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The Glass House Girl – Podcast #164

Beginning in the early 1920s, Edna Kirby spent more than a decade in Hollywood appearing in a long list of silent movies for Paramount Studios. She worked with many of the greats of the day, including Harold Lloyd, Betty Compson, Bebe Daniels, Wallace Beery, Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert, Joan Bennett, and Spencer Tracy.

While Edna Kirby would never become what we consider to be a movie star – the fame, the glory, and the fortune that comes along with it – Edna Kirby did draw large crowds in nearly every town that she visited. Reporters were eager to interview her, government officials went out of their way to be photographed with her, and she was treated like royalty wherever she went. And that’s because Edna Kirby did something that no other film star of her day was willing to do: Edna Kirby spent many years living in a glass house where anyone could peek in and get an intimate glimpse of Edna as she went about her daily routine.

The story of Edna Kirby begins with a classified advertisement which instructed those who were interested to call “WALNUT 5260 after 7 evenings — Completely furnished three-room suite in The Unique, Omaha’s newest apartments; suite consists of living room, dining room and kitchen, with small hall and bath; rent unusually low on short-term lease. For information apply to J. J. Hasley, Burgess-Nash company.”

Advertisement for Burgess-Nash apartment.
The Omaha Daily Bee reprinted this Burgess-Nash advertisement on April 16, 1922.

Sign me up! What a deal! A modern apartment in the big city with low rent.

Just as this advertisement was running, Hollywood actress Edna Sampson (Sampson being Edna Kirby’s married name), who had recently completed the filming of A Sailor-Made Man with Harold Lloyd, just happened to be back in her hometown looking for an apartment. And then she saw that ad… It was perfect!

But there was a catch.  A big one.  The rent on this modern apartment was so incredibly low due to its undesirable location. It’s not that the apartment was situated in a bad part of town or a crime-ridden neighborhood.  In fact, it was just the opposite.  The apartment was in an area where rents were high and money flowed.  That advertisement stated that the apartment was located in “The Unique,” and there was no doubt that this apartment was unique. It was located in the store windows of one of Omaha’s upscale retailers, the Burgess-Nash department store.

A story in the April 16, 1922 publication of the Omaha Daily Bee told of how Edna initially balked at the idea of living in the store’s windows, but the appeal of the low rent and its convenient location convinced her to change her mind. She was to move in the very next day.

Beginning at 9:00 each morning, the curtains surrounding Edna’s bedroom would be drawn back, she would rise from her bed and then go about her daily routine. She would prepare meals in the apartment’s kitchen, do her housework, sew, read, play piano, entertain guests, and then hop back into bed at 9 PM for her beauty sleep. The next day, Edna would once again go about her daily routine as those standing on the opposite side of the glass gazed in from the street to observe her every move.  In the days before television, particularly watching celebrities in their homes on reality TV, this must have been exciting entertainment.

Edna Moore Kirby with her brothers, Jay D. Kirby (l) and John Benjamin (Ben) Kirby (r). (Photograph courtesy of the Kirby family.)

Burgess-Nash ran newspaper ads daily inviting people to come down and watch Edna in their store windows. One ad read, “Have You Seen – Our 4-room furnished apartment in the Seventeenth street window where Edna Sampson is living every hour of the day for the entire week? The experiment will prove that filling one’s every need from a department store is not only the possible but the plausible thing to do.” Another similar ad said, “Edna Sampson – Who has been living in our Seventeenth street window apartment for the past week, has proven conclusively that it is not only possible, but entirely plausible to obtain every need from a department store. She invites you to see her modern apartment and learn with her that the Burgess-Nash company are able to provide your household needs.”

Yes, this was all a publicity stunt, one that was designed to promote both the retailer and Edna’s movie career. A story that appeared in the Omaha Mediator on April 28, 1922, explained how this all came about. Burgess-Nash conceived of the idea of setting up a modern home in the store’s windows to show customers the variety of things that the store could provide. Yet, that idea seemed kind of static, so a staff member suggested that a home needed a woman to bring it to life. Their initial thought was to get a big-name Hollywood actress like Mary Pickford, but someone of that caliber would cost the company a lot of money. (Sidenote: Burgess-Nash went bankrupt and sold off all of its assets less than three years later, so it is doubtful they could have afforded a big name star, even if they wanted to.)

So, they ultimately settled on Edna Kirby Sampson, who truly did appear in Hollywood movies and had previously lived in Omaha. Edna was far from famous but that didn’t stop the department store from promoting her as a bigger star than she really was.  The author of that same Omaha Mediator article had a bit of fun with this at Edna’s expense:

“After much thought and deep study, hundreds of dollars spent in telegraph tolls, after much discussion and hot argument, the powers that be finally decided on and secured one of the greatest actresses that ever put on an act — no other than world famed Edna Sampson. What? You’ve never heard of Edna, she of the dark dreamy eyes, the wavy chestnut hair, the lithe, graceful figure, she who has played ten nights (or more) in a bar room right here in Omaha many a time, she who used to play the leading role in some of the comedies and many of the tragedies under the direction of that well-known scenario director, “Dutch” Kahler at his old place on North Sixteenth, she of the nimble fingers who used to hammer the ivories on the Baby Grand down at Omaha’s Hollywood located at Fifteenth and California. You still don’t savvy? No. Then look her up in Omaha’s underworld Blue Book, where it is written that she was one of our very best little actresses.

“Yes, gentle reader, it was our own Edna who poses as a great and moral screen star before the multitudes of respectable women, school girls and little children for a week in the windows of the Burgess-Nash store. And you gotta give her credit, old top. She holds her youth and pristine beauty and is still able to pick up soft money. All the old sports about town gave her the once over, smiled, winked and said: ‘Well I’ll be damned!’”

There is little documentation of Edna’s life.  She was born on February 6, 1892, in Grand Junction, Iowa to Dr. Jacob Kirby and his second wife Lena.  The couple would have three children, with Edna being the oldest. A thirty-five-year age gap between Edna’s parents, resulting in her mom Lena becoming a widow at the young age of forty-one.

Edna Kirby as a child with her family. Left to right: Lena Ann Williams (mother), Jay D. (brother), Dr. Jacob Decatur Kirby (father), and Edna. (Photograph courtesy of the Kirby family.)

On November 29, 1913, 21-year-old Edna would marry Abraham (Abe) R. Sampson in Council Bluffs, Iowa, after which the couple would relocate to Omaha. The two were arrested in 1913 for being on the receiving end of stolen loot, although it was established that they had not participated in the actual robberies. Eight months later, Edna was charged with “cutting to wound” both Abe and another woman after she caught them out “joy riding.” Shortly after Abe returned from fighting in World War I, Edna filed for divorce on August 17, 1919, claiming non-support and “that he struck her and knocked her down until her body was black and blue; that he threatened to kill her and on one occasion brandished a loaded revolver before her.”

Less than two years later, Edna Kirby Sampson would be in Hollywood making movies. How she got there is unknown, but she somehow got her act together and was able to secure a decade-long contract with Paramount Studios. Edna never got star billing in any film and there is no mention of her name in the Internet Movie Database, implying that she was a bit player, yet I was able to piece together from various articles that she appeared in at least twenty-one different movies. The earliest of her film appearances that I could find reference to was A Sailor Made Man with Harold Lloyd from 1921 and the last being She Wanted a Millionaire starring Joan Bennett and Spencer Tracy in 1932.

Yet, her lack of success in films did not stop Edna from capitalizing on her acting career. On September 2, 1922, nearly five months after completing her stint in the Burgess-Nash store windows, the following ad appeared in the Sacramento Bee: “FOR Rent – completely furnished three-room suite in Sacramento’s newest apartments. Suite consists of living room, dining room, hall and kitchen. Rent unusually low on short-term lease. For information apply between 9 and 10. Advertising Department, Hale Bros, Inc.”

Any guess as to who the successful applicant was?

Let me not keep you in suspense.  An article in that same day’s Sacramento Star answers that question: , “Edna Sampson, movie star, who plays with Harold Lloyd, heard about a pretty furnished apartment for rent here.

“She wanted it. And when she got it, she found it was in the display window of Hale’s store!

“But she decided to be a sport. She’ll live there all next week. She’ll have a bedroom, living room, hall and kitchen, completely furnished. She will do her own housework, and invites folks to call on her.”

Wow! It’s like déjà vu. Just what were the chances that Edna Sampson would stumble across two similar advertisements in two different cities and be the only applicant for the apartments? Obviously, there was zero chance.  The only stumbling that Edna Sampson had done in her apartment search was that she stumbled into a new career to help supplement her struggling attempt at Hollywood stardom.

Announcement that Edna Kirby Sampson would be living in the store windows of Meier & Frank's in Portland, Oregon.
Announcement that Edna Kirby Sampson would be living in the store windows of Meier & Frank’s in Portland, Oregon. The ad originally appeared on page 24 of the September 24, 1922 publication of the Sunday Oregonian.

It wasn’t long before the press would crown Edna “The Glass House Girl.” She would travel from city to city, mostly in the western and southern parts of the United States, pulling nearly the same promotional stunt over and over again. Yet, there was a gradual evolution of her act, which can best be followed through the various promotional stories and advertisements that ran over the next twenty-five years.

An article that appeared in the October 5, 1922, edition of the Seattle Star begins with that famous quote, “People that live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” To which, Edna replied, “But, it’s more important that they should dress and undress behind screens.” And, to answer one of those “How do they go to the bathroom in space?” type questions that some readers may have had, the article explains that a “thoroly impenetrable barrier will be placed around her while she is perfecting the more intimate details of her toilette.” The story also points out that Edna Sampson was “the only member of her profession in the world. The reason is that the profession — the profession of “living in glass houses”—is her own invention and has been existence only since last April.”

Not long after this, while back in Hollywood in 1923, Edna met Ciro Raffaele Mennillo, an Italian immigrant who had been working as a manager for actor Rudolph Valentino. The two would wed on October 4, 1924, and then honeymoon down in Mexico.

There is little mention in the press of what Edna was up to for the next sixteen months. She did appear in The Enemy Sex starring Betty Compson and in five fight reels starring heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, but she made no known screen appearances in 1925. 1926 would professionally prove to be the most successful year of her life. Not only did she appear in at least nine different films, but she also began to find success with her glass house career.

The following advertisement appeared in the April 15, 1926 (page 4) publication of the Oakland Tribune: “See Edna Kirby in Her Glass House “Apartment Unique” ?” Printed in big bold letters, the most prominent part of the ad was the question mark. We know today what she was up to, but the unsuspecting citizens of Oakland were about to get a big surprise. Not only had she dropped the last name of Sampson from her previous marriage, Edna Kirby was about to go big. Really big. She was about to exploit all that she possibly could from her glass house act.

Advertisement for Edna Kirby in her Glass House that appeared on page 4 of the April 15, 1926 edition of the Oakland Tribune.
Advertisement for Edna Kirby in her Glass House that appeared on page 4 of the April 15, 1926 edition of the Oakland Tribune.

An April 20, 1926, article in the Oakland Tribune begins, “Miss Edna Kirby, Paramount motion picture actress and former member of Harold Lloyd’s company, arrived at 8:52 a. m. on the Padre at First and Broadway. She was met by members of the press and Advertising clubs and Commissioner Colbourn and driven in a Cadillac car to her window apartment at Capwell’s, Fourteenth and Clay street.” The headline declared that she was a “Paramount Film Star” and the article was accompanied by a large photograph of Edna, dressed in the classic flapper style of the day, disembarking from the train and being handed a large bouquet of roses. It may have all been an act, but Edna was being treated like she was a superstar.  And, believe it or not, it worked.

The story continues, “Miss Kirby’s little maid, Pauline Harr of the H. C. Capwell company, assisted her with unpacking her Wheary Wardrola trunk and other luggage, and Miss Kirby selected new clothes from her extensive wardrobe furnished by the H. C. Capwell company.

“John Wharry Lewis of the American theater orchestra was her first guest, and he brought his violin and during his visit played for her. Miss Kirby accompanying him on her Sherman Clay baby grand piano. Miss Kirby is an accomplished pianist.”

Let the fun begin!

Each day there would be a large advertisement in the Oakland Tribune detailing her daily schedule in the “Apartment Unique.” Here is the program for her first day in the fishbowl:

10:00 AM – Miss Kirby arises.
10:30 AM – Breakfast.
11:00 AM – Picture taken with Pathex Moving Picture Camera.
12:30 PM – Lunch.
1:15 PM – Demonstration of Eureka Vacuum Cleaner.
1:45 PM – Miss Kirby learns to sew on the Free Westinghouse Electric Machine.
2:00 PM – Miss Kirby learns to make a hooked rug.
2:35 PM – Miss Kirby goes to the American Theater. (Where they would show the film shot earlier with the motion picture camera and Edna would discuss what Hollywood was like. The feature film was “The Untamed Lady” starring Gloria Swanson, who we discussed in the Sunset Boulevard Bad Apples movie review.)
3:30 PM – Returns and entertains at tea.
4:15 PM – She selects a new hat.
4:45 PM – She chooses draperies for the apartment.
5:15 PM – Golf lesson. (No worries about hitting the ball through the glass. The lesson was taught by pro golfer Dan Brown in the store’s Roof Garden Sports Shop.)
5:45 PM – Dresses for dinner.
6:15 PM – Dinner.
8:25 PM – Dresses for the theater.
8:45 PM – Goes to the American theater.
9:15 PM – Returns to “Apartment Unique.”
9:30 PM – Miss Kirby retires.

“Miss Kirby’s luncheon, tea, and dinner guests will be well-known East Bay men and women. Don’t forget that all conversations inside the windows may be heard outside by means of loud speaker arrangements.”

Edna Kirby's schedule was printed on page 5 of the April 19, 1926 edition of the Oakland Tribune.
Edna Kirby’s schedule was printed on page 5 of the April 19, 1926 edition of the Oakland Tribune.

Did Edna really sleep in the bedroom set up in the store window?  The answer to that question is unknown, so one can only venture a guess as to what happened after the curtains were closed. While she may have slept there, it is more probable that alternative accommodations were provided. Accommodations with running water, an operating toilet, and a hot shower.

It’s hard to describe the volume of advertisements that were run in the newspapers both before and during her stay in the Capwell store windows. Imagine page after page of ads for nearly every product or brand that Edna was promoting.  A large ad for the store’s sports shop, including a photograph of Edna,  dressed in heels, hat, and flapper dress – not exactly the ideal outfit for a round of golf – leaning over a putter as she aims to sink the ball. And then there were the ads run by the American Theater announcing her appearances. All of this publicity did exactly what it was intended to do: it created quite the sensation as men, women, and children crowded around the store’s windows and struggled to get a peek at the movie star.

Edna explained, “There is no chance to hideaway any family skeletons when one lives in a glass house. There’s one interesting thing about living in such an apartment. It is a sort of two-handed game. In addition to being gazed at by the people on the other side of the glass walls of my home, I am able to watch them and see just what they think of the new gowns I put on before my dressing table.”

Keep in mind that this was 1926. Radio was still in its infancy and news traveled slowly, which worked to Edna’s advantage.  She could go from one city to the next and it was almost certain that few had ever heard of the Apartment Unique. And Edna took full advantage of this: For example, as she was winding down her stint in Oakland, a mysterious advertisement in the Sacramento Bee read, “? Miss Edna Kirby In the Apartment Unique The Glass House at 12th and K.”

1930 publicity photo of Edna Kirby turning the dial on a Falck model E radio in Los Angeles. (Photograph courtesy of the Kirby family.)

A few days later, Edna would arrive in Sacramento and spend seven days living in the display windows of Weinstock, Lubin & Co. Their advertising campaign and Edna’s daily routine were nearly identical to that of Oakland. The only variation seemed to be in the offerings, since each store had a different selection of goods and wished to promote different items. In Sacramento, a Hoover was substituted for the Eureka vacuum, Edna selected fishing tackle over a golf lesson, and she would paint a lamp shade instead of making a hooked rug. One added bonus in Sacramento was that the feature film being played at the Senator Theater was “That’s My Baby,” which she supposedly was featured in.

Edna would repeat the whole routine in early May in Fresno and then spend the end of the month doing the same in Los Angeles, which just happened to be where she and her husband had set up a permanent home. What few knew was that he was quietly working behind the scenes to advance her career.  He acted as her manager and sold the Glass House concept to merchants, closed the deals, and handled the promotion.

Ciro Mennillo's 1922 passport photo.
Ciro Mennillo’s 1922 passport photo.

After taking the summer off, the two headed out on a twenty-nine-month cross-country tour, ending in December 1928. While far from a complete listing, Edna Kirby’s Glass House traveled to (in alphabetical order) Asheville, Atlanta, Baltimore, Birmingham, Chattanooga, Des Moines, Fort Worth, Jackson, Kansas City, Madison, Minneapolis, Nashville, Sioux City, Tuscon, and Waco.

The stories and advertisements that were run in the newspapers to accompany Edna’s visit were quite repetitious, but here are some of the highlights that I was able to extract.

While she was appearing in Asheville, North Carolina, it was reported on December 21, 1927, “Crowds, crowds, crowds, eyes, eyes, eyes, followed Miss Edna Kirby from early morning until late at night.” (This was basically what happened in every city that she visited.) The story continues, “At Goode’s Drug Store where Miss Kirby held a social gathering at three until four o’clock, Hollywood Punch was served, balloons distributed to the ladies, a capacity gathering crowded the store to obtain a glimpse of the movie actress who lives in a glass house. Miss Kirby graciously invited them all to come and pay her a visit at her ‘Apartment Unique.’ It is said that the largest crowd in the history of the drug store gathered yesterday afternoon to meet Miss Kirby.”

The following week, she was in Waco, Texas and a reporter questioned Edna about actors losing their morals due to the roles that they portrayed on the screen.  Edna replied, “If an actor gets morally confused over a love scene photographed five or six times in the glare of every kind of bright light, with a bunch of people around and a director yelling ‘Don’t do it that way!,’ he didn’t have any morals to begin with.”

She added that there is no more immorality in Hollywood than with the remainder of the populace. “If the butcher or a dry good salesman in Waco were to murder his wife or have an affair, it might get on the front page of the newspaper and then be forgotten. But if Fatty Arbuckle gets into trouble, or Charlie Chaplin, everybody in the country has met them on the screen, and whenever the name of either is mentioned, all the notoriety ever given him is dragged out and inspected over and over.”

As for gossip, Edna stated, “A woman in Dallas rushed up to me the other day and said, ‘Oh, tell me the latest scandal in Hollywood!’ I replied that I didn’t know it—what was the latest one in Dallas?”

To capitalize on the voyeuristic nature of her appearances, the following appeared in the Waco News-Tribune on January 27, 1927: “The Sanger store announces for this morning at 10:30 o’clock a special style show of the lingerie of Parisian and American designs and fashions. This lingerie style show will feature the latest in underfinery and Miss Edna Kirby, Paramount actress from Hollywood will model the new styles and fashions. The lingerie show will be given on the second floor and for women only. All of the underfinery, boudoir garments, corsets and négligées to be worn by Miss Kirby and other young women are from the Sanger displays.”

Somewhere along her lengthy national tour, a large banner was created and read, “Miss Edna Kirby – The Paramount Girl.”  That banner would be used for years after that. As she made her grand entrance into every new city, whether by train, airplane, or automobile, the banner would hang from the side of every car that she rode in, which resulted in a multitude of pictures appearing in newspapers with that banner being prominently displayed. Edna was treated as a big celebrity everywhere that she went, even if her success in Hollywood would sometimes be greatly exaggerated.  In Atlanta, she was described as “prominent in motion pictures.” In Chicago, she was “Harold Lloyd’s leading lady,” even though she only had a minor part in one of his movies.

On Saturday, May 12, 1928, Edna two-timed her husband and married another man while making an appearance at the Emporium store in Jackson, Mississippi. Well, not exactly.  It was a mock wedding designed to promote wedding dresses and everything else that the store sold for that special day. After hundreds of people attended a reception on the second floor of the store, Edna changed into her “going away gown,” boarded the Panama Limited train, and left for her so-called honeymoon. Of course, she had ditched her new husband and was heading off to marry another man in the next town.

What Edna couldn’t see was that for all of her success as the Paramount Girl in her Apartment Unique, there was a violent storm approaching. First, her act only worked well when she went to a city for the first time. There was an element of surprise, novelty, and natural curiosity in what she did. But once she made an appearance in a town and everyone knew what she was up to, why would a store want to rehire her? Yet, the United States is gigantic and there were many other cities to go to.

There was an even bigger problem, however: The Great Depression.  Many of the department stores where she had worked went out of business. And those that did survive probably were far less willing to spend their limited advertising budget on a costly, yet frivolous glass house promotion.

In addition, her acting career was nearing its end, having made her last movie appearance in 1932. A story that ran in the April 9, 1934 edition of the Santa Ana Register refers to her as “a former Paramount picture actress.”

1938 photograph of Edna Kirby (right) with her maid Verna at the Pan Pacific Auditorium.
1938 photograph of Edna Kirby (right) with her maid Verna at the Pan Pacific Auditorium. Calisphere image.

Edna Kirby’s Glass House career would survive the Great Depression, but it would never be done on the same scale again. While she did occasionally secure department and furniture store window jobs, they were far and few between, while newspaper stories discussing her appearances became less frequent and much shorter in length. Edna was no longer a celebrity. The bulk of her appearances were now either at home shows or county fairs, with her appearance typically being funded by gas and power companies. She still did her schtick behind a glass wall that was erected at each venue, but it lacked the novelty of living in a store window. Edna demonstrated the latest in gas appliances, Philco radios, furniture, and the like.  And while doing this, Edna would always tell the crowds what it was like to be an actress in Hollywood.

A search of records on Ancestry.com indicates that Edna considered herself to be an actress in 1930, yet in 1936 her profession was listed as an advertiser.  The 1940 census states that Edna was 47 and her husband Ciro was 52 and each had identical annual salaries of $1200.  Assuming a household income of $2400, the couple was only earning about $45,000 per year, adjusted for inflation.

One surprise that I uncovered was that Edna and Ciro were jointly issued US Patent number 1,895,229 on January 24, 1933.  It was titled “Vehicular Dwelling.” Her invention was a long glass house – like a department store window – but on wheels.

Edna Kirby Mennillo's patent for a Vehicular Dwelling.
Edna Kirby Mennillo’s patent for a Vehicular Dwelling. The entire patent can be read here.

Sadly, Edna Kirby would not live a long life. She was diagnosed with a bad mitral valve in her heart and suffered for two years before passing away on March 23, 1946. Her obituary, which appeared in the Los Angeles Times on March 25, reads:

“Mrs. Edna Mennillo

“Funeral services for Mrs. Edna Kirby Mennillo, 54, originator of the “glass house” which she displayed throughout the nation for the past 25 years, will be conducted at 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Church of the Recessional, Forest Lawn Memorial Park. The glass house displayed modern housekeeping furniture and equipment. Mrs. Mennillo died at her home, 1629 Micheltorena St., Saturday. She leaves her husband, C. R. Mennillo, and two brothers, J. D. and J. Ben Kirby.”

What’s most interesting about this obituary is what it leaves out.  It makes no mention of Edna ever having been an actress, the Paramount Girl.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Edna Kirby Mennillo's certificate of death.
Edna Kirby Mennillo’s certificate of death.

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