- Norma Talmadge
Norma Talmadge in New York Nights (1929)
Born May 2, 1894
Jersey City, New Jersey, U.S.
Died December 24, 1957(aged 63)
Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S.
Occupation Actress/Producer Years active 1909–1930 Spouse Joseph Schenck (1916–1934)
George Jessel (1934–1939)
Carvel James (1946–1957)
Norma Talmadge (May 2, 1894 – December 24, 1957) was an American actress and film producer of the silent era. A major box office draw for more than a decade, her career reached a peak in the early 1920s, when she ranked among the most popular idols of the American screen.
Her most famous film was Smilin’ Through (1922), but she also scored artistic triumphs teamed with director Frank Borzage in Secrets (1924) and The Lady (1925). Her younger sisters Constance Talmadge and Natalie Talmadge were also movie stars. Talmadge married millionaire and film producer Joseph Schenck and they successfully created their own production company. After reaching fame in the film studios on the East Coast, she moved to Hollywood in 1922.
A specialist in melodrama, Talmadge was one of the most elegant and glamorous film stars of the roaring twenties. By the end of the silent film period her popularity with audiences had waned. After her two talkies proved disappointing at the box office, she retired a very wealthy woman. She is little remembered, yet in her day she was hugely popular and the epitome of stardom.
According to the birth certificate , Talmadge was born on May 2, 1894 in Jersey City, New Jersey, although it has been widely believed she was born in Niagara Falls, New York. After achieving stardom, she admitted that she and her mother provided the more scenic setting of Niagara Falls to fan magazines to be more romantic.[page needed] Talmadge was the eldest daughter of Fred Talmadge, a chronic unemployed alcoholic, and Margaret "Peg" Talmadge, a witty and indomitable woman. Talmadge's childhood was marked by poverty. One Christmas morning Fred Talmadge left the house to buy food and never came back, leaving his wife to raise their three little daughters. Peg took in laundry, sold cosmetics, taught painting classes, and rented out rooms, raising her daughters in Brooklyn, New York.
After telling her mother about a fellow classmate from Erasmus Hall High School who modeled for popular, illustrated song slides (which were often shown before the feature in movie theaters so that the audience could sing along), Mrs. Talmadge decided to locate the photographer and arranged an interview for her daughter, who, after an initial rejection, was hired soon after. When they went to the theater to see her "debut", Peg resolved to get her into motion pictures. Mrs. Talmadge pushed all three of her daughters to become actresses, encouraging them relentlessly to make money and invest it, though none of the sisters were really interested in being movie stars.
Talmadge was the eldest and the most beautiful among the three daughters and the first pushed by the mother to look for a career as a film actress. Mother and daughter traveled to the Vitagraph Studios in Flatbush, New York, just a streetcar ride from her home. They managed to get past the studio gates and in to see the casting director, who promptly threw them out. However, scenario editor Breta Breuil, attracted by Talmadge's beauty, arranged a small part for her as a young girl who is kissed under a photographer's cloth in The Household Pest (1909).
Thanks to Breuill's continued patronage, between 1911 and 1912, Talmadge played bit parts in over 100 films. She eventually earned a spot in the stock company at $25 per week and got a steady stream of work. Her first role as a contract actress was 1911's Neighboring Kingdom, with comedian John Bunny. Her first real success came with the first original screen version of A Tale of Two Cities (1911), a three hour epic released in weekly one-reel segments in which she played the small role of Mimi, a seamstress who accompanies Sidney Carton to the guillotine. With help from the studio's major star, Maurice Costello, the star of A Tale of Two Cities, Talmadge's acting improved and she continued to play everything from leads to extras, gaining experience and public exposure in a variety of characters—from a colored mammy to a clumsy waitress to a reckless young modern, she began attracting both public and critical notice. By 1913 she was Vitagraph's most promising young actress. That same year she was assigned to Van Dyke Brooke's acting unit, and throughout 1913 and 1914 appeared in more films playing frequently with Antonio Moreno as her leading man.
In 1915, Talmadge got her big break, starring in Vitagraph’s prestigious feature film The Battle Cry of Peace, an anti-German propagandist drama. But ambitious Peg saw that her daughter's potential could carry them further, and got a two-year contract with National Pictures Company for eight features and $400 per week. Talmadge's last film for Vitagraph was The Crown Prince's Double, and in the summer of 1915 she left Vitagraph. In the five years she had been with Vitagraph, she made over 250 films.
In August the Talmadges left for California where Norma's first role was in Captivating Mary Carstairs. The whole enterprise was a fiasco; the sets and costumes were cheap and the studio itself lacked adequate backing. The film was a flop, and the small new studio shut down after the release of Mary Carstairs. The demise of National Pictures Company left the family stranded in California after only one picture. Deciding it was smarter to aim high, they went to the Triangle Film Corporation, where D.W. Griffith was supervising productions. On the strength of The Battle Cry, Talmadge got a contract with Griffith's Fine Arts Company. For eight months, she starred in seven features for Triangle, including the comedy The Social Secretary (1916), a comedy written by Anita Loos and directed by John Emerson, that gave her an opportunity to disguise her beauty as a girl trying to avoid the unwelcome attentions of her male employers.
Norma Talmadge Film Corporation
When the contract ran out the Talmadges returned to New York. At a party, Talmadge met Broadway and film producer Joseph M. Schenck, a wealthy exhibitor who wanted to produce his own films. Immediately taken by Talmadge both personally and professionally, Schenck proposed marriage and a production studio. Two months later on October 20, 1916 they were married. Talmadge called her much older husband, “Daddy.” He supervised, controlled and nurtured her career in alliance with her mother.
In 1917, the couple formed the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation, which became a lucrative enterprise. Schenck vowed he would make his wife the greatest star of all, and one to be remembered always. The best stories, most opulent costumes, grandest sets, talented casts and distinguished directors, along with spectacular publicity, would be hers. Before long, women around the world wanted to be the romantic Norma Talmadge and flocked to her extravagant movies filmed on the East Coast. Schenck soon had a stable of stars operating in his studio in New York, with the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation making dramas on the ground floor, the Constance Talmadge Film Corporation making sophisticated comedies on the second floor, and the Comic unit with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle on the top floor, with Natalie Talmadge acting as secretary and taking occasional small roles in her sisters' films. Arbuckle brought in his nephew Al St. John and vaudeville star Buster Keaton. When Scheck decided it was financially advantageous to rent Arbuckle to Paramount Pictures for feature films, Keaton took over the comedy unit and soon married Natalie, bringing him more thoroughly into the Talmadge family fold, at least for a time.
Talmadge’s first film for her studio, the now lost Panthea, (1917) was directed by Allan Dwan with assistants Erich von Stroheim and Arthur Rossen. The film was a dramatic tour de force for her in a story set in Russia, of a woman who sacrifices herself to help her husband. The film was a hit, turning Talmadge into a sensation and established her as a first rate dramatic actress.
Talmadge’s acting ability improved rapidly during this period. She made between four and six films a year in New York between 1917 and 1921. Under Schenck's personal supervision other films followed, including Poppy (1917) in which, she was paired with Eugene O'Brien. The teaming was such a hit they made ten more films together, including The Moth, and The Secret of the Storm Country, a sequel to Tess of the Storm Country (1914), starring Mary Pickford. In 1918 she reteamed with Sidney Franklin who directed The Safety Curtain, Her Only Way, Forbidden City, The Heart of Wetona, and 1919's The Probation Wife. These films have an intimate feel, with small-scale settings and familiar actors appearing from one film to the next; even Talmadge's personal jewelry and pets can be recognized. An advantage of the East Coast locale was access to the country's best high fashion designers, such as Madame Francis and Lucile. Eventually, Talmadge began writing a regular monthly fashion advice column for Photoplay magazine.
Throughout the 1920s Talmadge continued to triumph in films such as 1920's Yes or No, The Branded Woman, Passion Flower (1921 The Sign on the Door (1921). The next year she had her biggest hit, Smilin' Through (1922) directed by Sidney Franklin. One of the greatest screen romances of the silent film era, it was remade twice, in 1932 with Norma Shearer and in 1941 with Jeanette MacDonald. This would be the most popular film of her entire career.
After Smilin' Through, Schenck closed the New York studios and Norma and Constance moved to Hollywood to join Keaton and Natalie, who had preceded them. Talmadge's Hollywood films were different from her New York films. Bigger and glossier, they were fewer but more varied, often with period or exotic settings. She teamed with cinematographer Tony Gaudio and some of Hollywood's finest costume designers for a more glamorous image. She also worked with top-flight directors such as Frank Lloyd, Clarence Brown, and Frank Borzage. Though her films were uneven, she did the finest work of her career during this period. With help from films directed by first husband Joseph M. Schenck, Talmadge became one of the most highly paid actresses of the 1920s.
In 1923, a poll of picture exhibitors named Norma Talmadge the number one box office star. She was earning $10,000 a week, and receiving as many as 3,000 letters weekly from her fans. Her film Secrets, (1924), directed by Frank Borzage marked the pinnacle of her career giving her best performance and receiving the best reviews. In 1924, Joseph Schenck had moved over to head United Artists, but Talmadge still had a distribution contract with First National. She continued to make successful films such as The Lady (1925) directed by Frank Borzage and the romantic comedy Kiki (1926) directed by Clarence Brown, remade later by Mary Pickford as a sound film in 1931.
In 1927, Norma Talmadge started a famous Hollywood tradition when she accidentally stepped into wet concrete in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater.
Talmadge's last film for First National was Camille (1926), a film adaptation of an Alexandre Dumas, fils novel later remade by Greta Garbo. During the filming of Camille, Talmadge fell in love with leading man Gilbert Roland. She asked Schenck for a divorce, but he was not ready to grant it. Despite his personal feelings, he was not going to break up a moneymaking team, and continued casting Roland in Talmadge's next three films released by United Artists. Talmadge and Schenck separated, though he continued producing her films. He was now president of the prestigious but theater-poor United Artists Corporation, and the rest of Talmadge's films were released for that company. UA’s distribution problems, however, began to erode her popularity. Her first films for this studio, The Dove (1927) and The Woman Disputed (1928) were box-office failures and ended up being her last silent movies. (The latter film was shown before a highly appreciative audience at the 2010 San Francisco Silent Film Festival.)
By the time Woman Disputed (1928) was released, the talking film revolution had begun, and Talmadge began taking voice lessons in preparation. She worked diligently with voice coaches for over a year so she could make her sound debut. Her first talkie, New York Nights (1929), showed that she could speak and act acceptably in talkies. While her performance was good, the film was not. Talmadge next took on the role of Madame Du Barry in the 1930 film DuBarry, Woman of Passion. In spite of the elaborate sets by William Cameron Menzies, incompetent direction and Talmadge's inexperience at a role requiring very demanding vocal acting, the film was a failure.
Talmadge's sister Constance sent her a telegram with this advice: "Quit pressing your luck, baby. The critics can't knock those trust funds Mama set up for us". As time passed, it was increasingly clear that the public was no longer interested in its old favorites, and Talmadge was seen as an icon of the past. Talmadge had been increasingly bored with filmmaking before the talkie challenge came along, and this setback seems to have discouraged her from further attempts.
She still had two more films on her United Artists contract. Samuel Goldwyn announced he had bought The Greeks Had a Word for It for her in late 1930, and she reportedly did some stage rehearsals for it in New York, but within a few months, she asked to be released from her contract and she never again appeared on screen.
Once leaving the movie world, Norma Talmadge rid herself of all the duties and responsibilities of stardom. She sweetly told eager fans who were pressing her for an autograph as she left a restaurant, "Get away, dears. I don't need you anymore and you dont need me."
Some time before late 1932, Talmadge decided against marrying Gilbert Roland, as he was twelve years her junior and she feared he would eventually leave her. Mother Peg fell ill in 1931, and died in September 1933. In late 1932, Talmadge began seeing her ex-husband Joseph Schenck's poker friend, comedian George Jessel. In April 1934, Schenck, from whom she had been separated for seven years, finally granted Talmadge her divorce and nine days later, she married George Jessel. Schenck continued to do what he could for Norma and her sisters, acting as a financial adviser and guiding her business affairs.
Talmadge's last professional works consisted of appearances on Jessel's radio program, which was sagging in its ratings. The program soon ended, and the marriage did not last; the couple divorced in 1939. Schenck's business acumen and her mother's watchful ambition for her daughters had resulted in a huge fortune for Talmadge, and she never wanted for money. Restless since the end of her filmmaking days, Talmadge traveled, often shuttling between her houses, entertaining, and visiting with her sisters. In 1946, she married Dr. Carvel James, a Beverly Hills physician.
Later years and death
In her later years, Talmadge, who had never been comfortable with the burdens of public celebrity, became reclusive. Increasingly crippled by painful arthritis and reportedly to be dependent on painkilling drugs, she moved to the warm climate of Las Vegas, Nevada for her final years. In 1956, she was voted by her peers as one of the top five female stars of the pre-1925 era, but was too ill to travel to Rochester, New York to accept her award.
After suffering a series of strokes in 1957, Talmadge died of pneumonia on Christmas Eve of that year. At the time of her death, her estate was valued at more than USD$1,000,000. For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Norma Talmadge has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1500 Vine Street. She is interred, along with Constance and Natalie in their own niche in the Abbey of the Psalms. The crypts are in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Hollywood, CA.
Film characters modeled on Talmadge
A New York Times article from March 14, 2010 says that Talmadge "is misremembered, having inspired two unfair caricatures that have lived on in a pair of popular films. In Singin' in the Rain (1952), she is parodied as Lina Lamont... More malignantly, Billy Wilder used Norma Talmadge as the obvious if unacknowledged source of Norma Desmond, the grotesque, predatory silent movie queen of his 1950 film Sunset Boulevard."
Selected filmography(feature films)
Year Film Role Other notes 1915 Captivating Mary Carstairs Mary Carstairs First feature film; Lost film The Battle Cry of Peace Virginia Vandergriff Incomplete(George Eastman House-fragments, Cinemateket Svenska Filminstitutet-one reel) The Crown Prince's Double Shirley Rives Lost film 1916 The Missing Links Myra Holburn Lost film Martha's Vindication Martha Lost film The Children in the House Cora Incomplete(George Eastman House-3 reels out of 5, UCLA Film & Television Archives) Going Straight Grace Remington Extant(George Eastman House, National Film & Television Museum/London) The Devil's Needle Renee Extant(Library of Congress-1923 reissue) The Social Secretary Mayme Extant(Library of Congress-incomplete, George Eastman House, National Film & Television Museum/London, Cinemateca Modern Art Museum/Rio de Janeiro, UCLA Film & Television Archive, Blackhawk Films) Fifty-Fifty Naomi Extant(George Eastman House, Finnish Film Archive) 1917 Panthea Panthea Romoff First film for Norma Talmadge Film Corporation
Producer; Lost film
The Law of Compensation Flora Graham/Ruth Graham Extant(Library of Congress, Museum of Modern Art) Poppy Poppy Destinn Abridged version(Library of Congress) The Moth Lucy Gillam Incomplete(Library of Congress) The Secret of the Storm Country Tess Skinner Lost film 1918 The Ghosts of Yesterday Ruth Graham/Jeanne La Fleur Incomplete(Library of Congress; reels 1-4 & some feet of reel 6) By Right of Purchase Margot Hughes Extant(Library of Congress; missing reel 6) De Luxe Annie Julie Kendal (De Luxe Annie II) Producer; Extant(Library of Congress) The Safety Curtain Puck Extant(Nederlands Filmmuseum, UCLA) Her Only Way Lucille Westbrook Lost film The Forbidden City San San/Toy Extant(Library of Congress) 1919 The Heart of Wetona Wetona Extant(Library of Congress, George Eastman, Cinema Museum/London, UCLA) The New Moon Princess Marie Pavlovna Extant(Library of Congress) The Probation Wife Josephine Mowbray Producer; Incomplete(Library of Congress, George Eastman, Dust of Desire - Cameo appearance The Way of a Woman Nancy Lee Incomplete(negative, National Film & Television Archive London) The Isle of Conquest Ethel Harmon Producer; Lost film 1920 She Loves and Lies Marie Callender, aka Marie Max and June Dayne Incomplete(Library of Congress) A Daughter of Two Worlds Jennie Malone Extant(Library of Congress, George Eastman House) The Woman Gives Inga Sonderson Extant(Library of Congress) Yes or No Margaret Vane/Minnie Berry Producer; Extant(Library of Congress) The Branded Woman Ruth Sawyer Producer; Extant(Library of Congress) 1921 Passion Flower Acacia, The Passion Flower Producer; Extant(Library of Congress) The Sign on the Door Ann Hunniwell/Mrs. 'Lafe' Regan Producer; Extant(Library of Congress) The Wonderful Thing Jacqueline Laurentine Boggs Producer; Extant(Library of Congress) Love's Redemption Jennie Dobson (aka Ginger) Producer; Lost film 1922 Smilin' Through Kathleen/Moonyeen Producer; Extant(Library of Congress, Nederlands Filmmuseum) The Eternal Flame Duchesse de Langeais Producer; Incomplete(Library of Congress reels 1-2, 4-7) 1923 The Voice from the Minaret Lady Adrienne Carlyle Producer; Lost film Within the Law Mary Turner Producer; Extant(Library of Congress, unconfirmed-Gosfilmofond Moscow) Ashes of Vengeance Yolande de Breux Producer; Extant(Library of Congress, George Eastman House) The Song of Love Noorma-hal Producer; Extant(Library of Congress, Czech Film Archive) 1924 Secrets Mary Carlton Producer; Extant(Library of Congress, Museum of Modern Art, Cinematheque Royale Brussels, Gosfilmofond-unconfirmed, UCLA-unconfirmed) The Only Woman Helen Brinsley Producer; Extant(Library of Congress) 1925 The Lady Polly Pearl Producer; Incomplete(Library of Congress, reels 1 and 3-8) Graustark Princess Yetive Producer; Incomplete(Library of Congress reels 2 & 4-7) 1926 Kiki Kiki Producer; Extant(comprising prints from Library of Congress, Museum of Modern Art, Czech Film Archive & UCLA Film & Television Archive) Camille Marguerite Gautier (Camille) Producer; Incomplete(Douris Corporation) 1927 The Dove Dolores Producer ; Incomplete(Library of Congress, Cinemateket-Svenska Filminstitutet, Douris Corporation) 1928 The Woman Disputed Mary Ann Wagner Producer; Extant(Library of Congress) 1929 New York Nights Jill Deverne Producer; Incomplete(Library of Congress, George Eastman House) 1930 Du Barry, Woman of Passion Madame Du Barry Extant(Library of Congress, ?others)
- ^ Basinger, Jeanine (2000). Silent Stars. Wesleyan University Press. pp. 181. ISBN 0-819-56451-6.
- ^ a b Basinger, Jeanine (2000). Silent Stars. Wesleyan University Press. pp. 149. ISBN 0-819-56451-6.
- ^ a b c Lowe, Denise (2004). An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Women in Early American Films, 1895-1930. Haworth Press. pp. 517. ISBN 0-789-01843-8.
- ^ Spears, Jack (1971). Hollywood: the Golden Era: The Golden Era. A. S. Barnes.
- ^ a b c d e f Mavromatis, Kally; Pringle, Glen. "Norma Talmadge - Silent Star of November, 1997". csse.monash.edu.au. http://www.csse.monash.edu.au/~pringle/silent/ssotm/Nov97/. Retrieved 2009-02-13.
- ^ Staff. "NORMA TALMADGE, FILM STAR, DEAD; Noted Actress of the Silent Screen, 1911-30--Made Her Movie Debut at 14 Appeared in Scores of Films Her First Picture Founded Own Concern", The New York Times, December 25, 1957. Accessed August 2, 2009. "At 13, while she was a student at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, Norma found that she could help a little by posing for colored slides that illustrated the songs plugged in the pits of the nickelodeons of 1910."
- ^ Basinger, Jeanine (2000). Silent Stars. Wesleyan University Press. pp. 139. ISBN 0-819-56451-6.
- ^ a b c d Slide, Anthony (2002). Silent Players: A Biographical and Autobiographical Study of 100 Silent Film Actors and Actresses. University Press of Kentucky. pp. 374. ISBN 0-813-12249-X.
- ^ a b Lowe, Denise (2004). An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Women in Early American Films, 1895-1930. Haworth Press. pp. 516. ISBN 0-789-01843-8.
- ^ Basinger, Jeanine (2000). Silent Stars. Wesleyan University Press. pp. 143. ISBN 0-819-56451-6.
- ^ Basinger, Jeanine (2000). Silent Stars. Wesleyan University Press. pp. 144. ISBN 0-819-56451-6.
- ^ Basinger, Jeanine (2000). Silent Stars. Wesleyan University Press. pp. 145. ISBN 0-819-56451-6.
- ^ Basinger, Jeanine (2000). Silent Stars. Wesleyan University Press. pp. 146. ISBN 0-819-56451-6.
- ^ a b "Milestones". Time. 1958-01-06. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,868138,00.html.
- ^ Basinger, Jeanine (2000). Silent Stars. Wesleyan University Press. pp. 150. ISBN 0-819-56451-6.
- ^ Basinger, Jeanine (2000). Silent Stars. Wesleyan University Press. pp. 153. ISBN 0-819-56451-6.
- ^ Basinger, Jeanine (2000). Silent Stars. Wesleyan University Press. pp. 156. ISBN 0-819-56451-6.
- ^ a b Basinger, Jeanine (2000). Silent Stars. Wesleyan University Press. pp. 157. ISBN 0-819-56451-6.
- ^ Basinger, Jeanine (2000). Silent Stars. Wesleyan University Press. pp. 1175. ISBN 0-819-56451-6.
- ^ "Woman Disputed: Who was Norma Talmadge, and why aren't more of her films available?: Greta de Groat
- ^ Golden, Eve (2001). Golden Images: 41 Essays on Silent Film Stars. McFarland. pp. 174. ISBN 0-786-40834-0.
- Katz, Ephraim (2005). The Film Encyclopedia: The Most Comprehensive Encyclopedia of World Cinema in a Single Volume. Collins. ISBN 0-0607-4214-3.
- Loos, Anita (1978). The Talmadge Girls: A Memoir. New York: Viking Press. ISBN 0-670-69302-2.
- Basinger, Jeanine (November 1, 2000). Silent Stars. Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 0819564516.
- Lowe, Denise (2004). An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Women in Early American Films: 1895-1930. Haworth Press. ISBN 0789018438.
- Slide, Anthony (September 27, 2002). Silent Players: A Biographical and Autobiographical Study of 100 Silent Film Actors and Actresses.. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 081312249X.
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