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On the evening of December 5, 1907, respected actress and society woman Clara Bloodgood fatally shot herself in a Baltimore hotel room. She was in town to star as the heroine of Clyde Fitch’s The Truth, a role that she originated on Broadway earlier that year. While not a roaring success, the production received positive reviews in the press, and Mrs. Bloodgood had signed on to star in Fitch’s next new work at the tour’s conclusion. She was 37 years old. This week, in honor of Women’s History Month, we remember Clara Bloodgood, how she came to the stage and how she chose to make her exit.
Born Clara Sutton Stephens to well positioned if artistically inclined parents in Long Branch, N. J., the young Miss Stephens was married, divorced, and remarried by the time she was 20. It was during her second marriage to John Bloodgood, a prominent banker’s son, that she began to enjoy renown as a well-dressed and lively hostess in New York society. Unfortunately, John’s physical and financial health suffered set backs that soon made their accustomed lifestyle insupportable. Calling upon her experience with amateur theatricals, Clara took to the stage to earn a living.
Her debut was a small part as a Parisian dancer in the 1898 Empire Theatre production of The Conquerors. Mr. Bloodgood succumbed to his ill health, and passed away shortly after Clara’s debut. Grief did not stop her from performing, and she was able to find steady work moving into larger and larger roles. In 1901, she had respectable supporting parts in Clyde Fitch’s The Climbers and The Way of the World, but it was his The Girl With the Green Eyes that gave Clara her first star turn.
A popular playwright, Clyde Fitch was renowned for creating roles for women. His 1901 Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines had catapulted the young Ethel Barrymore into the spotlight, and The Girl With the Green Eyes promised to do no less for the career of Clara Bloodgood. Fitch wrote the role for the recently remarried Clara Laimbeer (Bloodgood remained her stage name). In the play, Jinny Austin, the titular character, succumbs to her jealous nature when she notices her husband has been repeatedly spending time in the presence of other women. Unbeknownst to Jinny, her husband has been unwillingly drawn into communications between Jinny’s brother’s second secret wife and his first secret wife. (Bigamy, envy, a honeymoon trip to the Vatican…this play was a hit!) When all is revealed, Jinny attempts suicide in her shame, barricading herself in a room and turning on all the gas fixtures. Though Jinny’s jealousy nearly derails her marriage – and ends her life – all is resolved in the final, dramatic scene when her husband batters down the door and rescues her. NY Times critic John Corbin called Bloodgood’s performance “a study of character and emotion so full of delicacy and variety, so genuine and so strong…”
Though Clara’s next collaboration with Fitch, The Coronet of the Duchess, was a commercial failure, her star was on the rise, and in 1905 she originated the role of Violet Robinson in George Bernard Shaw’s first Broadway production of Man and Superman.
Clara returned to Fitch with The Truth which premiered at the Criterion Theatre on January 7, 1907. The play follows the fall and redemption of Becky Warder, a pretty, vivacious society woman who cannot keep from telling little white lies. As the small falsehoods pile up, Becky is blind to the damage she is doing to her reputation and her marriage. Her husband loses faith in her, and she is exiled to live with her father, a character similarly inclined to augmentations of the truth. A misunderstanding results in a reconciliation, and the play ends with a wiser Becky returning to her home and husband. Bloodgood’s performance was praised, but the play closed the month following its New York debut. A tour was mounted in the fall including stops in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.
Perhaps this line from Becky Warder in Act IV of The Truth foreshadowed the true tragedy unfolding in Clara Bloodgood’s life offstage: “I wish I could die, but I know one can’t die when one wants to. I know sorrow, however heartbreaking, doesn’t kill, and I’m so horribly healthy I’ll probably live forever.”
On Thursday, December 5, Clara Bloodgood attended a matinee performance with friends then retired to her hotel to rest before taking the stage that evening. When she failed to make her call time, the stage manager phoned her hotel room, to no avail. A bellboy was sent up to check on her when she failed to answer the phone. After hearing a shot, he quickly called for reinforcements. The room was barricaded and more shots were heard as the men pushed through into the room. Next to Mrs. Bloodgood’s body they found the pistol she had purchased the week prior, a book on how to shoot guns, and another on human anatomy open to an illustrated page. Her sudden death shocked everyone including friends, co-stars, and her husband who was in New York at the time.
In the aftermath of Clara Bloodgood’s suicide, some speculated that financial worries were to blame. Others attributed her actions to a nervous disposition and described her as suffering from neuralgia. Whatever her reasons, she left no note. While the true causes behind Clara Bloodgood’s suicide remains lost, her story as a woman of her time – perhaps trapped by her time – and her legacy as a performer, should never be forgotten.