Jeanne Eagels, the original Sadie Thompson

Okay, first, if you are under the age of 95, you might ask, who is Jeanne Eagels?

1918 Daddies
Jeanne Eagels, as a war orphan in the 1918 play “Daddies”

Well, she was a big Broadway and film star in the 1910s and ‘20s.

And she owned a 22-acre country estate right here in Ossining, described by the NY Times as situated “in the hill country north of Briarcliff and east of Ossining with a six-room house and outbuildings.”

In those days, Ossining was quite the place for the gentry to land.  Eagels’ Ossining connection was oddly strong — not only did she maintain a country house on Cedar Lane in the 1920s, she had also previously owned an estate called Kringejan at 1395 Kitchawan Road. According to Eric Woodard and Tara Hanks in their biography “Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed” [buy it here if you’re interested] she fell in love with the Ossining area when she was making films at Thanhouser Studios in New Rochelle. (Who knew that there were silent film studios in Westchester? Not I!)

Her house is still standing at the intersection of Cedar Lane and Stormytown Road.  It has always caught my eye because it is completely out of character with the more modern and unassuming houses on either side. But I didn’t really think much about it until my friend Guy Cheli happened to mention that some silent film star named Jeanne Eagels had lived there.

And then I got a little obsessed.

Jeanne Eagels was born Amelia Eugenia Eagles (or Jeannine Eagels) in Kansas (or in Boston), in 1890 (or somewhere between 1889 and 1894.)

The story goes that she ran off with the Dubinsky Brothers Stock Company at the age of 15 (or 17 or 21.)   Starting off with a few small parts (and possibly by marrying one of the Dubinsky brothers) she clawed her way to the top.

Arguably, her most famous role came in 1923 as Sadie Thompson in the play Rain. Whether you know it or not, I can guarantee you’ve heard of it somehow, or at least of the character of Sadie.  Based on the scandalous 1921 short story by Somerset Maugham about a prostitute named Sadie Thompson and the missionary who rapes her (okay, I’m taking gigantic liberties with the intricate plot,) Rain first premiered on Broadway in 1923 with Jeanne Eagels starring as Sadie Thompson. Lee Strasberg, (the father of Method Acting) called her Sadie “One of the great performances of my theater-going experience . . .  An inner, almost mystic flame engulfed Eagels and it seemed as if she had been brought up to some new dimension of being.”  Clearly, she was no slouch in the acting department.

1924 Eagels in Rain

In 1928, Gloria Swanson produced and starred in the silent picture version called Sadie Thompson. Joan Crawford and Rita Hayworth also starred in later iterations of this story. And, in 2016, the Old Globe Theater in San Diego premiered a musical version also called Rain.  It’s a story that continues to fascinate.

Anyway, Jeanne Eagels was as big a star as you could be back then on Broadway and in film.  After her death, the NY Times reported that she left an estate totaling over $88,000 (that’s $1.1 million today) that consisted of her Ossining home, and nearly $12,000 in jewelry and furs. The Times also noted that she owned a Hispano-Suiza autocar, which sounds fantastically antique.

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 10.16.36 AM 1927 Hispano-Suiza. Imagine living in Ossining when cars like that were on the road.

Eagels’ story was still bankable in 1957 when Columbia Pictures made a biopic called “Jeanne Eagels” starring Kim Novak.

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 10.19.31 AM

She was, however, considered to be temperamental and unreliable. Here’s an excerpt from an article in the Milwaukee Sentinel from May 6, 1928:Eagels article

The article goes on to describe how her reputation was cemented when she starred in a 1926 play called “Her Cardboard Lover,” and she simply disappeared when the show moved from Chicago to Milwaukee:

Days passed, the theatre remained dark, the company idle, the management began to tear its hair, already made gray by the erratic star. Towards the end of the week, the lady of mystery turned up with the simple explanation that “She hadn’t been feeling well.” It was too late to do anything in Milwaukee, but there was a fine advance in St. Louis. So the manager bought flowers for the star and the company took turns petting and pitying her and asking no questions.

But the newly formed Actors’ Equity Association (of which Eagels had been unsupportive and refused to join) brought her up on charges, levied a $3,600 fine equal to two weeks’ salary (or $48,000 in 2016 dollars) and banned her from appearing on the stage for a year. (Imagine AEA doing such a thing today!)

In response, Eagels just went off and made films.  Here’s a link to a scene from her last film, “The Letter.”   It’s her only talkie, and she chews the scenery so magnificently that she was posthumously nominated for a Best Actress Oscar Award (it went to Mary Pickford instead.)

The Letter poster

And now you know who Jeanne Eagels was.

 

The Heady Family Cemetery

Did you know that one of the very first African-American landowners in Westchester County lived on Spring Valley Road?

And that he was born a slave in Scarsdale in 1751?

And that he and his descendents are buried in a cemetery located on what was once their family farm?

I had no idea, and I think it’s fitting that this is my first blog post, because this story was the first one that made me aware of the depth and breadth of the history that lines the roads along my runs.

Lazarus Heady was one of seven illegitimate children of Thomas Hadden of Scarsdale, and his slave, Rose. According to “The African Presence in Scarsdale, NY” by Phyllis C. Murray “Thomas Hadden (1691-1761) was a resident of Scarsdale. His holdings in Scarsdale included two houses, a barn, cider mill, out buildings and a 150-acre farm that extended from the Post Road to the Bronx River. The bequests in his will suggest that at his death, Thomas Hadden had fathered a mulatto family by one of his female slaves. All but the last few sentences of his will are dedicated to providing for his female servants and his seven mulatto children, ensuring their well-being after his death:  ‘All my Negroes [shall] be Exempted from Slavery, and Wench Rose shall be given a house on the north side of my farm.’”

 Exactly how Lazarus Heady came to live and own a farm on Spring Valley Road is still a mystery to me, but he did, and he had a very long life, dying at the age of 99 in 1850. He also seemed to have had a very large, extended family as evidenced by the size of the cemetery itself.

Though many of the headstones have aged to point where their inscriptions are illegible today, you can click on this link and find a list of headstones and epitaphs as they appeared in the 1960’s.   Copied down for posterity by a lovely lady named Irene Scase Summerville, she clearly shared my obsession with history.

I run by here all the time and never knew the cemetery even existed until some major landscaping was done a few years ago and I saw the uncovered headstones a little way off the road. I asked around and discovered that there is an often-ignored law that mandates that the upkeep for an abandoned cemetery falls to the town in which the cemetery is located. Thanks to the efforts of Gray Williams, former Town Historian for New Castle, the cemetery was cleared of weeds and headstones were repaired and righted.