The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Purity’ was one of Hollywood’s most controversial films. Meet its D.C. writer.

Clifford Howard was a lawyer, D.C. government clerk and freelance writer who moved to California in 1906 and became involved in the nascent film industry there. He wrote the 1916 movie "Purity," starring model Audrey Munson. Because of its nude scenes, "Purity" was banned in many cities, including the District.
Clifford Howard was a lawyer, D.C. government clerk and freelance writer who moved to California in 1906 and became involved in the nascent film industry there. He wrote the 1916 movie "Purity," starring model Audrey Munson. Because of its nude scenes, "Purity" was banned in many cities, including the District. (Library of Congress)

About an hour after Clifford Howard consumed three buttons of peyote, the hallucinations kicked in. Howard moved unsteadily to the divan in his Capitol Hill home and stared at the fire burning in the grate.

“Every flame, every spark scintillated with varied and changing hues of the most exquisite shades,” he later wrote. “I seemed suddenly to realize that they were jewels; radiant jewels — diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, glistening solitaires, clusters, strings, festoons, masses of them, myriads of them . . .”

Howard was a lawyer — he had graduated in 1890 from what later became George Washington University — and a clerk with the District Commissioners, the men who ran the city in the years before home rule. One day, while Howard relaxed in the library of the Cosmos Club, a researcher from the Bureau of American Ethnology named James Mooney asked if he would sample something Mooney had brought back from the Southwest: a hallucinogen sacred to the Kiowa Indians.

Howard was game. He had always been inquisitive — and energetic. His day job was with the city, but he was also a freelance writer, busy churning out all manner of copy: poems, short stories, essays, pamphlets. Several subjects especially interested Howard: religion (he had some unique theories), women’s suffrage (he was for it) and the death penalty (he was against it).

Who can say whether Howard’s mescaline-fueled trip to what he called “artificial paradise” influenced his work? But by 1916 — 14 years after he wrote about the experience — Howard had moved to California and written one of the most controversial films in the early history of Hollywood.

The movie was called “Purity.” It starred Audrey Munson, a 25-year-old artist’s model who has the distinction of being the first person to appear nude in an American film. In my previous column, I wrote about the rocky reception the film had here.

I’m fascinated by the Washington connections to “Purity.” And no one had more of a connection than Clifford Howard, the man who wrote it.

Howard was born in 1868 in Bethlehem, Pa., and moved to the District for law school. Even before he graduated, he took a job at the commissioners’ office, hired in 1889 as a “stenographer and typewriter.” His duties must eventually have included more than mere scutwork. As a high-ranking clerk, Howard appears to have been involved in policy.

In 1893, Howard married Hattie Case. They lived for a while on T Street NW, then moved to Capitol Hill. In 1903 they built a house at 6000 Connecticut Ave. in Chevy Chase, Md. An inheritance from a wealthy aunt allowed Howard to quit his District job and write full time. (The Howards’ Chevy Chase years are detailed by the Chevy Chase Historical Society.)

Both Clifford and Hattie were active in local literary circles. They were members of the Short Story Club of Washington. In 1891, the Washington Evening Star began publishing one of Clifford’s poems every month. Among them was one entitled “Truth”:

In youth I sought a far-famed flower rare,

But searched in vain through every clime and state;

Till old, I wandered home in dark despair

And found the flower by my garden gate

Howard published his first book of poetry, entitled “Twigs, Leaves and Blossoms,” in 1892. His second, “Thoughts in Verse,” was published in 1895.

It was around this time that Howard became involved in the suffrage movement. In a pamphlet, he argued that “woman should have the ballot, not only for her own benefit, but for the benefit of you and me and every other man who stands for good government and public cleanliness and purity.”

Ah, “purity.” The word was to take on special resonance.

Howard said that suffrage opponents could argue a woman’s place was in the home, but they must see that “the home” had become more than just a domestic realm. He wrote: “But today would she serve the home she must go beyond the house. No longer is the home compassed by four walls. Many of its most important duties lie now involved in the bigger family of the city and state.”

Howard was unafraid to confront touchy subjects. In 1898 he delivered a lecture on “The Philosophy of Sin.” A year earlier, he had published a book entitled, “Sex Worship: An Exposition of the Phallic Origin of Religion.”

A critic for the Indianapolis Sentinel wrote of it: “A volume whose contents will surprise most people.”

Indeed.

In 1906, Clifford, Hattie and their 5-year-old daughter, Hildegarde, left Chevy Chase and moved to the West Coast. Clifford Howard would be turning his creative talents to a new industry. And if ever there was something that could create an artificial paradise, it was the movie business.

Up next: Meet Audrey Munson, the world’s first supermodel.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.

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