Sunday, September 4, 2011

Alimony “A La Kafka”: The Case of Henry Kolker – 1935


TITLE: A Forgotten Flirtation – And Now the Veteran Actor Must Pay $40,000 Alimony to Mother-in-Law,” – – Amazing Irony of Law Creates a Strange Anti-climax to the Stormy Marital Life of Henry Kolker, Old-Time Star

FULL TEXT: YOU may have read – especially if you are an avid follower of newspapers in New York and Los Angeles (where the story, being “local,” was given considerable space) – of the judgment of $40,441 against J. Henry Kolker, awarded to Mrs. Mary Wyman.

If among the thousand and one news stories of the day, that item drew your attention, you may or may not remember the salient facts: that Kolker is a veteran stage and film actor, living in Los Angeles with his second wife; that the 40,000-odd dollars represented back alimony owed to his ex-wife; that this ex-wife had committed suicide some months ago; that Mrs. Wyman was the mother of this ex-wife and hence the heir to her estate.

But even if the slightly surprising headline ACTOR MUST PAY $40,000 ALIMONY TO MOTHER-IN-LAW did happen to meet your notice, you still didn’t know the story behind that court ruling!

You couldn’t have known, and you wouldn’t have learned by reading the court’s formally-worded findings. And this was because the reporters who “cover” the court, the lawyers involved, the judge who handed down the decision, the public – and even, it seems probable, the principals in the drama themselves – had long ago forgotten the initial circumstances that caused a 13-year-long legal struggle; the early scenes of an astonishing true-life scenario with a bitterly ironic conclusion. Only a curious representative of this newspaper, digging into yellowed court records, found that story.

There is only one way to tell the story – and that is, as it happened.
 

* * * IN 1922, Henry Kolker (he had dropped the “J.” long before for any except legal purposes) was at the top of his career. Behind him lay the years in which he had been leading man to such luminaries of the stage as Alia Nazimova, Bertha Kalich, Margaret Anglin. Before him lay a new art – which then was only beginning, generally and genuinely, to be taken seriously as an art form – the motion picture. He was a director, and that strange world, which then was becoming that even stranger world known today as Hollywood, paid him tribute.

Kolker was 52 then, but he didn’t look it. Fifteen years before (one of his first motion picture successes was titled “Don’t Marry,” but he couldn’t have thought of it as an omen then) he had married attractive, aristocratic Lillian Carroll. Kolker – as his wife later testified, and as was understandable at his time of life—”loved the company and the tributes of younger women.”

Mrs. Kolker – as HE later testified, and as was understandable at HER time of life – was “unreasonably jealous, suspicious and nagging.” Early in 1922 he and his wife parted and, in May of that year, she brought suit for separation in the New York courts.

“Something sweet and young meets him,” Mrs. Kolker said at that time, “and there is a set formula for the monologue that follows. ‘Oh, Mr. Kolker, I’m so glad to meet you! Everyone says you have the true eye for artistic talent. I’ve thought for so long that I’d screen well. Wouldn’t it be possible for you to test me?’ Does he fall? He does.”

More specifically, in the complaint she filed in the New York courts, Mrs. Kolker named Anna Q. Nilsson, blonde and beautiful star of the silent films, then at the apex of her fame. Thrice, she averred, she had seen Anna’s car draw up a block away from the Kolker home; had observed the star and the director bid each other goodnight; had waited for her husband; had listened to him, upon arrival, explain that he’d been “delayed at the studio” – without mentioning that he’d seen Miss Nilsson at all.

Again, she declared, she and Miss Nilsson had arrived in Hollywood on the same train: her husband had met the train, had erected Anna affectionately and seen to her bags, had attended to his wife and HER bags only afterward.

This wasn’t a divorce complaint, mind you. There was no suggestion, even on the part of Mrs. Kolker, that anything improper existed between her husband and Miss Nilsson. But the director’s courtesy to the blonde star appeared to rankle deeply in the wife’s mind and she told the court all about them. Kolker indignantly declared that “only business relations” existed between Anna and himself. Even gossiping Hollywood didn’t consider it more than a possible flirtation, quite innocent and based upon no more than the ordinary good manners which a middle-aged director might naturally be expected to bestow upon a young and very lovely star.

~ That Started It ~

But Mrs. Kolker thought it important enough to mention prominently in her complaint to the court—and that started the scenario which even now hasn’t come to a final fade-out.

It took Mrs. Kolker nearly two years; but in January of 1924, Justice Isadore Wasservogel, in New York Supreme Court, granted her the separation order and ruled that Kolker must pay her “permanent alimony” of $60 weekly. He found that Kolker had “abandoned, neglected and refused to provide for” his wife. There were no children. Two years later—while residing in Chicago in 1926 – Kolker was granted a divorce from Lillian on the grounds of desertion. Shortly thereafter he married Miss Margaret Bruen.

In the motion picture industry, Kolker had not been too fortunate. He had mastered the technique of the silent film – some critics even say he had helped measurably in devising such a technique – but, in spite of his stage experience, the “talkies” overturned all this. By the time Al Jolson sang “The Jazz Singer” for the sound-tracks, Kolker was older than he had been and unwilling or unable to “learn new tricks.” (How much his legal difficulties had to do with this no one can tell.) He was – and is – still a good actor and he got roles. (Incongruously enough, he usually is cast these days as the elderly husband of a young wife who falls in love with Gary Cooper or Clark Gable.) But he wasn’t getting quite the roles he once did. Both he and his wife—the second Mrs. Kolker, of course—were, at last reports from Hollywood, under the care of a doctor; Kolker was, of necessity, given the privilege by the studios of leaving the “set” except when film scenes in which he had a part were being “shot.”

The years, though, did not give peace to Henry Kolker nor to Lillian Carroll Kolker. Two years ago the ex-wife applied to the California courts for execution of a judgment against him, claiming that he never had paid her any part of the $60 weekly alimony awarded her in New York long before.

At that time Kolker signed an affidavit, which stated that he had given her (a) property in Norwalk, Conn., valued at $15,500; (b) a paid-up insurance policy of $4,978; (c) half of a joint checking account kept by himself and his wife at the time of the separation, which netted her $7,500—in all, a total of $27,978.

While all this was going on, Anna Q. Nilsson (Remember her? She was the young woman of whom Mrs. Kolker originally had become jealous, thus starting all this) had been having her own adventures.


 ~ Anna’s Tragedy ~

When Kolker directed her pictures in 1922—and thereby got into trouble with his wife—Anna was, as the phrase goes, “on top of the heap.”

She had appeared on the stage in her native Sweden before coming to America and had there attracted the attention of the American producers of the growing motion picture industry. As early as 1915 she was being starred in the infant films and, by 1922, she was as widely known and as much publicized as Katharine Hepburn or Grace Moore is today.

But the cinema of 1922 demanded of its stars a physical effort that is unnecessary in these more modern times and Anna, playing adventurous roles, had to undergo real danger. Soon after she was named in the Kolker suit, she was severely burned – no press-agent stunt! – while driving a locomotive through a “staged” forest fire “on location.”

She recovered from that. In 1923, she married John Gunnerson, well-to-do shoe manufacturer – no mention of Kolker, then or later, as you will see – and divorced him in Los Angles two years later on grounds of “cruelty and failure to provide.” In 1927, she was reported – by Hollywood reporters of the time – to be engaged to Ernest J. Krause, Los Angeles broker. Both said at the time that they “believed in long engagements.” The marriage never took place.

Then, in 1928, Anna was injured when a runaway horse from a Hollywood riding stable threw and kicked her, There was a broken hip and she spent months in a hospital. People said the hip wouldn’t mend because Anna had dieted so much that her blood had gone thin. She denied this, but still she didn’t get well. She spent many months in a plaster cast; years in a wheel chair. She went home to Sweden Only a little more than a year ago, she returned to Hollywood –older, stouter, no longer a star. At last reports from the hurrying film capital, she was playing small roles – when she could get them. It isn’t recorded though it’s possible she may have that she ever has met or thought of the 65- year-old, ailing Henry Kolker.

And what of Mrs. Lillian Carroll Kolker, who brought her separation suit 13 years ago? One morning in January of this year, clam-diggers found, at the water’s edge on Bath Beach, Brooklyn, the frozen body of a stout blonde woman, huddled and dead beneath a costly, ice-encased mink coat. The body was identified as that of the former Mrs. Kolker.

Police investigated. They learned, from friends, that Mrs. Kolker had spoken wildly of “enemies who pry into my affairs by means of television.” They heard, from other friends, that she had often threatened suicide. They and the medical examiner concluded that the woman had walked into the surf with suicidal intent, had felt the arctic coldness of the water, had turned panic-stricken back to the beach, had fainted and had frozen to death. They found that Lillian was penniless, had pawned her valuable jewels, had sought and accepted Federal relief. They called the death, in their files, “suicide.”



~ The Ironic Finish ~

It had been only a few weeks before that Mrs. Kolker had consulted Miss Lucille Pugh, her attorney, and had directed that suit be brought against Kolker, sacking to set aside his Illinois divorce of 1926—thereby moving to void his marriage to his second wife, and make legally illegitimate his only child, a son born to this second marriage. Death made an end to this court action.

But it did not end the suit which Lillian Kolker long had been pressing, in California and then in New York, against her one-time husband!

A few weeks ago, Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Church of New York – giving, with perfect legal propriety, no consideration to the original cause of action (remember the little forgotten flirtation with Anna Nilsson?) – found that Kolker must pay back alimony of $40,441 TO HIS EX-WIFE’S ESTATE—which means that he must pay it to Mrs. Mary Wyman, now of Somerville, Mass. – his former mother-in-law, who is executrix of that estate!

And out in Hollywood – where a sick, aging Henry Kolker says he can’t pay anyway – he may, if he consults his lawyers, learn this final, ironic fact:

If his ex-wife had brought and had won her suit setting aside his Illinois divorce prior to her death, then he – Henry Kolker – would still have been legally married to her, at least in New York, And, since she left no will when she died, he thus would have been her sole heir – and would have owed the $40,000 back alimony to himself!

[“A Forgotten Flirtation – And Now the Veteran Actor Must Pay $40,000 Alimony to Mother-in-Law,” The Salt Lake Tribune (Ut.), Oct. 20, 1935, magazine section, p. 7]

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For more revelations of this suppressed history, see The Alimony Racket: Checklist of Posts

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