Monday, April 25, 2016

Marie Doro: A Forgotten Actress

Marie Doro
From my personal collection
One of the neatest parts of sharing the things I “discover” and then share, is when readers send me emails asking if I knew about this person or place and its importance in history. An email from Ryan had me standing in the Duncannon Presbyterian Cemetery that overlooks the spot where the Susquehanna and Juniata Rivers come together.

In his email, Ryan asked me if I have ever looked into the life of Marie Doro. He had included a short biography and a picture of her grave. I was definitely interested, though I have to admit that I had no idea who Marie Doro was at the time.

Standing before the simple marker, located just to the left of the large slab that covers her father’s grave, I came to pay respects to a local girl who made it big in the world.

Marie Doro was born Marie Katherine Stewart on May 25, 1882 in Duncannon. Marie was the only child of Virginia (Weaver) and Richard Stewart, and was a direct descendant of Patrick Henry. Shortly after her birth, her family moved to Kansas City.

Marie’s first public performance was the role of Little Eva in the play Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the Coates Opera House in Kansas City. Now I must divert my story for a moment. The Coates Opera House was a first-class theater – in fact the first theater – in Kansas City. It was founded by Kersey and Sarah Coates who left their home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1856. Kersey opened a bank, built the Coates House Hotel, erected an opera house to bring first class entertainment to the city, and invested in real estate, and was among those responsible for bringing the railroad to the city. The Coates Opera House burned to the ground on January 31, 1901 and sadly would not be rebuilt.

In 1898, Marie’s family moved to New York City, where she attended a boarding school and began to refine her acting abilities. In 1901 she made her breakout as an actress playing Cora in the risqué Naughty Anthony. The following year she would take on the role of Rosella Peppercorn in The Billionaire. This performance caught the attention of Charles Frohman. Frohman was a noted theater producer and had developed the careers of many theater actors and actresses – Marie was soon being managed by him.

An interesting side note: while performing on Broadway, Marie’s name was often associated with William Gillette, the man who gave Sherlock Holmes his famous deerstalker cap.

Grave of Marie Kathrine Stewart
AKA: Marie Doro
Duncannon Presbyterian Cemetery,Duncannon

1915 would be the year of change for Marie. May 7, 1915, Charles Frohman perished during the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. The same year she would marry Elliott Dexter, also an actor, but the marriage would end almost immediately and she never remarried. She would also leave the theater stage in 1915, pursuing a career in film.

She signed with Adolph Zukar and made her first film, The Morals of Marcus, based on the play she performed in years earlier. Marie would make eighteen films in her movie career, but sadly any of her early films would be lost, one she is often noted for is her leading role in Oliver Twist.

Marie was still a leading actress in Hollywood when she stopped acting. The exact reason for her departure is not known, but most agree she became disillusioned with Hollywood and left the movies in 1924.

In fact she left America all together. She moved to Europe and made a couple of movies in Italy and the United Kingdom.

Marie returned to the United States and settled in New York City. Her return to America marked a change in her personality. She entered the Union Theological Seminary in New York City where she studied spirituality.

The Stewart Family graves
left to right: Marie, her father, her mother
Her last years were spent mostly in seclusion. She would often go on "retreats," though exactly where she went and what she did during them remains a mystery. She would go out of her away to avoid not only journalists, but also the people she once called friends. 

While the reasoning behind this self exile has never been solved, there has been a theory that has been put forth, that would explain Marie’s strange behavior. Two of her closest friends were Maude Adams and Mercedes de Acosta, both noted for their lesbian relationships. The thought that her marriage and immediate divorce, and these friendships, hint that maybe Marie herself was fighting feelings for the same sex. But honestly, we will never know.

Marie passed away from heart failure on October 9, 1956. She was buried in Duncannon next to her parents. On February 8, 1960, Marie was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contributions to the motion picture industry.

Marie was more than just an actress. She was a noted song writer of the time – though I must admit looking at a number of the songs she wrote (that I could uncover) I did not recognize any of them. She was a noted authority on Shakespeare Sonnets and Elizabethian poetry. Those who did have a chance to talk to her after her return to the states claim she was a brilliant conversationalist, knowing and passionate about the subjects she talked.

As I stood there paying my respects, my mind drifted to another piece of gossip I had managed to find in my searching. A June 19, 1919 article in the New York Times mentions that her stepfather had shot and killed himself. I could not find any other mention of this, nor could I find any mention of her parents divorcing. Looking at the marker on the right side of Richard Stewart’s grave (Marie’s marker is on the left) I see her mother’s name listed as Stewart. I had so many questions, but the memorials just weren’t answering any of them.

I finished paying my respects and knew it was time to move on, leaving them to stand watch over the river flowing pass far below.

In my opinion, it is harder to find Duncannon Presbyterian Cemetery than it is to find Marie’s grave. The cemetery is located appropriately at the end of Cemetery Street at the northern end of Duncannon. Entering into the cemetery, bear left then take the first right. Her grave is on the left, just off the roadway.

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