The scenario: three sisters toil in the same industry, that of motion pictures. Which of the siblings will find greater success, and higher happiness, in the land of broken hearts, and shattered dreams? Yes, the saga of the Talmadge sisters, and their respective personal and professional ascents in Hollywood, is that of legend, and very much tied to the town of tinsel. Each of the trio had a niche, and a personal story to live out. But it was Norma, the eldest of the three, who saw the greatest overall prosperity, and experienced the most drastic fall from that success.
Norma Talmadge was born on May 2, 1894, in Jersey City, New Jersey; the first born girl to Fred and Peggy Talmadge. Peggy was, by all accounts, the prototypical stage mother, who encouraged all her children, and especially Norma, to exploit her good looks and gregarious personality via performance. At the age of 15, in 1910, Norma made her screen debut, in a Vitagraph short, A Four-Footed Pest. From that inauspicious beginning, there was no looking back.
In 1911, at sweet sixteen, Norma played the leading lady in her first important film, A Tale of Two Cities: this was the first screen adaptation of the immortal Charles Dickens novel. This was the true beginning of Norma’s screen career, which included, from this time until 1916, innumerable screen appearances for the Vitagraph and Triangle film companies. However, in 1916, her career, and her life, took a significant upward turn.
On October 20, 1916, Norma married producer Joseph M. Schenck, in Connecticut. Husband guided the career of wife (and eventually those of sister-in-law Constance Talmadge and brother-in-law Buster Keaton), and set up the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation, releasing pictures through First National and, later, through United Artists, which Schenck headed beginning in 1924. On May 11, 1919, Norma’s latest film, The New Moon, was doing so well at New York’s Rivoli Theatre, that the police had to order the box office to stop selling tickets to prevent overcrowding. When Norma and Connie tried to get in to see the picture, even they were turned away. It was in the early Roaring Twenties, truly, when Norma’s career skyrocketed: she ranked among the most popular film idols in the world, owing to her monumentally successful films, tearful melodramas which primarily placed Norma in the position of suffering heroine. These types of films, as long as they remained popular, kept Norma on top of the box office and popular polls. By 1923, with strong starring vehicles such as Within the Law and Ashes of Vengeance, Norma was the top female box office attraction, according to a poll of exhibitors conducted by Quigley Publications (Thomas Meighan was the top male), and Norma’s weekly salary, at $10,000, was the highest amongst all male and female screen performers. In 1924, Norma was unseated by Gloria Swanson as top box office female (Harold Lloyd was the top male box office attraction that year), but by 1925, stunning performances in The Lady and Graustark put Norma back on top of box office polls among actresses (Rudolph Valentino was the top male draw to the theatres that year). In April 1927, Norma, along with sister Connie, and husband and wife sensations Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, became the first celebrities to be immortalized in cement, via footprints placed in front of the then-under construction Grauman’s Chinese Theater. All was tranquil and serene, personally and professionally, until the dawn of a new era: sound films, which created its share of new success stories, and its share of victims.
Norma and Joseph Schenck were separated in 1928, with Talmadge receiving a divorce on April 14, 1934, on the grounds of incompatibility. Schenck took the blame for the marital split, stating that he had, indeed, neglected her since becoming President of United Artists. By the time of the final dissolution of the Schenck marriage, the career of Norma Talmadge was already over, and had been for four years. Her long-awaited sound film debut, DuBarry — Woman of Passion (1930), opened on November 2, 1930 at New York’s Rivoli Theatre. The expectations were high, and this film, more than perhaps any other she had appeared in, exposed the sad facts that had been present all along. Norma was not a particularly strong actress; rather, she was well managed, and was consistently starred in spectacularly successful vehicles at precisely the correct time for her talents. Thus, when a film like DuBarry came along, which depended on more than merely melodramatic histrionics, and which required vocal strength, Norma’s career was, for all intents and purposes, finished. Hers was one of the very few silent film era careers that was directly ended by ineffectiveness in the sound picture genre. For Norma, it was a devastating turn of events, wholly unexpected, with her considerable monetary fortune to keep her warm — as well as a new husband.
Nine days after her divorce from Schenck, on April 23, 1934, Norma married comedian George Jessel in a ceremony held at Atlantic City’s Ambassador Hotel, and officiated by that city’s mayor, Harry Bacharach. The beaming groom gushed, “I’ve never been happier in my life. Is there anything more a man can say?” That happiness, alas, lasted only five years, with the couple divorcing, on August 11, 1939, in Juarez, Mexico, on the grounds of incompatibility. Seven years later, Norma quietly married Beverly Hills physician Dr. Carvel James, on December 4, 1946, in Las Vegas. Theirs was a most happy marriage, out of the spotlight, the pressures of Hollywood, and the curiosity-seeking headlines. Eleven years and twenty days after taking their nuptials, Norma Talmadge died, in Las Vegas, on December 24, 1957. Hers was a most premature death, attributed to complications from a long bout with arthritis aggravated by drug abuse.
Over three hundred films make up the body of work of Norma Talmadge. It took sound, and her incompatibility with it, to end one of cinema’s most celebrated careers, which was honored with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, at 1500 Vine Street. However, box office numbers, and contemporary popularity polls, tell the real story of the climb to fame of Norma Talmadge, a Brooklyn-born tragedienne whose impact on the industry remains an undeniable sensation.