by Tim Gilmore, 6/17/2012
Actress Miriam Cooper has come to Florida for stardom. She’s staying on the motion picture campus in Fairfield, east of downtown, near Tallyrand Avenue at the river. The Kalem Company makes a movie a week here, the Roseland Hotel, 1911, 1912, 1913. She hasn’t yet starred in D.W. Griffith’s infamous 1915 and ’16 films, Birth of a Nation, which glamorizes the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the South, and Intolerance.
These earlier years still claim to afford innocence, their own idylls. “At the dramatic moment, my cap fell off and, big surprise,” she later writes, describing a scene in a film she doesn’t name, “I was a girl doing the dangerous job of a boy.” She calls her memoir, 60 years later, Dark Lady of the Silents: My Life in Early Hollywood.
Sports stadiums and heavy industry replace most of the neighborhood. Most of Kalem’s movies vanish, just like the oaks, the old wooden outbuildings, the cannons and carriages.
More than a century later, Clarkson and Wambolt Streets stop at the railroad tracks before the river, but Wambolt keeps going. Here’s the abandoned Ford Motor Company assembly plant, built in 1924, where both streets bolt into the river. Miriam recognizes none of it.
“Two old ladies,” Miriam writes, own the “big old house.” One sews all their clothes and the other does the housekeeping. The house has three and a half story porches, a wraparound veranda, a three story tower. “From my bedroom window I could look out on lush green growth and see the big steamers going up and down the St. Johns River.”
She doesn’t remember how she got her pet alligator, all of eight inches long. The actor Hal Clements gives her a dog, another actor a kitten. “In the evenings we would all sit around watching the dog and the cat chase the alligator,” until the alligator got “behind them and bit their tails.” And that, she writes in 1973, “was what glamorous movie stars did in 1912.”
A century on, old warehouses sag in the humid heat. Dog fennel and thistles grow ruderal on abandoned fields behind tall fences marked with signage that warns of arsenic, lead, polychlorinated biphenyls and other substances causing cancer, kidney problems, miscarriages, nerve damage and strokes.
Up Clarkson Street, other side of Tallyrand, a tall blue shingled house dates from Kalem’s days, its dark red chimney standing in the green camphors. Someone’s enclosed the front porch on a smaller woodframe house with ragged wooden fence panels. Stacks of tires behind a basketball goal at the street. A loquat tree. No Tresspassing. Beware of Dog. Private Property.
“In another one-reeler I rowed a boat out to set fire to the bridge and cut off the Yankees,” says Miriam Cooper in 1973. The Moving Picture World of 1912 says she has “large dreamy eyes” and is “expert in the use of boxing gloves.” In ’73, she recalls how she “ran trains, shot cannons, burned bridges, spied, all for the Confederates. I don’t see how the Yankees won the war.” In 1912, critics call her laying dynamite in that year’s Battle of Pottsburg Bridge, directed by Kenean Buel, “a most daring role.”
Her picture in Stars of the Photoplay from 1916 shows her onyx eyed, hair in dark ringlets, wearing a coronet of flowers, a floral brooch, a dark lace shawl. I’m trying to find her, out by the abandoned Ford assembly plant, under the old oak and towering Roseland, quixotically hoping to save her from the Confederacy. Instead I find flowering shepherd’s needles and blackberry vines, wasteland wildflowers growing in compacted sand saturated with accumulated toxins. I’ll make my own crown of thorns and wear it for us both.