Florence Lawrence was an unusual woman, to say the very least. In an era when women were not even allowed to vote, she became one of the first superstars of the silver screen. And she also became a passionate automobilist as well as an accomplished mechanic. And if that wasn’t enough to ensure that she was a media sensation in an era when women were not allowed to vote and the Jaxon was promoted as a car so easy to drive, a child or woman could operate it, she also became an inventor that contributed to the early evolution of the automobile.
Herb Jeffries was inducted into the Black Filmakers Hall of Fame in 1979 and in 2004, the Wester Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. He also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Palm Springs Walk of Stars. His musical career spanned seven decades from the 1920s to 1995, and included gigs with Duke Ellington, Louie Armstrong and the Earl Hines Orchestra. He had a film career that included four major pictures.
Hollywood history is littered with forgotten celebrities, many of whom had long, rich, and diverse careers. Consider Hedy Lamarr (born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler). Her film career spanned nearly thirty years. Although Lamarr had no formal training and was primarily self-taught, she was intrigued by science and in her spare time worked on an array of projects. She developed and patented an improved stoplight. She also helped improve various aviation designs for Howard Hughes while they were dating. During World War II, Lamarr learned that radio-controlled torpedoes could easily be jammed and the course altered. Intrigued she devised a frequency hopping signal that could not be tracked or jammed, and friend, composer and pianist, patented the idea. The concept would be later improved upon and became the science behind Bluetooth technology.
Florence Lawrence was moderately successful as a stage actress before transitioning with the advent of the motion picture. She made her film debut in 1906 with Biograph Studios and was know to fans as “The Biograph Girl.” Lawrence was one of the movie industries first super stars and by 1912 was earning an astounding $500 per week. Her career spanned decades and the film credits included more than 300 motion pictures. Still, by the late 1920s her movie career was, for the most part, over. After suffering severe burns while attempting to save an actor in a studio fire, and extensive surgeries, she found herself more and more relegated to working as an extra or making step on appearances.
By 1909, Lawrence was wealthy enough to afford an automobile, something she had become enamored with after a friend provided her with an exhilarating ride through the countryside. She often noted in conversation that driving provided her with an unbridled sense of excitement and of freedom. After ownership of a succession of ever more powerful automobiles, in 1912 she purchased a Lozier. Over the course of a four-year period cars built by Lozier had been driven in every major race in the United States and several in Europe. No other car of the era broke as many records for speed, for 24-hour endurance runs or for long distance touring without mechanical failure. All of this came with a price. As an example, Lawrence’s six-cylinder Knickerbocker Berlin model carried a factory list price of $6,500. As the beautiful starlet performed much of her maintenance and repairs, and often took long drives unaccompanied by mechanic or driver, she was a popular focus of interviews and news stories.
After a friend was severely injured in an accident, Lawrence began giving thought to ways for improving automotive safety. In 1914 she devised an innovative mechanism that signaled turns to trailing drivers. With the simple push of a button, a flag was raised and lowered on the rear bumper of the automobile to inform other drivers what direction the car was turning. Next, she developed an ingenious device to alert drivers of a pending stop. When she depressed the brake, a small sign reading “stop” would pop up at the rear of the car. Unfortunately, she failed to patent any these developments. Likewise, with another that she developed in 1916, the first electric windshield wiper. Even without the patent she prospered from the invention by establishing the Bridgwood Manufacturing Company for the manufacture and distribution of the wiper motors as well as other aftermarket items.
Herb Jeffries success was blunted by the segregation that was an accepted part of American society at the time. Still, he persevered and found opportunity in adversity. Herb Jeffries was born Umberto Alexander Valentino on September 24, 1913 in Detroit, Michigan. Firm evidence of Jeffries’s race and age is hard to come by, but census documents from 1920 described him as mulatto. Raised in Detroit, Jeffries grew up in a mixed neighborhood and dropped out of high school to earn a living as a singer. He first performed with the Howard Buntz Orchestra at various Detroit ballrooms. It was at speak easy that his musical talents were noted by Louie Armstrong. Armstrong introduced the young man to Erskine Tat at the Savoy Ballroom in Chicago. As this was an all African American band, and as New Orleans jazz was extremely popular, Jeffries began promoting himself as a Creole.
His big break came during the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair: A Century of Progress International Exposition and a contract to perform with the Earl Hines Orchestra on Hines’ national broadcasts live from the Grand Terrace Café. His first recordings were with Hines in 1934, including “Just to be in Carolina”. By 1940, he was singing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and then recorded with him from 1940 to 1942. His 1940 recording of “Flamingo” with Ellington, released in 1941, sold more than 14 million copies.
Touring through the former Confederate states, as the bands playing was restricted to tobacco warehouses and “Negro” only theatres, Jeffries noticed that young African American boys filled theatres to watch the westerns even though they were often an all white cast. Slowly an idea came to mind, create an African American cowboy hero. Jeffries made his debut as a singing cowboy with Harlem on the Prairie, the first African American western with an all-black cast. The movie was shot in 1937 at Murray’s Dude Ranch (“The World’s Only Negro Dude ranch) in Apple Valley, California, with Jeffries performing all his own stunts. The film received a write-up in Time magazine and Jeffries assumed the persona as the “Bronze Buckaroo.” This and other films in the series, Harlem Rides the range, Two Gun Man From Harlem and the Bronze Buckaroo, were shown exclusively in “Negro” theaters.
Jeffries, Lamarr and Lawrence, three forgotten celebrities. Three inspirational and fascinating people. Three reasons to delve into history. #jimhinckleysamerica