By Don Taylor
I often talk about my Don Taylor Genealogy Blog as “cousin bait,” but a chiropractor who knew Donna in the sixties and seventies contacted me because of the blog. He was an intern at N.W. Chiropractic college in Minneapolis and a “little old lady” named Donna Kees came to see him in 1961. After he graduated, she transferred her records to his office, and he continued to treat her for many years. Donna told him stories of her being a Hollywood performer known as “Donna Darling” and that she had lived the big ostentatious life of fancy clothes, convertibles, and long-haired dogs. Although there was a considerable age difference, he and Donna had become very good friends, and she told him many stories.
Through several correspondences, we confirmed it was the same Donna Darling. His Donna had two children and donated her body to the University of Minnesota Medical School. She used to say she “didn’t know why they would want this old body of [hers].” And in fact, her body was in rough shape. She had arthritic changes and some kyphosis (“Dowager’s Hump). She walked with a cane, and on her bad days, she was pretty feeble. However, he said that Donna was always mentally as sharp as a tack.
He writes, “Donna described her life in Hollywood just as you would picture it in the 1920s; she rode around in a large convertible with handsome men, beautiful women, and her long-haired silky dogs [Gypsy and apparently others]. She dined at expensive popular restaurants, drank champagne, etc. She made it sound like a privileged and exciting life.”
John goes on to say, “Donna indicated there were only a few “top” girls in Hollywood, and she wanted to be one of them. She was offered the opportunity to tour the country with an entertainment group she thought it would help her become more well-known and famous. [“Chin-Chin?”] She didn’t realize it at the time, but she told John the reason she left for the tour was that there was only so much room at the top, and she was at the top with some women – one of whom was Mary Pickford. Unfortunately, when she returned, Mary Pickford was “Hollywood’s Sweetheart,” had married
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. She and Douglas were the undisputed top couple of Hollywood. They had incredible power among the studios. Donna said that she then realized that she was tricked into leaving and was eased out of the public eye so the studios could make Pickford the top star with no competition.
John’s memories somewhat explain the gap in Donna’s career and her shift from Hollywood, Mack Sennett, and public appearances to vaudeville. Donna joined the “Chin Chin” cast in 1919, shortly after Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith[i]formed United Artists and before Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks married.
Donna was known for her fantastic voice, great dancing, and stage presence, so I’ve often wondered why she hadn’t made the transition from vaudeville to talkies. John’s memories shed some light on possible reasons.
[I would like to thank John Rapacz for sharing his memories and the stories that Donna told him so long ago.]
[i] Donna worked with D. W. Griffith on “Birth of a Nation” in 1915.