Q&A with Louise Carley Lewisson, author of The Sheik and I - The Life and Career of Agnes Ayres

agnes ayres q&a

Q&A with Louise Carley Lewisson, author of The Sheik and I - The Life and Career of Agnes Ayres

Talking about your new book, what gave you the idea to write about Agnes Ayres?
While researching my last book on actress Mary Nolan, I ran across Agnes’ name. Like a number of other silent era actresses who did not make the transition to sound, she had taken to working on stage in vaudeville acts, making personal appearances at various move theatres and had even been a real estate agent at one stage. It was at one such vaudeville event that included both Mary and Agnes, which made me wonder what had brought Agnes to be reduced to only getting this type of works, given her huge popularity because of “The Sheik.”

What was the writing process like and how long did it take you to write the book?
I work fulltime in the IT industry, so all my research and writing was done at night and over the weekend, so it took me over two years to finish it. Doing the research for any of my books is my most favorite part, but it can lead you down some rabbit holes as you come across another actor or actress and find their story intriguing. I also have to stop going back and re-writing sections as after a while you have to just let it go and say “enough is enough.’”

Most people would only know Agnes from her work on “The Sheik” but she had a very varied and interesting film career, didn’t she?
Absolutely. And even I was surprised while doing my research on the number of major films she was in, many of them directed by some leading directors at the time such as Cecil B. deMille., Frank Capra William Desmond Taylor and Ralph Ince to name but a few. She was in a number of movies by both Cecil B. deMille as well as his brother William de Mille, including “Forbidden Fruit”, “he Affairs of Anatol” and the original version of deMille’s “The Ten Commandments.”

It looks like her off-screen life was just as interesting as some of the characters she played..
Oh yes. Not only her ongoing friendship with Rudolph Valentino was fascinating, but he court battle with Cecil B. DeMille. Agnes’ husband Manuel Reachi became a close friend of Valentino’s to the extent he travelled with him to Europe when Valentino was over there on a promotional tour. It was this absence as well as others during their marriage that Agnes cited as one of the reasons she divorced Reachi. Reachi was an interesting person and at one stage wanted to take over as Valentino’s manager, but luckily that never happened as in my opinion as well as many other film scholars, Reachi was a terrible influence on Valentino and was encouraging his to party hard and spend way more money than Valentino had, with Valentino paying for all of Reach’s expenses. Valentino was also the god father of Agnes’ daughter Maria, so they had a very close relationship, and like most of the world, was absolutely devastated when Valentino died.

What was the legal battle with Cecil B DeMille about?
When Agnes became pregnant with Maria she naturally started to put on weight, but kept her pregnancy a secret, like many other actresses of the time, as they thought it would have a negative effect on their film roles and any contract extensions. DeMille did not like the fact that one of his leading ladies was not as “svelte” as she had previously been, and reneged on putting her in the last 2 movies she had in her 3 movie contract with him, saying the audience would not find her as “appealing.” So she sued him and it made national headlines in all the major newspapers. The case was eventually settled out of court with Agnes being paid out the balance of monies owed, but Hollywood does not take kindly to having one of its most well-known directors taken to court, and subsequent to that her movie career definitely took a downward turn. I personally love the fact that she was willing to stand up to someone as powerful as deMille, and as a woman myself, I admired her taking him on, on the basis that she had put on some weight. Agnes was also affected by the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and lost nearly all of her money. Prior to that that she had been a savvy real estate developer and owned a large beer of properties throughout Hollywood and was often cited as being one of the smartest actresses investing in Los Angeles real estate. She did however use some of this business acumen she had developed years later, when her film career and dried up and she worked as a real estate agent in Hollywood.

How difficult was it to secure a publishing contract with Bear Manor Media?
It was extremely easy. I had used another publisher for my previous book but felt that BearManor Media may be a better fit for me, and it was. They were very responsive, and especially supportive when I had some issues with my eyes and could not work on my book for quite a few months so missed the initial date I had given them for when my final draft would be submitted.

Will you be writing another book soon?
Yes. I have already started on my next book which is about Wanda Hawley, one of Cecil B deMille’s favorite actresses and I feel that, like Agnes, her story needed to be told.

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