The White Lyres
One of the first Jazz Bands to organize in Paris after the armistice following the end of World War 1 was the White Lyres. The two founding members were the Americans Bill Henley and Kelvin Keech and other members fluctuated throughout its existence. The band performed in London, Paris, the south of France, Turkey, Egypt and the rest of Europe but by 1925 it had dissipated, with both Bill Henley and Kel Keech fronting their own bands and going their separate ways.
Bill Henley was born Will (Bill) Llewellyn Henly on 17th January 1892 in St.Paul, Minnesota and he had an older brother called Harrison (born 1888). Bill’s father Harry I. Henley working for the unusual organization called The Woodman of the World Life Insurance Society: a fraternal benefit grouping. The family moved around America due to Harry’s job and lived in Minnesota, Washington State, Canada, Montana, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
By 1910 the family were in San Francisco and both brothers got married. Harrison married Lena Bruning who came from Canada and this ultimely led him to farm homesteading life is Saskatchewan. In September 1910 Bill married Goldia F. Verser in San Fransciso (who was or became an actress in vaudeville. In 1918 she appeared in a one-act musical comedy called The Bachelor Dinner that headlined at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles).
One must assume that from an early age Bill favoured music and certainly by 1910 he was playing music and may have been in a band. From 1910-1914 he must have been an entertainer and musician and although based in either San Francisco or Los Angeles he may have toured around the country. In 1913, for example, he did send his mother Nettie a postcard from New York.
It was only by 1914 that his activities as a musician can be definitely confirmed. Living at Ocean Park Hotel, Santa Monica, Bill listed his occupation as an entertainer and he was part of quartet called The Melody Mirth Makers with Karl Kraum (piano), Dave Whiteside (tenor-violin-quitar-organ), Tom King (Baritone-Guitar-traps) and Bill (Leads-Banjo-Mandola Mandolin). The unit eventually became five members with the addition of Ragtime Smithy on violin. Dave Whiteside was seemingly the organiser since he had a previous band simply called the Dave Whiteside Orchestra that had been active in early 1913 and perhaps Bill had been part of this early group.
In the summer of 1914, The Melody Mirth Makers were visiting Ocean Park, Santa Monica. Perhaps they were playing on one of the amusement piers or at Nat Goodwin’s Café or a similar establishment. It was revealed at the time that they had published a few popular songs: My Rose of Old Pekin and Kathleen of Killarney and a third John’s Danger had music and words written by Bill Henley.
For a while, at the end of 1914, they had been secured at the Strand Café, Venice Beach and were described as singers and instrumentalists and ‘Those Clever Boys.’ In January 1915 they signed a contract to play at the famous Ship Café also in Venice Beach and here it was reported that they had already won ‘a national reputation as high-class singers and instrumentalists.’ It was thought that they were not only good singers and players but possessed a vein of humour that was positively refreshing and as a result were a show in themselves.
One can only wonder if the Melody Mirth Makers toured in 1915 and 1916 and if Bill Henley remained in the band. At some point he jumped ship and joined a trio that called themselves Foster, Walker and Henley. Described as a musical, novelty trio, they played a dozen or more instruments (primarily saxophone, violin and Banjo) intermingled with some classy singing. Allegedly, they had toured on the Californian Hippodrome Circuit before touring the USA in 1917.
At the start of this tour, in May 1917 in Salt Lake City, Bill registered for the war effort and placed his residence at 1308 West 51 Place, Los Angeles. Essentially, the band moved from West to East through the upper States and parts of the Mid-West before ending up on the Eastern Seaboard and visited Montana, Wyoming, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisonsin, New York and Ontario. By February 1918 they were in Massechusetts and Vermont. Finally, in April 1918 Bill Henley departed New York with Company B 325th infantry for Europe and the War.
Kel Keech was born Kelvin Kirkwood Keech on 28th June 1895 in Honolulu. Both his parents were American born in Pennyslvania and he had an elder brother called Alvin Keech Jr. Kel’s father Alvin W. Keech was a civil engineer and machinist who had left Pennyslyvania by 1882 for Honolulu, Hawaii and became chief engineer of the Inter Island Steam Navigation company with structural works in San Franscico. Both Kel and Alvin Jr were musical and became immersed in the music and culture of Hawaii and performed in amateur dramatics. A few years later it was said that their ‘musical talent won them fame in Hawaii.’
In mid 1907 Alvin Keech Jr and Kelvin Keech left Honolulu to attend Franklin and Marshall College, Pennsylvania and at the time it was stated their father was currently president of the mechanical department of the Claus Spreckels sugar plantation in Honolulu. Since there were few American or English workman on the plantation, the boys learned Chinese and Japanese. After college Kel graduated as a chemical engineer in Boston. However, by the end of 1914 Kel was living with his brother in San Franscico and had launched an interesting business with the theme of the vogue of the ukulele.
The Keech brothers had opened a studio on Powell Street that started out as a one-roomed salesroom and then expanded into a six-storey building. Their intent was to make the ukulele, described as Hawaii’s own instrument, popular in California by means of manufacturing ukulele’s and giving instruction and classes. One press report suggested that they had established one of the largest factories producing ukuleles in Honolulu, which they presumably imported to San Franscisco. Their store also carried all lines of music and musical instruments. The Keech ukulele became famous because it was the genuine Hawaiian musical instrument and not an imitation. They also completed a ukulele instruction book and furnished native Hawaiian singers for dances teas and concerts.
It was observed that they were doing ‘much towards introducing the Hawaiian melodies at society functions.’ In February 1915 they hosted a Hawaiian party at their studio with their rooms decorated in true Hawaiian style and a Hawaiian Quintet (which must have included Alvin and Kel) provided the music of the islands. The business flourished and their activities extended to Los Angeles but in 1917 Kel organized a novelty Hawaiian variety act called Princess Mapella and Company that toured America with Kel admired for being the master of the ukulele.
Alvin Keech Jr meanwhile was still organising Hawaiian themed concerts in Los Angeles. Of major significance was that perhaps as early as 1916 Alvin had created the Banjulele and trademarked the term in 1918 and began to popularise the instrument. The banjo uke was a smaller version of the banjo making use of a ukulele fretboard. However, another version of the banjulele, was also created at the same time by John Bolander so there is some debate about who actually invented it.
By the summer of 1917 Kelvin Keech was in New York and was a musician working at Julius Keller’s Maxim’s cabaret, perhaps playing the banjulele, when he registered for the war effort. His enlistment date was 22/1/18 and at the beginning of February 1918 he was at Camp Upton and was assigned to 321st Army Corps Field Signal Battalion. Presumably he was shipped out to Europe shortly afterward with a Keech ukulele-banjo in his back-pack.
Kel’s military service was brief as he was wounded in September 1918 and sent to the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine to recover. At some point either in the hospital or when he was discharged, Kel met Bill Henley and they discovered their shared musical talent and interests. Once they were discharged from the Army in the Spring of 1919, they decided to form a band that they called The White Lyres – based on the conceit of White lies – with Bill playing the saxophone and Kelvin playing the banjulele. Other members of the band were added but there is conflicting references as to exactly who, with the following possibilities: William R. Southard, Daniel “Danny” Stern (drummer), Bobby Dole and Tommy Townsend.
According to Basil Woon, the impetus for the creation of the White Lyres came from the American journalist, entrepreneur and ex-serviceman Gerald (Jed) Kiley, who had been organising late-night, clandestine dancing venues for American servicemen in violation of the government 10pm curfew. Kiley needed an American band to fulfill engagements at these dancing places and Bill Henley offered to recruit one from amongst his colleagues.
One of Jed Kiley’s first ‘dancings’ (the French term for a dancing venue) was called The Fox Trot Club, which flourished for several months on the rehearsal stage on the top floor of the Champs Elysees Theatre on the Avenue Montaigne. In August 1919 the place was closed by the police but it was reported that this real American dance Hall had a real American Jazz Band composed of American doughboys stationed in Paris and that Kiley had paid them well instead of pestering dancers as was the general rule in French dance Halls. A later press report says most clearly that this ‘American Jazz Band composed of American doughboys’ was the White Lyres.
In June 1919 The White Lyres played at a gala event staged at the elegant Savoy dancing club, 25 Rue Caumartin. The Savoy had been the Theatre Caumartin, which later became the Clover Club in 1921, and was opened from April 1919 with an American-French orchestra. But it is not clear who ran the place or if the White Lyres played there at other galas.
In the summer of 1919 there was talk of going to London as Bill Henley (living at 111 Ave de la Bourdonnias in Paris) had a letter from the secretary of Murray’s Club in Beak Street, one of London’s earliest cabaret and dancing venues. (For a history of Murray’s Club see here: https://www.jazzageclub.com/murrays-night-club/2270) The secretary said that they were in need of a band and offered a one month trial. He said that one of their bands was the Versatile Four, who were now in their 6th year of continuous engagements. In addition to Murray’s they were also booked every night for private parties at large fees. It was made clear to Bill that ‘a band of equally ability would through their connection with this club have equal success.’ Whether The White Lyres took up the offer is not known.
According to a passport application dated 14th October 1919 in Paris, Bill was playing with The White Lyres at the Coliseum in Paris before a confirmed trip to London. They had been engaged to perform at the salubrious Ciro’s club in Orange street. (For a history of the Ciro’s chain see here )
Ciro’s re-opened for the autumn season in mid-October 1919 with an outrageously inaccurate and racist comment from the Daily Mirror ‘instead of the old fashioned nigger band we had a choir of demobilized American soldiers, who proved effectually that the ‘darkies’ are children in the world of ‘Jazz’’. The Sketch made no such nasty comments but identified the dance band as The White Lyres and referring to their Paris sojourn said their music was ‘what one may term caviar or oyster music’ which meant that it took some time to get use to ‘but once one’s fallen into the peculiar rhythm of it, there’s no music in the world like it for dancing to.’
It might be relevant here to mention that Basil Woon erroneously claimed that the White Lyres played the first jazz heard in Paris and that they were also the first American jazz band in Paris. Both statements were not true. In fact, the first Jazz music in Paris and London was played by American, black musicians. Louis Mitchell and his band performed in London in 1914 and as the Seven Spades in 1917 and also in Paris in early 1918. Mitchell returned to Paris with a band called The Jazz Kings in mid-1919 to secure residency at the Casino de Paris and a little later the Perroquet cabaret. Dan Kildare and his band had a residency at Ciro’s nightclub in London from 1915-1916 and James Reese Europe and his regimental band (Harlem Hellfighters) performed in France in early 1918.
At the end of January 1920, Bill Henley wrote to his mother Nettie in Canada saying that his business was at a standstill and that he was trying to sell out his interest in a club, but because it was closed it was a hard job. This can only refer to a venue called the Aladdin’s Lamp Club at 21 Boulevard de Seine, Neuilly Sur Seine. Interestingly, Bill re-iterated a similar story to his brother Harrison on headed paper that identified his location as the Aladdin’s Lamp Club. This was a private club that had been opened in October 1919 by Bobby Dole (identified as the president of the club) and two aviators from the Lafayette squadron. The connection was clear as Bobby Dole was a member of the White Lyres and reported to be the manager of the band, and clearly Bill had also been an investor. The Aladdin’s Lamp Club had nightly soirees in a dignified mansion sitting far back in a park surrounded by a high wall and plenty of trees and music must have been provided by the White Lyres. However, the place was raided by the police on 21st December where they encountered 200 people dancing and Bobby Dole was fined for breaches of the law regarding opening times and the sale of liquor and the place closed.
Bill also said that he was looking for a location to open a cafe and restaurant but they were scarce and cost a lot of money. This must refer to a combine of members of The White Lyres and others who had been involved in The Aladdin’s Lamp Club. In the meantime in January 1920, there was also a confirmed listing for the band playing at a dansant at the Hotel Claridge in the Salle des Fetes with dancing by Mlle Solange and Professor Cleret of the Opera.
By early February 1920, The White Lyres had secured a residency at the large ballroom within the Washington Palace at 14 Rue Magellan near the Champs Elysees. This had been created at the turn of the century by American George Washington Lopp with various benefactors as the cultural, artistic and social centre of American life in Paris. Beautifully appointed, there were numerous function rooms, including a small and large ballroom, reception halls, concert rooms, music rooms and salons. The venue had re-opened in December 1919 and was called a restaurant de Grand Luxe with the finest salons in Paris for teas, dinner and evening dancing to two of the leading orchestras of Paris. It was reported that several Americans were part owners and that Bobby Dole was involved and the manager.
Interestingly, at the beginning of April 1920, Alvin Keech Jr, Kelvin’s older brother, joined Kelvin in Paris and added a second ukulele-banjo to The White Lyres orchestra playing at the Washington-Palace. It was also reported in May 1920 that the Keech brothers had established the firm of Keech, Bordes and Company to immediately manufacture and sell the banjolele with a studio for teaching.
The White Lyres played at the Washington Palace until at least June 1920 but Bobby Dole was back in trouble in March 1920 when the police closed a dance hall in operation at 40 Rue Lauriston in the Etoile region on the grounds that it was being run in violation of the early closing ordinance of 10pm. Police asserted it was being run as a branch of the Washington Palace. When the main hall at the Washington Palace closed at the legal hour, the patrons only had a short walk to resume at the other place, which ran until 2am.
By the spring of 1920, there had been continued unease and complaints against Americans operating dancing places out of hours in violation of government restrictions and many were closed – only to re-open somewhere else in a different guise. But, by April 1920 government restrictions were lifted and dancing venues were allowed to open after 10pm.
In May 1920 a new venue opened taking advantage of the new opening hours, this was called The Frolic at 30 Rue de Gramont at the corner of the grand Boulevard des Italiens (not far from the Folies Bergere). (For a post about The Frolic see here ) Owned by the Ciro’s chain, operated by an English Syndicate headed by Lord Poulett and Clement Hobson, it was a magnificent establishment with a large, expansive room built with a marble interior reached via an enormous wide staircase and featuring imposing galleries and boxes and an American bar. It was open all night from 8.30pm until closing and provided dinners, suppers, drinks and dancing and was targeted at an international clientele namely the Americans and the British.
Although it was not made clear who provided the music for the first few months, in September 1920 and for that autumn season, there were two orchestra’s: The White Lyres and the Orchestra Sciacca who supported a cabaret featuring Stella Maris and Arthur Blossom and the eight Frolic girls. Bill Henley was described as ‘the boy sax player’ and Kelvin Keech ‘the demon ukulele player’ and it was said that The White Lyres had ‘become the rage of Paris.’
On 22nd March 1921 Bill Henley (and others including Kelvin Keech) arrived back in London to be orchestral director at Ciro’s Club in Orange Street, presumably along with all the other members of The White Lyres band and perhaps even Alvin Keech Jr. In his signature register book, held by Steve Henley, there is a page entry dated 30th March 1921 and placed in London with several clear signatures that include that of Elsie Janis, Billie Reardon, Frank Leveson, Gladys Cooper, Paul Arthur (an actor) and Ivor Novello. One must assume that the contract to remain at Ciro’s extended until the summer. Of interest, Alvin Keech Jr – described as a wizard on the ukulele – was in Paris in June 1921 and it was reported that he was about to start some jazz concerts in the Montparnasse quarter. This may be an indicator that all The White Lyres were back in Paris.
In the autumn of 1921 it would appear that The White Lyres left Paris for an extended trip to Constantinople since entries in Bill Henley’s signature register book, held by Steve Henley are dated 17th October 1921 and 5th November 1921 in Constantinople. It was here that Kelvin Keech met his future wife Maria (they were married in London in 1924). It would appear that the band also visited Greece and Egypt but by the Spring of 1922 they were back in Paris, before leaving for London for another engagement at Ciro’s Night Club in Orange street arriving 22nd March 1922.
Then, in early June 1922, the White Lyres accompanied the dancing of Jenny Dolly and Clifton Webb at the newly opened Plantation Club in Paris, which was the old Acacias Night Club. Also, in June 1922, Bill Henley’s mother made a passport application to visit Great Britain, France, Egypt, Switzerland and Turkey. She travelled from Saskatchewan to Quebec, boarded the Empress of France to Cherbourg. From Paris she travelled to Marseilles and then joined the SS Malwa for a week-long trip to Alexandria joining Bill on a tour of Egypt with the White Lyres. This can only suggest that after the Acacias gig, in June 1922, the White Lyres went to Egypt for a period of time perhaps July to September, but arrived back in Paris in mid-September .
Following their sojourn in Egypt. the White Lyres played at the Clover Club on the Rue Caumartin from 21st September 1922 accompanying the dancers Fay Harcourt and Harry Cahill. The band were still in Paris in late 1922 and by November they were playing at the New York Bar in the Rue Daunou that was a great favourite of visiting Americans and also doubling back at the Acacias nightclub. But that was not all as the band also started work at the mainly outdoor venue of L’Ermitage at Longchamp in the Bois de Boulogne. According to Nettie (Bill Henley’s mother) Bill Henley and three others played from 9.30pm to 1.30am but when it rained they could not play.
The band also gave special performances at charity galas such as the Anglo-American Press Association Annual Banquet at the hotel Petrograd, under the direction of Harry Pilcer on 7th November 1922 and at the American Legion thanksgiving event on 30th November 1922.
It is likely that in late 1922 the White Lyres band relocated to the sunnier climes of the Riviera because in early 1923 they were playing at Carlton Hotel in Monte Carlo and presumably at other venues. At this moment in time, although Bill Henley and Kelvin Keech continued with the White Lyres, Kelvin Keech began branching out on his own as an individual performer and perhaps with his own band. For example, in April 1923 Kelvin Keech was performing in an act with Leo Deslys (part of an American vaudeville duo with Keno Clark) at the New York Bar, now owned a run by Harry McEthone and called Harry’s New York Bar.
It as also significant that by early 1923 Kelvin Keech’s brother Alvin Keech Jr had seemingly relocated to London. In March 1923 Alvin along with Joseph Kekuku, described as the father of the Hawaiian guitar, gave a selection of Hawaiian music largely using the banjolele at an event at the Hotel Cecil in London. By July 1923 Alvin had created the Keech Banjulele Dance Orchestra, a versatile group of Hawaiian musicians that were giving two engagements a day at society functions largely in London. By October 1923, the band was called the Keech-Thurston Hawaiian orchestra and played at the inauguration of the newly designed restaurant at Harrods and later, performed at the Christmas Ball in the Town Hall in Cheltenham. It would also appear, that about this time, Alvin (mostly likely with the assistance of Kelvin) replicated their earlier musical business in San Francisco and Paris by manufacturing banjoleles and eventually establishing a fashionable store at 42 Bond Street.
During the summer of 1923, the White Lyres were playing in Paris. The daily schedule must have been exhausting as the band often played 2-3 venues per day and with anti-social hours. Once again Nettie (Bill Henley’s mother) wrote that Bill’s working day was 5pm to 4am. From 5-7pm at one place, then 10pm to 1.30am at another venue and yet another from 2-4.am and all for the same management. It is intriguing to speculate which venues these were. Mostly likely one would have been one of the popular outdoor places in the Bois de Boulogne. Since there were references to Bill Henley’s Café de Paris Band in late 1923 and 1924 it is likely they worked for Louis Barraya’s group that included the Cafe de Paris, Fouquet’s, Pavillon d’Armenonville and the Pre Catalan, indeed Bill Henly did play the Pre-Catalan in the summer of 1924 and the Café de Paris and the Pavillon d’Armenonville in 1925 and 1926. Of all the restaurants in Paris, the Café de Paris was undoubtedly the most prestigious and working for Barraya’s group would have been the pinnacle of success .
In the Autumn of 1923, the White Lyres were still in Paris and played at the Olympia Music hall in September accompanying the American dancers Marshall Hall and Vera Cooper, but, at the same time, were one of two featured bands playing at Ours cabaret at 4 Rue Daunou. Sometime in mid-October 1923 they joined Mrs Edith Kelly Gould’s act at the Alhambra theatre replacing Bert Ralton’s band that returned to London and they may have also played at Club Daunou. They were also featured in the entertainment programme for the annual banquet of the Anglo-American press Association in late November 1923.
The band were back on the Riviera at the end of 1923 and early 1924 and by February 1924 were performing at the Majestic Hotel in Nice supporting a range of ballroom dancing couples. Oddly, all the press reports referred to Kelvin Keech and his Orchestra The White Lyres. Later, from April through July, Kelvin Keech and his Orchestra (presumably the White Lyres) were playing at the salubrious outdoor venue of the Chateau de Madrid in the Bois de Boulogne (For a post about the Chateau de Madrid see here) and also played at a Grand Gala dinner at Henry’s Restaurant on the Place Gaillon in May 1923.
It was at this time that the French government decided that about 100 American musicians representing numerous Jazz bands including the White Lyres would be compelled to leave France. This was as the result of continued protests from French musicians that they were breaking the quota law by which only 10% of each orchestra may be foreigners. The musicians lobbied the American Ambassador and aroused a counter storm of protest, which resulted in the expulsion orders being revoked.
The summer of 1924 was confusing as Kelvin Keech and his orchestra were playing at the Chateau de Madrid and Bill Henley’s Café de Paris band were playing at the Pre-Catalan. It would appear that a split had occurred with Kelvin Keech and Bill Henley both heading their own bands, with a hiatus in the usage of the White Lyres.
By the end of 1924 Kelvin Keech was in London with his brother Alvin and they began performing together on the BBC throughout 1925 and thereafter. In September 1925 Kelvin Keech had organized a novelty orchestra of Hawaiian musicians (including Kekuku) that played for a period of time at the Café De Paris and then by May 1926 his band was called Kel Keech and his Criterion band suggesting that now Keech had been playing the Criterion Restaurant.
There are no clues to the activities of Bill Henley in late 1924 or the first half of 1925 but in September 1925 Henley and his band were playing in the French resort of Aix-Le-Bains and according to Basil Woon in 1925 and 1926, Henley and his band played the Café de Paris and the Armenonville. During 1926 Henley was also at Harry’s New York Bar singing peppy songs from Broadway, accompanied by Bud Shepherd. In late 1926 for the Anglo American Press Association banquet at Claridge’s Hotel, Bill Henley’s Café de Paris band supplied the music, suggesting that Henley was still playing for Barraya’s group of restaurants headed by the Café de Paris itself.
Thereafter, Henley continued working at Harry’s New York Bar in 1927-1929 but made two trips back home to Canada in September 1928 and August 1929 and in Montreal he married Ethel May Tauber in September 1929. He made an abortive attempt to create an out of town cabaret in Paris called Bill Henley’s Taverne at 34 Chausee de Mesmes in Bougival, but this swiftly flopped and was closed and auctioned in 1931.
In the early 1930s, Henley with others, once again entertained at Harry’s New York Bar, the Johnny-Slim Garner bar in the Hotel Chateau Frontenac and various charity events.
At some point in late 1935 Henley departed for Buenos Aires, presumably to play music and arrived in New Orleans in February 1936. A Year later he visited Australia arriving back in Boston in June 1937. It would appear that he had made America home again and by 1942 was employed at the 45th Street Cafe, 133 West 45th Street, New York. At some point Henley relocated to Florida, he divorced Ethel and married Catherine Goodwin in 1945 and finally died in Florida on 18th April 1956.
Kelvin Keech made a great success in the London night-club scene in 1927 and was a big hit at the Cosmo Club, The Riviera Club, Chez Henri and Uncles Club and also appeared in variety and in stage presentations at cinemas. Alvin and Kelvin returned to America in 1928 and Kelvin participated in several radio programmes before becoming an announcer for NBC in the 1930s and then ABC in the 1940s. He retired in 1962 and died in 1977 in New York. Alvin Keech Jr died in 1948 in New York.
Sometimes the time line, with exactly what was happening to the key players, becomes confusing and not clear. I have therefore decided to simply assess the evidence and come to a conclusion as to what might have been the likely course of events.
All images (unless specified in the caption) and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
Steve Henley Archives (a huge thank-you to Steve Henley)
Paris That is Not in the Guide Books by Basil Woon
Some of these Days by Sophie Tucker
The Keech Brothers: Barons of the Banjolele
Hilo Tribune 5/12/05
Hawaiian Star 16/7/07
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