future prognostications from such little, constricted minds, proved to be.
"The Country Doctor" (1909)
Florence made films alongside such future Hollywood celebrities as Mabel Normand and Mary Pickford. She was eventually persuaded by Carl Laemmle (who founded Universal Studios) to move over to IMP, "Independent Motion Pictures." Here the unnamed "Biograph Girl" rose to even greater heights of popularity with audiences. Of course, as per the era, NO ONE knew what her actual name was, as actors and actresses in the flickers were uncredited.
Mr. Carl Laemmle decided that the anonymity and social stigma of being a motion picture performer had to end. To that end, he publicized Florence's REAL NAME, thus catapulting her to sensational stardom overnight (a personal appearance in St. Louis, on March 25th, 1910, where she is mobbed when getting off a train, is described in Brown's biography). Florence rose to heights of fame undreamed of in her wildest imagining; yet, through all of this (and starring in 137 or so of the short, silent films of the era, most of which are lost), she maintained a sense of herself.
(A rumor of her death, started by either Laemmlle or a theater owner in St. Louis was later proved to be, as Mark Twain humorously observed, "wildly exaggerated.")
It's said she enjoyed playing the piano and gardening.
It was not long before she embarked, with director and husband Harry Solter, on setting up her own production company, Victor Film Company, partly in collaboration with Laemmle (who, incidentally, would be instrumental in setting up the reign of monster film classics such as Dracula with Bela Lugosi and Frankenstein with Boris Karloff, decades later). Solter died in 1920, but Florence sulled forth, even though by now, motion pictures having attained a longer form, her popularity was on the decline.
Florence married again, to a man named Charles Woodring. The marriage ended in divorce.
Her third marriage was to abusive drunken sot Harry Bolton, an automobile salesman. That marriage also obviously ended in divorce, on April 23rd, 1932.
Florence had a very brilliant, inventive mind. She in fact patented a device for an early version of the turn signal. She loved to drive.
By 1930, she had quit acting, focusing instead on opening a cosmetics store. Unfortunately, it failed. Florence was left out in the cold, making ends meet by taking roles for a handful of dollars as an extra in the talkies, a degrading position for an actress who had been in the game her entire life. (Unfortunately, this was the fate of many of the early silent film players, as even Buster Keaton failed to make the transition to the "Talkies" successfully).
Florence Lawrence in a small speaking role in "So Big" (1932) with Barbara Stanwyck
By 1938, Florence's pluck and resolve had worn exceedingly thin. Diagnosed with an illness, a wasting bone disease, she was destitute and living with housemates. On December 28th, 1938, she ingested a fatal dose of ant paste. Her final moments are a matter of conjecture; some accounts claim the neighbor heard her cry out; others, that she passed in silence. Regardless, she was taken to the hospital but did not recover consciousness.
Her suicide note read:
Call Dr. Wilson. I am tired. Hope this works. Good bye, my darling. They can't cure me, so let it go at that.
Lovingly, Florence – P.S. You've all been swell guys. Everything is yours.
"..And Nothing is Left But the Wall."
I began a few years ago a short, one-act play based on a line from a poem Florence wrote. The words to the poem, and my reading of it, are below:
Despair by Florence Lawrence
Tired of living, I'm weary, I long to lie down and die,
To find for the sad heart and dreary, The End of the pilgrimage nigh.
Weary, so weary of wishing, For things that were mine by right,
They took them away and gave me, A world of blackness and night.
Weary and tired of waiting, Waiting for sympathy sweet,
I'm tired of wishing for friendship, But it's all so fairy and fleet,
I long for the end of my sorrows, I'm tired of the blinding day,
My feet seem to falter and stumble, Along the rough rocky way.
Exhausted! Tired of drifting, Down the dark stream of life,
Tired of breasting the billows, The Billows of toil and strife,
Wishing and waiting so sadly, For love that is best of all,
When you find it: it's just a mere shadow, dear, and nothing is left but the wall.
Excerpt from, "And Nothing is Left But the Wall," by Tom Baker.
Voice: [Singing] This is for Florence Lawrence, alone in a world of care. This song is for the little girl with auburn hair. She danced her way to stardom, danced like a candle flame. A vision of love, from Heaven above, Florence her blessed name.
[Competing with this is a weird, high, warbling, choir-like singing. There are a number of dark, robed women coming forth on the stage. They seem to be escorting the singer. They could almost be Dracula's wives from the old Bela Lugosi movie.]
Voice: Oh, do shut up! Let a body have a few moments of solitary happiness. What? Is it going to kill you? Don't answer that.
[The voice belongs to FLORENCE, who was the "First Movie Star" when she was alive. Now, she is escorted by the weird, ghostly women that are the wardresses of the "Other Side." They bring her forward, and then retreat into the darkness backstage.]
Florence: Well, I don't mean to be rude, dears. Thank you for bringing me out on this little excursion. My, it's dark out here. And empty. Sort of cold. I'd say there's a chill wind, but, really, there isn't any wind, is there? Just this empty darkness. Out here, all is infinite, we are eternal, and nobody breathes air, cool or otherwise. Oh my, I can see you out there, all your little moon faces turned up, glittering like stars in the darkness. Points of light in the vast firmament. Outside of time. Hi. I'm Florence. I've been let out for a little while because, well, because there is something apparently left to convey. Some other role I must play. I am an actress, you know. Or, at least I was an actress, oh, so very long ago, if time can be adequately counted here. Quantified. Is that the word? But, an actress I was. In the old Silents. But, later, I had bit parts in the Talkies, as they say.
[Behind her, a clip of Florence in "The Country Doctor" is projected on a screen. She turns, a smile playing upon her face, pacing a bit, her hands behind her back. She seems to be appraising her work.]
Florence: You see? I was very young and beautiful then, very much in love with the world, and with life. But they don't let you keep your beauty. There's a fist, the Cruel Fist of time, and he grasps at you, little by little, and he pulls you from one side of your life to another. From cradle to grave; from young and happy and gay, to the bedside of plain, ugly death. And that is all one. And then you are here, among them, these creatures, these lost, these forlorn...and you realize it was all simply a shadow, dear, And nothing is left...
[She trails off. Behind her, a vision of a train, an old silent, perhaps Edison film of a locomotive, is projected.]
Florence: I worked, in my time for Vitagraph, for D.W. Griffith, at Biograph. Harry and I tried to get on with Essanay, but they simply spooked and went around our backs, and Biograph canned both of us for our disloyalty. Fiddlesticks, I started in this business when I was a little girl, traveling with Lotta and the Lawrence Dramatic Company.
[The lights dim down. Behind her, we see a scene of an obviously phony, painted back-drop of a country lane. A little Victorian girl is singing rather pathetically in front of it, to some plunking piano accompaniment.]
Girl: [Singing] Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream...merrily, merrily, merrily....merrily...ah!
[The girl begins to sob and cry. The piano stops. Someone whispers her name harshly. The girl begins again.]
Girl: Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream! Merilly, merilly, merilly, merilly...life is but a...a...Ah!"
[Once again, the little girl erupts into tears. She runs from the stage. We hear laughter, a few boos, and hisses coming from an invisible audience. The pianist crashes down on the keyboard angrily, and the lights go down on the scene. The spotlight is, once again, on Florence.]
I traveled. I toured. I lived that gypsy life and grew up in it. Vaudeville. Momma, Lotta, was an actress, and she schooled me. I was "Little Flo, the Wonder Child." Or some such nonsense. When I got old enough, I acted in all those ghastly, grim, and ancient sad Victorian melodramas; what you might call shmaltz if you spoke Yiddish. It wore on me, the touring. And, most especially, those stories. I've always been a melancholy soul, I suppose, and those stories primed the pump, I guess.
[Behind her, scenes from "The Song of the Shirt" are projected against the wall. The first scenes have Florence bending over her sick child.]
Florence: Of course, I was young and happy still, with all of life ahead of me. The young never think of death, really, if they are young and their bodies strong, and their prospects pour out in front of them like a fine, rich wine that seems to ever flow, ever flow. Projected on the wall of their minds is all the beauty, fame, love, and romance they feel they are entitled to. Maybe from watching old melodramas, eh? But then, that cruel fist grabs them again, gets them by the hair, twirling a few strands of hair around a finger or two, until, finally, it has a whole fistful of your precious golden locks. And it's pulling, and pulling, and pulling tighter, until time takes your face, and the world takes your place, and somebody realizes, suddenly, that, there are no happy endings. Just...endings.
[Enter D.W. Griffith]
Griffith: You're getting morbid in your old age, my dear.
Florence: I think the word you want is "maudlin."
Griffith: A pessimist, to be sure. But, really, why mope and cast about for a reason? Life is, after all, what you make of it. It's a stirring saga of the sagebrush, perhaps.
Florence: Or a penny-ante western. My first role and Lotta was there with me, was getting paid twenty-five dollars a week to ride a horse.
Griffith: A princely sum in those days.
Florence: Didn't seem so princely if you were freezing your tits off sitting on top of some damn horse, waiting for the camera to unthaw. Crank, crank, crank, clackety-clack...And icicles forming on your nose.
Griffith: Yes. But, it got you noticed, didn't it? Made you into what you are, were, would be...a star. A lightning bolt, from the heavens.
Florence: Burning just like a lighted cross, huh Mr. Griffith?
[Griffith stops, puts his hands in his pockets, casts his eyes to his feet.]
Griffith 'Like history writ by lightning' was how President Wilson described it. Ah, and that darling little Lilian Gish! Every bit the equal to Mary Pickford.
Florence: That prissy bitch!
Griffith: That's what Mabel Normand called her.
Florence: But I, moi, I was the 'Biograph Girl.'
Griffith: Yes. And, to get there, I had to find out who that darling little thing with the blonde tresses was. Oh, I'm sure they all thought me a lecher, masher, pervert for making certain 'discreet' inquiries on your behalf.
[He turns and addresses the audience directly.]
Griffith: You see, in those days, movie performers didn't give their names. It was considered the same as whoring, dope peddling, or child molesting for a dignified, serious actor or actress to admit they earned their sordid crusts of bread from acting in such a low brow commodity as the, ptuh, motion picture!
Florence: But, Mr. Laemmle changed all that!
Griffith: Yes, his people and their infernal tricks. Wise bunch of birds.
[Florence, in an aside to the audience:]
Florence: Ladies and gentleman, you will note that a line or two, here and there, has been borrowed from another source. A motion picture or two has been rifled for inspiration. Don't blame us. Nobody creates in a vacuum.
[Turns to Griffith suddenly, and says, seeming a bit confidently perturbed.]
My dear Mr. Griffith, for all your handsome panache, I find you to be a comic character. Almost grotesque. You do seem like an old lech to me. Like a kiddie fiddler, or someone that lurks the playground with a sack full of candy. Take my meaning?
Griffith: (Protesting lamely) Oh, my dear, you make me sound nearly as dreadful as Mack Sennett. Or, God help us--
Florence: A certain little tramp with a cane, eh? He's back here in the darkness, somewhere. With them.
Griffith: Really? What's he doing?
Florence: I would imagine penance.
Griffith: Stuffin' nonsense!
Florence: But I don't guess history, as it stands now, will look nearly as kindly on you as it will on that little tramp. You are, after all, the cinema's only apologist for the KKK.
[There's dead silence. Griffith looks away, his eyes scanning the audience as if to explain himself.
Griffith: I wasn't apologizing for the Klan. I was writing history. In lightning. Like a, like a God. I made the camera an omnipotent eye. And that eye sees everything. And, do you know what its most salient characteristic is? It never lies.
Florence: Stuffin' nonsense. It tells nothing BUT lies.
Griffith: [seemingly outraged] It tells the truth!
Florence: As you see it. Anyway, what does it matter what the truth is? Whose truth? Your truth, D.W.? Never forget, we were in the business of lies. Professional liars.
Griffith: At the end of the day, everyone lives the truth he knows best in his heart. His own truth. Her own truth. The winner decides on what that means for the world at large. If it means anything. To negros, I know what it means. It means I'm painting them with a brush as bad as if I were tarring and feathering the whole lot of them. That wasn't my intention.
Florence: So why did you make that picture?
Griffith: Beauty. Truth. There is bold truth in history, the history that lies buried beneath the rubble and rubbish proffered by the schoolbook histories. Nobody remembers what the South suffered during Reconstruction; what saved their world.
Florence: The Klan?
Griffith: Indeed. We don't choose our rescuers. Heroes come in all shapes and variety, and appear upon the scene in all manner of guises.
Florence: Even hooded and masked and robed?
Florence: Riding stallions and brandishing swords?
Florence: Burning crosses? Brandishing nooses?
Griffith: Yes! Yes! Yes!
[Looks at her with a burning, emphatic gaze. He seems on the poised of an outburst.]
The play would have had a sort of interlude between both scenes (the above scene is incomplete), in which Florence reads my poem to her, or at least sings it. The second scene would have had her recount her life up until the moment she decided to end it--which should be everyone's personal choice, I believe. It would follow her summation of the meaning of her life, the illusory nature of fame, and what we hold in the highest regard. Then the strange, faceless, glowing-eyed, robed "Guardians of the Dead" would usher forth in the darkening stage, and escort Florence back to her eternal resting place.
That play may be finished someday. Must be, really, because, as Count von Cosel observed, "Promises to the dead are sacred, and must be kept."
Florence felt her resolve slipping, her world turning to night. She suffered much in a life of soaring highs and crushing lows. The stoic soul would simply detach, take all things in their stride, know that life is a shadow shown on the wall of time, and accept that suffering and pleasure were simply two sides of the same coin. What makes one more valid than the other? They are all simply stimulation. We have the experience; we alone determine what it means.
Why Florence haunts me is a mystery. But I am a haunted man, living with many ghosts and many shades thrown up against the wall. And this will it will most likely remain, until "nothing is left but the wall."
And when I finally shuffle off this mortal coil, will I go to where she will be waiting for me? And can we finally be together in that happy place, in a way that time and the flesh prevented because the world knows no beauty, no happiness, no grace?
Wait for me, love, in heaven above...
"...Florence, I'll meet you there."
About the Creator
Author of Haunted Indianapolis, Indiana Ghost Folklore, Midwest Maniacs, Midwest UFOs and Beyond, Scary Urban Legends, 50 Famous Fables and Folk Tales, and Notorious Crimes of the Upper Midwest.: http://tombakerbooks.weebly.com