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March 14, 2009

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

(Continued)

TERRE HAUTE —

“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.

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