By Aram Arkun
SHELTER ISLAND, N.Y. — James Bone, the former longtime New York bureau chief of the Times of London, while researching a biography now published as The Curse of Beauty: The Scandalous and Tragic Life of Audrey Munson, America’s First Supermodel (New York: Regan Arts, 2016), has come across new material about Aurora Mardiganian. Mardiganian was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide who came to star in a 1918 movie called “Auction of Souls,” or “Ravished Armenia,” but ended up exploited and dying alone in poverty in the US decades later. The Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity recently was established in her honor by the 100 Lives initiative, and the first awards were made this April in Yerevan.
Bone found a 20-part article titled “The Story of Audrey Munson,” allegedly written by the famous model herself, “the Queen of the Artists’ Studios,” and published in 1921 in the New York American and other newspapers across America. One segment, published on March 20 of that year, described the shooting of “Auction of Souls.” In one scene, a dozen actresses were filmed nude on crosses in the desert for the movie.
It was cold in the desert and it was the time of the great influenza epidemic. The article states, “When each had been assigned to her cross, she disrobed behind it, and, while the thousand extra people gazed curiously, each girl was lifted to the position of her ‘crucifixion’ and fastened in palce with concealed ropes. Until sundown, there were rehearsals, false moves, rearrangements, and mishaps – until just before the light faded the scene was finally taken.” Two days later one of the models, Corinne Gray, was stricken with influenza, and died after a few more days.
Munson was not present at the filming, but the information, it turns out, comes from a credible source, as the articles were ghostwritten by Henry Leyford Gates, who also was the scriptwriter of the movie and “almost certainly there with Mardiganian” (p. 240). Gate’s identity as ghostwriter was revealed in a lawsuit filed by Allen Rock.
Bone ascertained that Gates previously had been incorrectly identified as Harvey Gates in connection with the “Auction of Souls.” Bone describes Gates as “an extraordinarily talented hack journalist, if that is not an oxymoron, and sometime New York Times feature writer, who was now association Sunday editor of Hearst’s New York American” (p. 238). Gates was married to novelist Eleanor Brown Gates, who became Mardiganian’s legal guardian in the US.
Bone uncovered documents from the Surrogates’ Court of the County of New York containing information about the guardianship established for Mardiganian as a minor by Mrs. Gates, which allowed the latter to spend the money Mardiganian earned, allegedly only for Mardiganian’s expenses.
Bone also unearthed the February 25, 1921 issue of the Evening World, which contains an article, “Armenian Refugee Got $15 a Week as Star of Film Play.” The article states that Mardiganian claimed at a court hearing that she received $15 weekly while touring with her film throughout the country, and was to have been paid $7,000 for the film itself. However, her guardian Mrs. Gates only saved her $195 out of that latter sum.
Henry L. Gates testified that her life story was bought from her for $50, and then sold for $700 to a Dr. Levy of the International Copyright Bureau. The printed books were then sold for 50 cents a copy when Mardiganian gave a talk, and she would get 5 cents of this. However, Henry Gates admitted that there were 7 other women posing as Mardiganian in different parts of the country selling books. He claimed Mardiganian incurred expenses of $650 weekly.
Mardiganian eventually won $5,000 but led a difficult life, dying in isolation decades later in 1994. Her story, originally published with Henry Gates in 1918 as Ravished Armenia, has been republished in an annotated and revised edition (Ravished Armenia and the Story of Aurora Mardiganian, 2014, University of Mississippi) by Anthony Slide, along with a manuscript of the film script, illustrations, and a forward by Slide.
The Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute of Yerevan has assembled various personal artifacts and photographs of Mardiganian, and this year published a new volume by its director Hayk Demoyan, The Road of Aurora: Odyssey of the Armenian Genocide Survivor.
James Bone’s Viennese great-grandparents died in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Consequently, he declares that he understands all the more the value of the materials he discovered pertaining to Mardiganian and her unique movie on the Armenian Genocide, and “appreciate[s] the importance of the historical record of the Armenian Genocide being as complete as possible.” He says that he will ensure that the court papers he found will be lodged eventually in an Armenian library for all to use.