Helen Keller—Movie Star

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Most Americans are unaware of the surprising bypaths and intense digressions in the life of Helen Keller. We feel we know her story—the desperate and finally triumphant little girl of The Miracle Worker , the gracious, handsome public figure she became. But in Joseph P. Lash’s new biography, Helen and Teacher , she is revealed as both more various and more fascinating than we knew. The following excerpt tells the story of one of Helens most unlikely ventures. The book, a Merloyd Lawrence production that is part of the Radcliffe Biography Series, will be published in May by Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence. We pick up the story in 1918, when Helen was 37. She and Annie Sullivan Macy (whom Helen called Teacher) were somewhat reluctantly starting to make plans for another season of lecturing—which had been a source of considerable income for several years.

The lecture circuit, they discovered, had become a victim of the war. Their agent sent them an appeal for help that the President of the International Lyceum and Chautauqua associations had addressed to the White House. It lamented that because of “stringency, economy and even patriotism, many communities feel they must not have their usual Chautauquas and lecture courses. Nothing less than the advice of the President to the Country to continue these institutions can save the situation for many of us.” The appeal went unheeded, and Helen and Teacher concluded the Chautauqua business looked pretty hopeless.

The slump in the lecture business made them more receptive to a bid from that new El Dorado, Hollywood. And by February, 1918, the moment, in fact, when Helen proclaimed herself a “Socialist and a Bolshevik,” they were deep in negotiations to make a movie out of her life. In view of those talks it distressed Teacher to have Helen needlessly flaunt views that the vast majority of Americans despised. Helen’s political declaration fortunately did not go beyond the Boston paper in which it had appeared. Helen, as always, led a charmed life. Criticism, hysteria, sanctions that destroyed the careers of many of Helen’s comrades usually exempted her, and those who did attack her were largely ignored. Westbrook Pegler, the columnist, who made a vocation out of slinging mud at Eleanor Roosevelt, complained toward the end of his life that he was not able to make it stick. Helen had a similar immunity. Nothing ever shook the public’s conviction that here was someone who wished only to do good, and even more important, someone who had prevailed against the most extraordinary odds, whose joyousness and tenderness had survived some of the greatest trials in American history, an authentic American heroine.

Helen was always on the lookout for ways by which she might influence public opinion, and when the chance to make a motion picture out of her life appeared, she grasped at it eagerly. The motion-picture industry was demonstrating its ability to reach millions. When D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was shown at the White House, Woodrow Wilson commented, “It is like writing history with lightning.” That it was distorted history, prejudicial to the black man, did not belie the effectiveness of the medium. The film was one of the greatest money-makers on the American screen. When it was suggested to Helen that her life story could be another Birth of a Nation , that it lent itself to cinematic dramatization by a Hollywood that was thirsty for “story” material, Helen found the prospect exhilarating. She had an apostolic message for the world that she believed Hollywood would enable her to communicate far beyond the audiences she had been able to reach in the past. Nor did Hollywood’s reputation for conferring riches upon those who had something it wanted dim its appeal to Helen. It might seem a little inconsistent with Helen’s egalitarian convictions, but Teacher’s needs reconciled her to the contradiction. “It was only the hope of providing for Teacher that had led me to Hollywood to have a film made of my life story,” she wrote years later in her book Teacher .

The idea for a film based on Helen’s life originated with a historian who had a flair for reaching a mass market. Francis Trevelyan Miller, who carefully appended LL. D. and Litt. D. to his title as editor-in-chief of the Search Light Library, was as effective a salesman as he was a historian.

He had put together a Photographic History of the American Civil War in ten volumes and was in the process of issuing a twelve-volume Photographic History of the Great War . His literary plans were stated like communiqués. He was all set “to organize my new eighteen-volume History of the World ” when he had come upon Helen’s Story of My Life . Its “creative power and imagination … soul power and insight” had so inspired him that his own contribution “of thirty-seven historical works to our literature seems insignificant. …”