Nell Shipman's life in show business began on the repertory and vaudeville stages and spanned the eras of silent film, radio, the talkies, and television. She toured with the likes of Jesse Lasky, Paul Gilmore, Dick Sutton, and Charles A. Taylor in the first decade of the twentieth century, made silent films in the 1910s and 20s, and spent the next forty years writing novels, plays, film scenarios, and short stories. She lived in Los Angeles and New York, Miami and Seattle, New England, Arizona, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., but it was in Idaho where she came closest to achieving her dream: making movies on her own, on location in the wild, with complete creative and artistic control. That experience came to an abrupt and bitter end, but Nell never gave up her dream and remembered Priest Lake, Idaho, as her "Ultima Thule, the one spot in all God's world where [she] belonged". [Nell Shipman, The Silent Screen & My Talking Heart, 3rd ed. (Boise: Boise State University, Hemingway Western Studies Center, 2001) p.108 (p. 110 in 1st and 2nd editions). Hereafter abbreviated SS&MTH].
Nell Shipman was born Helen Foster Barham on October 25, 1892, in Victoria, British Columbia. [Details of Nell Shipman's early life and career through 1925 are derived mainly from SS&MTH. Page numbers in the third edition (2001) are given first, followed by the first and second edition page numbers in parentheses]. Her British-born parents, Rose and Arnold Foster Barham, had come to Canada with her older brother Maurice just a few years before. While she was still small the family emigrated to the United States, settling in Seattle, Washington, where young Helen studied music and the dramatic arts. The Barhams made one trip to England when Nell was a child; it was after a visit to the theater in London (she wrote in her autobiography) that she knew she had to become an actress. When Paul Gilmore's traveling company came through Seattle, she convinced her parents and her drama teacher to allow her to audition for the role of ingénue in Gilmore's comedy, "At Yale." She won the part, and at age thirteen went on the road. From then on she was seldom at rest until her family finally convinced her to settle down and retire in California at the age of seventy-three. [ SS&MTH, pp. 1-6 (1-6)].
Nell Shipman's youthful stage career took her across the country in both dramatic and musical roles. She spent one summer in New York City and another in Alaska. Sometimes her mother traveled with her, sometimes not. Stranded more than once when a company went broke, Nell returned home to Seattle between tours. Then, at age eighteen, she was cast in a traveling production of Rex Beach's play, "The Barrier." The company manager was a thrice-married, thirty-nine year-old Canadian named Ernest Shipman, a veteran promoter and producer. He wooed her and they were married on tour. When a sprained ankle treated by too much morphine forced her to drop out of the production in Spokane, she recuperated nearby on the shores of Lake Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. "I found myself in my homeland," she wrote. "The forested mountains of Idaho seemed to cascade down the slopes and carry me to their shining heights, cradle me in topmost boughs, soothe me with song...Show business was forgotten [ SS&MTH, pp 32-33 (33)]. She was not destined to stay long in Idaho this time, however. When she recovered, she rejoined Ernest on the road. After his last show closed, they moved to California and rented a house in South Pasadena. There, in February 1912, Nell gave birth to a son, Barry. And Nell and Ernest Shipman entered the brand new world of Hollywood [ SS&MTH, pp. 6-36 (6-37)].
With his flair for promotion, Ernest Shipman went to work as an agent and publicist for Universal and other studios. Nell began to write film scenarios, but was frustrated by the lack of recognition story writers received in Hollywood. She wrote an article for West Coast Magazine in 1912 calling for the inclusion of the scenario writer in the film credits ["A Call to Arms for the Scenario Writers," West Coast Magazine 13 (1912) 283-284]. Grossett and Dunlap published her first novel, Under the Crescent, in 1915, a romantic thriller adapted from scripts for a Universal serial. When her son was a little older, she began to act once more, mainly for Vitagraph, appearing onscreen with silent stars William Farnum, Lou Tellegen, Jack Kerrigan, William Duncan, and Gayne Whitman. The defining motion picture of her early career was God's Country and the Woman (1916), a James Oliver Curwood tale of the North Woods. Shot partially in the San Bernardino Mountains at Big Bear, California, it featured the outdoor, on-location shooting that would later become Nell's own trademark as a filmmaker. Nell played a role that would occur throughout her film career: a strong, resourceful female who came through to save the day. [ SS&MTH, pp. 39-51 (41-52)].
Nell Shipman quickly became a star. Samuel Goldwyn offered her a seven-year contract, but she declined [ SS&MTH, p. 44 (46)]. What she wanted to do as much as act was to make movies herself. In 1918, she formed an independent production company with James Oliver Curwood to make more tales of the North Woods. Financing for their first effort, Back to God's Country, was arranged by Ernest Shipman, who convinced businessmen in Calgary that a film starring his wife was a sound investment. And it was. Filmed partially in the frozen wild country of Lesser Slave Lake in northern Alberta, it reportedly returned its investors a fine profit. But conditions filming in the Far North were harsh and remote. One actor died, and word did not reach Nell Shipman until well after-the-fact that her own father had passed away while she was on location [ SS&MTH, pp, 68-75 (70-77). See also Embattled Shadows: A History of Canadian Cinema, 1895-1935, by Peter Morris (McGill-Queen's University Press, 1978)].
After Back to God's Country, Nell Shipman withdrew from her association with Curwood to make films on her own. "I think that perhaps you have made the biggest mistake of your life," Curwood wrote back, [Letter from Curwood to Shipman (August 7, 1919) contained within the collection (Box 2, Folder 13)] but she was intent on going her own way. At the same time, she separated from Ernest Shipman. Their divorce, a year later, was front- page news in the Los Angeles newspapers. [See, for example, Los Angeles Evening Herald for May 12, 1920 (Photocopy contained in MSS 99, Papers of Tom Trusky, Box 8, Folder 5)].
For the next four years, Nell Shipman made movies independently, as Nell Shipman Productions. "Life as an Independent maker of Motion Pictures was good!" she wrote. [SS&MTH, p. 96 (98)]. Her director and new companion was Bert Van Tuyle, who had served as company manager for Back to God's Country. They shot their first four films in California: three shorts, The Trail of the Arrow (1919), A Bear, A Boy, and a Dog (1920), and Something New (1920), and one full-length feature, The Girl From God's Country (1921). The latter film, financed by a syndicate headed by the theater magnate William H. Clune, was filmed on location in the Sierras, a two-day horseback trip from the closest dirt road. Nell played twin sisters, shot in double exposure. It was a sprawling twelve-reeler that featured, in Nell's words, everything from "dog sleds to airplanes, earthquakes to snowslides. [ SS&MTH, p. 101 (103)]. After the gala premiere in Los Angeles, it was cut back to nine reels. Nell saw the shortened version in a theater in Santa Ana and was enraged. She urged exhibitors not to book it. Such sabatoge was unheard of. "Was I blackballed from the business? I really don't know for certain...[but] I packed my toys and moved north. [ SS&MTH, p. 103 (105)].
North was Spokane, Washington, where Nell began work on her next film, a tale of Alaska she called The Grub-Stake. Local businessmen sold stock to finance the picture. Their studio was sitting idle, so they saw in Nell a business opportunity. Along with a cast and crew Nell brought to Spokane a menagerie of wild animals she had acquired during the production of her earlier films. [See SS&MTH, pp. 77 (80), 107-109 (105-107)]. By her own account there were more than one hundred animals: bears, wolves, dogs, bobcats, beavers, skunks, elk, deer, eagles, a cougar, and more. Once filming with the human actors was completed in the studio, she moved on, in the summer of 1922, to Priest Lake, Idaho, for location and animal scenes. Nell felt as if her move to Idaho was a homecoming. "This was my country," she wrote in her autobiography, "the one spot in all God's world where [I] belonged." There, "Nature and her wild children would act for me...not as animated puppets but living, breathing images of wilderness, purity at its divine source. [ SS&MTH, p. 108 (111)].
Priest Lake, Idaho, would be Nell Shipman's home for the next two and a half years. She finished filming The Grub-Stake there, then returned to Hollywood with Bert Van Tuyle to edit the film. The animals remained at Priest Lake, cared for by a skeleton crew of attendants. Nell spent hours in the Hollywood lab herself, cutting and splicing, before taking the finished product to New York in search of a distributor. That business done, she returned to Idaho to winter there and begin work on a series of shorts, Little Dramas of the Big Places. [ SS&MTH, p. 108-115 (110-117)].
Nell spent 1923 and most of 1924 at Priest Lake working on the Little Dramas and planning her next full-length features. [The story of 1923-1924 is covered in SS&MTH, pp. 121-160 (123-163 in the 1st and 2nd editions). See also the memoir by Lloyd Peters, one of the members of her company, entitled Lionhead Lodge (Fairfield, Wash.: Fairfield Press, 1967)]. She became a well-known figure in the community. News of her activities appeared frequently in the Priest River Times and other local newspapers. [Photocopies of many clippings from the Priest River Times are found in MSS 99, Papers of Tom Trusky, Box 8, Folders 15 and 16]. She built her own movie camp on the eastern side of the Priest Lake and named it Lionhead Lodge. But by the end of 1924, her financial situation was extremely precarious. Because her distributor went bankrupt, The Grub-Stake had not been widely shown and was a financial failure. Creditors were suing. She had no income. Life in Idaho had become a prison of "work and worry...debt and suffering. [Nell Shipman, "The Movie That Couldn't be Screened," Atlantic Monthly, April 1925, p. 479 (contained within the collection in Box 5, Folder 5)]. Nevertheless, she headed off to New York in hopes of securing financing for a new motion picture. "Not a bumbling little short but a real Feature with which I'd recoup, stage that long-awaited comeback," she wrote. [ SS&MTH, p. 157 (159)]. But the comeback never came. She found no backers for the new film, and a judge in Idaho ruled that her animals had to be sold to pay her debts. The San Diego Zoo saved the day and took them all. And Nell moved on. She stayed in New York and moved into a brownstone she shared with the artist Robert Emmett Owen and his wife Wylda. The Owens introduced her to the next love of her life, a portrait painter from New England named Charles Austin Ayers. [See letters from Nell Shipman to Belle Angstadt and Barry Shipman published in SS&MTH, pp. 160-163 (163-165). The originals are not present in the collection. According to the June 10, 1925, issue of the Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington), the San Diego Zoo learned of the plight of the animals through a Spokesman-Review article that was distributed nationally via the Associated Press (clipping in MSS 99, Papers of Tom Trusky, Box 8, Folder 18). In her memoir of her career of the San Diego Zoo, Belle Jennings Benchley tells of the lives of two of Nell Shipman's rescued animals in San Diego ( My Life in a Man-Made Jungle, Little Brown & Company, 1940, pp. 82-84)].
Temperamentally Nell's opposite, Charles Austin Ayers introduced Nell to his large New England family and a lifestyle far removed from the rigors of Idaho or the world of film finance. "He's different from anyone we've ever known," Nell wrote to her twelve-year old son Barry, still in school in Spokane. [ SS&MTH, p. 162 (165)]. But Ayers was no better off financially than Nell, so she instinctively turned to writing to support herself. She wrote as he painted. She penned a memoir of her Idaho experience, published in three issues of the Atlantic Monthly in the Spring of 1925. And then she was ready for new adventures. She sent for Barry and the two of them moved with Charles to Florida, where her ex-husband, Ernest, waited with a prospective film deal. ["N.S. Chronology" by Barry Shipman (MSS 90, Papers of Barry Shipman, Box 10, at Boise State University), and conversations with Barry Shipman]. Ernest Shipman's project did not materialize, so Nell wrote stories inspired by local lore. A novel, The Tamiami Trail, was published in serial form in several Florida newspapers. This Florida sojourn was a short one, however, for in the Spring of 1926 Nell, Barry, and Charles boarded a steamer bound for Spain, in search of subjects for the artist as well as a low cost of living. They rented a villa outside the seacoast town of La Coruna. Hardly more than a month after their arrival, Nell gave birth to twins Charles Douglas and Daphne Anne Ayers. [Clippings about Nell Shipman from Florida newspapers are found in her Pressbook and the clipping files in Box 1. She wrote several accounts of her experiences in Spain, found in Box 5. Only portions of The Tamiami Trail are found in the Pressbook; the collection does not contain the complete text].
New motherhood did not slow Nell down, however. In the Fall she went to England, where she visited movie studios and proclaimed in a British trade journal that London could become the "film centre of the world. [Nell Shipman, "The Film Centre of the World," The Bioscope (November 4, 1926), pp. 40-41. Contained in the collection in the Pressbook, p. 10, and with the clippings in Box 1, Folder 19]. On her return to Spain, she found her twins weaned but her financial situation desperate. British relatives grudgingly lent support, but she and Charles had to return to America and find work. They returned to New England, but by November 1927 they were settled in Sarasota, Florida, where Charles opened a studio. The Sarasota press greeted them like conquering heroes, hailing their choice of Sarasota as a home in headlines and feature articles. In March 1928 Nell was the Queen of the Pageant of Sara De Sota, an extravaganza sponsored by circus magnate John Ringling. The month of May found her in Miami starring in a one-act play she wrote entitled "Are Screen Stars Dumb?" performing alongside her son Barry. [Nell Shipman wrote extensively of her time in Spain; see Box 5. Her Florida sojourn is documented in her Pressbook].
Nell's performances in Sarasota and Miami were her last acting roles, however. From then on, until the end of her life, she concentrated on writing. Always on the move, rarely staying in one place more than a year, she moved across country with twins and Barry and Charles in tow. The next seven years found her in various locales: Taos in New Mexico; Glendale, Sausalito, Los Angeles, Requa, Klamath, Venice, and Big Bear in California; and back East, in Connecticut and New York. Sometimes all five of them were together; sometimes they were separated. Despite all the moves, these were her most productive writing years since the early days with the studios. Dial Press published three books: Kurly Kew and the Tree Princess (a novelization of one of her Little Dramas), and two stories of the North Country, Get the Woman (1930) and Abandoned Trails (1932). Get the Woman was serialized in McCall's Magazine as "M'sieu Sweetheart." Good Housekeeping published a reminiscence of her filmmaking days entitled "This Little Bear Went to Hollywood" (1931). In 1933 she left her household behind in California and moved to New York to work as a story developer for George Palmer Putnam, recently named head of Paramount Studios' editorial board. [Her correspondence reveals that she worked on several projects for Putnam, but only one resulted in a film credit, as author of the story for Wings in the Dark, a Myrna Loy-Cary Grant film released by Paramount in 1935]. Once again the movie bug bit her; she wanted to make movies again, and she wanted Barry -- now 21 and a writer himself-- to work with her. [Nell Shipman's many letters to Barry Shipman (Boxes 4-A and 4-B) serve as the major source for the details of her life from 1933 on].
After school was out in 1934, Nell drove back to California in her new Pierce limousine to bring Charles and the twins to New York. Her relationship with Charles Austin Ayers, however, was foundering. By the Fall, she and Charles had separated. "We staged a terrible renunciation scene," she wrote to Barry, and their ten-year relationship was over. [Nell Shipman to Barry Shipman, April 22, 1935 (Box 4-A)].
Nell was not long without a partner, however. She seems to have been briefly involved with Philip Hurn, a collaborator in several projects, but by the summer of 1935 had met Hurn's cousin, an Italian-American film director named Amerigo Serrao. "Amerigo and I are deeply in love," she wrote to Barry in October. Unlike Charles, who was an outsider to the film business, Amerigo was "one of our own....He is our business. Hollywood. Pictures. Humor. Promotion. An Ernie [Shipman] brought up to date." With him, in the years ahead, she foresaw "the realization of everything we have most wanted and dreamed." Together, the three of them would make pictures. [Nell Shipman to Barry Shipman, October 6, 1935 (Box 4-A). Amerigo Serrao directed films in the 1920s and early 1930s under the names Arthur Varney and Arthur Varney Serrao ( The Motion Picture Guide). In later years he went by the aliases Grover Lee, Peter Lee Varney, and Peter Locke, among others. His mother was the noted sculptor Luella Varney Serrao (cf. Who Was Who in American Art, Ohio Art and Artists, and biographical files maintained by the Cleveland Public Library)].
Those dreams never came true. Barry married and stayed in California, where he wrote scripts for serials, movies, and later, for television. He worked steadily, raised a family, bought a house and a pool, and eventually became an officer of the Writers Guild. Nell and Amerigo, on the other hand, crisscrossed the country chasing their elusive dream. But no one was interested in backing their independent productions; and always, it seems, some turn of events conspired against them. Nell's letters for the next two decades were full of what she called "verges": projects on the verge of financing, only to fall through at the last moment. After living in New York a few years, she and Amerigo tried their luck in Florida and California. No luck there, they returned to New York. By 1939 they were penniless, spending nights on the subway when friends could not take them in. [See, for example, handwritten letter from Nell Shipman to Barry Shipman, presumably written January 1940, from New Haven, Connecticut (Box 4-B)]. But somehow they survived. Amerigo could always find a hotel or a landlord who would defer the rent, or a friend to help them out while they developed a project. Barry often lent support. Nell wrote while Amerigo promoted. The minute one dream collapsed or a landlord evicted them, they were off on a new venture.
During World War II, Barry Shipman was stationed at Quantico, Virginia, as an officer in the Marines, making pictures for the war effort. Nell and Amerigo visited often from New York, as did the twins, who had gone to live with their father when Nell hit rock bottom. The family was together more during the war than they had been for years. Nell and Amerigo made contacts in Virginia, too, and found the financial backing to make a movie on Virginia's remote Eastern Shore. There they filmed The Story of Mr. Hobbs (also known as The Clamdigger's Daughter), completed in 1947 but never released. An incomplete version of the film, found in the British Film Institute under the title The Story of Mr. Hobbs, was shown in Cape Charles, Virginia, in 1996. See the April 27, 1996 issue of the Eastern Shore News (photocopy in MSS 99, Papers of Tom Trusky, Box 7, Folder 41)]. They stayed in Virginia several more years, then moved to Washington, D.C. Inspired by Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist crusade, Nell wrote a novel and screenplay about subversion in America. For most of the decade she and Amerigo lived with some backers on an estate in Bethesda, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C., while they sought to put their anti-Communist project on film. Their work in Washington came to naught, too. Nell blamed highly placed politicians for their failure, politicians who sabotaged their efforts because anti-Communism was too controversial. "The axe has fallen and all but felled us en transit," Nell wrote to Barry in 1959. "The time drag and stalling grew more and more difficult until finally, in a show-down, a completion bond was demanded...No major would let the pix go thru at our cut-rate budget, nor would they let me produce or the old man direct." They got out of town "literally with the hounds on our traces. [Nell Shipman to Barry Shipman, August 8, 1959 (Box 4-B)].
Barry wrote back that he had too many financial obligations to bail them out this time, but invited Nell to California, where there was a great need for talented writers for the movies and television. Reflecting on Nell's twenty-four years with Amerigo, he wrote bluntly: "Forgive me if I feel that you've been terribly, horribly and tragically wasted these many years. No one's fault, maybe...but the fault can lie in not doing something about it....I hold no grudges, or hostilities. Just regret -- in a way -- that he couldn't have used you better. As a companion, I guess you had a good one. Loneliness is probably the worst thing there is. If he kept you from that, bless him. But as a mentor for you..." In reference to their many frustrated plans, Barry added: "[I] used to get your letters with the great verges in them and shed a little tear and wonder just what international incident, broken leg, or new legislation would throw the deal this time!" [Barry Shipman to Nell Shipman, [November?] 30, 1959, p. 3 (Box 4-B)].
Nell reluctantly accepted Barry's invitation and moved to California to live with him. Amerigo stayed in New York, in pursuit of financing for yet another project, a studio in France where they could make movies. He died a few months later, in November 1960. Nell was bereft, but within a few months she was on the move again. She spent the next four years living with friends in New England and New Jersey and, at times, with her son Charles or daughter Daphne in New York, rarely staying in one place more than a few months. She endured long lonely bus rides, and at times did not know where she would end up next. But still she wrote prolifically, peppering friends, agents, and publishers with stories, plays, and novels. Finally in 1965, at the age of seventy-three, Nell returned to California, living first with Barry and then, in 1967, moving into a small house in Cabazon, a desert community not far from Palm Springs. There Nell enjoyed the company of a menagerie of cats and dogs, visits from relatives and old friends, and occasional trips to scenes from her younger days, Big Bear in particular. She also enjoyed corresponding with film buffs and historians who had just rediscovered her. But most of all she enjoyed her independence. In letter to Lloyd Peters, who had been part of her company at Priest Lake more than forty years before, she vowed a "death-with-your-boots-on finale," and reflected that "memories are our greatest treasure, cannot be taken by rust, by the dream-killers, or the 'so what's?' Our only sure possessions!" [Nell Shipman to Lloyd Peters, February 16, 1967 (Box 3, Folder 2)]
Nell's last major project was her autobiography, which, after numerous title changes, she called "The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart." It covered her life up until the collapse of her movie camp at Priest Lake, Idaho. Nell died in Cabazon on January 23, 1970. She was laid to rest in nearby Banning, under a simple stone adorned with a single star.
Nell Shipman married and divorced Ernest Shipman, but no records of marriages to any of her other partners have been found, despite the fact that she styled herself Mrs. Bert Van Tuyle, Mrs. Charles Austin Ayers, or Mrs. --- (whatever Amerigo Serrao's alias was at the time.)
The Nell Shipman collection documents the life and work of Nell Shipman (1892-1970), actress, filmmaker, and author. It contains letters written and received by Nell Shipman; typescripts of numerous novels, plays, stories, magazine articles, and film proposals that she wrote; press clippings about her activities; photos; and tape recordings. Includes press clipping book (1925-1936); journal (1926-1927) of years in Spain with artist C. H. Austin Ayers; typescript of an unpublished portion of Shipman's autobiographical novel, Abandoned Trails (1932); script of the motion picture, Wings in the Dark (1935); and typescript and screenplay adaptation of an anticommunist novel, The Fifth American (1955). Correspondents include Jesse H. Brown, James O. Curwood, Thomas Fulbright, Lincoln MacVeagh (Dial Press), Archibald Stone McColl, George Palmer Putnam, Amerigo Serrao (also known as Arthur Varney, Grover Lee, Peter Varney, and Peter Locke), Vincent Sorey, Gordon Sparling, Roi A. Uselton, Grenville Vernon (Dial Press), Joseph B. Walker, Ann Watkins, Shipman's sons Barry Shipman and Charles Douglas Ayers, and daughter Daphne Ayers Feldman.
Nell Shipman lost most of her early papers when she abandoned Priest Lake, Idaho in 1924. Consequently, her early career as an actress and silent filmmaker is not well documented in this collection. The strength of the collection lies in its documentation of her life and work after she left Idaho in 1924. Her correspondence, in particular, reveals her many attempts to gain financing for proposed film projects, particularly after 1935, when she met Amerigo Serrao. Nell Shipman wrote until the very end of her life, and the collection contains typescripts of more than 100 stories and other works. Few, if any, of these were ever published; she seems not to have retained typescripts of her works that appeared in print.
The collection also contains approximately 400 photos of Nell Shipman and her work. Many of these are stills from her films; these photos are the only significant body of materials in the collection dating before 1924.
Restrictions on Access :
Collection is available for research.Preferred Citation :
[item description], Nell Shipman Papers, Box [number] Folder [number], Boise State University Special Collections and Archives.
The collection is arranged in eight series: 1. Biographical and personal papers; 2. General correspondence; 3. Correspondence with Barry Shipman and Charles and Daphne Ayers; 4. Autobiographical writings and non-fiction; 5. Novels; 6. Stories, scripts, scenarios, and treatments; 7. Sound recordings; and 8. Photos.
Processing Note :
Nell Shipman wrote many of her letters on acidic paper that is now quite brittle. Preservation photocopies have been made for research use.Acquisition Information :
Gifts of Barry Shipman, San Bernardino, California, 1988-1991.Related Materials :
See also: Barry Shipman Papers
Detailed Description of the Collection
This series contains a variety of miscellaneous papers documenting Nell Shipman's life and work. They include her baptismal and death certificates, a list of film and publishing credits she compiled, press clippings, and her obituaries. The press clippings are in two forms: loose photocopies in Box 1, Folders 17-28, and originals pasted in her Pressbook (see Box 19). Folders 17-28 also contain clippings not found in the Pressbook. The clippings in this series are clippings Nell Shipman saved or collected herself and date mainly from 1925 to 1938. Another collection of newspaper clippings about her, compiled by Professor Tom Trusky, can be found in his papers (MSS 99). The Trusky collection contains older material, including clippings from the Priest River newspaper in the 1920s.
Folders 11 and 12 in Box 1, called "Keepsakes," contain papers Nell Shipman kept in a shoebox, separate from the rest of her files. Folder 11 contains items from the 1930s relating to her interest in mysticism and the occult, including letters from her friend Dorothy Yost and her son Barry Shipman. Folder 12 consists of personal papers, such as a 1925 Christmas card from her Idaho friend, Belle Angstadt, tributes to Amelia Earhart, drawings by her son Charles Douglas Ayers and others, and poetry she collected. A typewritten document in Folder 12 entitled "Accompanying Script: A Thorough, Personal, Descriptive Typewritten Analysis" (1951) is a 500-word psychological/character analysis of a "woman who has been forcibly developed and matured by work...." Written by Nell, about Nell?
Nell Shipman's commonplace book (Box 18) was a daily planner into which she pasted a few clippings and made scattered notes. Among the loose items removed from the book and placed in Box 1, Folder 15 are a poetic eulogy to Amerigo Serrao and a homemade birthday card presented to her by her production company in 1920. A photo of the birthday party is print number 1016 in the photo collection.
The accounts and correspondence relating to the Barham-Jevons estates (Box 1, Folders 34-35) contain information about inheritances from Barham and Jevons relatives in England. She seems to have received distributions in 1936 and in 1958. Barry Shipman recalls that she used her 1936 inheritance to support her unsuccessful Florida venture with Sir John Brunton. Letters in Folder 35 reveal that she planned to use the 1958 distributions for a Florida venture as well.
Among the other items in this series are her 1929 California drivers license (Box 1, Folder 5), a mailing envelope (postmarked 1920) with the logo of Nell Shipman Productions (Folder 33), reminiscences of Charles A. Taylor (with whom she toured in Alaska, Folder 41), and biographical material about Charles Austin Ayers, Ernest Shipman, and Amerigo Serrao.
Perhaps the most poignant item in this series is a 1963 letter from the Motion Picture Relief Fund rejecting her application for a pension (Box 1, Folder 7). "The major part of your writing since 1929 has not been used by the studios," was the brutal but accurate conclusion of the relief board, disqualifying her from consideration.
Both business and personal letters are represented in Nell Shipman's general correspondence files. Most of the letters date from either the 1930s or 1960s; very few date from any other time. Most of the letters from the 1930s are of a business nature; the correspondents include agents and publishers and they pertain mainly to her writing projects. The letters from the 1960s are more varied, a mixture of personal and business. Among the correspondents in the 1960s are friends whom she enlisted to help in her writing and promotional projects, relatives, literary agents, and, in the last few years of her life, silent film buffs who discovered her in Cabazon, California. Letters to and from her children, spanning the dates 1933-1969, are found in Series 3.
Among the notable items in the correspondence is a telegram from Amelia Earhart (1937) asking Nell to telephone her. Also present are approximately 25 letters between Nell and Earhart's husband, George Palmer Putnam, written between 1930 and 1939. Putnam and Shipman collaborated on several projects (including the novel Hot Oil), and their letters discuss their work. (Shipman also discusses her work with Putnam in many letters to Barry Shipman in Series 3.) Another prominent figure represented by a file of correspondence is literary agent Ann Watkins, who represented Shipman between 1929 and 1934. In the miscellaneous business file (Box 3, Folder 34) there is a letter from Louella Parsons dated 1931 inviting Nell to drop by her office and visit.
The correspondence with Dial Press (mainly with Lincoln MacVeagh and Grenville Vernon) chronicles the history behind the publication of Shipman's books Get the Woman (1930), Abandoned Trails (1932), and Kurly Kew and the Tree Princess (1930). Letters from J.K.Gordon Magee and Frank Ibbotson in the Fall of 1931 document their attempt to see Get the Woman translated to the big screen. Correspondence with McCall's Magazine and Good Housekeeping reveal objections to some of Nell's story lines. After serializing Get the Woman (as "M'sieu Sweetheart") in 1930, McCall's considered another Shipman story called "The Snow Mother," but found part of the story line objectionable. McCall's editor Otto Wiese did not mind that the protagonist's husband ran a gambling show, "but the fact that he was running women, and sold his wife into the trade, is quite a little too bald for us." Good Housekeeping had similar problems when considering Abandoned Trails for serialization in 1931. Their editorial policy would not allow a lead character to "live in sin."
There is only one original letter in the collection that dates from Nell Shipman's silent film career. It is a letter from James Oliver Curwood dated 1919 in which he calls her decision to sever her contracts with him the biggest mistake of her life. This letter was presented to Boise State University in 1989 by Mildred Stobie, who discovered it as a child among the ruins of Nell's movie camp in north Idaho.
Nell's various writing and promotional projects between 1935 and 1960, when she lived with Amerigo Serrao, are best documented in her correspondence with Barry Shipman (Series 3). However, there is one small file of letters in this series written by Serrao in 1937 in his unofficial capacity as her agent. This series also contains quite a few letters Serrao sent to Nell in the last few months of his life, while he was in New York trying to arrange financing for another of their unfulfilled projects, and a special file of tributes and letters of sympathy Nell received after he died in November 1960 (Box 13, Folder 12).
Aside from her children (Series 3), the largest files of correspondence in the 1960s belong to Archibald Stone McColl, a young Army officer Nell befriended in Washington, D.C.; Georgia Burre McManis, a typist who acted as a literary agent for her; Vincent Sorey, a composer and concert violinist with whom she collaborated on several projects; and Thomas Fulbright, a silent film historian.
During the last few years of her life, Nell Shipman renewed contacts with old friends and acquaintances from her days in Idaho. Those represented by letters in this series include Russell Bankson, Sylvia Gumaer Burwell, Jim Parsons, Lloyd Peters, and Loie Pierson. Lloyd Peters' work on Lionhead Lodge (1967), a book about his youthful experiences working with Nell Shipman at Priest Lake, helped spur Nell along in the writing of her own autobiography. In the 1960s Nell also corresponded with a number of film buffs and historians. Those include Canadians Hye Bossin and Gordon Sparling and Americans Murray Summers, Roi Uselton, and Thomas Fulbright. Fulbright became a frequent correspondent; Nell's daughter Daphne once suggested that Nell marry him.
Nell Shipman kept letters about some of her plays, novels, and stories, in files along with her typescripts rather than in her general correspondence files. Those letters have been kept with the typescripts in Series 5 and 6 and are generally filed in folders labeled Research, Related Material, or Correspondence.
This series contains letters exchanged between Nell Shipman and her children, Barry Shipman, Charles Douglas Ayers, and Daphne Ayers Feldman, from 1933 to 1969. Because so many of the letters were written on paper that is now very brittle, researchers are asked to consult photocopies, which have been arranged in chronological order and placed in eight notebooks.
By far the largest body of correspondence is between Nell Shipman and her oldest son, Barry Shipman (1912-1984). The earliest surviving letters between them date from 1933, when Barry lived in the mountains at Big Bear, California. Nell at that time still lived in California, too, but she soon left for New York, where she went to work as a writer and story developer for George Palmer Putnam, who recently had become head of Paramount Pictures' editorial board. Some of Nell's and Barry's earliest letters discuss mysticism (to which Barry was much attracted at the time), but for the most part, the letters discuss Nell's writing projects, her promotional ideas, plans for making movies herself, and family and personal affairs over the course of four decades. There are many more letters in the file written by Nell than by Barry. A few letters between Barry Shipman and Amerigo Serrao are also included in these files, in their appropriate chronological order.
The letters chronicle Nell's gradual separation from Charles Austin Ayers, her life with Amerigo Serrao in New York, Florida, California, and Washington, D.C., and her final years in Cabazon, California. They also reflect her often-precarious financial situation and the difficulties in providing a settled home life for the twins Charles and Daphne when they were children. Occasional letters to Barry Shipman from Charles Austin Ayers, Amerigo Serrao, and others are also included with the photocopies, as well as a few letters by Nell's eldest granddaughter, Nina Shipman, and her children's spouses. When Barry Shipman turned forty years old (in 1952), he wrote a long letter to Nell chronicling the decades of his life. Though written in a terse, breezy style, the letter is invaluable in tracing Nell and Barry's movements from 1912 to 1952.
Among the names mentioned frequently in Nell's letters are George Palmer Putnam; Putnam's wife Amelia Earhart; literary agents Ann Watkins, Jean Wick, and Nan Blair; Nell's friends Shelly Johnson and his ex-wife, Thelma Robertson; Billy and Marion Colvin, old friends from Nell's repertory days who also worked with her in Florida; adventure novelist Felix Riesenberg; writer and collaborator Philip Hurn ("Fippi"); movie producers Emanuel Cohen (of Paramount), Larry (J. Laurence) Wickland, Charles Glett, and Sir John Brunton; Captain George A. Baynes, of Eastern Service Studios; screenwriter Rex Taylor and cinematographer Joseph Walker (old friends from moviemaking days); niece Pat Shipman and her husband Dick Diaz; and the sculptor Luella Varney Serrao (Amerigo Serrao's mother). She lived in New York in the 1930s, too, and Nell and Amerigo helped look after her in her declining years.
This series contains autobiographical writings and fragments by Nell Shipman, both published and unpublished, and some non-fiction essays.
The two typescripts of Nell's autobiography, The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart, vary little from the text published by Boise State University. These are relatively clean typescripts, made after the writing was done. The first was apparently typed by Nell Shipman herself; the second by her daughter-in-law, Beulah Shipman ("Bool"). The typescripts are accompanied by letters Nell wrote in search of publishers, as well as letters to libraries and other places in her attempts to pin down details of fact. Also in the file is a two-page fragment of a possible sequel (Folder 19), recounting an incident involving Barry Shipman at the Mission Play in San Gabriel, California, sometime in the late 1920s.
"A Call to Arms for the Scenario Writers" (1912) is the earliest composition in the series, followed by "Me" (1919), a short autobiographical sketch. "A Call to Arms" was published in West Coast Magazine and "Me" was published in Photoplay. Both are represented only by photocopies of the published articles (Folder 22 and 3, respectively). So too is "This Little Bear Went Hollywood," a memoir of her bear Brownie, published in Good Housekeeping in 1931 (Folder 15). There is also a published version of "The Movie That Couldn't Be Screened" ( Atlantic Monthly, 1925) as well as a second photocopy of part of it, annotated by Nell Shipman in her own hand, naming individuals only vaguely identified in the original text (Folder 5).
Nell Shipman wrote at least four versions of the story of her sojourn in Spain, 1926-27. There is a typescript journal covering the dates January 1, 1927 through March 24, 1927 (Folder 12) and three other reminiscences entitled "Borrowed Castles" (Folder 10), "Galicia Goes By (Folder 11), and "Memoirs of Spain" (Folders 13 and 14).
In 1930 Nell, Barry, and Charles Austin Ayers drove from Taos, New Mexico, to Yellowstone National Park, where Nell and Charles caught a train to Seattle. The story of their difficult auto trip across Wyoming's Continental Divide and their visit to Yellowstone is recounted in "Red Gate" (Folder 7). Nell and Charles' subsequent cruise from Seattle to Juneau is told in "Sentimental Journey" (Folder 8).
"Fade In" (Folder 1), written in 1962, is a rambling reminiscence of several incidents during the filming of Girl From God's Country, God's Country and the Woman, and Back To God's Country, and mentions William Clune, Louis B. Mayer, Charles A. Taylor, Rollin Sturgeon, and her bears Big Bessie and Brownie, among others. "Sleep Deep" (Folder 9) is a poetic eulogy of Amerigo Serrao, and "Guess Who's Grateful" (Folder 2) is a Thanksgiving Day prayer Nell composed in 1967. "I am thankful for what has been bestowed upon me through association with the Lively Arts, even if in small portions," she wrote. "To work on the fringe of the magic world of make-believe is reason for sincere thanksgiving."
Series 5 contains typescripts and drafts of ten novels, representing work Nell Shipman did between 1925 and 1966. These are all unpublished works; apparently she did not retain typescripts of those that were published. Many of the stories contained within these novels also appear as short stories in Series 6.
The earliest typescript in the series is called Pirate Girl. According to Barry Shipman, Nell wrote it at Old Lyme, Connecticut, during the summer of 1925, her first summer in the East with Charles Austin Ayers. Pirate Girl is a swashbuckling story of the Spanish Main, foreshadowing her imminent move to Florida and then Spain itself.
The typescript entitled Abandoned Trails is not the typescript of the novel as published (1931), but the first third of the original story, which was cut by the editors. Along with the typescript is correspondence relating to it and the book as published, including comments and pre-publication suggestions by those who read the manuscript.
Edge of Beyond and Heaven Casts a Long Shadow are both novels with mystical themes. During the early 1930s, both Nell and Barry became entranced by mysticism and Eastern spirituality, in part through the influence of their friend, Dorothy Yost, a prolific Hollywood screenwriter. Nell wrote several stories with a mystical element, including these novels. Both are set in territory she knew well, northern Idaho and eastern Washington. Edge of Beyond is the older typescript of the two, probably dating back to the 1930s, though it appears she made changes and additions in later years (including the title page). Heaven Casts a Long Shadow dates from the 1960s. It was Nell's last major project before she turned to her autobiography. The typescript is accompanied by research correspondence, including letters to and from Peter Van Gelder of the Spokane Mountaineers and noted raptor specialist Morley Nelson. A typescript entitled High Frontier (Box 6) is closely related to Heaven Casts a Long Shadow; some of the pages are actually headed with the latter title. Among the other stories Nell wrote with mystical themes are her Borderline Tales (Box 17). They too were set in the same locale and involve many of the same characters.
Bitterroot was also set in the Pacific Northwest. Nell Shipman seems to have worked on it just before Heaven Casts a Long Shadow. "It is safe to say there is not an incident in 'Bitter' which was not experienced in real life or the 'fiction' developing from that life," she wrote to the publisher Doubleday in 1965. "So, I am afraid, I must plead guilty of plagiarizing myself and must continue, at the end of a long and eventful life, to so do."
Little Lost Lady and The Naked North (also titled Woman Against the Wilderness) are Alaska novels. Little Lost Lady appears to be the older of the two, written ca. 1940-1942. Portions of the typescript have been removed; Nell Shipman appears to have renumbered them and inserted them into The Naked North. Both tales involve a stock company actress in early 20th-century Alaska. The Road to God's Country is another Alaska novel, set during World War II and loosely formed around the building of the Alcan Highway. One of the protagonists is a young stock company actress, and several of the characters from Little Lost Lady and The Naked North reappear as "old timers."
Feather From the Right Wing is an anti-communist novel, related to the scripts "Face of the Enemy" and "The Fifth American" (Box 11). Nell Shipman transformed those 1950s screenplays into a novel in 1961, largely as a tribute to Amerigo Serrao. The typescript is accompanied by quite a bit of correspondence documenting her unsuccessful efforts to get it published.
More than 120 stories, plays, scripts, film scenarios, and film treatments are found in Series 6. Some are represented by more than one version, and some are accompanied by correspondence. With but one exception, noted below, none of her pre-1925 work is represented here. The scripts for the films she made in the 1910s and 20s apparently have all been lost.
The earliest item in the series is a shooting script, with camera directions, for a proposed silent film entitled "The Last Empire." Set in Cuba, it is the rare surviving example of Nell Shipman's early screenwriting and likely was inspired by a trip to Cuba, ca. 1915-16. Other early works include a pageant play, "Florida" (1928); an opera libretto also from Florida entitled "Crown of Conquest;" and two radio plays from 1932, "Mann the Mystic" and "Your Own Story Hour: My Night of Terror." The latest item in the series is a proposal for a Lassie television program (1967). In between are all kinds of works, many undated.
North Idaho and the wild country of the Pacific Northwest feature in a number of stories, notably the "Borderline Tales" (Box 17). Many of these stories came out of her novels, particularly Heaven Casts a Long Shadow. They appear to date from the 1960s.
Shipman's fascination with the sea is as evident in this series as her love of wilderness. "Blow the Man Down" (1934) is one of her earliest sea stories, a film scenario coauthored in New York with her friend, the prolific novelist Felix Riesenberg.
"Grand Bahama" (1936) is a proposal, in letter form, she drew up for Sir John Brunton, who hoped to produced films in Florida and the Bahamas. (A 1936 magazine profile of Brunton is contained in the Pressbook in Series 1.) "Jungle Ship" was a project about exploration that she worked on for several years, offering it as a radio play as early as 1937 and then developing it as a film proposal a few years later. A shooting script is included in the collection. In 1945 Nell Shipman recorded portions of "Jungle Ship" onto a 16-inch disc. The recording has been transferred to a tape cassette for research use (Series 7). "The Flying Fox" is another version of "Jungle Ship."
From time to time Shipman promoted the idea she called the "Aquadrome," a theater combining motion pictures with live water shows. She floated the idea most enthusiastically in the early 1960s and enlisted an engineer-friend to help design it. Another idea from the 1960s was "Center 16," a chain of small movie theaters located in shopping centers. Her proposal went nowhere at the time, but within a decade the idea took root in suburban shopping malls across America.
Nell Shipman grasped the dramatic possibilities of television early on, and in 1949, while living in Virginia, wrote several one-act plays intended for the new medium. Those titles include "Center Door Fancy," "First One In," and "The Girl and the Monster." She proposed more television programs in the brochure "Country Beyond the River" (1952).
Current events and newspaper stories often inspired stories. A classified ad for a diamond ring prompted the story, "A Great Tomorrow" (1936). "Refugee Ship" (1939) was based upon the plight of the refugee Jews on the ship St. Louis, who were denied entry at many ports. "White Ambush" (1940) tells the story of the Finns who turned back the Soviet invasion of their land in the Winter War of 1939-40. There are several other World War II-inspired works as well. During the 1950s Nell Shipman wrote at least three anti-Communist screenplays, "Face of the Enemy" (two versions, 1950 and 1952) and "The Fifth American" (1955). She transformed them into a novel, Feather from the Right Wing, in 1961.
Wherever she lived, Nell Shipman was quick to absorb the local culture and feature it in her stories. While at Provincetown, Massachusetts, she wrote "Cape Cod Beachhead" (1944). A story of tobacco, "The Golden Road," dates from her Virginia days (1948). Her stay with friends in New Jersey in the early 1960s prompted "The Guns of '76" and "Guns on the Delaware," the latter production to be staged in her Aquadrome. While in New England during the early 1960s she wrote "Rape of the Lily," a play about the siege of Louisbourg at the outset of the French and Indian War. Quite a few stories were set on the sidewalks of New York, including "Hurdy Gurdy" (1961) and "Everything Comes Out Verdi." She envisioned the latter as a musical comedy and enlisted the aid of her friend, composer Vincent Sorey, to write the music. Shipman and Sorey seem to have collaborated on several projects (as indicated in their Correspondence file, Box 3), including the song "Nakome," which was published in 1961 by Metropolitan Music Company. And all through the 1960s she promoted a work about the history of wine called "The Golden Grape" for production in California, possibly in San Francisco Bay on the Aquadrome.
Nell Shipman's biggest film credit after the collapse of her own studio at Priest Lake was as coauthor of the story for the motion picture Wings in the Dark (1935), starring Myrna Loy and Cary Grant. A "release dialogue script" is included in this series, even though Nell Shipman did not write the final script of the film itself. In a letter after the movie was released, she said it was a "nice picture and will never hurt anyone's feelings and the flying is quite wonderful but there is nothing about it that I can see which relates it to the original theme, the over-coming of a dreadful handicap through the loving service of a dog." This script was not part of the original collection; it was purchased from a movie memorabilia dealer and added to the collection.
With the exception of "Jungle Ship" and "The Golden Road," these tapes of Nell Shipman reading date from her years at Cabazon, California, 1967-1970. "Doraleen and Fuzzy Vague" and "The Longest Hour" were fairy tales originally written by Barry Shipman for his daughter Nina during World War II. "Fig Tree John" is an Indian tale Nell was reading for her niece, Pat Shipman Diaz, who had become blind. The other tapes from the 1960s are some of Nell Shipman's "Borderline Tales." Barry Shipman made this comment when he gave these tapes to Boise State University: "Hearing the dramatization of Nell's words, especially in 'The Golden Road,' is evidence that she wrote words to be performed; Nell's writing talent, like poetry, seems better when 'heard' than 'read'" (June 7, 1990).
Boxes 22 through 25 contain original letters, scripts, stories, etc. that are in fragile condition (brittle paper). Photocopies have been placed in the appropriate files within the main collection for patron use. Also contained in these boxes are carbons of certain titles made by Nell Shipman.
The Nell Shipman collection contains approximately 400 images of Nell Shipman, her family and associates, and places where she lived and worked, including stills from several of her movies. Most of them were donated by Barry Shipman, in the form of 35 mm negatives he made from contemporary prints in his possession. Also included in the collection are copy prints that Professor Tom Trusky obtained from other libraries, archives, and private individuals during his research on Nell Shipman.
Boise State University can provide copy prints of those images donated to us by Barry Shipman, however we cannot make copies of photos that came from other sources. For further information, consult an archivist in the Special Collections Department.
Each image has been assigned a photo number. For reference use, copies of all the images have been arranged in the following ten categories:
Nell Shipman and her family (portraits)
Associates and animals
Scenes at Priest Lake, Idaho
A Bear, a Boy, and a Dog
The Girl from God's Country
Little Dramas of the Big Places
Other films and productions
Shipman-Curwood Productions album
Some photos relating to Tom Trusky's activities both researching and promoting the films of Nell Shipman can be found in MSS 99, the Tom Trusky collection. Copies of Nell Shipman's films are available on videotape and at the Simplot-Micron Instructional Technology Center at Boise State University.