Florence Short

Actress Florence Short visited Skaneateles at least twice, in 1917 and 1920, staying with her cousin, Letitia (Cornell) Herrling, the wife of Walter Herrling, our postmaster. Although the Skaneateles newspaper accounts do not make it clear whether Short stayed at the Herrling home in the village or at the Cornell/Herrling families’ Ramona Lodge on the lake, she was very much a star when she visited here and was “widely entertained in the village and in Syracuse.”

Born in 1889, Short appeared in 28 silent films between 1914 and 1924, and nine Broadway plays between 1913 and 1933. She was the daughter of actors Lew and Estelle Short, and sister to Gertrude and Antrim Short, actors as well. And she was a cousin to Blanche Sweet, a leading lady of the Silents.

Florence Short played supporting roles mainly, but she worked with some fascinating people. In 1917 and 1918, she made two films – When You and I Were Young and The Great Adventure – with Alice Guy, who came to New York City from France and was the first woman to direct feature films. Also in 1918, she played a spy, Madame Augusta Stephan, in The Eagle’s Eye, a serial filmed in Ithaca, N.Y., at the Wharton brothers’ studio. The 20 episodes included titles like “The Kaiser’s Death Messenger,” “The Invasion of Canada” and “The Great Hindu Conspiracy.”

In 1920, Short made three films with legendary director D.W. Griffith: The Idol Dancer, The Love Flower, and Way Down East. In 1921, she made two films – Woman’s Place and Lessons in Love – with actress Constance Talmadge. (Lessons in Love played at Legg Hall in August of 1921, and Short got top billing with Talmadge.) And in 1922, she made Silver Wings for a young director named Jack Ford, who became better known as John Ford.

Florence Short is perhaps best remembered as one of the first identifiable lesbian characters on screen: the “eccentric aunt’ to Lillian Gish in Griffith’s Way Down East. In the words of film historian Anthony Slide, “Her appearance, her demeanor, and the manner in which she fusses with Gish’s clothing scream lesbian.” Indeed, in the scenes in which Short’s character unbuttons Gish’s dress and then adjusts the bodice of its filmy replacement, Lillian Gish probably did not have to extend herself to appear flustered.

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Images of Florence Short from The Enchanted Cottage (1924) and Way Down East (1920) from YouTube. Also,“Author and Actors Enjoy Rest at Skaneateles” Syracuse Post-Standard, September 12, 1917; “The Silent Closet” by Anthony Slide in Film Quarterly, Summer 1999.

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