Madonna’s life is defined by her names. Every part of her incredible life is defined by the name she used.
Only known photo of Madonna as a child.
Madonna was born 20 Feb 1893 in Albion, Calhoun County, Michigan, to Ida Barber and John Montran. There is no evidence that Ida and John were ever married. Although there are indexes that indicate Madonna has a birth certificate in Calhoun county, the County was unable to fine a copy of the certificate. Sometime later in 1893, Donna’s mother married Max Fisher. Max, Ida, and Madonna were living in Manistee, Michigan, in 1900 and Madonna was using the last name of Fisher.
We know that Max died and in 1904, Ida married Jos. Holdsworth. Jos. was from Minneapolis, which is our first connection with Minneapolis. We don’t know where they lived, however, by 1910, Ida and Madonna, now Holdsworth, were living in Detroit, Michigan. Living with them was Ida’s mother, Sarah (Blackhurst) Barber, and Harvey Knight who was a “boarder.”
Oral history indicates that Madonna attended the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, Canada where she learned piano and singing. There is a family story about Madonna getting a job because she went to a music store and sat in the window playing a piano. Her highly skilled playing helped sell pianos so they let her do so. From that exposure, she got a job playing the music at silent films in Rochester, New York.
Interestingly enough, neither of her children knew that Madonna married Chester Fenyvessey on 1 Oct 1911 in Lake Erie, Welland, Ontario, Canada. Chester Fenyvessey was a theatrical manager at the Rochester Hippodrome. When Madonna and Chester separated isn’t clear, but by 1914 Madonna had changed her name to “Donna” and left for California.
Donna is standing, fourth from left with cap on.
The Show Business Years
In California Madonna became one of Mack Sennett’s bathing beauties, and activity that would serve her later on in her career. She also had an uncredited part in “Birth of a Nation,” D.W Griffith’s silent classic. In the film she was one of the “Dancers of 1862.” The film released in February, 1915.
In July, 1915, Donna (Montran) was in Boston and was involved in a publicity stunt where she dropped flyers from a biplane onto spectators.
In 1916, Donna won a bathing beauty competition at Madison Square Garden. This was four years before the “Fall Frolic” began which would become the basis of the Miss America competition which began in 1921. In some respects, Donna was a Miss America five years before the pageants began. Also in 1916, Donna applied to represent Boston at at New York’s Crystal Palace Preparedness Bazaar. She didn’t get the job, but it is clear that she was a considerable beauty for her time.
In 1919, Donna modeled for the cover of sheet music of the song, “In the Heart of a Fool.” She also appears to have recorded the music, however, I have been unable to find a copy of the recording. Also, in 1919 Donna began her live stage career. She was in the show “Bonnets” by Charles Smith and Abel Green. Able Green would go on to be the editor of “Variety” magazine for forty years.
Also, in 1919 Donna joined the cast of the road version of “Chin Chin” and tour the United States from the east to Oregon and Washington and back. The show continued into 1920.
In September, 1920, Donna began as the headliner for a vaudeville show, “California Bathing Girls.” Obstensively, it was a review of bathing suits from the 1860s to modern (1920s) times. As one reviewer said, “it offered nothing more than a leg show.” The show continued well into 1921.
In December, 1921, Donna began a new song and dance review with Murray Walker and Walter Davis who in later billings would be known as “the boys.” I have a lot more research to do to follow Donna through the 1920, what shows she was in, and who she was with. In most every case, she was the headliner. Later in the 1920’s she changed her stage name to “Donna Darling.”
I am not quite sure when she met Sammy Clark (aka Samson Amsterdam), probably in 1925 or 1926. They were married and in 1928 they had a son, Russell.
The depression hit in 1929 and it hit the vaudeville industry hard. In March of 1930 Donna and Sammy went to Panama. While in Panama City, Panama, Donna met a US soldier named Clifford Brown. It appears that Donna was smitten by Clifford and Sammy wasn’t pleased. When they returned in April of 1930, Donna and Sammy were clearly estranged. They had separate cabins on the ship and each identified their address as their individual parent’s homes. About a year later Donna became pregnant with Clifford’s child. Sammy stayed married to Donna, to “give the child a name” and then quietly divorced her after the birth.
Donna’s second child was born in January, 1932 and they lived in Chicago, right down town. Donna didn’t want to marry Clifford and there was a lot of stress about that. Apparently Clifford wasn’t happy about the way Donna was raising their child and in April of 1935 Clifford child-napped the daughter and brought her to Minnesota. Donna brought the police to bear and Clifford was arrested and returned to Illinois. Proper extradition wasn’t followed and there are many newspaper articles regarding the illegal arrest by Illinois police in Minnesota. Clifford went to prison in Illinois. When he came out of prison, he changed his name to Richard. Why will always remain a mystery.
Donna moved from Chicago to Grand Rapids, Michigan, about the time Richard was released from prison. In Grand Rapids Donna was living with a Russell Kees. It is unclear if Donna and Russell were ever legally married, however Donna did take his name, the name she would keep for the rest of her life. About 1942, Donna, Russell, and the kids moved to Detroit and lived in a house on Olivet.
In 1950, Donna’s daughter had a son, named Donald, after Donna. In 1952, Donna and her daughter were living at 1221-1/2 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis and both were working at N
even’s Company, Donna as a seamstress, her daughter as a presser. Her daughter left Minnesota late in 1953 to have a second child, this time a girl, who was also named “Donna.” When the elder Donna was called and told the news, that it was a girl and was named “Donna,” her daughter asked if she could keep the baby. The elder Donna said to keep with the plan and put the baby up for adoption. Little Donna’s adoptive parents renamed her Glennis. During the 1950s Donna was the housekeeper for the family as little Donald’s mother worked to support the family.
Donna’s Final Years
In 1962, Donna’s daughter married Edgar Matson. Extreme friction developed between Donna, who had a quick wit and piercing words and Edgar who was very abusive to her daughter and her grandson. Donna was forced to move out into an apartment by herself. The animosity between Donna and Edgar was so virulent that Edgar promised he would “piss on her grave.”
In the late 1960s, I visited Donna fairly often. I am sad to say it was with ulterior motives. Near where she lived a liquor store would deliver “adult beverages.” My best friend and I would visit her. While there, we would order booze. When it arrived, Donna would go to the door and pay for it with money we gave her. Sometimes we would order some for her as well. But, shortly after the booze arrived, my friend and I would leave, giving Donna our love and appreciation. Sometimes she would show us her scrapbooks, which were filled with clippings from the 1920s and her many show business activities.
Donna died on 14 September 1976. To thwart Edgar’s promise, Donna willed her body to the University of Minnesota to their cadaver program. Donna was cremated in 1979. Her cremains were buried in a mass grave for University of Minnesota donors at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Sadly, her photos and clippings were lost as Edgar wouldn’t allow anything of Donna’s into his house.
I am sad to say that I was in the navy when she died and hadn’t seen her for several years. I never had the opportunity to truly thank her for all she did to raise me for the first twelve years of my life.
Madonna/Donna was an amazing woman, who, while young, lived on the edge. She traveled the country from coast to coast several times, she was in show business and lived life in the fast lane. And in later life she was, in many ways, cast aside and forgotten.
Madonna’s many names included:
I miss Donna and will celebrate her life, on this the 121st anniversary of her birth. I’ll give her a four-finger toast tonight, I think she’d like that, and I vow that I will never forget her.