STEVEN MOORE recalls the life and career of the Irish-born American actress who appeared in more than 60 films between 1917 and 1933.
A century ago Eileen Percy was one of the hottest properties in the movie business. The leading lady had already more than 30 appearances to her credit and she would go on to make more than 70 films in total.
Her image graced the covers of countless magazines, while merely her presence at a social event could generate column inches in the celebrity papers.
Yet today this Belfast-born star has become largely forgotten.
Eileen came into the world in August 1900 when her family was living at Vernon Street, south of the city centre. She had two older brothers and her parents, John and Elizabeth, were Presbyterian and Catholic respectively. When she was aged three they left Ireland to live briefly in Brooklyn, New York, before returning.
Her father, who listed his profession in the 1901 census as ‘law clerk,’ was later described by the newspapers as an ‘expert on international law’, and in 1909 the family – which now included younger sister Thelma, who would also enjoy a brief career as a movie actress – settled permanently in New York. Eileen, who had studied at a Catholic school in Belfast, continued her education at a New York convent.
Eileen was born to perform, and had made a number of stage performances since the age of 11, mostly in musical comedy. In 1916, however, she was selected by Florenz Zeigfeld to become a ‘hoofer’ in his American Revue show
Around this time she was getting modelling work as well, and posed for a host of artists and photographers, including the acclaimed Charles Dana Gibson, with many of these images finding their way onto the covers of American magazines in the years to come.
The theatre in the early part of the last century was still labouring under an unsavoury reputation and Eileen’s mother made her promise she would give up the stage. However, her final performance was witnessed by Elsie Janis, an accomplished screen and stage star, who recommended her to swashbuckling hero Douglas Fairbanks when he was seeking a new leading lady. The pair would go on to make four movies together from 1917.
Standing just a little over 5ft tall, her fresh-faced girl-next-door looks – she was described as the ‘Daddy’s Girl’ of America – charmed movie audiences across the world.
In 1919 she married Ulrich B. Busch, who was four years her senior. The pair had met while they were both working at the same studio, though for Ulrich, the grandson of the brewer Adolphus Busch, it was clearly not to make a living as, according to the newspapers, he was already a millionaire. The marriage lasted 11 years before ending in divorce in 1930. The couple had a son, Charles.