Monday 8 February 2021

Week 6: Fanny Ward, the forgetful - and forgotten - American film star

100 years ago this week: Week 6

The story of a silent film star who couldn't help making a lot of noise.

Read on to find out more.

Fanny* Ward, the American star, forgets jewels worth 2 and a half million in a taxi
At the end of a trip to Paris, where they stayed in a hotel on the Champs-Elysées, Mrs Fanny Ward, a leading American film star, and her husband, Mr Jack Dean, took a taxi Sunday evening to the Gare du Nord, where they were due to catch a train to London. No sooner had they settled into their compartment than they discovered that they had forgotten a handbag containing jewels worth around two and half million (nb: francs) in the cab.

They decided not to take the train and instead called the central Paris police office. They did not have a reference for the taxi, and they only detail they were able to give was that it had the steering wheel on the left.

With this very vague information, the Inspector Curnier went out to investigate, and after visiting several garages in vain had the good fortune to meet a group of drivers on the corner of the boulevard de la Villette and the rue Philippe-de-Girard. Amongst these was Mr Félix Dutheil, who lives at 21, passage du Poteau, who had just found the precious handbag and was about to take it to the police station.

The owners of the bag were immediately informed. They insisted on rewarding Mr Dutheil before continuing with their rudely interrupted trip.

Le Petit Parisien, 08/02/1921


The primary interest for me of running a series such as this one is to discover characters such as Fanny (or Fannie*) Ward. Before reading this article, I had never heard of her. In 1921 though, she was undoubtedly an international star – and a very wealthy one too! 

The incident in detail

Before looking into her fascinating life, let’s first go through the details of the incident, which I found reported in four other newspapers the same day. According to Le Figaro, Fanny Ward and her husband were not staying in a hotel, but at their “’home’ confortable” on the Champs-Elysées. It was a place they left only to go to London from where they organised their business affairs. The hotel may have been the Claridge, where they had dined with friends before catching the train.

Félix Dutheil, the taxi driver, picked them up from this address and took them to the Gare du Nord. The Inspector Curnier was later able to track him down quickly because very few taxis in Paris had steering wheels on the left, and he knew where to find them. One possibility was the taxi garage where he found Dutheil on the corner of the rue Philippe-de-Girard and the boulevard de la Villette – very close to the Gare du Nord (no trace of anything like a garage survives at this address today). 

Before we leave Dutheil and Curnier, two things are worth noting. Dutheil received a life-changing sum of money and a story he must have continued to tell for the rest of his life. Several newspapers report that the reward he received was a cheque for 10,000f. If I have done my research and sums correctly, that works out to around €7,500 in today’s money, but Fanny Ward must have been extremely relieved to recover jewels that were worth around...€1.85m! 

As for the Inspector Curnier, I cannot confirm it is the same person (yet), but an Inspector Curnier came to a sticky end in Paris a few months later. We’ll come back to that story later this year!

Who was Fanny Ward?

Fanny Ward - with jewels!
It is not my intention to recount the life story of Fanny Ward. That has already been done admirably elsewhere, and this remains a blog about Paris. My interest is to know why an American woman momentarily forgetting a bag in a taxi was of such interest to a French readership in February 1921. It seems the answer is rather than Ward being a film star, she was one of the first media celebrities. She crops in far more stories like this than for her performances on film or on stage. Indeed, three years later she was back in the Paris press for once again losing her jewels in the city!

Fanny Ward was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1872 to a rather ordinary family, but she seemed always determined to make the most of any situation. After being spotted performing in a local production, she moved to New York, then to London where she made her name. In what would become a long-running theme in her life, it was not her performances on stage that put her in the papers, but her off-stage life. In London she married a wealthy diamond merchant and became known as 'the richest woman in England'.

The marriage lasted as long as her husband's wealth, and she returned to America when he ran into to severe financial difficulties (which we can assume didn't impact Ward in quite the same way if she still had jewels worth €1.75m a few years later!). It was in America that she appeared in her first films, notably Cecil B. DeMille’s 'The Cheat', the only film of hers that seems to have stood the test of time**. It was also on this film that she met her second husband, the actor Jack Dean.

Careful readers will have noted that Jack Dean is mentioned in our news story above, but not once in any of the articles I have seen is he described as being a film star. Fanny Ward was the attraction here, and would remain so until the end of her life. The relationship between Ward and Dean though did make a splash in the media a few years later. A famous French cartoonist named Sem depicted the couple as a nanny and child, which lead Ward to bombard him with plates, cutlery and champagne bottles when she later saw him in a restaurant in Deauville.

If Ward was depicted as a child, it is because she had become known as the star who never aged. Her breakthrough film role in The Cheat came when she was already in her 40s - the character she portrays is supposedly much younger - and it is said she played a 7-year old child on the London stage in her 50s!

This eternal youth would be her principal calling card as she grew older. Her wealth bought her properties and a leisurely life in Los Angeles, New York, London and Paris, and if her acting career came to an end, she still appeared in the French press - giving tips on how to stay looking young*** ('the sixty year-old actress who looks 25'). When she died aged 80 in 1952, it was for her appearance, her colourful life and her wealth that she was remembered, with her acting career appearing as a side note. 

Returning to Paris, there is one final mystery that I haven't been able to resolve. It is often noted that she opened a shop in the city in 1926 called 'The Fountain of Youth', trading on her reputation as an ageless celebrity. Beyond the mentions in online sources and books of this name and date, I can find no other evidence that such a shop existed, where it was situated or for how long it remained in operation. If anyone knows of any other sources, I would be fascinated to find out more!

PS: I have since found another source which suggests strongly that the shop was on the Champs-Elysées. Nora Holt, an American singer who was in Paris at the same time, wrote in a letter:
"...I don't go to the Fannie Ward's Fountain of Youth shop, I only pass there every night when I walk down the Champs-Elysées."

*Fanny or Fannie? Both seem to have been used, but for the purposes of this post I have stuck with the spelling seemingly used in France.
**It should be noted that she appeared in several French productions after WW1 (see poster above), which probably explains her presence in Paris and partly her renown in France. 
*** These tips include drinking two glasses of water a day and sleeping on your right-hand side!


C-Marie said...

Poor, poor woman. So sad a life. In the earth is only for a time. Eternity is forever. Hoping she belonged to Jesus before she was called.
God bless, C-Marie

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Fannie was the inspiration for the "Queen of the Nile" episode of the Twilight Zone

Adam said...

Interesting suggestion 'Anonymous'. I've had to look up the resumé of that episode, but she would fit the description of an 'eternally young movie star'!

Anonymous said...

Great call on "Queen of the Nile" episode!!!!!!

Annabella Bray said...

So the taxi driver was "about to take it (the diamonds) to the police station" when le flic caught up with him....maybe he & his fellow drivers were discussing how to divy up the proceeds...😉

Dil Chaspi said...

Appreciiate you blogging this

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