Lynne Murray says:
Oddly enough, I was reading Some Girls: My Life in a Harem by Jillian Lauren when I discovered Wilna Hervey, six-foot two-inch, 300 pound silent film actress. In her book, Lauren describes her early life with adoptive parents, who told her only that her birth mother had been a ballerina. As a child, Lauren would often dance and pretend to be a ballerina:
As I … twirled, my father … called me Katrinka, but I had never heard of the Powerful Katrinka.
The Powerful Katrinka is a character in a series of silent films. She was played by Wilna Hervey, a comedic actress who stood 6 feet three and weighed 300 pounds. It was my father’s pet name for me when he thought I was being a clod.…
I kept dancing. I was the Graceful Katrinka the Talented Katrinka, born of a woman so ethereal, she’d simply floated away.
Lauren’s father’s ridicule had damaging effects on her self-esteem and her story of time spent in the royal harem in Brunei is interesting. But my attention was captivated by this elusive Wilna Hervey. Who was she and why hadn’t I found her films earlier when I was researching fat women in film?
Typing Wilna Hervey’s name into a search engine turned up “The Biggest Girl,” by Joseph P. Eckhardt. It also informed me that Woodstock Arts Press biography had just published Living Large, a biography of Hervey and her life partner Nan Mason.
Wilna Hervey was born in San Francisco on October 3, 1894, to parents who were both musicians and quite wealthy.
Wilna’s brother and two sisters were all of normal size and proportions. But Wilna was different. “By the time I was three, I was the size of a child of six,” she recalled, “and twice as strong.” And she kept growing. The child’s size and strength—which she occasionally used to devastating effect—created challenges for Wilna’s parents. Anna Hervey was compelled to prove her daughter’s age so often that she took to carrying Wilna’s birth certificate in her purse. Sending the child to school seemed inadvisable, as Wilna looked like a young adult at age six. Fearing that the youngster would be the victim of cruel taunting by the other children, and become a possible source of difficulty for the teachers due to her unusual strength, Wilna’s mother decided to school her at home.
Fortunately they had both the means and the ingenuity to do so. Wilna grew into a tremendously positive, confident, capable woman, although her lack of interaction with other children made her shy.
In fact, she had no playmates at all as a child and would have no friends her own age until she was in her mid-teens. Hoping to compensate for their child’s near total isolation and loneliness, her wealthy parents built an elaborate cocoon for their different daughter to grow up in. They lived in a mansion with servants,owned fine horses—which Wilna learned to ride—and kept a kennel of purebred dogs that became Wilna’s surrogate playmates. The family went to museums and operas and traveled where and when they wished. Wilna had her own nurse, wonderful toys, dolls and clothes. … Part of Wilna’s unique appeal to those who met her as an adult was her innocent demeanor and childlike outlook; both were the result of having lived in Neverland for the first fifteen years of her life. …
By the time Wilna Hervey was twenty years old, she stood nearly six-foot-three, and weighed close to 300 pounds. So astonished were folks who saw her for the first time that it was not unusual for perfect strangers to stop her on the street and ask her height and weight. Far from being put off by such rude inquiries, Wilna would cheerfully tell them.…
Her early bit parts earned her about five times what the average skilled factory worker was making in those days. Wilna used some of that money to purchase an automobile, which she kept hidden from her parents, waiting for the right opportunity to reveal it. She was about to become The Powerful Katrinka.
Wilna Hervey would long remember the interview in New York that changed her life. She arrived at her agent’s office to find him engaged in conversation with another man, who was impatiently pacing up and down. As Wilna entered the room, the pacing stopped and the man looked up. “My God!” he exclaimed. “She is the original Katrinka!”Expressing his astonishment—and delight—was the noted cartoonist Fontaine Fox, creator of the Toonerville Trolley cartoons, which were then syndicated in several hundred newspapers around the country. One of the most popular of Fox’s inventions was the character of Powerful Katrinka, a massive young woman of superhuman strength, and limited mental range, who was capable of lifting the trolley off the tracks. … Properly casting this role was essential to the success of the proposed Toonerville films. The actress needed to be enormous and very strong, as not all of the feats of strength would be sight gags.
Wilna’s promised salary would be one hundred and fifty dollars a week, a sum that impressed her parents, and when she needed to rent a room on the filming location in Pennsylvania, she revealed the automobile she had been keeping secret.
The films brought Wilna playful ways to exercise her creativity and have fun in the process:
The cast members of the Toonerville comedies were responsible for assembling their own costumes. For the first time ever, Wilna enjoyed putting together an ensemble designed to showcase her generous proportions. Raiding the Salvation Army thrift store near her hotel, she wrapped herself in a long skirt with a checkered blouse, found a jacket that didn’t quite fit, and bought shoes so awful that she would receive fan mail from halfway round the world sympathizing with her for having to wear them. As a finishing touch, she pulled her hair up onto her head—giving her several more inches of height—and topped it with an absurdly tiny hat.
She also found many friendships and a love affair that would last for the rest of her life. Wilna became fast friends and film-set allies with her Toonerville co-star, experienced character actor, Dan Mason. Then she met his daughter, Nan, and found a kindred spirit.
On the appointed day, Dan and Wilna were relaxing in the lobby of the hotel waiting until it was time to walk down to the station and meet Nan’s train. Dan was smoking a cigar and chatting with other guests while Wilna sat in an alcove writing letters. Suddenly a brassy voice rang through the lobby: “Where’s my Dad?” It was Nan. She had taken an earlier train and, unable to alert them, had walked up from the station singlehandedly dragging all her luggage and toting her pet tomcat in a cage. Stunned by the sight of this tall, “healthy, strong, rosey-cheeked” young woman, Wilna timidly emerged from her alcove to say hello.
Dan Mason had bought a bungalow near where the Toonerville films were made and Wilna’s parents, after meeting father and daughter, agreed to let Wilna stay with them. The two women bonded to the point where they exchanged daily letters after filming concluded and Wilna went back to her parents. Nan had been engaged to marry in a few months, but her fiance suddenly died of pneumonia. “Having lost her fiance, Nan now leaned on Wilna for emotional support more than ever and the strong bond between them grew more intense.”
After the Toonerville series ended, Dan Mason put together a new series of films essentially borrowing the characters and renaming the town “Plum City.” Wilna joined the cast, again living with Dan and his daughter. When the Plum City series ended, Wilna realized that finding parts for actresses her size would be difficult, and she decided to concentrate on her art. She moved to a property she had bought near the artists’ colony in Bearsville, New York, and Nan Mason moved in with her.
Now, for the first time since they met, they were living together because they had chosen to do so, independently and on their own. Furthermore, they had mutually chosen the pursuit of art as the life path they would follow together. Nan’s father seems to have understood the significance of their decision to establish a home together, and he gave them his blessing in a touching letter written only a week after their arrival in Bearsville:
“I am happy when I know you are both happy. I want to see that harmony grow and expand in your two lives. Both giving and taking for your mutual welfare and happiness. Love is the great vital force. Love is life, without it life is a void. Poor indeed is the man or woman who do not or never have known true love.”
Even after the 1929 stock market crash wiped out much of Wilna’s inheritance, she and Nan found sources of income in farming, candlemaking and even house painting. Both women kept exploring different art forms, finally settling on enamel work, which earned them much acclaim in the last few decades of their lives.
Part of Wilna Hervey’s genius seems to have been finding people who nurtured her and places that allowed her to flourish. The couple, affectionately referred to as “The Big Girls” were literally the life of the party. Their annual Full Moon Parties were legendary. Pictures and even recordings still exist of their festivities.
The book trailer for Living Large, embedded above, shares an audiotaped sequence of Wilna singing the touching lyrics from “Oh Baby” by Walter Donaldson and Owen Murphy:
“Never had a thrill till I held your hand.
Don’t know what it is, but I understand
That it’s something new, it’s different, it’s grand.
What if I should die and travel to where
I would have to climb the heavenly stair
Wouldn’t it be hell if you weren’t there?
Wilna and Nan’s partnership lasted 59 years until Wilna’s death in 1979.
How ironic and exciting that reading about a father’s damaging ridicule of his daughter would lead me to find the story of a lost heroine of early film, a powerful role model and an uplifting love story.