The Gift That Keeps On Giving: More Donations Related to Silent Film Star Princess Mona Darkfeather (Josephine Workman) and Husband Frank E. Montgomery

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

About six weeks ago, the Homestead received a donation from the daughter of Baltazar G. Madrid, at whose Lincoln Heights Queen Anne house were the rescued artifacts from his long-time tenant, who the family knew as Mona Montgomery, but who was born as Josephine Marie Workman, granddaughter of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste. The items were comprised mainly of photographs, along with some furniture and a quartet of film cans, from her long-distant career as Princess Mona Darkfeather a major silent film star from the 1910s.

A post at that time reviewed these remarkable remnants, which included material related to her husband, actor, producer and director Frank E. (Akley) Montgomery, as well as an actor with a brief career in Hollywood, Helen Kaiser. Just recently, in fact, the cans were examined by a staff member at the film archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and, while two of them were found to be in the final stages of decomposition, the other two were suprisingly well-preserved and were a 1929 screen test and soundtrack involving Kaiser and a young Joel McCrea, who went on to be one of Hollywood’s best known actors.

An example of the “vegetable talk” letters that appear to be from Frank to Mona.

Last Saturday, I went out to the house to pick up a piece of furniture that was assumed to be the last of the objects connected to Mona, but maybe a half-hour after I left, the family located another small stash of items. These consisted of ten photographs and a cache of documents, mostly handwritten, all connected to her and Frank, and so it was great to get the call that these were unearthed and ready to be added to the donation.

This afternoon, the materials were picked up and after some sorting, it was found that the documents were a hodge-podge of jokes (some very dirty and, by that, I mean both soiled and sexually and racially vulgar), humorous stories, letters that were written as “vegetable talk,” and others. The tamest of the sexual jokes is a typed one titled “A Business Deal” that is shared here.

What looks to be another letter from Frank to Mona and giving the location of “Mohawk Reservation,” meaning Mohawk Street in Silver Lake, and “Mona’s Tepee,” likely their apartment.

Some of the handwritten items may have been related to ideas for films, with at least one being a scenario in which “Helen phones Mona” and would probably have come from the late 1920s. Other items may well have been from later years, as Montgomery lived until 1944 (the couple divorced in 1928 after sixteen years of marriage and then remarried in 1937). Another is a letter using the same “vegetable talk” as with others, but with the heading of “Mohawk Reservation,” as Mona and Frank lived in the building (owned for many years by Baltazar Madrid) on a street of that name in Silver Lake, and “Mona’s Tepee,” presumably meaning the apartment.

As for the photos, a pair from the very early 1880s show young Frank Akley as a toddler in Bradford (home of the famed opera singer Marilyn Horne) in his native Pennsylvania and at Penn Yan, a New York town about 120 miles northeast near Seneca Lake. Another is of the rechristened Frank Montgomery in his guise as a hobo with tattered clothing, a beard and unkempt hair. Two others, with one by a Bay Area studio, show a young, debonair Montgomery in what were undoubtedly used for publicity and as part of his professional portfolio and may date from his pre-film career when he acted on the stage.

One of the tamer bits of humor from the documents obtained earlier today.

There is a trio of photographs related to Josephine/Mona. One was heavily exposed to water and the photo has separated and curled from much of the matte, or board, with extensive staining, soiling and tears. Still, it can be seen that there are four women and a young girl, with the latter being Josephine and the others almost certainly her mother, Josephine Belt, and older sisters Mary, Agnes and Lucy, who were seven to twelve years Josephine’s senior, posed at a fascinating rustic gazebo in the rear yard of the family’s Boyle Heights home.

This house was next door to the estate of her father Joseph’s cousin, William Henry Workman, founder of Boyle Heights (Andrew Boyle was his father-in-law) and mayor of Los Angeles at about the time the image was taken. The family previously resided on a more than 800-acre section of Rancho La Puente, given to Joseph by his father William in 1870 after he married Josephine Belt, and their first five children, three daughters (Agnes, Mary and Lucy) and two sons (William J. and George) were born on the ranch.

A portrait of Frank (Akley) Montgomery, taken at a San Francisco studio, probably when he was a stage actor in the early 1900s.

In 1881, however, the Workmans moved to Boyle Heights and the Queen Anne house they lived in was designed by Ezra F. Kysor, the architect who purportedly redesigned the Workman House at the Homestead as well as such surviving Los Angeles landmarks as the Pico House, Merced Theatre, and St. Vibiana’s Cathedral. The following year, Josephine was born and there was a fifth daughter, Nellie, who lived to be just two years old.

Unfortunately, during the difficult decade of the 1890s, when there were several years of drought in greater Los Angeles and a national depression burst forth in 1893, the Workmans suffered serious financial difficulties which resulted in the foreclosure of the La Puente property because of unpaid loans and a separation between Joseph and Josephine. At the end of the decade, the 1900 federal census showed the 18-year old future movie star residing with her mother and with an occupation listed as “whistler,” meaning someone who literally entertained that way.

A dapper Montgomery, perhaps from the same period as the earlier photo or maybe from his first years in film.

Several years later, Josephine married a musician Harry Knoll and the two had a daughter, also named Josephine. Tragically, both her husband and daughter died in the latter years of the decade, but, soon after, Josephine answered an advertisement from a film company as movies were just being established in Los Angeles, specifically in the Silver Lake area, for someone with the right ethnic look. This led to her becoming Princess Mona Darkfeather and, in tandem with Frank Montgomery, who she married in 1912, she achieved significant stardom for several years in the first half of that decade.

There are two photos of the actress in action. One is in very faded and stained, but it is an amazing shot of the actress, in her Indian garb and reclining on the ground in the front, while surrounding her are about thirty persons who may well mainly be native Americans as two tepees are discerned behind the group. There are no inscriptions on the reverse, but the photo was clearly taken on location for one of her signature Princess Mona Darkfeather productions and is really a very striking image.

This Lemuel S. Ellis cabinet card photo from about 1887 shows a rustic gazebo in the rear yard of the Workman family house in Boyle Heights with Josephine seated in front and likely her mother and three older sisters standing nearby.

The second image is in better shape, with more clarity, though still stained and discolored, mainly on the edges. In this case, however, the actress is not in her Indian costume, but wears what looks to be a gingham dress with rolled-up sleeves and an apron, indicating that she was playing something like a housewife on the prairie or frontier.

Mona has her left arm extensing behind an older gentleman wearing a hat, vest, white shirt and dark trousers. Tucked in his left arm appears to be a cash box, while he holds a rifle in his left hand. Again, there is no identification the back of the photo, but she did not play many roles aside from her Indian persona, so it may be easier to narrow down the possibilities from her filmography as it is now understood.

Princess Mona Darkfeather reclines in the foreground with about 30 persons, most looking to be native Americans, gathered around her near tepees on an unidentified location shoot from the 1910s.

As noted elsewhere on this blog, Josephine’s film career largely came to an end in 1917, as tastes changed and she was a bit long in the tooth in her mid-thirties to play an Indian maiden (there are questions as to how much native blood she may have had given that her father’s mother was from the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, while her mother’s mother hailed from Chile beyond her appropriation of the qualities of indigenous people from the American Great Plains.) There is evidence that she had scattered appearances in films for perhaps a decade beyond that, as well as a live tour as Princess Mona in the late teens.

Otherwise, she lived an increasingly obscure life (coming very near to securing a fortune in the early Twenties when she won a civil suit alleging she was not properly noticed when the foreclosure of her father’s ranch, now in the Bassett neighborhood west of La Puente, but the verdict was overturned on appeal) even as Montgomery remained in Hollywood as a camera operator and in other ways.

A rare example of a film with Mona not in her Indian costume and with her appearing to play a frontier housewife, also from a location shoot during the 1910s

Mona survived her husband by over thirty years, so that, when the Madrids bought the Mohawk Street building, she had long lived alone. When she died at age 95 in 1977, she had long lost contact with any of her family and was a ward of the state. Though she was buried in an unmarked grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, a situation since rectified by a great-great nephew, Douglas Neilson, we are fortunate that the Madrid family saved the photos, documents, film cans and furniture.

The photographs, damaged as most of them are, are particularly important, as these kinds of visual documents of the early film era are very rare. With this latest addition to the Madrid family donation, we will be processing and cataloging these materials and, in mid-September, putting together a program about Josephine/Mona and her very interesting life and career. More on that later!

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