Norma Talmadge home

From American Magazine, June 1922, p. 36-39+

Norma Talmadge: A Great Moving Picture Star

Young as she is, Miss Talmadge has played a wonderful range of parts--She has an intuitive understanding of all kinds of people, because she likes people and can imagine herself in their places--She could put herself in your place, or your cousin Mabel's or your aunt Henrietta's.

By Keene Sumner

[Photo omitted: full page portrait of Talmadge wearing several strands of pearls. Caption: Beginning with a very small part in a Vitagraph production, when she was fourteen years old, Norma Talmadge has had a remarkable career as a moving picture actress. Her first salary was twenty-five dollars a week. At present it is several hundred thousand dollars a year. In addition to this, she owns her own company; and her percentages from the plays swell her income to a million dollars a year. She was born in New Jersey, but later lived in New York. Three years ago she married Joseph M. Schenck, a prominent moving picture producer, who is now the president of the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation.]

Norma Talmadge, who makes a million dollars a year out of her moving picture plays, and who, in contests conducted in forty-two different cities, has been voted the most popular screen actress in America, is a graceful slip of a girl with serious eyes and a mouth that surprise you every now and then with a quick warm smile.

We began this interview in the star's dressing-room at the New York studio where her film plays are produced. Dressed for the ballroom scene in "Smilin' Through," she was a lovely picture in her dancing frock of filmy pink chiffon. Lovely, and very serious--until I happened to say that I'd been told she was born in Brooklyn.

"Oh, don't say Brooklyn!" she protested. "Say I was born at Niagara Falls!"

"But weren't you born in Brooklyn?" I asked.

"No, indeed!" Then came the quick smile, as she leaned forward and said in a stage whisper, "Worse than Brooklyn! I was born over in Jersey."

"Then Niagara Falls is only about five hundred miles from the truth," I said.

"Yes--if you're going to count it in miles," she agreed. "But if you measure it by days, it isn't so far. My mother was in Niagara Falls almost until I was born, so it came very near being my birthplace. And it's so much more thrilling than Jersey," she finished pleadingly.

Later, after I had seen more of Norma Talmadge, and had talked with others about her, I decided that this little incident was very characteristic of her. She liked to say that she was born at Niagara Falls because the place appealed to her imagination. And it is this quality of imagination, it seems to me, that is chiefly responsible for her extraordinary success.

Don't misunderstand; imagination, in her, is not something freakish or fantastic. On the contrary, she is very wholesome and natural. And it isn't something intellectual and high-brow. She doesn't pretend to be a student of books. It is feeling rather than thinking, life rather than literature, that stirs her imagination. She is interested in real people--and in people of all sorts.

Here is a significant fact: everybody around the big studio calls her by her first name. In certain other studios there would be most unpleasant ructions if anybody presumed to address the star by her first name! But if there is one thing that Norma Talmadge conspicuously lacks, it is a sense of her own importance.

She knows everyone around the place: electricians, carpenters, property men--everybody. And not merely as employees doing their special kind of work; but as human beings in whose lives she is really interested. She knows about their wives and children; whether somebody's little Minnie has the measles, or somebody's Johnny has a broken toe.

Most screen stars are what is called types; they play only certain kinds of roles. But Miss Talmadge has been both princess and pauper, schoolgirl and old woman, debutante and Spanish dancer, Russian refugee, Chinese maiden, a belle of the old South, a frontier girl of the New West.

It is astonishing that she has been able to do all this, and to do it well; at her age, too--for she is scarcely more than a girl herself. The only explanation seems to be that she has imagination and warm sympathy, which give her an intuitive understanding of life in all its phases.

Her interest does not stop with human life, either. If anyone ever undertakes to write the history of the present Talmadge family, a large section of that history will read like a story of a zoo.

As every movie fan knows, there are three Talmadge sisters: Norma, Constance, and Natalie. Their mother is almost like an elder sister to them, and their father like an elder brother. The three girls call their mother "Fred" and their mother "Peg."

"That is," Norma told me, "we call her 'Peg'--except when we are sick or in trouble of any kind. Then there is a wail for 'Mama'!"

"Yes," says Mrs. Talmadge, who had joined us by this time. "if one of the girls calls me 'Mama" I immediately say: 'What's the matter!' I know that something has gone wrong."

"How about their own names?" I asked. "Are they just stage names?"

"Oh, no! They have always had them. I chose them myself. I've had a long and varied experience in picking out names," she went on with a smile. "Not that I have any other children; but these three have kept me busy naming birds, bests, and fishes, from the time they could crawl themselves. They never see a sick dog or kitten that they don't adopt it into the family at once."

"You were as bad as any of us," interrupted her daughter. "Do you remember the sick cat I brought home and that lost no time in presenting us with five kittens? It was on Lincoln's birthday," she explained to me; "so we named the kittens Lincoln, and Abraham, and other appropriate names like that. I found a sick kitten in my motor car the other day. Someone had put it in there; so I took it home, added it to the menagerie, and sent for the doctor. We're always sending for the doctor to come post haste to the studio here. And he's so disgusted when he finds that his patient is some poor mangy animal we've picked up on the street!

"But the only time you ever rebelled," she said to her mother, "was when we collected angleworms. I don't know why we had that particular passion, unless it was that worms were easy to find and required very little care. We used to take them to school with us and put them in rows on the desk. We had names for them-- though we couldn't always tell them apart--and we made up all kinds of stories about their lives. As for our back yard, it was always full of assorted animals: dogs, cats, rabbits, turtles--everything we could find."

[Three photos omitted: Two photos of Talmadge modeling dresses, one black satin, the other white with 3/4 sleeves and a feathered hat. Caption: The pictures above show Miss Talmadge in the costumes worn in a recent play. She is very slender--weighing only one hundred and fifteen pounds--and exceptionally graceful. Her patience is unlimited. She will change her costume half a dozen times for a single short scene, until she gets just the right effect. Or, after spending almost an hour in make-up, she will do it all over again if the director wants to experiment with different lights. Third picture: oval of Talmadge, with dog, throwing a medicine ball while standing in front oh a large house. Caption: In the oval at the right, Norma Talmadge is shown in the grounds of her summer home at Bayside, Long Island. Under her present contract she makes four pictures a year. Each of them involves seven weeks of hard daily work. Then she has six weeks of rest; but she spends her time largely in out-of-door exercises, in order to keep in good physical condition for the strain of producing her next play. She often works ten or twelve hours a day.]

"Did you every play at acting, when you were a child?" I asked?

"All of them did!" exclaimed Mrs. Talmadge. "But Norma was the one that started everything. They gave their little shows in the cellar and I had to be the audience. It was cold and clammy down there; and I used to sit and shiver and wonder how fatal pneumonia was. Sometimes they had another little girl from the neighborhood. And then her mother had to come, too. We would sit with our feet on the chair rungs, hoping that the noise the children made with their orchestra--composed of toy horns and drums with an occasional frying pan for good measure--would keep the rats away.

"Norma always had what people like to talk of now as initiative. She used to come running to me to ask breathlessly if she had a party dress she could wear.

"'Who's giving the party?' I would ask.

"And then it would appear that she had decided it was time that someone should give a party, and that she had selected some boy or girl of the neighborhood as the one. But, no matter who was the chosen host or hostess, Norma ran the whole affair, even to inviting the guests.

"She disposed of the refreshment problem by requiring each child to bring five cents for the purchase of ice cream. I remember one little boy who arrived with only three pennies. It was all he had, but Norma was adamant. so he had to skirmish for the other two pennies. And this, mind you, was not a party at her house. But she ran it, just the same.

"It was like that in everything; Norma always did the managing. But she didn't do it just as other children do. In their games, she didn't always claim what, at first sight, looked like the principal part. She took the part she wanted and made it the principal one.

"For instance, when they were 'playing house' the other girls invariably wanted to be the mother. But Norma sometimes wanted to be the mother, sometimes the father, sometimes one of the play children; or the cook, or the ice man, or a peddler, or even a horse or a dog.

"She liked to imagine herself in all kinds of characters; and she always got the role she wanted! But she didn't do this by making an open issue of the matter. She seemed to be a diplomat by instinct. She made the other children think they wanted to do whatever she had made up her mind they were going to do.

"I remember one example of how she used to manage them. Every mother knows that when she has a caller the children sometimes hand around and want to listen to the conversation. Often a whole group, composed of my own children and several from the neighborhood, would do this when I had company. So I arranged a little scheme with Norma.

"Instead of telling them to go away, which would only have roused their determination not to go, I would say to her 'Do the children know how to play checkers' and go right on with the conversation. Immediately I would see Norma straighten up and look thoughtful. Then, after a moment, she would say, 'Oh, come on out in the back yard! I want to show your something.' Or she would get the children away on some other pretext. And they always went willingly. She seemed to have an natural instinct about how to handle them.

[Three photos omitted: 1st Picture of Talmadge at home looking out window, holding a pomeranian, same clothes at previous photo in front of house. Second picture of Talmadge in a bathing suit, sitting on a tree limb with a pomeranian. Caption: The two pictures of Norma, above, were taken at her summer home, where one of her chief diversions is sea bathing. The little dog is one of the countless animal pets which the Talmadge sisters are always acquiring. They adopt every sick dog or kitten they find. When they were children they had a regular menagerie, which included toads, turtles, goldfish, rabbits, mice, and even hundreds of angleworms. Their love of animals is as strong to-day as it was then. Third picture: Oval photo of the three Talmadge sisters looking at a parrot in a cage. Caption: In the oval at the right, the Talmadge sisters--Norma in the center, Constance at the left, and Natalie at the right--are shown with their pet parrot. Constance, the youngest of the trio, is almost as famous a film star as Norma. Natalie has appeared in some screen productions, but prefers home life. Her husband, Buster Keaton, is a well-known moving picture actor. Constance, also, is married. The affection between the sisters is a very unusual one.]

These glimpses of Norma Talmadge as a little girl are very illuminating. Her imagination, which made her want to play all kinds of parts in those childish games, is responsible for the variety of roles she has portrayed on the screen. As for the ability to get on smoothly with other people, there are few places where this would be more of an advantage than in a moving picture company.

While her mother and I were talking, Norma--to follow the studio custom and call her by her first name--was going through a ballroom scene in company with thirty or forty others. The period of that part of the play was back in the days when the polka was in fashion The present generation doesn't know a polka from a parachute; so a dancing master had given these young film actors some lessons, and they were supposed to be entirely perfect in it by this time.

They would start of pretty well to the accompaniment of the orchestra and the director's "one, two, three--hop!" But the habit was strong; and inside of a minute or two the feet of various couples would begin to get tangled up in a hybrid dance that no one could have named. Certainly, it was not a polka; and the whole thing had to be done again.

The floor was covered with a waxed and polished material on which the feet of the dancers left prints. And at every pause men with long-handled brushes went over the floor, removing all traces of these footprints.

The scene to be photographed did not last more than a few minutes. Yet a solid hour was spend on it. But there wasn't a word of impatience, or of complaint, from the star. Not the faintest sign of a temperamental tantrum! Once in a while she came over and, with a tired sigh, dropped into a seat beside us. But, although she was tired, she was not irritated. She would pick up quickly the threads of our talk, and her serious brown eyes would shine with humor over the things she and her mother told about her childhood. But she never kept the scene waiting for her. The instant the director gave the signal she was ready. Nobody had to wait for the star! Which is probably one of the reasons why she is a star.

Norma Talmadge has been in the moving pictures since she was fourteen years old. I said before that she does not pretend to be a student of books. If she had been more inclined to that sort of thing we might not have had her on the screen at all. For it was because she did shirk her studies that her mother decided to take her out of school.

At that time, the Talmadge family was not what a strictly truthful person would call affluent. As Norma herself put it: "We had our ups and downs. Sometimes we had a maid--and sometimes we hadn't. When we hadn't any, which was pretty often, Natalie and Constance and I helped with the housework. Natalie was a natural-born housekeeper, anyway. As a little girl she was the Martha of the family--always concerned about the practical side of affairs."

When her mother announced that she must leave school, the fourteen-year-old girl was at first absolutely unreconciled. But her mother was firm.

"You've had your chance," she said; "but you haven't improved it. And it isn't fair that your father should go on taking care of you and giving you opportunities that you don't appreciate. It is time for you to do your share. You must get a position and begin to earn money."

At first the young girl protested--bitterly. Then she began to do some thinking. It was true that she hadn't taken much interest in school. Arithmetic, in particular, might as well have been a sealed book for all she had got out of it. The only thing that had appealed to her was the Friday-afternoon "exercises," when the pupils spoke their pieces. Not that she had any particular joy in hearing the others recite; she always tingled with a secret conviction that she could recite so much better than they did.

She was something of a "movie fan" herself in those days, Florence Turner being the object of her special admiration. And because Miss Turner was a Vitagraph star, little Miss Norma persuaded her mother to go with her to the Vitagraph studio. They happened to have a small part for her, and she was taken on at a salary of twenty-five dollars a week.

The play was called "The Household Pest," said pest being a trick horse. In the small bit which Norma had to do she and a boy of about her age were concealed under the cloth thrown over a camera; the trick horse seized the cloth with his teeth, jerked it away, and revealed the two children in the act of kissing each other. That was how she made her screen debut.

"A little later," she told me, "I was the young daughter in 'A Dixie Mother.' But as my mother in the play was Florence Turner, and as I had a sort of reverent worship for her, I used to forget all about the action and simply stand gazing at her in spellbound adoration until the director sharply recalled me to my senses.

"I remember another of those small parts," she went on, with a laugh. "The play called for several pickaninnies; and one other white girl and I were pressed into service along with a few real darkies. We didn't like that. So when it came to making up we blacked only our faces and our hands, leaving the backs of our necks perfectly white. We were careful not to turn around when the director gave us a hurried inspection, so he thought we were all right and they began to make the scene. I'll never forget the abrupt halt that scene came to when we turned our white necks to the camera! The director was so furious that he told us we couldn't be in the scene at all--which was exactly what we had hoped he would do."

A few days after this much-interrupted conversation I went up to the studio again. Norma was not there, but I had a long talk with a woman who had been with the company for several years. She has summered and wintered with the young star; has seen her under all kinds of circumstances; and the stories she told give a picture of Norma Talmadge which her millions of admirers will find very satisfying.

"Where is Miss Talmadge?" I asked.

"I hope she is asleep," was the emphatic reply, "for she has to work all night, making night scenes for 'Smilin' Through,' and will work all day to-morrow here in the studio."

"Doesn't she ever call a halt because she is tired?"

"I've never known her to do it in all the time I've been with her. I don't think anyone could treat work with greater respect than Norma does. She accepts discomfort, fatigue, and annoyance without a murmur. And you've no idea how much of it comes as a part of her everyday job. Sometimes, for instance, she will change her dress six or seven times in getting ready for a scene. She puts on one costume; but when they try the lights they think something else will be better. Back she goes and puts on another dress. They try that; but they're not satisfied, so she changes again. And she will do this over and over, until you wouldn't blame her if she got into a temper and said they'd have to be satisfied. But she does nothing of the sort.

"It takes half or three quarters of an hour to put on her make-up. And she does it all herself. She won't have a maid to wait on her. She isn't the helpless kind. And perhaps, after she has gone through that long, tedious business of making up, the director decides that it must be done over again, for the make-up is different for different lightings. But I've never heard her protest or complain. The only thing she seems to care about is to get the thing right.

"I did see her angry once. It was when we were going to make a scene for 'The Branded Woman.' The thing was to be symbolical of the degradation of a human soul. They had made a horrible, slimy pool, covered with scum, and had put into it frogs and snakes and hideous crawling things. There were to be people standing in this slime, stretching up their arms to pull her down into it. She, herself, was to be above the pool, you see, standing on a small platform, which would be concealed by the people with upreaching arms.

"Well--when the actors saw that slimy, awful pool, they refused to go into it. They hadn't anticipated anything quite so realistic. But to Norma I think the unforgivable sin is to shirk any part of your job. And when those people refused to do the thing they had engaged to do, and were being paid to do, and which was essential to the picture, it was inconceivable to her.

"She was wearing a marvelous costume by Lucile which had cost five thousand dollars. She looked--just as she was intended to look--the exquisite antithesis of that filthy pool. But when the crowd of minor actors and 'extras' indignantly refused to step into it, and persuasion and argument failed to move them Norma turned, and without an instant's hesitation walked down into that mud and slime as proudly as if she had been a queen going up to a throne.

"'I don't ask you to do what I won't do myself,' she said. 'Will you come--now?' . . . And I assure you that they did come. Anyone would have followed her, anywhere, if they had seen her do that thing.

"She has a wonderful conscience about her work. In a Russian play, called 'The New Moon,' there was a scene when she had a fall down a flight of steps. The director wanted her to have someone double for her in that fall; but she absolutely refused. I know of other times when she has insisted on going through more or less dangerous scenes when she might just as well had someone take her place. But she has courage as well as conscience---artistic conscience. The public wouldn't know that she avoided some part of her job; but she would know, and she seems to want to play square with herself.

"I've known here very closely for more than three years; and yet she puzzles me. For instance, she doesn't spend days in exhaustive study of a part. Apparently she needs only to read it, then she seems to know, by some instinct, how to interpret the character. She has trained and highly educated men to work on the production; men of twice her age and with ten times her learning. They are wise in psychology and all that sort of thing. Yet their learning and their wisdom is often no match for her instinct. They will ask her to do something in a certain way; and she will say:

"'I can't. I don't feel it that way.'

"And when she does it as she feels it, they have to admit that her idea is better. The only way I can account for it is that she has a streak of genius.

"From what I have said, you may get the impression that she will stop at nothing, when it is a question of her work. In one sense that is true. But there are some things she will not do; certain types of character she will not play. She won't play a bad woman, and she won't play 'a clinging vine.'

"In a way, Norma is really a feminist. But, again, it is instinctive with her. She always wants to portray a woman who is on a high plane in some way, either in courage, or in loyalty, or in honor, or something like that. She is her own severest critic. She is never satisfied with a picture. Often, when some one has praised one of her pictures and said what a success it was, I've heard her say: 'I was rotten in that picture.' And she meant it.

"As I said before, she doesn't elaborately study a part, as many actresses do. But she really lives it while she is acting it. When you see her on the screen with tears rolling down her cheeks they are real tears! When she was making the cemetery scene in 'The Wonderful Thing,' she not only cried herself but she was so genuine in her emotion that she made the photographer cry, and we had to stop work until he could control his emotion! That sounds like a fake story, but it is absolutely true. I've seen the studio hands so absorbed in watching her, and so moved by her acting, that they forgot everything else. And, believe me, when anything has that effect on the hardened habitués of a moving picture studio, it must be pretty genuine.

"One of the hardest roles she ever played was the double one in 'The Forbidden City,' in which she had two Chinese parts. In this Chinese role, her eyes were made almond-shaped by pulling back the skin with court plaster concealed under her hair. You can imagine the discomfort, amounting to pain, that this caused. Yet she had to endure it about ten hours a day for seven weeks. It takes seven weeks to make a play. Norma works every day, from ten-thirty in the morning until six o'clock at night. Often, if fact, she works much later than that.

"Yesterday she was making a scene that was dated back to 1861, when women had wasplike waists. Norma is slender; she doesn't weigh more than one hundred and fifteen pounds. But even a slender girl nowadays doesn't have an eighteen-inch waist. However, that was what the scene called for, and she had to case herself in a corset that really tortured her. And she had to wear it all day long. It sounds trivial. But just try it; and if you don't cry for mercy after a few minutes, you must be a Spartan. But she stood it, without making any fuss, for ten hours.

"For one thing she had good health--and she takes care of it. She plays tennis, swims, drives, rides, and does everything to keep herself in condition. Under her present contract she makes four pictures a year. Each one, as I said before, takes seven weeks of hard work. Then she has six weeks' rest before beginning another. She has a beautiful summer home at Bayside, Long Island, and she lives a normal, healthful, out-of-door life there.

"But even in her rest weeks she often does some work. For instance, in one play she was to be a ballet dancer. So, in preparation for the role, she went to a teacher and learned toe dancing. That's a strenuous way of spending a vacation, you'll admit. Not long ago she decided to learn Russian dancing; partly because she thought it would be good training in grace and physical development, but also because she thought she might need it sometime in making a picture. People think it is a very wonderful thing to be a film star and to make a million dollars a year. And it is. But they have no idea of the hard work that goes into making that million. I wonder how many of the people who envy Norma would have the energy, and the courage, and the patience to do as she does, even if they had the ability and the talent to become a star.

"I wonder how they would like it, for example, if they would almost go blind suddenly and have to stay in a darkened room for a few days, as she does occasionally from the effects of the lights used in the studio. That is just one little detail of her life, as a moving picture star, of which the public knows nothing. I asked her once what her ambition was and she said, "Well, of course I like getting a lot of money. Anybody would. But, honestly, my ambition isn't to get more money. It is to do better work. I'm not satisfied. I want to get plays that will deserve a great production. And then I want to do my part in them so well that I can be proud of it."

"Norma is very young. But she is serious. As I said, she has a streak of genius. But, unlike many geniuses, she is willing to work. She is absolutely unspoiled by her success. She is as open to suggestions or criticisms about her work as if she were an unknown beginner. She will listen to anybody, from the director down to the property man. She doesn't always do what they suggest; but she has an open mind. You probably think I'm very enthusiastic about her. Well, I am. But don't you think I have reason to be?"

The more I saw of Norma Talmadge the more I thought that the woman I have quoted did have reason to be enthusiastic. I saw how hard and how patiently she worked. I saw the warmth of her interest in others. I found her minimizing what she has already accomplished and thinking only of what she hopes to achieve. In my mind, I saw her walking into that slimy pool as a demonstration to others of the duty one owes to one's work. And I found myself sharing with the woman who had told me that story a sincere enthusiasm about the girl who had done it.

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Last revised, June 28, 2002