Category Archives: Size Acceptance

Wilna Hervey: A Powerful Film Actress and a 59-Year Love Story

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.
Oh, baby.
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?
Oh, baby.”

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.

Fat Kids: Truth and Consequences by Rebecca Jane Weinstein

Lynne Murray says:

People will do anything to protect their children. It is tragic when the actions they take damage their kids way more than the thing they are trying to protect against. This sad state of affairs is poignantly reported in at Fat Kids: Truth and Consequences, a collection of experiences and interviews by Rebecca Jane Weinstein, Esq., MSW.

The national media and its paying sponsors are heavily invested in the “curing fat kids industry.” Weinstein received invitations from major media outlets to do shows promoting her book, but only if they could pile on the bandwagon. “Talk show hosts wanted to be combative about the book because they thought it would be a good show to argue about the ‘childhood obesity crisis.’” Weinstein told me in an email. “I rejected those invitations.”

Weinstein’s refusal to participate in perpetuating the toxic myths about fat children demonstrates both integrity and a deep concern for the actual welfare of children. She will not frame these kids as hapless victims waiting to be set free (for a small fee) from an evil, communicable disease.

In the childhood obesity industry, only one narrative is acceptable: fat kids are damaged goods who need to attain a mystical state of health by becoming thin–regardless of how drastic and damaging the methods. No system has been proven to reliably make fat kids thin, at least not for long. Of course, that is a plus for the diet-addiction industry. Like the tobacco-addiction industry, they are manufacturing permanent customers.

In one essay in Fat Kids, “Collateral Damage in the ‘War on Obesity,’” Peggy Elam, Ph.D., describes how we got to this state of affairs and why the “problem” of fat kids qualifies as a moral panic:

Fat is a condition of the body, not a behavior. It is impossible to separate people from their bodies. Thus the “war on obesity” is actually a war on fat people. This “war” is hurting many people, but perhaps none so much as fat kids.

The attempt to eradicate fat bodies from society is both born out of and increases moral panic. Moral panics occur when certain groups are considered a threat to society and demonized. “What about the children?” and “Save the children!” are frequent rallying cries.

“Childhood obesity prevention” tactics have ranged from improving school meals to removing certain foods and drinks from vending machines to weighing and measuring kids and sending “BMI report cards” (also known as “fat letters”) to the parents of children deemed “overweight” or “obese.” While some such actions are reasonable—who wouldn’t want good meals served to schoolchildren?—others are patronizing, such as the assumption hat parents must not have noticed their kids are fat. The overarching problem with actions taken in the name of “childhood obesity prevention” and “treatment” is that they locate the problem in fat children’s bodies, and thus identify the problem is fat children themselves rather than focusing on behaviors, environments, or situations that are problematic for all children.

Sarah Yahm’s investigative article, “Who’s the Fat Cow Now? Ethnographic Insights on the Academy of the Sierras” begins the collection.  Yahm looks into the ways that a boarding school for “obese and overweight teens” teaches eating disorders to its students.

They start with death threats.

I ask the kids … why do it? They give me a couple of reasons: “So I don’t die when I’m twenty.” “To get healthier.” “It’s important to my mom, to be healthy.” Throughout it all looms the unquestioned threat of imminent death—the kids talk as if Wellspring is single-handedly snatching them from its jaws.

But Yahm finds an even more powerful yearning:

[W]hen they’re pressed they reveal an aching desire that has nothing to do with health and everything to do with being normal: ...

“I don’t know if people are gonna, like, change the way they act towards me but I’m looking forward to coming home, and this one boy called me a fat cow and I’m just gonna go up to him and be like, ‘Who’s the fat cow now?’ because he’s like heavy and he got really heavy over the summer, and he was so mean to me, so I’m just gonna go up to him and be like, ‘Hi.’”

One kid even tells me that “fatties” should be picked on more, that society is too accepting of fat kids, that maybe taunting helps kids decide that “Oh, well maybe I don’t want to be a fatty anymore.”

The overarching lesson they’re learning is quite clear—deviance should be punished, and the only way to be happy is to stop being deviant. Losing weight is about being cool, about having friends, about winning their parents’ approval, about not being picked on.

Aggressive children also learn with dazzling speed that bullying fat kids is okay, because the adults around them are painting a targets on them. In “Fat Immunity,” Addison remembers how the 1966 “President’s Physical Fitness Test” public weigh-in changed her life from that moment on:

Addison was the heaviest person in the school. At eight or nine years old, she was 95 pounds. She knew it, and all the other kids knew it, because the weighing took place in front of everyone. Not even a shame curtain separated her from her gawking peers. And needless to say, the heaviest kid in the school, a fat girl, heard no end. She was made fun of, of course. She was terribly embarrassed, of course. She felt very fat for the first time in her life, and painfully conscious of her body, of course. And of course, that was just the beginning.

Prior to that incident, the children hadn’t fully comprehended the power of teasing; it was as if by realizing Addison was fat and telling her so struck a chord, they had a glorious awakening. They learned the intense authority of being cruel.

The bullying is only getting worse, and schools have a notoriously poor record of protecting fat children. Ben’s story, in “Between a Rock and a Defensive Tackle,” describes the difficulty of fighting bullies when schools embrace fat hatred to blame the victim:

Whatever other hierarchy existed in elementary school, the fat kids had a spot to hold up: the bottom.

Ben frequently came home crying; even with the frogs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails of which he was made, little boys have a breaking point. Still, he tried to fight back. It was school policy to report bullying to the teacher, and Ben did. He did so often—so often, in fact, that during his fourth-grade parent-teacher conference his mother was informed Ben was an unrepentant tattletale. So much for zero-tolerance on the bullying front.

The experiences of fat children tell in the book are harrowing, but the resourcefulness of many children moved me deeply.

One child’s noble actions particularly stuck in my mind. “If I Were a Hat I Would Be a Sombrero” is told from the point of view of Elaine, a stepmother who seems on the face of it to be dealing with her husband’s very fat preteen son, Paul, and his younger siblings, all of who are horribly neglected. The children always return starved, lice-ridden, their clothing in tatters from court-ordered visits to their birth mother. When Elaine and her husband finally manage to obtain full custody, they find that Paul has been literally using his fat body as a shield to shelter his younger sisters and brothers from violent attacks by their birth mother. Paul’s heroic actions cost him a terrible price. Yet all the adults could see in him was a weight problem.

My own reaction to many of the experience recounted in Fat Kids reminded me of the deep feelings  Sondra Solovay’s Tipping the Scales of Justice: Fighting Weight Based Discrimination stirred up in me when I read it.

I experience an almost volcanic rage when I read about the unfairness of victimizing fat kids and their parents. I had to ration my reading carefully, rest up, then at go at it again. But these stories need to be heard and these experiences need to be valued.

Many of these stories end with a hard-won prize of self-esteem that survivors of persecution have managed to build for themselves at no small cost. However, a notable antidote to the earnest sadness of many of the experiences in Fat Kids is a delightful interview with author and humorist, Daniel Pinkwater. “Digging Your Grave with Your Fork, and Other Things to Do for at Least Seven Decades, An Interview with Daniel Pinkwater” is one of the last pieces in the book. Think of it as dessert. His strong, self-reliant, incorrigibly funny attitude elevated my spirit.

Describing his childhood in Chicago in the 1940’s, Pinkwater says:

Q: How did you feel about being fat?

Fat was handy on the playground when it came to throwing a punch. I could put a little more behind a punch than a thinner kid, and so those few conflicts that arose—and I’d like to state for the record that I never started one of them—I could finish them pretty good. And also you could sit upon or fall upon someone. So you could use weight in fighting effectively. So it was a plus, and also it meant that some people might gravitate to one such as me for protection, because nobody would start with me, because I could put them away.

His view on doctors is similarly refreshing:

I don’t know if you have been to doctors a lot in your life, but there tend to be catchphrases that go around. If you’re seeing several doctors in a short period, you’ll discover them all saying the same formulaic things. And in this case, every doctor I was taken to told me, “You’ll be dead by the time you’re forty.” This upset my mother more than it upset me because that seemed like a ripe old age. It stayed with me, though, and I was very surprised at the age of forty when I didn’t die.

And then I realized that this was what your Scientologists call an engram, that had been lurking in there the whole time—it was errant nonsense. How could they predict such a thing? But I’d never bothered to refute it, I’d never bothered to dismiss it. And so it was just there as a given because I hadn’t questioned it. Forty-one, forty-two, I still wasn’t dead, seventy-one I’m still not dead, and as soon as I realized for sure that this was malarkey, which I would have realized immediately if I’d thought about it even, I felt very liberated.

Somehow or other, just a genetic fluke, a bright happy child. I drew the personality I got. I was lucky. I wasn’t insensitive. I was too amused and interested to buy any of this negative stuff. It didn’t stick, it wasn’t interesting to me. There was a period where I really wanted to become kind of a dramatic, tragic youth, but I couldn’t bring it off. Too many things made me laugh. Just luck.

Thanks, Daniel Pinkwater, I needed that.