She was hiding from me. 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. Photographs and paper items, aka ephemera, intrigue me. I've always paid extra attention when I come upon albums, photos, or paper displays. On this day, I had 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 they were entertainment-related, old vaudeville and very early talkie movie stills. My writing specialty is the entertainment industry and these photos delighted me. 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, so very lost as to be 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 felt sorry for them, having ended up with such a sad legacy, I couldn’t bring myself to purchase them all. I couldn't offer them a better future. 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 last one. I was at the bottom of this hapless group of lost entertainers and found myself staring at a breathtakingly beautiful young lady.
Vibrant, full of life, gloriously gorgeous, the woman faced away from the camera, teasing the lens as she saucily looked 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 a 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 picture was lined in a decorative red border. Below the photo was written in red ink, “Charlotte Behrens” and “Zitka.” In the left corner, "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 returned my attention to the picture. Charlotte wasn’t going to let me leave 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 about Charlotte Behrens. Born circa 1866 in Brooklyn, New York, it appears 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,” 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 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 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 officially used Charlotte as a co-defendant in the divorce suit.
Still, nothing could stop 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; their daughter was born within the year. With a new husband and child, and a career that had nowhere to go but up, newspaper articles indicated how 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. Speculation and tidbits of information indicate her ailment could’ve been caused by 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 a persistent encore, they had returned to their hotel suite and Charlotte found herself violently ill. She was hurriedly 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 to health. She improved enough to 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 ... Charlotte Behrens Huhn Mantell died at the young and full-of-life age of 32. Was her death a result of a lingering illness that couldn’t be cured? 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 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. This woman lived a bold, determined life and despite her early demise, it appears that, just as boldly, she will not rest until the truth of her story has been told.