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History

July 3, 2011

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Another Valeska Suratt escapade results in marriage

TERRE HAUTE — Early in her theatrical career, legendary Terre Haute actress Valeska Suratt had a proclivity to do something sensational at unforeseeable times and places.

Her behavior often was unpredictable. The events of Saturday, Jan. 14, 1911, even surprised many of her best friends.

Divorced from vaudeville comedian Billy Gould, Suratt was engaged to Robert T. Mackay, a young New York real estate manager. Related to the Iselin family of New Rochelle, N.Y. that made a fortune from coal reserves in eastern Pennsylvania, Mackay was constantly at his fiancé’s side.

On Saturday, Mackay attended Valeska’s matinee vaudeville performance at the Metropolitan Opera House and, afterward, stayed to attend a rehearsal. Valeska asked him to go out and get some food for her.

Mackay hesitated, asserting that he was “not a servant” and should not be required to “fetch and carry” for her.

Suratt insisted: “But you have done this before for me, Bob. Now be a good boy. I am awfully hungry. Please get me some chicken sandwiches.”

Unable to resist her gentle appeal, McKay departed.

As soon as he left the building, there was robust activity in Suratt’s dressing room. She emerged dressed to travel with co-star Fletcher Norton accompanying her. Hurrying out of the theater together, Suratt and Norton jumped into a limousine and, chaperoned by actress Nance Guynan, headed for the New Jersey shore.

According to one report they were married at the residence of justice-of-the-peace William Burke.

When Mackay returned to the theater with food he was surprised to learn that Valeska was gone. He left disconsolately but returned early for the evening performance and made his way to her dressing room.

Lena, Valeska’s maid, met him at the door. “You can’t go in there,” she said. “Miss Suratt will not see you anymore. She was married this afternoon to Mr. Norton.”

Mackay uttered an anguished cry and, according to most accounts, collapsed. As he recovered, Norton and Suratt entered the building.

“What is the matter with Bob?,” Valeska inquired.

“I told him you were married and he fell down in a faint,” Lena reported.

Suratt dropped to the floor artistically. Upon recovering from her swoon, she sobbed uncontrollably.

Mackay was so affected by her tears that he offered to buy the couple a special wedding supper after the evening show. During the dinner, Mackay offered to pay the couple the sum of $50,000 if they got a divorce.

It later was reported that Norton filed for a divorce in December 1911, accusing Valeska of infidelity. Referee Emil Goldmark recommended granting the divorce, finding that Suratt had abandoned Norton and lived with “Richard Mackey” at 341 W. 85th St. If and when a final decree was entered is unclear.

Valeska filed a petition in bankruptcy June 29, 1912 in Indianapolis, which she later dismissed, listing Robert T. Mackay as her biggest creditor to the tune of $14,750.

III

On Feb,. 7, 1911, Bruce F. Failey announced that Terre Haute architect W. Homer Floyd, at the instance of Crawford Fairbanks, had prepared plans to erect a new business block on the south side of Wabash Ave. between Seventh and Eighth streets.

Failey was Fairbanks’ son-in-law.

Occupants of the real estate where the building was to be situated — Smith & Doyle saloon, The Nickledom Theater, DeArmott Bros. cigar store and C.F. Schmidt saloon — were given 30 days to vacate.

Failey also revealed that Fairbanks sold ten feet off the east side of his tract to John McFall, owner of the Varieties Theater on the southwest corner of Eighth and Wabash.

The plans called for the construction of a three-story structure of steel and brick with a foundation strong enough to support an edifice 10 stories high.

The west part of the new building was to be occupied by the Western Realty & Loan Co., one of Fairbanks’ several businesses.

Ultimately, the anchor tenant became the Tribune Publishing Co., also owned by Fairbanks, and the structure was known as the Tribune building.

III

After being absent for 12 days and the subject of an intense search, 18-year old Lucile Beatrice Meeks came home Feb. 8, 1911 to announce that she was getting married.

The girl revealed that she spent the entire time making her wedding gown at the home of her aunt, Mrs. Fred Bensinger, 1518 S. Sixth St.

Her marriage to Edward Cumpton, a miner, was scheduled for Valentines Day.

Lucile’s mother, Mrs. Charles Rowley, who had been seriously ill, was ecstatic to learn that her daughter had not been led astray. She knew Cumpton and approved him.

“It had long been understood that they were to be married,” she said.

III

Alonzo Cummings, 8-year old son of Sarah M. Cummings, 1474 Chestnut St., lost his arm when he was struck by as eastbound Terre Haute, Indianapolis & Eastern Traction Co. interurban at Twelfth Street and Wabash Avenue, on Feb. 8, 1911, at about 8 a.m.

He was taken to Union Hospital in critical condition. The boy’s left arm was so severely crushed that Dr. Edgar L. Larkins and Dr. Edwin B. McAllister remove the appendage up to his shoulder.

The boy dropped off shoes at a shoe repair shop and hurried off to school. A second grader, he was very particular about his attendance record. He hailed a taxi and was so attentive of its presence that he started across Wabash without seeing the interurban car.

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