Wednesday, February 2, 2011

“A Note on Tights”; or, Anne Sutherland, part II

While researching Anne Sutherland, I discovered that at some point in the late 1880s or early 1890s she was one of many actresses who posed for photographs which were given away in packages of Newsboy tobacco. The photos were usually somewhat racy by contemporary standards, with the theatricality of the costumes and poses serving to excuse the impropriety.

If this was not enough, I then stumbled across an article in H. L. Menken’s groundbreaking American Mercury titled “A Note on Tights” in which the author revisits these postcards from his youth. Included is his assessment of Anne Bland Sutherland’s portrait. If this was not sufficient, when I realized the author was Carl Van Vechten—an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Gertrude Stein’s literary executor, and a photographer in his own right—I was hooked, and knew I would be excerpting the passage on Sutherland in full, rather than simply relying on it for information. Van Vechten writes:

“I picked up Anne Sutherland, garbed in martial costume, with helmet, velvet armor and trappings, tights fitting close to the full but symmetrical legs, and high boots. She was about to draw her sword, and her expression was as vigilant and as dauntless as that of Carpentier in the second round. Anne Sutherland, who now lives such a quiet life in the country, returning to New York occasionally to play the part of a middle-aged adventuress in some melodrama! Memory stood by my side and whispered that Miss Sutherland had begun her career with operatic aspirations: she went, indeed, to Germany to study Brünnhilde. Dreams and circumstances once more came into conflict, however, and it was not long before she found herself playing principal boy in the burlesque companies of E. E. Rice, who will be remembered as the entrepreneur of “Evangeline” and “1492”: this was the period of the cigarette pictures. Still later she elected to become an emotional actress and broke china in the third act with great sweeps of elemental passion. A extraordinary career, and it will soon be forgotten, I muttered, unless somebody puts it into a novel, and I fell to musing as to who should do this now that James Huneker was dead.”

Later Van Vechten mused on another actress that “Like Anne Sutherland, she is not forgotten.” Anne Bland Sutherland appears to have posed for more than one of these images; presumably they paid quite well. In an earlier image for Lone Jack tobacco she is equally exposed, though her outfit makes her seem less majestic than the one above. But if I had to pick a second favorite, it would be this one:
There are other surviving photos of Anne on stage, in costume, and a copy of at least one other absolutely lovely promotional photo, which she has autographed. As of yet, I have found none of Josie (though a skipping rope artist who appeared on Vaudeville, with the same name shows up) or of the other siblings.

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