Once one of the most popular stars of the screen, Mary Fuller seemed to vanish from the face of the earth in 1917. In 1939, Maurice Costello, a fellow nickelodeon era favorite now down on his luck, wistfully recalled that Mary had saved her money and retired. But retired where? For years fans posed the question asked in her 1912 Edison series: What Happened To Mary?
Although her official biography claimed 1893 as her year of birth, Mary Claire Fuller was actually born in Washington, D. C. on October 5, 1888, the daughter of Nora Swing and Miles Fuller, and was said to be a direct descendent of Edward and Samuel Fuller who came to Plymouth Colony on the Mayflower. Her father was an attorney who also operated a business called The Drillery. She had three sisters and a brother.
Mary showed artistic tendencies as a child, and was interested in music, writing and art. Her father died in 1902 at the age of 44. By 1906, she was working in the theater under the name Claire Fuller and was with the Lyceum Stock Company in Toledo, Ohio, for a time.
According to a brief profile in the May, 1914 issue of Motion Picture Magazine, Mary Fuller planned a visit to her family home for Christmas in 1907, but her theatrical troupe folded on the road, and she had only enough money to get to New York where she might find another stage job. She later wrote:
"Knowing that mid-winter is a bad time to look for engagements and having the suggestion, 'the movies,' still in my ears, I decided to journey over to a studio and try my chance. It was a long ride and I had time to think--which I did. Would they take me without any picture experience? Would I be pretty enough? Would they require a lot of expensive wardrobe each week? What would my associates be like? I did not doubt my ability to succeed, but I wondered if I were a type which would be acceptable. I shivered with nervous anticipation, with the cold that pervaded the elevated train and with the tedium of the long ride."
Arriving at the Vitagraph Studio in the Brooklyn on a Friday afternoon, she was engaged for a role to begin filming the following Monday morning. She passed her audition role with flying colors and became, in her own words, "a personality of eloquent silence." Among the films she made at Vitagraph was a one-reel adaptation of Elektra (released in April, 1910).
In 1910 she signed with Thomas A. Edison, Inc. and gained great popularity in the monthly series What Happened To Mary? ( first released July 26, 1912) which was tied to a series of stories published in McClure's Ladies World Magazine. The series was followed in July, 1913, with the six-episode Who Will Marry Mary?, and in January, 1914, with another twelve episode series, The Active Life of Dolly of the Dailies about a girl reporter on her own in the big city.
"Miss Fuller is known as 'temperamental,' intense, emotional and even poetical," wrote an anonymous fan magazine interviewer. The perceptive Helen Batchelder Shute added, "She has a magnetic and charming personality, and a fun-loving disposition, although a bit melancholy at times."
"I am beginning to feel lonely," Fuller told Batchelder in late 1913, "I don't know what it is--I am unsatisfied. When I am working very hard I am satisfied, but I have never really had a home [of my own], and at times I feel, oh, so lonely. Lately it has been worse than usual, and I don't know why Not that Edison gave her much time to herself. In an excerpt from her diary published in Motion Picture Magazine, Fuller revealed, ". . . on February 16th--we worked all day and all night up to 8 o'clock Tuesday morning on A Princess of the Desert [released April 11, 1914]. (I don't know what it will look like, having been taken in twenty-four consecutive hours, and how I will look in it after a session like that). Well, after stopping work at 8 A. M. that Tuesday morning, I went home, bathed, breakfasted. packed my bag, and our party left for Boston on the Knickerbocker Limited to attend the Exhibitor's Ball that night. We arrived late, dined, dressed and departed in taxis for the ball, which I was to lead with the president of the Exhibitors' League. Though I had had no sleep since Sunday night, I was as lively as a cricket, and the applauding crowd intoxicated me. . . The rest of the week we took scenes in Boston streets for a picture, and I visited all the theaters and supped at the Touraine. Our party left on Saturday after a delightful stay."
During her tenure at Edison, Mary Fuller often made her own costumes and she also wrote scenarios, though her imagination exceeded even her own energetic ability to bring them to the screen. "I have so many photoplays written and lying in my trunk, with no chance of producing them," she wrote. "I wonder if I will ever have an opportunity to put on all the things I visualize in my daydreams. To pioneer with one's original ideas must be very soul-satisfying."
In late 1914 Mary Fuller signed with Universal, where she starred in a series of popular shorts and features over the next two years. In 1917 she joined Famous Players-Lasky, playing opposite Lou Tellegen in The Long Trail. Tellegen, husband of opera and film star Geraldine Farrar, was considered box-office poison as a leading man and his pairing with Fuller did nothing to stem the erosion of his audience appeal. It did nothing to help her career, either.
She would make only one other film, an off-beat social drama called The Public Be Damned, which featured a prologue with National Food Administrator Herbert Hoover, and condemned the food trust for paying farmers poorly and charging shoppers dearly.
With money enough to get along, Mary Fuller chose to take a rest from filmmaking to pursue her interests in music and painting, although relatives today suggest she quit because she was despondent over a failed love affair and suffered a nervous breakdown. She returned to Washington, D. C. and took up residence on the second floor of her mother's home.
"Where is Mary Fuller?" Photoplay magazine asked in 1920. "Nobody knows . . . Mary Fuller has disappeared. Her actor friends from Edison have tried to find traces of her without success, A Lawyer who formerly handled her affairs has failed to locate her."
Fuller did come out of seclusion in 1926 and came to Hollywood to resume her film career, but she found there was little studio interest. Unwilling to settle for supporting roles, Mary Fuller returned to her family home and took refuge in painting, singing and reliving her past glory.
Fuller never married. After the death of her mother in 1940, she suffered another breakdown. Her sister, Mabel Fuller McSween, cared for Mary until it was no longer possible, and she was admitted to St. Elizabeth hospital in 1947. Mary Fuller remained institutionalized in St. Elizabeth's the rest of her life.
When she died on December 9, 1973, Washington, D. C. at age 85, the hospital was unable to locate any relatives, and Mary Fuller was buried in an unmarked grave in Congressional Cemetery. What happened to Mary Fuller would have remained a mystery if researcher Bill Capello had not doggedly followed the few leads available and reported his findings to Billy H. Doyle, who first told Fuller's story in his "Lost Players" column in Classic Images magazine.