Glamorous Pajamas and Bonbons: "Lost Starlet" Helen Mundy Pops up in an Obscure James Agee Story

I just noticed something that's too much to be a crazy coincidence. It's one of those things you run across in the library and want to get up and stop the first stranger you see, and tell them about it. Maybe it would be a challenge to find a stranger who'd care much. Or one who would not react with mace. So I'll tell you.

It has to do with the grand old Knoxville High School building on Fifth Avenue, which is much in the news lately. It also has to do with a rediscovered silent movie heralded this fall with a special showing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

This revelation won't stop the presses, but maybe someday it'll supply a grad student with a footnote for a thesis.

In promotional material, MOMA calls the 1927 movie Stark Love "a radically proto-Neorealist melodrama." They showed it last month, accompanied by the world premiere of a new musical composition by Gillian B. Anderson. It was part of a series called "To Save and Project," about restoring endangered films.

Stark Love is kind of an extreme example of the concept. For decades, the movie was believed lost, as so many thousands of silents made in the 1920s are lost, like the first movie ever shown at the Tennessee Theatre. Though The Fleet's In starred major icon Clara Bow, there's not known to be a single copy of the movie on the planet. The number of people who have any memory of that movie is rapidly diminishing.

It once appeared to be the same story for a very different movie, Stark Love. It was a sensation when it was first released, in early 1927. Karl Brown was a talented young cinematographer, once an assistant to D.W. Griffith, making his first effort as director. Inspired by the fleeting artistic trend of cinematic naturalism that had included Nanook of the North and Tabu, about Eskimos and South Pacific islanders, respectively, Brown took a daring stab at portraying Americans in equally primitive circumstances. He turned to the Southern Appalachians, reportedly recruiting author Horace Kephart as a consultant. Kephart's book about this isolated culture-within-a-culture, Our Southern Highlanders, had piqued interest across the country, that here we are in this moderne age of movies and radio and aeroplanes, and here somehow are these people, Americans too, living a lifestyle more primal than that of our great-grandparents. To pull it off, Brown shunned Hollywood sets and professional actors and artificial light, and brought his cameras to the mountains, determined to enlist real people.

After some frustrations in the hills, Brown decided it wouldn't hurt to get a couple of local people who had just a little experience, for the lead roles, at least. He sent a scout to Knoxville, where he located a handsome young athlete named Forrest James and a Knoxville High School student named Helen Monday. The story goes she just walked into a Gay Street soda fountain, and brought an energetic aura with her.

The movie, and Monday/Mundy's performance, was one of the critical sensations of 1927, and though Stark Love wasn't a box-office hit, it earned a lot of praise, and seemed to herald a new star.

But after finishing the movie, Helen was uncooperative with the Hollywood machine. After dating some Hollywood actors like William Powell, she said it was all boring and silly, and married a bandleader and settled down, then disappeared. By World War II, her movie, and her movie career, were practically forgotten. Only years later would one copy turn up in Czechoslovakia. It's been restored since then, and is listed on the National Film Registry as a historically important film.

It was still obscure in 1946, when incisive film critic James Agee mentioned Stark Love—as an "excellent" bit of proof that a film didn't have to have a big budget to have real artistic merit. When I read about that, some details turned and clicked. James Agee famously attended St. Andrews' Episcopal at Sewanee, and later Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire. What's often left out of the thumbnail sketches is that for more than a year in between, when his single mother was at loose ends, Agee attended Knoxville High.

It doesn't take much comparing of resumes to realize James Agee and Helen Monday might have known each other. They were both students at Knoxville High School at the same time. Agee was just a few months older. But it was a big high school then, more than 2,000 students and frankly overcrowded. In an article a few years ago, I mentioned the possibility of their acquaintance without ever expecting to see any evidence one way or the other.

One of Agee's first published stories appeared in the Phillips Exeter Quarterly in April, 1927. It's called "Knoxton High." It's an irreverent satire of life in a provincial and overcrowded public school. Though clever in spots, it has the sensitivity you'd expect of a 17-year-old boy. Quoting it at length might anger his fellow KHS alumni. He even makes fun of the doughboy statue. It's obvious he didn't expect anyone he knew in Knoxville to read it. It may be safe to say that for the next 70 years, no one here did. I never heard of it until 1996, when it appeared in a scholarly work called Agee: Selected Literary Documents. The only copy I've ever seen is the one at McClung Collection.

Within "Knoxton High" is a brief sketch of a girl "in scant glamorous pajamas, swathed in a peculiarly unglamorous bathrobe," eating bonbons as she struggles with Latin homework. She's preoccupied with a boy named Charlie. And her name is Helene Mundy.

Adding an e to a first name is hardly a disguise. The story was published just weeks after Stark Love was released.

Helen Mundy died 26 years ago in Michigan, where she'd been living for years in anonymity. She may have been the last person who knew what Agee's reference means.