By Ken Zurski
On October 19, 1915, Hollywood silent movie actress Anita King pulled into Times Square in New York City and became the first woman on record to drive a touring vehicle solo across the country.
She broke no speed record – 48 days – but was she really trying? Movie giant Paramount Studios sought publicity for the stunt and publicity is exactly what they got. The papers were all over it. “Colorful, convoluted and contradictory” is how one writer described King’s elaborate and perhaps embellished tales from the road.
But it was never boring.
King made stops at over a hundred Paramount theaters and graciously greeted well wishers along the way. But in between – and for most of the 3,000-plus mile journey – the 30-year-old, curly-haired blonde, still had to drive long stretches by herself, on paved and unpaved roads, and in all types of weather. In the Sierra Mountains, she recalled, a tramp tried to hitch a ride. “I wouldn’t permit myself to show how frightened I was,” King said. “I handed him a flask of whiskey I had in the car and told him to come to the theater where I was appearing the next night.” He did, according to King, bringing a bouquet of picked flowers with him.
Some of the reports were bleak.
King “wilted in the heat,” went one newspaper account.
“She was nearly a goner” read another.
Each story King told reporters seemed to be more extraordinary than the next. In one harrowing incident, just outside of Reno, the car’s tires became stuck in the mud. King spent hours trying to shovel them out, but got nowhere. Then suddenly, she was not alone. A “mad coyote” joined her company. “Gee it looked as big as a horse,” she explained. “I finally killed him, and knew nothing more until I was picked up by prospectors, who heard the shots of my gun.”
King was born to immigrant parents who settled in Michigan City, Indiana. Her father committed suicide in 1896 when she was 12 years old and only two years after that her mother succumbed to tuberculosis. King was a grief-stricken teenager and an orphan. She moved from Michigan City to Chicago where she found work as a model and actress. In 1908, at the age of 24, she traveled to California and became fascinated with motor vehicles. She competed in a few auto races but after an accident decided to concentrate on her acting career instead. She appeared in a couple of comedic films, bit parts really, but nothing star making.
That’s when she heard her boss, motion picture producer John L. Lasky, talking about the Lincoln Highway, the newly opened coast to coast route between San Francisco and New York City that ran through 13 states.
Although it was dedicated in 1913, the road was still a work in progress and Lasky said – perhaps jokingly – that it would be at least ten years before the highway would be in such shape that a lady could make the drive without difficulty.
King chimed in. She could drive a car and she could make the trip now. Seeing the promotional value in the stunt, Lasky was on board telling her he would pay for it and secure a major sponsorship with the Kissel Motor Car Co. for transportation, a machine built for endurance and advertised as “every inch a car” and an “all-year vehicle.” King’s job was to act like a “movie star” and in return, Lasky promised, he would make her one.
King was ecstatic.
Dubbed “The Paramount Girl,” in the papers, King drove the Kissel Kar with a “new set of Firestone tires,” another Lasky sponsor. “There will be nobody with her,” the Los Angeles Times reported, “her only companions will be a rifle and six shooter.”
The trip began appropriately in front of Lasky’s Paramount studios in Hollywood.
When she arrived in New York City, King received a hero’s welcome. She was the honored guest at a ceremonial dinner and shook hands with dignitaries. In typical fashion though, the city’s newspapers, while celebratory, were skeptical too. “Miss King, in spite of being on the road from September 1 to yesterday, had no marks of tan or sunburn,” the New York Sun questioned. King explained she used grease paint on her face all the time. “I was determined I wouldn’t come into New York City with a red nose,” she said.
King became a darling celebrity and a movie titled ”The Race” starring King and Victor Moore went immediately into production. It was released the following year.
Much to Lasky’s surprise, the film was a disappointment. It got poor reviews and ran for only a week. King’s true-life exploits on the road, as it turned out, just weren’t as interesting on the silver screen.
King however remembered the groundbreaking trip fondly. In an interview, she recalled meeting a young girl on the side of the road who had packed a bag and wanted to runaway with King to the movies. From the heart, King gave her a lesson in humility.
“I would give the world to have what you have right there in that home,” she said.
Then King got back in her car, waved goodbye to the little girl, and drove off to her next adventure.