Born in Louisville, Kentucky to a possibly single sixteen-year-old mother, Mary Imogene Robertson was not raised into a glamorous life. She would claim to live in a convent in Missouri. Allegedly, at 13 she found her way to New York City where an artist discovered her and she became a model. Eventually the greatest producer of the showgirl revues, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. discovered her, or she discovered him. He lauded her effervescent personality, nicknaming her “Bubbles.” So beautiful and popular was she that it was said in 1922 “Only two people in America would bring every reporter in New York to the docks to see them off. One is the President. The other is Imogene “Bubbles” Wilson.” Soon headlines would scream “`Bubbles’ Rhymes with ‘Troubles.’”[i]
The intoxicating showgirl began an affair in 1924 affair with a much older, black- faced comedian named Frank Tinney who had forgotten to mention to her that he was married. The naive teenager was devastated by his cavalier attitude. To others he boasted, “Sure I have a wife, a mortgage and an appendix, but why should I bring these things up and spoil a pleasant evening?”
[i] Salt Lake Tribune 2–7–32
Their years-long affair was turbulent and Imogene began showing up at the theater sporting
black and blue marks. She showed a bruised belly where he had kicked her. He once hit her after she was spotted chatting with a reporter and Tinney became jealous. In court she testified he practiced boxing on her slight frame. Apparently he was wearing a kimono that belonged to her and earrings when he pummeled her in front of her maid. Frank’s wife set stone-faced in court while the showgirl sobbed. She told the court she finally lost unconsciousness when he hurled an ashtray at her head. Bubble’s maid testified Mr. Frank apparently often drank too much and scenes of abuse were many.
When Ziegfeld’s personal doctor examined Bubbles, the doctor said “this girls looks as though she had been struck by an automobile.”
Hating the negative publicity Ziegfeld fired her. She didn’t care, she was still in love. But Tinney refused to divorce his wife. Bubbles threw a “suicide” party. At the height of the soiree she swallowed pills (they were sugar) and an ambulance was called. The party, pills and the Tinney name was in the paper. Her lover was furious and gave her yet another beating. Though he was arrested, she forgave him, even following him — though he was still married — to Europe. She suffered a nervous breakdown in Germany where she performed in many films under a different name. In Germany, rumors swirled for more beatings, more affairs that she had to escape more lawsuits.
Tinney’s fate — or karma — soon caught up with him. He fell into bankruptcy, his wife divorced him, his house burned down, and he was in a lawsuit against his attorney for unpaid legal services. Understandably a nervous breakdown followed.
Returning to America, and hoping to escape her lurid past, Bubbles changed her name to the sturdy Mary Nolan and tried to break into Hollywood movies in 1927, doing a spat of films, one opposite Edward G. Robertson another in John Gilbert’s last picture, “Outside the Law.”
Mary embarked on an affair with another married man, studio executive, Edward Jim Minnix who she claimed also beat her and forced her to have an abortion. Some kind of accident, possibly at his hands left her in the hospital for months where, it was rumored, she became addicted to morphine. In 1930, confined to bed because of a severe sunburn Mary was accused of harboring needle tracks and being an addict by the nurses looking after her (Mary later said they were giving her morphine). A case would be filed, but eventually dropped. Mary believed someone was attempting to blackmail her and besmirch her reputation.
She soon met and married a broker. They opened a shop “Mary Nolan Gown and Hat Shop” in Hollywood. Debts piled up.
In 1932 the couple spent time in a courtroom sued by creditors and 12 employees for non-payment of wages. She blamed her troubles on her past. “They hound me because they remember a naughty Imogene Wilson. Don’t they know that the side of me . . . vanished.”[i] She was only twenty-four. Her marriage was soon over and Hollywood shut its door on her. She tried for a comeback on Broadway. She spent time in a state hospital trying to kick her addiction. The only work she could find was managing bungalow court apartments.
Bubbles, perhaps more than any other Follies girl, would be as unprepared for a future beyond the lights as was Faith Bacon. In the end she was living in a small apartment in Hollywood down to 90 pound suffering from malnutrition. The work, the applause and her beauty gone she died of an overdose, accidentally or not was never determined, in 1948. Dead at age 42. She would be chastised for throwing away her good fortune, her beauty and opportunities.
Bubbles Vanilla Cloud with a Touch of Gold (specially made by Chef David Verzello in celebration of the showgirls featured Feuding Fan Dancers)
Recipe for Bubbles Vanilla Cloud with a Touch of Gold
2 Egg whites
2 Tablespoons of powdered sugar
2 drops vanilla extract
1 Bottle Blue Nun 24K Gold Edition Sparkling Wine
½ oz. Vanilla flavored Vodka
What to do:
Fill a Martini glass with Blue Nun 24K Gold Edition Sparkling Wine. Pour in the 1/2 oz. of Vanilla Vodka.
Put the egg whites, powdered sugar and vanilla in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a wire whisk. Beat until soft peaks develop. Spoon the vanilla cloud onto the top of the cocktail. Letting it float over the sparkling wine. Dust with gold flakes or edible glitter.
Zemeckis current book, Feuding Fan Dancers will be published October 2nd, 2018 about Sally Rand, Faith Bacon and the golden age of the showgirl. @Lesliezemeckis, www.lesliezemeckis.com Follow Leslie Zemeckis on IG and Twitter.