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March 14, 2009

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Looking at the twists and turns in the life of Valeska Suratt

TERRE HAUTE — On the Broadway stage and the silent screen, Terre Haute actress Valeska Suratt skillfully exhibited a handful of personalities.

The more one studies the twists, turns and contradictions in her life, the easier it is to accept her enigmatic behavior.

But acceptance does not answer the question that has plagued historians for seventy years: Who was the real Valeska Suratt? Coquette, vamp, humanitarian or religious zealot?

Perhaps she was all three.

Born June 28, 1882, near Owensville in Gibson County, Indiana, Valeska moved to 323 N. 17th St., in Terre Haute, during 1889 with her parents, Ralph and Anna, stepsister Myrtle Strickland, older brother Austin and younger sister Leah.

Her grandparents were immigrants. Her father’s parents, natives of France, spelled their name, “Surratt.” Her mother’s parents came from England.

Ralph opened a blacksmith shop near 14th and Wabash. Valeska’s younger brother Richard Surratt, known as “Judge,” was born in 1891 at Terre Haute.

According to sister Leah, Valeska decided at age 12 that she wanted to be in show business. Leah told Terre Haute newspaper reporter Frances Hughes in 1961, Valeska made “wishes on the stars” every night.

Valeska apparently quit attending school in 1899 and secured a job with the Albert Le Clear Photograph Studio. Saving money, she was able to travel to Indianapolis, where went to work for $5 a week at William H. Block department store.

Bright and vivacious, she changed the spelling of her surname and decided she had to improve her voice and dance skills. After two years in Indianapolis, she relocated to Chicago, taking with her a cheap poster of Polish-born actress Anna Held, common law wife of Florenz Ziegfield known for her flirtatious nature and risque songs.

While attending a party at Chicago’s Wellington Hotel during August 1902, Valeska met Grand Duke Boris Vladimirovich of Russia, who asked to take her to lunch. Known for his brash and unpredictable behavior, Boris asked Suratt if there was something she would really like to do. “Yes,” she responded, “I want to go on the stage.”

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