Mystery Photos Solved, Bonus Edition!

Cary O’Dell at the Library’s National Recording Registry runs our ever-popular Mystery Photo Contest. He most recently wrote about Florence McFadden. He’s back with a batch of solved mysteries.

Readers! We have a bonanza of solved Mystery Photo Contest entries!

You’ll remember that, with reader help, we recently identified actresses Wendy Phillips and Florence McFadden from our cache of unidentified photos. That stack, originally at more than 800, is now down to under 50.  I’ll be back with more of those puzzlers soon. But for now, I’m happy to report that some additional detective work—some might call it stalking— has revealed a few other identities.

The mystery photo of actor Bill Cable.

We long ago concluded that the handsome man at left was likely model and actor Bill Cable, but couldn’t confirm it. Along with being a 1970s model, Cable had several mall film roles, including “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” but he’s perhaps best remembered for being the man stabbed to death by (spoiler!) Sharon Stone in the opening scene of “Basic Instinct.” He was paralyzed in a 1996 motorcycle accident and died of complications two years later.

Since I couldn’t match our photo to any published picture, the only way to confirm the identity was to touch base with his friends and family.

This was  complicated as Cable left behind no widow or children. But, according to his obituary, he did leave behind a sister, a niece, a fiancé and a life-long friend, Michael Bongiorno. My attempts to locate Cable’s family and fiancé never panned out, but I did track down Bongiorno. When I e-mailed him the image, he took one look and said, “Yeah, that’s Bill.”

One down!

Joan Vadeboncoeur, a longtime entertainment reporter and film reviewer for the Syracuse Post-Standard.

Not everyone is in the film business, of course. One picture that had us stumped was the woman at right. She’s pictured on a snowy slope, eyes hidden by sunglasses against the glare. Most of our mystery photos are glamour shots, but this one is much more informal. It’s more like a vacation snapshot. As it happened, several other pictures I was investigating at the time turned out to be from Syracuse, N.Y., and, on a whim, I wondered if this one was, too.

So I posted it on a couple of Syracuse history Facebook groups. Someone suggested that it looked like a photo of a young Joan Vadeboncoeur, a longtime entertainment reporter and film reviewer for the Syracuse Post-Standard. Vadeboncoeur died in 2001 at the age of 78, with no immediate family. But when I touched base with the obit writer, he said he had worked with her. He looked at the photograph and  confirmed it was her. Solved!

The mysterious….Charles Brabin.

Another recent day on Facebook, my friend Steve Rydewski began posting a series of sepia-toned portraits of silent film directors. It dawned on me that perhaps I had been, in trying to ID some of my mysteries, looking on the wrong side of the camera. Perhaps the names that went with these faces weren’t actors but directors, writers or producers.

Inspired, I sent Steve the mystery picture at left. “Do you recognize this guy?” I asked. Steve, quickly: “I think it’s Charles Brabin.”

Brabin was a British-born silent film director, actor and screenwriter who began his career with Edison around 1906. Later, in Hollywood, he directed more than 100 silent or sound pictures (many of them shorts). But today, he is best known for who he married: Theda Bara, the great silent-screen vamp who starred in “Salome,” “Cleopatra” and dozens of others. She and Brabin married in 1921, bought a 900-acre estate in Nova Scotia and, by the mid-1930s, both had retired from the film business. They lived the rest of their lives in comfort on both the East and West Coasts. Bara died in 1955; Brabin died two years later.

The couple had no children, which made verification of the picture difficult. So I reached out to Bara’s biographer, Eve Golden, whose 1998 book, “Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara,” is the definitive work on the mysterious silent star. Golden, too, was convinced that the man in the photo was Brabin. To make sure, she passed it onto Brabin’s grandniece in England who, citing Brabin’s prominent nose among other physical aspects, said it was him for sure.

The British actor Michael Knowles.

Another one down! I was elated.

Speaking of the U.K, it occurred to me that perhaps one of the reasons I never had any luck identifying some of these head shots was that I had not expanded my search beyond the U.S.

Via Facebook, I joined several U.K.-based fan sites devoted to stars and starlets and began posting away. Two long-unknown photos got quick responses. One suggestion for the photo at right was the English actor Michael Knowles, who has been in everything from “Dad’s Army” to “Vampire’s Kiss.” When I reached out to the agent of the still-working Knowles (he’s 83), she said, “Yes, it’s him. Well spotted!”

It was from some of these same sites that I learned the identity of another photo. The actor Lex van Delden was born in the Netherlands and did most of his work in Europe, with only a few forays into the U.S. market in films such as “A Bridge Too Far.”

Lex van Delden.

Van Delden died in 2010 in Amsterdam. He was 63 and also left behind no spouse or children. But his father, also named Lex van Delden, was a hero of the Dutch resistance in World War II, an influential composer of classical music and is today the subject of several websites. I reached out to one of them. It is maintained by a long-time student of the senior van Delden, who also happened to have known the junior van Delden for his entire life.  When shown the photo, the friend had no doubts: “That’s him.”

Our final mystery photo was another that didn’t appear to be a celebrity glamour shot.  It was of a woman at work, holding two cans of paint in front of what appeared to be a mural on a brick wall. A production still from a film set under construction, perhaps?

As it turns out, no. In my stash of pictures, I had one that was taken from high in a building, overlooking a city at night. I posted it on one of my social media pages and asked for help identifying it. A reader said they spotted a “Rt. 322” road sign.  That highway goes through Pennsylvania. I tried various cities before I got it narrowed down to Harrisburg. Then, when I was researching Harrisburg, I saw that they had an annual mural festival and a light bulb went on over my head so bright you could see it from space!

The mystery photo of artist Toni Truesdale.

So I’m happy to introduce you to artist Toni Truesdale. She’s had a successful career as an artist and teacher, with dozens of one-woman shows and her murals hanging in nearly four dozen schools, universities and museums.  Her art, she says on her website, celebrates “women and the natural environment representing the diversity of world … I use beauty to evoke the female side of both history and mythology.”

She works from a studio in Maine these days. When I sent her the image at right, she recognized it right away as a three-story mural she was painting on the side of hotel — “single-handed I must add” — in Harrisburg in either 1974 or 1975.

So! A whopping half dozen mysteries solved.

I still have about 45 unknown photos, though. Some probably will never be solved; I think some of these show biz careers began and ended with the photo. Still, someone must know something, someone must know this face or that face. And, trust me, I plan to find out, so join me when we post the next batch of mystery photos next month.

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5 Comments

  1. Bobby Ekizian
    September 1, 2020 at 11:56 am

    Nice work! If ever there was good natured fun on the Internet it is THIS! I think it is an important part of knowing history and quite often the side-players are left unidentified. What you are actually demonstrating is the amazing facet of people who cared about getting History right! That is inspiring!

  2. Karen G
    September 1, 2020 at 12:38 pm

    What a delightful blog. I am so intrigued by your resourcefulness in tracking down the slightest clue. You often think outside the box, which is what identification of a subject in a photo seems to sometimes require. Keep it up, Sherlock!

  3. Anna
    September 1, 2020 at 1:44 pm

    Thank you very much for these entertaining blogs. All of these mysteries solved makes for such a satisfying read. And while I am very happy to know that you have almost finished with these puzzles, I do hope you uncover another treasure trove somewhere in the Library basement. What will you do once all of these mysteries are solved?! Cheers.

  4. Gifh
    September 20, 2020 at 4:30 pm

    Love it

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