Whatever happened to Gene Marsh?

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Andrew Sholl
Posts: 101
Joined: Mon Jul 13, 2009 5:22 am
Location: Sydney, Australia

Whatever happened to Gene Marsh?

Postby Andrew Sholl » Fri Aug 01, 2014 6:31 am

OK, so she’s not the most important figure in silent comedy, not did her star shine very brightly for very long. But there’s something intriguing about an actress who co-starred with both Chaplin and Lloyd in their earliest film incarnations but about whom little information has ever come to light. That is, until now.

Her name? Gene Marsh.

Here she is with Chaplin playing the female lead in HIS PREHISTORIC PAST (1914).


Here's Gene with Snub Pollard at Rolin in a LONESOME LUKE picture in 1915.


And that’s her in the Komic one-reeler DIZZY JOE’S CAREER (1914) in a still published in Reel Life in October 1914 (top right, with the arched eyebrows and big mass of hair).


It is this image that gives veracity to claim made in her Motion Picture Studio Directory 1916 entry that she worked at the Reliance-Majestic studios (AKA “the Griffith lot”) on Sunset Boulevard, which was built around 1914.

But it is this small notice that appeared in Variety in 1919 that unlocks the clues to what happened to Gene Marsh and where she came from.


Bailey and Cowan were a popular musical act on the vaudeville stage from the mid Teens to the late 1920s. Lynn Cowan (an accomplished songwriter who between 1927 and 1928 would appear in a series of Vitaphone Varieties) played the piano; Bill Bailey – AKA Dale Dernier Bales from Maxwell, Iowa – strummed the banjo.

A marriage certificate which can be found online confirms that Bales and divorcee Gene Deveraux Keller Marsh – whose father is named as James M. Keller – were wed in July 1919.

A trail of genealogical clues leads to Gene Marsh’s real name: Gladys Keller.

According to the 1900 Census, she was born in San Diego in August 1893 to Ohioans James M. Keller, who was of Irish ancestry, and Linnhe Gilmore/Gilmour/Gilmuir, whose father hailed from Scotland. Gene was one of four children, of whom only she and her elder brother, Charles, appear to have survived infanthood.

James Keller worked as a bookkeeper in a bank. He also had a musical bent. The San Diego Union notes regular appearances by James and his children at amateur theatricals. The children sang while James accompanied the performances on harmonica and guitar.


A year after this article appeared, however, the Kellers' marriage was on the rocks. Gene’s mother relocated with the children to Los Angeles, where she worked as a dressmaker and described herself as a widow in the City Directory. The couple’s divorce was made final in 1905.

That places Gene Marsh in Los Angeles in the years leading up to the city becoming a hub for the motion picture industry.

How she came to acquire the surname “Marsh” remains a puzzle. Perhaps it had something to do with her proximity to those other Marshes on the Griffith and Sennett lots – Mae and Marguerite.

Similarly, the years between Gene’s final picture for Roach in 1915 and her marriage three and a half years later remain a mystery.

But we do know about her subsequent life. Shipping logs tell that she travelled the world with her husband’s musical act, which toured extensively in the Far East, Britain, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

In Australia in particular Bailey & Cowan were enormously successful. They headlined the top vaudeville houses and were the subject of flattering profiles in the major newspapers. Yet while Cowan’s wife Lillian – stage name Estelle – joined the act nothing has come to light to suggest that Gene participated on stage.

The early 1930s saw Bailey, Cowan and their respective spouses escape the Depression by pitching up in Singapore. There they established a fashionable high society nightspot called the Coconut Grove. Cowan and Bailey’s Coconut Grove Syncopators also received airtime on local radio.

The club was destroyed when the Japanese attacked Singapore in 1941-42 in advance of their occupation of the island.

Lynn Cowan and his wife got out just in time, fleeing to Australia where he was commissioned as an entertainments officer for the Army forces in the Pacific under the command of Douglas MacArthur.

Bill Bailey and Gene Marsh were not so lucky. With other Westerners who remained, they were rounded up and incarcerated in the notorious Changi prison, where they spent much of the remainder of the war forbidden from communicating with one another. Men and women were held in separate quarters.

The couple were reunited at war’s end and chose to remain in Singapore and open the Coconut Grove in another location. But the social scene was not what it was and the once fashionable nightspot went into decline, becoming a drinking den for diplomats and foreign correspondents.

In the years leading up to his death, those same foreign correspondents who haunted the Coconut Grove would interview Bill Bailey about his life and times.

In one such profile piece, he makes the claim that his wife appeared in BIRTH OF A NATION. By this time, Bailey was a seasoned teller of a tall tales so this information has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Was he mixing up Gene Marsh with Mae Marsh? Or does Gene Marsh make an appearance in one of the highest grossing – and most controversial – films of all time? It bears further investigation.

But Bailey’s recollection - however hazy - is still important because it links the Gene Deveraux Keller Marsh Bales/Bailey living in Singapore with the Gene Marsh who appeared before the camera at the Reliance-Majestic studios and subsequently at Keystone and Rolin.

Gene Marsh died in 1957, her husband in 1966.

They were buried in Singapore’s Christian cemetery at Bidadari, which was razed in the 2000s to make way for public housing on the land-scarce island.

Further reading:
http://data.desmoinesregister.com/famou ... ill-bailey
http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1 ... %2C5494590
http://atropesend.blogspot.com.au/2013/ ... enjoy.html

Joe Moore
Posts: 332
Joined: Sat Jun 06, 2009 12:17 pm

Re: Whatever happened to Gene Marsh?

Postby Joe Moore » Fri Aug 01, 2014 7:52 am

A nice bit of research, Andrew.

Thanks for sharing.


Phil Posner
Posts: 30
Joined: Fri Jun 11, 2010 2:28 pm

Re: Whatever happened to Gene Marsh?

Postby Phil Posner » Fri Aug 01, 2014 1:26 pm

Excellent work, Andrew. Here's a modest piece I wrote for my website about a year ago:

My Chaplin site - www.philposner.com

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