LEWISTON — A fancy, silver-plated trophy that Steve Van Duyn discovered at a Long Beach, Calif., swap meet more than a year ago led him to Lewiston Thursday, to visit a rainy cemetery hillside and a long-forgotten megawatt movie star.
Van Duyn lives in Asheville, N.C. He’s worked in the film industry and, as one of many hobbies, collects antique trophies, “if they’re staggeringly beautiful,” he said. “I have one for a cow in London, England, 1891.”
It had been, surely, a heck of a cow.
In this case, the cup was over a foot tall, with raised laurels and elaborate handles. Engraved on its surface was the following:
Photo Players Night
The Sunset Inn
Sept. 22, 1920.”
“The name of the place drew me,” Van Duyn said. “There was some historic reference rolling around in my mind.”
He hadn’t seen anything like it.
Van Duyn discovered that Lew Cody had worked with Marlene Dietrich, Cecil B. DeMille, Clark Gable and Buster Keaton, starting in silent films in 1914. The actor died with 99 movies to his credit.
He was buried in the family plot at St. Peter’s Catholic Cemetery in Lewiston 80 years ago, in an invitation-only ceremony.
“There will be no pall bearers, although if an honorary list were made up, it might read like a Who’s Who of Filmdom,” mused an Associated Press story that ran in the Lewiston Daily Sun after his death in 1934.
Though the family grave marker lists his birth year as 1883, several websites online list him as being born in Waterville in 1884, as Louis Joseph Cote, stating that his parents moved to Berlin, N.H., shortly after his birth.
In 1922, while he was in the state shooting the move “Jacqueline,” Cody told a Lewiston Evening Journal columnist that his father had wanted him to go in to medicine. (His father was co-owner of a pharmacy.)
One day, the son worked up the courage to tell him, “Father, I want to be an actor!”
“‘And then,’ said he in telling about it, ‘I received the greatest surprise of my life,'” according to the Lewiston Evening Journal article.
His father said OK — and bought him a ticket to New York to go become a star.
Cody, handsome with a thin mustache and a French accent, would go on to marry two actresses, Dorothy Dalton and Mabel Normand.
Back in the early days of film, “actors weren’t allowed to stay in Hollywood at night,” Van Duyn said. They were considered “heathen scum, running around, having parties at night. ‘At dusk, you’ve got to get out of town.'”
The famous manager of the Sunset Inn in Santa Monica, Calif., made an exception beginning in 1920, according to a story Van Duyn found in the Los Angeles Times, allowing actors to hang out there on Wednesdays.
“It’s a fledgling industry and this is the first year they were able to gather someplace and have safe haven,” Van Duyn said.
The date on the trophy, Sept. 22, 1920, fell on a Wednesday. “Photo players” was an early reference to movies.
Van Duyn’s best guess was that Cody received the trophy for a recent movie or for writing the film “The Pleasant Devil” in 1919.
The Academy Awards didn’t start until 1929. He hasn’t been able to find out much else about Cody’s early award. Van Duyn said he’s considered approaching the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures once it opens in 2017 to offer the trophy on loan.
He drove up to Lewiston this week on his way to a business meeting in New York to take the trophy to Cody’s grave and find out anything he could about the late actor, even driving past the home on Main Street where Cody would visit and stay with his aunt.
“Every once in a while, you find these things and you don’t know where it’s going to lead you,” Van Duyn said. “It’s another time, another place — memories last as long as human beings do, and then they’re gone.”