Monday, July 19, 2010

Doris Kenyon: Ausable Forks Movie Star

Ausable Forks was once the favored respite of one of America’s most famed and beloved actresses of her time. During the prime of her career in the 1920s, to escape constant media scrutiny, this lady returned often to the Adirondacks, a quiet, peaceful place filled with the memories of childhood.

Doris Kenyon was born on September 5, 1897, the daughter of James and Margaret Kenyon. James, once a protégé of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was a person of some renown in his own right, achieving widespread fame and praise for his skills as a poet. Many of his works were featured in Harpers, the Atlantic, and other reputable magazines. After writing two books, James remained in the literary world and became a publisher. His position would help open doors for his talented daughter.

The family lived for a time in Chaumont, New York, northwest of Watertown, and then moved to Syracuse, where Doris was born. Her brother, Raymond, nineteen years older than Doris, was a dentist and oral surgeon in both Philadelphia and Syracuse. Health issues and a deep love of hunting and fishing prompted his move to the Adirondacks in pursuit of a less strenuous life.

Ray Kenyon chose Ausable Forks as his new home, immersing himself in local life, business, and politics. He served in several key positions, including many years as chairman of the Essex County Republican Party, and several more as state assemblyman. Due to his great skill as a dentist and his affable nature, Raymond became a fixture in the community.

Young Doris was a frequent visitor and guest at her brother’s home—so frequent, in fact, that she has sometimes been claimed as an Ausable Forks native. She spent many summers at Fern Lake and was well known in the village, particularly for her singing ability.

When Doris was in her teens, her father became head of the publishing department of the National Encyclopedia of Biography. It was a position of prominence and power, earning James close ties with luminaries from many venues, including show business.

By this time, Doris had sung with different choirs and had developed a reputation for the quality of her voice. At a meeting of the Authors Club, which she attended with her father, Doris was invited to sing, delivering a very impressive performance.

Among the attendees was the renowned Victor Herbert, who had been a superb cellist in Europe, having played in the orchestra of Johann Strauss. In America, he worked at the Metropolitan Opera and became a famed composer and conductor. Like many other stars, Victor maintained a home in Lake Placid.

Her performance before the Authors Club wowed Herbert, and though Doris was only sixteen years old, he decided to cast her in the stage musical Princess Pat. The show opened on Broadway in the Cort Theatre, and Doris’ stage debut as the character Coralee Bliss was a big success. The movie industry soon showed an interest in her. (Apparently for her acting skills, and not for her lovely voice. The silent film era wouldn’t give way to talkies for another 14 years.)

Doris couldn’t resist the opportunity. She left a promising stage career to appear as Effie MacKenzie in The Rack (Milton Sills was the leading star), which was released in December 1915. That performance earned her the lead role in Pawn of Fate, released in February 1916. Within a month, Worldwide Film Corporation signed Doris to an exclusive three-year contract at $50,000 a year ($1 million per year in today’s dollars) … and she was still a teenager!

Despite her youth, Doris displayed maturity with her newfound wealth, donating to projects like the Childrens’ Home in Plattsburgh. She supported the troops during World War I, subscribing to $50,000 worth of Liberty Bonds, the highest amount of any actress in show business.

Under her new contract, Doris played the leading role in many movies. In 1917, after making A Hidden Hand for Plathe Films, she formed her own company, De Luxe Pictures. The crew stayed at the Lake Placid Club while filming its first project, The Story of Seven Stars.

As life became more hectic, Doris returned frequently to her childhood roots in Ausable Forks, spending time with Raymond. She and her brother shared an affinity for fox hunting, a very popular pastime in those days. Raymond’s camp on Silver Lake was one of Doris’ favorite places, and there she hosted luminaries from show business and other industries.

Doris went on to star in nearly fifty silent films, including 1924’s Monsieur Bocaire with living legend Rudolph Valentino, and 1925’s A Thief in Paradise with Ronald Colman. During her long career, she played opposite all the great stars of the day, among them Loretta Young, Spencer Tracy, Ralph Bellamy, John Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas, Robert Young, and Adolph Menjou. Her fame was such that newborn Doris Kappelhoff (born in 1922) was named after Kenyon. Kappelhoff would gain great fame under her stage name, Doris Day.

One of the leading men in several of Kenyon’s movies became the leading man in her personal life. Milton Sills was a major star of the era, and he and Doris had performed together many times. In May 1926, Doris announced she had purchased her brother’s camp, and a few weeks later came an update—she and Milt Sills would soon marry … on the shores of Silver Lake!

The ceremony took place amidst the October splendor of the leaf color change, creating a sensational backdrop at the camp Doris called “Moose Missie.” And, as they honeymooned through the Adirondacks (two days in a suite of rooms in Agora at the Lake Placid Club), plus Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone Park, workmen were completing a beautiful mansion on their sixty-acre estate in Hollywood, California.

The wedding had been announced in May 1926, but was delayed until October due to Doris being ill. (Seven months after the ceremony, she gave birth to a son, Kenyon Clarence Sills.) Following the wedding and lengthy honeymoon, Doris took some time off from acting, but returned soon to star in several movies with her husband. In effect, they were the industry’s “power-couple” of the day, starring in movies and receiving constant media coverage.

In 1929, they passed the summer at Silver Lake, where Milton was recovering from illness. Doris spent several weeks at the camp, but she also did about a month of vaudeville performances before the two of them returned to making movies. And, upon special request, she served in August as a judge for the baby parade and pageant in Lake Placid’s summer carnival.

In 1929, Doris gave a concert performance in New York City, confirming that she still had a great singing voice. At the same time, unlike many other silent-film stars, she smoothly transitioned into the world of “talkies,” remaining one of Hollywood’s top stars.

In September 1930, tragedy struck Doris’ life. Shortly after playing tennis with his family, Milton Sills, 48, suddenly collapsed and died of a heart attack. Doris, just 33 at the time, was devastated by the loss, and buried herself in work to help ease the pain.

She had been recognized in the past for other skills—writing, poetry, and as a pianist—but it was singing that Doris really missed. Plans had already been made for a return to regular concert performances, and after the death of Sills, Doris went on a world tour. After many successful European shows, she returned to the United States with a renewed interest in her film career.

Through the 1930s, Doris remained a major movie star, appearing in at least fourteen more films. She was also quite busy on the marital front. First came Syracuse real estate broker Arthur Hopkins in 1933, a union that lasted only a few months (annulled). Next, Doris was married to Albert Lasker in 1938 for a year (divorced). Finally, she married Bronislav Mlynarski in 1947 (that one lasted twenty-four years, ending with Mlynarski’s death in 1971).

Through the WW II years, Doris again supported the troops by singing with the USO. In the 1950s, she acted in television shows, sang on the radio, and performed two roles in radio soap operas. From silent films to the advent of television, she had done it all.

It was an incredible career spanning the Metropolitan Opera, stage, screen, vaudeville, concerts, radio, poetry, television, and writing. She was a success at everything she tried (even marriage, in the end). One of Hollywood’s lasting stars, Doris Kenyon passed away from heart trouble in September 1979, just a few days shy of her 82nd birthday.

Top Photo: Poster from a Kenyon movie.

Middle Photo: Doris Kenyon in A Thief in Paradise.

Bottom Photo: Doris Kenyon collectible tobacco card.

Lawrence Gooley has authored eight books and several articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004 and have recently begun to expand their services and publishing work. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Lawrence P. Gooley

Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region’s past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley’s books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.





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