Nell Shipman: A Biographical Sketch
by Alan Virta
Nell Shipman’s life in show business began on the repertory and vaudeville stages and spanned the eras of silent film, radio, the talkies, and television. She toured with the likes of Jesse Lasky, Paul Gilmore, Dick Sutton, and Charles A. Taylor in the first decade of the twentieth century, made silent films in the 1910s and 20s, and spent the next forty years writing novels, plays, film scenarios, and short stories. She lived in Los Angeles and New York, Miami and Seattle, New England, Arizona, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., but it was in Idaho where she came closest to achieving her dream: making movies on her own, on location in the wild, with complete creative and artistic control. That experience came to an abrupt and bitter end, but Nell never gave up her dream and remembered Priest Lake, Idaho, as her “Ultima Thule, the one spot in all God’s world where [she] belonged.”[i]
Nell Shipman was born Helen Foster Barham on October 25, 1892, in Victoria, British Columbia.[ii] Her British-born parents, Rose and Arnold Foster Barham, had come to Canada with her older brother Maurice just a few years before. While she was still small the family emigrated to the United States, settling in Seattle, Washington, where young Helen studied music and the dramatic arts. The Barhams made one trip to England when Nell was a child; it was after a visit to the theater in London (she wrote in her autobiography) that she knew she had to become an actress. When Paul Gilmore’s traveling company came through Seattle, she convinced her parents and her drama teacher to allow her to audition for the role of ingénue in Gilmore’s comedy, “At Yale.” She won the part, and at age thirteen went on the road. From then on she was seldom at rest until her family finally convinced her to settle down and retire in California at the age of seventy-three.[iii]
Nell Shipman’s youthful stage career took her across the country in both dramatic and musical roles. She spent one summer in New York City and another in Alaska. Sometimes her mother traveled with her, sometimes not. Stranded more than once when a company went broke, Nell returned home to Seattle between tours. Then, at age eighteen, she was cast in a traveling production of Rex Beach’s play, “The Barrier.” The company manager was a thrice-married, thirty-nine year-old Canadian named Ernest Shipman, a veteran promoter and producer. He wooed her and they were married on tour. When a sprained ankle treated by too much morphine forced her to drop out of the production in Spokane, she recuperated nearby on the shores of Lake Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. “I found myself in my homeland,” she wrote. “The forested mountains of Idaho seemed to cascade down the slopes and carry me to their shining heights, cradle me in topmost boughs, soothe me with song…Show business was forgotten.”[iv] She was not destined to stay long in Idaho this time, however. When she recovered, she rejoined Ernest on the road. After his last show closed, they moved to California and rented a house in South Pasadena. There, in February 1912, Nell gave birth to a son, Barry. And Nell and Ernest Shipman entered the brand new world of Hollywood.[v]
With his flair for promotion, Ernest Shipman went to work as an agent and publicist for Universal and other studios. Nell began to write film scenarios, but was frustrated by the lack of recognition story writers received in Hollywood. She wrote an article for West Coast Magazine in 1912 calling for the inclusion of the scenario writer in the film credits.[vi] Grossett and Dunlap published her first novel, Under the Crescent, in 1915, a romantic thriller adapted from scripts for a Universal serial. When her son was a little older, she began to act once more, mainly for Vitagraph, appearing onscreen with silent stars William Farnum, Lou Tellegen, Jack Kerrigan, William Duncan, and Gayne Whitman. The defining motion picture of her early career was God’s Country and the Woman (1916), a James Oliver Curwood tale of the North Woods. Shot partially in the San Bernardino Mountains at Big Bear, California, it featured the outdoor, on-location shooting that would later become Nell’s own trademark as a filmmaker. Nell played a role that would occur throughout her film career: a strong, resourceful female who came through to save the day.[vii]
Nell Shipman quickly became a star. Samuel Goldwyn offered her a seven-year contract, but she declined.[viii] What she wanted to do as much as act was to make movies herself. In 1918, she formed an independent production company with James Oliver Curwood to make more tales of the North Woods. Financing for their first effort, Back to God’s Country, was arranged by Ernest Shipman, who convinced businessmen in Calgary that a film starring his wife was a sound investment. And it was. Filmed partially in the frozen wild country of Lesser Slave Lake in northern Alberta, it reportedly returned its investors a fine profit. But conditions filming in the Far North were harsh and remote. One actor died, and word did not reach Nell Shipman until well after-the-fact that her own father had passed away while she was on location.[ix]
After Back to God’s Country, Nell Shipman withdrew from her association with Curwood to make films on her own. “I think that perhaps you have made the biggest mistake of your life,” Curwood wrote back,[x] but she was intent on going her own way. At the same time, she separated from Ernest Shipman. Their divorce, a year later, was front- page news in the Los Angeles newspapers.[xi]
For the next four years, Nell Shipman made movies independently, as Nell Shipman Productions. “Life as an Independent maker of Motion Pictures was good!” she wrote.[xii] Her director and new companion was Bert Van Tuyle, who had served as company manager for Back to God’s Country. They shot their first four films in California: three shorts, The Trail of the Arrow (1919), A Bear, A Boy, and a Dog (1920), and Something New (1920), and one full-length feature, The Girl From God’s Country (1921). The latter film, financed by a syndicate headed by the theater magnate William H. Clune, was filmed on location in the Sierras, a two-day horseback trip from the closest dirt road. Nell played twin sisters, shot in double exposure. It was a sprawling twelve-reeler that featured, in Nell’s words, everything from “dog sleds to airplanes, earthquakes to snowslides.”[xiii] After the gala premiere in Los Angeles, it was cut back to nine reels. Nell saw the shortened version in a theater in Santa Ana and was enraged. She urged exhibitors not to book it. Such sabatoge was unheard of. “Was I blackballed from the business? I really don’t know for certain…[but] I packed my toys and moved north.”[xiv]
North was Spokane, Washington, where Nell began work on her next film, a tale of Alaska she called The Grub-Stake. Local businessmen sold stock to finance the picture. Their studio was sitting idle, so they saw in Nell a business opportunity. Along with a cast and crew Nell brought to Spokane a menagerie of wild animals she had acquired during the production of her earlier films.[xv] By her own account there were more than one hundred animals: bears, wolves, dogs, bobcats, beavers, skunks, elk, deer, eagles, a cougar, and more. Once filming with the human actors was completed in the studio, she moved on, in the summer of 1922, to Priest Lake, Idaho, for location and animal scenes. Nell felt as if her move to Idaho was a homecoming. “This was my country,” she wrote in her autobiography, “the one spot in all God’s world where [I] belonged.” There, “Nature and her wild children would act for me…not as animated puppets but living, breathing images of wilderness, purity at its divine source.”[xvi]
Priest Lake, Idaho, would be Nell Shipman’s home for the next two and a half years. She finished filming The Grub-Stake there, then returned to Hollywood with Bert Van Tuyle to edit the film. The animals remained at Priest Lake, cared for by a skeleton crew of attendants. Nell spent hours in the Hollywood lab herself, cutting and splicing, before taking the finished product to New York in search of a distributor. That business done, she returned to Idaho to winter there and begin work on a series of shorts, Little Dramas of the Big Places.[xvii]
Nell spent 1923 and most of 1924 at Priest Lake working on the Little Dramas and planning her next full-length features.[xviii] She became a well-known figure in the community. News of her activities appeared frequently in the Priest River Times and other local newspapers.[xix] She built her own movie camp on the eastern side of the Priest Lake and named it Lionhead Lodge. But by the end of 1924, her financial situation was extremely precarious. Because her distributor went bankrupt, The Grub-Stake had not been widely shown and was a financial failure. Creditors were suing. She had no income. Life in Idaho had become a prison of “work and worry…debt and suffering.”[xx] Nevertheless, she headed off to New York in hopes of securing financing for a new motion picture. “Not a bumbling little short but a real Feature with which I’d recoup, stage that long-awaited comeback,” she wrote.[xxi] But the comeback never came. She found no backers for the new film, and a judge in Idaho ruled that her animals had to be sold to pay her debts. The San Diego Zoo saved the day and took them all. And Nell moved on. She stayed in New York and moved into a brownstone she shared with the artist Robert Emmett Owen and his wife Wylda. The Owens introduced her to the next love of her life, a portrait painter from New England named Charles Austin Ayers.[xxii]
Temperamentally Nell’s opposite, Charles Austin Ayers introduced Nell to his large New England family and a lifestyle far removed from the rigors of Idaho or the world of film finance. “He’s different from anyone we’ve ever known,” Nell wrote to her twelve-year old son Barry, still in school in Spokane.[xxiii] But Ayers was no better off financially than Nell, so she instinctively turned to writing to support herself. She wrote as he painted. She penned a memoir of her Idaho experience, published in three issues of the Atlantic Monthly in the Spring of 1925. And then she was ready for new adventures. She sent for Barry and the two of them moved with Charles to Florida, where her ex-husband, Ernest, waited with a prospective film deal.[xxiv] Ernest Shipman’s project did not materialize, so Nell wrote stories inspired by local lore. A novel, The Tamiami Trail, was published in serial form in several Florida newspapers. This Florida sojourn was a short one, however, for in the Spring of 1926 Nell, Barry, and Charles boarded a steamer bound for Spain, in search of subjects for the artist as well as a low cost of living. They rented a villa outside the seacoast town of La Coruna. Hardly more than a month after their arrival, Nell gave birth to twins Charles Douglas and Daphne Anne Ayers.[xxv]
New motherhood did not slow Nell down, however. In the Fall she went to England, where she visited movie studios and proclaimed in a British trade journal that London could become the “film centre of the world.”[xxvi] On her return to Spain, she found her twins weaned but her financial situation desperate. British relatives grudgingly lent support, but she and Charles had to return to America and find work. They returned to New England, but by November 1927 they were settled in Sarasota, Florida, where Charles opened a studio. The Sarasota press greeted them like conquering heroes, hailing their choice of Sarasota as a home in headlines and feature articles. In March 1928 Nell was the Queen of the Pageant of Sara De Sota, an extravaganza sponsored by circus magnate John Ringling. The month of May found her in Miami starring in a one-act play she wrote entitled “Are Screen Stars Dumb?” performing alongside her son Barry.[xxvii]
Nell’s performances in Sarasota and Miami were her last acting roles, however. From then on, until the end of her life, she concentrated on writing. Always on the move, rarely staying in one place more than a year, she moved across country with twins and Barry and Charles in tow. The next seven years found her in various locales: Taos in New Mexico; Glendale, Sausalito, Los Angeles, Requa, Klamath, Venice, and Big Bear in California; and back East, in Connecticut and New York. Sometimes all five of them were together; sometimes they were separated. Despite all the moves, these were her most productive writing years since the early days with the studios. Dial Press published three books: Kurly Kew and the Tree Princess (a novelization of one of her Little Dramas), and two stories of the North Country, Get the Woman (1930) and Abandoned Trails (1932). Get the Woman was serialized inMcCall’s Magazine as “M’sieu Sweetheart.” Good Housekeeping published a reminiscence of her filmmaking days entitled “This Little Bear Went to Hollywood” (1931). In 1933 she left her household behind in California and moved to New York to work as a story developer for George Palmer Putnam, recently named head of Paramount Studios’ editorial board.[xxviii] Once again the movie bug bit her; she wanted to make movies again, and she wanted Barry—now 21 and a writer himself-- to work with her.[xxix]
After school was out in 1934, Nell drove back to California in her new Pierce limousine to bring Charles and the twins to New York. Her relationship with Charles Austin Ayers, however, was foundering. By the Fall, she and Charles had separated. “We staged a terrible renunciation scene,” she wrote to Barry, and their ten-year relationship was over.[xxx]
Nell was not long without a partner, however. She seems to have been briefly involved with Philip Hurn, a collaborator in several projects, but by the summer of 1935 had met Hurn’s cousin, an Italian-American film director named Amerigo Serrao. “Amerigo and I are deeply in love,” she wrote to Barry in October. Unlike Charles, who was an outsider to the film business, Amerigo was “one of our own….He is our business. Hollywood. Pictures. Humor. Promotion. An Ernie [Shipman] brought up to date.” With him, in the years ahead, she foresaw “the realization of everything we have most wanted and dreamed.” Together, the three of them would make pictures.[xxxi]
Those dreams never came true. Barry married and stayed in California, where he wrote scripts for serials, movies, and later, for television. He worked steadily, raised a family, bought a house and a pool, and eventually became an officer of the Writers Guild. Nell and Amerigo, on the other hand, crisscrossed the country chasing their elusive dream. But no one was interested in backing their independent productions; and always, it seems, some turn of events conspired against them. Nell’s letters for the next two decades were full of what she called “verges”: projects on the verge of financing, only to fall through at the last moment. After living in New York a few years, she and Amerigo tried their luck in Florida and California. No luck there, they returned to New York. By 1939 they were penniless, spending nights on the subway when friends could not take them in.[xxxii] But somehow they survived. Amerigo could always find a hotel or a landlord who would defer the rent, or a friend to help them out while they developed a project. Barry often lent support. Nell wrote while Amerigo promoted. The minute one dream collapsed or a landlord evicted them, they were off on a new venture.
During World War II, Barry Shipman was stationed at Quantico, Virginia, as an officer in the Marines, making pictures for the war effort. Nell and Amerigo visited often from New York, as did the twins, who had gone to live with their father when Nell hit rock bottom. The family was together more during the war than they had been for years. Nell and Amerigo made contacts in Virginia, too, and found the financial backing to make a movie on Virginia’s remote Eastern Shore. There they filmed The Story of Mr. Hobbs (also known as The Clamdigger’s Daughter), completed in 1947 but never released.[xxxiii] They stayed in Virginia several more years, then moved to Washington, D.C. Inspired by Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade, Nell wrote a novel and screenplay about subversion in America. For most of the decade she and Amerigo lived with some backers on an estate in Bethesda, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C., while they sought to put their anti-Communist project on film. Their work in Washington came to naught, too. Nell blamed highly placed politicians for their failure, politicians who sabotaged their efforts because anti-Communism was too controversial. “The axe has fallen and all but felled us en transit,” Nell wrote to Barry in 1959. “The time drag and stalling grew more and more difficult until finally, in a show-down, a completion bond was demanded…No major would let the pix go thru at our cut-rate budget, nor would they let me produce or the old man direct.” They got out of town “literally with the hounds on our traces.”[xxxiv]
Barry wrote back that he had too many financial obligations to bail them out this time, but invited Nell to California, where there was a great need for talented writers for the movies and television. Reflecting on Nell’s twenty-four years with Amerigo, he wrote bluntly: “Forgive me if I feel that you’ve been terribly, horribly and tragically wasted these many years. No one’s fault, maybe…but the fault can lie in not doing something about it….I hold no grudges, or hostilities. Just regret—in a way—that he couldn’t have used you better. As a companion, I guess you had a good one. Loneliness is probably the worst thing there is. If he kept you from that, bless him. But as a mentor for you…” In reference to their many frustrated plans, Barry added: “[I] used to get your letters with the great verges in them and shed a little tear and wonder just what international incident, broken leg, or new legislation would throw the deal this time!”[xxxv]
Nell reluctantly accepted Barry’s invitation and moved to California to live with him. Amerigo stayed in New York, in pursuit of financing for yet another project, a studio in France where they could make movies. He died a few months later, in November 1960. Nell was bereft, but within a few months she was on the move again. She spent the next four years living with friends in New England and New Jersey and, at times, with her son Charles or daughter Daphne in New York, rarely staying in one place more than a few months. She endured long lonely bus rides, and at times did not know where she would end up next. But still she wrote prolifically, peppering friends, agents, and publishers with stories, plays, and novels. Finally in 1965, at the age of seventy-three, Nell returned to California, living first with Barry and then, in 1967, moving into a small house in Cabazon, a desert community not far from Palm Springs. There Nell enjoyed the company of a menagerie of cats and dogs, visits from relatives and old friends, and occasional trips to scenes from her younger days, Big Bear in particular. She also enjoyed corresponding with film buffs and historians who had just rediscovered her. But most of all she enjoyed her independence. In letter to Lloyd Peters, who had been part of her company at Priest Lake more than forty years before, she vowed a “death-with-your-boots-on finale,” and reflected that “memories are our greatest treasure, cannot be taken by rust, by the dream-killers, or the ‘so what’s?’ Our only sure possessions!”[xxxvi]
Nell’s last major project was her autobiography, which, after numerous title changes, she called “The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart.” It covered her life up until the collapse of her movie camp at Priest Lake, Idaho. Nell died in Cabazon on January 23, 1970. She was laid to rest in nearby Banning, under a simple stone adorned with a single star.
Nell Shipman married and divorced Ernest Shipman, but no records of marriages to any of her other partners have been found, despite the fact that she styled herself Mrs. Bert Van Tuyle, Mrs. Charles Austin Ayers, or Mrs. --- (whatever Amerigo Serrao’s alias was at the time.)
[i] Nell Shipman, The Silent Screen & My Talking Heart, 3rd ed. (Boise: Boise State University, Hemingway Western Studies Center, 2001) p.108 (p. 110 in 1st and 2nd editions). Hereafter abbreviated SS&MTH.
[ii] Details of Nell Shipman’s early life and career through 1925 are derived mainly from SS&MTH. Page numbers in the third edition (2001) are given first, followed by the first and second edition page numbers in parentheses.
[iii] SS&MTH, pp. 1-6 (1-6).
[iv] SS&MTH, pp 32-33 (33).
[v] SS&MTH, pp. 6-36 (6-37).
[vi] “A Call to Arms for the Scenario Writers,” West Coast Magazine 13 (1912) 283-284.
[vii] SS&MTH, pp. 39-51 (41-52).
[viii] SS&MTH, p. 44 (46).
[ix] SS&MTH, pp, 68-75 (70-77). See also Embattled Shadows: A History of Canadian Cinema, 1895-1935, by Peter Morris (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1978).
[x] Letter from Curwood to Shipman (August 7, 1919) contained within the collection (Box 2, Folder 13).
[xi] See, for example, Los Angeles Evening Herald for May 12, 1920 (Photocopy contained in MSS 99, Papers of Tom Trusky, Box 8, Folder 5).
[xii] SS&MTH, p. 96 (98).
[xiii] SS&MTH, p. 101 (103).
[xiv] SS&MTH, p. 103 (105).
[xv] See SS&MTH, pp. 77 (80), 107-109 (105-107).
[xvi] SS&MTH, p. 108 (111).
[xvii] SS&MTH, p. 108-115 (110-117).
[xviii] The story of 1923-1924 is covered in SS&MTH, pp. 121-160 (123-163 in the 1st and 2nd editions). See also the memoir by Lloyd Peters, one of the members of her company, entitled Lionhead Lodge (Fairfield, Wash.: Fairfield Press, 1967).
[xix] Photocopies of many clippings from the Priest River Times are found in MSS 99, Papers of Tom Trusky, Box 8, Folders 15 and 16.
[xx] Nell Shipman, “The Movie That Couldn’t be Screened,” Atlantic Monthly, April 1925, p. 479 (contained within the collection in Box 5, Folder 5).
[xxi] SS&MTH, p. 157 (159).
[xxii] See letters from Nell Shipman to Belle Angstadt and Barry Shipman published in SS&MTH, pp. 160-163 (163-165). The originals are not present in the collection. According to the June 10, 1925, issue of the Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington), the San Diego Zoo learned of the plight of the animals through a Spokesman-Review article that was distributed nationally via the Associated Press (clipping in MSS 99, Papers of Tom Trusky, Box 8, Folder 18). In her memoir of her career of the San Diego Zoo, Belle Jennings Benchley tells of the lives of two of Nell Shipman’s rescued animals in San Diego (My Life in a Man-Made Jungle, Little Brown & Company, 1940, pp. 82-84).
[xxiii] SS&MTH, p. 162 (165).
[xxiv] “N.S. Chronology” by Barry Shipman (MSS 90, Papers of Barry Shipman, Box 10, at Boise State University), and conversations with Barry Shipman.
[xxv] Clippings about Nell Shipman from Florida newspapers are found in her Pressbook and the clipping files in Box 1. She wrote several accounts of her experiences in Spain, found in Box 5. Only portions of The Tamiami Trail are found in the Pressbook; the collection does not contain the complete text.
[xxvi] Nell Shipman, “The Film Centre of the World,” The Bioscope (November 4, 1926), pp. 40-41. Contained in the collection in the Pressbook, p. 10, and with the clippings in Box 1, Folder 19.
[xxvii] Nell Shipman wrote extensively of her time in Spain; see Box 5. Her Florida sojourn is documented in her Pressbook.
[xxviii] Her correspondence reveals that she worked on several projects for Putnam, but only one resulted in a film credit, as author of the story for Wings in the Dark, a Myrna Loy-Cary Grant film released by Paramount in 1935.
[xxix] Nell Shipman’s many letters to Barry Shipman (Boxes 4-A and 4-B) serve as the major source for the details of her life from 1933 on.
[xxx] Nell Shipman to Barry Shipman, April 22, 1935 (Box 4-A).
[xxxi] Nell Shipman to Barry Shipman, October 6, 1935 (Box 4-A). Amerigo Serrao directed films in the 1920s and early 1930s under the names Arthur Varney and Arthur Varney Serrao (The Motion Picture Guide). In later years he went by the aliases Grover Lee, Peter Lee Varney, and Peter Locke, among others. His mother was the noted sculptor Luella Varney Serrao (cf. Who Was Who in American Art, Ohio Art and Artists, and biographical files maintained by the Cleveland Public Library).
[xxxii] See, for example, handwritten letter from Nell Shipman to Barry Shipman, presumably written January 1940, from New Haven, Connecticut (Box 4-B).
[xxxiii] An incomplete version of the film, found in the British Film Institute under the title The Story of Mr. Hobbs, was shown in Cape Charles, Virginia, in 1996. See the April 27, 1996 issue of the Eastern Shore News (photocopy in MSS 99, Papers of Tom Trusky, Box 7, Folder 41).
[xxxiv] Nell Shipman to Barry Shipman, August 8, 1959 (Box 4-B).
[xxxv] Barry Shipman to Nell Shipman, [November?] 30, 1959, p. 3 (Box 4-B).
[xxxvi] Nell Shipman to Lloyd Peters, February 16, 1967 (Box 3, Folder 2).
Link to Finding aid for the Nell Shipman collection.