She was hiding from me. Actually, I didn’t even know I was looking for her . . . but she knew. She knew I was nearly there, and she was waiting for me, teasing, hiding, though she fully intended for me to find her. She just didn’t want to make it too easy.
I was leisurely browsing an antique mall. As a professional writer and author, photographs and paper items (“ephemera”) intrigue me, so I've always paid extra attention when I come upon albums or paper displays. On this day, I entered a random stall, stopping to touch a few items that caught my attention.
Suddenly, just before I left for the next stall, I spied a pile of old photographs. They called to me, so I returned to that corner and began to leaf through them. After the first few, I realized that they were entertainment-related – old vaudeville and very early talkie movie stills. This delighted me; my writing specialty is the entertainment industry. I took the entire pile and sat on the floor. I was ready for some serious looking.
Amazing photo after amazing photo filed through my fingers. Most were publicity shots of forgotten, long dead actors and actresses – maybe never well-known, and so very lost as to be, now, in that current day, left to be sold, if lucky, to strangers at an antique mall.
I found nothing I couldn’t live without. Though they were worthy of a home, and I did feel sorry for them, having ended up with such a sad legacy, I couldn’t bring myself to purchase them all. I just didn’t think I could offer them a better future. Alas, their fate had been sealed ages before I came along.
As I began to rise from my uncomfortable position, preparing to return the photos to their corner, I looked closely at the very last one. I was at the bottom of this hapless group of long-gone entertainers and found myself staring at a breathtakingly beautiful young woman.
Vibrant, full of life, gloriously gorgeous, this lady faced away from the camera. She teased the lens as she posed by saucily looking over her right shoulder. She wore nothing but a corset. Her hair, soft-looking and thick, fell in heavy waves down her back, pulled together by a simple tie. Only the hint of a smile was on her lips.
I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She wouldn’t let me go. I mentally dated the photo at somewhere in the late 1800s, and glanced at the bottom. The actual picture was lined in a decorative red border. Below the photo was written in red ink, “Charlotte Behrens” and “Zitka.” In the left corner was "D. N. Andrews" and in the right corner, "New York." I turned it over and on the back, in pencil, it read, “50 cents.”
I turned it over again. Charlotte just wasn’t going to let me go home without her so I brought her to the front desk and, for a pocketbook-breaking 50 cents, I purchased her photograph and took her away from that impersonal antique mall.
I’ve since learned a lot about Charlotte Behrens. Born circa 1866 in Brooklyn, New York, it appears that she came from a family of entertainers, probably pianists and opera singers, as well as merchants, originally from Bremen, Germany. She first appeared on the stage when she was about 16 years old, in the wild, raucous world of a new and growing, unsophisticated San Francisco. The stage was a grand part of San Francisco’s society in the mid 1880s, and Charlotte’s career only went up from there. “Zitka,” the word listed under the original photo that had introduced us, was the name of one of her first professional plays.
Her life wasn’t to be easy. She married Edwin Eugene Huhn, her stage manager, when she was but 18, while on the road in the midwest. He was, it appears, abusive and negligent. Still, the marriage continued until Charlotte met the enigmatic and wildly popular Shakespearean actor, Robert Mantell. Charlotte became Mantell’s leading lady – off screen as well as on. She was married; so was Mantell. This didn’t seem to deter either of them from carrying on a very public and uninhibited affair. Charlotte was labeled by the active press of the day as the “anti-Victorian Victorian actress.”
In 1896, Charlotte was granted a divorce. A year or so earlier, Mantell had divorced his wife. Charlotte’s now-ex-husband, Edwin Huhn, publicly threatened Mantell's life for taking his wife from him. Mantell’s wife had officially used Charlotte as a co-defendant in the divorce suit. Still, nothing daunted the couple and the day after Charlotte’s divorce was finalized in Chicago, she married Robert Mantell in a ceremony conducted by a well-known Episcopalian bishop. Happiness, she most certainly hoped, would now be hers. She had had a daughter with Edwin Huhn, but that child died shortly thereafter. She was pregnant with Mantell’s child at the time of their marriage, and another daughter was born to her, and to Mantell, within the year. With a new husband and child, and a career that had nowhere to go but up, newspaper articles indicate that Charlotte looked forward to her new life.
It wasn’t to be. Shortly after the birth of her child, she began feeling ill and this continued, off and on, for the next year and a half. Research hasn’t been able to turn up the cause, but speculation and tidbits of information indicate that it could’ve been a botched abortion, or it could’ve been some sort of outside interference. Or, more simply, it could’ve been . . . an illness. Whatever the source, it dogged her.
On New Year’s evening, 1898, Charlotte and Robert Mantell completed a successful, well-received opening stage performance in Port Huron, Michigan. After their encore, they returned to their hotel suite and Charlotte became violently ill. She was hospitalized and for the next six or so weeks, teetered on the edge of death. An operation was performed to save her, and she appeared to rally back towards health for a period. She improved enough to even discuss returning to the stage with her husband, who had already gone back to work to pay their mounting medical bills.
What actually happened from that point in mid February until early March, 1898, is not known. What is known is that Charlotte Behrens Huhn Mantell died at the so-young and full-of-life age of 32. Was her death a result of a lingering illness that just couldn’t be squelched? Did she die from the results of an earlier abortion that, clearly, went wrong? Or was her demise hastened by a person, or persons, from her past, out for revenge?
Charlotte hasn’t yet told me, but I suspect she will. She has teased me into purchasing her photograph, encouraged me to dig into her life to learn her story, and urged me to begin putting her legacy down on paper. She lived a bold, determined life and, despite her early demise, it appears that, just as boldly, she will not rest until her existence has been justified.
I call this sort of thing “psychic writing.” Others might say that it was nothing more than coincidence that I found and purchased Charlotte’s photo, but I don’t believe in coincidence. We’re all here for a purpose, and I’m certain we’re here to help and encourage the lives of others.
Charlotte Behrens is not my only connection to such experiences and I can’t believe that these things “just happen.” I’ve been otherwise “urged” to find and purchase documents and photos so that the stories behind them would not be forgotten. Life needs to stand for something, everyone’s life. And if the beating of the hearts of some folks was stopped early, too early, it’s my belief that their hearts live on, and they find a way to be heard.