By Joseph P. Eckhardt
Living Large: Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason, by noted silent film historian Joseph P. Eckhardt, is by turns a rollicking dual biography and a sweet love story. Wilna Hervey—a six-foot-three-inch, three-hundred-pound heiress—won the role of “The Powerful Katrinka” in the Toonerville Trolley comedies of the early nineteen-twenties through her impressive size. Her evocation of Katrinka was so successful that it became a permanent part of her identity.
Wilna’s movie work brought her something else that would long endure—a partner for life. While filming on location in the Philadelphia suburbs, Wilna Hervey met Nan Mason, the surprisingly tall daughter of her Toonerville co-star, Dan Mason. Wilna and Nan became close friends and ultimately life partners.
They discovered that they had a mutual passion for art. So when Wilna’s cinema work began to wane, she and Nan decided to pursue careers as artists in the famed artists’ colony at Woodstock, New York. As artists, Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason evolved into accomplished and imaginative talents, exploring a wide variety of genres over the course of their long careers.
As a same-sex couple, living in one of the few American communities where they could comfortably be themselves, the “Big Girls,” as they were known locally, carved out extraordinarily creative lives for themselves. Uninterested in defining themselves except as artists, they lived a free and joyous existence, fully participating in the life of their community. They hosted some of the wildest parties ever seen in the Catskills, and frequently used their legendary “full moon” soirées to raise money for local causes such as the Woodstock Library and the children’s health center.
An irrepressible enthusiasm permeated everything that Wilna and Nan did, whether it was building a real estate empire, trying their luck as farmers, painting houses or entertaining bar patrons with medleys of quaint old songs. Their many friends included a number of noteworthy figures in twentieth-century American arts and letters: film director Frank Capra; photographer Edward Weston; portrait artist Eugene Speicher; the Whitney Museum’s Juliana Force; painters Henry Lee McFee, William Pachner and Charles Rosen; and legendary children’s book illustrators Maud and Miska Petersham.
Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason were inseparable for the better part of six decades. Their unfailing devotion to each other was respected, even admired, by their friends. Their enduring partnership, the art it inspired and their go-for-broke lifestyle form the major narrative arc of Living Large.
More About Living Large
Publication date: June 1, 2015; first edition; ISBN 9760967926889; hard cover/cloth; 8 x 10 inches; 200 pages, 79 color illustrations and 101 black-and-white images. Front matter: introduction. Back matter: endnotes, list of illustrations, a Wilna Hervey filmography, sources, acknowledgements and index. List price: $39.50.
Literary Awards: Gold in the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) 2016 Benjamin Franklin Awards competition, LGBT category. Silver (LGBT), Bronze (Biography) and finalist (Art) in the Foreword Reviews 2015 INDIEFAB book of the year awards.
About the Author
Joseph P. Eckhardt is an Emeritus Professor of History at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. He taught history and art history from 1968 until his retirement in 2007. Living Large was born of Eckhardt’s interest in the silent Toonerville Trolley comedies made at the Betzwood studio in the Philadelphia suburbs. While searching for more information about the Amazonian actress who played “The Powerful Katrinka,” he uncovered an offbeat romantic tale as good as any movie.
Eckhardt is the author of The King of the Movies: Film Pioneer, Siegmund Lubin, published in 1997 by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. He has also published several articles on the early film industry both in the US and Europe. Eckhardt’s film research led to the foundation of the Betzwood Film Archive at MCCC and he remains actively involved with the collections. His biography So Bravely and So Well: The Life and Art of William T. Trego, accompanied by an online catalogue raisonné, was published in 2011 by the James A. Michener Art Museum, and distributed by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Eckhardt is currently collaborating with independent TV producer Henry Nevison on a feature-length documentary film about Siegmund Lubin.
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