Sunday, January 6, 2013

Mystery Girl REVEALED!

Mystery Girl REVEALED!

by Susan Sumner

The Mystery Girl of Edwardian postcards is no longer a mystery!  The beautiful little girl with the upturned nose and tight-lipped hint of a smile has a name!  She also had a long life before she died in 1983 at the age of 81.

Her name was Grete Reinwald. And the little girl with whom she so often posed was her younger sister, Hanni. The two were little German girls who grew up to become actresses in many silent films, following in the steps of their older brother, Otto. They also had a sister, Else, who made at least one silent movie appearance. 

Perhaps the search to find the Mystery Girl’s identity took so long because her fans were looking for an adult with equally alluring features. Grete’s childhood portraits were perfectly posed, airbrushed and edited. Her expertly coiffed hair and deftly applied makeup enhanced her best features and created a combination of innocence and femininity that none could match. But for some reason, she was never allowed to show her teeth—a fact that has made recognizing her adult photos all the more difficult. Notice that out of hundreds of pictures, her lips were barely parted in only two or three—and those were among the earliest of her photos.  Why? It may have begun when she lost her baby teeth and was told to hold her mouth closed.  Or it could be that when she smiled, her endearing trademark filtrum--the groove between her nose and mouth--disappeared. Whatever the case, some observant photographer discovered the Grete mystique—when her lips where closed, something wonderful took over.  Perhaps it was the restrained smile that found its way to her eyes.  Or the undisturbed symmetry of her features.

For a little girl, Grete had a great deal of composure and control in front of the camera—and remember, back then one had to hold perfectly still to avoid a blur. Yet this child was able to maintain a calm twinkle in her eye that held back a world of mystery and intrigue enhanced by settings of roses and netting and hats and draped fabrics. Granted, some of her poses and costumes seemed designed to press her into a world she was too young to enter. But other photos showed a little sprite of a girl with dolls, kittens and an impish grin.  Between the years of 1906-1914, Grete’s face dominated the postcard world.


In light of her iconic femininity and prettiness as a girl, Grete’s adult photos may be perceived as disappointing.  Grete Reinwald as an adult was not unusually beautiful, and some of her adult pictures that I have been able to find of her even border on unattractive. Particularly, three of the adult photos I’ve discovered show a grown up Grete in deliberately mannish attire—shirts and ties and unplucked eyebrows. This trendy and daring look was part of the “Roaring 20s” renaissance, and might have been sort of a cheeky cultural response to newly acquired women’s voting rights. Women chopped off their flowing locks and donned clothing that downplayed the female form.  Consequently the glamour photos of the 1920s lacked the romance of the Edwardian era, with its roses and veils and feminine allure. But when you consider the Edwardian icon Camille Crawford, one might also wonder whether the new fashion was partly a rebellion against the expectation of impossible curves and tedious hairdos... (see Camille Crawford photo)
Camille Crawford,
 "Gibson Girl"

Finding Grete’s identity is not something I worked at for long. In fact, I only spent leisure hours in the month of December 2012, after searching the internet for photos of Victorian and Edwardian girls with their dolls.  While browsing, I came across one of her photos and it was so lovely that I decided to print and frame a copy and display it among the antique dolls in my cabinet collection.  As I began browsing for similar photos of other little girls of that era to place in miniature frames, I found entire sites with photos of this same “Mystery Girl.” I became interested in her and found that others were as well. Having read reports that she “died a horrible death” and “may have been the photographer’s daughter” and “was the sister of the model who plays her mother,” I just got curious as to what the real story might be.  I, too, wondered what such a beautiful girl would look like as a grown woman, and casually began browsing postcard sites to find evidence of age progression. 

I found sites that advertised photos of the “Mystery Girl’s Sister.”  I studied the photos of the woman—she seemed too old to be her sister. However, they shared a longish chinline. I saw them more as mother-daughter—something I still wonder about. The two seem very comfortable being photographed together.  

There was also a smaller girl who posed with them frequently. This little one shared the shape of the chin and Grete’s mouth, and her hair was very similar in most of the photos, in color, texture and cut. I found many photos of Grete with the little girl, and they seemed very much like sisters to me. 

Grete and Hanni with the "Mystery Mother Model"

I Googled “child models, Edwardian postcards” and looked for articles that might credit the little girl whose image was on seemingly hundreds of postcards (I collected well over 100 images in a short time). I found nothing written about the girl, other than wonderments about her identity.

Notice the dimple on her right cheek. 
 Since the earliest photos were made by German companies, I decided to Google in German and use Google Translate to form my keywords. I used the terms “kindermodel”  and “postkarten” and up popped a German Wikipedia bio of silent film actress Grete Reinwald—with a photo of a woman in the 1920s who would be the right age for the girl who looked to be about eight years old in the 1910 postcards. This woman named Grete had a pointed chin and a rather recessed smile. The nose could be right, I thought, although her face bore none of the soft wistfulness of the childhood photos. Then again, I glanced over at my adorable, black-and-white kindergarten picture and thought about how very different I am today!  It IS possible, I thought. And upon Googling Grete Reinwald, I found a profile picture that bore a version of that upturned nose I had come to adore.

Grete's profile 

Hanni Reinwald, Grete's sister

Hanni Reinwald

Hanni Reinwald--her pout is recognizable. See photos below!

Grete Reinwald
Although I was somewhat satisfied that I had solved the mystery,  the certainty came through Hanni.  Everything I read about Grete mentioned that she had a younger sister who posed with her in postcards. Hanni was younger by nearly two years—just the right age difference between the Mystery Girl and the little one who so often posed with her.  The two girls shared some resemblance that I always suspected to be familial—the slightly sucked in lower lip, the pointed chin.  But Hanni, although cute, was a much more average looking little girl. Her nose was broader, her face was rounder, and she had what I call “puppy dog eyes” with brows slightly tilted backward to give a pleading or timid expression. Finding an adult picture of Hanni sealed it for me. Those puppy dog eyes said it all. Once I was certain that Hanni was Hanni, there was no more doubt about Grete.

Grete’s adult photos share her childhood chin, the slightly recessed lower lip, and the slight ridge under her lower eyelids when she is trying to hold back a smile.  As an adult, her nose broadens, perhaps in part because we are seeing her smile—but her profile has not changed. 

Otto Reinwald, brother

Fred Louis Lerch, husband of
Greta Reinwald
And although Grete’s photos make her seem a bit butch, she managed to snag and marry one of the most handsome men in silent films—Austrian actor Fred Louis Lerch. 

Whether they had children is still a mystery.  But as we have just seen, no mystery is unsolvable.

Below are more pictures of Grete Reinwald.  Enjoy!