Archive for March, 2010

“Fern Andra” Edna Andrews

17 Mar

Vernal “Fern Andra” Edna Andrews was born 24 November 1893 in Watseka, Illinois, the daughter of William P. and Sarah Evett Andrews. A great beauty who exuded sex appeal, she changed her name to “Fern Andra” and eventually became known as “the Mary Pickford of Germany.” She began her career at the Stephens Opera House in Watseka in a vaudeville act that included tightrope walking, a trick she learned from her step-father, Frank St. Clair. In 1905 she appeared at the Globe Theatre in Chicago and four years later joined a touring acting troupe, the United States and Canada Theatrical Company. In 1909, as part of the Millman Trio, she appeared before President Taft and his family and guests at a private performance at the White House.

In 1913 Fern became popular in London before moving on to Germany where she found herself when the First World War began. She was offered a film contract by the German Gaumont Company and her first movies, “Ave Maria” and “Crush,” were a success. She followed them with three others the next year and in 1915 she opened her own film production company in Germany, Andra-Film, and eventually produced and acted in more than 80 movies. At the outbreak of War she was accused of spying for the English, French, and Americans, and was only saved from deportation by the intervention (she claimed to have been briefly held in a prisoner of war camp and later insisted that the Emperor himself ordered her rescue) of Baron Friedrich von und zu Weichs zur Wenne, a distant family relation of the Austrian Empress Zita (his family were feudal nobility from Bavaria). Fern married the Baron but he was killed just before the end of the War and, for the rest of her life, she used the name “Baroness Fern Andra.”

After the end of the War Fern continued acting and became known as “the most beautiful girl in Europe.” In 1920 she caused great scandal for her movie, “Genuine” when she appeared on film clad only in a costume painted onto her body. On 4 July 1922 on a flight to Hamburg she and her business manager survived an airplane crash which killed her companion, Baron Lothar von Richthofen, brother of the “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen. In 1923 she married Kurt Prenzel (1896-1960), the German middleweight boxing champion, who had been a prisoner of war during World War I in Knockaloe prison camp. In 1925, the same year in which he had a role in one of Fern’s films, Prenzel was severely bitten by a rabid dog when he jumped in front of his wife to protect her. The injuries to his hand forced him to discontinue boxing for a while. He and Fern divorced soon after and he moved permanently to the U. S. in 1928 where he fought eight more times until he retired in 1930. In December of 1925 Fern arrived in New York City on the Aquitania to spend the holidays with her mother. Among the passenger guest list headed by “40 London revue beauties” were principals Bea Lillie and Gertrude Lawrence, all of whom were to appear at a gala performance in Atlantic City on New Year’s Eve. Also on board were William B. Leeds, Jr., son of the American-born Princess Anastasia of Greece, with his wife, Princess Xenia of Russia, as well as the Grand Duke Dmitri.

Fern continued acting in Germany until 1927 when she returned to the U.S. to live in Hollywood. In Tijuana, Mexico, on 15 February 1934, she married stage and movie actor Ian Keith (1899-1960, whose birth name was Keith McCauley Ross) who appeared in more than 350 roles and was closely associated with Jose Ferrer and co-starred with Helen Hayes in “Mary of Scotland.” She divorced him in Chicago in 1935, claiming he had “an ungovernable temper,” (her bodyguard was the only witness at the divorce hearing). Later that year her mother announced Fern’s engagement to six-day bicycle racer William “Torchy” Peden, but that marriage did not take place and she again returned to Germany. In 1937 she testified before the House Immigration Committee in Washington, claiming that European countries were discriminating against foreign artists and performers.

Fern returned to Germany and as World War II began the rumors of her having been a spy resurfaced although this time she was said to have spied on behalf of the German government against the U.S. She was rumored to have been a mistress of General Goebbels whom she had known when he was a young man working as a tutor. Fern returned to the U. S. where she broadcast in German to counteract Hitler’s Nazi propaganda. She moved to Connecticut and married her final husband, General Samuel Edge Dockrell, a playwright and producer who had been commandant of the Putnam Phalanx, a historic militia in Harford, CT. His play, “Torpedo,” had its premiere in Hartford in 1937. Fern Andra made frequent visits to her hometown of Watseka, IL, and lived with her last husband in Wiesbaden, Germany, the last four years of their lives. He died in Aiken, South Carolina, two days after arriving there with Fern. She died of cancer at the age of 80 in a nursing home in Aiken on 8 February 1974.

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