I arrived at the cemetery overlooking the confluence of the Juniata and Susquehanna Rivers in search of a famous person buried in the sacred grounds. I had never heard of this person prior to receiving an email from Ryan. It was his email that brought me to the Duncannon Presbyterian Cemetery in search of Marie Doro, a famous actress who rests on the sacred piece of land.
From the location, I could see the Susquehanna River and the flowing traffic on Route Route 322 on the opposite side of the river. The wind began to pick up and I pulled my jacket tighter as I turned to view the grave that stood a couple steps from the roadway. The simple stone slab that covered the grave of Richard Stewart was flanked on the right by his wife, Virginia, and on the left by his daughter, Katherine. The faded urn-like marker of Katherine has chiseled beneath her birth name another name that is barely visible: Marie Doro. The second name was one that, had I not looked it up, would have been easily overlooked and possibly ignored on a normal visit.
The simple marker marks the final resting place of a local girl who made it big in the world. Marie was described as a small woman, with dark eyes and brown hair, She was admired not only for her beauty, but for her intelligence.
Marie Doro was born Marie Katherine Stewart on May 25, 1882 in Duncannon. She was the only child of Virginia (Weaver) and Richard Stewart, and was a direct descendant of Patrick Henry. Shortly after her birth, her family moved to Kansas City.
One of Marie’s first public performances was on the stage of the Coates Opera House in Kansas City. The exact role seems to be in debate. Some sources state that it was the role of Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, while other sources state her first role was in a play written by a local playwright. Note: Now I must divert my story for a moment. The Coates Opera House was a first-class theater – in fact the first theater – in Kansas City. It was founded by Kersey and Sarah Coates who left their home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1856. Kersey opened a bank, built the Coates House Hotel, erected an opera house to bring first class entertainment to the city, invested in real estate, and was among those responsible for bringing the railroad to the city. The Coates Opera House burned to the ground on January 31, 1901 and sadly would not be rebuilt.
In 1898, Marie’s family moved to New York City, where she attended a boarding school and began to refine her acting abilities. In 1901 she made her breakout as an actress playing Cora in the risqué Naughty Anthony. The following year she would take on the role of Rosella Peppercorn in The Billionaire. This performance caught the attention of Charles Frohman. Frohman was a noted theater producer and had developed the careers of many theater actors and actresses – Marie was soon being managed by him.
Note: while performing on Broadway, Marie’s name was often associated with William Gillette, the man who gave Sherlock Holmes his famous deerstalker cap.
1915 would be the year of change for Marie. May 7, 1915, Charles Frohman perished during the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. The same year she would marry Elliott Dexter, also an actor, but the marriage would end almost immediately and she never remarried. She would also leave the theater stage in 1915, pursuing a career in film.
She signed with Adolph Zukar and made her first film, The Morals of Marcus, based on the play she performed in years earlier. Marie would make eighteen films in her movie career, but sadly most of her early films would be lost – only six of them remain.
Marie was still a leading actress in Hollywood when she stopped acting. The exact reason for her departure is not known, but most agree she became disillusioned with Hollywood and left the movies in 1924. In fact, she left America all together. She moved to Europe and made a couple of movies in Italy and the United Kingdom.
Marie returned to the United States and settled in New York City. Her return to America marked a change in her personality. She entered the Union Theological Seminary in New York City where she studied spirituality.
Her last years were spent mostly in seclusion. She would often go on “retreats,” though exactly where she went and what she did during them remains a mystery. She would go out of her way to avoid not only journalists, but also the people she once called friends.
While the reasoning behind this self exile has never been solved, there has been a theory put forth that would explain Marie’s strange behavior. Two of her closest friends were Maude Adams and Mercedes de Acosta, both noted for their lesbian relationships. Her marriage and immediate divorce, and these friendships, hint that maybe Marie herself was fighting feelings for the same sex. Although this theory exists, and is the one most believe is a major factor in Marie’s life, the truth of her sexuality, or to the reasons behind her self exile, will probably never be known.
Marie passed away from heart failure on October 9, 1956. For the first time since she had left as a child, Marie returned to her hometown of Duncannon and was laid to rest next to her parents. On February 8, 1960, Marie was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contributions to the motion picture industry.
In her lifetime, Marie was more than just an actress. She was a noted song writer of the time – though I must admit looking at a number of the songs she wrote, I did not recognize any of them. She was a noted authority on Shakespeare’s sonnets and Elizabethan poetry. Those who did have a chance to talk to her after her return to the states claim she was a brilliant conversationalist, knowing and passionate about the subjects she talked.
As I stood there paying my respects, my mind drifted to another piece of gossip I had managed to find during my research. A June 19, 1919 article in the New York Times mentions that her stepfather had shot and killed himself. I could not find any other mention of this, nor could I find any mention of her parents divorcing. Looking at the marker on the right side of Richard Stewart’s grave, I see her mother’s name listed as Stewart. I had so many questions, but the memorials just weren’t answering any of them.
I finished paying my respects and knew it was time to move on, leaving them to stand watch over the river flowing past far below.