Friday, June 28, 2013

SHE WAS RUDOLPH VALENTINO'S FAVORITE PHOTOGRAPHER - Mabel Sykes

Many of you who know me know that for over forty years I have been fascinated with the life and career of silent film superstar Rudolph Valentino. Through the years I have been able to read almost everything written about him and been able to acquire many pieces that belonged to him personally. I first became interested in Valentino's career, but over time I became much more interested in Rudolph Valentino the person - the real person behind the myth that was created. In my quest to learn about Valentino the person, I have been fortunate to get to know some members of his family, but unfortunately almost everyone who knew Valentino first-hand or worked with him is dead now, and has been dead for some time.

Over time I have browsed through literally thousands of photographs of Rudolph Valentino by many different photographers, some famous, some forgotten, some unknown.  But I have always come back to the person said to be Rudolph Valentino's favorite photographer, Chicago's own Mabel Sykes.  

Rudolph Valentino by Mabel Sykes

In this article I will tell you about the life and career of noted photographer Mabel Huxley Sykes, her friendship with Rudolph Valentino, and her efforts in starting the Chicago Valentino Memorial Club after Valentino's untimely death in 1926.  I will also share a collection of personal photos of Mabel and her family I was lucky enough to acquire several years ago - many of them probably being seen for the first time. 

Before I go any further with the story I want to show you a photograph of Mabel Sykes.  Like J.D. Toloff, Mabel was so busy taking photos of everyone else, she seldom sat still long enough to have her picture taken.  Here, so you know who I am talking about, is a photo of Mabel Sykes that used to belong to her personally:

Mabel Sykes Portrait from her personal collection

Mabel Huxley was born in Homewood, Illinois in March of 1883 to Charles DeWitt Huxley (1851-1930), a teacher, and Henrietta H. nee Zimmer (1864-1953).  Charles and Henrietta had been married May 27, 1882 in Homewood.  



Mabel was the first of four children who would be born to Charles and Henrietta.  In addition to Mabel, there was Paul (1892-1931), Herbert (1893-1940), and Norman Charles Huxley (1896-1949).

We don't know where or when Mabel Huxley met the dashing photographer Melvin H. Sykes (1865-1949), but we do know that the nineteen year old Mabel married the thirty-seven year old Melvin Sykes on July 21, 1902.  This was the first marriage for Miss Huxley; the third for Mr. Sykes.  

Mabel and Melvin Sykes

Since Melvin Sykes was already an established award-winning photographer when they married, it is safe to say that Mabel Sykes learned the photography trade from her husband.  They set up shop together in downtown Chicago.  Here's a photo of Mabel that Melvin submitted to a trade publication in 1911:

Mabel Sykes by Melvin Sykes - 1911

Sometime between 1900 and 1910, Mabel's parents Charles and Henrietta divorced.  The three boys, now teenagers, chose to live with their father; Mabel lived with her mother.

Although a success as a photographer, unfortunately Melvin Sykes had a roving eye.  Mabel divorced him in April of 1914, but won the right to continue to use the name "Mabel Sykes" because she had been using that name professionally, as she built up a reputation as a photographer in her own right.

Even though the divorce decree required Melvin Sykes to refrain from remarrying for two years, that did not stop him.  The Chicago Daily Tribune of August 27, 1914 reported the fourth marriage of Mr. Sykes:


BEAUTY DOCTOR BILL $185, BUT---
Even At That, 48 Year Old Mr. Sykes Fails to Win a Schoolgirl.
BRIDE NO. 4 IS ANOTHER

The latest sentimental adventure of Melvin H. Sykes, photographer in the Stevens Building, became known yesterday - his marriage to wife No. 4, who was his assistant, Miss Margaret E. Merker.

The marriage took place in Logansport, Ind., on July 9, but was hushed up, as Sykes was divorced by his third wife, Mrs. Mabel Huxley Sykes, last April, and there was a provision in the decree which forbade him to remarry within two years.

While only three months elapsed between the divorce and the fourth marriage, that interval was not so dreary and devoid of interest as might be imagined, for Sykes was engaged to a beautiful girl just out of a boarding school.

Visits Beauty Parlors.

She is Miss Helen Daegling, 17 years old, who lives with her mother and sister at 1517 East Sixty-fifth street.

No, Sykes is not a young man.  he admits being 48 years old.  But he knew of a place where olkd faces were made to look like new - and a bill in the possession of Mrs. Mabel Sykes shows that he patronized that place - the Marinello beauty parlors.

There he luxuriated in hair dyes, and hot oils, and facial massages, and manicures.  And he was made to appear in the role of a gay young cavalier.  Incidentally the bill came to $185.50.  Mrs Sykes, III., who is in the photograph business herself, asserts she paid the bill.

Meets Schoolgirl.

Mr. Sykes met Miss Daegling when she came home from school with Mary Sykes, his daughter.

"He took a fancy to my little girl," said Mrs. Daegling, "and he raved over her beauty and took her pictures."

One of these photographs was awarded first prize at a photographers' exhibition in Peoria last July.

Sykes showered flowers and candy upon Miss Daegling, who is five years younger than his daughter, and took her for automobile rides.  Miss Daegling told about it last night.

"I was engaged to him," she said, "and he gave me a diamond ring and introduced me as his future wife."

Gives Back the Ring.

"I liked him quite a bit, and we had some good times together.  But mama and my other relations didn't like him.  They said he was a bad man and begged me to give him up.  I finally came to see they were right, so I gave him back his ring and broke the engagement.

Mr. Sykes denied that he even knew Miss Daegling when a reporter questioned him about the affair.

The first Mrs. Sykes is dead.  She was Miss Mary Maloney.  The second spouse was Miss Rose Carleton, a water color artist, who divorced him.  Mrs. Sykes No. 3 lived with him for eleven years and helped to build up his business.

After the divorce she set up a studio at 140 North State street and went into business for herself, under the name of Mabel Sykes.

"Poor little kiddie," she said, when told of the last marriage, "she has a hard life in front of her.  Mr, Sykes likes young girls.  I was only a child myself when I married him.  I didn't know any better."

As it mentions in the article, Mabel Sykes set up her own photography studio at 140 North State Street ("across from Field's"), and started marking her photographs with her distinctive signature:


Mabel decided to give marriage another try, when she married Alfred J. Barsanti (1891-1939) on April 9, 1917.  Alfred was from a family of Chicago restaurateurs.

When Alfred registered for the draft on June 5, 1917 he gave his occupation as "Photographer" and his employer as "Mabel Sykes, 140 N. State Street, Chicago."

After her second marriage, Mabel made a significant change in the business.  Instead of embossing photos with her distinctive signature. she now embossed them with the Barsanti family crest:


although professionally she continued to use the name "Mabel Sykes."

The Mabel Sykes Photography Studio was doing very well financially, as indicated by this article from the Chicago Daily Tribune of February 20, 1921:


The house Mabel Sykes bought in 1921 still stands:  1352 N. La Salle Street, Chicago

1352 N. La Salle Street, Chicago

Mabel Sykes by Peyton - 1922

The years went by, and you could not pick up a Chicago daily newspaper without seeing at least one "Photo by Mabel Sykes".  She photographed them all - from the rich and famous to just plain folks. Her studio was right in the heart of Chicago's Loop, so whenever anyone famous came through town (and they all did, at one time or another) they ended up in Mabel's studio.  It was during one of his many trips through Chicago that Rudolph Valentino met Mabel Sykes.

The camera loved Rudolph Valentino, and so did millions of fans all over the world.  Mabel Sykes loved to take photos of beautiful people, and Valentino certainly fit that bill:

Rudolph Valentino by Mabel Sykes - First Formal Sitting

Mabel marked all her original photographs with her embossed name in the lower right corner, and her distinctive copyright of a capital "C" in a circle.

Valentino traveled the world over and was photographed by the world's best photographers, but he always claimed that his favorite photographer was Mabel Sykes.  

Rudolph Valentino came through Chicago for the last time on July 20, 1926.  He was tired and sick.  He would actually die from complications of a ruptured appendix just a little over one month later - on August 23, 1926.  

As soon as Mabel Sykes got word that Valentino was on his way to Chicago she cabled him and asked him to set aside some time for another photography session.  Valentino responded that he was tired and didn't feel up to par.  He complained that even Mabel Sykes would not be able to make him look well and healthy.  Mabel wouldn't take no for an answer, but also bought a little "insurance".  She met the train in Chicago and went on board to shoot some candid shots of Valentino - just in case he begged off the studio session.  Here's one of the candid photos taken on the train by Mabel Sykes, and you can see just how bad Valentino looked:


Note the embossed Barsanti crest in the lower left corner.  

Valentino did come into Mabel's studio as he had promised, but even with Mabel using her magic, Valentino still does not look his best:



Valentino finished his business in Chicago and left for New York - his last trip while he was alive.

Since Valentino had told her his health problems. Mabel was probably not as surprised as the rest of the country when she heard the news that Valentino had collapsed and was rushed to the Polyclinic Hospital in New York.  After his operation when it was looking like he would recover, I'm sure Mabel Sykes joined the millions the world over who had been fearing the worst but hoping for the best.

I'm sure that Mabel was shocked when the news hit the wires a little after Noon, New York time on August 23, 1926:


Mabel immediately created a shrine to Rudolph Valentino in the front window of her photography studio on State street, and it remained there until she retired.

There is no evidence that Mabel Sykes attended either the first Valentino funeral in New York, 


or the second funeral in Beverly Hills:


but it is certain that she went downtown when Valentino's funeral train passed through Chicago on the evening of September 3rd.

Ever the good businesswoman, Mabel sold copies of the photos she had taken of Valentino, and even some she had not taken.  The following is a still from Valentino's last film 'The Son of the Sheik' with Vilma Banky. It was taken by the United Artists Studio photographer. Mabel took a black and white copy of the still, hand-colored it, stamped it with her crest and sold it along with the portraits.  It was said that Mabel Sykes did a brisk business in Valentino photos both before and after his death.


We do know that Mabel Sykes was instrumental in forming the Chicago Valentino Memorial Club.  The club had extensive correspondence with Valentino's brother Alberto.  The Club wanted a Valentino exhibit at the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1932-1933 - either as part of the Italy exhibit or separate.  They wanted Alberto to endorse the project, and also loan some of his brother's personal items to the exhibit.  The Club carried on a correspondence with Alberto for years, but was unable to gain his endorsement or his willingness to travel to Chicago to open the exhibit.  The final exhibit of the Chicago Valentino Memorial Club at the Century of Progress was limited to a small display at the Italian Village of personal items including "the razor strop used on his fatal trip to New York."  

The Chicago Valentino Memorial Club was more successful in getting a book published about Valentino.  In 1929 the club published (through the Occult Publishing Company of Chicago) "My Private Diary" by Rudolph Valentino:



"My Private Diary" was a rehash of the articles Valentino had done for Bernarr MacFadden's Movie Weekly Magazine entitled "My Own Story of My Trip Abroad" with some additional photos (including a frontispiece of Valentino by Mabel Sykes).  The work product of the Occult Publishing Company was so poor that the Club laid in a typed Errata Slip to the first edition that said "Chicago Valentino Memorial Club & Occult Publ Regret Very Much the Several Typographical Errors Which Appear in Pages of This Book.  These Errors Did Not Appear in the Original Manuscript."  Sales of "My Private Diary" were brisk, and it was published in both a hard cover version with dust jacket and a soft cover version.

The Chicago Valentino Memorial Club did continue for quite some time, mostly through the efforts of Mabel Sykes.  The Club collected funds to acquire Valentino memorabilia, held regular meetings, and sent flowers to Valentino's crypt every year on August 23rd.  This went on at least through the 1930s.

Here is a Mabel Sykes photo of the Chicago Valentino Memorial Club at one of their meetings with some of the Valentino memorabilia they had collected:

Chicago Valentino Memorial Club

I believe that is Mabel Sykes front and center of the photo with her hands crossed. 

Apparently Mabel Sykes finally decided that Alfred Barsanti was no Rudolph Valentino.  Here is a small article that appeared in the Chicago Daily Tribune of January 31, 1929:



The article erroneously states that they were married in April, 1927. They had been married in April, 1917.

One of Mabel's ads from 1930 with a rare photo of her included:


Tragedy struck Mabel Sykes in December of 1930 when her beloved father, Charles DeWitt Huxley was struck and killed by a Chicago trolley at State and Delaware:



Huxley's body was buried in Oaklawn Cemetery (now Homewood Memorial Gardens) in Homewood, Illinois.


  
As if losing her father was not enough, Mabel lost her brother Paul just short of three months later on March 5, 1931, when, blaming himself for his father's death, Paul took his own life:



Here's Paul's obituary from the Chicago Daily Tribune of March 8, 1931:


and his death certificate:


Paul is buried in the same plot as his father in Homewood Memorial Gardens:


Still grieving over the loss of her father and brother, Mabel Sykes decided to retire in 1931 and sold her business to the Marshall Studios:


The rest of the 1930s passed quietly for Mabel Sykes.  The next big event was the death of her brother Herbert in October of 1940:



Unlike the rest of his family, Herbert Huxley's body was shipped to Denver, Colorado for burial.

Around this time Mabel decided to sell the big house at 1352 N. La Salle and move to the country - or at least what was considered the country back in the 1940s.  She bought a newly built home at 4117 Pueblo (Cumberland) in Chicago for herself, her mother, and her brother Norman:

4117 N. Pueblo, Chicago

Tragedy struck the Huxley family again in December of 1949, when Norman Huxley dropped dead from a heart attack:


Here's Norman's obituary from the Chicago Daily Tribune of December 7, 1949:


Norman was buried between his father and his brother in Homewood Memorial Gardens:


In May of 1953, Mabel's beloved mother Henrietta died:


She was also buried in Homewood Memorial Gardens.  She was buried with her parents in the Zimmer plot in Section 3:


Mabel was still using her distinctive stationery in 1956 when she prepared a packet of photographs for a retrospective of her work with Melvin Sykes:



Mabel Huxley Sykes died in her home on August 21, 1963, just two days short of the thirty-seventh anniversary of the death of Rudolph Valentino on August 23rd.  However, she did have her funeral on August 23rd.  So, when Rudolph Valentino was being remembered at the Valentino Memorial Service in Hollywood, his friend and favorite photographer was being buried in Chicago.  Rudolph Valentino's name was probably mentioned at Mabel Sykes' service; it is unlikely that Mabel Sykes' name was mentioned at the Valentino Memorial.   





Her only surviving relative was Herbert's daughter Georganne.

Mabel chose to be buried at Homewood Memorial Gardens:



It is interesting that Mabel chose to be buried with her mother in the Zimmer plot, instead of with her father and brothers.  They are all in the same cemetery, but in different sections.  They chose to be buried as they chose after Charles and Henrietta's divorce.  Mabel went with her mother, and the boys went with their father.


Zimmer-Huxley-Sykes Plot - Section 3

Huxley Plot - Section A

What ever happened to Mabel's ex-husbands?  Believe it or not, Melvin Sykes stayed married to his fourth wife Margaret Merker who he married in 1916.  After all the bad publicity he had in Chicago, Melvin and Margaret decided to move west.  They settled in San Diego, where Melvin opened another photography studio.  Melvin Sykes died in California on June 22, 1949 at the age of 84.  I was unable to find out where Melvin Sykes was buried.  

Alfred Barsanti died on March 6, 1939 in Chicago, at the age of 47. He is buried in the Barsanti family plot at Calvary Cemetery in Evanston.  


Gravestone of Alfred Barsanti and his parents

The Chinese have a saying: "May you live in interesting times."  Mabel Sykes certainly did.

Mabel Huxley Sykes, Rudolph Valentino's favorite photographer.  May she rest in peace.

6 comments:

  1. Once again, you have written a fascinating blog post. Thank you for sharing all you found out about Mabel.

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  2. She really was quite a woman! Fascinating, and well-written post, as always --- thank you for sharing with all of us!

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  3. Great article. I found this post after looking up Mabel because of a photo I found in my basement of a relative (might be uncle who was on radio in Chicago 'back then') that had the embossed crest(bottom right.) Now I'm very curious to nail down who this photo is.

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  4. I discovered a portrait of a relative from 1915 with Mabel's distinctive logo on the jacket. It appears to be a color image but, not surprisingly, is badly faded. The print appears to be some type of a metallic blue hue with what looks like a "clouds" background in the studio. Can anyone tell me anything about the printing, paper or developing process of that time?

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  5. Nice blog I loved it and mabel nor valentino will be forgotten. I found a bunch of her work. Where do I take it to get it back where it belongs

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  6. Tonight I am going through a box of photographs from my wife's grandparents. One of the photos is in a MABEL SYKES CHICAGO folder and the photo is embossed with a MABEL SYKES CHICAGO script-style emboss. Thank you for the detailed article about this well-known photographer who photographed one of my wife's relatives.

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