Silent Movie Myth: President Woodrow Wilson had an affair with Florence La Badie—and then had her murdered

Welcome. We are about to descend into the realm of scandal-mongering, myths, gossip, innuendo, with a side helping of just plain mean. It doesn’t get worse than this. We are dealing with a rumor that sullies three reputations: Woodrow Wilson, one of the most famous and influential American presidents of the twentieth century; motion picture pioneer Edwin Thanhouser; and Florence La Badie, a popular film star who died at the height of her fame.

I shall be debunking these myths:

False: Woodrow Wilson had an affair with Florence La Badie

False: Edwin Thanhouser prostituted Miss La Badie in exchange for filming permits

False: Florence La Badie had the president’s child

False: Woodrow Wilson murdered La Badie to keep her silent

False: La Badie’s mother disappeared after her death

Questionable: Mary Pickford believed there was a coverup

False: The press was muzzled regarding La Badie’s accident

I am going to write out the basic narrative but it is important to know that not a single word of it is true.

The Myth

Florence La Badie, silent star extraordinaire, caught the eye of Woodrow Wilson, who was governor of New Jersey and then elected President of the United States. She was unwilling but he used his authority to blackmail her studio into letting him have his way with her. She became pregnant with his child, dropped out of the movies and then the brakes of her car failed and she was gravely injured in the accident. Or, should we say, “accident?” Anyway, La Badie was expected to survive but died anyway. More suspiciously, her mother disappeared soon after her death and the press was ordered to back off the story.

Not a single phrase in that paragraph stands up to scrutiny.

The summation of this article:

This is a very long, in-depth take-down of a ridiculous myth. Here are the highlights, if you are in a hurry.

*La Badie died from the severe infection caused by injuries she sustained at the accident. This was not uncommon in 1917 as there were no antibiotics. Her death was not suspicious in any way.

*Woodrow Wilson was involved in brutal political campaigns with opponents who were actively searching for infidelity. They surely would have discovered the affair as it was purported to be an open secret in film circles.

*None of Wilson’s biographers (some of them hostile) mention La Badie.

*When Wilson supposedly impregnated La Badie, he was actually with his own daughter, who was giving birth to his first grandchild. His other two adult daughters were also staying with him at the time.

*Claims that La Badie retired from the screen on Wilson’s orders are false. She worked steadily until her death.

*Edwin Thanhouser was out of the movie business for much of the “affair” and could not have influenced La Badie’s actions.

*La Badie’s mother did not disappear and continued to live in New York for years after her daughter’s death.

*The oft-used Mary Pickford quote is taken out of context.

*The 1927 article that was supposed to back up many of these claims does not exists.

*The birth certificate for La Badie’s baby does not exist.

*This rumor was first published in 2000, if someone swiped both the article and the birth certificate, why didn’t the author notice?

*Films that would have been made when La Badie was very pregnant exist. She is clearly not with child.

*Of the two witnesses to these events, one has a back story that doesn’t check out and zero public records and the other was not in the United States for much of the “affair”

*The latter witness also thought her husband was a Jedi.

*The conspiracy required multiple presidents from both political parties, from Warren G. Harding to Bill Clinton, to have an active hand in the coverup– at the expense of covering over their own scandals.

Note: I will be focusing solely on the Woodrow Wilson rumor. If you would like to know more about Miss La Badie’s adoption and other aspects of her personal life, two excellent sources are Thanhouser.org and Bryan Smith’s Lilac Lane, a smart and correctly sourced tribute site dedicated to Miss La Badie. Both sites are well-researched and support their claims with contemporary articles, legal documents, news reports and movie footage. If you would like to know more about Miss La Badie’s early career, do check out 11 East 14th Street’s article.

All right, kids, here we go. Strap on your machetes because we are going to be hacking through a whole lot of baloney.

We are going to be taking apart the different aspects of the rumor one by one. It’s going to be brutal.

But she was expected to recover!

Supposedly, Miss La Badie’s injuries from her car accident were not severe and she was expected to recover.

Nope. Car accidents can cause injuries that are not detected for days, weeks or months. (Though, in La Badie’s case, a compound fracture to the pelvis is pretty serious.) Further, Miss La Badie died before the discovery of penicillin. Secondary infections were often more dangerous and more deadly that the initial injury. Indeed, her cause of death is listed as septicemia, blood poisoning.

But the Boston Globe printed a story in 1927, which suggested there was a coverup!

Supposedly, the Boston Globe ran an article regarding Miss La Badie’s death on the tenth anniversary of either the accident or her passing. The article questioned why the car that La Badie drove was not properly examined and why it subsequently disappeared. Follow-up articles were promised but the story was abruptly dropped.

Conspiracy!

Was the story was killed by people in high places? Ah! The boys closing ranks! Because there is nothing a Republican president (Calvin Coolidge) loves more than protecting the reputation of one of his Democrat predecessors by monitoring Boston newspapers for whiffs of scandal. (And, lest this turn political, vice versa.) Keep it cool, Coolidge. It seems odd that of all the scandals Silent Cal could have squashed, he chose this one. And not, you know, Teapot Dome.

Silent Cal was in on it too? Say it ain’t so, Cal! (via Wikipedia)

I wanted to read that article for myself. Everyone was very specific. It had been published in 1927 as an anniversary piece. Fortunately, The Boston Globe has its archives available online. For a small fee, you get full access to their newspaper dating all the way back to 1872. It’s pretty wonderful.

I searched for every variation of Florence La Badie’s name that I could think of in articles published during 1927. I looked for articles that discussed movies, actresses, cars, accidents… How many articles showed up? None. The only article that comes close to the topic is a found in the July 3, 1927 issue (page B6), which discusses the recent separate accidents involving Einar Hanson and Evelyn Eagan. (Hanson’s accident was fatal but Eagan survived and was subsequently arrested in 1930 for driving her vehicle while both drunk and nude.) No foul play was suggested in either case and La Badie was neither mentioned nor hinted at.

And as I have yet to find anyone who directly quotes the alleged La Badie article (it is always paraphrased) I am going to have to assume that it does not exist.

This is where Sidney Olcott and Valentine Grant come in…

Much of the testimony on Florence La Badie’s death and alleged affair with Woodrow Wilson can be traced back to director Sidney Olcott and his wife, actress Valentine Grant. Olcott was pioneering in his use of location shooting but his style was downright stodgy by the 1920s and his most famous film of that period, Monsieur Beaucaire, is a real snoozer. His last film credit was in 1927.

Sidney Olcott recalled in vivid detail how an eight-year old Florence La Badie toddled in and tried out for a part all on her lonesome. That’s quite interesting as the earliest I have heard of La Badie going on the stage was 1908, when she was a strapping woman of twenty summers. I can see misremembering, say, a ten or eleven year old girl as being eight. But there is, you will agree, some difference between a girl of eight and a woman of twenty. Memorable difference, in fact. Further, this would have made La Badie a tween when she was playing adult roles in Biograph and Thanhouser productions.

Florence La Badie (not 8 years old)
Florence La Badie (not 8 years old)

The talk of La Badie being romanced by Woodrow Wilson (then governor of New Jersey) comes from Valentine Grant. She claimed that in 1911-1912, Wilson began to haunt the Thanhouser studios (with whom La Badie had a contract) with the express purpose of wooing La Badie (who is listed as eighteen but would have been twenty-three or twenty-four). Grant further asserted that La Badie was uncomfortable and unwilling but Edwin Thanhouser (boldly referred to as “Ed”) used his authority as her boss to force her into an affair.

All right. That’s a low blow. And Edwin Thanhouser retired from motion pictures in 1912. He sold his studio to Charles J. Hite the same year but resumed control in 1915. So, for much of this narrative, Mr. Thanhouser was not even involved with motion pictures. (I should also note that though Mr. Thanhouser lived until 1956, he was apparently not asked to refute Grant’s allegations, which she voiced in a private 1943 interview.)

Secondly, Miss La Badie was making movies in California with Biograph for much of 1911. If she was being harassed, why did she not return to the relative safety of D.W. Griffith’s Biograph crew?

Once again, the narrative does not stand up to scrutiny.

Edwin Thanhouser. Will you please leave this poor man alone? (via Wikipedia)

First of all, the surviving Thanhouser performers mention nothing (that I have found) of a future president constantly visiting their sets. Muriel Ostriche, for example, lived until 1989 and granted clear-headed and fascinating interviews. One would think that Woodrow Wilson’s visits would be memorable.

Second, the American film industry was centered in New York and New Jersey at the time and Wilson did love his movies (he was not the first president to hold a White House screening but he was a regular moviegoer and even arranged for an al fresco screening of Cabiria on the White House lawn in 1914). Did Wilson visit other studios? A governor visiting a major income source for his state would not be unheard of.

Third, stars were hopping studios all the time and film companies were starting to head west. Why didn’t La Badie sign on with a new studio if Thanhouser was treating her like a prostitute? La Badie was acquainted with Mary Pickford, who possessed a keen legal mind and a talent for snapping contracts like twigs. Surely Pickford or one of her other friends could have helped.

Woodrow Wilson. The cad. Or not. (via Wikipedia)

Fourth, Wilson was kind of, I don’t know, running for president during those years. Remember, this was before mass communication. National campaigning was arduous. And the election was a wild three-way race (Teddy Roosevelt was a third-party candidate). In fact, Wilson has trouble even securing his party’s nomination and he did not claim a majority of the popular vote. Why would his opponents in this close race overlook his stalking of La Badie? That seems like some rather good mud to sling. (Lest we forget, dirty politics are not a modern invention.) Please remember, movies in 1911 were seen as sleazy entertainments that were unworthy of proper folk. Wilson loved the movies but hanging out on movie sets and drooling over the actresses would have been painting a mile-wide target on himself. In fact, Wilson’s political opponents were hard at work trying to track down any evidence of impropriety. (More on that in a bit.)

Grant’s testimony grows wilder. She claimed that upon the death of First Lady Ellen Wilson in 1914, La Badie was saying that she would soon be married to the president.

Wait a second. A few minutes ago, Grant was talking about La Badie being pressured to date Wilson against her will and now she is all hot to trot to marry him? And if he was holding her movie career over her head, why would she marry him and end up with no career and a stalker husband? I’m so confused.

Oh, wait, scratch that. Grant then claimed Edwin Thanhouser (who, we will recall, was now retired) continued to prostitute La Badie for filming permits. At this point, it is late 1914 and the alleged harassment had been going on for almost four years. But, wait, Wilson was president and, presumably, it would look suspicious if he kept phoning home to talk about filming permits. Someone would notice, is what I mean.

Wilson is sworn in. Quick! Ask him about Florence La Badie while his hand is still on the bible! (via Wikipedia)

And then there were ever-so-secret invitation to spend Christmas at the White House, which would have taken place before Ellen Wilson’s body was cold in the grave. Apparently, the visit lasted until January. No one was allowed to talk about this visit but somehow everyone at Thanhouser heard about.

And, of course, Valentine Grant. However, at the time this was going on, Grant and Olcott were employed by Kalem, a film concern that wintered in Jacksonville, Florida and summered in Ireland and which also made treks to film in the Middle East. Olcott and Grant spent a considerable amount of time away from the New York/New Jersey film club and, I should also note, Grant did not even enter motion pictures until 1914. I don’t think either one was in a position to know the intimate goings on at Thanhouser, especially ones from 1911.

Grant reported that when La Badie returned to the studio in January of 1915 (it is broadly hinted that she had been kept at the White House from Christmas until her return), she was morose.

What happened at the White House? Oh, nothing. Florence never went.
What happened at the White House? Oh, nothing. Florence never went.

I am curious as to how Wilson concealed La Badie from his guests and staff. You see, there was something of a Wilson family reunion at the White House during Christmas of 1914. Further, Wilson’s daughter, Jessie, who was over eight months along in her pregnancy, stayed with her father during and after the holidays and actually gave birth to her son at the White House on January 17, 1915. (He was, as of this writing, the last baby born at the White House.) This was Wilson’s first grandchild.

The Wilson Family (via Wikipedia)
The Wilson Family (via Wikipedia)

Also in the White House was Wilson’s eldest daughter, Margaret, who served as First Lady after her mother’s death. Wilson’s youngest daughter, Eleanor, was married to the Secretary of the Treasury. So, three adult daughters close at hand, all concerned about their grieving father. An enormous staff. Numerous aids, congressmen and members of the cabinet passing through. (Because, you know, WORLD WAR ONE!) And no one noticed the president slipping out of the room to force himself on a world famous and universally recognizable woman who, according to Grant, had been sobbing uncontrollably at the idea of being in his presence?

No one in Washington ever came forward? Ever? Not even a hint or a whisper? (Contrast to how much we now know about, say, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy’s indiscretions.)

Wilson married again but the bride was not Miss La Badie. He wed Edith Bolling, a feisty and fashionable Virginia-born widow who would later kind of take over the presidency when her husband suffered a stroke. But that’s another story. So, would the newlywed Wilson leave his unwilling mistress alone?

Grant claimed Wilson was still chasing La Badie and ordered his lady love off the screen in 1916. And she agreed, per Grant. The usual story is that nothing was heard from La Badie between 1916 and her death in 1917. So, I guess she never starred in the 1917 film The Woman in White (watch it here!) or in four other films released that year. Or the nine released in 1916. The simple fact is that La Badie never stopped working.

What about the quantity of her films? She made nine in 1916 and only five in 1917. Slowdown? Um, yeah. She sort of had an accident in August of 1917, which has a way of cutting one’s output. Anyway, La Badie’s rate of release slowing down in 1916-1917 as compared to previous years doesn’t mean anything. Features take longer to make than shorts and features took over the industry in 1915. And, as feature films took hold, stars began to demand quality over quantity. Douglas Fairbanks was down to one feature a year by the mid-twenties but no one is suggesting it was because he was having an affair with, say, Margaret Sanger.

But wait, Edwin Thanhouser was forcing her to have an affair because Wilson was withholding filming contracts but if she left the screen in 1916, why would she continue the affair? Couldn’t she just go home to Canada? Oh, this is hurting my head!

Go on, Miss Grant. You’re doing just fine. We are almost convinced!

bells-boris-karloff-silent-movie-animated

Jedi mind tricks

I must emphasize that all testimony regarding the details of the alleged affair between Wilson and La Badie comes from one person: Valentine Grant. Grant did not discuss this bombshell publicly until 1943.

The Wilson cabinet, none of whom have mentioned La Badie. (via Wikipedia)

I must further emphasize that Woodrow Wilson has been the subject of numerous biographies. He is regularly listed as one of the most influential American presidents. The biographies I have read make no mention at all of Miss La Badie. If she was his sole obsession from 1911 until her death in 1917, it seems that someone would be interested. And, surely, at least one member of his staff would have noticed. In order to buy this secret affair, we have to accept that hundreds, perhaps thousands of people were involved in the cover-up and that all but Miss Grant took their knowledge to the grave. That’s pretty amazing, as conspiracies go.

I do not know Valentine Grant’s motives. I should like very much to see transcripts or recordings of the interview. They may be enlightening.

Sidney Olcott, Jedi master (via Wikipedia)

Another thing to remember is that Olcott and Grant claimed that he had the power of mind control, the gift of second sight, the ability to foresee disasters, and a telepathic link with his wife, which allowed him to send specific messages to her across oceans and continents.

That’s right. Our key witness thought her husband was a Jedi.

One would think one of these powers would have helped warn La Badie on the day of her fatal accident. Or perhaps perform a Jedi mind trick to force Wilson to leave her alone. I mean, what is the good of these powers if you don’t use them?

Not doing so well in the credibility department, are we?

The case of the disappearing fiancé

Allegedly, contemporary articles (again, no exact publication date offered) claim a man was riding with La Badie when her brakes failed. As the car crashed, he leaped to safety and ran away. Hark! The plot thickens! If this is true, getting help from an accident lawyer would make this situation a lot easier to handle. Specialists like these have their client’s interests at heart and they want to help them take the right steps to get their lives back on track. It doesn’t matter where you live in the world, as there are plenty of lawyers that you could use to help you with your case. If you are currently in need of a lawyer but are unsure about who to use then you might want to check out a website like https://westcoasttriallawyers.com, as this might give you a better idea of who you can use to help you with your case.

As a matter of fact, we do know who he was. Screenwriter Daniel Carson Goodman, her fiancé. Yes, fiancé. La Badie had been engaged to Goodman after breaking up with Val Hush, her previous fiancé. What were these men supposed to think of her White House trysts, supposedly common knowledge within the movie circle? (For that matter, what did Edith Wilson think of them?) Are we to believe that Thanhouser pressured La Badie into sleeping with Wilson at the White House so that the studio could do a publicity campaign (which is what Grant claimed) and the sobbing woman had to be practically dragged to the capital but the men in her life had no clue?

What’s a girl gotta do to get some sympathy in this joint?

show-people-1928-marion-davies-william-haines-king-vidor-silent-movie-don't-go-too-far-REVISED

In any case, Goodman may have been thrown from the vehicle (no seatbelts) but he suffered injuries to his legs and surely could not have done much running.

Mary Pickford didn’t want to talk about it.

Mary Pickford is quoted as saying that Olcott and Grant should have let sleeping dogs lie and some things were better left unexplored. Proof of a conspiracy?

Well, when people use the Pickford quote, they often chop off the first line of what she allegedly said: “I think Sid and Val should not discuss those happenings of so long ago.”

Remember, Olcott and Grant were part of the Canadian expat community in Hollywood. I have no doubt that everyone had heard their stories, probably multiple times. Between the claims of mind powers that would put Vulcans to shame and boasting about this star or that having a crush on Sidney Olcott… I shouldn’t wonder if the rest of the community regarded the couple with a certain amount of patience.

Pickford would have extra reason for annoyance. Olcott claimed that in 1915, he was the first person to shoot her in a closeup—over her loud objections. I think D.W. Griffith and James Kirkwood would probably have something to say about that. (Closeups, while less-used in the pre-feature era, were not unknown in the nickelodeon era and were standard practice by 1915.)

Friends D.W. Griffith Biograph starring Mary Pickford, Henry B. Walthall, Lionel Barrymore | The Ending
Friends (1912)

To me, it sounds like she found Grant and Olcott’s testimony to be strange and she did not care to hear her dead friend talked about in such a way.

It’s also worth noting that we are not told exactly how the La Badie question was presented to Pickford. As any journalist will tell you, the phrasing of a question is sometimes as important as the answer.

We are further told that when Pickford was asked about Wilson visiting the studio, Pickford allegedly became agitated and said, “I do not wish to talk about or remember that man.” Then she walked out of the room without another word.

First of all, we have no idea if the Wilson question was asked on the heels of the La Badie question. It may have been asked minutes, hours or days later. That makes an enormous difference. Second, Pickford was politically active and a staunch conservative. Wilson, of course, was noted for signing many progressive reforms into law, some of which are still unpopular among voters of a more conservative bent. Try asking an older, politically-minded person about a lion from the other party and see how it goes for you. Finally, Pickford had probably already heard the tale from Grant ad nauseam.

Personally, I think Pickford may not have been angry at Wilson so much as she was tired of someone interviewing her and asking her to confirm Valentine Grant’s crackpot theories about a friend who died tragically. I don’t blame Mary, not one bit.

He cut it with what?

Now a new player enters the scene. James Baird, cub reporter. As Bryan Smith wrote in his Lilac Lane debunking, “The alleged journalist tells a colorful tale, but when so many other details don’t stand up to examination, it’s difficult to credit a story that seems too reminiscent of a paperback thriller to be true.” Preach it, brother!

An artist's rendering of Mr. Baird.
An artist’s rendering of Mr. Baird.

Baird was allegedly interviewed in 1993 and he weaves a tale of threats and dark doings. It seems our intrepid youth was all of seventeen when Miss La Badie had her car accident. He went to the garage where her car was towed and claimed that her brake line had been “cut with a knife.” Hmm. That’s oddly specific. How could anyone know that? Why not scissors or hedge trimmers or a razor or an ax or a saw or any of a myriad of cutting instruments that a person of 1917 would have to hand?

Plus, if La Badie’s brake lines were cut, why make a big deal of the mystery man in her car? Wouldn’t an assassin want to get away from his target after cutting her brakes? Why add danger to the mission by riding in a car with no brakes? If it was supposed to be Wilson, why would he drive with La Badie after putting out a hit on her?

Woodrow Wilson does not seem to be very good at this whole “murder” thing. (via Wikipedia)

Anyway, Baird interviewed the people at the garage, wrote a story and handed it in. The next day, he discovered his story was spiked, the mechanic who spoke to him had abruptly quit (or was it… murder?) and he was no longer a reporter. Worse, no one would talk to him.

The car involved in the accident was missing, towed away by persons unknown. “Authorities,” according to Baird. Maybe Goodman or Florence’s parents had it towed. Maybe it was sold for scrap to aid the war effort. Maybe it was never towed and the mechanics just wanted to get rid of Baird because he was becoming a pest.

Here’s the thing: People avoiding you and refusing to answer your questions may be because there is a giant conspiracy or it may be because you are annoying them or acting in an odd manner. You tell me which is more likely.

Baird continued to pursue the La Badie story but was unable to get a job as a reporter. He then claims that two toughs (complete wit da wise guy lingo, see?) told him to back off the La Badie story—or else.

A rip-off?
Not very good at his job…

Okay, so Woodrow Wilson apparently had no qualms about murdering La Badie and anyone who might have been in her car. He possibly killed an innocent mechanic. Why didn’t he just have Baird meet with an accident?

But lo and behold! By sheer coincidence, “I met the maid who had been employed at the La Badie home on Claremont Avenue when Florence retired for the first time in March of 1915.” Again, oddly specific. (And, for the record, La Badie worked steadily throughout 1915.) Any detective will tell you that too many details indicate possible deception. I am highly suspicious.

Anyway, Baird pestered the maid until she told him (he claims) that La Badie gave birth to a baby in September of 1915. Here is a film released on June 29, 1915. La Badie would have been six or seven months pregnant. (Films were shot and released very quickly, time was of the essence as there was actually a movie shortage as their popularity grew.) La Badie had three films released in August of 1915 and two in September. And, remember, Fearless Flo was noted for her daredevil ways.

Ah! But Baird found a smoking gun. He discovered a birth certificate registered in Washington D.C. for a George Woodrow Smith. The father was listed as George Smith but his address was phony. Eureka? No. Not eureka. Not eureka at all.

Are we to believe that this child, a child that Wilson murdered La Badie to conceal, was given Woodrow as a middle name? The all-seeing, all-knowing Wilson, who managed to block Baird at every turn, would allow such an obvious clue to slip by? And why would La Badie give birth in Washington? She lived in New York City. Wouldn’t it be better to give birth at home or go away to some secluded place? A quiet village in Canada, perhaps? She certainly would not have been the first actress in a, shall we say, delicate situation.

Conspiracies. You’re doing them wrong.

adams-rin-1923-milton-sills-says-no

Let me put this another way. If you meet a person born in the 1980s with the middle name of Reagan, do you automatically assume they are the Gipper’s love child?

I also find it significant that Baird carefully tells us where this unnamed maid worked (down to the name of the street) but does not mention what the mother’s name was on that birth certificate. And as single motherhood was highly stigmatized in 1915, it is hardly shocking that a few fathers would prove to be fictional.

Nudge nudge, wink wink and all that.

Wow, I sure would love to see that “George Woodrow Smith” birth certificate. If only there was an online resource for scanned documents like that… Oh yeah, there totally is.

I pulled up my trusty Ancestry.com account, typed in “George Woodrow Smith” born in Washington D.C. in 1915 and the result? Not a single record matches this name and birth date combination. Baird was quite specific and left no wiggle room. The public record said “George Woodrow Smith” and the place of birth was Washington in 1915.

woodrow-wilson

(Please note that this research and screen grab have been used in other debunking articles without credit or permission. You heard it here first, folks!)

Baird claimed he spent ten years and all his money placing ads in newspapers (what did he do, take out full-color spreads?) asking George Woodrow Smith to come forward. Assuming some time had passed since the accident, this would mean Baird was advertising so that a small child would read the paper and come forward. It would have to be the child. What parent would respond to such an ad? If the child was adopted out, he would have surely been given a new name anyway. And if little George were in the hands of Wilson’s supporters, why would they give an answer?

Plus, why didn’t Wilson’s thugs notice? Surely that behavior would not have pleased their overlord. And, once again, too many weird details in this narrative. The ads took all his money? All? Did no one notice a creepy teenager taking out so many ads? When he should have been, you know, drafted.

Further, Valentine Grant makes no mention of a baby. Grant, remember, claimed to be La Badie’s bosom companion, her confidante. So now our only two witnesses (and I use the term loosely) are contradicting one another.

I cannot find any record of James Baird as a reporter. Did he stick with it? If this is a sample of his reporting, I should think a change of profession would have been a blessing. To tell the truth, I could find no records of any kind for James Baird. No birth records, no obituaries, nothing. I even went through draft cards for men named James Baird (or any variation of the name) who were born between 1899 and 1901. Occupations were listed as drivers, miners, clerks, students, laborers… No journalists, reporters or even office boys. (All men ages 18 to 45 were ordered to register on September 12, 1918. Boys as young as 16 also voluntarily registered.) Who was James Baird? The historical record as it stands offers no clue. I think we can safely entertain the possibility that Mr. Baird was not telling the whole story.

(Why, yes, I am feeling smug.)

haunted-spooks-newspaper

And in case you think the missing records prove a conspiracy, allow me to remind you that the Baird interview allegedly occurred in 1993. If the records were swiped, I dare say the theft would have occurred well before then. I just can’t see the cult of Woodrow still covering over the affair eight decades after it was supposed to have happened. In any case, a researcher in the 1990s would likely have noticed that these sources were missing. It seems odd that the records of the baby, the Boston Globe article and any information on Baird himself would all be gone and yet their absence would go unmentioned.

Further, while Baird was supposedly investigating and being stymied by the shadowy Wilson, the president was suffering from major health problems. He was ill during the summer of 1918 and suffered from a debilitating stroke in October of 1919. It’s odd that someone who has such intimate knowledge of the case would not know that his chief persecutor was incapacitated.

The president’s illness and the ensuing power struggle was one of the reasons why the 25th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (detailing the hows and whos of succession in the case of death or incapacitation) was ratified in 1967. This is not an obscure factoid.

(Remember, the interview with Baird was allegedly conducted in 1993.)

The case of the missing mother.

Okay, now for an easy one.

La Badie was adopted as a small child. There seems to be some belief that Florence’s adopted father died a decade before his daughter and that her adopted mother (sometimes listed as Helene but actually called Amanda) disappeared soon after her daughter’s death. Wilson strikes again?

Actually, 1925 census records from New York show that Joseph and Amanda La Badie were both alive and residing in New York City. Woodrow Wilson, by the way, died in 1924. They do not show up on U.S. census records again but that may have been because the Great Depression caused them to move back to Canada. In any case, the idea that either one of La Badie’s parents disappeared immediately after her death is erroneous.

More deaths, more conspiracies?

Oh boy. Here we go again.

Recall that Edwin Thanhouser sold his studios to Charles J. Hite. The reason Thanhouser returned was that Hite was killed in an automobile accident in 1914. Wilson again? Because he was angry Hite cast La Badie in a serial and put her out of his reach? (How, exactly?) The facts do not support this. Mr. Hite had business interests in Chicago and it was not unusual for him to drive back and forth. On this particular day, he had had a long meeting in Chicago and did not get into New York until 9:00 p.m. His car skidded and dropped off an elevated walkway. Hite subsequently died from his injuries. While both Hite and La Badie both died as the result of their accidents, the circumstances were quite different.

Please remember that automobiles were still fairly new technology. They did not have mandatory seatbelts, airbags or other safety features that could have saved lives. Most did not have hardtop roofs and roll cages were not even dreamed of. Lack of antibiotics and other modern medicine made survival even more difficult.

There's a reason why crash comedies were popular.
There’s a reason why crash comedies were popular.

An energetic businessman drives hundreds of miles after long days of meetings and working late. He momentarily loses control of his vehicle and the result is fatal. Tragic but, sadly, not unusual. There is no indication of mechanical failure. This seems to be a fatal driving error from an overworked man. In any case, the accident occurred near the end of his journey. When was Wilson supposed to have cut his brake lines (with a knife)? In any case, there is no mention of Hite’s brakes failing.

Plus, we must also remember that the film community was small and talent would often move in hopes of finding a better deal. (La Badie’s loyalty to Thanhouser was notable. She stayed until it was clear that the studio was doomed and about to be liquidated. Interesting, in light of the business’s alleged abuse of her.) Because of this churning, it is difficult to find early stars and producers who were not connected to one another.

To illustrate, I shall connect Florence La Badie’s death to other famous people who died young.

Tod Browning, Elmer Booth and George Siegmann were all involved in a car accident in 1915, two years before La Badie’s own wreck. Browning and Seigmann were injured, Booth was killed. (They worked for Biograph, where Florence La Badie also worked before joining Thanhouser. DA DA DUM!) Siegmann died of anemia in 1928, or so they say. Browning went on to direct John Gilbert, Renee Adoree, and Lon Chaney, all of whom died within a decade of working with him. Jean Harlow turned down a role in Freaks and was soon dead as well. His boss at MGM, Irving Thalberg, was dead by 1936. Leading lady Lupe Valez committed suicide. So maybe Browning was the real mastermind behind the murders…

See how easy it is?

(If your reaction is, “Oh good! Another piece in the puzzle!” then I just give up. Go away.)

Roses on the grave.

Finally we are told that red roses sometimes are placed on La Badie’s well-marked grave. (And, by the way, La Badie’s grave was unmarked until early 2014, when it was given a beautiful monument that was funded by her modern fans and a generous gift from the cemetery.) Are the flowers from her son?

Yeah, because the president’s illegitimate child, the one he supposedly committed murder to conceal, was surely aware of his origins.

What do they prove? (via Wikipedia)

People leave flowers on graves without being the secret love children of the deceased. Maybe a fan left them. Maybe one of the Thanhousers. Maybe one of her many friends. Maybe someone saw an unmarked grave and wanted to do something nice.

There are also assertions that La Badie’s death certificate suspiciously says that she died of natural causes and that no one knows who paid for her grave. Lavender Lane debunks both these claims with a copy of La Badie’s death certificate (septicemia related to injuries sustained in an accident is listed as the cause of death) and a 1917 deposition from her grandmother stating that she was to be buried in the family plot.

That’s not how evidence works.

So, in conclusion, this sordid tale of sex and murder all comes down to the testimony of two people, one of whom never met La Badie (and whose paper trail is rather conspicuously missing) and the other claiming to have telepathic powers. Pretty weak sauce, all told. Considering that the narrative heavily implies that Woodrow Wilson was a stalker and murderer and that Edwin Thanhouser arranged for an employee to be stalked, raped and impregnated in exchange for filming permits, I would say that the lack of citation is a death blow to the theory. No one can expect readers to take such severe and sensational charges at face value.

Ellen Wilson (via Wikipedia)

Further, this behavior would have been extremely out of character for Wilson, at least from all accounts I have read. He loved and leaned heavily of his first wife and the one affair he is known to have had was with a middle-aged socialite, Mary Hulbert Peck. (There is some question as to whether the affair was ever consummated and, in any case, Wilson was stricken with guilt.) When he remarried, he chose a brash and bold widow in her forties who pottered around Washington D.C. in a little electric car.

Edith Bolling Wilson (via Wikipedia)

In short, Wilson showed a strong preference for age-appropriate, take-charge and slightly eccentric women from intellectual circles. He was indeed passionate under his professorial surface but these emotions tended to manifest themselves in righteous indignation and consensual courtships. Certainly there are no records of him cajoling, threatening or forcing himself on his potential romantic partners. (The ever-witty Teddy Roosevelt famously remarked that Wilson probably just read poetry to Mary Peck.) In fact, when turned down by his first love, Harriet Woodrow, he was deeply disappointed and privately destroyed the letters she had sent to him. (The Victorian equivalent of deleting an ex from your contact list.) There’s a bit of a difference between burning mash notes and murdering someone.

Reportedly, staffers worried that Wilson’s remarriage a year after the death of his wife (even if the bride was entirely suitable) would damage his reputation and so they came up with a plan. They claimed that Mary intended to sell his love letters. The plan didn’t work but it gets me wondering. Why make up a scandal (Mary had no intentions of the sort) when the perfect blackmail lay at their feet? If Wilson was stalking La Badie and actually ravished her at the White House (with his wife in her coffin and his daughter in labor, yet), wouldn’t it have been better to use threats of the actress coming forward to dissuade the president from remarriage?

I don’t claim to be a Wilson expert (though I have learned a lot through researching this article) but it is immediately obvious why his biographers ignore this story. The timelines do not fit, the behavior does not fit, the sources are suspect and too many basic details are wrong.

Finally, the underpinnings of the story are so clearly the work of someone who has absolutely no grasp of how the American political system operates that it is almost laughable. To believe that Wilson wielded such power from beyond the grave requires a much better imagination than I possess.

Nice try on your very first conspiracy, kids, but I am not biting.

sherlock-holmes-1922-john-barrymore-good-little-boy

Wilson was no saint. He leaves behind a complicated legacy and most people form their opinions of him based on their political leanings or lack thereof. That is fair. However, accusing him of such loathsome behavior without proper evidence is simply not cricket.

Dead Ends

I attempted to recreate the case against Woodrow Wilson by tracking down the sources that were supposed to implicate them. Every single time, I was met with a dead end. I can see this happening for some sources but when absolutely no source pans out, I doubt the very root of the theory.

On the plus side, this myth has given rise to considerable hilarity among the early cinema fans in my circle. We have a grand time blaming Woodrow Wilson for movieland deaths ranging from Thomas Ince to Marilyn Monroe. We should start a club, the Woodrow Liquidators. Our uniform shall be a tinfoil hat. We even have a theme song.

tin-foil-hat

Very little information about Florence La Badie has been published so it is a particular shame that this myth is gaining currency. When stars like Rudolph Valentino, Buster Keaton or Greta Garbo have such pieces published about them, there are plenty of fans to rush to their defense and well-researched books available to rebut the claims. Miss La Badie certainly has a following (as her new grave marker proves) but the shortage of information means that there is a large opening for myths and rumors.

Again, I remind would-be silent film researchers that you must vet your sources. Do they use proper citations? Can you confirm that their sources say what they claim? Remember, the historical record is in our hands and we have a duty to publish information that is as accurate as possible.

Sources

Thanhouser personnel biographical details and La Badie films: Thanhouser.org

Biography of Miss La Badie, documents regarding her burial and a copy of her death certificate: Lilac Lane

Details on the life of Woodrow Wilson: Wilson by A. Scott Berg and Woodrow Wilson: A Biography by John Milton Cooper, Jr.

Interviews with Valentine Grant, Sidney Olcott, James Baird and usually the cited source for the Wilson-La Badie affair: Stardust and Shadows by Charles Foster. The book features no notes, no proper citations and is generally not worth bothering with.

10 Replies to “Silent Movie Myth: President Woodrow Wilson had an affair with Florence La Badie—and then had her murdered”

  1. Fascinating stuff. People will believe anything if they read it on the internet, particularly Wikipedia. I remember reading how Margaret Dumont won the Screen Actors Guild award for best supporting actress of 1937, quite an accomplishment since the awards were created in 1995 and no one else has ever been mentioned as having won a SAG award in 1937 or any other year before ’95. Yet the info is out there.

    1. Ha! I always knew Margaret was a time traveler! 😉

      Seriously, though, what particularly annoyed me about this myth was how proud and smug some people were at their “discovery” of this massive conspiracy. I mean, I tore it to pieces with a little research done from the comfort of my own home. Just the tiniest bit of effort pays enormous dividends.

  2. Wait, Douglas Fairbanks had an affair with Margaret Sanger?!?! Now that’s a story I want to hear!
    And where conspiracies are concerned – I’m always surprised how many people actually deny the relationship between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. It’s almost as bad as the theory that she must have been homosexual because she liked to wear pants. *insert rolling eyes/facepalm GIF here*

    1. Yeah, didn’t you hear? Florence and Woodrow went on double dates with Margaret and Douglas (The press called them Dougaret)

      Seriously, though, how weird to deny the Hepburn-Tracy romance. I think huge stars have their own problems because so much has been written already that there is pressure on writers to find a new angle.

      From what I can tell, none of the articles supporting the Wilson-La Badie theory bring politics into the issue, which is odd as he was the president. That really set off my warning bells.

      1. Haha! Dougaret. That’s funny.

        Yeah you’ve really done your research here – kudos. It’s so frustrating when some popular biographers are so desperate for an angle that they’ll just make stuff up. Conspiracies are such bunk because, I mean honestly, how hard is it to keep a secret from any one person, let alone the dozens that seem to be involved in these plots. It’s just silly. I enjoyed reading your piece though. I can imagine there are a lot of conspiracy theories surrounding silent stars because of how super-sensationalist journalism worked back in the day. (Not that we’ve gotten much better;)

  3. On the 97th anniversary of her death, I wondered if there was anything new on Florence’s life. What a pleasure to find such a witty and well-researched demolition of the Wilson-Labadie nonsense. Marvelous to see the love for silent film maintained by dedicated and intelligent admirers!

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