Essay by Joseph P. Eckhardt
By the time Wilna Hervey was twenty years old, she stood nearly six-foot-three, and weighed close to 300 pounds. So astonished were folks who saw her for the first time that it was not unusual for perfect strangers to stop her on the street and ask her height and weight. Far from being put off by such rude inquiries, Wilna would cheerfully tell them.
Born in San Francisco on October 3, 1894, to William Russell Hervey and his wife, Anna Van Horn Traphagen Adams Hervey, Wilna Webster Hervey was the only child of her parents’ marriage. She had three half-siblings from her mother’s previous marriage to attorney, Thomas V. Cator. “Willie” as she would be known to her family and friends, seems to have come by her artistic instincts and flair for performance quite naturally. Both of her parents were talented musicians, her father a professor of music, and her mother an accomplished pianist. While Wilna was still a child her parents moved their blended family to New York City. Wilna’s mother had a pedigree that included several U.S. presidents, Civil War generals, and other notables. She had inherited a sizable fortune as a young woman and her wealth ensured the Hervey family a very comfortable lifestyle which included society functions, family vacations to the Caribbean, and a luxurious house equipped with at least two servants at any given time. By 1920, at which time the family was living in a fashionable neighborhood along Beach Ninth Street in Far Rockaway, a live-in German cook provided the meals, while her African-American husband provided the family with Chauffeur services. The couple’s biracial son completed the Hervey household of seven. Wilna’s sense of freedom to lead her own life exactly as she wished was probably formed early in this indulgent, cosmopolitan and open-minded household.
Wilna grew up in a world of entertainers and show business professionals of one sort or another. Surrounded by a talented family, trained in music and the performing arts, it is not surprising that even as a youngster Wilna was attracted to the world of show business, especially the movies. An enthusiastic reader of movie fan magazines, Wilna soon began writing articles, and several were published. Perhaps to spare her family any possible embarrassment, she adopted the professional name, Wilna Wilde, for both her literary efforts and her early attempts at acting.
It was, perhaps, inevitable that Wilna would want to try her hand at acting. Far from posing an obstacle, her remarkable size actually helped her land a few movie roles with Sidney Drew as early as 1916. The caption under a photo of her which appeared in a fan magazine in 1916 or 1917 informed readers that “Miss Wilde is just making her debut in pictures,” adding “she does not have to work, but she likes pictures and intends to make it her profession.”
These early acting jobs provided Wilna with valuable experience before the camera and her bit parts, however minor, nevertheless placed her face and impressive form upon the screen for all to see. It was quite possibly this exposure that brought her to the attention of a director looking for a very big actress for a very big part in 1920. Once he had met her, it didn’t take long for the managing director of the Betzwood Film Company to offer Wilna the role with which she would be identified the rest of her life— “The Powerful Katrinka.”
Located in the old Lubin studios in the Montgomery County suburbs of Philadelphia, the Betzwood Film Company was embarking on an ambitious project in early 1920. They were about to turn Fontaine Fox’s popular and nationally syndicated Toonerville Trolley cartoons into live-action two-reel comedies. Choosing just the right actors and actresses to play Fox’s beloved Toonerville folks was essential to the potential success of the planned films. The choice of Wilna Hervey to play Katrinka would prove to be one of the best choices the studio made.
Katrinka, as she appeared in the Fox cartoons, was a hefty and innocent creature who seemed oblivious to the extent of her own physical strength. Toonerville cartoons abound with images of her carrying absurdly large loads or moving the Trolley with one hand. Once Wilna had been hired for the part, the Betzwood studio took full advantage of her impressive size as they began providing advance publicity for the upcoming series. Press releases presented outrageous claims designed to play up the idea that Fox’s cartoon character had indeed come to life. “Strongest Woman in the World in Picture” ran one headline. “Fontaine Fox Discovers a Herculean Actress for Comedy Part” ran another.
For her screen name, Wilna continued using “Wilna Wilde.” But since reporters often misspelled both names, she was more frequently referred to as “Wilma Wild.” One typical bit of studio hype referred to her as follows:
Wilma is a little girl of about six-foot-two and constructed proportionally. She finds very little difficulty, it is said, in picking up, bodily, a section of street car track, or a kitchen range, and it is like eating candy for her to carry a full-size man up and down stairs under her arm.
Production on the Toonerville Trolley films began in the fall of 1919. Working closely with the director, cast, and crew, Fontaine Fox himself was on hand at the Betzwood studio to supervise the productions, write scripts, and attend to the building of two full-size working models of his famous dilapidated Trolley. Wilna quickly proved a perfect choice for her role and developed a warm relationship and on-screen chemistry with the sixty-seven year-old veteran character actor, Dan Mason, who had been hired to portray the Trolley’s irascible “Skipper.” At five-foot-four, Mason, who stooped a bit to simulate the advanced age of his character, seemed dwarfed by the towering “Katrinka” making their encounters and confrontations all the more comical. Of the 17 two-reel Toonerville Trolley comedies that rolled out of the Betzwood studio in 1920 and 1921, the most successful efforts were those with story lines focused on the Skipper, Powerful Katrinka, and Fox’s wonderful Trolley.
The idea of cartoon Katrinka coming to life was sufficiently newsworthy that Motion Picture Magazine called attention to the upcoming films with a full-page spread of photos and text in its December 1920 issue. Of course, the fact that Wilna’s brother-in-law, Eugene V. Brewster, was the magazine’s editor just might have had something to do with this generous free publicity.
Wilna’s portrayal of Katrinka was set in the context of an ongoing series of sight gags intended to play up the notion of Katrinka’s superhuman strength and clueless innocence. In the pilot film for the series, The Toonerville Trolley That Meets All Trains, Katrinka disrupts the trolley line and derails an impending wedding when she sees a snake and rips up a section of the trolley tracks to defend herself against the varmint. In The Skipper’s Treasure Garden, Katrinka attempts to board the Trolley carrying a steamer trunk as her handbag. Later in the film, she uses a steam shovel to excavate the Skipper’s newly-planted garden when she is led to believe there is gold buried there. In Toonerville’s Fire Brigade, the Skipper and his crew can’t manage to make the hand pump apparatus work until Katrinka seizes control of it, at which point everyone in town gets drenched.
Sadly, we know most of these films only by synopses, reviews, or publicity stills. Only seven of the 17 Toonerville Trolley comedies survive today, three of them in such bad shape that they are not available to the public. The Betzwood Film Archive at Montgomery County Community College holds copies of four of the extant films; The Skipper’s Narrow Escape, Toonerville’s “Boozem ” Friends, The Skipper’s Flirtation, and Toonerville Follies. Like the lost films mentioned above, these films contain wonderful sight gags which, combined with Wilna’s portrayal of Katrinka, provide some very funny episodes. In Narrow Escape, she whips a rug out from under a table with one swipe, and attempts to kill a mouse with a baseball bat, only to ruin the plumbing which she is then obliged to fix by twisting the pipes with her bare hands. When the proper way to use the tilting tea table requires “too much head work” Katrinka uses the table as a long-handled serving tray, carrying it in one hand. She lifts up a ladder to give the person standing on it a better view in Skipper’s Flirtation, and carries off her employer, the “Terrible Tempered Mr. Bangs” like a sack of flour when the moonshine proves a bit too much in “‘Boozem’ Friends.” The latter film also features Katrinka’s unique approach to making home fries. She forces potatoes through a table fan, the pieces miraculously flying through the air and landing across the room in the frying pan she has on the stove.
The Toonerville Trolley films were successful, but not successful enough. In competition with comedies starring Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, the quaint cartoons-come-to-life could not produce sufficient profits to satisfy the investors who owned the Betzwood Film Company. Despite that fact that a second series of the films was announced in 1921 and contracts had been signed for their distribution, the studio suddenly ceased production in the summer of 1921 far short of the 24 new films supposedly in the works. The Toonerville films were the last productions of the Betzwood Film Company. The studio facilities were utilized by a couple of independent producers in 1922 and 1923, then closed forever in 1924.
If imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, the Toonerville films received the ultimate compliment in 1922 when Paul Gerson Productions, in California, announced a new series of two-reel comedies… starring Dan Mason and Wilna Hervey. The driving force behind this copy cat scheme on the West Coast was apparently the Skipper himself. Dan Mason, who had been getting rave reviews for his Betzwood work, felt that there was still a lot of cinematic mileage left in the eccentric characters and country ways of the Toonerville folks. Paul Gerson agreed and the “Plum Center ” comedies were born. Less than a year after their movie making at Betzwood had been abruptly halted, Dan Mason and Wilna Hervey met up again in Burlingame, California, just south of San Francisco, where both assumed new personas based on their previous Toonerville characters. Since Fontaine Fox had copyrighted everything Toonerville, some new names were in order. Toonerville, itself, became “Plum Center ” in this new comedy series, while the Skipper and Katrinka changed their names to “Pop Tuttle ” and “Tillie Olson” respectively. Mason is said to have devised most of the plots for the new series. The extent to which the California films sought to imitate the previous Toonerville series is apparent from the few surviving films and a handful of photos. The characters, costumes, makeup, and several story concepts—even the Prohibition jokes—are very similar to those used in the Betzwood films. Unable to use Fox’s copyrighted Trolley, they contented themselves with an old white horse pulling an antiquated delivery coach.
For the Plum Center series, Wilna was credited as “Wilna Hervey” though many reporters continued to misspell her given name as “Wilma.” Robert Eddy, who had directed some of the Betzwood Toonerville films and was thus quite familiar with the structure and pacing of those films, directed all twelve of the Plum Center Comedies in 1922 and 1923. Assisting Eddy with both directorial duties and occasional editing was a 25-year-old Frank Capra. Capra, destined to become one of Hollywood’s legendary directors, also devised sight gags for Mason and Hervey and provided Wilna with much moral support and encouragement, becoming in the process one of her life-long friends. Capra and Wilna kept up a correspondence the rest of their lives.
Wilna was excited to be making films again and wrote to one of her friends in New York that “poor ‘Hervey’ is working hard in movies” and expressed the hope that “this time I will be successful.” And work hard she did. Her Tillie character got more time on screen than Katrinka had, since the Plum Center films were specifically built around Wilna and Dan Mason. Wilna’s performance in The Fire Chief (1922) amounts to an aerobic workout with Tillie ringing the fire bell with a sledge hammer until it breaks, and pushing the pump wagon through the streets at top speed. But despite the efforts of Mason and Hervey, these ersatz Toonerville-without-the-Trolley comedies were not destined for great success. While today they seem as funny as the Toonerville films, they suffered a fate common to derivative sequels. They are very obscure today. Only four have survived, three in the Library of Congress, and one in the hands of a private collector.
Forty years later, Wilna would tell a reporter that the only reason she made movies was to earn enough money to pursue her dream of becoming an artist. While her statement was not entirely true, there was more truth to it than fiction. Certainly she had been disappointed not to have achieved great success in the movies. She loved performing and her articles for the fan magazines suggest a girl totally smitten with the movies. But her training as a professional artist had in fact begun even before her foray in the movies and she continued to take lessons throughout her years before the camera. While the 1920 census identifies her as a movie actress, Wilna identified herself as an artist when asked to state her profession on a passport application that same year. As early as 1918 Wilna was taking lessons at the Art Students League in Manhattan and at the League’s summer camp at Woodstock, north of New York City. While filming at both Betzwood and Burlingame, she brought along her sketch books and coped with the tedium of film making by going off to draw between takes. When they were finally ready for her to perform, she was often nowhere to be found and someone had to be sent to find her. Throughout her life, Wilna’s passion for art was proportionate to her avoirdupois and always her first priority.
In pursuit of artistic training, Wilna took lessons at one time or another with Frank DuMond, Kenneth Hayes Miller, George Brandt Bridgman, Henry Lee McFee, and Winold Reiss. These artists, all based in either Manhattan or Woodstock, represented a number of different styles and schools from the traditional to the modern. Wilna drew, painted in both water colors and oils, and tried her hand at portraiture, landscapes, and still lifes. Her work went through many different manifestations and stages of development over the years. While some of her early instructors, like Miller, encouraged her to create crisp drawings that some have compared to the early works of Diego Rivera, McFee is known to have encouraged Wilna to drop her attempts at realism in favor of a charmingly naïve style she affected for many years. But, as will be seen, it was only in her later years that she finally achieved an artistic breakthrough that brought her genuine success.
The noted German artist, Winold Reiss, not only provided Wilna with artistic instruction and professional encouragement, but became as well one of her closest personal friends. Through Reiss and his wife Henriette, who often included her as a guest at their social functions, Wilna was introduced to an ever widening circle of new acquaintances, allowing the aspiring young artist to develop a remarkably diverse assortment of friendships, many of which endured a lifetime. All of Wilna’s New York friends regarded her movie work with much amusement, and flocked to the theaters to see each of her latest turns as Powerful Katrinka or Tillie.
If her brief adventure in movie stardom brought Wilna the financial means to pursue her career as an artist, it provided her with something else that defined the rest of her days—her life companion, Nan Mason. It was in 1920, while filming at the Betzwood studio, that Wilna first met Nannie Mason, the twenty-four year-old daughter of her co-star, Dan Mason. The two girls quickly took a liking to each other. That “they had much in common” as one article about them delicately put it, was an understatement. They kept in touch when the Betzwood productions ended. When they met up again in California for the filming of the Plum Center Comedies, their relationship was sealed.
Wilna and Nan were well matched. Only two years apart in age, both were musically talented, able to play several instruments and fond of singing. Both were, as well, creative free spirits with strong independent streaks. Their personalities, though quite different, complimented one another. While Wilna was extremely sensitive, mercurial—almost “childlike ” in the words of one old friend—and easily hurt, Nan was even tempered, business-like, and down to earth.
Between 1929 and 1934, Wilna and Nan made regular seasonal trips back and forth across the United States by train and later by car, shuttling between the two art colonies. During one of their marathon cross-country drives, it was alleged that they were accosted by a band of gypsies. After that Wilna, determined to defend their wallets as well as their virtue, insisted on keeping a loaded gun handy on the back seat. Their summers were always spent in Woodstock, which they considered their real home and where the two women knew they had found paradise.
The utopian Maverick Art Colony at Woodstock had been founded by the eccentric social activist and idealist, Hervey White, who purchased a farm in 1905 and encouraged artists, writers, and musicians to join him in living there in a series of rustic cabins. He also encouraged everyone to join him in casting off society’s restrictions. “Do what you want to (as long as you don’t harm others)” was the simple guiding principle Hervey White put in place. Over the years a remarkable mix of painters, sculptors, actors, writers, musicians, and furniture designers combined with some of the more quirky local characters to create a unique, comfortable, and tolerant haven for even the most outré creative personalities. Willie and Nan could not have found a more congenial home.
Throughout the twenties and continuing until 1931, one of the yearly highlights of life in Woodstock was the annual Maverick Festival sponsored by the Maverick Art Colony. In the early years of the artists community at Woodstock, the locals were horrified by the influx of bohemian types from Greenwich Village who were taking up residence on Hervey White’s farm. To placate them, White began offering musical entertainments. In 1915, when White faced the high cost of digging a new well, some of the resident musicians suggested a full scale festival to raise money. Thus, the annual Maverick Festival was born. It would be the Maverick Colony’s chief fund-raising tool for fifteen years. Between 1917 and 1931, a Maverick Festival was held each year on the day and evening of the August full moon. Each festival was built around a theme that encouraged attendees to arrive in flamboyant costumes. The evening theatrical events, often written by notable authors, and performed in the open air, could be quite extravagant. A costume ball always ended the festivities, with revelers not dispersing until daylight the next morning. Wilna and Nan were enthusiastic participants in the events, as surviving photos testify.
When Hervey White shut down the annual Maverick festivals, Wilna was not willing to let them go. For years afterwards, she staged lavish “Full Moon Parties ” on her own property so that the festivals could continue, albeit reduced in scale. Her parties, which could inspire such memorable events as famed tap dancer, Paul Draper, spontaneously performing for the guests with the headlights of cars providing his spotlight, became part of the Woodstock legend.
One of the many attractions of life in Woodstock was the close bond and camaraderie that the artists enjoyed. Evidence of this special sense of community can be found in the permanent collection of the Woodstock Artists Association and was showcased in a special exhibit mounted in their museum in 2005. In the exhibit, “With Affection: Personal Inscriptions and the Art of Giving” all of the prints, drawings, and paintings on display were works once given by Woodstock artists to other Woodstock artists, all bearing special inscriptions of congratulations and/or affection. Included in this exhibit was a sketch of Wilna and Nan’s farm, drawn by noted artist, Eugene Speicher, and inscribed “To Willie with love from Gene,” a work by Charles Rosen inscribed “Happy Birthday to Nan from Charlie—1933 (and Willie too!)” and a lithograph by Howard Mandel on which he wrote “With Affection for Willie and Nan/ love, Howard.” These and other works make clear the extent to which “the Big Girls ” had become valued members of the Woodstock community.
Another more mundane, but equally important, attraction of life in Woodstock was that one could live there cheaply, and photos of Wilna and Nan at home suggest that their surroundings were plain and simple. Whatever income Wilna had from her savings or investments, and what little they both made from sales of their artworks (limited at first, to be sure) was sufficient for their needs. However, at least some of Wilna’s money must have been invested in stocks and as a result, during the Great Depression, it is known that at one point the women felt compelled to earn more money. Their first venture involved creating candles which they sold locally. When this proved insufficient, they took up house painting. Apparently the two artists were very good at this new profession. Their efforts were much appreciated and it paid their bills.
Wilna always appreciated show business for the potential it had to pay well, and it may have been the desire to find additional income in the waning years of the Depression that led her to make another foray into the world of professional entertainment. Once again deploying her remarkable size to her advantage, she tried out for and won the role of “The Biggest Girl ” in a Broadway play, Summer Night, scheduled to open at the St. James Theater in November 1939. However, the play was not a success and folded after only four performances. One critic commented: “excellent actors and superb sets are wasted on this uninteresting and empty play.”
Wilna’s real success as an artist did not occur until rather late in her career. She was already in her sixties when she decided to learn the technique of applying enamel on copper. She wanted to create some new switchplates to brighten up her home. After the usual and predictable progression of projects—ashtrays, earrings, and the like—Wilna created her switchplates. But, now intrigued by the process of laying enamel on copper, she began experimenting with new ideas.
Wilna’s “Enamel Paintings’ brought her more recognition than she had enjoyed in all of her previous years as an artist, and were the subject of several articles and numerous exhibits at which she saw every work she displayed bought off the walls. These delicate and sensitive pieces in brilliant colors are the art she is most famous for today. Most of these works are miniature paintings, quite small and intimate, ranging from 16 to 75 square inches. “I’m a big woman, but I want my paintings to stay small” she told reporter, Sally Perkins, who visited her studio in Bearsville in 1966. “Small and personal. I want them to last.”
Wilna’s studio was full of strange improvised devices she had clobbered together over the years, evidence of the experimental process by which she had arrived at her techniques of enameling. Her tools ranged from a dental instrument she had appropriated from her dentist, to an old flat steel automobile spring she used to carry things to and from the kiln. On her worktable, and evoking memories of Powerful Katrinka, was a seventy-five pound chunk of railroad track she used as a press. Hung on the asbestos-covered walls of the studio were numerous works she called her “learning steps” the various stages of the experiments that led to her eventual success. “I’m glad my work has found appreciation” she told Perkins. “[But] I wish I could have discovered this sooner. I wish I had twenty years…it seems almost too late.” Wilna was already seventy-two at the time of this interview and had already been experiencing bouts of ill health for years.
Woodstock winters are notoriously harsh and Wilna and Nan often fled to warmer climates when the snow started to fall. After deciding that the 3,000-mile drives to and from Carmel were more than they cared to continue, they began in the mid-1930s to explore Florida as a location for their winter home. Eventually they discovered Anna Maria Island, across Tampa Bay from St. Petersburg and in 1961 purchased the house at 112 Willow Avenue as their second home. From then on, they spent every winter there. They were only two hundred feet from the beach and swam every day. Wilna, who suffered from steadily worsening hip problems, told the locals she felt much better on Anna Maria than anywhere else.
Wilna’s health steadily declined during the 1970s. She was sometimes in bed for months on end. She died at the Manatee Memorial Hospital near her Florida home on the 6th of March, 1979. Several newspapers in Florida and New York paid tribute to her, all of them remembering her as “Powerful Katrinka.” When Nan returned to Woodstock the following summer, Wilna’s ashes were laid to rest in the Artists Cemetery in Woodstock. On June 3rd, a graveside service was conducted by the pastor of the Woodstock Reformed Church. The artist, Dorothy Varian, who had known “the big girls ” for fifty years, spoke and paid tribute to Wilna’s irrepressible spirit: “Wilna was never blasé about anything—a childlike joy and eagerness was her essence.” Nan Mason survived her partner of fifty-nine years for three more years. She died at their winter home in 1982. Willie and Nan rest side by side in the Artists Cemetery at Woodstock.
Living Large by our very own Professor Joseph Eckhardt!
The long and remarkable friendship of Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason is now the subject of an award-winning full length biography by Montgomery County Community College Professor Emeritus of History Joseph Eckhardt: Living Large: Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason
Benjamin Franklin Awards Gold Medal winner in the LGBT category for 2016. The awards are given annually by the Independent Book Publishers Association.
Foreword Reviews’ 2015 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award Winner: Silver in the LGBT category and Bronze in the Biography category.
Watch the new book trailer here!
'Living Large' trailer from Henry Nevison on Vimeo.
The titles of the specific Sidney Drew comedies in which Wilna Hervey appeared without credit before 1919 are unknown today. There are indications that she may have appeared in other films as well. Below are the films that Wilna made between 1920 and 1923, with their release dates. All of the Toonerville films were directed by Ira M. Lowry, except for The Skipper’s Treasure Garden, which was directed by Robert Eddy. All of the Pop Tuttle (Plum Center) films were directed by Robert Eddy. Note that the last of the Toonerville films were being released even as the first of the Plum Center comedies were making their debut. In addition to the Toonerville Films listed below, there is one other Toonerville film, Toonerville Topics, in which Wilna Hervey did not appear. Asterisks indicate a film which survives in some form today; a double asterisk indicates a film still on nitrate.
Note: for those who care about such things, Wilna Hervey’s Bacon number is 4. She appeared in numerous films with Dan Mason; Mason appeared in Sally (1925) with Richard Arlen; Arlen appeared in The Mountain (1956) with Robert Wagner; Wagner appeared in Wild Things (1998) with Kevin Bacon.