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Humankind-I don’t Remember Ann

There was a short time here on the island from the 1890’s through the 1930’s when a small number of America’s most interesting people, made the island their summer home or visited here for a vacation. Hepburn, Bannister, Pickford, Hayes, Lincoln are some of the names we hear bandied about. Ann Harding was one of those people. Perhaps you have heard her name, but chances are unless you are really familiar with island history or Hollywood’s Golden Studio era of the 30’s and 40’s she probably does not really resonate as a star like Doris Day, Merle Streep, or a Cate Blanchett of today. As one historian put it, “film history has relegated her bright star to a minor place in Film’s firmament”.

Who was Ann? Her real name was Dorothy Walton Gatley and she was born in Fort Sam Houston Texas in 1901. Hard to believe we know so little about her, but she made over 39 films from 1929 until her last in one 1957. In her earlier roles she often starred or at least played the femme fatal role, in fact she was nominated for “best actress” Oscar for her role in Holiday in 1931. She also played the lead in 9 Broadway plays and later in her career she starred in at least 33 episodes of popular television shows from Alfred Hitchcock Presents to Dr. Kildare.

Ann was a strikingly beautiful woman and her stage presence, poise and looks made her very popular with the American Film and Theater going audience. Ann and her first husband Harry Bannister, quite famous in his own right as actor, producer and promoter, lived a quiet life here summering on the island for many years perhaps participating in local summer theater, a tradition promoted by local actor and long time resident of the island TB Alexander. Ann probably left the island after her marriage with Bannister broke up in 1932. Little is really known about her time here on South Bass, but we know where she lived and I am sure with some digging through real estate records we could discover more about her actual time on the island. Perhaps you know a story you could share about Ann. I have heard a few, but never been able to verify them. I’m guessing Peach Point must have really been a swinging place to be back in the 20’s and 30’s!

Other stories of famous people on the island have circulated among people I spoke to during the summer at the depot. Some of my favorites include the now documented story from a published diary of Kathryn Hepburn where she spoke of spending her summers as a child on Gibraltar Island. She was friends with the Cooke family as the story goes.

My favorite story came from a summer resident who swears that Mary Pickford spent summers on the island. If you don’t know who Mary was, she was perhaps one of the biggest stars Hollywood produced from the silent movie era often referred to as “America’s sweetheart”. To compare her with stars today would be difficult. She made millions in her day in the film industry and was married to Douglas Fairbanks one of Hollywood’s most attractive and popular main leading men of the day, but she never had any success once film transitioned to the “talkie” era.

Mary’s only possible connection to Put-in-bay came in 1918 when she was selected by Lakewoodite Otto F. Leopold, who owned Pompeian Enterprises of Cleveland a cosmetics company, to be featured in their company advertising. Leopold’s daughter Elsa Watters vividly remembers the picking of Pickford as “Pompeian Beauty of the Year” by her father. The Leopold’s owned a cottage called the “Pompeian Cottage” where employees and friends would visit. Not sure even where the cottage is today or if Mary actually came here, but it is one of the stories that adds intrigue to our island.

So why is it that we know so little about Ann and the other famous people on the island? Perhaps because islanders understood the scrutiny these people experienced in their daily lives and allowed them to be them selves here or maybe people just didn’t know who they were. What is interesting is that after prohibition was over we never returned to being the “ in summer place” to be that we had enjoyed for many years. That is just fine by me, Hollywood celebrities come and go and very few come and go to Put-in-bay any more but the stories of those celebrities who spent time here are just about as faded from memory as the films they once starred in. If you have any Hollywood stories about the island email me at peter@bigdoghill.com.

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