The Sheik and I - The Life and Career of Agnes Ayres (hardback)
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The Sheik and I - The Life and Career of Agnes Ayres (hardback)

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The Sheik and I - The Life and Career of Agnes Ayres

by Louise Carley Lewisson


430 pages

6x9 size

ISBN 9798887714028


Agnes Ayres had been in films since 1914, starting out with the Essanay Company in Chicago. After years of being in one and two reelers at Vitagraph, Agnes caught the eye of produce Jesse L. Lasky, who made her a star and as reportedly became his mistress.

Agnes rose to stardom at Paramount working with some of the silent era’s leading men such as Wallace Reid, Jack Holt, Thomas Meighan and Milton Sills. But her popularity peaked when she was cast opposite Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik, who would go on to become one of her closest friends, as well as the godfather to her only daughter. After her affair with Lasky ended, she signed a contract with Producer’s Distributing Corporation (PDC) but they reneged on her three-film contract due to her alleged weight gain, whereupon she sued the company, including its vice-president, the powerful Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille. 

Although she settled the suit out of court, her career was never the same and after transitioning to now making low budget movies, as well as a decade playing vaudeville shows across the country, she died on Christmas Day in 1940 from a cerebral hemorrhage, at the age of 48, after being ill for some time.  

This biography follows her life from the backroads of Illinois up to her death, and includes a comprehensive filmography of the nearly 100 movies she made during her lifetime. 


Louise Carley Lewisson is the author of several books including biographies of actresses Mary Nolan and Martha Mansfield, and is currently working on her next book about the life and career of actress Wanda Hawley. She currently lives in Tampa, Florida. 

Carl Rollyson Review in the "New York Sun":
The Sheik and I: The Life and Career of Agnes Ayres’
By Louise Lewisson
BearManor Media, 472 pages


Independent Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres) spurns a marriage proposal and sets off into the Arabian desert, where her appearance in an Arab dancer’s costume excites the desire of Ahmed Ben Hassan (Rudolph Valentino), who wants to ravish her but is deterred by her determined resistance and then by her desperate escape attempt, shooting at him even as he recaptures her.

The sheik is actually the son of a British father and a Spanish mother, and Lady Diana, after much struggle and heavy breathing, realizes she’s in love with her captor. “The Sheik” (1921) made Ayres a star, and propelled Valentino into the stratosphere of stardom. A decade later the film and the acting styles seemed so ridiculous that its re-release provoked laughter.


Silent film audiences craving thrills, exoticism, adventure, and illicit love exulted in Valentino, exceptionally good looking, athletic, trained as a dancer, and fun to watch. Ayres, in movies since 1914, exuberantly expressed confidence in herself as an actress and woman who carried the day over the domineering Valentino, whose memory she cherished after his shocking death in 1926, which became a scene of national mourning.

As with other silent stars, many of Ayres’s films are lost, but she can been seen in Cecil B. De Mille’s “Forbidden Fruit” (1921) and “The Ten Commandments” (1923), two epics indicative of the way she and directors like De Mille careened in the 1920s between the salacious and the saintly, until the production code of the 1930s censored the risqué and anything deemed immoral.

Ayres elicited her share of rave and negative reviews, and like many actors and actresses of the silent film generation, her career faded with the advent of the talkies — though in her case it was not a poor voice, alcoholic dissipation, or drug addiction that afflicted so many of those she worked with and who are depicted as losing their occupations and sometimes their lives in Ms. Lewisson’s diligently researched book.


Ayres benefited from the amorous attentions of Jesse Lasky, a key founder of Paramount Pictures. He cast her not only in “The Sheik” but in dramatic and comedic roles in “Held by the Enemy” (1920) and “Heart Raider” (1923). Unlike the Sheik, Lasky would not swear undying love, or provide even more starring roles. Then Ayres married and developed other interests (real estate investments and stage work). She rejected the rushed working conditions of early sound film that made all but A-list pictures seem perfunctory compared to the concentrated art of silent film.

“The Sheik and I” is not a conventional biography, if what is meant by that term is a narrative that concentrates on one subject, with other figures playing a subsidiary role. Instead, the book functions as the biography of an industry, with accounts of the actors, directors, producers, and screenwriters who collaborated with Ayres in the productions of her films. Ms. Lewisson provides an annotated filmography of all the Ayres films, including a remarkable series of shorts derived from O’Henry’s stories.

To some readers what may look like extraneous material becomes, in the end, a massive, encyclopedic understanding of the industrial world of motion picture making that can create and destroy stars like Ayres, whom De Mille declared was too heavy for the screen. Ayres’s co-star in “The Affairs of Anatol” (1921), the dashing, handsome Wallace Reid, admired for his powerful physique, was supplied by producers with morphine that allowed him to work injured, but resulted in his addiction and death.


Ayres survived not only the diminution and then disappearance of her stardom but also the stock market crash when she lost all her investments.  She revered the memory of Valentino, and her own reprise of their partnership in “The Son of the Sheik” (1926) without, so far as this biography demonstrates, the slightest evidence of self-pity over the loss of her glory days.

‘The Sheik and I’ functions as the biography of an industry, with accounts of the actors, directors, producers, and screenwriters who collaborated with Ayres in the productions of her films.