Bertita Carla Camille Leonarz de Harding: Jewels, War, and Writing in Indianapolis

Bertita Harding
“Bertita Harding Is Satisfied With Movie Based on Her Book,” Indianapolis News, June 5, 1939, accessed Newspapers.com

Before social media instantly familiarized people with new cultures, Bertita Harding endowed Americans, and specifically Hoosiers, in the 1930s and 40s with illuminating accounts of Europe’s and South America’s rich, sometimes volatile past and present. The Hungarian author spoke five languages, interviewed dictators, and witnessed the gleam of royal jewels. Her experiences compelled her to author more than a dozen lucrative books, mostly biographies. Indianapolis firm Bobbs-Merrill published most of her books. Bertita brought a fresh approach to biography, giving depth to royal figures, illuminating their motives, and endowing them with humanity. Her life was as interesting and tragic as the royal figures about which she so aptly wrote.

The “adopted Hoosier” was born in Hungary and moved to Mexico when her father was solicited to work as an engineer in Mexico City.  As a child, she grew intrigued with the story of ill-fated Carlotta and Maximilian, Emperor and Empress of Mexico. The story is worthy of a Shakespearean quarto:

Austrian archduke Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph accepted the offer of the Mexican throne in 1863, having been assured that the Mexican people voted for his governance. However, he was installed into power through the collusion of Mexican conservatives and the French emperor, against the wishes of many Mexicans. He and his beloved wife Carlotta traveled to Mexico, where the liberal-minded emperor tried to rule with “paternal benevolence,” working to abolish the peonage system. When French troops pulled out of Mexico, and former Mexican president Benito Juarez returned, Carlotta fled to Europe to fruitlessly plead for support of her husband. Unwilling to abandon the impoverished people he had advocated for, Maximilian refused to abdicate the throne. He was executed near Queretaro, devastating his wife who remained in Europe. She fell into a debilitating depression and never recovered, refusing to acknowledge his death.

Chapultepec castle, courtesy of the National History Museum.

Bertita’s house was adjacent to the city’s Chapultepec castle, where the royal couple lived. The Indianapolis Star noted that “Each night as she went to bed she saw from her nursery window a light gleaming on the terrace of the somber castle, and she learned that there the beautiful Empress and her imperial husband had walked on starry nights.”

In 1909, Bertita, along with her mother and two brothers, journeyed to Vienna with a “mysterious black trunk.” Emperor Maximilian’s brother Frans-Joseph received the trunk, revealing to Bertita’s mother the jewels and insignia worn by the tragic royal couple. For returning the goods to the House of Hapsburg, Frans-Joseph bestowed Bertita’s mother with the signum laudis award for service to the crown. Bertita’s brushes with royalty proved to be the inspiration for many of her works.

Bertita traveled to the United States for school, training to be a pianist at the University of Wisconsin, where she met her husband Jack Harding. The couple moved to Indianapolis, where he worked as an executive at Harding Advertising Company. Eventually, the pair applied their literary gifts to writing film scripts in Hollywood. The Indianapolis News recalled in 1957, that Bertita “espoused the role of a young Hoosier wife and blithely entered local activities . . . She had a rare gift for being folksy and fabulous, cozy and continental at the same time.” Here, they participated in the Lambs Club, Athenaeum, and Players Club.

In a 1958 Anderson Herald article, Bertita stated that after her children were killed in an accident her husband encouraged her to write, an endeavor she found more convenient than practicing the piano. She mused “‘I’ve put a cake in the oven and gone over in my desk to write. If the cake burned, the chapter turned out to be a masterpiece. If the chapter was bad, the cake was delicious. And many times both turned out just right.'”

Ill-fated royal couple Empress Carlota and Emperor Maximilian, photographic print on carte de visite mount, created ca. 1864-1880, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In 1934, Bobbs-Merrill published her literary jewel, Phantom Crown: The Story of Maximilian and Carlotta of Mexico. At a talk for the Women’s Club in Richmond, Indiana in 1934, Harding stated that as a little girl in Mexico City she interrogated former ladies-in-waiting for the royal couple about their fates. The adopted Hoosier added “I could visualize how they felt-transplanted Europeans, somewhat bewildered.” Harding penned the impeccably-researched biography in her Indianapolis apartment, writing methodically from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. She recalled “As I wrote the book sometimes I would laugh at my own jokes, and sometimes I would cry with sympathy for them, and I loved to think my own book could arouse such sympathy in myself.”

With the success of Phantom Crown, Harding cemented her place in the Hoosier literary canon, residing among a prolific list of Indiana poets, playwrights, novelists, travel writers, and journalists. These included novelist Booth Tarkington, author Gene Stratton-Porter, and poet James Whitcomb Riley. The book she described as “manifest destiny” created a demand for Bertita’s unique perspective. She went on the lecture circuit, speaking to clubs around the country about her experiences. The Muncie Evening Press noted in 1935 that with these lectures she took audiences on a vivid tour through Mexico and Europe, showing them “‘the small out-of-the way, pieces of art and works of beauty to be found in such travel.'” Listeners traveled down the Danube into Hungary and then Vienna, where they experienced picturesque domes and woodcarvings, before arriving at French convents. Of Germany, she remarked it “‘is too far advanced, with far too much intellect as well as sentiment, to provide the obscure forms of art . . . Their great capacity is for work.'”

Juarez promotional material, accessed IMDb.

By 1939, the story of the ill-fated lovers proved so popular that Warner Brothers adapted Harding’s book into a film called “Juarez,” starring Bette Davis. According to the Indianapolis News, Harding threatened to sue the studio for failing to give her screen credit, but the parties came to an agreement and Harding described “Juarez” as a “‘beautiful picture.'” Harding noted that the film’s theme had been adapted to “fit modern conditions” and that, during a time of Hitler-led German aggression, Warner Brothers was advocating for “America and the Constitution right now, so ‘Juarez’ just had to fit in.” Harding contended that “Juarez” was obviously made in the vein of anti-fascist film Confessions of a Nazi Spy.

Harding followed Phantom Crown with additional biographies about the House of Hapsburg, such as  Golden Fleece: The Story of Franz-Joseph and Elizabeth of Austria and Imperial Twilight: The Story of Karl and Zita of Hungary. The Indianapolis Recorder, an African-American newspaper, praised Harding’s writing, noting “Stiff, regal figures become understandable, human-beings. Royal mazes are unraveled. Motives for strange actions grow lucid.” The newspaper added that “A flawless instinct for drama makes the utmost of every event without the slightest strain.”

    

Harding’s life and books seemed to place her on the perimeter of political and military upheaval. In October 1940, she traveled to Brazil to gather material for a forthcoming book. By this time, Nazi Germany had captured France, and the Allied Powers feared that Brazil, which had been fairly politically neutral, could be susceptible to Nazi attack. Harding interviewed Brazilian dictator President Getulio Vargas, concluding that although Vargas was a dictator, Brazilians would never permit a European dictatorship. According to the Indianapolis Star, Harding asserted “I am convinced that, for reasons both sentimental and practical, Brazilians would resist any attempt to give either Naziism or Fascism a foothold in their country.'”

Jack Harding
Lt. Col. Jack Harding, Indianapolis News, August 10, 1944, accessed Newspapers.com.

By 1944, Bertita and her husband Lieutenant Colonel Jack Harding, an executive officer of public relations, were fully entrenched in the war effort. That year, the Indianapolis News reported on Jack’s work in England, noting that as an intelligence officer he briefed and interrogated combat crews and laid out the operational plan for air force public relations for the D-Day invasion. In a letter published by the Indianapolis News,  the lieutenant colonel illuminated for Americans the sacrifices made by soldiers in France on D-Day.

He wrote stirringly “it is still true that aircraft, artillery, warships and other auxiliary arms all radiate from a common center, one little man with one little gun. This day belongs to the infantryman, may God protect him.” Following the pivotal invasion, Jack accompanied war correspondents on a journey through France. They witnessed the fall of Cherbourg, where “Street fighting, snipers, artillery attacks, as well as a ride through crossfire, added up to part of the night’s work.” While her husband wrote about “those kids of ours,” Bertita helped sell war bonds through a literary group.

She continued to do what she did best–write about royal exiles. Harding published Lost Waltz in 1944, centering around Austria’s Leopold Salvator and his family of ten. The Indianapolis News praised her ability to “place for us these Hapsburgs in the broad movement of our own eventful times, her unusual ability to recreate past scenes and make them live again with the verve and sparkle of fiction, though she never deviates from sober fact.” Other books written by Harding after the war include Magic Fire: Scenes around Richard Wagner and The Land Columbus Loved: The Dominican Republic.

After the death of her beloved first husband, she married Count Josef Radetsky in Vienna in 1957, an ancestor of Austrian nobility. The Indianapolis News reported that the Count’s family estates had been “reduced to poverty” when Communists seized Czechoslovakia in 1948 and that he was working as a taxi driver in Vienna when he met Harding. By 1958, Bertita had made such a name for herself that the Orlando Executives Club nominated her to speak, among other nominees such as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. In 1958, her life took another somber twist when a Vienna court found Radetsky guilty of trying to defraud her, sentencing him to eighteen months in an Austrian prison.

Adamant that “age cannot wither you,” Bertita began work on a book about German musician Clara Schumann, which Bobbs-Merrill published in 1961. Bertita passed away in Mexico in 1971, having fulfilled her 1935 dictum that “‘Life comes before letters . . . If life results in writing, that is good: but writing without living is worthless.”

Edna Stillwell and the “Real Making of Red”

Edna Stillwell working with comedian husband Red Skelton
Edna Stillwell working with comedian husband Red Skelton, The Times (Shreveport, LA), December 16, 1941, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.

Guzzler’s Gin, Dunking Donuts, “I dood it!:” Red Skelton’s iconic characters and quips would not exist without the influence of his first wife Edna Stillwell. In fact, a Rochester, NY newspaper reported that Skelton insisted “he’d be a bum” without her  Through Stillwell’s comedic and management muscle, Skelton went from an unknown circus performer to one of the most lauded comedians in television and film history.

Stillwell was born in Missouri on May 25, 1915. As a teenager she was attracted to show business and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported that she was head usherette at Pantages Theatre in Kansas City, where seventeen-year-old Skelton performed. Skelton recalled that she took an immediate disliking to him. At his next job, he served as master of ceremonies at a walkathon, where Stillwell happened to be working as cashier. He eventually convinced her to go on a date with him. Skelton cemented her affections when he chose her to kiss in a photoshoot. He recalled “‘I grabbed her and kissed her and it made me dizzy. This was it. This was love. I guess we both were dizzy. We got married.'”

Stillwell’s and Skelton’s marriage license, 1932, accessed Ancestry Library.

The entertainer, at the time, was so poor that Stillwell had to pay for their marriage license. After the wedding she assumed the role of business manager, a duty she would continue to fill even after their 1944 divorce. According to the Democrat and Chronicle, the manager of a walkathon in St. Louis wanted to cut Skelton’s salary, prompting Stillwell to approach him and successfully demand more money. Skelton noted, “‘I told her I’d handle my own affairs. Only she shut me up with the news that I’d get $100 a week. She also tossed the boss into doing my dry cleaning.'” She eventually negotiated his walkathon pay up to $500 per week and invested his money in real estate. She also forced Skelton, a high school drop-out, to study and earn his high school degree. He admitted “‘pretty soon I didn’t feel like such a fool when I was in a room full of people talking about something besides burlesque.'”

Stillwell was just as formidable when it came to comedy writing. According to the Indianapolis Star, Skelton’s vaudeville run in Montreal was nearly cancelled after his first performance, so:

Red went back to his own individual style, which had put him over in vaudeville. And his wife in a moment of contempt for the old routines they were doing, said, ‘I could write better stuff than that,’ Red’s answer was “Why don’t you?’ also in sarcasm. But she did, and she has written his material ever since.

In a 1941 article, The Tennessean observed that “from several years of watching what tripe came down the pike on the old Pan circuit, Edna got some pretty definite ideas about what to avoid in a vaudeville skit.”

Edna and Red at their California home, accessed Wikipedia.

A newspaper piece by Ted Gill noted that soon after marrying, Stillwell dreamed up Skelton’s famous “Junior” character. When the couple strolled past stores Red could never “resist the urge to buy things” and if “Edna attempted to talk him out of it, he’d lie down on the sidewalk, kick his heels and make such a scene that he soon had scores of passersby in near-convulsions.” From then on Stillwell considered herself “Mommie” to his “Junior.” According to a 1942 Indianapolis Star article, Stillwell’s “Junior” sketch catapulted Skelton’s career forward and as she “schemed out that screamingly funny little boy burlesque-topped off by those three precious words, ‘I dood it!’-the name of Skelton fairly leaped from the bottom to the top of various radio comedian polls.” The article also mentioned that she helped mastermind Skelton’s “$50,000 doughnut dunking act,” after the couple dined at a Montreal cafe. The article stated that Stillwell and Skelton,

then playing together in small-time vaudeville, watched a diner as he slyly held his hat over his hand while he dunked, furtively looked around and then popped the soaked sinker into his mouth. The Skeltons doped out the outline of the act before they left the restaurant, polished it  up in their hotel room that afternoon and presented it the same evening at the theater. It was an instantaneous hit and established Skelton as a top-line variety performer.

Accessed gettyimages.co.uk.

Writing material and coaching her husband from theater wings proved to be the steady hand Skelton needed to succeed in his career. Skelton’s biographer Wes Gehring contended that “Stillwell’s mid-1930s donut routine and other reality-based writing helped Skelton segue his skills into vaudeville, the next rung on the entertainment ladder.” He noted that “Working, performing, and traveling together as nomadic vaudevillians in the 1930s, the Skeltons were a team to reckon with.” By the late 1930s, the couple moved to Hollywood, where Skelton earned a notable $2,000 for appearing in the film Having Wonderful Time, alongside Ginger Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Script, courtesy of the Edna and Red Skelton Collection, M1000, Box 2, Folder 16, Indiana Historical Society.

In order to make money between films Skelton returned to the stage. Stillwell demanded he refuse any offer under $1,000, causing them to go without food for days. But staying the course paid off, as the Democrat and Chronicle reported, because Skelton “got a coast-to-coast radio program and soon he was clicking in vaudeville-and at Edna’s price.” Stillwell wrote for and appeared on Skelton’s popular radio show and had performed with him on Rudy Vallee‘s program. His national NBC show (featuring renowned radio and television pair Ozzie and Harriet Nelson), in tandem with his film Whistling in the Dark, catapulted Skelton to national fame in 1941. Gehring concluded that Stillwell also had a hand in his film success, stating that “True to Stillwell’s good instincts for her husband, she was the first to recognize just how effective he would be” in Whistling. The Indianapolis Star informed readers that year that “At his disposal at present are some 500 comedy routines all written by himself or his wife, with which he has been throwing Hollywood audiences, both on and off the screen, into hysterics.”

Edna Stillwell, 1943 press photo, accessed outlet.historicimages.com.

At the end of 1942, newspapers across the country announced that Stillwell had filed for divorce from her partner in comedy. The Dixon [Illinois] Evening Telegraph noted that she filed suit, “charging cruelty, but plans to continue to write the wit that has made his radio act famous,” which she did after the court finalized the divorce. The former couple even performed their original vaudeville routines at army camp shows in WWII to popular reception. Their professional relationship continued until 1952, one year after Skelton was given his own, groundbreaking television show. Gehring contended that their post-divorce work was “a mixed bag-a rousing success professionally, but a stressful distraction for each of their subsequent marriages.” Skelton married actress Georgia Maureen Davis and Stillwell married Hollywood film director Frank Borzage, who had directed Skelton in films like Flight Command.

Stillwell died in Los Angeles on November 15, 1982. Without “Mommie’s” aptitude and intuition, Skelton likely would never have “dood it!” Learn more about the funny man with our newest historical marker, located in Vincennes.