Irene Rich stands like a subdued bride.
She holds a silken bouquet behind her, drooping yet hopeful. The coat she wears is of white mink, and there are three rows of severed tails at the hem, decorative and barbaric. Hidden shoes – satin, undoubtedly, with curving Cuban heels – tap the floor with delicate impatience. The floor bearing the brunt of Irene’s disquiet bears the terse design that typifies the beginnings of Art Deco.
The photo must therefore date before 1925, before L’Exposition Internationale Des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes. This was Paris’ months-long introduction of the new symmetries to a world still dreaming in the Ophelia-like embrace of Art Nouveau. The old sentimentality and weak femininity had expired on the killing fields of Europe and the Middle East, and in the choking factories of the home front.
Irene has not cut her hair – not yet – but the curls have been piled into a soft volcano, until neck, back and shoulders show white and bare, an anthem to the new exposure of the 1920’s. She is not a beauty – there is a thickness to the neck, and a suspicion of fullness to the torso which might have been harbored within a corset in her younger days. For Irene was born in 1891 and her body would therefore have known fashion’s shackles as well as its liberation. She would be in her late 20’s when she stood for this photo and an actress for almost 10 years. Later she worked in talkies, in radio, on the stage. Her acting career would span three decades.
But Irene had another career, albeit a more emotional one. She had a marital calling; one that was more lengthy than her dramatic one. Her first marriage was in 1909, a pre-emptive jump to the altar to presumably escape the plans of boarding school which her parents had for her. One daughter and two years later, she divorced.
There quickly followed another wedding, in 1912. The end of this marriage led to Irene seeking work in the new frontier of Hollywood in order to support her family. This fortuitous decision would promise that bauble in southern California a future of selfish hostesses, gallant frontierswomen, and strong-willed housewives.
When this curiously bridal photograph was taken, Irene stands waiting for her third husband, whom she would wed in 1926. Once more, it would not last long. But finally, in 1950, she married a New York business executive; a union that lasted until the end of her life, in 1988.
But shortly before this final, stolid relationship; there was one more – a volatile and deadly one.
In 1949, secretary Agnes Elizabeth killed her employer: politician and business owner John Edwin Owen. According to the sheriff’s report Garnier shot Owen and blamed Irene Rich for coming between them. According to Garnier’s story the gun had gone off accidentally, as she took the gun from an intoxicated Owen as he was going to bed. Rich claimed an innocent friendship, Garnier plead innocence. In the end, Garnier was convicted of manslaughter, serving one and a half years out of her “one-to-ten” year sentence. And Irene by then was very happily married.
I had found Irene some time ago, I forget where. I was taken with her face, her slightly debauched cloak, her sprite’s modesty. So I bought her and framed her, and so she has hung in sepia glory in my hallway for many years. Her photo was one of a few that I own where the image comes with an autograph – a key ready-made for any owner to use who is willing to research the past of a new possession.
So I had only recently decided to find where her name led me: a history of unions – most unsuccessful – one calamitous relationship based on conflicting stories, explanations and affections…and a body of work in television and radio which led to her two stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
In a way, I think, such research is like looking into the sky – the things that suddenly come into view when you look into vistas that most people will ignore.