“What more could one ask of a scenario?” –Agnes Ayres
While many women worked alongside the great Rudolph Valentino, Agnes Ayres was able to do so alongside him in the notable silent classic The Sheik (1921). Though known for this role, she appeared in many other silent films of the era.
Agnes Eyre Henkel was born on April 4, 1891, in Carbondale, Illinois, to Solon Augustus and Emma Henkel. She was the youngest of two children, growing up in Comden, Illinois, with an older brother named Solon William. When her father passed away, Emma remarried to a farmer named Franklin Rendleman. Ayres would end her education in the 8th grade when the family moved to Chicago. Though she intended to study law, her ambitions would change.
While working as a bookkeeper, Ayres was spotted by an Essanay Studios Chicago director and offered a role as an extra in a film. Inspired to act, her family moved to Manhattan, where Ayres pursued an acting career. Due to her strong resemblance to actress Alice Joyce, Ayres was cast as the sibling of Joyce’s character in Richard the Brazen (1917). During this time, she married army officer Frank Shuker, though they would divorce in 1921.
Ayres’s career continued to progress Paramount’s Jesse Lasky learned of her and gave her a role in Held by the Enemy (1920). She and Lasky also struck up a romance at this time.
Ayres’s pivotal role came in The Sheik, in which she portrayed heiress Lady Diana Mayo. Following the film, she took on additional starring roes, including The Affairs of Anatol (1921), Forbidden Fruit (1921), and The Ten Commandments (1923). She would play the Mayo character in The Sheik’s sequel, The Son of the Sheik (1926).
As her relationship with Lasky ended, Ayres went on to marry Mexican Diplomat S. Manuel Reachi. They would have a daughter named Maria before divorcing in 1927.
In addition to appearing in her last major film role in The Donovan Affair (1929), Ayres lost her fortune and assets in the stock market crash. Struggling financially, she sought work on the stage, returning to vaudeville and hoping to execute more starring film roles. Unfortunately, she was unable to achieve star billing again and carried out mostly uncredited roles before retiring from acting in 1937 and turning to real estate.
Once retired, Ayres was committed to a sanatorium and lost custody of her daughter. She passed away on December 25, 1940, from a cerebral hemorrhage. She was 42 years old and interred at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
Today, the Union County Historical Society has a collection of Ayres memorabilia that was exhibited in 2019 in conjunction with a screening of The Sheik in Cobden, Illinois. In attendance was Ayres’s daughter, Maria, who had never visited Cobden before. The Union County Historical Society is located at 117 S. Appleknocker in Cobden.
The former Essanay Studios Chicago is located at 1345 W. Argyle St., Chicago, Illinois, and is now the site of St. Augustine College.
In 1900, Ayres is documented as living in Cobden with her mother, stepfather, and brother. By 1910, she was living at 4008 W. Adams St. in Chicago and working as a bookkeeper. In 1930, Ayres lived at 1615 Martel Ave. in Los Angeles, California. In 1940, she resided at 834 N. Alfred St. in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, none of these homes exist today.
Ayres does, however, have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located at 6504 Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles.
Ayres continues to be celebrated through her silent film roles.