By Mike McCormick
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.”
According to her interview in Photoplay magazine years later, the Grand Duke wrote Valeska a check for $10,000 with no strings attached. Suratt said she sent most of the money home to help her family and used the rest to travel to New York City.
Leah told Frances Hughes that Valeska “borrowed” about $1,000 Leah had won in a Honduras lottery to pay her way to New York. On Oct. 19, 1902, Valeska’s 23-year old brother Austin fell under a Big Four train at the Greencastle depot and was killed. She was devastated by the loss.
Before relocating to New York, Valeska met and married vaudeville comedian and dancer Billy Gould and the couple trekked to South Africa, a country starving for entertainment, for several months, and then to England.
In the summer of 1906, Edward Edelston, producer of the musical comedy “The Belle of Mayfair,” saw Suratt’s hour glass figure on the staircase at London’s Hotel Savoy in a homemade backless black velvet gown. He quickly concluded that she was “the perfect Gibson girl” he needed for the play. Upon discovering that Valeska had untapped talent, he asked composer Leslie Stuart to integrate song and dance routines into her character. The song, “Why Do They Call Me a Gibson Girl?,” was a staple. The play opened at New York’s Daly Theater in December 1906. It was a sensation — “almost the best yet in musical comedy.” — and Suratt was the catalyst. Stuart’s music, according to the New York Times, had “all the charm, all the novelty of that which he wrote for ‘Florodora.’ Occasionally, it is superior.”
Valeska was so captivating that Edna May, the dazzling American actress-singer who overwhelmed London audiences for two years in “The Belle of New York,” almost caused international incident by quitting the cast. The New York Times wrote:
“As a matter of fact, ‘Why Do They Call Me a Gibson Girl?,’ is the sort of song to make any actress jealous of another’s opportunity to sing it, and with its novel specialty of living Gibson pictures it created another sensation at Daly’s last night.”
By April 1907, New York millinery shops were promoting “Valeska Suratt Hats.” After “The Belle of Mayfair,” Valeska signed a vaudeville contract with Oscar Hammerstein I for $2,500 a week. That sum soon was raised to $3,000. Gould & Suratt perfected conversational song and dance routines and a version of ”Salome’s Dance of Veils.” During this chapter of Valeska’s show business career, she was called “vaudeville’s greatest star” while nurturing a reputation as a femme fatale and queen of fashion She provided the funds to purchase 1634 N. Ninth St., a four bedroom house in Terre Haute, where her mother died May 3, 1914 and where she stored trunks of her many costumes. During this time, Suratt and Gould parted and she married actor Fletcher Norton.
Valeska returned to legitimate theater in late 1909 with “The Belle of Boulevards,” a modest success. “The Girl With the Whooping Cough, “on the other hand, was closed May 10, 1910 by Mayor Gaynor for being “too risque.” She recovered with “The Red Rose,” which received much acclaim and many encores. It reached Terre Haute on tour.
Valeska was the first vaudeville star to sign a motion picture contract, working briefly with Paramount and starred as a vamp with Fox.
But Suratt disliked Hollywood so she abandoned movies. Between 1917 and 1929, “The Queen of Vaude” returned to New York in triumph, shattering Al Jolson’s crowd record at the Winter Garden. She also became a screenwriter and a Biblical scholar.
During World War I, Valeska quietly donated $500 a week to the American Red Cross. When parts of her screenplay, “Mary Magdalene” were adapted by Cecil B. DeMille in his silent film masterpiece, “The King of Kings,” she sued. The case was tried in February 1930 but it was settled without publicity. Afterwards, it seems, Suratt was blacklisted. Valeska disappeared and was found years later living as a hermit in a small New York hotel. She died in a nursing home in Washington, D.C. on July 2, 1962.