Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights: May Whitney Emerson, Founded Women’s Film Company

May Whitney Emerson. She looks in 3/4 profile toward the camera, a scarf partially covering her head. A feminist ahead of her time, author May Whitney Emerson advocated equal opportunities and rights for women in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Brash, fearless, and determined, she blazed a trail through the arts and journalism as she traveled the world. Sometimes embroidering her own life story to make it as colorful and exciting as any novel, Emerson advanced the strength and determination of women in her writing, and in 1916, formed the American Woman Film Company to make films by and about women.

While she listed her birth as1865 in post-1900 census records, she probably was born almost 20 years earlier as May Whitney in Eagle Harbor, New York, per a researcher of her letters to Cora Bush. Exposed to the arts at a young age, she displayed great skill for writing, drawing, composing music, and painting, often illustrating her own stories. In a biographical sketch in the 1900 issue of West Coast magazine, she stated her first poem, “The Outcast,” was published in the Independent magazine when she was nine.

Sex_RevoltWhitney Emerson contributed stories, sermons, essays, and humorous sketches to journals when she was a teenager under the signature “Egypt” and composed music for songs as well. Most women published anonymously or under a pseudonym at the time, since many in society found it unacceptable for a woman to be published. She also claimed to be the first young woman enrolled at Cornell University.

She supposedly entered the Academy of Design in New York when she was 18, where she “won every prize a woman could receive at the time.” Not long thereafter, Whitney Emerson claimed she and five other students organized the Art Students’ League of New York, where women enjoyed the same and equal opportunities as men, serving as an incorporator and a member of its Board of Control. Besides painting portraits and flowers, she provided illustrations for book and magazines. Throughout this period and beyond, her articles were published in journals and newspapers like the Chicago Advance, the Northern Christian Advocate, the Christian Leader, the Home Journal, the Rural New Yorker, the Waverly Magazine, the New York Mercury, and the Ladies’ Repository of Boston.

Ahead of her time in many ways, it appears that Whitney Emerson married and divorced two times. A few early newspaper stories list her as New York artist Mrs. May Whitney Hall as she visited places like West Virginia and the East Coast, but no records show when she married and divorced Mr. Hall. On October 18, 1882, she married surgeon Nathaniel Waldo Emerson of Boston. at New York’s Church of the Messiah in a service officiated by Rev. William Reiniger in a service where “there were no bridesmaids or best man.” The couple moved to Boston and resided there for several years. She appears to have traveled extensively in Europe and America “gathering material and making illustrations for books, poems, and short stories.” Waldo Emerson remarried in 1891 so they obviously divorced, and by 1893 Whitney Emerson resided in Washington, D. C., where she gave presentations to women’s groups.

Whitney Emerson continued writing for such publications as the Boston Transcript, the New York Herald, Sun and Graphic, the Chicago Inter-Ocean, Toledo Blade, Edward Bellamy’s New Nation, The Twentieth Century Farmer, the New Orleans Picayune, the Youths’ Companion, Lend a Hand magazine, the Elite of Chicago, and served as associate editor of the Epitome before it closed. She supported such causes as abolishing capital punishment, halting cruelty to animals, and giving women financial independence and equal suffrage in articles in these outlets as well as others.

Her biographical sketch in the West Coast also lists nonfiction works which included genealogical and historical articles concerning the Norse Discovery of America as well as lectures on subjects like Norse legends, Spanish missions, Alta California, Palestine, Egypt, and Rome. Thanks to all her journalistic work, Emerson served as a member of the Women’s National Press Association where she served as an officer and helped organize conferences in Washington, D.C. She even served as an officer in the International Press Union.

Ready for adventure in summer 1894, Whitney Emerson traveled West to California, visiting San Francisco and Los Angeles to give lectures and to experience nature. While in the Pasadena area, Emerson became one of the very few women to ascend to the summit of Mt. Lowe to view the sunset, always seeking challenge.

In 1899, Whitney Emerson participated in her own Grand Tour, traveling to Jerusalem, Palestine, and Egypt for a year, visiting and making sketches for magazines and other work. While returning on horseback from the Funk Mountain, the tomb of Herod the Great, she was thrown violently to the ground when her horse attempted to jump a large rock. The animal fell on her, fracturing her right hip, a rib, and injuring her right arm. After recovering, the determined and headstrong artist continued her trip, ending in Rome where she met the Pope.

Whitney Emerson entered and won several writing contests in Washington, D.C. newspapers over the years. In 1898, she won a short story contest for “The Mayor’s Yellow Book,” published in the Washington Times October 23, 1898 and saw her winning entry for “Her Other Self” serialized in the Washington Post in 1905. “Her Other Self” was a female version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” a gothic murder mystery featuring a beautiful young woman who comes to suffer a dual personality based on actual New York newspaper accounts of the Crawford Murder Case.

Looking for new possibilities and passions, Whitney Emerson moved permanently to Los Angeles in 1906. She would join fellow suffragists in fighting for women’s right to vote in the state as well as other liberal causes, an early feminist. She would also write for Clara Foltz’s magazine The New American Woman as well.

Seeing the fledgling moving picture industry move to Los Angeles and explode in both popularity and cultural significance, Whitney Emerson was determined to participate. While many women contributed artistically to films both behind and in front of the camera, including as writers, directors, and producers, most worked for large companies which limited their artistic statements and possibilities. Whitney Emerson decided to establish a company “of, by and for women,” naming it the American Woman Film Co. to make films of the highest order. Financed by some of her society friends like Alice L. McCalden of Pasadena, the company established an office in downtown Los Angeles in October 1915 and first published ads mentioning a $250 prize for the “best 3-reel script submitted.” J.C. Parker was named secretary and general manager and Paul F. Greer general counsel.

Looking for more drama and impact, Whitney Emerson herself wrote the script for their first film Saul of Tarsus, a 10-reeler of the early life of Apostle Paul and his conversion on the Road to Damascus, which they announced in early May 1916. She also assigned the company the exclusive right to her stories. She told Moving Picture World in their May 27, 1916 issue that all her stories demonstrated “a continuous history of the present revolt of women and its meaning.”

As she stated, “Women have been absolute slaves to the will and standards of men. It is against that and for a single standard of purity that they are fighting. The fight assumes many different aspects and women use different weapons, but all to the same end. When our company invades a new field of industry – in the picture line, for instance – and the suffragettes of New York struggle militantly for the vote, it means the same thing. The women of to-day are struggling for economic independence so that they may dictate who shall be the fathers of the future race. No wife whose husband supports her is free from bondage. When all women are free, and under a banner of single standard purity, refuse marriage for all men who do not march under that banner, the revolt will cease.”

Hiring actor and director J. Farrell McDonald, the company constructed a studio at 1339 N. Gordon Street in Hollywood, hiring performers like Mabel Van Buren along with many virtually unknown. They began production in late May. Just a few days later, disaster struck. While on location outside Chatsworth, a large truck carrying more than 24 cast and crewmembers plunged over an embankment off a mountainous roadway after driving over a rock mostly submerged in the dirt, throwing passengers and pinning many underneath. Many suffered broken bones or internal injuries, with most going to the hospital, if only for a short time. After two weeks, the injured recovered, unlike the production. McDonald returned for a few days in June before he departed the film, leading the company to dissolve and file for bankruptcy in July.

Over the next few years, the company would be forced into legal proceedings. Treasurer J. C. Parker failed to pay a license tax and appeared to disappear with funds. Many began applying to the Industrial Accident Commission for medical reimbursement and compensation. Some were awarded a set amount, while others like Dorothy Deane and Charles Adams received weekly amounts for a time from the company and Western Indemnity Company. Whitney Emerson filed an involuntary bankruptcy petition in United States District Court on March 30, 1917, listing assets of $25,280 and debts of $1,972, of which $1,100 was due to the author for her services and stories. Many actors were owed unknown amounts for their services. Represented by attorney Clara Foltz, Whitney Emerson received her script, with Judge Force Parker, referee in the bankruptcy case, ruling that it was no asset of the company since she was never paid. March 1918 ads in Bakersfield newspapers say that four reels of film would be auctioned, so someone might have acquired the unfinished movie.

Whitney Emerson lost all passion and stamina with the folding of the company and the long debacle, seeing all her grand dreams for giving women a voice onscreen wiped away. While she would appear at a Norse event in 1920, Whitney Emerson virtually disappeared after that, with no further mention in newspaper accounts and no obituary so far found.

Empowered to share her feminine and artistic visions with the world as she promoted increasing power and opportunities for women, Whitney Emerson demonstrated the strength, passion, and courage of women fighting over decades to gain their sisters the right to vote and eventually control their own lives.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Film, Hollywood, Hollywood Heights, Mary Mallory and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply. Note: Your IP is logged with your comment so a fake name and email address are useless.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s