The death of Essanay star Vedah Bertram marks one of the earliest tragedies the film industry had to deal with. When she died at just 20 years old, she had already traveled across the country to follow her dream and had managed to hold her own on the screen with the likes of Broncho Billy himself, G.M. Anderson. But because she had been disowned by her father, she was forced to keep her real identity a secret until just before her untimely death.
Born to Jennie and Jerome Buck in New York in December 1891, Bertram’s real name was Adele Buck. In a few short years, Jerome would become a respected journalist in the Boston and New York areas, and a well respected member of high society, but by 1900 the couple had split. By that time, Adele was living with her mother, brother, grandmother and step-grandfather, and by 1910, her mother and father were both completely out of the picture. Her father remarried, but her mother appears to have died between 1900 and 1910, leaving Adele and her younger brother Jerome Jr. to be raised by their grandparents. She was educated at Wellesley College, where she graduated in 1911, and it was at Wellesley where she discovered her love of theater.
She took to the stage against her family’s wishes, and instead lived with her fiance’s family, the Merrills, while she pursued work on the stage. It was during this time that she was discovered by G.M. Anderson, co-founder of the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company. Despite being new to the world of film, she greatly impressed him and he hired her to join the Western studio and star alongside him in his Broncho Billy films. She accepted and she and her fiance, L.H. Merrill, moved west to Niles, California to begin anew. She changed her name to Vedah Bertram and kept her true identity secret to avoid being linked back to her family.
Anderson was soon gushing to the fan magazines about his “find,” and the reporters took to Bertram, too. They admired her personality, her athleticism and her clever acting ability. She made her debut in “The Ranch Girl’s Mistake,” released in March of 1912, and became an instant favorite among film-goers. She only had a few films under her belt, when she was admitted to the hospital in April due to a severe illness, but her absence from the screen was noticed by fans and reporters alike. The Moving Picture World noted she had “a warm place in the hearts of film lovers for her talent and beauty,” and all were relieved when she recovered the following month and returned to pictures in “The Desert Sweetheart.”
Although she continued to make films, she was in poor health, and by August she once again fell severely ill. The Spokane Daily Chronicle reported that she had suffered a breakdown shortly before being stricken with appendicitis. As her condition worsened, she was rushed into surgery at Samuel Merritt Hospital in Oakland. Before going under the knife, she revealed her real name and her family, telling hospital staff that they were only to contact her family if she didn’t survive. As her condition became critical, fan magazines raved about her most recent performance in “Broncho Billy’s Last Hold-Up” where she, ironically, comforted a dying Broncho Billy in his final moments. “Vedah is forceful, crafty and altogether charming,” the Moving Picture World noted, and held out hope that she would one day return to the screen.
Scene from "Broncho Billy's Last Hold-Up," featuring Vedah Bertram
Unfortunately, “Broncho Billy’s Last Hold-Up” would be one of her final performances. She died August 26, 1912 at the age of 20, and was mourned by the film industry and film-going public alike. Her father and brother were notified of her death via telegram, and Merrill took her body back to the East coast to be buried in Sheepshead, New York. Her final film “Broncho Billy Outwitted” was released posthumously, and fan magazines all over the country declared her one of the cleverest actresses the motion picture world had known.
For weeks following her death, fans sent letters and verses in her honor to fan magazines which were reportedly forwarded on to her family. One fan, cited only as W.F.B., told Motion Picture Story Magazine that they were still watching Bertram’s films. The editor simply replied, “Glad that you still see pictures with Vedah Bertram in them. Life is short, and art is long.”