For reference and background on Wampas and the full listing of Babies, see my original post in this series.
Year that she was crowned: 1927
Baby who?: Iris Stuart was born Frances McCann in Brooklyn, New York on February 2, 1903. She was the middle child (and only daughter) of Irish parents who immigrated to America. Though she would adopt the stage name of Iris Stuart, she did so in a practical fashion. She would always be known as Frances to her family. Her father was an insurance agent and her mother, Mary, initially stayed home, but found the need to work once her husband passed away. By 1910, Mary, Frances, and her two brothers, Thomas and Richard, moved in with Mary’s sister’s family on Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, only about 15 minutes walking distance from Frances’ soon-to-be fellow Wampas Baby and future movie star, Clara Bow (I’ve found no evidence of them crossing paths pre-Wampas). Frances’ father may have been deceased at this point, or perhaps traveling due to his occupation, but he would not appear on a census list with them again after 1905. By 1920, the family was renting a home on Fourth Avenue. At age 16, Frances got work as a stenographer for a grocer, joining mother Mary who was washing bottles in an olive factory and brother Thomas who was working as a salesman, to help support her family.
Her looks were not wasted on the grocer. Iris, as she was now known in public, was soon getting work modeling for advertisements and magazines and enjoyed immense popularity as an international cover girl. Brunette, tall and statuesque for the time at 5’7, her looks were gentile and delicate. She was especially known for her beautiful hands.
Her photogenic features must have struck a nerve with one of the head movie honchos because she was summoned to Hollywood for a screen test in the summer of 1926. Apparently, she tested well and was chosen for the second female lead in the December 1926 silent comedy Stranded in Paris starring Bebe Daniels. With less than a month after her first film’s release, she was named a Wampas Baby Star of 1927.
Why could she have been picked by Wampas?: Iris had been in the public eye long enough that her move to films was met with a good bit of fanfare. Wampas may have just wanted to jump on the ride. Also, being an elegant beauty probably didn’t hurt her case.
Life after Babydom: A lot was packed into the few months before and after she was crowned with the Wampas laurels. Around the time her first movie was released, she fell ill and took to bed, only making it out in public to attend the Wampas Frolic in January of 1927 when she was honored as a Wampas Baby Star. She signed a several year contract with Paramount, but collapsed again and was forced to take a hiatus from filmmaking. Between February and May that year, 3 more films that she had worked in were released, a testament to how much work she did in a short amount time.
She moved back in with her aunt in New York to recuperate, but her immune system was weak and she developed pneumonia two months later. By December 1927 she had recovered and announced her intention to return to Hollywood, against her family’s advice that she take it easy.
She signed a new contract with Paramount, but would never make another film. Whether the fickle movie system had lost some of its love for her, or she was done with them, is not clear. It also could have been a man who changed her plans.
Almost immediately after her return to Hollywood was announced, so was her surprise marriage. On January 3, 1928 Frances “Iris Stuart” McCann and Bergan Arling MacKinnon (called Bert MacKinnon by all of the newspapers) snuck off to Las Vegas and married in a small ceremony. MacKinnon was 24 years her senior, divorced, and a father of 3 (his son, Bergan Jr., was only a year younger than Bergan Sr’s new bride). He was also an extremely wealthy magazine Publisher in New York, which may have been how their paths crossed or at least it was something they had in common. They lived for a time in California, perhaps in an attempt to re-establish her film career, but then moved back permanently to MacKinnon’s home base and Frances’ home state, New York.
Frances “Iris Stuart” McCann’s entire film career in Hollywood essentially began and ended in the span of about 6 months.
The MacKinnons took a home in Manhattan and, on December 18, 1936, their son Richard MacKinnon was born. Sadly, three days after her son’s birth, 33 year old Frances died. Though his wife was gone, MacKinnon remained a support system for her beloved family. In 1940, Frances’ mother and older brother Thomas were both living with MacKinnon and Richard in their Manhattan home.
It appears that MacKinnon’s first and second families did not have much to do with each other. When researching records on ancestry.com, I was struck by how much missing or misinformation there was within (presumably) MacKinnon’s own ancestor’s family trees. Many had B.A. MacKinnon’s first wife listed as the mother of Richard. Frances’ existence (and in some cases, Richard’s as well) wasn’t even acknowledged in the vast majority of these trees, as if she either wasn’t known about or it was a deliberate omission.
Best known for: She seemed to be more well known for her modeling than her brief acting career.
How accurate was Wampas?: Had illness not taken Iris out of the game, she could have gone on to be groomed by Paramount as one of their major stars. Less than two years after Iris and Hollywood called it quits, Paramount took on Kay Francis, a girl very similar in type to Iris in her long, graceful lines and sophisticated appeal. Kay would go on to become one of Paramount’s biggest female stars for a period. It’s always interesting to wonder ‘what if’ in such cases…but who knows. After marrying her New York-based husband, it seems unlikely that Iris would have stayed in Hollywood for long regardless of illness. 2/5 for Wampas’ accuracy.
Zoe’s take: Ultimately, Hollywood didn’t seem to be her scene, but she had a pretty decent run in just 6 months! Good on her.
Liebman, Roy. The Wampas Baby Stars: a Biographical Dictionary, 1922-1934. McFarland, 2009.
“Actress Recovers from Long Illness.” The Los Angeles Times, 3 Dec. 1927, p. 7.