by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Thanks to the generosity of a local resident who donated the artifacts to the La Puente Valley Historical Society and to the Society for kindly loaning them to the Homestead, today’s post features a very rare early silent film artifact connected to Princess Mona Darkfeather, a.k.a. Josephine M. Workman.
The object is a letter sent to a fan and which was penned on the letterhead of the popular actress with a fantastic vignette with two photos of the Princess and her husband, producer and director, Frank E. Montgomery. Scenes of a native Indian on horseback and a tepee are also part of the design, while the name of the actress’ publicity agent, Daniel F. Whitcomb, who was a scenario writer in the industry.
As explained in previous posts on this blog, Princess Mona Darkfeather acted in many silent films between 1909 and 1917 and was, of course, famed for her roles in Indian movies for several studios during that period. While she was often publicized as a full-blooded Indian to give her work a sense of “authenticity,” she was not quite as advertised (though occasional articles during her peak popularity did acknowledge that she wasn’t the Indian her studios and their publicists claimed.)
Josephine Marie Workman was born in January 1882 in Boyle Heights to Josephine Belt, a native of Stockton and of American and Chilean ancestry, and Joseph M. Workman, son of William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, long-time owners of the Homestead. Just prior to her birth, her parents moved to Boyle Heights from an 800+ acre parcel on Rancho La Puente deeded to Joseph by his father in 1870 and which was excluded from the foreclosure of William Workman’s share of the ranch of by Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin in the aftermath of the failure of the Temple and Workman bank.
By the mid-1890s, as the country was in a depression and drought struck greater Los Angeles, Joseph, who also amassed some significant debts, borrowed money using his La Puente land as collateral. When the loan went unpaid, a foreclosure took place and the ranch went to wealthy El Paso, Texas businessman, O.T. Bassett, whose namesake community is on that land.
Joseph and his wife separated, though did not divorce, and lived apart when he died in 1901. Meanwhile, young Josephine became an entertainer, first as a “whistler,” literally meaning that she gave elaborate whistling performances at local theaters. In fact, that was her given occupation in the 1900 federal census.
It was recently learned, from descendants of the Joseph and Josephine Workman family, that young Josephine married a musician, trumpeter Harry Knoll, shortly after that census, and that they had a child together, also called Josephine. A dual tragedy struck, however, when Harry and the young girl died within a short time of each other around 1910.
Around then, Josephine answered an advertisement from a film studio looking for young women who could play Indian roles in the newly established Hollywood movie industry. By the end of 1910, known as “Miss Mona Darkfeather,” she was appearing in featured roles. In “A Child of the Wild,” she was described as “a full-blooded Indian girl with strong dramatic talent.”
Although nearing thirty, she was able to parlay her skills in acting, horseback riding, and general athleticism (she also was said to have a fine contralto singing voice) to stardom playing Indian maidens younger than her actual age. She soon met an actor and director, Frank Montgomery (born Frank Akley in Pennsylvania in 1877), and the two proved to be a formidable team in building the Princess Mona Darkfeather brand. The couple brought the personal to the professional by getting married in 1912
Her peak years were 1913 and 1914, when the pair churned out a large number of two-reel Indian films that were played in theaters throughout the country and articles appeared that both affirmed her full-blooded Indian status and admitting that she was from a “Spanish” family in Los Angeles. Obviously, such a ruse, common for the period, would be unthinkable today.
By 1916, however, the Princess’ star waned. Why is not exactly clear, though it could have been her age, the decision to move on to other studios, or, perhaps more importantly, the fact that the public was no longer as enamored with her as they had been during her peak years.
When Frank decided to leave Hollywood and move to Washington state, still working with entertainment, they concocted an interesting idea of having Princess Mona tour theaters in the Northwest talking about her career, exhibiting Indian artifacts she’d accumulated and singing. This was done in 1918 and 1919 and then the tour ended. Her films continued to be played at some theaters across the country into the first couple years of the 1920s, but her career was effectively over.
An interesting twist to her life came just as her film career ended when she sued over what she claimed was her legal interest to her father’s La Puente ranch. The argument was that, when Bassett purchased the land, she, being the only minor (under 18 years of age) in her family, was not properly notified of the loss of her interest. Remarkably, the Superior Court in Los Angeles agreed and she was poised to receive a significant windfall, reported to be well over $100,000. An appeal to the state’s Supreme Court resulted in a reversal of the lower court ruling and her claim ended.
Frank returned to Hollywood and worked as a camera operator and sound engineer, but the marriage collapsed and Mona, as she was generally known, and Frank divorced in 1928. She married again to a banker and lived for a time in Monrovia, but that marriage also crumbled. In 1937, Frank, who’d married and a divorced again, as well, got into contact with Mona again and at the end of the year, the couple remarried, staying together until his death in the mid-1940s.
Mona, however, continued to live in the couple’s modest Echo Park home for over thirty more years, dying in 1977 at the age of 95. Though one of her great-nephews, former Homestead docent Doug Neilson, remembered film memorabilia under her bed, his family lost touch with her. When she died, she was a ward of the state and those rare and valuable items may well have been thrown away. She was buried in an unmarked grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, but Doug, some years ago, had a gravestone made to mark her final resting place.
As to the letter, here’s the text:
Just arrived home from a two weeks visit to New York and finding your letter here from N.Y. will answer now, for it has been here some time.
The pleasure is all mine to send you one of my postals [the postcard that came with the letter], and also thanking you for your kind wishes & success.
I am never to busy to answer a letter from friends.
I hope you will get to see me my series of Indian pictures, I will be featured by the “California feature film Co.” The brand is the “Deakfeather feature Co.”
Princess Mona Darkfeather
c/o California feature film Co
1745 Allessandro St.
The California Feature Film Company, of which Frank Montgomery was part-owner and director of its movies, was a short-lived one and the address is in Echo Park on what is now Glendale Avenue (formerly Allessandro), north of Sunset Boulevard. In 1917, it was reported that the company had eight acres in that area, when it was called Edendale, and that there were established production facilities there.
The firm was in the middle of an area that included other early movie studios including Selig, Bison (which was the first studio the Princess worked for), Universal (which absorbed Bison and was, therefore, Darkfeather’s studio), Mack Sennett and Keystone, and Fox (who took over the Selig lot when the former moved to Lincoln Heights, where the Selig Zoo opened near Lincoln Park.) It is not known when the California Feature Film Company dissolved but it was probably not long after Mona’s career ended.
This letter (and its accompanying postcard) is an extremely rare document of the early film industry and of the eight-year career of Princess Mona Darkfeather, who claimed to have made a record number of films topping 500, though that is probably an enormous exaggeration. It also adds to the diversity and range of our knowledge of the Workman family broadly and our thanks go, again, to the donor and to the Historical Society for making it available to the Homestead for its use.