In 1915, she was the toast of a vigorous young nation, the dynamic symbol of a newly emancipated womanhood, the beautiful representative of an emerging art. She was Anita King, the silent film actress known as "The Paramount Girl" who made history by becoming the first woman to drive an automobile across the United States alone. The newspapers and magazines of the period were filled with thrilling accounts of the exploits performed by a lovely young woman who was a stranger to fear. But her contemporaries would never learn that her heroism was rooted in an early life scarred by poverty and tragedy. The woman who conquered a continent first had to overcome tremendous hardships that might have defeated a lesser spirit. In a whirl of publicity, facts were hidden and incidents devised to furnish her with a colorful background more in keeping with the image created by studio press agents. With the help of her family, the truth of her origins is now revealed for the first time, a reality which makes her later accomplishments all the more extraordinary.

The woman who would become famous as Anita King was born Anna Keppen to German immigrant parents on August 14, 1884, in Michigan City, Indiana. Anna's father, Hermann Keppen, born in Prussia in 1844, had met Matilda Jipp, a native of north Germany, when he was serving in the Prussian army. In 1872, shortly after the birth of the German Empire following the Franco-Prussian War, the newly married Hermann and Matilda emigrated to the United States, part of a wave of Europeans seeking a better life in the New World. They settled first in Iowa and around 1874-75 moved to Michigan City, Indiana. There the couple attempted to eke out a living on a "sand farm" while raising a large family. Anna was the seventh of nine children. The others were Della, Lucy, Minnie, Alfred George, Hugo, Henry John, Harriet, and William. The necessity of helping their parents to work the farm caused most of the children to drop out of school before finishing the eighth grade.

The farm did not bring them any real prosperity and in the spring or summer of 1896, Hermann Keppen moved to Chicago in search of fresh opportunities. Most of his family would join him there with one son remaining in Michigan City. But the move to the Midwestern metropolis scarcely led to an improvement in their fortunes. Mr. Keppen soon got into some difficulties and repeatedly voiced his intention of committing suicide. Then early on the morning of November 16, 1896, two passersby found him hanging to a wire fence by a piece of clothesline, a bottle of carbolic acid beside him. One cut him down and attempted to resuscitate him while the other called the police. Taken to the hospital, Hermann Keppen recovered consciousness long enough to give his name and continually call for his oldest daughter, Della, lingering until the afternoon when he died. He was 52 years old. Now destitute, most of the family returned to Michigan City where they suffered further tragedy when, in 1898, Hermann's widow, Matilda, died of consumption at the age of 47. Seven of the children had been living with her at home in Michigan City, Della remaining behind in Chicago and Alfred George moving on to Iowa. While the strong bond between the children served as a buffer against despair, poverty continued to plague them and they were forced to look for any kind of work. The 1900 census reveals that by then Anna and her sisters were working as house servants in Indiana.

Copyright 2003 William M. Drew

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