Vera Lula Stark (1910-1973?) was born in South Brooklyn to Hattie and Lewis Stark, popular performers on the black vaudeville circuit known as TOBA (Theater Owners Booking Association).
Vera’s maternal Grandmother was the legendary music hall singer and contortionist, Ida “Burnt Pretzel” McCleary. When Vera was five years old she joined the family act on the road, where she competed for the spotlight with her cousin, a talented tap dance sensation long thought to be “white” screen legend Gloria Mitchell. Vera was a standout performer, yet the Stark family was never able to achieve mainstage success, living from hand to mouth, until Lewis Stark was banned from the circuit for pistol-whipping a notoriously corrupt white theatre owner who owed him money.
In the mid 1920’s, Vera Stark fled to Hollywood along with a wave of talented African American vaudeville performers who crossed the country in search of work in the emerging talking pictures. For several years, Vera appeared as an un-credited extra in numerous shorts but found herself taking on odd jobs just to make ends meet, including working as actress Gloria Mitchell’s maid.
Her big break came in 1933, when famed Hollywood director Maximillian Von Oster gambled his career on a film adaptation of a little known southern novel called The Belle of New Orleans, written by Bernard St. Simon in 1852. The novel, a classic melodrama, follows a year in the life of two slave sisters in New Orleans: Marie, the beautiful and whimsical octoroon prostitute who falls hopelessly in love with a white Southern planter, and steadfast Tilly, her devoted servant and companion. The novel was originally conceived as an indictment of slavery and the caste system in the Deep South. It was even viewed by some during that period as a provocative anti-slavery narrative. Cited as vulgar and unseemly, The Belle of New Orleans was publicly burned in front of the state capital in Louisiana on June 16, 1853 and subsequently banned throughout the south by politicians threatened by its sexual and racial politics. Yet, inconceivably the book went on to become an underground hit, spawning popular theatrical spectacles that toured the nation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Produced in pre-code Hollywood, the film adaptation of The Belle of New Orleans starred screen legend Gloria Mitchell, but more interestingly, it launched the controversial career of Vera Stark. Vera’s performance was recognized by the Academy with a nomination for Best Supporting Actress, making her the first African American to receive such an honor. She was subsequently signed to a multi-year contract at Celestial Pictures, but the studio squandered her talent on bit parts in B-movies. But after the implementation of the notorious Hays Motion Picture Production Code, the studio didn’t know how the cast the beautiful African American actress, and she was relegated to playing throwaway roles, such as maids and hat check girls. Racism stifled Vera’s career at the very moment it was blossoming. Vera would nevertheless go on to make over fifty-five films in Hollywood, including “God’s Fitful Chilluns”, “Five Stolen Kisses”, and “Songs of Dixie.” Later, she would have a modest though undistinguished career on television, playing stereotypical black characters in shows such as “Lumus and Larry.”
Gorgeous, self-possessed, immensely talented, and hopelessly self destructive, Vera continued to work on and off until 1973, but she would never match the success or promise of her first film, The Belle of New Orleans. In her private life, Vera was plagued by misfortune. She had two unsuccessful marriages: the first to Leroy Barksdale, a popular trumpet player with the Petie Owens Orchestra. During an infamous performance at the Humming Bird Ballroom, a white heckler repeatedly shouted racial epithets at Barksdale. He snapped, and in his rage inadvertently beat the heckler to death with his trumpet. Vera stood by Barksdale throughout the highly publicized trial, but at the urging of her creative representatives she ended the relationship in order to save her flagging career. However, the scandal was to follow her for many years. In 1952, Vera married middleweight prizefighter Dortch Ross. It was a tumultuous and sometimes violent relationship. During her short-lived marriage to Ross, Vera began drinking very heavily. Alcohol and prescription medications would become her constant companions, costing her roles and burning many bridges in Hollywood.
In the late sixties and early seventies, legendary agent Scottie Hudson tried to revive Vera’s career, and finally, after a number of very lean and difficult years, he managed to book her an engagement at the Folies Bergere in Las Vegas. During the now infamous performance, Vera Stark stripped naked in the middle of singing “Heat Wave” and was arrested for public indecency. A week later Vera Stark disappeared without a trace.
A maid, a coat check girl, a down-and-out blues singer, Stark, like an entire generation of African American actresses, was a ubiquitous, though often un-credited presence on the silver screen. Flying just under the radar, her talent was squandered on mediocre roles in forgettable films. Racism in Hollywood robbed Vera of a career, but also robbed audiences throughout the world of access to her shining talent.