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OPINION | OLD NEWS: 1899 Arkansas Gazette contest unlocks mystery of ambitious Miss Eula Branch

by Celia Storey | April 18, 2022 at 8:25 a.m.
From the July 18, 1899, Arkansas Gazette, this coupon was a ballot in a popularity contest for girls who wanted to attend the Maddox Seminary boarding school in Little Rock. (Democrat-Gazette archives)

Long before screenwriter Ouida Bergere married actor Basil Rathbone and became Ouida Rathbone, Hollywood hostess extraordinaire, she was a Little Rock girl named Eula May Branch.

This was more than 100 years ago; and we talked about her here last week (see But she's still news to me.

My plan for today's column was to summarize her early stage career and highlight some of the 40 silent films that IMDb says she wrote from 1915 to 1923. Many of them played in Arkansas theaters, including "Bella Donna," a 1923 hit for European sex siren Pola Negri.

But a juicy summary of movie stuff is not happening here. What's happening is more of my dogged attempts to vet facts about this once famous Arkansan's childhood. And I do apologize. Well documented life histories are tedious to read. I can't even offer as consolation the idea that Eula/Ouida's life is not well documented, because she's plenty documented — just not very well.

For instance, when and where was she born? Census records indicate Eula May Branch was born in Arkansas, but Ouida Bergere claimed she was born in Madrid and resided through age 8 in Europe. If we can believe a text transcript of her Social Security application, which was filed in 1967 at New York, she gave her birthdate as Dec. 14, 1896. Based on her age in the 1910 Census, she was born in 1888. But after she died on Nov. 29, 1974, her obituary said she was 88 years old, and if that was true, she lied to Uncle Sam. She would have been born in 1885.

So who knows? But the year 1885 has led some researchers to a 1900 Census listing for one Eunie Branch, an Arkansas girl who lived on Spruce Street in Searcy with two brothers. But Eunie can't have been Eula/Ouida, as I will explain in a bit.

A few facts we can feel sure about:

 ◼️ Her father was Stephen Walker Branch, born in White County, and her mother was Lou Ida Branch, born in Tennessee. Last week I said both were from Tennessee, but my source on that was the 1900 Census listing for Eunie Branch, which I now reject.

 ◼️ Eula had one brother, named Bernice Cleveland "B.C." Branch, born in 1890 in Scott.

◼️ In 1905, she married R.H. Burgess of Clarendon and became Eula Burgess.

◼️ Eula began acting in earnest in 1906, as Ouida Bergere. The June 24, 1906, Gazette reported that "Miss Eula Branch of Little Rock is making her appearance with Fay Templeton's company in 'Forty-five Minutes From Broadway' at the Colonial [theater] in Chicago." Small stage roles followed in Boston and New York.

◼️ The Burgesses divorced before the 1910 Census, which found 23-year-old Eula Burgess at 1501 Rock St. in Little Rock with her parents and brother B.C.

◼️ In 1911 she had a part in a Broadway play, "The Stranger," a melodrama; it lasted for 28 performances at The Bijou. But she found employment writing scenarios and screen adaptations for silent movies.

◼️ In 1916, in Brooklyn, a truck collided with her car, which turned turtle, pinning her. Although seriously hurt, she recovered.

◼️ She married George Fitzmaurice in 1918 or 1919 while employed as a scenario writer for Pathes Freres. She lived in Paris and London; she ran a production studio; she ran up debts. They divorced.

◼️ In 1926 she married Rathbone. She also declared bankruptcy in 1926; The New York Times listed her creditors, including merchants in London, San Francisco, Paris and New York.

◼️ The Rathbones gave lavish parties in Beverly Hills and Los Angeles.


Eula May Branch's mother was born Lou Ida Williams. The 1900 Census lists Lou Ida as a housewife at Williams Township in Lonoke County who had given birth to three children with only two still alive.

Census enumerators made mistakes, but we can trust this enumerator: He was none other than Stephen W. Branch.

Some biographies note that the 1900 Census found that girl Eunie Branch in Searcy with brothers Rufus and John Branch and that she was the future Ouida Rathbone. Curiously, the text transcript of that Census record says Eunie was age 4 and a naturalized citizen, which would help Ouida Rathbone's story of being born in Madrid. But the written record clearly says Eunie was 14 and born in Arkansas. The parents of these three younger Branches were both born in Tennessee.

Adding up Eunie, her two brothers and Eula May's for-sure little brother B.C., we get four live children — two too many, assuming Stephen knew how many kids his wife had. Eunie was not Eula.


So, where was Eula for the 1900 Census? She was a student at a girls arts academy in Little Rock, the Maddox Seminary. It was a boarding school.

In July 1899, the Gazette announced a popularity contest for Arkansas girls who did not reside in Little Rock. The grand prize was a $300 scholarship to Maddox Seminary, a piano, free dental work, photography and some shoes. The first time the name "Eula May Branch" appears in the Gazette is a letter published July 29, 1899, from "A Candidate at Scott, Ark."

To the Editor of the Gazette.

Please allow me space in the candidate column for the Maddox Seminary scholarship and a No. 2 Kimball piano to announce myself a candidate. Yours truly,

Eula May Branch

Readers voted for their favorite girl by submitting ballots called "coupons" that appeared daily in the Gazette from July 5 to Sept. 1. A copy of the Gazette then cost 5 cents. On Aug. 9, Eula's father ponied up 1,049 ballots in her name. By mid-August, her total was 1,155 — $57.75 worth of Gazettes.

[Gallery not showing? Click here:]

Although most of the other 38 girls had fewer votes, it became clear from the daily ballot counts that she was unlikely to win; she dropped out. The winner, Virgie Holderness of Fordyce, mustered 44,837 coupons ($2,241.85). The Gazette declared her "the most popular young lady in Arkansas."

But when Maddox Seminary opened that fall with 80 boarders, it seems that Eula was among them. In May 1901, she played Anita, an Italian waif, in the school play "Our Girls in Camp," a three-act comedy directed by elocution mistress Mrs. T.T. Cotnam.

In May 1903, Eula was Mrs. Honeyton to Miss Eula Spivey's Mr. Honeyton in "A Happy Pair," another school play. Note that she was one of two Eulas in school. How unexciting did that make the name "Eula May" sound to an aspiring actress?


Details of her biography were in flux by March 1910, when a Boston newspaper reviewed a stage play, "Via Wireless," in which she was a "dainty typist." The reviewer celebrated "the return of Ouida Bergere to her native city":

"Possessed of beauty, youth and vivacity, she has made a notable figure in every production in which she has appeared and even the most conservative of critics agree that it will be but a short time before this charming young Boston Belle will see her name in the electric letters that proclaim the 'star.'"

A week later, the Gazette rebutted that report, noting that Ouida Bergere was a stage name:

"Miss Branch, however, is not a native of Boston, but for a time was at school there. She was born and reared in Little Rock and her father lives at Fifteenth and Rock streets. She was educated partly at Maddox Seminary in this city, afterward attending Ouachita College at Searcy and schools at Bowling Green, Ky., and Boston, Mass."

How about we spend one more week on Eula/Ouida to find out what she thought — or said she thought — as an A-list party-giver in Old Hollywood? I promise, no more talk of Census records. Check this space April 25.


 Gallery: Ouida Bergère aka Eula May Branch

Print Headline: On Eula Branch growing up in LR


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