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Nell was not long without a partner, however. She seems to have been briefly involved with Philip Hurn, a collaborator in several projects, but by the summer of 1935 had met Hurn’s cousin, an Italian-American film director named Amerigo Serrao. “Amerigo and I are deeply in love,” she wrote to Barry in October. Unlike Charles, who was an outsider to the film business, Amerigo was “one of our own….He is our business. Hollywood. Pictures. Humor. Promotion. An Ernie [Shipman] brought up to date.” With him, in the years ahead, she foresaw “the realization of everything we have most wanted and dreamed.” Together, the three of them would make pictures.
Those dreams never came true. Barry married and stayed in California, where he wrote scripts for serials, movies, and later, for television. He worked steadily, raised a family, bought a house and a pool, and eventually became an officer of the Writers Guild. Nell and Amerigo, on the other hand, crisscrossed the country chasing their elusive dream. But no one was interested in backing their independent productions; and always, it seems, some turn of events conspired against them. Nell’s letters for the next two decades were full of what she called “verges”: projects on the verge of financing, only to fall through at the last moment. After living in New York a few years, she and Amerigo tried their luck in Florida and California. No luck there, they returned to New York. By 1939 they were penniless, spending nights on the subway when friends could not take them in. But somehow they survived. Amerigo could always find a hotel or a landlord who would defer the rent, or a friend to help them out while they developed a project. Barry often lent support. Nell wrote while Amerigo promoted. The minute one dream collapsed or a landlord evicted them, they were off on a new venture.
During World War II, Barry Shipman was stationed at Quantico, Virginia, as an officer in the Marines, making pictures for the war effort. Nell and Amerigo visited often from New York, as did the twins, who had gone to live with their father when Nell hit rock bottom. The family was together more during the war than they had been for years. Nell and Amerigo made contacts in Virginia, too, and found the financial backing to make a movie on Virginia’s remote Eastern Shore. There they filmed The Story of Mr. Hobbs (also known as The Clamdigger’s Daughter), completed in 1947 but never released. They stayed in Virginia several more years, then moved to Washington, D.C. Inspired by Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade, Nell wrote a novel and screenplay about subversion in America. For most of the decade she and Amerigo lived with some backers on an estate in Bethesda, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C., while they sought to put their anti-Communist project on film. Their work in Washington came to naught, too. Nell blamed highly placed politicians for their failure, politicians who sabotaged their efforts because anti-Communism was too controversial. “The axe has fallen and all but felled us en transit,” Nell wrote to Barry in 1959. “The time drag and stalling grew more and more difficult until finally, in a show-down, a completion bond was demanded…No major would let the pix go thru at our cut-rate budget, nor would they let me produce or the old man direct.” They got out of town “literally with the hounds on our traces.”
Barry wrote back that he had too many financial obligations to bail them out this time, but invited Nell to California, where there was a great need for talented writers for the movies and television. Reflecting on Nell’s twenty-four years with Amerigo, he wrote bluntly: “Forgive me if I feel that you’ve been terribly, horribly and tragically wasted these many years. No one’s fault, maybe…but the fault can lie in not doing something about it….I hold no grudges, or hostilities. Just regret—in a way—that he couldn’t have used you better. As a companion, I guess you had a good one. Loneliness is probably the worst thing there is. If he kept you from that, bless him. But as a mentor for you…” In reference to their many frustrated plans, Barry added: “[I] used to get your letters with the great verges in them and shed a little tear and wonder just what international incident, broken leg, or new legislation would throw the deal this time!”
Nell reluctantly accepted Barry’s invitation and moved to California to live with him. Amerigo stayed in New York, in pursuit of financing for yet another project, a studio in France where they could make movies. He died a few months later, in November 1960. Nell was bereft, but within a few months she was on the move again. She spent the next four years living with friends in New England and New Jersey and, at times, with her son Charles or daughter Daphne in New York, rarely staying in one place more than a few months. She endured long lonely bus rides, and at times did not know where she would end up next. But still she wrote prolifically, peppering friends, agents, and publishers with stories, plays, and novels. Finally in 1965, at the age of seventy-three, Nell returned to California, living first with Barry and then, in 1967, moving into a small house in Cabazon, a desert community not far from Palm Springs. There Nell enjoyed the company of a menagerie of cats and dogs, visits from relatives and old friends, and occasional trips to scenes from her younger days, Big Bear in particular. She also enjoyed corresponding with film buffs and historians who had just rediscovered her. But most of all she enjoyed her independence. In letter to Lloyd Peters, who had been part of her company at Priest Lake more than forty years before, she vowed a “death-with-your-boots-on finale,” and reflected that “memories are our greatest treasure, cannot be taken by rust, by the dream-killers, or the ‘so what’s?’ Our only sure possessions!”
Nell’s last major project was her autobiography, which, after numerous title changes, she called “The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart.” It covered her life up until the collapse of her movie camp at Priest Lake, Idaho. Nell died in Cabazon on January 23, 1970. She was laid to rest in nearby Banning, under a simple stone adorned with a single star.
Nell Shipman married and divorced Ernest Shipman, but no records of marriages to any of her other partners have been found, despite the fact that she styled herself Mrs. Bert Van Tuyle, Mrs. Charles Austin Ayers, or Mrs. --- (whatever Amerigo Serrao’s alias was at the time.)
Three pictures in the slideshow are from the Boise State University's Nell Shipman digital collection. You can see the rest of the collection here.
Click to enlarge
Nell Shipman in "The Light on Lookout" (1924).
Nell Shipman and Brownie in "The Light on Lookout" (1924).
Nell Shipman is a girl in love with nature and animals in "White Water" (1924).
Nell Shipman looks for the boy in "White Water" (1924).
Nell Shipman and the boy watch an eagle in "White Water" (1924).
Nell Shipman tries to save the boy from great danger in "White Water" (1924).
Nell Shipman thinks about Alaska in "The Grub-Stake" (1923).
Nell Shipman gets lost and frightened in "The Grub-Stake" (1923).
Nell Shipman gets a kiss from a bear cub in "The Grub-Stake" (1923).
Nell Shipman fights for the knife in "The Grub-Stake" (1923).
Nell Shipman fires a gun in "Something New" (1920).
Nell Shipman after the ordeal in "Something New" (1920).
Nell Shipman looking good in "Something New" (1920).
Nell Shipman befriends Wapi the dog in "Back to God's Country" (1919).
Nell Shipman lights a match for the stranger in "Back to God's Country" (1919).
Nell Shipman has Wapi the dog as her last hope in "Back to God's Country" (1919).
Nell Shipman is happy to see Wapi the dog in "Back to God's Country" (1919).
Nell Shipman in a portrait for the film The Girl from God's Country.
Nell Shipman with a husky enjoying the outdoors.
Nell Shipman and her sled dog Tex on the shores of Priest Lake, Idaho.
Nell Shipman in a portrait with a long hair.
Nell Shipman and Brownie.
Nell Shipman society woman.
Nell Shipman feeds Brownie.
Nell Shipman with her twins, Daphne Anne and Charles Douglas Ayers. They were born in Spain in 1926.
Nell Shipman and Brownie interact.
Nell Shipman in a publicity photo with Wapi the Killer for "Back to God's Country" (1919).
Nell Shipman in "The Grub-Stake" (1923).
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