My Rags and Riches Life - By a Queen of the Silent Movie
Forgotten in Benfleet . . . an old-time star tells her story - Report by Denise Shaw
This article was in the Evening Echo for Wednesday 29th September 1971 on page 8 and was an interview by Denise Shaw. There are names mentioned in it to whom we would like to talk, to see if they can add anything: Denise Shaw obviously and Les Cullen. Any information would be welcome. I apologise for the poor quality of the pictures. I am trying to get better copies.
In a tiny room cluttered with mementoes of the era of the silent films a little old lady lives out the autumn of her life. For years, 83 year old Lucia Mary Boston has shut herself up in this room of nostalgia. Few of the neighbours in bustling Benfleet knew very much about her. They smiled, nodded out of politeness and left her to her memories. And they might be forgiven for never knowing that Lucia was once a star. A queen of the silent films. A siren who made her leading men want to die for her.
In her 83 years Lucia has lived a rags and riches life. As Kitty Lee she glided across the silent screen, had offers to go to Hollywood and was asked to be understudy to movie queen Mary Pickford. As Lucia Boston she once had to sell for £14 the waist-length dark locks which made her famous.
I met Lucia on a trip back into the past to her house in Clarence Road. The room where she spends most of her time is cluttered with clips of her films and stocked with old scenery and props. She even has the sound effects machine her husband used in one of his bioscopes.
Here she told me of the days when she was a star and when her husband’s film studios stood on the site of her house. And here she remembered the hard times . . . and those long dark curls.
The good old days for Lucia were between 1919 and 1929 when Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd were legends, and the pianists in the silent cinemas were maestros of drama. It was in this era that Lucia met Mary Pickford.
“It was at a London hotel that I saw her,” she recalls. “I had the chance to go to Hollywood as her understudy.”
But Lucia’s husband, Albert, was struggling to get his film studios going. Happily she told him of her big chance. Sadly he told her that without her he would be finished.
Lucia stayed and became the backbone of her husband’s studios at Benfleet. She starred in her husband’s two-reel silents and also made the scenery and comforted temperamental actresses. Early film fans saw her in films like East Lynne and Dante’s Inferno, both made at Benfleet.
But Hollywood was already making its impact on the film world. They had the famous names and the money. Albert Boston’s film studios began to feel the pinch.
“We just couldn’t compete,” said Lucia.
“Then the council closed the studios because they wanted the land for housing.”
Those golden days of silent stardom were ending for Lucia.
She told me: “We didn’t bother to start up anywhere else.”
The couple fell on hard times. And it was then that she sold her long hair.
“I was sorry to see it go,” she said.
“The studios closed and we fell on hard times . . . I sold my long curls for £14.”
Albert came to terms with the end of his film life. He switched to building and built the 12 houses on the site of the studio. Kitty still owns two of them.
Then Albert began to lose his sight. Kitty put aside here memories and spent 25 years running his accounts and looking after him.
She said: “I never left the house for those years. After my husband died I went out for the first time and the traffic scared me.”
She moved into the room that became her life. And there she would have stayed undiscovered, had it not been for Les Cullen, manager of the Cliffs Pavilion. He was involved with trying to organise a regional film theatre in Southend and someone recalled the old studios at Benfleet. The search ended when they found Lucia, widow of pioneer film maker Albert Boston.
Many of the priceless archives she had kept locked up in her room went to the British Film Institute. But some of the mementoes of those golden years, she wouldn’t let go. Like two letters from Mary Pickford.
Flash back . . . to the days when Benfleet tried to rival Hollywood.
The picture of the house shows the Carter Boston Film studios, where Lucia made some of her films under the name of Kitty Lee.
On this site today stand 12 houses, including Kitty’s. And in one room she keeps memories of the Golden days.
Note: Evening Echo photos added 22 December 2014.