After finishing my blog on Vera Steadman, I went back to my favorites and selected another person I had saved from FindAGrave.Com’s necrology list. This happened to be Otto. My preparatory research into Otto showed that he had been born in 1886 in Prague, Bohemia (Austria-Hungary). This area is now the Czech Republic. He had an extremely prolific career, which included acting, some directing and later he even became a well-known make-up artist. His most notable movie was probably The Jazz Singer, the first full-length movie with sound added. During my later research I found tons of reviews in the newspapers that were always very positive regarding his roles.
He had married three times during his life, the first being to Gretchen Lederer, another well-known and popular actress of the time. Later he had married a Segunda Yriondo and then a Florita Mernci. Finally, he died in 1965 in Woodland Hills, California.
Like Vera Steadman’s blog, I am going to do this one as a timeline of his life. The research into Otto had me jumping around all over the place and I even had to create a second tree online because of something I’d found. As a result I don’t really recall when I discovered what. So for better or worse, here goes.
Otto was born 17 April 1886. The first record I was able to find of him was when he departed Hamburg, Germany aboard the SS Patricia on 13 September 1902 to emigrate to America. This also matches his later naturalization paperwork. The ship’s manifest shows him as an 18 year old single male born in Prague. Here is the list: Otto 1902 Departure. Try as I might, I was never able to find him on the ship’s listing when it reached New York. I have to assume that the page with him on it may have been missing. I’ve seen this before.
The next time I found him was the 1910 US Census. He is living in Springfield, Massachusetts with his wife, Grete (Gretchen) and his son, Leroy. It shows Otto as 24 years old, on his first marriage and that they got married about 1907. It also says he is Yiddish and his current occupation is caterer. Grete is 19 and has had one child. She is German, arrived in America in about 1906 and both she and Otto speak English. Finally, Leroy is a little under two years old and was born in California. 1910 Census
Otto’s 1910 Census was done in April, however when I later found his naturalization application from 1916 the first page showed that he had declared his intent to become a citizen back in September of 1910 and that he was living at the time at 2917 Prospect Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio and his occupation was as a steward. Naturalized Page1. I was never able to find anything else about his time in Cleveland.
Coincidentally, when he actually applied for citizenship in 1916, he and Grete were again living at 4635 Prospect Avenue. This time though, it was in Los Angeles. Also, this time his occupation was listed as an actor. Naturalized Page2. He officially became a citizen on 23 February 1917. Naturalized Page3.
I found a news article from December of 1914 discussing Grete being picked up by the studios in Universal City. Grete’s News And here is a picture of Grete.
During the 1910s, I found Otto in two city directories in California. The first was in 1915. He is listed as a photoplayer for Vitograph. 1915 Directory. The next was in 1917 and confirms his Prospect Avenue address from his citizenship papers. 1917 Directory
As near as I could tell, Otto and Grete separated or divorced around the 1915 (more on this in updates below). This is also evident when on 12 September 1918, Otto filled out his WW1 draft card. He lists his next of kin as his son LeRoy, who was currently attending Westlake Military School in Santa Monica. Otto has also moved to 1852 Hillhurst Avenue in Los Angeles. WW1 Draft Card
Speaking of Grete, I found numerous newspaper articles about her. This one from August of 1918 was interesting and talking about the fact that she had recently become a citizen and was very patriotic towards America, even though she was from Germany. Notice also that it never mentions Otto. Aug 1918 Article
Continuing with Grete, on 29 Dec 1918 she married John Francis Shepek. His son, John Jr., became a cinematographer during the 1930s. I was anxious to see this document because I did not yet have her maiden name. She signed it with the last name as either Schalbensale or Schalbensole. I later saw variations of this name. I also later saw mention that she had done earlier performances using her mother’s maiden name. Even as I write this I still don’t know her true last name. Notice also that she oddly gives zero information about her parents on the marriage document: Grete Marriage 2
On 20 August 1919 Otto applied for his passport for the purpose of his acting work and he planned on visiting The Phillipines, Japan, China, Hong Kong, India and the Straits Settlements. I wasn’t aware of this last one but here is a link to more info on it: The Straits In the first page of the passport application it also listed Otto’s father, Norbert, who is deceased. Passport Page One
Page two gives his age and description and also asks for his passport to be sent to the Universal Film Manufacturing Company in Universal City, California. Here’s a link to an interesting read about Universal: Universal History
Page two of the passport application also included Otto’s passport photo. Passport Page Two
For the 1920 Census, taken in January, Otto was gone on his trip overseas. Grete, however, was living at 1935 LaSalle Avenue in Los Angeles with her new husband, her son and two step-children. Notice that her son Roy is now listed with the surname Shepek. He ended up using this name the rest of his life. His middle name later turned out to be Norbert, after Otto’s father. Grete’s 1920 Census
Otto got married again on 6 October 1925 to Segunda (Maruri) Yriondo, whose husband Ramon had passed away a few months earlier. She had come over to America in March of 1908 and married Ramon Yriondo shortly thereafter. They had three children that I know of. The first, Ramon, died the same day he was born in December 1910. They next had a daughter, Benedicta Ramona in 1911 and Paquita Theresa in 1913. Segunda’s parents are listed on her marriage document to Otto, albeit incorrectly. Ignoring the misspellings, her father was Bonafacio Maruri and Francesa De Archaval. Otto’s parents are also listed. Besides his father, Norbert, his mother was listed as Elizabeth Eckstein. Marriage Page One Marriage Page Two
Apparently all didn’t go well between Otto and Segunda and within a few years they filed for divorce. The initial divorce was granted 10 July 1929 with the finalization due the following year. This information comes from a news story: 1929 DivorceNews
Oddly enough, they were back together again the following year for the 1930 Census. They were living at 2461 Gower Street in Los Angeles, which makes sense since this was not far from Universal Studios. In this census Otto is now listed as a make-up technician. The only child living with them is Segunda’s youngest daughter, Pequita, who is 16. Here is a picture of Pequita:
The fact that Otto and Segunda had reconciled before the divorce was final was confirmed when I found this news story from January of 1933: Divorce Again
Confusion persists about their marriage and I was unable to confirm any final decree granted. Part of this confusion comes from the fact of them still being listed together in the city directory as late as 1936. You’ll find them in the first column: 1936 Directory
After 1936 Segunda and Otto disappeared from the city directories so I assume that’s about the time of the divorce. I found them both separately in the 1940 Census. Segunda was living in Los Angeles and was now listed as divorced. She also had a divorced sister living with her named Carmen. Segunda 1940 Census
Otto’s 1940 Census turned out quite interesting. He is living in Los Angeles, divorced and now listed as a make-up artist instead of a make-up technician like in the 1930 Census. The really interesting part was the guy living with him. He is William Laurens, born in Czechoslavakia in 1883 and is shown as Otto’s brother. He has also apparently only arrived in America within the last five years. Further research into him lead me to his Social Security application where his parents were listed as Nathanial Lederer and Sophia Eckstein. I also found his WW2 draft card from 1942 and he was still living at that time with Otto. I didn’t pursue him any farther however. I had bigger fish to fry, namely Otto’s next wife. Otto 1940 Census
At this point I need to catch you up on Grete and their son, Leroy. I was unable to find Grete in the 1930 Census but I did find her second husband, John Shepek. Apparently they had separated by this time as he is a lodger in Santa Monica but still listed as married. I did find Grete though in the Anaheim, California city directories from 1933 on. She is listed in them as Mrs Grete Shepek and is living at the Hotel Pleasant. If you’re interested in the city directories here they are: 1933 1934 1935 1936
Sometime in 1936 or 1937 Grete married the owner of the hotel, Lewis Herbert Haney. I was unable to find a marriage record but in 1937 she starts showing up as Haney’s wife in the city directories and in the 1940 Census. 1937 1938 1939 1940 Census
She and Lewis remained married until she passed away on 20 Dec 1955. Grete’s Obit
As near as I can tell, Leroy and Lillian never had any children as they have none in the 1940 Census and I found no other records for them. Speaking of their 1940 Census, it was taken on 20 April. It shows them both and that Roy is employed as an aircraft mechanic. Roy just happened to die the very next day. I was never able to find anything about how he died though. Lillian remarried a couple times before passing away in Los Angeles in 1960. Roy’s 1940 Census
So now we finally move on to this Florita Mernci. I was totally unable to find this woman using that name so I used her married name of Lederer. Hopefully it would open up some doors to her life. The first thing I found was her marriage on 30 March 1946 to Jeronimo Villarino. He was a world-class flamenco guitarist and much can be found online about him. Looking at the marriage I realized the Mernci name was a mis-transcription of her maiden name, Maruri. Then, seeing her parents listed, I realized that she was Segunda’s sister. This in and of itself was odd enough as I don’t know too many women that would marry a sister’s ex-husband, but it was what it was. Page two confirmed to me that she was family when I discovered the witnesses were Segunda’s daughter, Paquita and her husband: Marriage Page One Marriage Page Two
After this I went back to looking for her and Otto. What I found next was very odd. She was listed in the 1940 and 1941 city directories as Mrs Florita Lederer. Florita 1940 Florita 1941 It was the correct woman because it was the same 2552 Dearborn address that she used in her marriage record with Jeronimo Villarino. The weird part was that Otto is listed as divorced in the 1940 census and this was due to his divorce from Segunda. Something didn’t add up. All of a sudden I got an idea because I knew the Dearborn address had looked familiar to me when I saw it on the marriage record. I went back to Segunda’s 1940 Census. It was the same address. So after all this, it turned out that Segunda and Florita were the same person! Otto had only ever been married twice, not three times.
Further searches into Segunda only revealed a few trips with her new husband, the last one being a trip to and back from Spain in 1955. Sometimes on these trips she referred to herself as Flora and sometimes as Segunda. After this I found nothing and even though I found many newspaper articles about Jeronimo, not a single one ever mentioned his wife.
The next and last that I found Otto was his 1942 WW2 draft card. He’s living at 3356 Charleston Way in Hollywood. He’s still employed by Universal but he has listed a friend as his point of contact instead of his brother, who was still living with him at this time. Otto’s WW2 Draft Card
I never found anything else, not even an obituary in the newspaper. He died 3 September 1965 in Woodland Hills and was buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. Strangely, he was buried in Grete’s last husband’s mausoleum along with Grete, Leroy, and Grete’s husband. Here is the tomb plaque:
With the lack of items about him after the 1940s I have to wonder if he became another forgotten silent film star or was I just unlucky with the records and newspapers during the 1950s and 1960s? All things considered, Otto’s research was one of the more enjoyable ones for me. If anyone out there has more on him please let me know so I can pass it on.
Update 19 Jun 2016: If you have read my blog on Josephine Joseph and also read the updates you would have met a sharp, young man in California named Bradford Smith, a reader who had emailed me with some information for that blog. He contacted me recently with some information for Otto’s blog. Earlier in the blog research I had found a few items that showed Otto’s son (Roy) being a wrestler. The few items I found lead me to believe his career wasn’t long and that he wasn’t that good. Bradford got more into it and was able to discover that he fought for at least five years and had 112 matches, but with 25 wins and 49 losses.
Update 26 Oct 2016: Found Segunda’s death today. She died in Ventura County in California on 31 Aug 1969.
Update 23 Jun 2017: I was recently contacted by a great-niece of Otto’s and as a result I did some digging into the family line of Otto’s sister Martha. During this research I stumbled upon an interesting story from October of 1912 concerning Otto’s divorce from Gretchen. In it they are fighting for custody of their son and it is revealed that when they had gotten married they had only gotten the marriage license but had never actually gotten married. Otto claims that he was under the impression that they had gotten married. Here is the story in two parts: Part1 Part2
Thanks for stopping by! -Ray
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