Thursday 18 February 2016

When an actress disappears…

Where is Edna Mae Cooper? It was a headline grabbing mystery that caught the public's attention and imagination decades before the famous disappearance of Agatha Christie and infamous kidnappings of Patty Hearst and Frank Sinatra Jr dominated newspaper headlines. It happened late February 1931 around Monterey, California. Tram car operator, Melvin Wickman, reportedly saw a woman who resembled Cooper and gave her directions to the Santa Monica canyon. This would be the last anyone would see of the actress and aviatrix for five days.
By the time of her disappearance, Cooper was a household name. At age 18 she began her film career at Famous Players-Lasky Corporation and featured in several popular films such as Rimrock Jones (1918) with Wallace Reid, Old Wives for New (1918) and Sauce for the Goose (1918) with Constance Talmadge. Her roles were mostly walk on or supporting but she was soon being teamed alongside famous stars in even more famous films for example, Cecil B. DeMille's Male and Female (1919) with Gloria Swanson and Why Change Your Wife? (1920) with Gloria Swanson and Bebe Daniels. Her career slowed in 1922 when she married writer and cinematographer, Karl Brown, a man widely known for his connection with director, D. W. Griffith.
Edna Mae Cooper in 1919
Cooper stayed out of the headlights for a period, focusing on forwarding her husband's career until a handful of roles came her way in the mid 1920's. She never snagged a leading role but was credited in more A pictures including Grounds for Divorce (1925) with Florence Vidor and Sally, Irene and Mary (1925) with Constance Bennett and Joan Crawford. These roles would sadly bring the peak of Cooper's varied screen career.

In her late 20's, Cooper turned to another pursuit - flying. With Charles Lindbergh's successful solo Atlantic flight in 1927 and the growing celebrity of Amelia Earhart, aviation was an attractive hobby for wealthy and ambitious women. Early 1931, Cooper and a friend, aviator Bobbi Trout, made plans to break the two person endurance record. Trout was not newcomer to headlines being named the first woman to fly all-night, breaking the women's solo endurance record and breaking the light class aircraft altitude record all in 1929. Their first attempt at the record on January 1 failed due to technical problems but their next attempt proved more successful with the woman flying 122 hours and 50 minutes straight. The pair covered over 7,370 miles and only stopped due to the lack of fuel and were named the record holders.
Bobbi Trout
This success put Cooper on a high. It would be short-lived, however, with a mystery incident or illness causing her to become a national missing person only a month later. It would be Trout alongside Cooper's mother, Mary Cooper, who were the first to speculate on the cause of her disappearance. Newspaper reports from February 28 claimed,
"Mrs Mary Cooper said her daughter, worried over the finances, may have gone to a rest home or hospital. Miss Bobbi Trout said Miss Cooper had often spoken to her of a banker admirer who had rented the upper floor of the Cooper home for a time last year and intimated she might marry him. Miss Trout suggested they may have eloped."
Cooper in her flying gear
It seemed, despite the strange nature of her disappearance, both her mother and her friend believed this it to be of her own choosing. Police investigating the case released details the same day of jewellery found at a Los Angeles pawn shop that they believed belonged to Cooper. Newspapers reported police found $4,500 worth of jewellery Cooper was wearing at the time of her disappearance. They reportedly believed Cooper had either voluntarily parted with the items or was kidnapped and robbed.

On March 2, newspapers broke the news: "Noted Actress, Aviatrix Found in Hospital". According to reports Cooper had been registered at a Monterey hotel under the name of Caroline Hope for several days. Hotel staff noticed she was suffering an illness and called a doctor to attend to her. Dr Hugh Dormody who treated Cooper said she had an abrasion on the back of her head which was possibly a week old as well as bruises and contusions. She was removed to the local hospital where she was identified by old acquaintances, Mrs Gouverneur Morris and former actor Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle as Edna Mae Cooper. Newspapers continued that Cooper told authorities that she believed she was in Santa Monica. A cab driver later came forward claiming he had picked Cooper up while she was wandering aimlessly in Carmel, a nearby art colony.
The following day more strange information came to light. Apparently, Cooper - in desperate need of a rest - took off in her plane for Santa Monica. She told newspapers that she remembered nothing else. What happened after Cooper's plane left the ground is a mystery. The mostly likely answer, and the dominant opinion at the time, was that under intense mental and physical stress, Cooper experienced temporary amnesia. It seems likely and reasonable yet what happened to her during her disappearance still remains a mystery.
Regardless of the publicity the incident afforded Cooper, she only appeared in one more film as a 'Woman of the Court' in The Ten Commandments (1956). She retired to a private life and remained married to Mr Brown until her death aged 85 on June 27, 1986.
Karl Brown in 1980