My American Cousin – On Stage at the Grand Opera House, 1925
Historical research can sometimes lead an unsuspecting practitioner into surprising territory. My continuing digging into the social history of movie-going in Peterborough has led me to a little piece of unexpected news: how a distant relative of mine once appeared on the largest and most prominent stage of the city.
The story begins with the name “Truax.” Everyone in North America with that name – and its variations, such as “Truex” – can trace their lineage back to one Philippe du Trieux, who was born around 1586 in what is now Roubaix, France (then the Lower Netherlands) and died in North America somewhere between 1649 and 1653. Philippe was a Protestant Walloon who fled religious persecution in Europe and arrived as a refugee on one of the first Dutch ships to reach New Amsterdam in May 1624.
Philippe made that difficult voyage across the sea with his second wife Susannah du Chesne and two children. He got a small piece of property on what was, of course, contested Indigenous territory but would eventually become Manhattan Island. The scanty historical record shows that in 1638 he was appointed “court messenger” of New Amsterdam. He would go on to have another seven children, and all of them together set off a chain explosion of descendants down through the ages. By the third generation the name du Trieux had been Americanized to Truax and Truex and other variations.
My mother’s maiden name was Esther Merva Truax, which means that she and I and everyone else in our family near and far are descendants of this same Philippe du Trieux (you can look it up! – there’s a website). My grandfather was farmer Thomas Godfrey Truax, of Cresswell, Ont., and if I trace my lineage back through the generations, that makes Philippe du Trieux my great-grandfather times seven. I can’t say that I ever really knew him. One of Philippe’s sons, Isaac Du Trieux (1642–1702), was my great-grandfather times six. (He moved his family north to Schenectady, N.Y.)
Not long ago in a cedar chest left to me by my mother, I found a hardcover book that had been owned by my mother’s sister, my Aunt Reta Sarah Truax. The book is an autobiography: A Woman of Parts: Memories of a Life on Stage, by Sarah Truax. It was published by Longmans, Green and Co., New York, London, Toronto, in 1949.
My Aunt Reta, who never married, was a voracious reader. She belonged to a book of the month club and was always leaving books at our house when she came to visit. If she hadn’t left behind the Sarah Truax book, I might never have known about my semi-famous relative.
The refugee Philippe du Trieux was Sarah Truax’s great-grandfather times five.
Sarah lived from 1872 to 1958. She was of the same generation of Truaxes (the eighth) as my grandfather, Thomas Godfrey Truax (1866–1945). My branch of the family ended up moving from New York State up to the Eastern Townships area of Quebec and then into Central Ontario. Sarah’s branch remained in the United States. She was born either in Cincinnati or just across the Ohio River in Covington, but raised in Chicago. In her later life she lived in Spokane and then Seattle, Washington.
The heroine of Lady Godiva, Sarah writes in her book, "was the lady of the abundant locks and the sensational horseback ride." According to legend, Lady Godiva, Countess of Mercia, had taken a ride naked through the streets of Coventry, covered only by her long hair, to protest the oppressive taxation that her husband was imposing on his tenants. "A major problem" in the play, Sarah says, "was how to clothe her in something besides her modesty and flowing tresses, but the dramatist was equal to the occasion." For the ride she was "lightly draped in a fleecy garment."
The Pittsburgh Press was, quite typically of its time, effusive in its praise. “Nothing that has ever appeared at the Grand Opera House has drawn more aristocratic or larger audiences,” the newspaper commented. “And not a single actor or actress who ever appeared in Pittsburgh has been more popularly received than Miss Truax. She has been given an ovation at every performance, and has been shown that her superior ability is thoroughly appreciated.”
Sarah Truax was a big-time (though not Broadway) actress, mostly employed in leading roles by travelling stock companies from her debut at age seventeen in 1894 to the 1920s. She was famous enough for a major publisher to print her autobiography in 1949, though I suspect it was never a best-seller. A New York Times review noted, “This work is of interest chiefly to collectors of theatre Americana.” Well, and then maybe of interest also to all of the thousands of Truaxes in North America.
When I became immersed in a study of Peterborough theatres and movie-going, I began to wonder if Sarah had ever appeared on the stage here. I thought it unlikely. She doesn’t mention it in her autobiography, though she does speak of a couple of stops in Toronto. Sarah also appeared in two silent motion pictures, but they were of limited interest and so far as I know were never screened in Peterborough.
For my research I had been slowly working my way through the Peterborough newspapers, beginning with the first motion picture screening at Bradburn’s Opera House in January 1897. When I finally arrived at the Examiner for Nov. 4, 1925, I had a quite pleasant surprise.
There (her last name slightly blotted out on this copy) was “Sarah Truax,” my distant American cousin, supporting “the distinguished star,” William Faversham (also a fairly popular motion picture actor of the time), in an “unusual attraction.”
Another ad appeared the following day.
These days actress Sarah Truax appears to be almost forgotten. Yet in the first two decades of the twentieth century she was an important and prominent stock company actress who had the leading female role in almost 150 different plays performed on stages around the United States and Canada. In the mid-1910s she appeared in two silent films, one of them with a young Dorothy Gish. She appeared on stage with the distinguished stage actor Tyrone Power (the elder, not to be confused with the younger Tyrone, of Hollywood movie fame).
And then – as the newspaper entries revealed – there she was, turning up, at age fifty-three, on the stage in Peterborough; and I am left to wonder if her farming relatives living in the nearby countryside knew about it.
The musical play Foot-Loose was written by Zöe Akins (who also wrote the play How to Marry a Millionaire). Foot-Loose had opened on Broadway in May 1920 (with the more famous Tallulah Bankhead in the leading role) and played for only 32 performances. It somehow survived that lacklustre start and went on the road, in a variety of different productions, and arrived finally at Peterborough’s Grand Opera House, for one night only, on Thursday, Nov. 12, 1925. Along with the English headliner, William Faversham, Sarah Truax was billed as “one of the cleverest of our present gay crop of younger actresses” – although she was in fact getting to the end of her career.
Following the performance, a review declared that her “conception” of her character “was most skilfully artistic.” Indeed, the reviewer noted, “The big role of the play is not Mr. Faversham’s part, full of interest as the latter is, but rather the role of the Marquise of Mobrivart, most brilliantly played last night by Miss Sarah Truax.”
Later on Sarah Truax described the role as her “swan song as a professional actress on the road.” She had taken up a spot in the cast that had been recently vacated by the more famous Ottawa-born Margaret Anglin (a frequent visitor to the Peterborough stage). “It meant something to follow Margaret Anglin in a role,” Sarah wrote, “as I had done on so many occasions before in stock engagements.” She recalled that she “loved” the part, even though “it meant again doing the stellar female role while a man, in a lesser role, was to be the star.” Sound familiar?
She did have something of a gender analysis, I’m glad to say. She got a mention in a list of actresses who in the years of the early suffrage movement, according to scholar Suzanne W. Collins, “combined feminist efforts with opportunities for exposure and publicity that their profession afforded them.” At the time doing so was quite controversial. (The better-known Lillian Russell was one of the others mentioned.) As early as 1902 she became closely involved in the Professional Women's League, formed by actors and writers as a kind of support group for their work. Although she admits in her memoirs that she had to be persuaded to join in the fight – believing in those days that discrimination did not operate “in the theater” as it did in most professions – in March 1913 Sarah went out onto the streets of New York City to march with over five thousand people and appear in a woman’s suffrage pageant (in which she represented “Justice”).
She was also aware of her Truax/du Trieux lineage. Once, while appearing in London, England, she met up with a man she described as “my somewhat removed cousin.” It was the Hollywood character actor Ernest Truex, described in the industry as the “meek” and “ultimate milquetoast and ineffectual boss in comedy outings.” Truex’s career in films lasted, quite remarkably, from Caprice in 1913 (with Mary Pickford) to Fluffy in 1965. He was in the classic His Girl Friday (1940) and became a regular on the 1950s TV series Mr. Peepers.
“Ernest Truex and I sprang from the same French Huguenots who found refuge in this country in the 1600’s,” Sarah wrote in her autobiography, not getting it quite exactly right. “One branch changed the name Du Treux [sic] to Truex, and one to Truax. The Londoners like this diminutive comedian very much.”
Sarah died in Seattle at age eighty-one in 1958. The very end of her autobiography includes a thought for those who would come after: “I can see clearly the theater of the future – a theater built on the enthusiasm and the labors of earnest devotees who in ever-increasing numbers will continue to write, produce, and interpret plays.” She wrote that seventy years ago – but today it puts me in mind of those many friends and acquaintances in Peterborough's thriving multi-generational theatre community who are doing that very thing.
 An Internet search yields brief on-line biographies and occasional notices of theatre appearances. There is no full biography or article about her that I could find. While there are many brief mentions of her, the bulk of Google finds are old newspaper reports or reviews, from the first decade of the twentieth century, of the plays she appeared in, from Pittsburgh (site of her first major triumphs?) to Boston, Ithaca, N.Y. (Cornell Daily Sun), Louisville, Kentucky, Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, and Spokane. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) has her birth and death dates (with what seems to be the wrong birthdate), plus a listing of two movies she appeared in, a citation of two articles in its “Publicity Mentions,” and an alternative name spelling (“Truex”). The two articles are “Trimble Engages Players for New Company,” Moving Picture World, May 25, 1918, p. 1152; and J. Van Cartmell, “Along the Pacific Coast [to debut in Jordan Is a Hard Road’ for Fine Arts],” New York Dramatic Mirror, Aug. 25, 1915, p.33:2.
Peterborough Examiner, Nov. 4, 1925, p.11; Examiner, Nov. 5, 1925, p.15; “At the Grand,” Nov. 13, 1925, p.17.
Pittsburgh Press, June 1, 1902, p.29.
New York Times, March 3, 1913: “Women await order to fall in line; over 5,000 will participate in pageant, seeking to advance suffrage cause – Floats Will Tell a Story – Depict Various Stages of Women’s Fight for the Vote – Capital Filling Up.”
Margaret Mayorga, “Modest Lady in Buskin: A Woman of Parts,” The New York Times, Oct. 9, 1949.
Sarah Truax, A Woman of Parts: Memories of a Life on Stage (New York, London, Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co., 1949), esp. pp.114-16, 144, 217, 240.
Suzanne W. Collins, “Calling All Stars: Emerging Political Authority and Cultural Policy in the Propaganda Campaign of World War I,” Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 2008.
"Sarah Truax, Actress and Noted Supporter of Women's Accomplishments," Journal of the Association of Philippe du Trieux Descendants, vol. 35, no.1 (Spring 2017), p.3.
Association of Philippe du Trieux Descendants, http://philippedutrieux.com/.