Edward Wagenknecht by Anthony Slide
I am honored to acknowledge Edward Wagenknecht as my mentor and as a friend. And I am proud of our connection because, in my humble opinion, he is the greatest historian of the silent film. With his book, The Movies in the Age of Innocence, he combined scholarship with a genuine love for the genre and for its principal players, both in front and behind of the camera. It was first published in 1962, and I can still recall the pleasure I received from owning and reading it as a teenager growing up in England.
My pleasure was intensified when, in 1970, after publishing my first book, Early American Cinema, I received, unsolicited, a letter from Edward in which he praised me and the book and told me of his delight in reading such an enlightened and dedicated text from one as young as I was back then. We corresponded, and on October 4, 1971, I made my first visit to West Newton, Massachusetts, to spend the day with Edward and his wife, Dorothy. He shared his collection of movie stills with me and I was astounded that, unlike so many of the cold, unfriendly and generally uncaring academics involved in motion picture history, lacking in any genuine enthusiasm for the subject, he confessed to keeping scrapbooks of his favorites. (One of those was, to my surprise, Marilyn Monroe, and many years later, when he moved to his son Walter’s house, after Dorothy’s death, I helped sell those Monroe scrapbooks.)
I still treasure the manuscript of my second book, The Griffith Actresses, which Edward so graciously edited for me, his comments always kind, never hurtful and always sensible and intelligent. With the approach of the centenary of the birth of D. W. Griffith, he suggested I collaborate with him on a book, The Films of D. W. Griffith, published in 1975. We collaborated on a second volume, Fifty Great American Silent Films: 1912-1920, published in 1980, and we talked of a third book, to cover the 1920s. But nothing came of the notion, although we did get as far along as to have compiled a listing of the films we were to include.
Edward Wagenknecht is no longer with us. I am still writing and editing books on the history of popular entertainment of which I hope Edward would be pleased and satisfied. As I look back, I open his 1968 book, As Far as Yesterday: Memories and Reflections, a copy of which he gave me in 1971, “in remembrance” of my visit to West Newton. It is the closest Edward ever came to writing a biography, and it is a reminder of his wondrous fascination with all aspects of popular culture. Yes, the silent movies are here, of course, but there are also brilliant essays on the phonograph, Geraldine Farrar, British novelist Marjorie Bowen, and the Duncan Sisters, whom I have come to love as much as Edward did. It is Edward who quoted an immortal line spoken by Rosetta Duncan in blackface as Topsy in Topsy and Eva: “I’se mean an’ ornery, I is, mean an’ ornery. I hate everybody in the world, and I only wish there were more people in the world so I could hate them too.” He continued, “It’s a kindly thought that comes in handy at times. I advise you to memorize it.”
From such a kindly man, it is a surprisingly unkindly quote. But one I love and cherish, just as I cherish my friendship with Edward Wagenknecht.