by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The stunning news about a year ago that photos and other artifacts related to early silent film star Princess Mona Darkfeather (Josephine M. Workman) and her actor-director-producer husband, Frank E. Montgomery, were found in a Victorian-era house in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles was soon followed by a donation of these materials from the Baltazar G. Madrid Estate, Madrid having been the long-time landlord, at a residence in the Silver Lake community, of the woman he and his family knew as Mona Montgomery.
We’ve shared, through a couple of posts on this blog, some of the images that came from this remarkable gift, as well as offered a “Rescuing Remnants” talk on the story during which many more of the photos were included. Now, as the Homestead is loaning many of these great visual documents of the pair and of the early film industry to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for copying, this is a good time to feature a pair of portraits of the couple from the Madrid Estate gift.
The images appear to date from 1914 based on a couple of indications found in local newspaper accounts from that year, but, first, a little recap on the motion picture couple. Frank Edward Akley (1877-1944) was born in the oil regions of western Pennsylvania, where petroleum was first produced in the United States. He spent some of his early years in Omaha, Nebraska and then in the Pacific Northwest, including Seattle and Portland.
By the end of the 19th century, he’d become a stage actor and crew member and adopted the surname of Montgomery. As the end of the first decade of the new century came, Montgomery settled in Los Angeles and did theater work and then, in 1909, worked on one of the first films made in the Angel City. He was with the Selig company when he met the 27-year old Josephine . Workman, who’d recently answered an ad looking for an exotic type for film roles.
Josephine (1882-1977) was the youngest child of Josephine Belt (whose mother was from Chile and whose father was a Maryland native) and Joseph M. Workman, the son of Homestead founders Nicolasa Urioste and William Workman. She was born in the house recently built by her father in the relatively new Los Angeles community of Boyle Heights, to which the family relocated from an 800+-acre spread on the Rancho La Puente, which was leased.
Financial disaster struck the family in the 1890s leading to the loss of the ranch and the Boyle Heights house and the divorce of Josephine’s parents. She remained with her mother, who, however, became the proprietor of boarding houses of questionable, if not outright “ill,” repute. When the 1900 census was taken, the 18-year old was living in one of these establishments run by her mother and the occupation given for the young woman was “whistler,” this being documented by her appearance as a performer in local theaters with her artistic whistling.
Within a few years she was married to Harry Knoll, a professional musician, and the two had a daughter, Josephine, who turned out to have an entertainer’s bent. Sadly, Harry and little Josephine died within a short period of time during the last years of the 1900s and it was very shortly afterward that Josephine Workman answered that ad and began working in the movie industry. In fairly short order, she rose to be a leading lady, under the stage name of Princess Mona Darkfeather, in the Indian dramas that were all the rage at the time.
While much of the publicity put out about her claimed she was a full-blooded Indian, other promotional pieces flatly stated that she was not an indigenous person (though her father’s mother hailed from Taos, New Mexico, where there is still a native pueblo and her mother’s mother came from Chile—so it is plausible, if unproven, that Josephine had native ancestry on one or both sides.) In any case, she freely admitted that she came from “an aristocratic Spanish family” in Los Angeles, which isn’t really true, either!
By 1912, Montgomery, who took to directing one-reel short films in addition to his acting work, was paired with Mona, as she became commonly known, and the two made a successful team over the next few years as she rose to be a star of no insignificant magnitude, headlining in several dozen Indian pictures. While 1914 looks to have been her peak year of popularity, she was also looking to break away from pure Indian roles, which were also at their pinnacle and would soon largely become passé.
The highlighted photo of Mona shows her out of costume and wearing what looks to be a sheer, chiffon-like garment and the profile features her without the braids that characterized her “Princess Mona Darkfeather” persona. With her dark eyes, dark hair styled into waves and curls and clothing that was a world away from her usual film garb, Mona looks entirely different and it was clear that she was trying to establish a new image. She did, in fact, play non-Indian roles, including in some Westerns and the “Stanley in Africa” series.
This portrait was used in the 13 February 1914 issue of the Los Angeles Express and its coverage of the second annual Photoplayers’ Ball, held at the original Shrine Auditorium in the Angel City. Mona was featured with actors Adele Lane (1877-1957), another Selig star whose best-known films were that year, and Ruth Roland (1892-1937), who was just about to leave the Kalem studio, where Princess Mona worked.
Roland was something of an organizer of talent for the ball and the Express began its article by observing that the event was “a veritable beauty exhibit and fashion show” with the first, deemed most important, represented by the female actors appearing and wearing gowns represented in the second. It was reported that ticket sales were brisk and that “when the music strikes up for the grand march tomorrow night, revealing a scene of rare beauty, it is likely the huge auditorium will be packed by dancers and those who occupy the galleries to view the splendor.”
The previous night featured a downtown street parade “in which more than 500 screen folks participated in automobiles, on horseback [perhaps the Princess rode her faithful steed, Comanche?] and in stage coaches.” As a semi-public event, with some tickets reserved for anyone who cared to attend, the ball was seen as important in representing that “the picture industry has such a grip on Los Angeles, where a majority of the pictures made in the United States are produced.”
Meanwhile, the piece continued,
As showing the eagerness with which friends of the women screen stars seek dances with them, is cited the case of Miss Ruth Roland, Kelem [sic] star, who, keeping account of all requests for dances made to her, says 185 persons have asked to have their names on her program. Others especially popular are Adele Lane and Princess Mona Darkfeather, the famous Indian character leading woman.
Others noted as participating in the grand march were Mabel Normand, Francis Ford, Lois Weber, Lillian Gish, Henry Walthall, William Desmond Taylor, Wallace Reid and Dorothy Davenport. A week later, the Pomona Review mentioned Mona’s new film, “A Dream of the Wild,” and stated that she and co-star Art Ortega were “both full-blooded Indians.”
In early March, the Express reported that “Frank Montgomery of the Glendale Kalem [studio] has just spent about $1500 for real Indian blankets and Mona Darkfeather has paid out about $600 for Indian headdresses and beadwork. The blankets and finery are to be used in a big forthcoming Indian production.” A week later, the Rosemary Theatre, located on the Ocean Park [Santa Monica] pier, announced that it was changing its policy to show only films produced by Universal Pictures, within which Kalem was a subsidiary, and listed Darkfeather as among featured stars, along with Florence Lawrence, Lois Weber, Ford Sterling, and comedian “Alkali Ike” (Augustus Carney.)
Later local references in 1914 included a June notice in the Express that “no one in the picture business seems to receive so many presents as Mona Darkfeather . . . her latest gift is a book on Indian lore from which she and her husband and director, Frank Montgomery, are getting valuable hints on correctness of detail in their productions.” The short piece concluded with the observation that “Mona has a large library, which does not lie idle.”
Despite her attempt to break out of the Indian stereotype, a September article in the Pomona Review stated “there is one very sweet little [Mona was all of 5’1″ tall] American lady who will not need to worry much whether or no the Parisian fashions will be available this season” because Darkfeather, “this well known and much loved screen star,” owned “so many magnificent creations that, were she to don one every day of her life, she would still have many many more.”
Broadcasting the falsehood that she was a native American, the piece concluded with “for, like other girlies, this princess of the films loves finery and pretty clothes, and is just as anxious about her ‘fashions on the screen’ as her white sisters.” Four days later, the Long Beach Telegram called Darkfeather “the daughter of a famous Indian chief” and added that she “was one of the most popular actresses in moving pictures,” though it repeated the lore that she “has lived among the Blackfeet Indians, who reside in Montana; the Pueblo’s in [New] Mexico, and with Chief Isaac’s tribe of Moosehide Indians in Alaska.” The conclusion was that “she is at home in any Indian role.”
As for Montgomery, he was occasionally mentioned on his own during 1914, such as in the 17 February edition of the Express, where it was reported that,
The Indians at the Glendale Kalem studio [located near where the 134 and 2 freeways intersect today] are taking a keen interest in the fashioning of ancient weapons of warfare for a big feature that Frank Montgomery is going to direct. They are also making valuable suggestions regarding old-time Indian clothes and styles for painting the skin.
He also took the occasional acting role, such as his role as “the greaser,” a terrible pejorative for mixed-race Mexicans and Indians, or “a fiery Mexican” in the film “Little California,” which played at the Orpheum on Broadway, between 6th and 7th streets, in March.
In the middle of that month, the Express reported that Montgomery and Kalem actor, producer and director John McGowan found that “the opportunities for taking mountain scenery” were such that they decided “to select San Bernardino as the site for a studio.” It turned out that Mona Darkfeather/Josephine Workman’s sister, Mary, was married to Augustus Knight, Jr., who opened the first hotel and then later had a camp in Big Bear Valley, so the interest in filming in locations in this area was undoubtedly through this family connection.
In the 4 April edition of the Express and its “Off The Reel” column, it was reported that “Frank Montgomery excites wonder and admiration wherever he appears with the ring recently presented to him by Mona Darkfeather and the Indians of the Glendale Kalem studio.” The piece of jewelry was gold “with two ox teeth, set in diamonds,” which apparently led people to “wonder whether it is a mere ornament or a new kind of weapon.”
In his stylish portrait, Montgomery not only sports what might be a Homburg hat, as well as an overcoat, and a knit vest, but, while his right hand is in his trouser pocket, his left, clutching a pair of gloves, features rings on his ring and pinky fingers. Perhaps his new gift from his wife and the natives of the studio is the large piece on that ring finger?
These portraits of a prominent film couple were taken at their pinnacle of success, but, as can quickly happen in Hollywood, their fortunes changed within just a short time. By 1917, and in her mid-thirties, Mona was at the end of her career, perhaps being too “long in the tooth” to play young maidens, while Indian pictures were no longer fashionable. Montgomery, who tried running a few new studios, including in Seattle where he and Mona lived briefly at the end of the decade, continued to act and then worked regularly on film crews, though not as a director.
The couple, after 16 years of marriage, divorced in 1928 and they remarried. Almost a decade later, however, they reunited after their respective divorces and resided at the Silver Lake apartment until Montgomery died in 1944. Mona remained there for over thirty years, including for more than a decade as a tenant of Madrid, who then kept some of her possessions, including these photos, at his Lincoln Heights residence. Thanks to the Madrid Estate donation to the Homestead, and the loan to the Motion Picture Academy, it means that they can now be shared as part of preserving early motion picture history.