Talmadge, Norma (1893–1957)

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Talmadge, Norma (1893–1957)

American silent-film actress. Born on May 26, 1893 (some sources cite 1895 and 1897), in Jersey City,New Jersey (some sources cite Brooklyn, New York); died from a cerebral stroke due to complications from arthritis, pneumonia, and possibly drug abuse in Las Vegas, Nevada, on December 24, 1957; eldest daughter of Fred Talmadge and Margaret "Peg" Talmadge; sister of Constance Talmadge (1898–1973) and Natalie Talmadge (1897–1969); married Joseph M. Schenck (a film producer), in November 1916 (separated 1928, divorced 1934); married George Jessel (an actor, entertainer, and producer), in 1934 (divorced 1937 or 1939); married Carvel James (a physician), in 1946.

Selected filmography:

A Broken Spell (1910); Dixie Mother (1910); Heart o' the Hill (1910); The Household Pest (1910); In Neighboring Kingdoms (1910); The Love of Chrysanthemum (1910); Murder by Proxy (1910); Uncle Tom's Cabin (1910); A Broken Spell (1911); The Child Crusoes (1911); The Convict's Child (1911); Forgotten (1911); The Four Poster Pets (1911); The General's Daughter (1911); Her Hero (1911); Her Sister's Children (1911); Nellie the Model (1911); Paola and Francesca (1911); The Sky Pilot (1911); A Tale of Two Cities (1911); The Thumb Print (1911); The Wildcat (1911); Captain Barnacle's Mess-mate (1912); Captain Barnacle's Reformer (1912); Captain Barnacle's Wolf (1912); The Extension Table (1912); Father's Hot Toddy (1912); The First Violin (1912); The Fortune in a Teacup (1912); His Official Appointment (1912); Lovesick Maidens of Cuddletown (1912); The Midget's Revenge (1912); Mr. Bolter's Sweetheart (1912); Mrs. Butler Buttles (1912); Mrs. 'Enry 'Awkins (1912); O'Hara Helps Cupid (1912); Omens and Oracles (1912); The Sphinx, or, Mrs. Carter's Necklace (1912); Squatter and Philosopher (1912); The Troublesome Step-daughters (1912); 'Arriet's Baby (1913); The Blue Rose (1913); Casey at the Bat (1913); Counsel for the Defense (1913); Country Barber (1913); The Doctor's Secret (1913); The Elopement at Home (1913); Extremities (1913); Fanny's Conspiracy (1913); Father's Hatband (1913); Getting Up a Practise (1913); He Fell in Love with His Mother-in-Law (1913); His Silver Bachelorhood (1913); His Little Page (1913); The Honorable Algernon (1913); Just Show People (1913); Keeping Husbands Home (1913); The Kiss of Retribution (1913); A Lady and Her Maid (1913); Let 'Em Quarrel (1913); O'Hara As a Guardian Angel (1913); O'Hara's Godchild (1913); Officer John Donovan (1913); An Old Man's Love Story (1913); The Other Woman (1913); Plot and Counterplot (1913); The Sacrifice of Kathleen (1913); The Silver Cigarette Case (1913); Sleuthing (1913); Solitaires (1913); Stenographer Troubles (1913); The Tables Turned (1913); Under the Daisies (1913); The Varasour Ball (1913); Wanted—A Strong Hand (1913); Cupid vs. Money (1914); The Curing of Myra May (1914); A Daughter of Israel (1914); Dorothy Danebridge (1914); Etta of the Footlights (1914); Fogg's Millions (1914); Goodbye Summer (1914); The Helpful Sisterhood (1914); The Hero (1914); The Hidden Letters (1914); John Rance—Gentleman (1914); The Loan Shark King (1914); Memories in Men's Souls (1914); Militant (1914); The Mill of Life (1914); Mr. Murphy's Wedding Present (1914); Old Reliable (1914); The Peacemaker (1914); Politics and the Press (1914); A Question of Clothes (1914); The Right of Way (1914); Sawdust and Salome (1914); Sunshine and Shadows (1914); Under False Colors (1914); A Wayward Daughter (1914); The Barrier of Faith (1915); The Battle Cry of Peace (1915); Captivating Mary Carstairs (1915); The Criminal (1915); A Daughter's Strange Inheritance (1915); Elsa's Brother (1915); Fortunes of a Composer (1915); Janet of the Chorus (1915); The Pillar of Flame (1915); The Children in the House (1916); The Crown Prince's Double (1916); The Devil's Needle (1916); Fifty-Fifty (1916); Going Straight (1916); The Honorable Algy (1916); Martha's Vindication (1916); The Missing Links (1916); The Social Secretary (1916); The Law of Compensation (1917); The Lone Wolf (1917); The Moth (1917); Panthea (1917); Poppy (1917); The Secret of the Storm Country (1917); By Right of Purchase (1918); De Luxe Annie (1918); The Forbidden City (1918); The Ghosts of Yesterday (1918); Her Only Way (1918); The Safety Curtain (1918); Salome (1918); The Heart of Wetona (1919); The Isle of Conquest (1919); The New Moon (1919); The Probation Wife (1919); The Way of a Woman (1919); The Branded Woman (1920); A Daughter of Two Worlds (1920); She Loves and Lies (1920); The Right of Way (1920); The Woman Gives (1920); Yes or No (1920); Love's Redemption (1921); The Passion Flower (1921); The Sign on the Door (1921); The Wonderful Thing (1921); Branded! (1922); The Eternal Flame (1922); Foolish Wives (1922); Smilin' Through (1922); Ashes of Vengeance (1923); Dust of Desire (1923); Sawdust (1923); Song of Love (1923); The Voice from the Minaret (1923); Within the Law (1923); In Hollywood with Potash and Perlmutter (1924); The Only Woman (1924); Secrets (1924); Graustark (1925); The Lady (1925); Kiki (1926); Camille (1927); The Dove (1927); Show People (1928); The Woman Disputed (1928); New York Nights (1929); Du Barry, Woman of Passion (1930).

Norma Talmadge, eldest of the acting Talmadge sisters, was born in 1893 in Jersey City, New Jersey, although she reported her birth year variously as 1895 and 1897. Some sources indicate that she was born in Brooklyn, New York, where she attended school with her sisters Constance and Natalie Talmadge . When the girls came home from school, they would immediately descend into the cellar to dress up in clothing from other eras packed in the many trunks stored there. Under Norma's direction, they would enact the historical events that they had studied in school. While their father Fred had difficulty holding a job, their mother Peg Talmadge provided a steady income for the family by variously running a home laundry, teaching velvet painting, hawking her own line of cosmetics, and taking in boarders. Neglected by their father, the girls were raised by Peg, who insisted that her daughters call her by her given name, and who by all accounts was the epitome of the stage mother.

When Norma was 14, Peg got her a job modeling for illustrated song slides, and just three years later, in 1910, Norma made her debut at the Vitagraph Studio in nearby Flatbush. Her break came in 1911 with her performance in the original screen version of A Tale of Two Cities. While working at Vitagraph, Norma played a variety of roles, acquiring experience and exposure. After doing a film for National Film Corporation in California, Norma was signed, together with her sister Constance, by Triangle Studios. Most of Norma's early films were for Vitagraph and Triangle and exhibit more talent than skill as an actress, but she did attract the personal and professional attention Joseph M. Schenck, a prosperous film exhibitor who wanted to produce his own films. He established the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation in New York and released her films through First National and United Artists; in November 1916, they were married. A year later, they released their first film, Panthea, which met with enormous success, propelling Norma into stardom. Most notable among her films would be a series of melodramas, including Smilin' Through (1922), Secrets (1924), Camille (1927), and The Dove (1928).

Between the years 1917 and 1921, Norma appeared in about six films a year. Although these movies were predictable melodramas, she had become one of the most popular actresses on the screen—her nearest rival was her sister Constance—and was earning $8,000 a week. Schenck became head of United Artists in 1924, although Norma still needed to complete her contract with First National. Filming Camille (one of the numerous screen versions of the story

of Alphonsine Plessis ) for that studio, she fell in love with her co-star Gilbert Roland. In 1928, she separated from Schenck, who continued to manage her career, as well as that of her sister Constance, for a brief time. Although Schenck continued to pair the two lovers in films, the era of the "talkies" was approaching and the careers of both Norma and Roland were declining. Her limited range as an actress, as well as her strong Brooklyn accent, became apparent with the advent of sound and after starring in New York Nights (1929) and Du Barry—Woman of Passion (1930), based on the life of the 18th-century French courtesan Jeanne Bécu du Barry , she retired from films with a large personal fortune. She had appeared in over 164 films.

Divorced from Schenck in 1934, Norma decided against marrying the younger Roland; instead, she wed stand-up entertainer George Jessel, but their relationship ended in divorce in 1937 or 1939. Around that time, Norma fell victim to arthritis, a painful condition which eventually made her dependent on drugs. It was her addiction, writes Anita Loos , that brought about her third and final marriage, to a Beverly Hills' physician, Carvel James, whom she hoped would provide her with a steady supply of painkillers. She moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, in 1955. After years spent bedridden and in pain, Norma Talmadge died on Christmas Eve in 1957 from a cerebral stroke following pneumonia.


Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. 3rd ed. NY: HarperCollins, 1998.

Loos, Anita. The Talmadge Girls: A Memoir. NY: Viking, 1978.

Quinlan, David, ed. The Film Lover's Companion. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1997.

Slide, Anthony. Silent Portraits: Stars of the Silent Screen in Historic Photographs. Vestal, NY: Vestal Press, 1989.

"Those Three Talmadge Girls!," in Who's Who on the Screen. Ed. by Charles Donald Fix and Milton L. Silver. NY: Ross, 1929, pp. 101–104.

Karina L. Kerr , M.A., Ypsilanti, Michigan