by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This afternoon’s virtual presentation on the remarkable life of Josephine Workman, granddaughter of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman and who was a popular star of early silent films under the stage name of Princess Mona Darkfeather, covered many aspects of her 95-year life.
These included her upbringing in Boyle Heights, where her father, Joseph Workman, and mother Josephine Belt, raised their six children in some affluence prior to a disastrous financial collapse that led to the loss of their home in that Los Angeles neighborhood and the 800-acre ranch near La Puente that looks to have been the sole, or at least major, source of their income.
When the economic failure happened in the mid-1890s, Josephine was in her early teens and, after her parents separated (though they never divorced), she lived with her mother, who’d declared personal bankruptcy, as well. Mrs. Workman became a hotel keeper in downtown Los Angeles and, as news articles showed during the first years of the 20th century, city and police officials determined that these were brothels. The 1900 census does, in fact, show three young single women in the Casa Loma Hotel run by Mrs. Workman and they all had listed occupations as “dress maker,” a common euphemism for a prostitute.
Yet, during these tough years, Josephine began to appear in local theaters as a whistler and that was her occupation in that census, as well—so she was making her first entree in public entertainment. In 1902, she gave birth to a daughter, Josephine Frances, though it is not known if her father was the man, musician Harry Knoll, her mother married a few years later. It turned out that young Josephine was quite a little singer and dancer, appearing in the Los Angeles Times with a photo and a brief reference to her talents.
By 1910, however, a devastating dual disaster occurred, in which Harry Knoll died of liver cancer at age 26, followed a couple of years later by the passing of little Josephine because of diptheria. In the midst of these terrible tragedies, following the turmoil of the events of the Nineties, it is a wonder that Josephine Workman Knoll somehow was able to transform into Princess Mona Darkfeather with her earliest starring roles coming by 1910 just prior to her daughter’s death.
Princess Mona’s rise to stardom was rapid and it lasted through roughly the first half of the Teens, during which her films performed well at the box office, she appeared frequently in trade publications, fan magazines and newspapers distributed throughout the country. Of note were the contradictory assertions in some of these sources that she was a “real Indian,” while others were candid in stating, or quoting her as saying, that she was not a native American.
One of the longer interviews so far found (a copy was provided to the Homestead by Lori Underwood nearly a quarter century ago) was conducted for Movie Pictorial by Richard Willis (1876-1945), a scenario writer/editor, publicist and actor, whose piece was titled “Mona Darkfeather—a Daring Movie ‘Princess.'” Willis began his breezy article was the observation that “‘Princess’ Mona Darkfeather is an impossible person” and that “she is an Indian Princess and she is not” as well as being both “an exceptionally fine actress” and not one, which meant that she was “really a most contradicting and interesting individual.
He claimed that she disappointed by not making an entrance for their meeting “by all Princess precedents” beside “the big chief with two yards of reserve all over her and fifty-dollars worth of disdain on her haughty face.” Instead, Willis professed to be surprised that she sat on the side of a hillw hile waiting for shooting to begin and, while wearing her Indian maiden costume, “she was joking with the chief and other Indians, hobnobbing with the squaws, nursing a papoose and saying nice things to a cujple of bareheaded, barefooted little Mexican girls, all at once.”
Willis went on to claim that “the cherished traditions of my tender childhood should noe be mangled in this manner” without some accounting by the precocious actor who “this crusher of dreams. So, as the two sat on a log, he decided to “expose her past” by asking “who and what you really are?” Darkfeather’s answer quite simply was “my parents are descended from an aristocratic Spanish family who came to this country many years back. I was born in Los Angeles and have lived here nearly all my life. I was educated at a Catholic school in this city.”
Now, her parents, obviously, came from two families and both were mixed with ancestry from England, the United States, New Mexico and Chile and “aristocratic” hardly covers the financial situation of either. Then there is the European-leaning “Spanish” instead of Mexican or Chilean and, as has been discussed here before, there is also the question of whether she had indigenous ancestry from either of her grandmothers, Nicolasa Urioste from Taos, New Mexico, or Vibiana Asorca was Chile.
Regardless, Willis wrote that he sighed, “Spanish and not Sioux,” to which the actor replied in a sympathetic, but sarcastic way:
Yes, too bad, isn’t it? However, I am an Indian princess, for I was made a blood member of the Blackfoot Indians and given the title of “Princess” by Chief Big Thunder. I feel half Indian anyway, for I have lived among them so much and I speak several Indian languages.
How true any of this was, of course, cannot be verified, but, being in a magazine trading in movieland’s “dream factory” and in an article penned by a scenario editor and publicist, readers were not likely to have employed much critical examination of the claims! The Princess continued that the Indians she knew “are wonderfully fine people when you really understand and know them as I do” but they were also “very, very easy to manage and Frank Montgomery, my director [and second husband], knows their ways and moods as much as I do . . . they love him and they love me, too.”
She talked of how Native Americans visited at their home “and we have lemonade and cakes and laugh at pictures and costumes but we do not talk much and in due time they take their leisurely departure, always with great dignity.” Because they purportedly were happy to work and did what they were told without questioning, the actor told Willis “I don’t at all mind being taken for an Indian—at times.”
As for her bona fides, Darkfeather answered very simply that “I was never on the stage before I went into motion pictures,” adding “it is a terrible thing to admit to, isn’t it?” She then cheekily told the writer “one of these days I will get you to help me and we will make [a stage career] to order that will sound quite well,” asking Willis, “that is in your line, isn’t it?”
When the writer asked how she got into film, there was again, a straight answer: “I saw an advertisement in the paper calling for a Spanish type who could make up as a good Indian.” She professed that she couldn’t be a stenographer or a salesgirl, so “I summoned all my courage and applied for the position,” and, being ignorant about the pay, “I asked for too much and got it,” even if the salary was more than the leading lady at Bison Studios was paid less.
Darkfeather added that she was not nervous when launching her career, but her main issue was to avoid looking as if she’d never acted “so I watched the others carefully and obeyed directions,” though it was “my intimate knowledge of Indians and their ways [that] was my salvation.” This was because she claimed to imitate their slow movements and that was “just what is necessary in motion picture acting,” while she had expressive eyes that “certainly help my Indian impersonations.”
After a year-and-a-half with Bison, mostly playing “Indian maidens and squaws with a sprinkling of Spanish parts,” Darkfeather joined the Selig studio for part of a year before decamping to Kalem and working with George Melford and enjoying her salary being increased three times in just a matter of weeks. From there, she told Willis, “I hated to leave them, but business is business, so when the Universal made me a splendid offer I joined Frank Montgomery,” this being in 1912 when “I was the first actress engaged by the then newly organized” studio and its Bison subsidiary.
She related that sales were up a third with Indian and western stories in which she starred, but it was also duly noted that “another reason for my joining the Universal, that it was to be under the direction of Mr. Montgomery,” who she also married in 1912. After a question from Willis, Darkfeather added that “it seemed to nice to get back” to Kalem after leaving Universal because “they are starring me in a series of two-reel Indian subjects now which go all over the world.” She knew the reach of the films because of the letters she received from overseas including many from children, with her poignantly adding, “I am always glad to get them, for I honestly love children.”
When Willis inquired whether she enjoyed acting, the star responded that she did and wouldn’t do anything else, though “about the only other thing I could do would be to sing in musical comedy or cabarets . . . studied music for years, and am told I have a good contralto voice.” She added that she could not take “the indoor life and the inactivity” and the conversation turned to her Pinto pony, Comanche, her sidekick in pictures. Notably, though she claimed she could, she did not how to ride a horse when she started in the business, but her prior lack of experience was “hard to believe . . . when you see her vault to the bare back of her pony and disappear like a streak of lightning.”
The writer noted that Darkfeather was a master at demonstrating “how a real Indian aristocrat should look and walk and talk do,” and noted that she “is the fortunate owner of a really magnificent collection of Indian dresses, bead work, jewelry and all sorts of trophies,” including a bracelet bestowed on her by Chief Big Thunder. The piece ended with Willis’ exclamation that “it is probably quite apparent that this interviewer . . . has nothing but admiration for the Kalem Princess.” He then asked why anyone wouldn’t, because:
She is good to look at and good to talk with. Everyone who knows her loves her. And everyone who knows her admires her, because she is so frank and genuine, absolutely devoid of sham or pretense of any kind, and above, all so plucky. You never hear a whimper from her no matter what happens in the taking of those “wild west” pictures. For sheer pluck and endurance and perseverence she has most of us beaten.
Fawning? Yes! Partly fictional? Almost certainly! Still, interviews like these are both interestring and instructive about the nature of movie industry promotion as well as what is imparted about the star, whatever the embellishments or biographical creations may entail.