Old Courthouse Museum
103 West Cherry Street
Watseka, IL 60970-1524
BARONESS FERN ANDRA
Baroness Fern Andra, "the Mary Pickford of Germany", 1920's film star, world traveler and celebrity, was born in Watseka, Iroquois County, IL 24 Nov 1893 to William P. and Sarah Emily Evett Anrews. Her grandparents were John Evett and Eleanor Sapp and her great grandparents were the first couple married in Iroquois County, Elijah and Allie Thomas Sapp. Fern grew up in Watseka with her brother, Fred and started her career at the Stephens Opera House (what is now the old J. C. Penney building on Main Street). Little is known of her early years in show biz other than she began as a Vaudeville act that had something to do with tightrope walking.
Her stepfather, Frank St. Clair, was supposedly a slack-wire performer/agent and had a lot to do with her start. The details of her early life are hard to come by at this date and the autobiography she had written and her press releases are as imaginative as any romance novel on the bestseller list. It is only through diligent research and some luck, that her real origins were ever traced; Fern covered her tracks well in regards to her family. One article has her mother being a famous opera star. So far as can be determined at this time, Sarah never made the stage and was more likely a dresser/seamstress for her young daughter.
|It is evident from her photos that Fern was beautiful. According to information she was also "precocious," "forward," "flirty," chose whatever word you will, but sex appeal is probably what she had. It is known that she passed for much older in her girlhood and her age fluctuates accordingly to suit her needs.|
In 1905 Fern appeared in the Globe Theater in Chicago. Four years later she traveled with the United States and Canada Theatrical Company and played before the President of the United States. In 1913, she was the toast of London when she starred in a popular revue. From London Fern went to Berlin to play the theaters and was just getting into things when WWI broke out. Marooned, she fell on her feet and was offered a contract by the German Gaumont Corporation, a movie company.
This first movie was a success, but Fern ran into trouble with the German government and was accused of spying for the English, French and Americans. Through the intervention of Baron Fredrich von Weichs, nephew of the Austrian Empress Zita, she was extracted from her difficulties. They later married, but he was killed just before the war ended. After being cleared, she continued making movies but declined the blandishments of the German government to do propaganda films.
After WWI ended, Fern continued her highly visible career as film actress and won the acclaim of Europeans who dubbed her "the most beautiful girl in Europe." In 1923, she married Kurt Prenzel, the German middleweight boxing champion, and soon divorced him. She continued her movie career in Germany until 1927 when she returned to live in Hollywood. In 1933 she married Ian Keith an actor. This marriage was short lived and ended in divorce.
During the build up to WWII Fern again ran up against the German government and again there were "spy" rumors flying. This time, the American press got a hold of the story and Fern was vilified for a while in the newspapers. Most of the rumors were fed by the fact that Fern was doing a different kind of tightrope act with Goebbels, one of Hitler's henchmen. She had known him when he was a tutor and being considered Europe's most beautiful woman had advantages and disadvantages. Eventually, Fern gave up running her film company and came back to America where she broadcast messages in German to Germany to counteract Hitler's Nazi propaganda for the American government.
Fern moved to Connecticut and met and married her final husband, General Samuel Edge Dockrell, a playwright and producer. Her life continued to be one of glamour and she made frequent visits to her hometown of Watseka. Vernal Andrews, a.k.a. Baroness Fern Andra, died in Aiken, South Carolina 8 Feb. 1974.
Sources: 1. Iroquois County Genealogy Society files and picture record 2. The Baroness; The Fern Andra Story; Fern Andra & Harry W. Flannery; Bertha Klausner, International Literary Agency, Inc., 71 Park Ave., New York, NY; copy #2619 3. Watseka Republican, Iroquois County Democrat & Iroquois County Times; various years and articles 4. The Stage; London: 20 Feb 1913 5. New York Times Biographical Edition; Feb. 1974 6. unknown and undated magazine article