Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Kitty Gordon - Kent's Colourful Silent Movie Star

I quite often buy and sell items on Ebay and recently purchased a collection of vintage postcards from a lady here in Kent.

Whilst sorting through the cards I came across the one above inscribed "Miss Kitty Gordon" and on the off chance thought I'd do some research to see if there was any Kent connection....

Kitty Gordon, real name Constance Minnie Blades, was born in Folkestone, Kent on the 22nd April 1878. Her father Joel was a Captain in the Royal Artillery stationed at "C" Battery in the town.

Kitty became an actress and her first professional stage performance was in 1901 at the Princes Theatre in Bristol in the popular long running musical comedy San Toy.

In 1903 Kitty married the first of her four (or possibly three?) husbands, Michael Levenston, theatre manager. Sadly the marriage was ended by the premature death of her husband less than four months later.

Kitty did not remain unattached for very long. In October 1904 she married London born actor Harry Beresford with whom she later had her only child, a daughter Vera, also to become an actress.

In 1909 Kitty moved to America and became a regular performer on the New York stage in productions such as the musical "The Enchantress" written for her by Victor Herbert.

Her popularity grew in leaps and bounds and she became as famous in America as she was this side of the Atlantic both for her back, said to be "the most beautiful in the world" and her magnificent trade mark gowns "the most magnificently gowned woman on the screen".

According to a report I found in the New York Times archives, by 1911 Kitty's marriage to Beresford was in trouble. Reading between the lines, Kitty was a bit of a diva and had many male admirers.....

Christmas 1911 was supposed to be spent with her estranged husband and eight year old daughter Vera, but in the end little Vera sailed alone from England to New York to meet her mother.
Instead of attempting to reconcile her marital problems with her husband, Kitty entertained Count Maurice Fries, formerly of the Austrian Embassy in London.

When the New York Times enquired politely as to the purpose of his visit to Miss Gordon, the Count replied, somewhat theatrically, "An Enchantress can exert her influence across the sea".

In 1916, Kitty starred in her first silent film entitled "As in a Looking Glass" and during the next three years she appeared in a further twenty one films!

Little heed was paid to health and safety by the early film makers. During the shooting of a war film in 1917 at studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, Kitty and another actress Pinna Nesbit were badly burned during a battle scene when an explosion set fire to their dresses. Kitty suffered burns to her body and face preventing her from working for several weeks. In 1920 she successfully sued for damages and was awarded $ 1400 in settlement.

Kitty was to become a frequent litigant over the years, involved in numerous contractual wrangles which usually ended in her favour, on one occasion to the tune of over $ 20000 - a small fortune at the time.

At some point in the early 1920's it would appear that Kitty may have married a third husband, Jack Wilson although I have not been able to confirm this for definite in my research so far. Jack was an American vaudeville stage actor who sometimes performed as a black face artist , later a camera operator and eventually a film actor (possibly through his wife's influence and connections with the studios?).

On 25th June 1920, Kitty accidentally shot another actor called Joseph Hack who was waiting in the wings, whilst performing on stage in Chicago. The revolver from which she fired the shot was supposed to only be loaded with blank cartridges....

However, the gun, apart from acting as a stage prop, was also used by her husband Jack to guard his wife's jewellery! He told the Chicago police that he always removed the live cartridges and replaced them with blanks before each performance but had obviously overlooked one of the live ones on this occasion.

Fortunately, Hack was not killed in the incident. The bullet passed through his right arm, between two ribs and emerged from his back under his shoulder blade. He later sued Wilson for damages.
When questioned by detectives, Kitty said "Why really, I don't know much about it, except that I fired the revolver and it burned my hand. I dropped it. It never burned me like that before. I'm dreadfully sorry about the whole thing, but I really didn't know anything had happened except that the gun jumped and it burned me. That's all I can tell you"

Kitty and Wilson were both subsequently exonerated from blame although it may have well played on Wilson's conscience over the following years and contributed to his suicide in 1931 at the age of only 50.

The marriage (if it ever was) to Wilson appears to have been short lived.

In 1922 Kitty publicly announced her engagement to rich New York stockbroker Ralph Ranlet - who was to become her fourth and final husband. Kitty seemed to revel in the attention of the media and used it to advance her career at any opportunity (a 1920's Jordan maybe?).

Unfortunately Kitty neglected to tell told poor old Ralph of her intention to announce the engagement causing him considerable embarrassment when he was contacted by the press and congratulated on his forthcoming nuptials! Despite this setback, they did eventually marry in 1932.

Following the end of her short career in silent films, Kitty continued to tour across North America with her stage show for many years and even appeared on television in the 1950's when she was in her eighties.

For some reason, she never made the crossover into the talkies possibly due to her age (she was already in her forties) or perhaps due to her uncanny ability to win court cases in contract disputes!
Kitty died at a nursing home in Brentwood, Long Island, New York on 26th May 1974 at the age of 96, having outlived all her husbands and her daughter Vera.

If you have enjoyed reading this post, please feel free to leave a comment. They are always welcome!

Further posts you may enjoy....

Viscount Northcliffe - Pioneer Press Baron

Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovel - British Naval Hero


  1. Super stuff :)

    I never know if calling a woman an "actress" in the 1890s was tantamount to calling her a call girl. Could Kitty Gordon act? Did it matter?

    I am glad she was said to have the most beautiful back in the world and that she was the most magnificently gowned woman on the screen. Those two factors would help get her out of her very ordinary life in Folkestone.

  2. Hi Hels and many thanks for leaving a comment.

    I would say (in my opinion) at the time that Kitty was on stage nobody really "acted" apart from those playing in Shakespeare plays and such like.

    Kitty was in the music hall, vaudeville, light opera vein. The films she played in were mainly melodramas and as they were silent films the "acting" would have to be exaggerated to make up for the lack of sound.

    Kitty's father was in the military and I can imagine he would have run a disciplinarian household which may explain the attraction of a life on the stage!


  3. Glen, I am sure I read somewhere that Kitty Gordon and the gun incident was the inspiration for the musical Chicago -
    great post, I love reading stuff like this, thank you for doing the research and creating the post

  4. Reading about Kitty Gordon's long and adventurous life - what a gal - reminds me of another Kent-connected movie star, George Arliss (given name, Augustus George Andrews). Although born in Bloomsbury, London in 1868 he had a life-long love of the Kent coast and built his family home 'Crossways' overlooking the Dover Straights in St Margaret's at Cliffe, which he visited whenever in the UK (he writes about this in volume 2 of his memoirs, 'George Arliss, By Himself'). Unfortunately, his Kent home was demolished by German shellfire in 1942 but rebuilt to the original plans by his nephew and legatee, my great uncle George Arliss Andrews (the distaff side). George Arliss (Gus, as he was known) made a successful late career transition to the talkies with Warner Brothers and would certainly have known Kitty Gordon socially as he made his career principally in the USA keeping an apartment in 5th Avenue, New York City. He toured theatres across America, initially with Mrs Patrick Campbell and subsequently with his own acting troupes between 1900 and 1936, doing the occasional London season as well. He played the Rajah in 'The Green Goddess' at St James's Theatre in the 1920s; Disraeli in the film and play of that name, making some twenty movies altogether and receiving an Oscar in 1929 as best actor - the first Englishman to do so (Chaplin received his Oscar for directing). The Andrews family had strong connections with Kent throughout the C20th, both at Deal and St Margaret's, and I think George Arliss would thoroughly approve of being included in your pantheon of Kentish people.

    1. How fascinating. I am currently doing a lot of reading about George Arliss and thought you may be able to help me with an enquiry. Most studies of his life refer to only two autobiographies ('Up The Years From Bloomsbury' and 'My Ten Years In The Studio') - but many booksellers also mention 'On The Stage' and 'George Arliss, By Himself'). I was wondering whether you could tell me whether all four are genuine autobiographies by George, as I thought one of two might be red herrings.
      Many thanks
      Jeremy Isaac Jezza5@yahoo.com

  5. Thank you for this very informative article on Kitty Gordon. One bit of mistaken information involves Kitty’s second husband. He was Captain Henry Beresford born Apr 22, 1876, died Jan 28, 1924. His full name is Henry William Walter Horsley Beresford, the fourth son of the third Lord Decies. He was a military man who fought in both the Boer War and World War One. He was not the actor Harry Beresford. His obituary is in The Times, Jan 29, 1924. He was married to Kitty Gordon.

    Michael Levenston (descendent of Kitty Gordon’s first husband, Michael Levenston)

  6. Having inherited a box of vintage postcards I am researching the various personalities. I have one signed postcard of Kitty Gordon. During my research I have come across a slight discrepancy with your information regarding her daughter, Vera. According to other sources, Vera was the daughter of Kitty and her first husband, Maxwell James, and that she became Cynthia Vera Beresford (Actress) when Kitty married Captain Henry Beresford.
    Obviously lots of information gets confused over the years but thank you for your input for my search.

  7. Further to previous discrepancy about Kitty's daughter, Vera, I have since found another entry noting that Vera was Michael Levenston's daughter?! It's all getting very confusing.