Obituary: Jan Zilliacus

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The Independent Culture
JAN ZILLIACUS was the daughter of the pioneer American film director Laurence Trimble, owner of Jean, the Vitagraph dog, who won international fame long before Rin-Tin-Tin.

"Father wanted six boys and all he got was this miserable girl," she said. "So he treated me like a boy. He gave me no quarter at all. I was breaking horses at the age of 10 and 11. I was very strong. I didn't go to school properly - I had tutors from time to time. But somebody had to be chased by wolves, and the actresses didn't like the idea."

Jan Trimble may have lacked the discipline of school, but life with a film-making father was an education in itself. She recalled:

We'd hire a train to go on location with the whole company - including 60 wolves - and they all knew me. My father put me in costume in long shot then he'd let the wolves come after me. The trouble was, once the wolves reached me, instead of looking menacing, they'd be bobbing about, wagging their tails. My father was furious. "No one's ever going to believe they're wolves." So he was rather naughty. He starved them for 36 hours, then under my mackinaw trousers he laced me with slices of horsemeat. As a result, I was very popular with those gals.

Trimble came to England in 1913, when Jan was a year old, to make films with the comedian John Bunny. He liked the country so much that he stayed well into the First World War to make British pictures. He became a close friend of the pioneer Cecil Hepworth, and worked at Hepworth's studio in Walton-on-Thames. Laurence Trimble formed a company with another American, Florence Turner, and directed My Old Dutch (1915) and Far From the Madding Crowd (1916). He and Jan returned to America in 1916, braving the U-boats - their ship was sunk on its way back to England.

During the English trip, Trimble and his wife, the opera singer Louise Trenton, split up. She stayed to become one of the leading singing teachers in England. In America, Trimble embarked on a partnership - professional and personal - with Jane Murfin, a playwright who became a screenwriter and director in Hollywood. Together they made a series of tough outdoor pictures like Brawn of the North (1922) and introduced to the screen a new dog star called Strongheart.

Film stars were frequent visitors to the Trimble ranch in Hollywood - Charlie Chaplin, Marion Davies - Jan particularly adored the serial star Pearl White. Valentino used to come with his own motion picture camera. "I was one of the people Rudolph Valentino liked," recalled Jan Trimble. "He didn't like a lot of people. He was this great heart-throb and he wasn't very interested in dames. He used to take me to concerts at the Hollywood Bowl when I was a child and I couldn't understand the older ladies saying, `What's he like?' He was a very nice guy.

"It was great fun growing up," she said. "Something was always happening. Larry was sure some character." Jan had inherited her father's rapport with animals, and was consulted by William Randolph Hearst about populating the acreage around San Simeon with zebras and other exotic creatures.

During the Depression, Laurence Trimble retreated with Jan to an island on the St Lawrence River - "The only thing he had left. Larry didn't like the Californian climate - `damned sun' - and he liked the climate of Maine, where he came from. This wasn't far off." It was hard on Jan, though, after the gregarious life of Hollywood. One day she set out skating and the ice gave way. "My first reaction was complete surprise, but I didn't really notice the cold. I was too busy thrashing around."

Luckily, she was spotted by a young trapper who crawled along a wooden plank and held out his hand. "Try as I could, my hand kept slipping because I was wearing chamois gloves. I wasn't cold but I started to feel blissfully sleepy and that was the dangerous part." Jan married the trapper, Alexander Harris, three months later - and Larry Trimble bought them an island of their own. But the marriage failed and after two years Jan left with her daughter Dawn, aged one, and returned to England. "England was my escape," she said. "I hadn't heard from my mother for 12 years, but on the day that Dawn was born, I got a letter from her and I left as soon as I could."

Jan did not get on well with her mother and she left to start a career as a dancer and cabaret artist. But she found she could make much more money as a door-to-door salesman of vacuum cleaners and she had enormous enjoyment travelling across England, one of the very few women ever to do the job. She joined the Communist Party at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and was expelled three times for "indiscipline". She had an affair with Paul Gallico, who wrote The Snow Goose, and in London, in the unlikely surroundings of the Cafe Royal in Regent Street, in 1938 she met Konni Zilliacus, a left-wing intellectual and author, an American of Swedish-Finnish extraction, born in Japan, who was educated at an English public school and at Yale. "Talk of one extreme to another! He seemed to speak every language. No matter where we went he could always translate for me. He said he spoke 13 but he really only spoke nine. His idea of speaking languages properly was if you dreamed in them."

Jan stayed in London during the Blitz, doing war work as a Civil Defence telephonist. She also started what she called "The Mare's Nest" in Carlton Hill, St John's Wood. "As friends from all walks of life were bombed out," said her daughter Dawn, "she invited them to stay - and many stayed for the duration of the war. It was wonderful to grow up in this community of extraordinary people."

She had a second daughter, Linden, in 1943, by Konni Zilliacus; although they never married, Jan took his name. In the 1945 election, she canvassed for Zilliacus in Gateshead and he won the seat for Labour. She accompanied him on his many trips to Eastern Europe, meeting leaders such as Stalin and Tito. She was chilled by Stalin, but a friendship began with Tito because of their mutual fondness for animals.

On her first visit to Tito's summer home, she arrived early and found no one there but a snarling dog. She recalled:

I stayed perfectly still and started talking to him, because they don't like to be ignored, and slowly he walked towards me and I patted him on the head. He then headed into the house round a side door and I followed him. Tito was seated at this huge desk, working. He looked up and there I was with this dog, which was supposed to be his protector, and I said, "Hello, Marshal Tito", and he just threw back his head and laughed.

Zilliacus's connections with leading Communists caused him to be branded a Communist himself and in 1949 he was expelled from the Labour Party for opposing the foreign policy of Ernest Bevin. He won back his seat in 1955 and remained an MP until his death in 1967. "He was not a Communist. It was only something put about by others to discredit him," said Jan.

The Zilliacus family moved to Maida Vale and Jan became a volunteer at London Zoo. In 1989, she was the subject of a Radio 4 programme, The Cashier and the Reluctant Lions, produced by Piers Plowright, about her days in Hollywood.

In recent years, Jan Zilliacus was working on her memoirs, saying, "I take instalments to the editor, who hates the way I write but loves the contents. It is very daunting for me. If I write, `No, damn it,' he corrects it. `No, darn it.' He wants to genteelise me. I should tell him how many have tried and failed!"

Janet Trimble: born New York 18 September 1912; married 1930 Alexander Harris (one son, one daughter) (one daughter by Konni Zilliacus); died London 2 May 1999.