|By the early years of the new century, Anna was living in Chicago where she discovered the glittering world of the theatre, finding its excitement and glamour a perfect escape from the bleak circumstances she had known. Intelligent and enterprising with a strong determination to overcome her privations, she had grown into a young woman of striking beauty with "fine, expressive dark eyes" in the words of Charles K. Field in his article, "A Little Mother of the Movies," published in the September 1916 issue of Sunset Magazine. (1) Her qualities caught the attention of none other than Lillian Russell, one of the most legendary figures on the American stage. She took Anna under her wing, an association which opened up acting opportunities for the young girl on the stage and also enabled her to find work as a model. (2) Apparently around this time, she adopted the stage name, Anita King, which would become her legal name.
Anita soon moved to the West Coast where she began working as a model in auto shows. She learned to drive and graduated to demonstrating cars for a firm in Los Angeles. It was the right time for a girl seeking independence and for a woman to drive a car in those early days was especially symbolic of the new push towards gender equality, a social change intensified by the turn-of-the-century convergence between the burgeoning theatrical world and the new revolution in transportation. Stage star Anna Held had led the way when she became one of the world's first women automobile drivers in 1899. (3) Harriet Quimby, an aspiring stage actress, later a celebrated journalist and writer of scenarios for D. W. Griffith at Biograph, was another early woman driver who in 1911 became America's first licensed woman airplane pilot. (4) To the revving of the internal combustion engine, the woman of the 20th century had emerged and Anita, like these other fearless, beautiful women, was caught up in the spirit of the age. In the early 1910s, she became one of the first women race car drivers on the West Coast. An excellent driver, Anita won several races, only abandoning the profession when she met with an accident at a race meet in Phoenix. As she related it: "Something went wrong and I drove through the fence and across a plowed field. I don't know where I went after that, because when I woke up, I was in a hospital. So you see, I don't care much where I go or how rough the going." (5) After leaving the hospital, she decided to resume her acting career, choosing to work, not on the stage but in another wonder of the new century, the motion picture. She was just about to turn 30 when, in the summer of 1914, she began playing parts for a young director by the name of Cecil B. DeMille at the newly formed Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company in Hollywood.
That is as much of her life up to the time of her entry into films as can now be pieced together. There are undoubtedly many missing details concerning the transformation of Anna Keppen into Anita King. Her background and early tragedies, something she never discussed, were not included in the published accounts of her career. No article of the 1910s or subsequent decades ever revealed that she had been born Anna Keppen. She took seven years off her age, giving her year of birth as 1891. Lasky's studio publicist Kenneth McGaffey prepared an account of her life which stated that, prior to her racing career, Anita had journeyed to Mexico to reclaim property left her by her late mother when she was forced to flee from Mexico City to Veracruz. It was written that "the train was held up by rebels and Miss King and her companions were forced to spend the day in a filthy Mexican jail before being released." (6) Anita's family is unable to confirm that this adventure ever occurred. It would appear to have been a romantic story concocted to add color to her background by linking her to the tempestuous contemporary events of the Mexican Revolution.
In any case, Anita's life as a motion picture actress would bring her far more exciting experiences than anything a publicist's imagination could devise. Working for Cecil B. DeMille, Lasky's brilliant, rising director, placed Anita in the midst of the evolving art's creativity as the films in which she appeared helped establish the feature-length film and with it, the American cinema's new capital, Hollywood. She learned to register emotion for the camera while her courage and determination appealed to DeMille who always insisted his players be willing to take risks during filming. Anita began her screen career with supporting parts in DeMille's The Virginian in 1914, followed by The Man from Home (1914) and The Girl of the Golden West, released in 1915. Later in 1915, she appeared in two DeMille films with the celebrated opera soprano, Geraldine Farrar, in the starring roles, Carmen and Temptation. That same year, the Lasky studio promoted Anita to leading roles, co-starring her with the famous stage comedian, Victor Moore, in Snobs, directed by Oscar Apfel, and Chimmie Fadden, directed by DeMille.
On the heels of her newfound success, Anita suffered a personal loss that threatened to overwhelm her. For some time, her sister, Lucy Zahrn, had been ailing. Anita brought her out to California for a few months to escape the Midwestern winter. But Anita's hope that the sunshine would restore her sister to health proved in vain. Back home in Michigan City in 1915, Lucy died, the first of her siblings to pass away. For Anita, it came as the most devastating blow since the death of her parents in the 1890s. Lucy had shared those dark experiences with her and helped to sustain her. With her death coming as a fresh reminder of the bleak past, Anita was plunged into a deep depression.
Copyright 2003 William M. Drew
Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 |
Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Endnotes
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