By Gerald Smith
February 1997


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I've always felt  Edna Purviance has never been given much credit helping Charlie Chaplin obtain cinema legend status. I'm not sure why, but I'm convinced she was a major part in his early cinematic growth and major public appeal. I say this, because of the initial feeling of heart-felt joy I experienced when first watching the pair in action in such early Chaplin classics as The Champion, The Tramp and The Bank. If you combine their off-screen intense love for each other, Charlie's screen antics and Edna's timeless beauty you have a combination the public just could not resist. Not to say that Charlie would not have gone onto super-fame if not for Edna, but there's no denying Edna was a part of his initial cinematic success. And of course, I doubt anyone would disagree that she always had an exclusive piece of his heart.

Recently, I'd given thought about a THEN & NOW adventure to Nevada to learn more about Edna's early years. Unfortunately finding published information about her childhood was just about impossible. However, I recently stumbled onto a Web Page about an exhibit on Edna at the Humboldt Museum in Winnemucca, Nevada and a nice little Web Page containing an article about Edna written by David Toll, author of The Complete Nevada Traveler. Needless to say, after being sufficiently primed by information contained in David's article I hit the road for Nevada.

Charlie if you're listening, I hope you learn something new about Edna too!

First stop was the Humboldt Country Recorder's Office in Winnemucca, Nevada to check for any written prove of Edna's widely reported birth date of Oct. 21, 1896. A quick check of recorded birth's from the late 1800s and a look at The Silver State , Winnemucca's paper of the time, revealed nothing. Disappointed, I made my way to the courthouse in hopes of finding any documentation that might still exist about Edna's parents divorce. The clerk had no idea who Edna was, but was more than willing to let me peruse the old log book she pulled from her file. I started with entries from 1896 and slowly worked my way up to 1902. To my delight, I viewed an entry for Mrs. Louise Purviance vs. M. G. Purviance dated October 16, 1902. After my heart returned to normal beat, I asked the clerk to pull it. She indicated the file, if it still existed, was in the basement and sent one of her helpers to fetch it. I waited 15 minutes and was just about ready to leave when the helper return carrying an old string tied pouch. She handed it to me and after initial nervous fumbling I had it open. First thing that caught my eye was the third paragraph of a complaint filed by Louise Purviance on October 16, 1902. Contained in that paragraph were the words; "That the plaintiff has a minor daughter of the age of seven (7) years named Edna Purviance." Well you guess it, based on this document, Edna was not born in 1896.

I quickly returned to the County Recorder's office and asked if we might check the October 1895 Silver State for possible birth information. You guess it again, there on page 3 column 4 of the October 23, 1895 Silver Star was the announcement that the wife of M. G. Purviance had a daughter on October 21, 1895. For further verification, the County Recorder suggested we check the 1900 census taken in Lovelock, Nevada . The census information revealed that Louise & Madison Purviance indeed had a daughter in October of 1895 and they named her Olga E. Purviance. I'd be willing to bet the E. is for Edna. As I was later to find, much more information was in that pouch. However with just one day in town and lots to do, I packed copies of the pouch's contents and headed for the Humboldt Museum .

After being greeted warmly by an older lady as I entered the museum, I turned to the right and noticed an old piece of glass furniture that contained what I suspected was the dress that Edna had worn in Charlie's 1917 film The Adventurer. Not being able to get a good photo of the contains , I asked the older lady if we might lift the glass panel up. Sure she said; and preceded to raise the glass panel. After the panel was completely raised, I took a picture of the silk dress and ask if any of the other contents belonged to Edna. To my delightful surprise, she pulled a wooden jewel box out and said; "This was Edna's too". As she handed me the box, she ask if I'd like to look inside. Well of course I said; and with hands trembling opened it only to find that any previous contents where long gone. Greatly disappointed, I started to close the box, but was completely blown away when I noticed Edna's penciled in signature. Needless to say, I took a quick picture of the box . After several minutes of discussion with the older lady, I thanked her, left a generous donation and headed up the road to Paradise Valley, Nevada wondering if that really was Edna's dress??

The road to Paradise was a lonely one, that yielded to overwhelming feelings of placement in the time and place of Edna's childhood. As I pulled into town, it became quite apparent that time had stood still in this neck of the desert too. After parking my car, I took a picture of the down town area as I walked to the Post Office. I'd been told by the older lady at the Humboldt Museum that I might find the town historian there. After visiting several very friendly locals, the man was identified and we made contact in the Main street of town. He was an older man that had been close friends of a man from Edna's time in Paradise and knew precisely where her childhood house was located. As we crossed the main street, he pointed to a little house in the back and said; "That's it my friend".

Given the time of day, I said good-bye to my new found friend and headed back to Winnemucca to plan the following day's adventure in Lovelock, Nevada.

Next morning as I took the I-80 exit for Lovelock, I could see not much was left from Edna's time when her parents had first moved to Lovelock from Paradise Valley to run the Singer Hotel , which they purchased from B. Lynip on January 11, 1900 for $1650.00. As I drove by the old crumbling buildings of Broadway Street, I thought about a youthful Edna walking by the same buildings. I wondered if she might have experienced some of the same feelings as a youthful Charlie had experienced walking Kennington Road.

I remember from My Autobiography how Charlie watched in shock as his drunken father so violently hit Louise, the mother of Charlie’s half brother, with a clothes brush that she passed out. This incident is very similar to an incident Edna experienced when her drunken father came home one October night in 1902. On this night, in the presence of Edna, her father accused Edna's mother, Louise, of having intercourse with other men. Shortly after making this accusation, he proceeded to physically assault Louise so violently that the law was called. One would think these incidents profoundly effected Edna and Charlie for the rest of their lives. I wonder if Edna and Charlie ever discussed them during their relationship. If so, I further wonder how they might have effected that relationship.

Shortly after that October night Edna's parents divorced. Louise married again , but her second husband, Robert Nurnberger, died when Edna was still a child leaving Louise and her children to run the Singer Hotel.

Edna was beautiful from early childhood and as a teen appeared in several productions. Ironically, she was remembered for always being Edna, not the character called for in the production. In the February 23, 1912 Review-Miner, Lovelock's paper, an article about an En Hiver club party mentions Edna in attendance and that the principal amusement was progressive hearts. An article in the June 1913 Review-Miner list the standing of the candidates for Goddess of Liberty and it shows Edna being 9th out of 11. I'd say the Goddess of Liberty selection was based on something other than beauty! Edna graduated from high school on June 13, 1913 and shortly afterward made her way to the Lovelock train station and caught the train to San Francisco, California.

Heading out of Lovelock on I-80, I thought how ironic; I'd not won at the casinos, but had certainly hit the Jackpot on my THEN & NOW adventure. As this thought passed, a west bound train came into view and I couldn't help think how excited Edna must have been the day she headed down that track for San Francisco, Charlie and film stardom.

Chaplin Film Locations THEN & NOW
© 1997 JerRe