Wilna Hervey, Actress & Artist

Essay by Joseph P. Eckhardt

The Biggest Girl

By the time Wilna Hervey was twenty years old, she stood nearly six-foot-three, and weighed close to 300 pounds. So astonished were folks who saw her for the first time that it was not unusual for perfect strangers to stop her on the street and ask her height and weight.[1] Far from being put off by such rude inquiries, Wilna would cheerfully tell them. She was never exactly shy.

Born in San Francisco on October 3, 1894, to William Russell Hervey and his wife, Anna Van Horn Traphagen Adams Hervey, Wilna Webster Hervey was the only child of her parents’ marriage. She had three half-siblings from her mother’s previous marriage to attorney, Thomas V. Cator.[2] “Willie” as she would be known to her family and friends, seems to have come by her artistic instincts and flair for performance quite naturally. Both of her parents were talented musicians, her father a singer, voice coach, and professor of music, and her mother an accomplished pianist. While Wilna was still a child her parents moved their blended family to New York City to take advantage of the superior professional and social opportunities to be found there. Wilna’s mother had a pedigree that included several U.S. presidents, Civil War generals, and other notables. She had inherited a sizable fortune as a young woman and her wealth ensured the Hervey family a very comfortable lifestyle which included society functions, family vacations to the Caribbean, and a luxurious house equipped with at least two servants at any given time. During their early years in New York, a Japanese cook prepared the family’s meals while a young Hungarian woman did domestic duties. By 1920, at which time the family was living in a fashionable neighborhood along Beach Ninth Street in Far Rockaway, a live-in German cook provided the meals, while her African-American husband provided the family with Chauffeur services. The couple’s biracial son completed the Hervey household of seven.[3] Wilna’s sense of freedom to lead her own life exactly as she wished was probably formed early in this indulgent, cosmopolitan and open-minded household.

Wilna grew up in a world of entertainers and show business professionals of one sort or another. Her half-brother, Thomas V. Cator Jr., became a well known writer and composer in Carmel, California. In 1916, her older half-sister, Eleanor V. Cator, married Eugene V. Brewster, the editor of Motion Picture Story Magazine, the first movie fan publication. Another half-sister, Marie Cator, worked as a lyricist. Surrounded by a talented family, trained in music and the performing arts, it is not surprising that even as a youngster Wilna was attracted to the world of show business, especially the movies. An enthusiastic reader of her brother-in-law’s movie fan magazine, Wilna soon began writing articles for it, and several were published. Perhaps to spare her family any possible embarrassment, she adopted the professional name, Wilna Wilde, for both her literary efforts and her early attempts at acting.

It was, perhaps, inevitable that Wilna would want to try her hand at acting. The fact that the Vitagraph Company had founded Motion Picture Story Magazine gave her brother-in-law, and thus Wilna, a connection to be exploited. Far from posing an obstacle, her remarkable size actually helped her land a few movie roles at the Vitagraph Studio in Brooklyn as early as 1916. The caption under a photo of her which appeared in a fan magazine in 1916 or 1917 informed readers that “Miss Wilde is just making her debut in pictures,” adding “she does not have to work, but she likes pictures and intends to make it her profession.” Unfortunately, these small parts in Sidney Drew’s domestic comedies were uncredited, and more research will be necessary before we know how many films she made at Vitagraph, of what the titles were.[4]

This rare photo shows Wilna Hervey with Sidney Drew in an unidentified film. [Betzwood Film Archive] Sidney Drew was the uncle of John, Lionel, and Ethel Barrymore and the great-granduncle of Drew Barrymore.

These early acting jobs provided Wilna with valuable experience before the camera and her bit parts, however minor, nevertheless placed her face and impressive form upon the screen for all to see. It was quite possibly this exposure that brought her to the attention of a director looking for a very big actress for a very big part in 1920. Once he had met her, it didn’t take long for the managing director of the Betzwood Film Company to offer Wilna the role with which she would be identified the rest of her life— “The Powerful Katrinka.”

Located in the old Lubin studios in the Montgomery County suburbs of Philadelphia, the Betzwood Film Company was embarking on an ambitious project in early 1920. They were about to turn Fontaine Fox’s popular and nationally syndicated Toonerville Trolley cartoons into live-action two-reel comedies. Choosing just the right actors and actresses to play Fox’s beloved Toonerville folks was essential to the potential success of the planned films. The choice of Wilna Hervey to play Katrinka would prove to be one of the best choices the studio made.

A typical Fontaine Fox cartoon with Powerful Katrinka

Katrinka, as she appeared in the Fox cartoons, was a hefty and innocent creature who seemed oblivious to the extent of her own physical strength. Toonerville cartoons abound with images of her carrying absurdly large loads or moving the Trolley with one hand. Once Wilna had been hired for the part, the Betzwood studio took full advantage of her impressive size as they began providing advance publicity for the upcoming series. Press releases presented outrageous claims designed to play up the idea that Fox’s cartoon character had indeed come to life. “Strongest Woman in the World in Picture” ran one headline. “Fontaine Fox Discovers a Herculean Actress for Comedy Part” ran another. Even though Wilna was recruited by the studio’s managing director, Ira M. Lowry, who lived in New York City, it was claimed that Fontaine Fox himself had “discovered” Wilna after seeing her perform feats of strength that even most men could not attempt. When Fox did finally meet Wilna for the first time, he was truly astonished: “My gosh,” he blurted out. “You are the original Katrinka!”[5]

For her screen name, Wilna continued using “Wilna Wilde.” But since reporters often misspelled both names, she was more frequently referred to as “Wilma Wild.” One typical bit of studio hype referred to her as follows:

Wilma is a little girl of about six-foot-two and constructed proportionally. She finds very little difficulty, it is said, in picking up, bodily, a section of street car track, or a kitchen range, and it is like eating candy for her to carry a full-size man up and down stairs under her arm.[6]

Production on the Toonerville Trolley films began in the early summer of 1920. Working closely with the director, cast, and crew, Fontaine Fox himself was on hand at the Betzwood studio to supervise the productions, write scripts, and attend to the building of two full-size working models of his famous dilapidated Trolley.[7] Wilna quickly proved a perfect choice for her role and developed a warm relationship and on-screen chemistry with the sixty-seven year-old veteran character actor, Dan Mason, who had been hired to portray the Trolley’s irascible “Skipper.” At five-foot-four, Mason, who stooped a bit to simulate the advanced age of his character, seemed dwarfed by the towering “Katrinka” making their encounters and confrontations all the more comical. Of the 17 two-reel Toonerville Trolley comedies that rolled out of the Betzwood studio in 1920 and 1921, the most successful efforts were those with story lines focused on the Skipper, Powerful Katrinka, and Fox’s wonderful Trolley.

The idea of cartoon Katrinka coming to life was sufficiently newsworthy that Motion Picture Magazine called attention to the upcoming films with a full-page spread of photos and text in its December 1920 issue. Of course, the fact that Wilna’s brother-in-law, Eugene V. Brewster, was the magazine’s editor just might have had something to do with this generous free publicity.[8]

Motion Picture Magazine, December 1920. [Betzwood Film Archive]

Wilna’s portrayal of Katrinka was set in the context of an ongoing series of sight gags intended to play up the notion of Katrinka’s superhuman strength and clueless innocence. In the pilot film for the series, The Toonerville Trolley That Meets All Trains, Katrinka disrupts the trolley line and derails an impending wedding when she sees a snake and rips up a section of the trolley tracks to defend herself against the varmint. In The Skipper’s Treasure Garden, Katrinka attempts to board the Trolley carrying a steamer trunk as her handbag. Later in the film, she uses a steam shovel to excavate the Skipper’s newly-planted garden when she is led to believe there is gold buried there. In Toonerville’s Fire Brigade, the Skipper and his crew can’t manage to make the hand pump apparatus work until Katrinka seizes control of it, at which point everyone in town gets drenched. Katrinka totes heavy furniture, brings in the laundry—clothes lines, poles, and all—lifts the Trolley off the tracks, tosses telephone poles about, and generally performs all needed heavy tasks, breaking everything but a sweat.

“She was a Swede who raised Poles…….” [Betzwood Film Archive]

Sadly, we know most of these films only by synopses, reviews, or publicity stills. Only seven of the 17 Toonerville Trolley comedies survive today, three of them in such bad shape that they are not available to the public.[9] The Betzwood Film Archive at Montgomery County Community College holds copies of four of the extant films; The Skipper’s Narrow Escape, Toonerville’s “Boozem ” Friends, The Skipper’s Flirtation, and Toonerville Follies. Like the lost films mentioned above, these films contain wonderful sight gags which, combined with Wilna’s portrayal of Katrinka, provide some very funny episodes. In Narrow Escape, she whips a rug out from under a table with one swipe, and attempts to kill a mouse with a baseball bat, only to ruin the plumbing which she is then obliged to fix by twisting the pipes with her bare hands. When the proper way to use the tilting tea table requires “too much head work” Katrinka uses the table as a long-handled serving tray, carrying it in one hand. She lifts up a ladder to give the person standing on it a better view in Skipper’s Flirtation, and carries off her employer, the “Terrible Tempered Mr. Bangs” like a sack of flour when the moonshine proves a bit too much in “‘Boozem’ Friends.” The latter film also features Katrinka’s unique approach to making home fries. She forces potatoes through a table fan, the pieces miraculously flying through the air and landing across the room in the frying pan she has on the stove.

Do NOT try this at home, kiddies. Katrinka was a trained professional. Frame enlargement from “Boozem Friends.” [Betzwood Film Archive]

The Toonerville Trolley films were successful, but not successful enough. In competition with comedies starring Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, the quaint cartoons-come-to-life could not produce sufficient profits to satisfy the investors who owned the Betzwood Film Company. Despite that fact that a second series of the films was announced in 1921 and contracts had been signed for their distribution, the studio suddenly ceased production in the summer of 1921 far short of the 24 new films supposedly in the works. The Toonerville films were the last productions of the Betzwood Film Company. The studio facilities were utilized by a couple of independent producers in 1922 and 1923, then closed forever in 1924.[10]

A glass magic lantern advertising slide with Katrinka and The Skipper, 1921. [Betzwood Film Archive]

If imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, the Toonerville films received the ultimate compliment in 1922 when Paul Gerson Productions, in California, announced a new series of two-reel comedies… starring Dan Mason and Wilna Hervey.[11] The driving force behind this copy cat scheme on the West Coast was apparently the Skipper himself. Dan Mason, who had been getting rave reviews for his Betzwood work, felt that there was still a lot of cinematic mileage left in the eccentric characters and country ways of the Toonerville folks. Paul Gerson agreed and the “Plum Center ” comedies were born. Less than a year after their movie making at Betzwood had been abruptly halted, Dan Mason and Wilna Hervey met up again in Burlingame, California, just south of San Francisco, where both assumed new personas based on their previous Toonerville characters. Since Fontaine Fox had copyrighted everything Toonerville, some new names were in order. Toonerville, itself, became “Plum Center ” in this new comedy series, while the Skipper and Katrinka changed their names to “Pop Tuttle ” and “Tillie Olson” respectively. Mason is said to have devised most of the plots for the new series. The extent to which the California films sought to imitate the previous Toonerville series is apparent from the few surviving films and a handful of photos. The characters, costumes, makeup, and several story concepts—even the Prohibition jokes—are very similar to those used in the Betzwood films. Unable to use Fox’s copyrighted Trolley, they contented themselves with an old white horse pulling an antiquated delivery coach.[12]

Wilna Hervey as Tillie Olson in the Plum Center Comedies. Photo by Bushnell, 4.5 “x3.5 ” c. 1922. [Courtesy Reiss Archives, Henriette Reiss Papers.]

For the Plum Center series, Wilna was credited as “Wilna Hervey” though many reporters continued to misspell her given name as “Wilma.” Robert Eddy, who had directed one of the Betzwood Toonerville films—The Skipper’s Treasure Garden—in 1920, and was thus quite familiar with the structure and pacing of those films, directed all twelve of the Plum Center Comedies in 1922 and 1923. Assisting Eddy with both directorial duties and occasional editing was a 25-year-old Frank Capra. Capra, destined to become one of Hollywood’s legendary directors, also devised sight gags for Mason and Hervey and provided Wilna with much moral support and encouragement, becoming in the process one of her life-long friends. Capra and “that sweet giant ” as he called her, kept up a correspondence the rest of their lives.[13]

Wilna’s mother, Anna Hervey, died in March 1922, just before shooting was to begin on the new series. Wilna’s distress at her mother’s passing made it difficult to work and she struggled during the filming of her first three California productions. Even so, she was excited to be making films again and wrote to one of her friends in New York that “poor ‘Hervey’ is working hard in movies” and expressed the hope that “this time I will be successful.”[14] And work hard she did. Though surviving evidence is scanty, it seems that her Tillie character got more time on screen than Katrinka had, since the Plum Center films were specifically built around Wilna and Dan Mason. Wilna’s performance in The Fire Chief (1922) amounts to an aerobic workout with Tillie ringing the fire bell with a sledge hammer until it breaks, and pushing the pump wagon through the streets at top speed. But despite the efforts of Mason and Hervey, these ersatz Toonerville-without-the-Trolley comedies were not destined for great success. While today they seem as funny as the Toonerville films, they suffered a fate common to derivative sequels and were not enthusiastically received. They seem to have been shown primarily in small towns where they probably reminded folks of their strange cousins in the next county. They are very obscure today. Only four have survived, three in the Library of Congress, and one in the hands of a private collector. Wilna’s brief career as a movie actress ended with the last of the Plum Center Comedies in 1923.

Forty years later, Wilna would tell a reporter that the only reason she made movies was to earn enough money to pursue her dream of becoming an artist.[15] While her statement was not entirely true, there was more truth to it than fiction. Certainly she had been disappointed not to have achieved great success in the movies. She loved performing and her articles for the fan magazines suggest a girl totally smitten with the movies. But her training as a professional artist had in fact begun even before her foray in the movies and she continued to take lessons throughout her years before the camera. While the 1920 census identifies her as a movie actress, Wilna identified herself as an artist when asked to state her profession on a passport application that same year. As early as 1918 Wilna was taking lessons at the Art Students League in Manhattan and at the League’s summer camp at Woodstock, north of New York City. While filming at both Betzwood and Burlingame, she brought along her sketch books and coped with the tedium of film making by going off to draw between takes. When they were finally ready for her to perform, she was often nowhere to be found and someone had to be sent to find her.[16] Throughout her life, Wilna’s passion for art was proportionate to her avoirdupois and always her first priority.

Wilna Hervey painting at Woodstock in c. 1918. Photographer unknown, 1-1/2″x2″ [Archives of the Woodstock Artists Association & Museum.]

Even a relatively unknown actress appearing in two-reel comedies made very good money in the movies in those days, especially as compared to people working more conventional jobs. For Wilna, who was still enjoying the support of her wealthy and accommodating family, her movie salary was discretionary income. She therefore had the means to indulge herself in her artistic goals. Late in 1920, she used some of the money she was earning playing Powerful Katrinka to buy an old farm house in the hamlet of Bearsville on the outer fringes of the Woodstock community and not far from the Maverick Art Colony.[17] During her earlier summers of art lessons at Woodstock, Wilna had fallen in love with the quaint little town in the Catskills and its growing community of creative spirits, and decided that this was where she wanted to live her life. Over the next several years, she continued to buy more property with her movie earnings and the inheritance from her mother. By the time production on the last of her Plum Center comedies came to an end in the late summer of 1923, Wilna already owned more than 10 acres at Bearsville to call her home. When her father died in 1925, she came into even more money.[18] She would eventually purchase 12 properties in nine years, assembling piece by piece a farm comprised of more than 45 acres. Her home in Bearsville would be her primary residence for the rest of her life. There she pursued her dream of becoming an artist. In the process, she also became one of Woodstock’s many legends.

In pursuit of artistic training, Wilna took lessons at one time or another with Frank DuMond, Kenneth Hayes Miller, George Brandt Bridgman, Henry Lee McFee, and Winold Reiss. These artists, all based in either Manhattan or Woodstock, represented a number of different styles and schools from the traditional to the modern. Wilna drew, painted in both water colors and oils, and tried her hand at portraiture, landscapes, and still lifes. Her work went through many different manifestations and stages of development over the years. While some of her early instructors, like Miller, encouraged her to create crisp drawings that some have compared to the early works of Diego Rivera, McFee is known to have encouraged Wilna to drop her attempts at realism in favor of a charmingly naïve style she affected for many years.[19] But, as will be seen, it was only in her later years that she finally achieved an artistic breakthrough that brought her genuine success.

Wilna Hervey can be seen here in one of Winold Reiss’s drawing classes at 4 Christopher Street, NYC, c. 1920. Reiss is looking over her shoulder. [Photo by Nickolas Muray. ©Nickolas Muray Photo Archives]

The noted German artist, Winold Reiss, not only provided Wilna with artistic instruction and professional encouragement, but became as well one of her closest personal friends. Through Reiss and his wife Henriette, who often included her as a guest at their social functions, Wilna was introduced to an ever widening circle of new acquaintances, allowing the aspiring young artist to develop a remarkably diverse assortment of friendships, many of which endured a lifetime. One of these friends was the multi-talented vaudeville performer, Sylvester “Bubi ” Shaeffer, for whom Wilna had a special affection. When Shaeffer made his own film debut in Germany in 1921, Wilna sent him a special kiss via Winold Reiss who was on his way to Berlin for a visit, a kiss which Reiss dutifully delivered.[20] Living in the same building on Christopher Street where Reiss had his studio, and also a member of Reiss’s circle of friends, was Ernst “Putzi ” Hanfstaengl, proprietor of the Galerie Hanfstaengl on 54th Street. One of the few people Wilna ever met who was bigger than she was, the eccentric and garrulous Harvard-educated Putzi Hanfstaengl became one of Wilna’s life-long friends. That they kept in touch throughout his long and strange career was a testimony to the fierce loyalty Wilna Hervey often demonstrated towards her many friends. After running his family’s art gallery in Manhattan for years, Hanfstaengl returned to Germany in 1921 where he became an early supporter of Adolph Hitler. After suffering a major disillusionment with the Nazis in the 1930s, he escaped to England, was imprisoned when the war began, and ended up being sent back to the U.S. to work as an intelligence analyst for his old Harvard Club buddy, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As late as 1975, when both were in their eighties, Putzi and Willie were still exchanging letters, cards and gifts. All of Wilna’s New York friends regarded her movie work with much amusement, and flocked to the theaters to see each of her latest turns as Powerful Katrinka or Tillie.[21]

If her brief adventure in movie stardom brought Wilna the financial means to pursue her career as an artist, it provided her with something else that defined the rest of her days—her life companion, Nan Mason. It was in 1920, while filming at the Betzwood studio, that Wilna first met Nannie Mason, the twenty-four year-old daughter of her co-star, Dan Mason. The two girls quickly took a liking to each other. That “they had much in common” as one article about them delicately put it, was an understatement.[22] They kept in touch when the Betzwood productions ended. When they met up again in California for the filming of the Plum Center Comedies, their relationship was sealed. From 1922 on, the two women were seldom apart.

Wilna and Nan were well matched. Only two years apart in age, both were musically talented, able to play several instruments and fond of singing. Both were, as well, creative free spirits with strong independent streaks. Their personalities, though quite different, complimented one another. While Wilna was extremely sensitive, mercurial—almost “childlike ” in the words of one old friend—and easily hurt, Nan was even tempered, business-like, and down to earth.

Nan Mason and Wilna Hervey on an unidentified beach in winter. Photographer and date unknown. 8 “x10 ” [Courtesy Reiss Archives, Henriette Reiss Papers.]

When Wilna departed California for her house in Bearsville in 1923, after filming her final Plum Center comedy, Nan Mason and her father, Dan, went along and moved in with her. But if Wilna had fallen in love with Woodstock during her art student days, she had also fallen in love with the artists colony centered on the town of Carmel-by-the-Sea while filming in California. The dramatic coastal scenery, with the pine-covered mountains and dramatic fogs rolling in from the Pacific, delighted her. “Carmel is a marvelous place to paint and I will go there again someday” she enthusiastically wrote Winold Reiss in 1922.[23] Therefore, the house in Woodstock notwithstanding, she and Nan also maintained a home in Carmel where, for many years, they spent each winter and where Wilna became a member of one of the many local recreational baseball teams.[24] That her half-brother, Thomas V. Cator Jr., and his family lived in Carmel further enhanced Wilna’s desire to spend time there.

It was allegedly at Carmel that Nan Mason discovered that she was also an artist. Each time Wilna went out to the cliffs overlooking the Pacific to paint, Nan went along, but had nothing to do while she waited. One day Wilna encouraged her to take the sketch book and try her hand at sketching a nearby “ghost tree.” When she returned two hours later, Wilna was astonished to see the drawing Nan had made. “I nearly fell off the rock into the sea” she remembered. “It was better than I could have done!” [25] And so Nan Mason’s career as an artist began. She would soon take up painting, and eventually photography, and achieve critical recognition for both.

Though Nan often said she had no interest in show business, thanks to a childhood of constant travel with her peripatetic father, show biz was nevertheless in her blood. Egged on by Wilna, who loved to perform, she often joined her partner in volunteering for local theatrical groups, charity benefits, or entertainments for friends and neighbors. Starting at Betzwood where they joined the Toonerville cast and crew in a benefit performance to raise money for a local family visited by tragedy,[26] the two women played, sang, and chewed the scenery in virtually every community they lived in. During their winters in Carmel, they offered to help with variety shows put on by the Carmel Community Players. A surviving playbill from January 1933 finds them serving as the third act in a vaudeville show, performing a skit they called “Two Fugitives From a Chain Store.” An undated clipping from a Carmel newspaper has them appearing in an audience-participation mystery thriller called “The Spider.” [27] Their duets, with Nan accompanying their songs on Guitar, Ukulele, or Accordion, were well known in Woodstock and are often mentioned in accounts of social gatherings there.[28]

Between 1923 and 1936, Wilna and Nan made regular seasonal trips back and forth across the United States by train and later by car, shuttling between the two art colonies. During one of their marathon cross-country drives, it was alleged that they were accosted by a band of gypsies. After that Wilna, determined to defend their wallets as well as their virtue, insisted on keeping a loaded gun handy on the back seat.[29] Their summers were always spent in Woodstock, which they considered their real home and where the two women knew they had found paradise.

The utopian Maverick Art Colony at Woodstock had been founded by the eccentric social activist and idealist, Hervey White, who purchased a farm in 1905 and encouraged artists, writers, and musicians to join him in living there in a series of rustic cabins. He also encouraged everyone to join him in casting off society’s restrictions. “Do what you want to (as long as you don’t harm others)” was the simple guiding principle Hervey White put in place. Over the years a remarkable mix of painters, sculptors, actors, writers, musicians, and furniture designers combined with some of the more quirky local characters to create a unique, comfortable, and tolerant haven for even the most outré creative personalities. Willie and Nan could not have found a more congenial home.

Throughout the twenties and continuing until 1931, one of the yearly highlights of life in Woodstock was the annual Maverick Festival sponsored by the Maverick Art Colony. In the early years of the artists community at Woodstock, the locals were horrified by the influx of bohemian types from Greenwich Village who were taking up residence on Hervey White’s farm. To placate them, White began offering musical entertainments. In 1915, when White faced the high cost of digging a new well, some of the resident musicians suggested a full scale festival to raise money. Thus, the annual Maverick Festival was born. It would be the Maverick Colony’s chief fund-raising tool for fifteen years. Between 1917 and 1931, a Maverick Festival was held each year on the day and evening of the August full moon. Each festival was built around a theme that encouraged attendees to arrive in flamboyant costumes. The evening theatrical events, often written by notable authors, and performed in the open air, could be quite extravagant. For The Ark Royale, a pirate theme extravaganza performed in 1924, an eighty-foot-long wooden ship was utilized as a set, and actually burned at the end of the performance. A costume ball always ended the festivities, with revelers not dispersing until daylight the next morning.[30] Wilna and Nan were enthusiastic participants in the events, as surviving photos testify. At one of the festivals, Wilna’s friends induced her to participate in a send up of the Toonerville Trolley, reprising her role as Powerful Katrinka for the Woodstock crowds.[31] Her fame as Katrinka was, in fact, to follow her all her life.

Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason dressed as clowns at one of the Maverick Festivals. Stowall Studios, Woodstock, NY, Afternoon Picnic, c. 1924, vintage gelatin silver print, 5 “x7.” The Gaede/Striebel Archive, Center for Photography at Woodstock, Permanent Print Collection. On extended loan to the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, State University of New York at New Paltz. [Courtesy of the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art]

Unfortunately, as the Maverick Festivals grew in popularity (6,000 attendees in 1929) they gradually deteriorated, with bootleg booze fueling fights, and instances of robbery and even rape convincing the local authorities that the annual event was getting completely out of hand. Hervey White was finally compelled to bring the tradition to an end in 1931. They remain a legend to this day, their memories preserved by two local historians who had the foresight to record oral histories of many surviving participants in the years 1968-1979.[32]

When Hervey White shut down the annual Maverick festivals, Wilna was not willing to let them go. For years afterwards, she staged lavish “Full Moon Parties ” on her own property so that the festivals could continue, albeit reduced in scale. Her parties, which could inspire such memorable events as famed tap dancer, Paul Draper, spontaneously performing for the guests with the headlights of cars providing his spotlight,[33] became part of the Woodstock legend.

One of the many attractions of life in Woodstock was the close bond and camaraderie that the artists enjoyed. Evidence of this special sense of community can be found in the permanent collection of the Woodstock Artists Association and was showcased in a special exhibit mounted in their museum in 2005. In the exhibit, “With Affection: Personal Inscriptions and the Art of Giving” all of the prints, drawings, and paintings on display were works once given by Woodstock artists to other Woodstock artists, all bearing special inscriptions of congratulations and/or affection. Included in this exhibit was a sketch of Wilna and Nan’s farm, drawn by noted artist, Eugene Speicher, and inscribed “To Willie with love from Gene” a work by Charles Rosen inscribed “Happy Birthday to Nan from Charlie—1933 (and Willie too!)” and a lithograph by Howard Mandel on which he wrote “With Affection for Willie and Nan/ love, Howard.”[34] These and other works make clear the extent to which “the big girls ” had become valued members of the Woodstock community.

Another more mundane, but equally important, attraction of life in Woodstock was that one could live there cheaply, and photos of Wilna and Nan at home suggest that their surroundings were plain and simple.[35] Whatever income Wilna had from her savings or investments, and what little they both made from sales of their artworks (limited at first, to be sure) was sufficient for their needs. However, at least some of Wilna’s money must have been invested in stocks and as a result, during the Great Depression, it is known that at one point the women felt compelled to earn more money. Their first venture involved creating candles which they sold locally. When this proved insufficient, they took up house painting. At least one senior citizen in Woodstock still remembers the remarkable sight of Wilna Hervey climbing up and down ladders carrying buckets of paint. It was an image worthy of a Toonerville skit, but now quite real. Apparently the two artists were very good at this new profession. Their efforts were much appreciated and it paid their bills.[36]

Wilna always appreciated show business for the potential it had to pay well, and it may have been the desire to find additional income in the waning years of the Depression that led her to make another foray into the world of professional entertainment. Once again deploying her remarkable size to her advantage, she tried out for and won the role of “The Biggest Girl ” in a Broadway play, Summer Night, scheduled to open at the St. James Theater in November 1939. Written by Vicki Baum and Benjamin Glazer, and staged by the legendary Lee Strasberg, Summer Night was based on the marathon dance craze of the late Depression years. However, the play was not a success and folded after only four performances. One critic commented: “excellent actors and superb sets are wasted on this uninteresting and empty play.”[37]

Wilna’s real success as an artist did not occur until rather late in her career. She was already in her sixties when she decided to learn the technique of applying enamel on copper. She wanted to create some new switchplates to brighten up her home. After the usual and predictable progression of projects—ashtrays, earrings, and the like—Wilna created her switchplates. But, now intrigued by the process of laying enamel on copper, she began experimenting with new ideas. Eventually, she discovered a “secret ” that allowed her to use enamels as though they were oil paints in creating a painting. That secret was, of course, never revealed in any of the articles highlighting her work, but the results were remarkable enough that her friend, Eugene Speicher, enthusiastically urged her to “keep at it” adding, “you’ve discovered something new, something different! “[38]

Wilna’s “Enamel Paintings’ brought her more recognition than she had enjoyed in all of her previous years as an artist, and were the subject of several articles and numerous exhibits at which she saw every work she displayed bought off the walls. These delicate and sensitive pieces in brilliant colors are the art she is most famous for today. Most of these works are miniature paintings, quite small and intimate, ranging from 16 to 75 square inches. “I’m a big woman, but I want my paintings to stay small” she told reporter, Sally Perkins, who visited her studio in Bearsville in 1966. “Small and personal. I want them to last.”[39]

Wilna’s studio was full of strange improvised devices she had clobbered together over the years, evidence of the experimental process by which she had arrived at her innovative techniques of enameling. Her tools ranged from a dental instrument she had appropriated from her dentist, to an old flat steel automobile spring she used to carry things to and from the kiln. On her worktable, and evoking memories of Powerful Katrinka, was a seventy-five pound chunk of railroad track she used as a press. Hung on the asbestos-covered walls of the studio were numerous works she called her “learning steps” the various stages of the experiments that led to her eventual success. “I’m glad my work has found appreciation” she told Perkins. “[But] I wish I could have discovered this sooner. I wish I had twenty years…it seems almost too late.” Wilna was already seventy-two at the time of this interview and had already been experiencing bouts of ill health for years.

Woodstock winters are notoriously harsh and Wilna and Nan often fled to warmer climates when the snow started to fall. After deciding that the 3,000-mile drives to and from Carmel were more than they cared to continue, they began exploring Florida as a location for their winter home. Eventually they discovered Anna Maria Island, across Tampa Bay from St. Petersburg and purchased the house at 112 Willow Avenue as their second home. They built a studio there as well, and Wilna added a kiln for her enamel work. From 1960 on, they spent every winter there. They were only two hundred feet from the beach and swam every day. Wilna, who suffered from steadily worsening hip problems, told the locals she felt much better on Anna Maria than anywhere else. As long as there weren’t any storms, that is. Terrified of Florida’s thunderstorms and the tornadoes that sometimes accompanied them, she fled to a mainland motel for safety any time she felt threatened.[40]

A few weeks before Christmas in 1971, Wilna and Nan went out on the beach near their cottage at sunset and Nan took a poignant photograph of their lengthening shadows on the sands. It was a poetic metaphor for two old artists approaching the end of their days. Wilna included a copy of the photo in the Christmas card she sent to her old friend of fifty years, Henriette “Teddy ” Reiss “I’m still on two canes” Wilna wrote, explaining her silhouette, “and will be always.”[41]

Shadows on the Sand. Photograph by Nan Mason, 1971, 3.5-x-5″ [Courtesy Reiss Archives, Henriette Reiss Papers.]

Wilna’s health steadily declined during the 1970s. She was sometimes in bed for months on end. She died at the Manatee Memorial Hospital near her Florida home on the 6th of March, 1979. Several newspapers in Florida and New York paid tribute to her, all of them remembering her as “Powerful Katrinka.” When Nan returned to Woodstock the following summer, Wilna’s ashes were laid to rest in the Artists Cemetery in Woodstock. On June 3rd, a graveside service was conducted by the pastor of the Woodstock Reformed Church. The artist, Dorothy Varian, who had known “the big girls ” for fifty years, spoke and paid tribute to Wilna’s irrepressible spirit: “Wilna was never blasé about anything—a childlike joy and eagerness was her essence.”[42] Nan Mason survived her partner of fifty-nine years for three more years. She died at their winter home in 1982. Willie and Nan rest side by side in the Artist’s Cemetery at Woodstock.

__________________________________________________________

NEW: The long and remarkable friendship of Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason is now the subject of a full length biography, slated for publication in the spring of 2015. For more information, visit the website of WoodstockArts, and read about Living Large: Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason.

Wilna Hervey, Village Scene, 1946. Watercolor on paper. Click on the painting to visit a gallery of Wilna Hervey artwork. [Courtesy of the James Cox Gallery, Woodstock.]

A Wilna Hervey Filmography

The titles of the specific Sidney Drew comedies in which Wilna Hervey appeared without credit before 1919 are unknown today. There are indications that she may have appeared in other films as well. Below are the films that Wilna made between 1920 and 1923, with their release dates. All of the Toonerville films were directed by Ira M. Lowry, except for The Skipper’s Treasure Garden, which was directed by Robert Eddy. All of the Pop Tuttle (Plum Center) films were directed by Robert Eddy. Note that the last of the Toonerville films were being released even as the first of the Plum Center comedies were making their debut. In addition to the Toonerville Films listed below, there is one other Toonerville film, Toonerville Topics, in which Wilna Hervey did not appear. Asterisks indicate a film which survives in some form today; a double asterisk indicates a film still on nitrate.

Note: for those who care about such things, Wilna Hervey’s Bacon number is 4. She appeared in numerous films with Dan Mason; Mason appeared in Sally (1925) with Richard Arlen; Arlen appeared in The Mountain (1956) with Robert Wagner; Wagner appeared in Wild Things (1998) with Kevin Bacon.

  1. The Toonerville Trolley That Meets All The Trains, 27 September 1920
  2. The Skipper’s Treasure Garden, January 1921*
  3. Toonerville’s Fire Brigade, February 1921**
  4. The Skipper’s Flirtation, April 1921*
  5. Toonerville’s’Boozem’ Friends, 2 May 1921*
  6. The Skipper Has His Fling, 6 June 1921
  7. The Skipper’s Narrow Escape, 26 June 1921*
  8. Toonerville Tactics, 4 July 1921*
  9. The Skipper’s Scheme, 11 July 1921
  10. The Skipper Strikes It Rich, 1 August 1921
  11. Toonerville Follies, August 1921*
  12. Toonerville Tangle, 5 September 1921
  13. The Skipper’s Last Resort, 4 December 1921
  14. The Skipper’s Policy, 19 March 1922
  15. Toonerville Trials, 7 May 1922
  16. Toonerville Blues, 4 June 1922
  17. Pop Tuttle’s One Horse Play, 1 August 1922
  18. Pop Tuttle’s Movie Queen, 10 September 1922*
  19. Pop Tuttle’s Clever Catch, 8 October 1922
  20. The Skipper’s Sermon, 15 October 1922
  21. Pop Tuttle, The Fire Chief, 5 November 1922*
  22. Pop Tuttle’s Grass Widow, 3 December 1922
  23. Pop Tuttle, Deteckative, 31 December 1922*
  24. Pop Tuttle’s Long Shot, 28 January 1923
  25. Pop Tuttle’s Pole Cat Plot, 25 February 1923
  26. Pop Tuttle’s Lost Control, 25 March 1923**
  27. Pop Tuttle’s Lost Nerve, 22 April 1923
  28. Pop Tuttle’s Russian Rumors, 2 May 1923
  29. Pop Tuttle’s Tac Tics, 15 July 1923

Wilna Hervey by Map

Hervey lived and worked across the country. Zoom in on the icons to see the locations. Click on “View Larger Map” to take a chronological tour.

Footnotes

  1. ^“Big Girl (6 Ft. 3-275) Likes Mrs. Santa Role” unattributed, unpaginated, newspaper clipping, c. 1930s, Wilna Hervey File, Archives of the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum, Woodstock, NY.
  2. ^Anna V.H.T. Adams’s first marriage to Thomas V. Cator Sr. ended in divorce. See “Brewster Riches Brought Only Woe, Wife Says” Oakland Tribune, 12 December 1922, p. B16; “Wilna Hervey Dies in Fla., Noted Local Artist-Actress” Ulster County Townsman, 15 March 1979, unpaginated clipping, Wilna Hervey file, WAAM.
  3. ^According to a family tree Wilna wrote out for a friend, recently uncovered in the archive of the Woodstock Artists Association, her mother had quite a pedigree with U.S. Presidents and Civil War Generals in her family tree. She had inherited two sizeable fortunes while in her thirties; United States Census for New York State, Queens County, 1910 and 1920; “E. V. Brewster and Miss Eleanor Cator Wed On Dec. 27″ The New York Times, 4 January 1917.
  4. ^Wilna Published an interview with actor, Thomas Meighan, in February 1917. See MPM, February 1917, pp. 111-113. She wrote an article, “Actor’s Bungalows at Hollywood, California,” for Moving Picture Classic Magazine in May 1917, pp. 37-40; Kent Chetlain, “‘Katrinka’ of silent screen dies” The Islander, 15 March 1979, 23-A, clipping in Wilna Hervey File, WAAM; 1920 United State Census for New York City, enumeration district 378, 10-A; Sidney Drew made a series of two-reel comedies in the years 1913-1919. The photo of Sidney Drew and Wilna Hervey was found in a bound volume of clippings donated to the Betzwood Archive. It is either from Moving Picture Magazine, Fall 1917, or Photoplay Magazine, Fall, 1916.
  5. ^Betty Kohlman, “Wilna Hervey, silent film star” St. Petersberg Times, 8 March 1979, 11-B.
  6. ^Advance publicity sheet for The Skipper’s Narrow Escape, provided by The First National Exhibitor’s Circuit, c. November, 1920, Xerox copy, Betzwood Film Archive, Montgomery County Community College, Blue Bell, Pennsylvania.
  7. ^For more information about the Toonerville films, see Joseph P. Eckhardt, “Clatter, Sproing, Clunk, Went the Trolley, Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine, Vol XVIII, #3 (Summer 1992), pp. 24-31.
  8. ^“Katrinka of the Cinema” Motion Picture Magazine, December 1920, p. 73; Eugene V. Brewster’s Motion Picture Story Magazine had become Motion Picture Magazine in 1914.
  9. ^In 1987, three Toonerville films were discovered in the UCLA Film Archives in Hollywood by researcher Hillel Don Lazarus. The Skipper’s Narrow Escape, and Toonerville’s ‘Boozem’ Friends had survived with little damage. The third, Toonerville’s Fire Brigade had totally disintegrated. Dr. Lazarus arranged for The Toy Train Operating Society of California to restore the two surviving UCLA films for posterity. Another copy of Toonerville’s Fire Brigade was also discovered by Dr. Lazarus, but in the hands of a private collector who will not permit access to it. Four more films were discovered at George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. Of these, The Skipper’s Flirtation, and Toonerville Follies, which had suffered some loss, had already been transferred to safety stock so that copies could be made. The other two, Toonerville Tactics, and The Skipper’s Treasure Garden, have suffered some damage and are awaiting restoration.
  10. ^The studio was used by another film company in 1921/22 to make the film, Breaking Home Ties. Another enterprise, formed by a few former Betzwood employees, used the studio in 1923/24 to make a series of “Song Films” designed to be screened while audiences were led in song. The studio closed for good in December 1924.
  11. ^Another Toonerville spin-off occurred six years later when Fontaine Fox went to Hollywood to make a series of films based on another Toonerville character, Mickey “Himself ” McGuire. This long series, which ran from silents made in 1927 to sound films made in 1934, starred a very young Mickey Rooney, and were the reason Rooney (real name, Joe Yule) took on the name Mickey. He would have been known as Mickey McGuire all his life had not Fontaine Fox sued him, forcing the change to Rooney.
  12. ^Bernice Birkman, “Former Star of Those Toonerville Trolley Comedies Lives On Island” The Bradenton Herald, 24 March 1965, unpaginated clipping, Wilna Hervey File, WAA M.
  13. ^Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography, Macmillan, (New York, 1971), p. 35.
  14. ^Death Certificate #1257, 17 March 1922, NYC Archives; Postcard from Wilna Hervey to Winold Reiss, c. September 1922, Reiss Archives.
  15. ^Birkman, “Former Star of Those Toonerville Trolley Comedies Lives On Island.”
  16. ^Birkman, “Former Star of Those Toonerville Trolley Comedies Lives On Island.”
  17. ^There are thirteen deeds for property Wilna purchased in the years 1920-1929 in the Ulster County Courthouse; A map of the Woodstock area drawn up early in 1926, labels a house in nearby Bearsville as belonging to Wilna Hervey. See Anita Smith, Woodstock, History and Hearsay, (Woodstock Arts, 1959), p. 134; Labeled “an unauthentic Map of Woodstock…showing the location of some of the artist’s homes” the map was drawn by art colony members, Rudolph and Margaret Wetterau.
  18. ^Death Certificate #4924, 8 October 1925, NYC Archives
  19. ^Birkman, “Former Star of Those Toonerville Trolley Comedies Lives On Island.”
  20. ^ Winold Reiss to Henriette Reiss, 24 September 1921, Henriette Reiss Papers, Reiss Archive.
  21. ^ For an excellent biography of Putzi Hanfstaengl, see Peter Conradi, Hitler’s Piano Player, 2004; Wilna Hervey to Ernst Hanfstaengl, received 17 February 1975, Wilna Hervey to Ernst Hanfstaengl, received 10 July 1975, Reiss Archives; I am grateful to Renate Reiss, widow of Winold Reiss’ son, Tjark, for providing me with much information about Wilna’s remarkable circle of friends.
  22. ^ Birkman, “Former Star of Those Toonerville Trolley Comedies Lives On Island.”
  23. ^. Wilna Hervey to Winold Reiss, 1922, Reiss Archives; Edan Hughes, “Artists in California, 1786-1940″
  24. ^ Monica Hudson, Carmel by-the-Sea, Arcadia Publishing, 2006, p. 116.
  25. ^ Birkman, “Former Star of Those Toonerville Trolley Comedies Lives On Island.”
  26. ^ “$750 for Family of Electricity Victim” The Ambler Gazette, 25 August 1921.
  27. ^ Playbill and clipping, Wilna Hervey File, WAAM.
  28. ^ See Anita Smith, Woodstock, History and Hearsay, p. 216; Photographer Edward Weston mentions an encounter with “Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason who played and sang in their delightful way.” See The Daybooks of Edward Weston, George Eastman House, (Rochester, 1961), p. 273.
  29. ^ Birkman, “Former Star of Those Toonerville Trolley Comedies Lives On Island.”
  30. ^ Online exhibit at http://www.newpaltz.edu/museum/exhibitions/maverick/maverick_festival.htm
  31. ^ According to one of the Oral histories taken by Fritzi Striebel and Jean Gaede, artist Walt Peters was involved in constructing a Toonerville Trolley for one of the Maverick Festivals. See the online exhibit at: http://www.newpaltz.edu/museum/exhibitions/maverick/personalities.htm
  32. ^ Fritzi Striebel and Jean Lasher Gaede began collecting oral histories of the Woodstock Maverick Art Colony in 1968. By 1979 they had preserved forty-seven oral histories on forty hours of tape. Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason were interviewed in 1974. See the online exhibit at: http://www.newpaltz.edu/museum/exhibitions/maverick/oral_histories.htm
  33. ^ Dennis Drogseth, “In memoriam: Wilna Hervey” unidentified clipping, Wilna Hervey File, WAAM.
  34. ^ Catalog for the exhibit, “With Affection: Personal Inscriptions and the Art of Giving” WAAM, Woodstock, 2005. The exhibit was curated by Josephine Bloodgood and ran February 12-May 1, 2005. For a review, see http://www.catskillmtn.org/publications/articles/2005-03-artspace.html; Eugene Speicher (1883-1962) was named “America’s most important living artist ” by Esquire Magazine in 1936.
  35. ^ In 1934, Peter A. Juley and his son, Paul P., visited Woodstock and photographed many of the artists in their homes. A group of six photos of Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason are included in the Juley collection now housed in the Photograph Archives of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and can be viewed online at http://sirismm.si.edu/siris/aboutjul.htm. Note that even though the photos are there, the search engine doesn’t always recognize Wilna’s name.
  36. ^ Telephone interview with Woodstock historian, Jean Gaede, 9 September 2007.
  37. ^ Tom Vallance, “Obituary: Lyle Bettinger” The Independent (London), 8 October 2003. The comment was made by the critic for the Journal-American.; Vicki Baum had better luck with her play, Grand Hotel.
  38. ^ Sally Perkins, “Enameled Paintings-Wilna Hervey’s Discovery Hailed As ‘New Art Form’” The Saugerties Post-Woodstock Record Press-The Kingstonian, 6 October 1966, p. 16.
  39. ^ Perkins, “Enameled Paintings.”
  40. ^ Kent Chetlain, “‘Katrinka’ of silent screen dies “; Birkman, “Former Star of Those Toonerville Trolley Comedies Lives On Island.” ; Wilna Hervey to Henriette Reiss, 6 February 1972, Reiss Archives.
  41. ^ Wilna Hervey to Henriette Reiss, 2 December 1971, Reiss Archives.
  42. ^ “Wilna Hervey Services June 3″ unpaginated clipping, Ulster County Townsmen, 31 May 1979, Hervey files, WAAM; Dorothy Varian, “Thinking of Willie” handwritten notes for memorial tribute, Wilna Hervey file, WAAM.”

1 thought on “Wilna Hervey, Actress & Artist”

  1. Carolyne Norwood said:

    This is a wonderful article. So detailed and interesting. I am the co-founder of the Anna Maria Island Historical Society. Wilna and Nan lived up the street from the museum. I am saving this article for the museum archives. I have written two history books about the Island dealing with the era from 1893-1970. There is a section on Wilna and Nan and a picture of Katrinka on the Toonerville Trolley.
    Visit our website:
    AMIHS.org
    Carolyne Norwood

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