"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, August 3, 2020

The Case of the Vanishing Movie Star: A Mystery at Sea

"Philadelphia Inquirer," November 16, 1919, via Newspapers.com

Mary Ann Louisa Taylor (or, as she was known to her many fans, “Marie Empress,”) was a well-known actress of the silent film era. Her sultry good looks brought her much success in the “vamp” roles which were so popular in that period. She was also a talented singer, dancer, and male impersonator. Unfortunately, none of her films survive, so today, even among film historians, she is a largely overlooked figure. She is now only remembered--when she is remembered at all--for the peculiar circumstances of her death.

Little is known about Marie’s personal life. When she was 18, she married a dentist named Walter Herbert Horton. In 1906, after only four years of marriage, she left him in order to pursue a theatrical career. Horton--who seems to have taken the loss of his wife with equanimity--then moved to New Zealand. (As he explained in their 1918 divorce suit, “a wife did not want her husband when she was on the stage.”) Like most performers of her day, Marie supplied the press with many colorful and entirely fictitious details about her life, leaving her real history largely a mystery. 

"Philadelphia Inquirer," November 16, 1919

She became a comedienne in the music halls of her native England, where she was billed as “the girl who is making a name for herself.” This was not hyperbole. She was soon successful enough to be emboldened to try her luck in American vaudeville, where critics praised her “winning personality” and “dainty, dark beauty.” In 1915, she made her screen debut in a melodrama called “When We Were 21.” Again, she was an instant hit. Her films consistently did well at the box office, and reviewers enthused over her beauty, charisma, and acting talents. In short, Marie was well on her way to becoming one of cinema’s biggest stars. 

"Altoona Tribune," April 11, 1916

In the fall of 1919, Marie went to England to make personal appearances and negotiate film contracts with English producers. On October 16, she boarded the Cunard steamer Orduna for her return to New York. The glamorous 35-year-old actress--always dressed in black and sporting a monocle--naturally attracted a good deal of attention from her fellow passengers. She kept largely to herself, but seemed in excellent spirits. 

The Orduna

On the evening of October 26, the Orduna was two and a half hours out from its last stop in Halifax. Around six p.m., a stewardess brought dinner to Marie’s stateroom. Marie told her she wasn’t feeling very well, and wasn’t sure if she could eat anything, but half an hour later, when the stewardess returned to collect the dishes, she found that the actress had finished her meal. Marie told her to come back at about 9:30 with some sandwiches (it was apparently her habit to have a robust snack before going to bed.) The stewardess noted that Marie seemed cheerful and good-humored--as, indeed, she had been throughout the entire voyage. 

When the stewardess brought the sandwiches at precisely 9:30, she found Marie’s stateroom empty. Presuming the actress had gone out on deck, she put the food on a table and left. The next morning, the stewardess tapped on Marie’s door. There was no answer. When she entered the room, she found that the bed had not been slept in.  The sandwiches were untouched.  The only items missing from the stateroom--besides Marie--were her handbag and the jewelry she had worn the night before. When she reported this oddity to the captain, he had the ship thoroughly searched. There was no sign of Marie, and no one on board remembered having seen her. The only conclusion the passengers and crew could come to is that sometime between 6:30 and 9:30 on the night of the 26th, Marie had gone overboard--whether accidentally or deliberately, no one could say. 

The first mystery is how the actress could have gone into the sea. The porthole in her stateroom was far too small for her to fit through, and in any case it was found locked from the inside. For her to go on deck, she would have had to travel a number of well-lighted passageways and salons which, at that time, were crowded with people. The deck itself was also brightly lit, and full of passengers and crew members. Surely, it was reasoned, someone with Marie’s striking looks could not have slipped through and thrown herself into the sea unobserved? 

The second question is why Marie would have wished to drown herself. Although she seems to have not spoken much to anyone on the ship, there was nothing indicating she contemplated anything other than a successful sojourn in New York. A rack above her berth contained a number of photographs of herself which she intended to give to the press when she arrived. From Halifax, she had cabled a New York hotel asking them to reserve a room for her. She had just completed a triumphant tour of Australian music halls, and her stewardess said Marie had hinted to her that she might soon marry. 

Her disappearance was considered so inexplicable that newspapers declared that Marie was alive and well and staging an epic publicity stunt--a theory bolstered by her proven ability to pass herself off as a man. An English press agent, Walter Kingsley, coyly told reporters, “Did you ever hear of a woman registering as Miss So-and-So and later changing her room and calling herself Miss Somebody Else?” He added, “Wouldn’t it be nice if a fishing boat picked her up, or something like that happened?” The grinning Kingsley predicted that the missing woman would soon turn up “mysteriously and unannounced” in New York.  Rumors spread that Marie had managed to sneak into New York disguised as one of the ship’s male crew members. 

"Waterloo Courier," November 18, 1919

However, as the days went by with no sign of the missing actress, and her trunks remained unclaimed, it became obvious that poor Marie had gone overboard.  Was this a case of accidental fall? Suicide? Or, as some darkly suggested, even murder? It was reported that a London man named Oliver Williams was “the one person who could throw light on the mystery,” but that enigmatic statement was never expanded upon. 

Nothing remained to keep her memory alive except her films, which, eerily, continued to play in theaters for months after she was last seen in the flesh. Eventually, of course, even those faded away, and, before very long, the once-acclaimed Marie Empress was nothing but a forgotten mystery at sea.


  1. How strange. Of course, an actress accustomed to disguising herself - whether as another woman or as a man - would not have had trouble evading notice, but then what? Overboard? To another cabin and a life of anonymity? That seems unlikely. It's fitting that her end featured her vanishing, just like her movies have, and indeed most of her existence in the public memory. That's sad in more ways than one.

  2. What if she was never really a woman. What if she staged her death and slipped back inyo male attire and left the bkst to live as a man... or if was a biological woman, still keft to have a life as a man


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