Film Historian Edward Wagenknecht Dead at 104

He’d been writing about movies since “there were only two girls in Hollywood and they were both named Gish.” From the NY Times New Service (though the obit has not yet appeared in the Times!):

Edward Wagenknecht, a literary biographer, critic and editor, died May 24 in St. Albans, Vt., where he lived, his son Walter said. He was 104. Dr. Wagenknecht was a prolific writer who produced 70 books, including studies of Charles Dickens, John Milton, Mark Twain, Henry James and William Shakespeare; a history of silent films; and anthologies of English and American novels, Christmas stories and tales of the supernatural. For most of his career, he produced a hardy stream of writing – a book or two a year, as well as many reviews and other articles. He was a methodical scholar, using as his notes slips of paper carefully organized in shoe boxes. He never worked at night, preferring to watch movies, though he wrote about them, too. “The Movies in the Age of Innocence,” his acclaimed study of the silent-film era, was published in 1962 (University of Oklahoma Press) and remains in print.”

He was one of the reasons I got into the film-history line; one of the best, most enthusiastic and scholarly writers on the subject, ever. His show-business books (which I highly recommend) include Stars of the Silents (reissued 1987), Movies in the Age of Innocence (1962), The Films of D.W. Griffith (1975), Merely Players (1966), Marilyn Monroe: A Composite View (1969), *Seven Daughters of the Theater *(1964), Geraldine Farrar : An Authorized Record of Her Career (1929), and Jenny Lind (1931).

From the St. Albans Messenger:

ST. ALBANS – Edward Wagenknecht, author and critic, died Monday morning, May 24, 2004, at the age of 104, in the Northwestern Medical Center following a brief illness. Edward was born in Chicago on March 28, 1900, and grew up in the city and its suburb of Oak Park, where he graduated from high school with the future novelist Ernest Hemingway. He continued his education at the University of Chicago, completing it with a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Washington in Seattle. While in Seattle he met his wife, Dorothy, whom he married in 1932. They spent over 60 years together until her death in Newton, Mass. in 1993.

He conducted an extensive correspondence that led to personal friendships with a number of public figures from literature and the performing arts. His large collection of letters from Metropolitan opera star Geraldine Farrar (Caruso’s favorite leading lady) are currently housed at The Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, while his collection of 78 RPM recordings of early singers was donated to the Boston Public Library. He was a particular friend as well of silent screen stars Lillian and Dorothy Gish and Mary Pickford. In fact, Pickford served as godmother to his firstborn, Robert. And his history of the silent film, “Movies in the Age of Innocence” (1962), is still considered a classic in the field by an author who personally watched the original movies when they were a new and exciting addition to American culture.

I wonder what his favorite movie was?

Or what was the last film he saw. I hope it wasn’t Dodgeball.

It’s merciful that his illness was so brief.

My grandfather recently died at the age of 94. As with him, so many friends and loved ones preceded him into death. It’s the greatest tragedy you can find in a nice long life like that.