Her philosophy of life was simple ‘you know… I am really a fatalist at heart – I live for today. Tomorrow can look after itself.’ Picturegoer July 1923
Christened the British Barbara Le Marr, Valia was somewhat type-cast as ‘the charming movie vamp’ which was in stark contrast to her real personality. Valia starred in numerous melodramas in just a three-year period from 1921, but made a big splash and was highly regarded, before marrying an American millionaire and deserting the screen forever in 1924.
Valentina Venitsky was born 19 December 1899 in Canonbury, North London and had an elder sister called Vera who was born in 1891. Her parents were Russian refugees who had arrived in London at the turn of the century and allegedly came from a noble Russian family. Her father, Essalf, was a ladies tailor, and shortly after her birth the family were living at 90 Whitechapel Road in the East End. By 1911, Essalf had a ladies tailoring business at 15 Aldgate, moving to 27 Carter Lane, EC4 in 1915 where he also became a wollen merchant. By this time the family had moved out of London to the seaside resort of Westcliff On Sea in Essex.
Tall, at five feet and seven inches, Valia was slightly built with classical features, dark hair and eyes and was strikingly beautiful. She had not been interested in acting on the stage or for the screen but was longing to do something because she hated being idle and fate decided for her. Quiet casually she was introduced by a friend to Maurice Elvey, one of England’s leading film producers, and as a result she was offered a small part in a comedy called The Tragedy of a Comic Song playing opposite Robert Vallis for the Stoll Film Company in 1921. She took the name of Valia because she thought her surname was too difficult for people to pronounce. Maurice Elvey then cast her in an episode of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes entitled The Tiger of San Pedro (1921).
She clearly proved her worth and she was given the leading female role in The Fruitful Vine (1921) that displayed a lavish magnificence, exquisite settings but a sordid unlikely story. Valia played Dolores alongside Mary Dibley and Basil Rathbone in an emotional drama of a young wife’s drastic step to gratify her elderly husband’s desire for a child. Although, for some the film itself was dull, its undoubted success was seen to be due to ‘the delicate refined art evinced’ by Valia. Her performance was viewed as outstanding, delightful and arrestingly poignant and she was called a ‘new star of the most welcome kind.’ Her personality was regarded as being as fresh as it was striking with a rare degree of gesture and facial expression ‘she should have a great future on the screen in roles suited to her intensely individual methods and lively temperament.’ However, not everyone thought the same, and although she was admired for being beautiful and competent for some she did not convey ‘the necessary depths of intense emotion.’
Suddenly, Valia had arrived and she was cast in several more Stoll features in swift succession. Maurice Elvey’s Romance of Wastdale (1921) was highly commendable for creating ‘real drama by means of psychological atmosphere and the moulding of character by the pressure of extraneous incident’ with the addition of thrilling mountaineering scenes. Although Valia performed well it was thought she was not quite suited for the part and had ‘little opportunity for any real dramatic work.’
Elvey’s The Passionate Friends (1921) was a beautifully presented version of H.G. Wells story of political life. Valia as Lady Mary Christian was full of very human inconsistencies and gave very well drawn performance as the wife of a powerful armament maker’s who kills herself to save her politician former lover from a divorce scandal. The tragedy of her life provided the chief interest of the film ‘due to the charm and distinction given to the part by Valia, who handles the complex character with marked ability.’ She played ‘with a most effective emotional restraint and suggests her conflicting thoughts with subtle artistry.’ It was thought to be ‘another of those films of atmosphere and character which are preparing the way for a deeper exploration of the possibilities of the screen as a dramatic medium.’
At the time it was noticed that not only did she excel as an actress but she was becoming a leader of fashion in British films ‘Valia dresses with great taste, in screen play it is noticeable how well she carries herself, she wears her clothes with a chic air that is almost Parisian.’
Less well received however, was F. Martin Thornton’s The Little Brother of God (1922) a thin melodrama with an artificial atmosphere and a pointless story of vengeance and murder with a Canadian setting of lawless men in the open woods. Valia played an Indian lady and looked charming as she constantly defended her honour. But she was badly cast and her talent wasted as her role demanded no dramatic ability.
In 1922, her contract with Stoll came to an end with Elvey’s Man and his Kingdom (1922) and Valia did some work for H.B. Parkinson at Masters films. First she appeared as Delilah in Samson and Delilah, a short directed by Edwin J. Collin for Masters Films in their Tense Moments from Great Opera series (1922) and then played in The Green Caravan (1922). The latter was an artificial, improbable and sentimental story about a gypsy who marries a lord but Valia stood out as the one outstanding figure supplying the one touch of conviction.
She was also cast in Fred LeRoy Granville’s Shifting Sands (1922, also called The Price of Silence) for Luxor Pictures and spent the summer of 1922 filming in Tripoli, Libya. A Special yacht had to be chartered to convey the artists, cameramen and other staff to North Africa, as it was found impossible to ship all the people and equipment by ordinary passenger steamer. Although outstanding from a pictorial point of view it was a conventional story about a couple’s reunion in the Sahara after exciting adventures and Valia played the wife exhibiting a strong sense of character but was not particularly outstanding.
Back in London she went back to Masters and appeared in A Gamble With Hearts (1923), a detective murder mystery with love interest, but despite fine acting and technical excellence the scenario was thought to be improbable and incomprehensible. Valia on the other hand, suggested a strong screen personality and was seen to excellent advantage in a difficult role looking desperate and unhappy in her concealed love and with a suggestion that she was implicated in the murder.
In the Spring of 1923 Valia visited Italy to play scenes for Guy Newell in the George Clark production of The Starlit Garden with Ivy Duke as star. She was disappointed by the weather ‘I always long for the sun… it can never be too hot for me.’Splendidly photographed and pleasing to the eye, The Starlit Garden was seen to be ‘embued with a certain charm and refinement which is almost part of the personality of the director’ but was seemingly let down by a weak story. Nevertheless Valia glowed and was striking and arresting in a rather mysterious and enigmatic role.
Next, she played in Walter West’s first costume production In the Blood (1923) set in the nineteenth century with the big and burly Victor McLaglen playing an aristocrat who becomes a boxer. Despite a small part she put ‘real fire and character into it.’ However, The Woman Who Obeyed (1923) directed by Sidney Morgan for Astra-National was more in line with her previous roles. A contemporary drama about a millionaire businessman who, in neglecting his wife, enables a philandering artist to make advances watched over by jealous rival. The wife is innocently but dangerously compromised. Alongside Stewart Rome (the husband), Hilda Bayley (the wife) and Gerald Ames (the artist) Valia played the semi-neurotic society woman of jealous disposition and a gave ‘a singularly vivid impression.’
In an interview in the summer of 1923, it was learned that she was absolutely contrary to her screen characters many of which had been home wreckers! ‘Somehow, as his charming woman wandered quickly from one subject to another I realized how different she was from all the other film actresses I have ever met. She is what one might describe as a ‘jolly good fellow’. Of conceit, Valia has not an atom in her composition; of jealousy she has little and when she shows it, the reason is her ambition to succeed. Her candour is disarming and this makes her all the more lovable.’ She was described as having much charm and was referred to in glowing terms by her fellow actresses. She was also devoted to her home life. Recently she had looked tired and ill and many said she had been dancing late and attending parties. But this was not the case, instead her sister had been seriously ill and she had been at her bedside.
She also discussed one of her major interests, that of reading, and not just the latest novels but essays by famous authors and bulky volumes on various subjects like astrology and scientific experiments. This passion was later to provide another platform for the intervention of fate in her life. In her London flat she had a prominent piece of furniture that was a small revolving bookcase with four shelves filled entirely with books about the lives of famous musicians. She also played the piano, the fool and her national balalaika with equal facility. ‘I can’t sing but I will’ she added.
In the comedy, crime feature The Audacious Mr. Squire (1923) directed by Edwin Greenwood for British and Colonial, Valia played alongside Jack Buchanan as the gentleman crook. She was thought to have been miscast as she was better playing stronger, more emotional characters. She fared better on her return to Maurice Elvey and Stoll in Sally Bishop (1923) a romance about a barrister and a London typist. Although she had a ‘puppet part’ as ‘a cynical beauty of the social world’ she got much character into it. However, Elvey then cast her in the title role of Slaves of Destiny (1924) also called Miranda of the Balcony. The story of love, blackmail and deceit was ingeniously constructed with a multitude of characters but for some it was too sentimental and artificial. Although she gave an excellent performance it was thought Valia was badly made-up and ‘not allowed much range of expression.’
At the same time she was given a supporting role in international spy story The Great Prince Shan (1924) directed by A.E. Coleby along with Sessue Hayakawa and Ivy Duke but she had little to do and her inclusion was regarded as hardly worth it.
In March 1924 it was announced that she was to be married and was to retire from the screen and move to America. She firmly believed that home was the place for the married woman and said ‘domestic happiness is all that really matters to a woman… and I never want to see the inside of a film studio again.’
On 12th April 1924 she married Hamilton Phelps Clawson, the son of an American millionniare, in Kensington, London. She was 24 and he 31. Clawson was born with a golden spoon in his mouth as the only son of one of the richest and most aristocratic men in Buffalo, America. It helped that he was also good looking and gifted. He always cultivated an aloof, amused attitude toward life and often called organised society ‘the circus.’ One of his passions was poetry and he said ‘writing good poetry is a full-time job for any man.’ So he travelled and studied and wrote poetry that turned out to be amazingly good. He decided to have his first collection published in London and it was while he was meeting his London publishers that he met Valia. Their courtship was a whirlwind affair and as she became Clawson’s muse she said ‘our love is the most wonderful thing that has come into my live. I want nothing more from fate that to be permitted to be my husband’s inspiration and muse. I want him to go writing. I’m sure that he will great name for himself and I am ready to subordinate my own desires for a career to help him all I can.’ The courtship, marriage and ultimate divorce was worthy of a good film script.
However, despite Clawson’s home being totally refurbished to her own taste and trips to Palm Beach and London (in 1926), Valia began to find her new life dull and she confessed that being an inspiration was a monotonous occupation. After three years, in May 1927, she packed her seventy trucks and fled to Reno to seek a divorce citing extreme cruelty and neglect. Allegedly, he refused to take her to social functions and when he did consent, always humiliated her by his actions. He also called her a ‘fool’ whenever she ventured an opinion of her own.
When the divorce came through in mid June 1927 she visited Hollywood to see if she could return to her career in the movies but clearly nothing happened. Clawson meanwhile sold his house and contents and fled to Egypt. Clearly, in secret Valia married Jack Peacock Green of Buffalo on 20th June 1927 in Alameda, California, stating she had been residing in Yuma, Arizona.
Valia then went back East with Jack Green to visit friends at the fashionable Narragansett Pier in Rhode Island. In early August she was the guest of Mr and Mrs Peter Porter Jr at a costume ball at their villa, Stonelea on the Cliffs along with Jack Green. To everyone’s great surprise, she married Jack Peabody Green in a second ceremony in Boston on 16th August 1927. Green had been assistant manager of Buffalo’s Hotel Statler (where they had met initially) and was the son of Elmore C. Green manager of the hostelry.
When and how this new romance started and blossomed was the subject of great gossip since Green and moved in the same circles as Valia and Clawson. In April 1927, Green resigned from the Statler Hotel and became vice-president and treasurer of the Ford Company managing the Ford Hotels. He was due to become manager of the new Ford Hotel in Toronto, Canada due to open in 1928. The new couple made their home there since on a border crossing from New York to Canada enroute to Toronto in March 1929, Valia stated she had lived in Toronto during the period 1927-1929. Throughout this period Valia and Jack hopped around between Toronto, New York and Buffalo hosting soirees, attending theatrical openings and spending time with their friends in Rhode Island where they also had a home.
Sometime in late 1928 both Valia and Jack made a trip to London, presumably visiting Valia’s family returning to New York 24/3/29 aboard the Ile de France. Another trip was made in early 1931 returning to New York 24/3/31 from Le Havre again on the Ile de France. Interestingly, Valia was listing her residence in America as Kenyon, Rhode Island in the vicinity of where her friends the Porter’s lived.
What happened next is not totally clear. But, by1935. Valia was living in Wakefield, Rhode Island not far from Kenyon and Narragansett. Certainly, by 1936 Valia and Jack were not together. It would appear that Valia was courting another man who would become husband number three – Walter Charles Wicker. Wicker was a successful writer for radio and a performer with his first wife Ireene Seaton on the NBC show ‘Today’s Children’. They were clearly conducting a clandestine relationship since they spent a holiday together in Hamilton, Bermuda in the Spring of 1936 but both arrived back in New York on different dates – Walter on 4/4/36 and Valia on 8/4/36.
At some point Valia and Jack divorced and Valia married Walter Wicker. By 1940 they were living at 4619 Alcazar Way, St Petersburg, Florida, where they stayed until at least 1942. Valia made a trip back to London arriving Southampton 6/8/47 returning 12/10/47 but there are no clues as to where she was living at the time in America or if she was still with Walter Wicker. By the late 1950s she was living in California with the surname Wicker and died aged ninety-three on 26th June 1993 in Santa Clara.
All images (unless specified in the caption) and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
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