Caroline Burke

After profiling more than a hundred obscure actresses, I can say that I am not easily impressed. More often than not I see a pattern – young girls who have a zest for life go to Hollywood and thus break with tradition, but in the end, after a short career, they often return “home” to become wives and mothers. Only a few didn’t follow this path, and those women sometimes impress me – Caroline Burke is one of them. After a short and sketchy Hollywood career, she became a very successful female producer and left her mark on both early TV and Broadway. Boy, was I impressed (I like this word, can’t you see?) with her professional achievements! But, let’s more about her!

EARLY LIFE

Caroline Flora Berg was born on July 7, 1913, in Portland, Oregon, to Charles F. Berg and Saidee Berg. Her older brother James Forrest was born on January 5, 1901 in Portland. Her father was a prosperous merchant and the family was well off, employing at least one servant at any time.

Caroline grew up in Portland, and attended high school there, developing a taste for performing at an early age. After graduating from high school, Caroline majored in art at Bryn Mawr College, and afterwards returned home to Portland. Unhappy with being a society wife, with her father’s backing and generous donations from friends, she started the art history department at Reed Col­lege in Portland. She also studied art in Paris and London during this time, but I could not find the exact years.

Caroline moved to New York at some point. As an actress, she appeared on Broadway in “Brooklyn, U.S.A.,” and Gilbert Miller’s “Heart of a City.” She was also an advertising and radio writer on the West Coast.

Then, in about 1942, she decided she wanted to “go Hollywood”. She was almost 30 – at that time, most women who came to Hollywood were 20 at best, perhaps 20 something. Yet, she was a mature woman, not a starstruck girl – and this made all the difference. See how she managed to govern a wilderness like Tinsel Town:

Some weeks ago, a petite New York miss named Caroline Burke came to Hollywood, Object: Screen career. Experience: Two bits in Broadway shows and some radio appearances. Hollywood producers were not sufficiently interested to give her interviews. Agents ·were too unimpressed to represent her. The girl’s few acquaintances. Instead of encouraging her. stressed the difficulties of crashing studio gates. But pint-size Miss Burke is a person of determination, “Others have done it,” said she, “and so can I.” After mulling her problem for days, she wrote a poem–a humorous lament about the inaccessibility of movie producers. In it. she named ~the men she had unsuccessfully tried, to see. She sent her poem After mulling her problem for days, she wrote a poem a humorous lament about the inaccessibility of movie producers. In it she named the men she had unsuccessfully tried to see. She sent her poem to Variety and the editor printed it. Within two days every man she had named tried to sign her!

And that was the story of how Caroline got into Hollywood!

CAREER

Caroline’s big moment came with The Mysterious Rider, a, you guessed it, low-budget western!! Heck yeah, and she ended up like most actresses that got their big chance sin such movies – nowhere!

The rest of Caroline’s brief acting career just serves to emphasis this sentiment: she was never credited again, appearing only in bits. In 1943 she was in Silent Witness , a solid but a tad bit too predictable Republic studios potboiler with some impressive bur very underrated cast – Frank Alberston, Maris Wrixon, Bradley Page… The story, while a bit formulaic, is not half that bad – a ruthless attorney gets dumped by his kind hearted fiancee and then the tables turn on him… Nice to see a not so sympathetic character in the lead, and he does get better as the movie progresses.

Up next came Spy Train, a completely made-to-order low-budget thriller set on a (you guessed it!) a train. If has all the typical elements for a movie of such caliber – a handsome lead who’s a reporter, a charming love interest, antagonists (this time the Nazis), and a mix up (completely identical bags). It’s obvious from a hundred miles how it’s going to end, and the movie is solidly made but that’s it – nothing more, nothing less. In a world where there are so many good movies to watch, this one just doesn’t take the cake. The cast is decidedly second tier too, with Richard Travis, Catherine Craig and Chick Chandler.

By this time, Caroline was well aware that her acting days are over. She appeared in a small role in one more movie – the best known of the lot, Rhapsody in Blue, considered one of the best musicals of the 1940s. But, instead of kicking back into domesticity and obscurity, Caroline chose another path for herself.

PRIVATE LIFE

On her first movie interview, New York actress Caroline Burke said, “I’m a complete nonentity can’t play gin rummy don’t have any wacky lapel gadgets and I’ve never been out with Vic Mature!” The press called her “unique”.

Caroline was a lover of all things beautiful and had an eye for art.  She had an impressive doll collection, which she had arranged a half-dozen small cloth peasant dolls in authentic costumes along a wide bookshelf. Behind each is Caroline’s oil painting of the doll with wood frame painted in the rich color only.

Here is a short article about hos Caroline entertained during the 1940s, when she was in Hollywood:

Caroline Burke couldn’t quite give up the spirit of the old Fourth, so to friends who dropped into her Brentwood Heights home for a patio lunch the’- tabre’ presented a gala appearance. White hollyhocks, red roses and blue cornflowers formed the centerpiece; there was a pinwheel of red and white-striped peppermint candy; bread sticks were capped with white paper, skyrocket fashion and set in pewter holders flanked by flags, while the cheese pretzels were tied with red ribbon in packets like fire-crackers and the wieners, were squared at onetend’ and giant firecracker fuses of white string were attached…

Another example:

Caroline Burke’s Birthday Honored Alton Brody played host in his Beverly Hills home Tuesday for a cocktail party celebrating the birthday of Caroline Burke, recently arrived from New York. Caroline wore, in honor of the occasion, an afternoon frock of turquoise blue shantung fashioned with slim skirt, slightly bloused bodice with drawstring neckline at which she wore a red gold clip set with diamonds, rubies and aquamarines. Guests stayed on after rock-tails for a buffet supper of chili, macaroni, salad and other dainties, and to watch Caroline slice a cake topped with blue and white candles. Later the guest of honor adjourned to The Players with a group which included the John Brights, John being the author of “Brooklyn. U.S.A.” in which Caroline made her Broadway debut last winter. Among those who attended the Brody party bearing gifts for Miss Burke and old recordings which are to be donated to the salvage drive sponsored by the American Legion were Messrs. and limes. Walter Pidgeon, John Wayne, Allen Rivkin, Ira Gershwin, Harpo Marx, Charles Feldman, Walter Kane (LynnBari,) Norman Krasna, Michael Kanin, Howard Lang, Jules Stein, William Goetz, Ben Goetz, Ben Hecht, Conrad Veidt and Budd Chase.

Caroline was obivously a natural-born hostess and no wonder she had a reputation as a sought after party girl. On a more serious note, Carole did her share for the war effort – in the summer 1943, she gave up the idea to an Alaskan cruise for shore duties at a Harbor canteen for service men.

Caroline was also a witty conversationalist. Columnist Edith Gwynn once  said that Caroline couldn’t find an apartment that would take dogs so she decided to look for a veterinary who will take people :-). Another example: Caroline reported that the following note was received by the police department in Portland: The guy who lives next door to the police station is a crook and ought to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. I cracked his safe last night and found it full of black market coupons”. She was also friends with author Kathleen Windsor. Caroline was present when Kathleen was asked at a Philadelphia author’s luncheon whether her racy book, “Forever Amber,” is an autobiography, and she replied: “If it had been, I wouldn’t have had time to write it”. Caroline was also quite headstrong: she had the forcefulness to carry out the ideas she conceived. For instance, she wanted a work of Picasso, so she got one from him.

Caroline dated Morton Gould, the composer-conductor, for a time. He visited her when she was in the Doctors’ Hospital with a strep throat that same year, but the relationship fizzled not after.

Caroline Burke married Cyrus Max Adler, a millionaire camera manufacturer, in the late 1940s. Cyrus was born on January 19, 1899, making him 14 years older than Caroline. He was married once before, to Selma Caroline Adler, and they had a daughter, Betty, born on April 17, 1927. As a wealthy socialite,  Caroline became prominent in the art circles in the US. Unfortunately, the marriage did not last and they divorced in the early 1950s. Adler died on June 22, 1959.

After her divorce, Caroline and Norman Krasna became a premier twosome-about-town. Caroline was fresh out from New York (and TV duties) and spent some time in Hollywood with her beau. Unfortunately, the relationship didn’t last.

From 1946 to 1956 she was one of television’s first women producers, producing, writing and directing network television for the National Broadcasting Company, including the awar-d­winning telecast of Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author” and the memorable Wanda Landowska [the harp­sichordist] at Home in the Wisdom Series. In 1955 she toured the Far East where she taped interviews with the heads of various governments for N.B.C.

She was also active as a Broadway producer. She wanted to produce a play of Mr. Pinter’s, so she read all his plays and then had him adapt his television play, “The Col­lection,” for the theater. In 1962 she brought Harold Pinter’s “The Dumbwaiter” and the already mentioned “The Collection” to the Cherry Lane Theater, running into 1964 with a total of 578 performances. She was co-producer of the Broadway shows “The Hostages” and “The Tenth Man” and was producer of “The New Pinter Piays”. Except staging Pinters plays, she was associate producer of Paddy Chay­efsky’s The Tenth Man, and co‐producer of Brendan Behan’s The Hostage. To Off Broadway she imported N. F. Simp­son’s London comedy, “One Way Pendulum.”

Caroline married her second husband, Erwin D. Swann, an advertising executive, vice president of Foote, Cone & Belding Ad Agency (Mad Men anyone?) sometime in the 1950s. Swann was born on December 9, 1906 in New York. He was married once before, to noted Broadway actress, Tamara, who perished in the 1943 plane crash in Portugal (songstress Jane Forman was on the same flight and suffered serious injuries). Caroline and her husband lived in Manhattan and had a home in Durham Furnace, Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Caroline kept busy even outside the theater sphere – was an art editor for Diplomat magazine, an owner of a California radio station, a teacher of television production at Columbia University, a sometime writer and teacher — often simultaneously. She truly did have a very impressive and varied career in the arts.

Caroline and her husband amassed an impressive collection of modern art, consisting of, among others, paintings and draw­ings by Picasso, Gauguin, Klee, Miro, Vuillard and Roualt and sculpture by Rodin, Degas, Braque and Zorach.

Caroline Burke Swann died on December 5, 1964, from a brain tumor in New York. Her widower died in December 1973.

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2 responses

  1. Hadn’t been familiar with Burke. I certainly agree that her life and career did not follow the usual starlet’s path. (At the very least, trying to break into movies at nearly 30 required a gambler’s temperament driven by huge self-confidence.) Burke’s active interest in Pinter is especially impressive. Thanks for another illuminating post!

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