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Jules Brulatour

New Orleans native Jules Brulator was one of the founders of Universal Pictures and Universal City Studios in Hollywood.

Jules Brulatour

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Jules Brulatour. Randy Bryan Bigham Collection

Pierre Ernest Jules Brulatour, a native of New Orleans, was one of the foremost pioneering figures in the early days of the motion picture industry. He was among the founders of Universal Pictures, a major Hollywood film studio that began in New York in 1912 as the Universal Film Manufacturing Company.

Brulatour was born on April 7, 1870, in New Orleans to Thomas and Marie Mossy Brulatour. He was named after his paternal grandfather, a wine merchant for whom the picturesque Brulatour Courtyard at 520 Royal Street in the French Quarter was named. In 1898, married and with three children, Jules moved his family to New York, where he began working as a salesman for the Manhattan Optical Company. By 1907 he was the distribution chief in the United States for raw film stock from French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière (also known as the Lumière frères), who were among the first film manufacturers in the world. By importing the Lumière stock, Brulatour could avoid strictures imposed by the monopoly of the American-based Eastman-Kodak Company. In 1909 Brulatour then joined forces with Carl Laemmle in creating the Motion Picture Distributing and Sales Company. This consolidation weakened the stronghold of Thomas Edison, the inventor and fiercely litigious patent holder of film projectors, and it also cut into Kodak mogul George Eastman’s profits. Brulatour was then offered a contract with Eastman that put him in charge of Kodak distribution as well. He made huge profits from the volume of film sold in the burgeoning movie industry.

Brulatour cofounded Peerless Pictures and was a producer for the French film company Éclair, which built a large state-of-the-art studio at Fort Lee, New Jersey, in 1911. Éclair’s leading lady, Dorothy Gibson, became a popular star in a number of dramas and comedy hits, including Miss Masquerader (1911) and Love Finds a Way (1912). Off-screen, she was also a hit with Brulatour: in 1911 she began a six-year love affair with the movie tycoon while he was still married to his first wife, Clara Isabelle. Brulatour was forty-one years old when he met Gibson, then twenty-two, at a film company ball. “It happened before I knew it,” Gibson later recalled of her attraction to Brulatour. “Only in youth can we love so much and so unwisely.”

On April 15, 1912, Gibson survived the sinking of the RMS Titanic ocean liner and went on to portray herself in the tremendously popular film Saved from the Titanic, released on May 16, just over a month after the maritime disaster. Gibson also wrote the script for this one-reeler and wore the same white silk evening dress she had donned on that fateful night. No prints are known to currently exist, and film historians consider this to be one of the great losses of the silent film era.

Meanwhile, Brulatour teamed up again with Laemmle to form Universal Film Manufacturing Company, later known as Universal Pictures. Begun in 1912, the corporation brought together competing studios into a spectacular reservoir of resources and talent. Brulatour served as Universal’s first president, and by the end of 1912, Universal City Studios would be established in the rapidly growing film capital of Hollywood, California.

In 1913 Gibson killed a pedestrian while driving Brulatour’s sports car in New York. The ensuing high-profile court case revealed that she was Brulatour’s mistress. Although he was already separated, this created a scandal that was followed by a divorce in 1915. Gibson and Brulatour were wed in 1917, but their union lasted only two years. In 1924 Brulatour’s first wife died in Egypt from injuries sustained in a car accident.

Much has been written to suggest that Orson Welles’s film Citizen Kane (1941) was largely based on the life of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst; however, much of the story was actually drawn from the lives of Jules and Dorothy Brulatour. The film’s lead female character, Susan Alexander, is said to have been partly based on Dorothy Gibson, who was the highest-paid movie actress in the world, earning upwards of $175 per week at the time of her forced retirement.

Brulatour married a third time to actress Hope Hampton, but Dorothy never remarried. In 1928 she and her mother settled in France, where Dorothy became involved in fascist politics and espionage. She apparently switched allegiances once the war was under way, was arrested by the Gestapo, imprisoned, escaped, and was incarcerated again until 1944.

The last twenty years of Jules Brulatour’s life were less dynamic than his early ones. His wife Hope was quite the entertainer and was dubbed in the society columns as the “Duchess of Park Avenue.” In 1939 Brulatour was wounded by a would-be assassin, whose identity he would never reveal to police.

Dorothy died of a heart attack in her quarters at the Hôtel Ritz in Paris on February 17, 1946. Jules died at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York on October 19 that same year. Jules’s son from his first marriage, Claude Jules Brulatour, was vacationing in Montego Bay, Jamaica, with his wife at the time; strangely, both father and son died in bed of heart attacks on the same night.