While doing research for this month’s theme, I came across an unfamiliar name: Gladys Walton. Fairly popular in the early 1920s, she was intriguingly described as playing “flapper roles”–a few years before those roles would be associated with Colleen Moore and Clara Bow.
Who was this young woman? Research revealed a pragmatic, outspoken star who quickly realized her true priorities in life…and it also revealed an intriguing mystery. (At least, I’m going to call it a mystery.)
Gladys was born in Boston in 1903. When she was only three, her parents divorced and she and her mother eventually went to live in Oregon with one of her aunts. She had a happy, active childhood, one where she never dreamed of ending up in the movies.
In 1919, when she was 16, Gladys and her mother spent the summer with relatives in Los Angeles. When they decided to tour the William S. Hart studio (studios were open to visitors back then), Gladys ran into a talent scout who noticed her good looks and asked if she’d like to be in pictures. With her mother’s approval she shot some screen tests at Fox Studios (“She said it would be fun, so do it!”). Having a flair for comedy, she was cast in several Sunshine Comedies shorts and La La Lucille (1920), which starred the popular comedic duo Lyons and Moran. She later recalled that her lack of acting experience was no concern at all: “Back then, we didn’t train for a picture. They’d tell me what to do, and I would do it.”
Although Gladys’s screen career was originally a lark, meant to end when she returned to Oregon (and high school) at the end of the summer, she took a liking to the work and decided to try and get hired at Universal. They gave her a $150 a week contract and starred her in Pink Tights (1920), a circus film where she played a tightrope walker. It was successful and Gladys would be touted as a new “find,” her specialty being comedy-dramas where she played a succession of young heroines.
In 1921 Photoplay said: “Universal has discovered an attractive little flapper in Gladys Walton.” At the time, “flapper” generally meant an impetuous, lively young woman, and Gladys’s slangy shopgirls, “madcap” daughters of society matrons, and plucky runaways looking for a better life certainly fit that description. By the time of The Wise Kid (1922) she was being advertised as “The Little Queen of the Flappers.” A 1922 article in The Moving Picture Weekly proclaimed:
When Gladys Walton started out to portray the flapper in Universal comedy dramas, who said she didn’t immortalize the quaint little figure?
When she came out in such pictures as “Pink Tights,” “The Man Tamer,” “Playing With Fire,” and others, who said she wasn’t wonderful? Who said she couldn’t act?
Nobody! Not anybody could say it!
She has achieved a place for herself, no question of that. Being too young to know everything, pretty and full of personality, she is the perfect type for flapper roles.
Gladys was a hard worker, doing her own stunts for her circus films and spending endless hours at the studio. Although she had little time for a social life she did get to brush elbows with big stars like Lon Chaney. She would also recall: “I took a streetcar to work every day because I didn’t have a car. One day, Rudolph Valentino got on and winked at me, but I never said anything to him.”
She also wasn’t afraid to speak up if she felt it was necessary. One time this lead to some unintended consequences:
In those days, they allowed visitors to watch us film. One day I was playing a rather sad scene, and they were playing music to get me in the mood. It just wasn’t happening. I looked up and saw a man with a straw hat and potbelly staring at me. I told the director I didn’t like him and would he please ask him to leave, he was breaking my concentration. Well, do you know who that man was? It was William Randolph Hearst.
Hearst, as you may know, was the immensely wealthy and powerful newspaper mogul who inspired Citizen Kane. Gladys said that as a result she was one of the few stars who was never invited to the famed Hearst Castle.
While she was never quite an A-list star (she made $600 a week), her work remained in demand. For three years straight she starred in film after film, around thirty in all, and she was growing exhausted. “They just ground those movies out,” she recalled. “They overworked me and wouldn’t give me a vacation.” Finally, in 1923, she left for Hawaii for three weeks without telling the studio.
Upon her return, she found out that Universal had docked her pay. That was enough for Gladys, and she left the studio without looking back. While she would work in independent productions for a couple more years, she began to lose interest in making movies and to feel more focused on starting a family. She married sales manager Henry Herbel in 1923. (It was actually her second marriage. The first was to writer Frank Liddell in 1921, but because of her packed film schedule it failed after only six months–later in life she often forgot the marriage had happened at all).
Gladys could hardly wait to have children–she had a daughter in 1924 and a son in 1926. In time, she and Henry would have six kids in all. She would later say, “I started out as an only child and now I have six. Isn’t that something?”
She was married to Henry until his death in 1955. She married for a third time, to a fighter pilot, and while they were together 19 years they eventually divorced.
She spent her remaining years in the seaside town of Morro Bay, California, in a house she dubbed “Glad’s Castle.” It was packed with antiques, souvenirs from trips abroad, and plenty of photos and memorabilia from her silent days (including a folding screen covered with her old Universal portraits). She learned to paint and sculpt, raised dogs and birds, enjoyed the company of her many grandchildren, and even in her late 80s would go out dancing several times a week. At age 90 she passed away from cancer, an end to a full and memorable life.
If you look up the name of Gladys Walton online today, you may run across a self-published book–Walton and Capone: The Untold Story. This book, written by Glady’s son John Walton, claims that she had a ten-year relationship with the notorious Al Capone, starting in 1922. (Yes, that would mean carrying on with Capone even throughout her marriage and her several pregnancies. Mm-hmm. Sure.) He even claims that he may actually be Capone’s son, citing his grandson’s resemblance to Capone as evidence (he himself looks nothing like him).
There’s really no evidence to back up these claims. Lengthy, well-researched biographies of Capone make no mention of Gladys, and he was known to be in other parts of the country during the times John claimed he visited his mother. Then there’s the light matter of Capone having had syphilis and gonorrhea, which Gladys certainly never contracted. Having read excerpts from the book myself, it seems very sensational–I can’t imagine writing anything like that about my own mother. Oy. I’m considering this a “Myth: BUSTED,” my friends.
Unlike some forgotten stars who expressed bitterness about their old careers, Gladys Walton seemed content to have “the movies” ultimately be just one chapter in her long, active life. She would look back with her usual frankness: “They worked me too hard and it wasn’t very glamorous. People thought it was, but it wasn’t.”
My main sources for this article are the book Broken Silence: Conversations with 23 Silent Film Stars by historian Michael G. Ankerich, and his articles about Gladys Walton at his author’s website. Ankerich sought out and interviewed the star at a time when her silent film work had been long forgotten, and also took some wonderful photos of her in “Glad’s Castle.”
Ankerich, Michael G. Broken Silence: Conversations with 23 Silent Film Stars. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1993.