The Divorce

10:09 AM

I promised bad actors with this blog, and, by God, have I got one for you.

I don’t mean this regarding his qualities as a theater professional, which were well-regarded. I refer to his qualities as a human being, which were terrible, if newspapers of the time are to be believed.

His name was Willard Mack, although he was born Charles McLaughlin, and he was not an Omahan, having been born in Ontario and raised in Brooklyn. And I’ll give a quick overview of his theater career before describing how it intersected with Omaha, and how this made him awful.

Mack was an actor and playwright, and wrote a piece about the North-West Mounted Police, who he claimed to have been part of. The play was called “In Wyoming,” and did quite well and traveled throughout America (it played in North Platte in 1910.) His plays were often set in Canada, and several of them were eventually adapted into films, while Mack himself made a career for himself as a Broadway and eventual film actor. He is perhaps best remembered now for having met and coached a young chorus girl named Ruby Stevens, whose career he helped immeasurably, including recommending to her that she change her name to Barbara Stanwyck.

For a while he ran his own stock company, and this is where we come to Omaha, and to awfulness. He started the company with his then-wife, Maude Leone, and Maude was a local actress for some years. She started her career here with the Burwood Theater, a little venue at 1514 Harney Street that also launched the career of silent film star Harold Lloyd. (The theater eventually became a burlesque house called the Gayety, and that will be a story of its own.) Leone debuted at the Burwood in February of 1909 to critical raves, the World-Herald describing her as “a stunningly beautiful woman who comes highly recommended by many managers and critics.” Although her previous engagement was in Duluth, Minnesota, and she had appeared elsewhere, including Chicago, she was, according to the paper, “well-known in Omaha, and is a cousin of Mrs. S. B. Stewart,”

She appeared in the lead role in a play called “All-of-a-Sudden Peggy,” which had been a Broadway smash and eventually a film, and the ads for the film give an abbreviated sense of the story: It tells of a “quick on the trigger girl who proves her own matchmaker.” The World-Herald was ecstatic about her performance, writing “If her work in other productions reaches the same high plane of naturalness, elaboration of detail and the same air of spontaneous dramatic expression, there can be no doubt but that the critics of the Chicago papers were right in their unstinted praise of her work.” The writer then went ahead and quoted some of these critics, probably simply transcribing from a press kit sent over by the Burwood. Then, as now, critics could be lazy.

Her appearance was a sensation. On the closing of the show, the theater held two receptions for her, allowing audience members to join her onstage and shake her hand; both sold out. Knowing they had a good thing going, the Burwood cranked up their publicity, announcing that Leone would play Sapho in their next production. Further, in the production Leone would wear a crystal gown weighing 86 pounds, and the theater was forced to turn to an insurance company to insure the gown against theft. The gown was so heavy that the leading man had to make special preparations for the show, as he would be expected to carry Leone -- and the gown -- up a spiral stairway. He had stuck to an all-beef diet, and was now carrying a sandbag weighing 224 pounds up and down a flight of stairs. Ads for the show played up Leone’s striking physical appearance, showing just her eyes and coyly arched eyebrows. “Maude Leone will use these eyes at every performance,” the ads said.

Leone remained at the Burwood until May, when the Burwood company disbanded.


THE HUSBAND

Leone was married to William Mack all this time, although he is never mentioned as visiting Omaha. They married in 1902 in Cedar Rapids when she was 15, and seem to had performed together since 1900, when they appeared in Sedalia, MO. She starred in the terrifically titled “Madame Satan” in 1903 in Michigan, playing the title role, with Mack as a member of the cast. By 1906, she and Mack had started their own company, called the Leone-Mack Stock Company. They toured relentlessly through 1908, and then, suddenly, in February of 1909, we find Leone at the Burwood with no mention of Mack. At the end of 1909, Leone is back with the stock company and her husband, and there is never any real explanation for her season-long hiatus in Omaha.

They continued to perform for years together, touring the country with their stock company. But in June of 1912, it came to light that maybe Mack wasn’t the best person to share a company or a life with. The first hint of this came in Omaha, where the company was booked to play at the Orpheum and Leone demurred, claiming to be ill. Then, in September, the Seattle Daily Times reported that Mack was divorced and would be marrying Marjorie Rambeau, a former child actress and star on Broadway who was preparing to give up a life in the theater to be Mrs. Mack.

Suddenly, the cause of Leone’s illness came out. Mack had demanded a divorce from her while he was in Omaha. In the meanwhile, when Mack married Rambeau, he claimed to have already been divorced for nine years, saying that Leone had charged him with drunkenness. This lie was enough to land Mack in jail in Utah, where the law said you must be divorced six months before remarrying, and the Salt Lake Tribune had a field day with the story, reprinting letters Leone and Mack had sent regarding the divorce. “He wrote me a crazy letter,” Leone wrote, adding a parenthetical “I think he was full of cocaine when he wrote it.” The contents of the letter? Mack wrote to her “insisting that I say I divorced him. You know he couldn’t get one from me to save his soul. I saw from his letter that he was in some sort of a scrape, and would go mad if I didn’t give him a loophole of escape, so I went quietly to a lawyer here who started my divorce before, and got a divorce from him on the first of this month.”

If this all seems pretty muddled, well, it is. Nobody seems clear on the timeline, or who asked what when, and Mack seems to think he might still get back together with Leone, although admits that he needs to get onto the “water wagon” to do so -- in other words, stop drinking. The Salt Lake Tribune offered up an especially hurt letter from Leone, reading the following:

“I know just how you felt, but, oh, you could have spared me so much,” she wrote. “As it is, the shock has nearly floored me. When the lawyers sent me the papers from Salt Lake it nearly killed me.”

In the meanwhile, Leone’s mother went to the press, claiming that Mack has once threatened to kill her.

It simply got worse for Mack. Although Leone claimed to have filed for divorce in September in Omaha, the County Clerk denied any such filing taking place. Mack stuck by his guns, claiming he and Leone were long divorced, but that he now longed for his ex-wife. “‘Skiddles’ face has been before me almost constantly of late,” he told newspapers. “Skiddles” was, we are told, his nickname for Leone.

Skiddles, in the meanwhile, seemed to have no affection left for Mack. If there was no record of her September petition for divorce, well, it was easy enough to petition again. And this time, she did not hold back. As the World-Herald of October 26, 1912, reports it, in the text of the divorce filing Mack was “charged with being a habitual drunkard and a drug fiend …  He has also been guilty of extreme cruelty without using personal violence.”

The World-Herald continued: “She says that Mack’s conduct in drinking and swearing at her for more than two years past, has been such as to endanger her health and at all times almost unfitted her in a measure to carry out her work as an actress and leading woman in her chosen profession. She fears that he will carry out threats to injure her in person and reputation.”

AFTER THE DIVORCE


That cinched it. With Mack officially, if embarrassingly, divorced from Leone, he was free to marry Rimbaud. Mack and Leone’s careers ran parallel, and sometimes intersected, from that point on -- for instance, both were institutionalized in 1915 following nervous collapse, and Leone starred in several of Mack’s scripts. Leone’s career faltered and was ended by an accident in 1929 when she fell from a bus in Los Angeles, which rendered her an invalid and precipitated a decline that included hallucinations and delusions of persecution; she died in March of 1930.

Mack, in the meanwhile, continued to be successful in the world of theater while notably unsuccessful in the field of decency. He divorced Rimbaud in 1917; she charged him with repeated indiscretions with other women. He immediately married an actress/dancer named Pauline Frederick, who divorced him in 1919. He later married another woman,  Beatrice Banyard,  and she divorced him in 1924, citing his alcoholism. He agreed, speaking to the San Diego Union, saying “The rumor that I had gone crazy is all wrong. It’s ridiculous. I wasn’t loco. I was blind; stone blind. Someone sold me liquid blindness for whisky.”

In 1924, Mack almost literally went blind in one eye when he drank bootleg whiskey made from wood alcohol. He swore off alcohol after that. He died in 1934, and his death brought a last, unexpected gesture of affection. It was not from a wife, but instead from his male secretary, Edgar Mathews. Despondent over Mack’s death, Mathews attempted, and failed, suicide by slashing his wrists.

About the author

Max Sparber is a playwright and historian who lives in Omaha, Nebraska.