Ursula Murders a Roman Emperor

Ursula poses in costume for a photographer ostensibly taking publicity pictures for  "Nero," a Roman tragedy produced by the English Club at UC Berkeley around 1922

Ursula poses in costume for a photographer ostensibly taking publicity pictures for “Nero,” a Roman tragedy produced by the English Club at UC Berkeley around 1922

As a junior at UC Berkeley, Ursula danced and played the poisoner Locusta in the English Club's play "Nero,"  a tragedy by Stephen Phillips

As a junior at UC Berkeley, Ursula danced and played the poisoner Locusta in the English Club’s play “Nero,” a tragedy by Stephen Phillips

In an earlier post I mistakenly noted that Ursula played the wife of the Roman emperor Nero in a college production of the English dramatist Stephen Phillips’s tragedy, “Nero.” In reality, she was cast in the small role of Locusta, the infamous poisoner who, according to ancient historians, supplied the toxin to murder the fourth Roman Emperor, Claudius, at the behest of his wife, Agrippina. (Agrippina wanted Nero, her son from a previous marriage, to become emperor of Rome.)

From the San Francisco Chronicle, April 28, 1922

From the San Francisco Chronicle, April 28, 1922

In addition to that role, Ursula, our “Mystery Dancer,” danced with other young women in a scene featuring a great banquet held during the burning of Rome — “the most spectacular part of the play,” according to the Blue and Gold yearbook. Produced by the English Club during Ursula’s junior year and performed in the Greek theater, the play “set a new standard for campus drama, and added another achievement to [the club’s] splendid record.”

At some point during the play’s production, a photographer took pictures of Ursula and the other dancers in costume under the pretext that the photos were to be used for publicity. The women, who had given their consent for this use, were upset upon learning that the photographs actually were intended for publication in the Blue and Gold yearbook.

According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Ursula headed the group in protest and demanded that the photos not be printed. She and the other dancers felt that the poses arranged by the photographer, while apparently acceptable for publicity shots, “were such that they were not proper for the formal yearbook.” As a result, Dean of Women Lucy Stebbins called a meeting between Ursula and the yearbook publishers, and it was agreed that the pictures would be kept out of the yearbook.

I am thankful that, while not deemed suitable for the yearbook, the photograph of Ursula in Roman dress did make it into the antique photo album! It is one of my favorite pictures, and contributed to my desire to buy the album and discover and share Ursula’s story.

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A Star Is Born

3-month-old Ursula and her parents

Alfred D. and Clara Cheshire pose with daughter, Ursula, on September 14, 1902, when she was age 3 months, 5 days

On Monday, June 9, 1902, the local newspaper welcomed to San Francisco thousands of Shriners from “all parts of the Union,” who were gathering there for a weeklong convention. Elsewhere in the city that day, Clara and Alfred Cheshire, who had been married for two and a half years, welcomed baby daughter Ursula into their lives. At ages 30 and 49 respectively, Clara and Alfred were older-than-average first-time parents.

Ursula, 1 month old

Ursula at one month old

Ursula was born in the era of silent film; just two months before her birth, the first permanent movie theater opened in Los Angeles. Women would not gain the right to vote for another 18 years, and it was not uncommon to read of lynching in the daily news. Earlier in the year, a great workers’ strike in the anthracite coalfields of Pennsylvania had threatened to shut down winter fuel supply to all major cities until President Theodore Roosevelt got involved. At the same time, the United States of America was enjoying a continued “period of unbounded prosperity,” and its “place must be great among nations,” according to the president’s December 1902 State of the Union address.

Ursula, age 1

The many faces of Ursula, at 1 year old

Ursula at age 1, with Mama Clara

Mama and 1-year-old Ursula

In an uncanny coincidence, the date of Ursula’s birth also happens to be the date of the Roman Emperor Nero’s death by suicide nearly 2,000 years earlier. That in and of itself would not be worth mentioning but for the fact that in 1922, Ursula played the role of Nero’s wife, Locusta, in a college production of the English dramatist Stephen Phillips’s tragedy, “Nero.”

Ursula in the role of Locusta in the play "Nero"

Ursula in the role of Locusta in the play “Nero”

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