The story of a film star: Full of twists and turns from Toro, Louisiana to Hollywood, California

ats mary miles minter
I have been aware for many years of a silent film star whose roots are in Sabine Parish.  I remembered reading several years ago about Mary Miles Minter and her connections to this parish.  I recalled reading she was buried in a cemetery in Mansfield, Louisiana.  I knew she was the subject of scandalous accusations following the Hollywood true crime story of the murder of Paramount Studios Director William Desmond Taylor.  I knew she retreated into private life and the depths of solitude after having her squeaky clean image tarnished at the hands of tabloid media (who by all counts might have been bigger vultures a hundred years ago than they are today).

I recently learned, however, that much of what I I thought I knew was not actually what was… including the very identity of the Mary Miles Minter who is in fact buried at the Mansfield Cemetery in West Louisiana.

My newfound knowledge came from, oddly enough, a detailed post on social media written by former Town of Many Police Chief Dean Lambert.  Dean was always very helpful to me in my younger days of being a reporter for a weekly newspaper.  I always found him to be full of unique knowledge and tidbits, particularly pertaining to local history and events.  So I look forward to his posts on Facebook, especially the long ones that sometimes take a bit to get to the point but when you get to the point, you are like, “Ah ha!”

Several months ago, Dean posted about Mary Miles Minter… Mary Miles Minter, the silent film actress.  Through this lengthy but quite entertaining post, I learned that Mary Miles Minter the film star did not hail from around Toro Creek in deep southwestern Sabine Parish as I thought.  Though the story of her life may have as many bends and curves as the winding Toro Creek itself, it was not her but rather her mother who was born at Toro.

In 1874, Dr. and Mrs. Elbert Milton Miles (Mrs. Miles was Julia Branch Ragan Miles) were living in a large wood frame house along Toro Creek when they celebrated the birth of their first daughter, Mary Amelia Miles. (By way of information, Dr. Miles practiced medicine in Sabine and DeSoto parishes and perhaps some in Vernon Parish, from what I have found).

Three years later, in 1877, Dr. and Mrs. Miles had a second daughter, this one they named Lily Pearl “Charlotte” Miles.

The sisters were very different… the older daughter was quiet, shy and content; while the younger daughter had an insatiable thirst for stardom that would set the stage later for her own daughters’ lives.

Julia's sister, Margaret Riley
Julia’s sister, Margaret Riley

As a young teenager, Lily Pearl “Charlotte” took her first step towards her goal of becoming an actress by leaving the quiet Sabine Parish countryside and moving some 100 miles north to the much larger city of Shreveport, Louisiana. Here, she met and married Joe Homer Reilly of Dallas, Texas. The couple had two daughters… first Margaret Reilly and then Juliet Reilly.

Charlotte’s sister, Mary Amelia Miles, had married Auguste Lafayette Minter (most reports cite Auguste as his first name though the tombstone at Mansfield states his name to be “Wiley Lafayette Minter.” The Minters had three daughters, Mary Miles Minter, Hazel Minter and Julia Minter (I have seen reports naming a couple of sons as well). Hazel and Julia were born respectively in 1890 and 1891. I have found many different birth years named for Mary, but as best I can tell, it appears she was born seven years prior to her cousin Juliet which would mean she was born in 1895 or 1896. Her grave stone suggests she was born in 1896 as well.

Tragedy be-felled Mary Amelia Miles and daughter Mary Miles Minter in 1903, when the two mysteriously died (strangely, some reports cite 1896 as their dates of death). Scattered accounts of their deaths reports that they died after they both unknowingly drank apple cider which had been contaminated with lethal snake’s venom. As far as whether or not this is true, there is no solid evidence of. Nor is there even evidence that the two died on the same date… while some accounts assert they did, the gravestones themselves actually list 1896 and 1903 as the respective dates of death of Mary Amelia Miles Minter and her daughter, Mary Miles Minter.

Lily Pearle "Charlotte" Miles, Later Charlotte Shelby
Lily Pearle “Charlotte” Miles, Later Charlotte Shelby

In 1907, Lily (Charlotte) Miles Reilly left her husband in search of stardom, and she took her daughters to New York to seek an acting career. Her husband forbade her from using his surname on stage, as at the time there was a bit of a stigma attached to the acting profession. So Lily Pearl “Charlotte” Miles became known as “Charlotte Shelby” (the surname Shelby came from Charlotte’s side of the family) and her daughters became known as Margaret Shelby and Juliet Shelby.

In 1908, Charlotte Shelby was playing a supporting role in Billie Burke’s Love Watches at the Lyceum Theatre. At this time, Juliet Shelby attracted the attention of a Broadway producer and she was cast in roles in Broadway productions. Within a couple of years “Little Juliet Shelby” had become Broadway’s most prolific child actress and Charlotte Shelby abandoned her own acting aspirations to concentrate on furthering her daughter’s career.

In 1912, Juliet attracted unwanted attention from the Gerry Society, which policed child performers under the age of 16. (The Gerry Society was actually formed as the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children which was founded in 1874 as the world’s first child protective agency). Since Juliet was only 10 years old, she would be unable to continue her acting career until she was 16.

However, Juliet’s mother, Charlotte, was not about to let that happen. She created a rather wicked back up plan to ensure her child daughter would be able to get around laws and continue as an actress. Charlotte managed to appropriate the birth certificate of her dead niece, Mary Miles Minter, and used this identification to give 10-year-old Juliet Shelby a whole new identity, as a 17-year-old “midget” named Mary Miles Minter.

Young Mary continued the former Juliet Shelby’s (wow, this gets confusing for sure) acting career on Broadway until 1916, when she and her mother and sister moved to Santa Barbara, California. Mary Miles Minter quickly became a Hollywood sensation. She was dubbed by the American Film Company “the Crown Princess of the Motion Picture.” Her career, however, was always under the strict control of her mother.

In 1918, Mary signed a five-year $1.3 million (yes, one point three million dollars!) contract with Paramount Studios to appear in 20 pictures. She worked in some films with Hollywood big time director William Desmond Taylor and the two became close… many reports indicated Mary fell in love with the much-older Taylor.

When Charlotte Shelby realized her daughter’s attraction to Taylor, she dictated that she no longer make any films under his direction. Mary continued to socialize with Taylor, in spite of her mother’s orders. In February 1922, Taylor was found shot to death in his home. The press had a field day and presented rumors, exaggerations and distorted speculations as fact, all but outright accusing Mary of being completely love sick and killing Taylor when he would not commit to her. There were also speculations by the press that Charlotte Shelby killed Taylor in a jealous rage over her daughter’s attraction to him.

The murder of William Desmond Taylor remains unsolved to this day. The allegations and speculations destroyed Mary’s acting career as Hollywood would never again be able to cast her in roles she had excelled so well in… roles portraying innocence and vulnerability. Later on, Mary was offered alternative supporting roles in movies, but she had made what possibly amounted to her very first own decision and that was to get out of the business and out of he public eye.

I found hand-written correspondence from 1984 at the Sabine Parish Library between Bertha Hoagland of Many and Kenneth DuMain, an early 1900s character actor and who later in life was somehow associated with the Hollywood journal, Variety Magazine. The two were corresponding about how Julia Reilly came to be Mary Miles Minter and about the possibility that Mrs. Hoagland had come into ownership of the old home place of Lily Pearle “Charlotte” Miles (later Charlotte Shelby) and Mary Miles (later mother to the original Mary Miles Minter). DuMain spoke of having interviewed Juliet / Mary Miles Minter at her California home shortly before her death. He explained she told him she didn’t remember much of Shreveport since she was just a few years of age when she left Shreveport. Also, she expressed that she never wanted to be an actress, and told of her hatred of her acting career and the acting profession, as well as her dislike of her mother for forcing this upon her.

Regardless of her disdain for acting, Mary Miles Minter, aka Juliet Reilly, has gone down in history as one of the best silent film actresses ever… actually she is named as one of the top half dozen silent film actresses in pretty much any article, report, or list you can find. She made some 50 films between 1912 and 1923.

She died in 1984, lonely and bitter. Hollywood Director King Vidor, who interviewed MMM aka Juliet in the late 1960s or early 1970s, described her as “obese, reclusive, and snared in the past.” He said she stopped shy of stating that her mother killed Taylor back in ’23 (many involved with the murder investigation felt Mary/Juliet knew more than she ever said and was holding back perhaps to protect someone), but when pressed with questions regarding her mother’s possible involvement in Taylor’s death, she finally blurted, “My mother killed everything I ever loved!”

So there you have it… the truth about the grave of Mary Miles Minter at Mansfield Cemetery in Mansfield, Louisiana… As complicated and sorted as it may be. As for Juliet Reilly’s remains, her body was cremated per her own wishes as stated in her will, and her ashes were scattered over Santa Monica Bay near her home.

NOTE: The grave of the actress’s grandfather, Dr. Elbert Milton Miles, is in the Toro Community, in Victoria Cemetery, also called Caldwell Cemetery, which is a private cemetery owned by the Caldwell family. It is located on La Hwy 191 (about 10 mi from Toledo Dam) turn on Prospect Rd. 1 mi turn on Victoria Rd. Cemetery is at dead end.

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3 thoughts on “The story of a film star: Full of twists and turns from Toro, Louisiana to Hollywood, California”

  1. I’ve read some old letters from Charlotte to Mrs. Ponder Salter of Many. (Aunt Zelma). Read the book A Cast of Killers.

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