By Cassandra Geraghty @ayearofsilents
I’ve done my fair share of research on silent film stars but I hadn’t stumbled upon Anita Dickson Thompson Reynolds until recently, when the above picture caught my eye. There wasn’t much on the internet to learn about Anita but fortunately she had written her memoirs and they offered some insight into this vibrant character.
Anita was born to a well to-do Chicago family in 1901. Her mother was college educated and worked as a bookkeeper and her father was a sales representative for a German jewelry company. Although a time of great racial inequality, Anita’s striking good looks and skin tone -a mix of her Black, White and Cherokee heritage -allowed her to pass through life with little struggle.
Anita was young when her family relocated to Los Angeles and her house was often filled with interesting political figures, such as Booker T. Washington and Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, editor of the NAACP magazine, “The Crisis” and her cousin Langston Hughes.
When Ruth St. Denis placed an ad looking for dancers for the Denishawn Company, Anita was selected for her “exotic” looks and was taught an East Indian belly dance. Scandalized, her mother had her enrolled in another dance school that studied the teachings of Isadora Duncan. She was then chosen to be one of the attendants to the princess in Douglas Fairbanks’ “The Thief of Baghdad”.
Her next film was “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse” with Rudolph Valentino where she met Noble Johnson, a versatile character actor and founder of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company. He taught her to ride a horse and cast her in his films, including 1921s “By Right of Birth”.
Anita tired of Hollywood and went to New York City where she rubbed shoulders with Eugene O’Neill and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson taught her to tap dance to prepare for her Broadway role in “Runnin’ Wild”. She also studied to be a teacher at Columbia and later in Baltimore where she worked briefly as an art supervisor.
In 1928 rather than attend Wellesley College as she had intended, she ran off to Paris with friends. She spent the next ten years mingling in the same circles as Ernest Hemingway, E.E. Cummings, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. She became good friends with photographer Man Ray and dated surrealist artist Kristians Tonny. She lived in a palace and ran a shop in Morocco, modeled for Chanel and worked with the Red Cross at the beginning of WWII, helping to obtain visas for refugees fleeing the war.
Little is written about Reynolds after she returned to America during the war. When she wrote her memoirs in 1973 she was a psychologist and university professor at the College of the Virgin Islands, married to an American hotelier. She passed away in 1980 and according to her autobiography, published posthumously, “American Cocktail: A ‘Colored’ Girl in the World” she lived a charmed and fascinating life.