The Dead Actress Spoke to Me
by Linda Alexander
My e-mail address is email@example.com
and I live in
the Washington, DC area.
I visit antique shops & always am drawn in particular to photos, documents, & anything that might be personally identifiable to someone who lived in the past. If it's beautiful, or quirky, but without distinctive identifying marks, I usually pass it by. This particular day I honed in on a pile of 5X7 & larger photos.
It appeared that many of them were show people of some sort (vaudeville, early film). Since I'm a professional entertainment writer, this was a bonus. I started digging. At the very bottom of the pile I found a 5X7ish B&W cabinet card. The photo was of a breathtakingly beautiful young woman, & appeared to have been taken in the latter half of the 1800s.
She had long, thick wavy hair pulled back to hang down her back. The picture had been taken from behind, as she looked over her right shoulder, only the ghost of a smile on her full lips. Her eyes were huge & seemed to call to me. I felt as if she was saying, "Come with me on my adventure." Underneath the photo, in the middle, was writte, "Miss Charlotte Behrens" &, under that, "Zitka." The photo was taken in New York, & the studio name was in the right-hand corner.
I turned the photo over, & it was being sold for a mere 50 cents. I was hooked. I took Charlotte home with me. That began an odd search into the history of a woman who was in no way related to me, a woman I'd never before heard of. Of 100 photos I might've looked at, it's likely that 98+ would've lived an important-to-them, but quiet life. Charlotte wasn't one of those people.
I've since learned that she was born circa 1866 in Brooklyn, NY. She was educated in San Francisco & at a young age (somewhere in her early teens) she began her stage career. When she was somewhere around the age of 17, while on the road in St. Joseph, MO, she married Edwin E. Huhn (his name is in question), in an evening ceremony after she'd been on stage. Edwin was the theatre company's business manager.
The status of their marriage from Day One was questionable, but it appears to not have been blissful. Somewhere around 1890, she caught the eye of an experienced, well-known, and older actor by the name of Robert B. Mantell. Mr. Mantell had played all the big theatre houses, he had been celebrated for his performances, and counted among his friends all the greats of the theatre of their day. There was but one big, mutual problem: Charlotte was still married, & so was Robert Mantell. This fact didn't stop them from becoming much closer than their Victorian times deemed appropriate, even going so far as to leave their respective spouses & live openly together.
Not long after that, Charlotte, considered to be an "anti-Victorian woman," gave birth to Robert Mantell's child. She had begun divorce proceedings a year earlier, as had Mr. Mantell's wife. His wife named Charlotte as co-conspirator in her suit; Charlotte's husband, Edwin, did the same with Robert Mantell. Add to that, Edwin publicly threatened to kill Mantell if he continued to "alienate" his wife's affections. Despite the havoc going on around them, their daughter was born out of wedlock, Mr. Mantell's divorce was granted, Edwin Huhn dropped his suit against Robert Mantell & never followed through on his threat.
The day after Charlotte's divorce from Edwin was granted, she quietly married Robert Mantell in a tasteful ceremony at the home of her attorney in Chicago. This was in 1896. The story might've been just interesting had it ended there. But it did not. Charlotte was now featured as Mantell's leading lady as they crisscrossed the country by rail, playing every theatre from one coast to the other.
Two years after their marriage, on New Year's Day in Port Huron, Michigan, Charlotte & Mantell & company opened a new play at the Opera House in Port Huron. Everything went perfectly. The audience was thrilled. But as the curtain came down on the actors, Charlotte indicated to her husband that she didn't feel well. She was immediately taken back to their hotel suite at the prestigious Harrington Hotel. A sick room was created & it was there that Charlotte Behrens Mantell spent her next month and a half, confined to bed, progressively getting worse from a questionable illness. No one could understand what had happened to her.
After about six weeks, it was determined that she needed an operation on her digestive system. The operation was performed at a state-of-the-art local hospital & she was then returned to her hotel suite. Mantell had to pay the bills, so he returned to the road, doing continuous engagements at theatres in state, & out of state but in the general area. He returned to Charlotte's bedside on weekends. For a short while, it seemed as if she was recovering, and the couple began to make plans for Charlotte's return to the stage. However, that wasn't to be.
On the evening of March 7, 1898, with her husband away on the road, with another woman taken out of his cast to fill in as leading lady, Charlotte Behrens took a drastic turn for the worse. Her unmarried sister, Emma Behrens, was with her. All through the night it became more & more grave. Charlotte was not going to get better &, the next morning, 3/8/1898, Charlotte Behrens Mantell expired, from what has now been termed a form of liver failure. Her husband wasn't there, but returned as soon as he could. Her body was returned to her families' home in Philadelphia, PA, & she was buried there.
Robert Mantell was soon to return to the stage, still with that other woman who'd quickly stepped in to take Charlotte's lead from her when she fell ill. That woman was named Marie Booth Russell &, in a rather short period of time she, too, became pregnant out of wedlock. Shortly thereafter, she was the next Mrs. Robert Mantell. In addition, not too many years later, she, too, fell ill from a mysterious illness, was bed-ridden for quite some time, ralled back to comparably good health, & suddenly thereafter died. Again, Mantell was not there. He was on the road. . .with yet another woman as his lead, another woman who would, months after Marie's death, become the next, and last Mrs. Mantell.
Was it all coincidence that 2 of his wives died in such odd ways, yet ways so similar to each other? I think I know now why Charlotte wanted me to "follow" her that day awhile back when I found her photo in the antique shop. The mystery surrounding her short life & sensational death remains to this day, & I sense that she wants it laid to rest. And since I AM an investigative entertainment journalist, she couldn't've picked a more appropriate person to lead backwards into her amazing history. I'm writing a book on Charlotte's life & the odd circumstances surrounding her death. Anyone reading this who might have knowledge of any of the folks involved in this story, or any suggestions, I invite you to contact me.
Charlotte wants to finally get the rest that's long been due her.
Submitted: July 20 2001
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