Getting to Know John M. Stahl’s Granddaughter, Joan Lester

Getting to Know John M. Stahl’s Granddaughter, Joan Lester

Through the invaluable genealogical research of Giannis Daropoulos, Charles Barr and I became aware, months after the publication of The Call of the Heart:John M. Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama, of the existence of Stahl’s granddaughter, Joan Lester, the child of Stahl’s daughter, Sarah, from his marriage to his first wife, Minnie Goldberg Stahl (later Cooper). In May 2019 we made email contact.

Joan was the daughter of Sarah and her husband, Sidney Appel. The family lived in New Rochelle, New York. Her higher education was at Brown University, with a year abroad in France. She held an academic appointment at Tufts University for many years, where she was a Professor of Native American Studies in the American Studies Department, teaching courses such as “Native American Issues” and “Native American Art: Beauty and Meaning”. She has been a notable voice in the field particularly through her determined arguing for the necessity of Native American voices in the teaching of the subject. She is the author of A Code of Ethics for Curators (1983), We’re Still Here; Art of Indian New England: The Children’s Museum Collection (1987), and History on Birchbark: The Art of Tomah Joseph Passamaquodly (1993) and a book on Penobscot indigenous art produced with a Penobscot artist, about to be published.

Joan with Sarah, daughter with mother, circa 1980, photograph kindly given by Joan Lester

Joan’s only meeting with her grandfather was in 1949, when he was 63 or 65 according to whether one accepts the 1884 or 1886 birth date, only a year before Stahl’s death, when her parents took their twelve year old daughter to Los Angeles to visit “Poppa John” as she familiarly calls him. Stahl, though in distant Calfornia, was a familiar figure to the young Joan, not just as rich and famous relative, but as a film maker, for Joan told me that her mother, idolised him, collected photos and reviews of all his films, and was herself an avid filmgoer who took her as a four year old with her to what was Joan’s first film (Robert Montgomery’s version of Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake, famous for its experiments with the first person narratorial camera, though that was unlikely to impinge on a four year old!).

Their short but extraordinary and affecting meeting in Los Angeles was the only direct contact that Joan had with “Poppa John”. Joan’s mother, Sarah, often spoke of him to her daughter. Joan relates Sarah telling her that Stahl said that the lost A Boy and The Law was his first film, which confirms all the other evidence of Stahl directing it which led to us giving it an important initial place in the filmography of The Call of the Heart. Stahl’s recounting to Sarah that, when the director was taken seriously ill, he took over the direction successfully, is in line with what Stahl’s later publicity claimed. An oddity in Sarah’s account is that she said that Stahl told her he played an Indian chief in this film, and gave her the Indian beads that he wore as part of his costume. [My reaction to this is that it’s possible two events were confused here, Stahl’s first film direction and perhaps his first ever film acting role in an unknown lost production. Her father’s gift of the Indian beads was obviously memorable for his little daughter. It’s just possible, that an Indian chief appeared in the Boys Town farm sequences of A Boy and the Law, though a lengthy surviving synopsis (Motion Picture News, 25 October 1913, 18-19) makes it seem unlikely. Stahl starting his film acting career by playing an Indian chief in a lost western is more convincing].Among her other memories of the trip are dining at The Brown Derby, Milton Berle arriving saying he had a terrible headache, and a star she didn’t recognise saying to Stahl he’d just had a quarrel with his wife, incidents which impressed on her the fact that stars were at bottom ordinary people.

When she met “Poppa John” in Hollywood, she remembers that ” he was a tall man with wavy white hair.He had a nice smile”. She also remembers his impressive, enormous house in Bel Air with its swimming pool, and his collection of antique cars. She was struck by his kindness. When he asked her who her favourite movie star was, “with my best twelve year old wisdom I answered, Randolph Scott. He smiled, probably a bit surprised, and took me to meet him”. He also took her to see films being shot at the Twentieth Century Fox Studios. The one that stuck in her memory, was seeing Broken Arrow being made with James Stewart and Debra Paget, with its more than usually sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans, memories of which may have influenced her later career. Stahl also introduced her to other stars, which must have been hugely impressive to a thirteen year old girl who followed films.

Joan told me that Stahl helped her parents financially with her education. “I do remember that he sent my parents money every month. When I wanted to spend my junior year in France, my dad told me that they could finance it because grandpa John had paid for my education at Brown University, which would include the year in France”.

‘Poppa John’ about the time Joan met him

Joan wrote a lot about her mother, Sarah, prefacing her account with “These are the family stories, largely told to me by my mother, so as already learned from all you have shared, they are from her perspective and may well be elaborations or explanations that are not wholly true”. [She is referring here to some of the biographical information about her grandfather’s youth collected in The Call of the Heart: John Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama, of which she was not aware, or which contradicted things she’d been told at home.] “As you may recognize from my mom’s stories, she idolized her father, cutting out notices of all his movies, talking about him and keeping a large head shot photo of him and another of his enormous home in my parents’ bedroom”. Thinking about this, Joan added, “I am sad, for her, that she will never know about your wonderful work and book, and the new recognition of his contributions to film”. When asked how often did Sarah and her father meet? she wasn’t exactly sure, but wrote, “I don’t know how often my mother saw him. He sometimes came to New York. She rarely visited him in California, and occasionally saw him in Chicago”. Joan remembers her talking about both of Stahl’s later wives. “I also remember that she loved Irene (Frances Irene Reels) and mourned her death, at only thirty six after a minor operation, and also talked about how much she mistrusted Roxanne” (Stahl’s third wife, who survived him). In the same letter that she wrote about Sarah taking her to the pictures, she added, “As a college student my mother directed plays (inspired by her dad?)”. She also noted that her mother graduated from Law School, one of eleven women in a class of many men, including the man who became my Dad”.

Joan told me that she had known nothing of her mother’s attempt to challenge Stahl’s will, and that the first she had heard of it was in reading our book. Her response to what was to her wholly new information was to explain to me how much Sarah idolised her father and how profoundly upset she must have been at being excluded from the will ( she was left monies in Stahl’s New York bank accounts and later, in circumstances that are unclear, there was a court settlement ). [It is easy to empathise with Sarah’s feelings, especially since she was so devoted to her father, and understand how being cut out of his will deeply hurt her. It’s also easy to understand why Sarah kept this from her daughter. My own intuition is that in her distress she perhaps exaggerated a very probably accurate perception that Roxana pushed Stahl into making the will (in 1942) into an accusation of Roxana blackmailing Stahl by threatening to reveal hidden aspects of his Russian past and her (as yet unverified) claim that he had been briefly in jail as a young man.]

A curious revelation that Joan made to me was that as a girl she was told at home that John, with his surname Stahl, was in fact an Austrian, and his brother, a priest. When I further questioned Joan about this, presuming that at some later point she was told about his Russian past and the real identity of his businessman brother, Alexander, she surprisingly said that the original story was never contradicted, but couldn’t really account for this.

Joan has vivid memories of Stahl’s first wife, her maternal grandmother, Minnie Goldberg. Minnie married John in 1906 and gave birth to Sarah in 1907. Until Giannis Daropoulos’s detective work, Minnie was completely absent from what was reconstituted of Stahl’s biography, and I was of course eager to get Joan to write about her grandmother, something she was very happy to do, given her obvious affection for her. Minnie was, like John, a Jewish Russian immigrant, living in very close proximity to him in the Lower East Side. Their marriage, which seems a classic case of the boy and girl almost literally next door, ended in divorce some time between 1911 and 1915 (no divorce record has yet been retrieved), the marriage no doubt strained by John’s ambitions to be an actor, which kept him away from home for long periods, something traced by Giannis through the censuses of 1910 and 1915, the first of which records Minnie and Sarah living with Minnie’s parents, Molly and Benjamin Goldberg, Minnie married but John absent, while the second finds her no longer married but still living there with Sarah. After the divorce, Sarah lived with Minnie, and then, when Minnie remarried to Isidore Cooper, with her and her stepfather. Joan relates what Minnie told Sarah and Sarah passed on to her. [John]”opened an upholstery shop to support her and then the family. He was very successful, but one day he just couldn’t stand it any more, simply closed up the shop and left. He wanted to be an actor. He worked in vaudeville and came home from time to time but Minnie’s family was upset and convinced her to divorce him, but she loved him until the day she died”. Sarah’s telling of Minnie’s account ended, “He begged her not to divorce him. He said ‘Minn, I’ll make it one of these days, have faith, I’ve got to do the work I want to do'”.

Minnie Goldberg Stahl, later Cooper, Stahl’s first wife and mother of Sarah Appel, their daughter, mother of Joan Lester. Photo kindly given by Joan Lester

Joan remembers Minnie as “a warm, loving grandma, [who] treasured her grandchild’s company and my early drawings. She was also a wonderful cook”. Apropos of this she recalls that “whenever she visited our home she would come carrying heavy packages of foods and soups she had just cooked for us”. Joan recalls that when she first knew Minnie she was living with her second husband in a nice apartment in Brooklyn. “They raised pigeons, had grape vines and seemed to enjoy being together”. After her husband’s death, she lived in a smaller apartment in Seabrook, a part of Brooklyn near Coney Island. Joan remembers Minnie always being happy when she visited her, and the things they did together, “We often walked on the boardwalk, went to auctions run by my father’s father, played pinball machine games, bingo, and in general just did fun things together. She taught me to knit and she loved to crochet. (I still have and use her large crocheted tablecloth)”. Joan ended the letter in which she described her memories of Minnie by writing, “I remember her with great fondness” and quotes the inscription Minnie wrote for Joan in her autograph book when she was thirteen: “June 22, 49. Dearest Joan, may you one day do as I am doing now to write to grandchildren as I am with the same pride and joy that I am taking to wish you every happiness in life. Granny”.

Joan, of course, never met Irene, Stahl’s second wife, who died suddenly in 1926, well before Joan was born. But she was talked about in the family, with Joan remembering that Sarah “loved Irene and mourned her death”, but didn’t trust his third wife, Roxana. An interesting problem is raised by what Sarah told Joan when emphasising that John was a writer as well as a director and producer. “But he never wrote under his own name. He always used Irene’s name. He always wrote tear jerkers that women would like”. [There is still an overhang of mystery about Irene. As Stahl’s wife, her premature death was noted in obituaries, but, strangely no mention of her screenwriting abilities, though these were praised in various reviews of the early films. Sarah’s comment rightly notes that Stahl wrote as well as directed and produced, but does she mean that all Irene’s credits belonged in fact to Stahl alone? The obituaries’ lack of reference to her credited writing could be read as evidence of this. It’s impossible to pass a definitive judgement here, but I would certainly resist erasing her credited contribution, thinking it most probable that they co-wrote in close partnership, but under her name].

In conclusion, it has been a great pleasure to correspond with Joan, and through her to be closer to the man and film maker we have spent several years working on. Her and her family’s evident pleasure in our book and in the growing recognition of Stahl’s films to which it has made a contribution, gives us great pleasure too. The academic writer’s post-publishing concerns are usually about how other critics will respond to their book, whether libraries will order it, and embarrassment about occasional errors, but in this case there’s an added bonus of pleasing Stahl’s descendants (Joan and her two daughters and their children).

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