This sketch of coquettish actress Alyce Mills was a promotional piece for The Romance of a Million Dollars, a 1926 silent film based on a novel by Elizabeth Dejeans, whose birth name was Frances Elizabeth Janes. The author chose her nom de plume in case her somewhat racy books “upset staid relatives.” As Elizabeth was my cousin, her staid relatives were my staid relatives. So, naturally, when it came to choosing a cover for my Family Vault category, I couldn’t resist using this image. Not only was this fictional character birthed by my writer-cousin (making us practically kin), but she also looks like she’s dying to spill the tea.
Not that this blog is all about dishing family secrets. More like setting the record straight. Or at least as accurately as I am able to reconstruct it at any given moment. (Corrections welcomed!) I grew up not knowing much about my ancestors. I didn’t even know my grandparents. What little was passed down was often like a game of telephone, garbled by the time it got to me. Illustrious deeds were exaggerated or blindly revered, and dastardly ones soft-pedaled or expunged altogether. A lot of important context was distorted or forgotten, even for public figures, and we had our share of those, including Elizabeth.
A celebrated author in the Sister Carrie mode, Elizabeth Dejeans was a most impressive creature of self-invention. Indeed, her dust jacket bio was one of her most creative works of fiction. She was 40 when she sold her first novel in 1909, and she went on to publish a dozen more books and twice as many short stories, several of which were adapted to the silver screen. When producer B. P. Schulberg bought the screen rights to The Romance of a Million Dollars in 1925, she was on a Hollywood hot streak. Three years later, broke and alone, she put a bullet through her head. I can find nobody in my extended family who’s heard of her. The silence is telling. The hazy distance between a life lived and a life remembered fascinates me, for therein lies the biographer’s hidden trail. In my quest to find out who Elizabeth Dejeans really was, I’ve come to realize that she based some of her outlandish plots on scandals and peccadilloes that happened within our own family. Perhaps that explains the ancestral amnesia. And maybe she was right about those staid relatives.