by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In September 1977, 95-year old Josephine Marie Workman, granddaughter of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, passed away. For decades she’d lived in an apartment in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles and, because she was a ward of the State of California, it was assumed that, after she was buried in an unmarked grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, her possessions were thrown away.
From the onset of the industry in Los Angeles in 1909, not long after the death of her only child, a daughter also named Josephine, and two years after her first husband, musician Harry Knoll passed away, Josephine was a film actress and, for about half that time, achieved stardom and renown under the stage name Princess Mona Darkfeather.
In about 70 one-reel shorts and a sole multi-reel feature, she, naturally, mostly played Indian maidens, though occasionally, as in a series known as “Stanley in Africa” based on the 19th century British explorer, she worked with other roles. Publicity sometimes claimed she was a native American, while, on other occasions, it was admitted that she came from a “Spanish” family from Los Angeles. Actually, her grandmother Urioste was from Taos, New Mexico, where she baptized Josephine’s father in the Indian pueblo church, while her maternal grandmother, Vibiana Asorca hailed from Chile and may have had some indigenous ancestry.
During her peak period as a star, from about 1912 to 1915, she worked with her husband, Frank E. Akley (stage name: Montgomery), a stage actor before he began working in film and he was a director and producer for his wife, who, for a time, had her own production company. Changing tastes, Mona’s advancing age (at 35, playing Indian maidens was likely becoming even more of a stretch beyond assuming that ethnic identity) and probably other factors led to her career coming to an end after making her full-length feature for Universal in 1917 [Update: Film historian Angela Aleiss sent a reminder that Mona was sporadically involved in further film work as late as 1927 as discussed in a previous post here.]
As Princess Mona Darkfeather, the actress did go on theater tours in the western states and relocated to Tacoma, Washington with Frank Montgomery for a brief time. While he continued to work in the film industry, mainly as a camera operator, after their return to Los Angeles, she faded into the background. An attempt in the late teens and early twenties to claim a portion of the Rancho La Puente given by William Workman to her father almost worked in her favor and would have provided her a large property and income, but the state supreme court reversed the ruling in 1924.
Several years later, she and Montgomery divorced and Mona married again, living for a time in Monrovia, though that relationship ended as did Frank’s next nuptial. In 1937, the couple reunited and remarried, living in his Silver Lake apartment until his death seven years later. She remained there for more than three decades before her death and, apparently, had no contact with any family at that time. As noted above, it was long assumed that her property, including that related to her film career, were lost.
Imagine then, the great surprise felt when we received a call a couple of weeks ago with the startling news that Baltazar and Julieta Madrid, who owned the complex where Josephine/Mona lived, had saved some of her possessions, and that these were in a circa 1880s Queen Anne house the family has owned for some seventy years in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. After explaining what was in the house, the family agreed it would donate these historic items to the Homestead in the memory of the Madrids.
Today, my colleague Alexandra Rasic brought her minivan and met me at the house, which, despite its condition, still retains much of its Victorian-era charm, and we descended into the basement to see what remained nearly a half-century after the former film star’s death. A bed, dresser, bureau, steamer trunk and cedar chest were there as well as several film cans (which probably contain long-deteriorated nitrate film) some loose photographs and three photo albums. It was these latter that proved to be the true treasures unearthed at long last.
The albums included one that heavily featured a young actress from Buffalo, New York named Helen Kaiser and further research will be undertaken about her—it may be that she was associated with Montgomery. The other two albums, like the first, are filled with images on location and perhaps a few on sets for Western pictures.
While a few show Princess Mona Darkfeather, many do not and, again, it may be that these albums were specifically showcasing films which Montgomery produced and directed. Again, most are Westerns with plenty of images of cowboys, Indians, gold miners, Army soldiers, and other common character types. Fortunately, these albums are in relatively decent shape with only a few faded or damaged.
The loose photographs, on the other hand, were long exposed to moisture and are generally in pretty bad shape, though there are some that are in slightly better condition. Most of these are of Princess Mona Darkfeather in her Indian costume on location, with several of her in the “Stanley in Africa” series, and others showing her with the horse who was her sidekick in many of her pictures.
A handful are professional studio portraits of the actress in and out of her native costume, while there are some showing Josephine as a girl and teenager. A few of her family’s Boyle Heights house, though only one, taken from a “rustic house,” a gazebo-type structure presumably next to the main residence, is in decent shape. One snapshot shows here with the twin daughters of a movie theatre manager while Mona was on her tour following the end of her film career.
There are also about a dozen photographs of Frank Akley/Montgomery from his childhood (he was born in Pennsylvania) in Iowa and Montana and when he was a young actor in Portland, Oregon before he migrated to Los Angeles at about the time Josephine/Mona began work in film in 1909. There are some photos that have to be analyzed and hopefully identified, including some that could be of her family and later ones that may be of her and Frank.
The sampling of photos here range from Josephine/Mona’s childhood through her film career, including a couple showing her on locations in Indian films and in the Stanley in Africa series, a studio portrait, and one taken when she was on a live theater tour through the western United States. One image shows that rustic house and another is of her husband and producer/director Frank Montgomery as a tramp character, not unlike that, probably, of the legendary Charlie Chaplin.
Thanks to the foresight of the Madrid family and their descendants for salvaging these very rare treasures from the early days of the film industry and of the specific career of Princess Mona Darkfeather, a Workman family member who, for several years in the 1910s, was a popular movie star, though largely forgotten now over a century later.
We will definitely return to these amazing photos after they have been processed and cataloged and highlight more of them in the “That’s a Wrap” series, as well as posts dealing with this branch of the Workman family, of whom we knew so little not all that long ago. Thanks to this donation, we will not only add to our knowledge, but have a remarkable visual archive from which to draw as we tell more about Mona/Josephine and her incredible story.
HOORAY!! History saved and finding its way to research and better understanding. Hopefully conservation techniques can save/preserve the damaged items but at least they exist.
Paul, you have your work cut out for you. 🙂
Thanks for the comment, Jim. We will definitely be busy with this and a few other recent donations and hope to make the most of what we can from this remarkable gift from the Madrid estate!
What an astounding story this one is about the granddaughter of William Workman! For a long while we seemed to have some acquaintance with her but also felt so unfamiliar with and distant from her, believing all the memorabilia of her movie career and mementos of her long life had all gone upon her death in 1977.
I couldn’t help but sigh and sign along the reading of this blog. Evidently, our life and our post life are so unpredictable and controlled or manipulated by fate. Who could tell that a silent film stardom would’ve become an adult ward of the state in her later life? Who could predict that her presumably disappeared personal belongings would’ve been revealed and directed to a right place half a century later?
I hope your further digging will uncover more things and more information. I am particularly interested to know how Madrid family’s descendants found out the value of the remained objects? How did they discover her connection with the Homestead Museum? Any photos of her father – Joseph Manuel Workman? And any court documents or county records indicating how she was made to be a ward of the state?
Thank you, Larry, for the thoughtful comments and questions, many of which have gone through our minds regarding this remarkable story. We will share more of the collection and what they tell us about Josephine/Mona. Baltazar Madrid was keenly aware of his long-time tenant’s long-ago film career and was a collector of historical items for practical (reuse in buildings, for example) as well as personal reasons, keeping many items at the family’s Victorian-era home. Although the house was unoccupied after his 2003 death and damage did ensue, his daughter and her daughters recognized the value after rediscovering the artifacts and Juliette’s phone call came after she did some searching to find what she could about who they knew as “Mona Montgomery.” That led her to contact us and, then, to this amazing gift from the family. There may be an 1890s photo of Joseph in the collection and we are talking with descendants of his about this. We did not have a confirmed photo of him until the last few months, when his 1869 wedding photo was found in the Josette Temple estate. There may also be a circa late 1840s daguerreotype of him, as well. As for Josephine/Mona being a ward of the state, family members found this out, but we have not seen documents related to this. Again, thanks for checking in!
Adding to Paul’s response to Larry Lin’s post: Our discovery of Mona’s guardianship came through film historian Donald Nelson. He was trying to track her down and contacted the Homestead. Through that contact (Paul responded for the Homestead), we were able to contact Mr. Nelson and he graciously shared what he knew. His research was reported on in ‘Classic Images’ Magazine, no. 219 in 1993. My Aunt Lucille (Mona’s grandniece) used to have relatively regular contact but at some point the family just lost track of Mona, although she hadn’t moved. Mr. Nelson’s work, however, helped us to pick up the trail. Her guardianship, my Aunt said, was initiated by a report from a neighbor woman (name unknown) that used to take care of her (or her house). However, if Lucille had lost contact prior, then I’m not sure she would actually know this; more likely she was just basing this off a short list of probably suspects. We have no other information on that. Her death certificate lists her informant as ‘Public Guardian’ and provides an L.A. address. About 20 years ago I tried to contact them at that address but they were no longer in business. The convalescent home they moved her to was also no longer around (or had changed hands), so no information was available from that angle. That’s where it was left.