by Len Lear
Joseph P. Eckhardt, 70, retired in 2007 after teaching history and art history for 39 years at Montgomery County Community College (MCCC) in Blue Bell, but he is by no means resting on his laurels. Now Eckhardt specializes in writing compelling biographies, not of celebrities and famous historical figures, but of people most of us have never heard of.
On May 9, for example, about 150 people showed up at MCCC for the annual Betzwood Film Festival, founded by Eckhardt, where they heard a lecture by the local author and then the showing of four silent films starring Wilna Hervey, one of the most unusual, fascinating and little-known movie stars in film history — and the subject of Eckhardt’s recently published book, “Living Large: Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason.”
Eckhardt was raised in Beaver Falls, western Pennsylvania (the hometown of pro football’s legendary quarterback Joe Namath), and earned degrees from Clarion State College and Lehigh University. He is also the founder (in 1988) of the Betzwood Film Archives, a digital history of the Betzwood Film Studios, which were started in the early 20th century by Siegmund Lubin, the subject of another full-length biography by Eckhardt. Lubin (1851-1923) made silent movies in and around West Norriton Township in Eastern Montgomery County.
When Eckhardt began watching Lubin’s silent movies, he discovered Wilna Hervey, a unique actress who towered over the other actors and actresses in the “Toonerville Trolley” comedy series of films from around 1920 based on a popular comic strip of the time. Hervey, who played a character called “The Powerful Katrinka,” was 6-foot-3 and weighed about 300 pounds.
While attempting to learn more about the gigantic actress, Eckhardt unearthed an almost unbelievable story “that was too good not to be shared.” Researching Hervey’s life for a book, however, was like searching for gold nuggets on Broad Street. As a result, it took eight years to put it all together in Eckhardt’s recently published “Living Large: Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason.”
In the Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C., Eckhardt discovered thousands of letters between Hervey and Nan Mason, her lesbian lover. He found out that Hervey and Mason began their relationship in the early to mid-1920s and then moved to Woodstock, New York. They stayed there for the rest of their lives, except for winters in Florida late in life, both becoming award-winning artists. Hervey died in 1979 and Mason in 1982.
Was Hervey forced out of the movie business because of her lesbian relationship?
“The main thing that prevented Wilna Hervey from having a more extensive movie career was her size, not her sexual orientation,” Eckhardt said in a recent interview. “It’s hard for an actress to get parts when she stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 300 pounds. But it’s also true that Wilna’s first priority was to be an artist and live in Woodstock, so I’m not sure she would have stayed long in the movies even if more parts had been available. Making movies, as much as she loved it, was always a means to an end, a good way to make fast money so she could live in Woodstock and paint.”
Anyone who would like to see the artwork by Hervey and Mason would have to travel to Woodstock, New York. This summer, from June 12 to September 6, there will be an exhibit of their artwork and personal mementos at the Historical Society of Woodstock. It’s open on the weekends and is free to the public.
In 1997 Eckhardt wrote “The King of the Movies: Film Pioneer Siegmund Lubin,” and in 2011 he published “So Bravely and So Well: The Life and Art of William T. Trego.” Trego (1858-1909) was a severely handicapped man from North Wales who produced extraordinary art. “I decided to indulge myself in finding out more about this remarkable man,” said Eckhardt. “But before long, I was on my way to mounting an exhibition of his work in 2011 at the James A. Michener Art Museum (in Doylestown) and writing a biography of him.”
Why is Eckhardt drawn to such obscure historical figures? :”They are more interesting to me exactly because no one else knows about them. They are mysterious, and I love a good mystery. I enjoy the detective work of rooting out the facts and seeing this unknown entity slowly become a three-dimensional personality.”
What would Eckhardt most want people to know about figures like Hervey, Lubin and Trego? “I would want people to know that all three of them made worthwhile contributions to the world they lived in and that each of them did so by overcoming varying degrees of prejudice and discrimination. Siegmund Lubin had to confront anti-Semitism throughout his life; William Trego had to fight the 19th century notion that the physically handicapped were useless and best kept out of sight; and Wilna Hervey had to deal with the double challenges presented by her enormous size and her preference for women. But all three individuals succeeded in living their own lives on their own terms, and I think they are to be admired for that.”
Eckhardt frequently lectures on Lubin and Trego. His books can be ordered on amazon.com. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org