59 – Photographer to the Star

In today’s episode, we meet the Chicago photographer Mabel Sykes, who was the favorite photographer of a rather famous silent movie star.

UPDATE Oct 2, 2020:   The full transcript has now been added below. Due to some recording issues, the audio version of today’s podcast episode wound up with some sections left “on the cutting room floor”.  However, I’ve included everything that was supposed to be in the audio in the written version below. A little bonus to thank you all for your patience! 🙂


Click here to see more photos by Mabel Sykes and other materials about her life, including her work with Rudolph Valentino are covered in Jim Craig over on his blog   Under Every Tombstone. Many thanks to Jim for sharing his treasure trove about Mabel with everyone on his blog!

In addition, here’s that $1 photo I found in antique store that led me on the hunt to find  the photographer Mabel Sykes, wherever she was. 🙂

photo of a young boy in a suit, Photo by Mabel Sykes (McIntyre-Culy Collection)
Photo by Mabel Sykes (McIntyre-Culy Collection)

Also, here are few more articles about her and/or ads for her studio. Note that all the articles will take you to the appropriate online newspaper article where I found them.  All the sites require an account to read the full story, but you can get a trial subscription to start if you don’t have one.

One of the many articles about Mabel Sykes’s divorce from Melvin Sykes (Jim Craig including many more in his blog post.)

photo of Mabel sykes and headline about her husband not behaving himself. Leader Telegram February 15, 1914
Leader Telegram February 15, 1914

And here’s the one of Melvin in a hat, with his next wife, Margaret Sykes:

Melvin Sykes and the 4th Mrs. Sykes on the occasion of their 2nd wedding ceremony Chicago Tribune, April 18, 1916
Melvin Sykes and the 4th Mrs. Sykes on the occasion of their 2nd wedding ceremony,  Chicago Tribune, April 18, 1916

Sample Society photos published in Chicago newspapers, taken by Mabel Sykes:

Examples of Mabel Sykes' photos for the Society Page, Chicago Examiner, Feb 27, 1916
Examples of Mabel Sykes’ photos for the Society Page, Chicago Examiner, Feb 27, 1916

But photos by Mabel Sykes were also used to show the people in more serious news stories in the newspapers:

Photo by Mabel Sykes, Chicago Examiner, December 31, 1917
Photo credit by Mabel Sykes, Chicago Examiner, December 31, 1917

Mabel got the rights to the studio she had run with Melvin Sykes after their divorce, and advertises quite often in the newspapers:

Ad for Mabel Sykes studio, Chicago Examiner, Jan 9, 1916
Ad for Mabel Sykes studio, Chicago Examiner, Jan 9, 1916

Melvin, though, opens a competing Sykes studio.  In 1917, after Mabel Sykes remarries (to Alfred Barsanti), Melvin runs this ad in the newspapers.  However, Mrs. Mabel Barsanti is still running the Mabel Sykes studio, so Melvin wasn’t necessarily the only Sykes in town! [Update: after I recorded the episode, I realized that Mabel’s studio suffered fire damage in July 1917, so it’s possible that it took her a while to re-open, and maybe that’s when Melvin started running this ad. But he runs it a lot.]

Melvin Sykes ad after Mabel gets remarried, Chicago Eagle, June 29 1918
Chicago Eagle, Oct 27 1918

But it is interesting that often their studio ads wind up side-by-side on occasion, both in the newspapers …

Mabel and Melvin Sykes competing studio ad, side by side in the newspaper Chicago Tribune, March 6, 1921
Chicago Tribune, March 6, 1921

and in the Chicago city directory Photographer listings:

1918 Chicago Directory, listing under Photographers
1918 Chicago Directory, listing under Photographers

But even then, Mabel takes out larger ads in the directories: she’s the Sykes that people see at the top of their “yellow pages” type business listings:

1918 Chicago Directory, Mabel Sykes ad
1918 Chicago Directory, Mabel Sykes ad in the Photographers business section

Mabel Sykes was so popular that she gets featured in one of those ‘then an now’ page in the newspaper, celebrating local business people and showing them when they were babies:

Mabel Sykes and her baby photo, Chicago Tribune, December 30, 1923
Mabel Sykes and her baby photo, Chicago Tribune, December 30, 1923



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Welcome to Photographs, Pistols & Parasols, the podcast where we celebrate early women artisan photographers.

I’m your host, Lee McIntyre.

In today’s episode, we meet Mabel Sykes, who in the early 20th century, found success as noted  Chicago photographer. She  took photos of everyday folks as well as the rich and famous. That includes one Hollywood star who dubbed her his favorite photograher of all time.

For more information about any of the women discussed in today’s episode, visit my website at p3photographers.net.

That’s letter “p”, number “3”, photographers “dot” net.


Welcome back to Photographs, Pistols & Parasols.

Today I’m going to introduce you to both an interesting photographer and an interesting website that is a fantastic resource about that photographer.

But before I get to that, I want to talk abuot how I first came across the work of a photographer named Mabel Sykes.

Back in the “before time”, when it was possible to spend time digging through boxes of photos in antique stores, many was the weekend that my husband, Chris, and I spent time looking for examples of works by our early women artistan photographers.

As I mentioned back in episode 38, to do this hunting at an antique store, we carry along our “Pocket Palmquist”, which is to say our portable version of a database of women photographers’ names that we’ve done research on, combined with the rest of Peter Palmquist’s list of women photographers. THe combined list is over 20,000 names.

So, normally, it’s a little slow going – unless there’s a woman’s name, or a “Miss ” or “Mrs” or “Misses” indicated on the photo.

If we find a match with a name on a photo – and it’s not outrageously expensive – we’ll buy it.

Normally, we will invest in buying something if we find a match to a name in the database, but our one rule is we don’t buy a photo that has only a name but no location. We’ve gotten burned in the past doing that, so we are a little more cautious these days.

But at the end of one long session in an anqiute store somewhere in the U.S., I got down to the bottom of the last box and pulled out a beautiful head and shoulders shot of a young boy in a suit. It was printed on a piece of paper about 5×7, printed so as to suggest a mat around the edges. As I stared at the fancy script underneath the photo, trying to make it out, I realized it spelled out the name of the photographer, and it was a woman’s name, “Mabel Sykes.” But no address.

But … it was only $1.

So, I thought for sure that it was worth $1 to see if we could find a Mabel Sykes on Ancestry.com who had been a photographer somewhere in the world.

And our “Pocket Palmquist” revealed that Peter had found a Mabel Sykes in California.

So, we boldly spent $1. 🙂

And sure enough, a quick look both on ancestry.com and newspapers.com started to reveal information about a Mabel Sykes and her studio in Chicago.

But then … a quick search on the internet pulled up something even more unusual: someone had written a blog post all about Mabel Sykes, on a website called “Under Every Tombsone!”

The author’s name is Jim Craig, and he has done such a wonerful job documenting many aspects of Mabel Syke’s life and career, that at the end I’m going to point you to his website to get more details that he shares about her.

But first today, I want to share a few highlights about Mabel Sykes here on the podcast. I’m going to talk about a mix of material that Jim Craig covers, with a some additional bits of info about her photography and career. You know, the kind of stuff I usually talk about here. 🙂

OK, so let’s just dive in at the begining.

Mabel Huxley in born in Illinois in 1883, the oldest of 4 children and the only daughter.

According to a story in the Chicago papers in 1914, Mabel went, in 1902, into a photography studio to have her photo taken. The photographer was instantly smitten by her beauty [the article says she was celebrated in her own day as one of the most beautiful women in Chicago.]

By the end of her appointment at the studio, Mabel has had not only her photo taken but also been asked for her hand in marriage. As the story goes — at least in an article a few years later — the photographer, Melvin Sykes, proposed to Mabel on the spot that same afternoon.

The lovebirds are married in 1902.
Mabel is 19.
Melvin is … older. In the way that often happens in the records, Melvin’s age seems to vary over the years, comparing the newspaper articles to the censuses, etc. But on
his tombstone it says that he was born in 1869, so we’ll go with that; and that would make him 32-33 when he marries Mabel.

Melvin’s already been esablished as a successful photographer at this point, and Mabel joins him in the business. She’s listed early on as an “office manager”, but then she transitions to becoming a photographer in her own right. If she had done any photography prior to her marriage, it’s not clear from anything that either Jim Craig or Chris or I have found to date.

In any case, Melvin and Mabel form a very succesful partnership, and “Sykes Studio” expands, to the point when, around 1913, they open up another branch in Chicago.

And they hire a young woman to run that branch.

And … well, long-time listeners of this podcast can probably guess what happens next…

[Due to Melvin’s interest in their young branch manager], in 1914, Mabel files for divorce.

To say that this divorce is a cause celeb in Chicago in 1914 is an <em>understatement!</em> There are articles and photos of all points of the “love triangle” participants, i.e. Mabel, Melvin, and the young assistant, Margaret.

Actually, it’s amazing that Melvin’s history with marriage hadn’t made the papers before this. As it turns out – and is chronicled in every article about the very public divorce – Mabel was Melvin’s <em>3rd</mem> wife.

When the dust finally settles, [Mabel is granted the divorce] and she gets the Sykes Studio business, and the right to continue calling herself “Mabel Sykes”. That’s how she re-brands the studio.

Melvin is prohibited from remarrying for the next 2 years … in Illinois.

To dodge around that loop hole, he and Margaret run off to Indiana and get married a mere 3 months after the divorce from Mabel is final.

Now, two years later, articles popup in the newspapers – complete with new photos of Margaret (Mrs. Sykes #4) and our charming cad Melvin. The new stories are all about their 1916 “remarriage” in Illinois. By 1916, Melvin and Margaret now have 2 babies, and there is some doubt about the legality of their 1914 Indiana marriage,so they have another ceremony in Illinois.

Anyway, getting back to Mabel, after Mabel and Melvin get divorced, Mabel rebrands the “Sykes Studio” as the “Mabel Sykes Studio”. It’s located in the “loop” section of Chicago, and caters- as any artisan studio does – to a variety of people and businesses. From time to time there are notices in the newspaper saying that her studio is also taking high school photos for the yearbook; the notices provide directions for when the students should report to the Mabel Sykes studio to get their year book photos taken.

Also, Mabel take photos that appear in the newspapers. They illustrate not only Society page notices, but also provide photos of people who are the subject of more serious stories. For example, in 1917, there is a front page story about a family menaced by a German bomb; the husband, wife, and son are all pictured with the story, including a photo by Mabel Sykes of the son.

1917 is actually an interesting year for Mabel; her “Mabel Sykes Studio” is going strong, so she keeps that as her photography brand when she marries her second husband, Alfred J. Barsanti. Unlike Melvin, Barsanti is a few years Mabel’s junior .. and he’s working for her when they get married.

Now, I haven’t really mentioned that Melvin and Margaret (remember, she’s Mrs. Sykes #4) actually stayed in Chicago for a while after they got married. Melvin opens up a photography studio that competes with his ex-wife’s studio, and sometimes their ads even appear side-by-side in the newspaper. [Note that In tne listig for Photographers in the Chicago telephone books, Mabel Sykes Studio is alway listed alphabetically ABOVE Melvin Syke’s Studio.]

After Mabel gets married in 1917, she’s know as Mrs. Albert Barsanti, even though her photography studio and brand continues to be marked with “Mabel Sykes.” [Prior to Mabel’s re-marriage, Melvin takes out ads in the newspapers saying he’s the “original Sykes” in Chicago. Which is true.] But after her re-marriage, since technically she’s no longer Mrs Sykes socially, Melvin takes out ads in in the 1918 news papers saying he’s the “original and only Sykes photographer in town”. Which is only sort of true. [Mabel’s studio does suffer damage from a fire in the summer of 1917, so it is possible that for a time, while she is remodeling after the fire, Melvin really is the only Sykes studio? Maybe.]


But I think Mabel is more popular overall. She’s the one that’s mentioned in the social notices in the newspaper, like the puff piece in the 1920s that profiles local business people and shows them when they were babies. [She is also successful enough that she buys an mansion on Chicago’s north side, opening up a second studio that caters to the folks in high society, while leaving her loop studio open for everyone else, I guess. ]

By the way, at some point in the 1920s, Melvin and Margaret leave town, turning up in California, and ultimately running a studio together in LA and later San Diego. As I mentioned, our “Pocket Palmquist” indicated that Peter found a “Mabel Sykes” in iCalifornia, but I haven’t been able to track down any trace of Mabel in California; so far everything I’ve seen in that state is for Melvin and Margaret.

[On any case, Mabel’s business continues going strong. Over the years, she hires a number of assistants who later open their own studios across the country – and when they do, they proclaim in their ads that they had previously worked at the Mabel Sykes studio in Chicago. So her reputation as a high quality photographer was well known across the country.]

But not only was Mabel somewhat famous as photographer, she also famous client, including one rather famous one in particular: Rudolph Valentino, the silent movie star.

Jim Craig, the blogger I mentioned at the beginning, is actually an expert on Valentino. It was through his interest in Valentino that Jim wound up with an amazing find on ebay. As he said in an email to me, “I bought a huge lot of material on Mabel Sykes off ebay hoping that there might be some Valentino material in it but when I got it I realized what a treasure trove it was about Mabel and the cad of a first husband.”

And indeed, it was a real find. Head over <a href=”https://undereverytombstone.blogspot.com/2013/06/she-was-rudolph-valentino-favorite.html”>here to his blogpost</a> so you can see all the great photos of that were included in that lot he bought – it turned out to be Mabel’s personal collection of photos, including pictures of her, Melvin, her house .. and also many of her photos of Rudolph Valentino.

Let me read you just a little bit from Jim’s blog:

<em>She photographed them all from the rich and famous to the just plain folks. Her studio was right in the heart of Chicago’s loop. So whenever anyone famous came through town and they all did at one time or another, they ended up in Mabel studio. It was during one of his many trips through Chicago that Rudolph Valentino met Mabel Sykes.</em> …

<em>The camera loved Rudolph Valentino. And so did millions of fans all over the world. Mabel Sykes loved to take photos of beautiful people and Valentino certainly fit that bill Valentino traveled the world over and was photographed by the world’s best photographers, but he always claimed that his favorite photographer was Mabel Sykes.</em>

And again, this is taken from, <a href=”https://undereverytombstone.blogspot.com/2013/06/she-was-rudolph-valentino-favorite.html”>Jim Craig’s blog post on Mabel Sykes and Rudolph Valentino.</em>

Let me just read you a little bit more about what happened at the end of Rudolph Valentino’s life. Here’s another quote from Jim’s blog:

<em>Rudolph Valentino came through Chicago for the last time on July 20, 1926. He was tired and sick. He would actually die from complications of a ruptured appendix just a little over one month later – on August 23, 1926.

As soon as Mabel Sykes got word that Valentino was on his way to Chicago she cabled him and asked him to set aside some time for another photography session. Valentino responded that he was tired and didn’t feel up to par. He complained that even Mabel Sykes would not be able to make him look well and healthy. Mabel wouldn’t take no for an answer, but also bought a little “insurance”. She met the train in Chicago and went on board to shoot some candid shots of Valentino – just in case he begged off the studio session. </em>

And Jim has one of those candid shots Mabel took of Valentino on the train that day, the month before his death – it’s included in the blog post.

Jim also has the last picture that she took of Valentino in the studio the next day, where Valentino doesn’t quite look his best.

Jim goes on to write,
<em> Since Valentino had told her his health problems. Mabel was probably not as surprised as the rest of the country when she heard the news that Valentino had collapsed and was rushed to the Polyclinic Hospital in New York. …
I’m sure that Mabel was shocked when the news hit the wires a little after Noon, New York time on August 23, 1926: Valentino was dead. </em>

<em>Mabel immediately created a shrine to Rudolph Valentino in the front window of her photography studio on State street, and it remained there until she retired. Immediately created a shrine to Rudolph Valentino in the front window ever for photo studio at state street. And it remained there until she retired.<\em>

Okay, I’ll stop reading from there, but I really encourage you to go and read a little bit more about what happened, with the funeral, how Mabel started selling photographs of Valentino, as a way to make money.

She also starts to put together pamphlets and books on Valentino, including stills from his movies, and she starts a fan club (Jim has a photo of her with members of the club at an event.)

It really is a fascinating story.

I never really knew much about Valentino until I read Jim’s post. Mabel Sykes was a huge fan of the star, celebrating and promoting Rudolph Valentino through her photography for a number of years there in Chicago, both before and after his death.


Again the name of Jim Craig’s blog is <em>Under Every Tombstone</em>; URL is undereverytombstone “dot” blogspot “dot” com. If you go there and look for Mabel Sykes, you’ll find the post; just go to the episode notes for this episode, I’ll have the link there. Check it out – you’ll be able to go directly to see all these wonderful photos and other material about Mabel Sykes and her connection with Valentino.

So, after Valentino’s death, in the late 20s and early 30s, what was happening with Mabel? Jer business was going really strong and in the late twenties, she was running her studios in both locations. She was then also running the fan club and Valentino memorials, too.

Things were going fairly well, until she started to have some issues to deal with in her personal life.

For example, 1929 was a difficult year. That is the year she files for divorce from her second husband. This divorce does not get as much coverage in the newspapers as her first one, but there are still notices about it. What Mabel claims in her divorce suit is that her second husband was cruel — had actually threatened [the lives] of both her and her father. Mabel gets the divorce and goes back to being “Mabel Sykes”, not “Mrs Barsanti” anymore.

But unfortunately over the next couple of years, things take an increasing sad personal turn with her family. At this point, she’s single again (having just divorced her 2nd husband), but her parents are both still alive, as are her three brothers.

But her father is hit by a street car in Chicago in 1930 and killed. One of her younger brothers blames himself for their father’s death. It’s not clear from any of the newspaper articles exactly why he blames himself, but he does, and he sinks into a deep depression. He ultimately commits suicide.

And then Mabel’s mother dies in the late 1930s, and her other brothers each die fairly young over the next decade.

By 1932, there’s already been some pretty big upheaval in Mabel’s family. So maybe it’s not surprising that at that point, Mabel decides to retire. She sells her business to the Marshall Studi, and, uh, closes up shop.

Except … what’s not clear is that there are photos that still surface in the newspapers into into the late 1930s, after her studio’s been closed, where the credit is still “Photo by Mabel Sykes.” But maybe those photos were taken earlier.

Still… it’s not really clear exactly what she does for the next few decades, but uh, she is still at Chicago in directories at least somewhat.

And so it’s really interesting to try to track down a little bit more about her at some point. I still haven’t managed to find very much yet, but I’m still optimistic that we’ll find more stuff about this later period in her life.

When she retires, there’s a notice in the newspaper said she’d been running that Mabel Sykes studio for 25 years, which pretty counts the time when she was married to Melvin, I believe.

But all we can do after that is fast forward to 1963, when we discover a little notice in the Chicago newspaper that Mabel Sykes, “who once ran a commercial photography studio here in Chicago has passed away”. Regarding where she’s buried: her parents had gotten divorced after Mabel was an adult, but there was a story in the newspapers — around the time of her 1914 divorce from Melvin, that says after the parents divorced, their sons sided and lived with their father, and Mabel sided her mother.

At one point, her mother actually even lived with Mabel, I think, between her marriages.

When her mother dies, she’s buried in one part of the cemetery and Mabel’s father is buried in a different part of the cemetery. When their sons die, they’re buried near their father. But when Mabel dies, she’s buried near their mother.

I find it interesting that the split loyalties continued like that after death, and they aren’t all buried together.

So thatwraps up today’s tale of Mabel Sykes. She’s a very popular and super successful photographer in Chicago. When family tragedy strikes, though, it seems like it takes the wind out of her sales professionally, and so she retires.

Her triumphs professional – and interesting side stories personally – make for a fascinating story. It’s always fabulous to figure out what can happen when you take a chance for $1 on a photo that lists no location, but does have the name of a woman. In this case, of course, a woman named Mabel Sykes.


As always I’ll share that $1 photo by Mabel Sykes in the episode notes for today’s episode, along with some of the other clippings I mentioned.

I will of course also share the link to Jim Craig’s wonderful blog post about Mabel Sykes and her connection to Rudolph Valentino. It includes more details about her start – and her divorce from Melvin Sykes, plus some wonderful photographs that Jim found on ebay, photographs that you’re just not going to find anywhere else because they were part of her personal collection.

The episode notes for the podcast will be on my website, which is p3photographers “dot” net.

<a href=”https://undereverytombstone.blogspot.com/2013/06/she-was-rudolph-valentino-favorite.html”>Jim Craig’s article on Mabel Sykes</a> is over on his website, undereverytombstone “dot” blogspot “dot” com.

If you have any questions or just want to drop me a line, write to me at podcast “at” p3photographers.net.

And remember to check out the project Facebook page at facebook.com/p3photographers. I have been posting some news there on and off; I’ll try to include a little bit of those news and notes, in the next podcast episode as well.

Anyway, that’s it for today.
Thanks as always for stopping by!
Until next time, I’m Lee, and <em>Photographs, Pistols, & Parasols</em>.

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