Katherine Bleecker in 1915.
The early decades of the 20th century promised opportunity to many, as the country sensed new possibilities lay just around the corner. Union membership expanded, people of color glimpsed potential freedoms, and women gained small vestiges of autonomy and freedom in labor and work as the country embraced progressive ideas.
Ambitious, creative, and passionate young women like Katherine Russell Bleecker sought out opportunities to employ their intelligence and skills in new and exciting ways, especially in the booming film industry. During the 1910s, more women achieved positions of power, leadership and creativity in the entertainment industry than they would for the next 90 years. The exploding moving picture industry welcomed the addition of motivated and enthusiastic women to their field in order to meet the growing demand for product.
San Francisco Chronicle, June 4, 1916.
Mostly forgotten and unknown, women like Bleecker carved out new avenues and leadership positions that would help pave the way for others. Bleecker served as one of the country’s first known camerawomen before later establishing successful entrepreneurial businesses a la Martha Stewart, as a driven businesswoman modeling successful practices to others. Letting nothing stand in her way, Bleecker boldly demonstrated intelligence and initiative in achieving her dreams.
Born May 5, 1893, to moderately well to do family in New York, Katherine Russell Bleecker, sought challenge and achievement, especially after falling in love with moving pictures and determined to join the field. As she informed newspapers years later, “I knew a man who had written a scenario he could not sell. He wanted to produce it with his friends as actors and actresses. I’d never seen a motion picture camera, but photography had always been a hobby with me and I told him I’d make the picture.” She explained to newspapers that she trained for a year in a major film company studio learning how to operate a camera, write scripts, and serving as an assistant stage manager.
She first found success writing and producing “society and children’s” movies, devising stories around locations where she and her society friends congregated, creating costumes, casting, directing, editing, and producing films, later screened for the upper crust. After successfully completing her first “amateur movie”, Bleecker turned to others featuring local people, producing such films as The Perils of Society in Cleveland, Smuggler’s Revenge at Canada’s Thousand Island Yacht Club, and Man and the Millionaire in Pittsburgh. She rehearsed her amateur cast as much as possible before turning the crank, hoping to save time and money.
Some of the movies raised money for charity, others filming on everything from cars to tugboats to yachts to airplanes. Bleecker’s initiative and success led commercial organizations to hire her to produce films promoting themselves, earning her $5,000 that second year, allowing her to set up a small studio in the Grand Central Terminal Building in New York City.
Alexander Cleland, secretary of the Joint Commission on Prison Reform in New York, commissioned her to show the drudgery and degrading living conditions of prisoners at Dannamora, Auburn, and Sing Sing to improve their lot and provide them with mental and physical opportunities to better their lives. While working at Sing Sing to “demonstrate antiquated methods of punishing transgressors” as she told the New York Times in 1915, she boldly filmed without a guard while convicts milled around her. She completed Within Prison Walls, A Prison Without Walls, and a Day in Sing Sing in 1915, all of which were employed to lobby for better prison conditions. Bleecker also directed a commercial film titled Madame Spy starring Jack Mulhall, Claire Du Brey, and others, released early in 1918
The December 1917 papers announced that Carl Laemmle, head of Universal and New York’s Broadway Theatre, had appointed Bleecker as operations manager for the theater, the first woman to serve in such a capacity in a major New York City film theatre, after previous manager Walter Rosenberg lost business over the previous few weeks. As she glibly informed journalists, “I’m going to prove that theatre managing is like housekeeping – a woman’s job.” While at the theater, Bleecker also produced films for the American Red Cross.
Bleecker worked for more than a year in the position, even after marrying Willis Noel Meigs, a vice president of a window and door manufacturing concern and going on to start a family. As her children grew, the inquisitive and proactive woman developed business ideas to assist upper middle class customers with their needs.
Long before Amazon or Expedia came on the scene, the Postal Telegraph Co. hired Bleecker in 1931 to serve as “The Emily Post of the telegraph wires,” providing service to harried consumers. Bleecker pitched the company on answering etiquette questions, offering fashion advice, reserving hotel rooms, or finding chaperones for young women via questions submitted by telegrams. “I started out with the idea of forming a shopping service, and the rest just developed… I hoped to make it different from other such bureaus by confining the cost of the service to the expense of sending a telegram,” as Bleecker described her idea to the United Press.
She also hoped to inspire other women to follow their passions and to influence young children to recognize the intelligence and skills of their mothers. Bleecker told newspapers in August 1931, “It seems to be children are really benefitted when their mothers have interests outside the homes.”
Developing a career in what is now called personnel training, Bleecker trained Postal Telegraph delivery boys in etiquette to better serve the needs of those to whom they delivered telegrams or took orders in offices. She also soon sold Postal Telegraph on branding telegrams for special announcements “orchidgrams.” By 1937, Bleecker taught classes in business and life etiquette at Hunter College, while also serving as the president of the New York League of Business and Professional Women. In 1938, she was named Director of Personnel with the Service Bureau.
Perhaps her success in business brewed resentment at home, as she and Meigs divorced in 1939, and Bleecker married successful Marsh and McLennan Insurance Co. executive Alfred P. Jobson. As the United States entered World War II, she devised radio broadcasts in which child refugees could speak over the air to their parents overseas. Employing her personnel skills, Bleecker was appointed chair of Vocational Services for the Civilian Activities Division of Army Emergency Relief, charged with locating jobs for the mothers and wives of soldiers.
Though widowed in 1974, Bleecker soldiered on, living a life of service. When she died at 102 in 1996, her estate donated over $2 million to establish the Alfred P. and Katherine B. Jobson Professorship in Literature at Kentucky’s Centre College, where her son served as trustee.
A true pioneer in leading women forward to work in the motion picture and business worlds, Katherine Russell Bleecker demonstrated that women were as resourceful, creative, and confident as men in seeking new horizons and developing new skills, both to better themselves and others.
Mary, did she use an alias in Madame Spy?