Emily Elda Voelkel Hartley, actress, documentary producer, and author, was born in Brownwood, Texas, on March 6, 1911, to Leonidas Carl and Emily (Lockwood) Voelkel. The family lived in McKinney, Texas, at the time of the 1920 federal census, and her father worked as a grain merchant. By the time Voelkel, who went by the name of Elda, attended high school, the family had moved to the neighborhood of Oak Cliff in Dallas. In 1926 she won an Oak Cliff beauty contest. She attended Oak Cliff High School, where she worked on the yearbook staff, was a member of the Scholarship Club, and president of the Spanish Club, among other activities. She graduated in 1927. Elda began her acting career at the Dallas Little Theater. She later attended Southern Methodist University and participated in the college drama program.
Inspired by her experiences in local theater programs, Elda Voelkel visited Hollywood’s Paramount Studio in the summer of 1929 and was cast, with one line of dialogue, in Ludwig Berger’s The Vagabond King, released in 1930. She then moved to New York City in 1930 to pursue a Broadway career. She received two stage roles between 1930 and 1931. Voelkel debuted as the comedienne in School Girl and later played a part in She Lived Next Door to the Firehouse. Following her Broadway success, she secured a contract with Fox Film Corporation.
Elda Voelkel’s film career lasted briefly between 1930 and 1932. Her film credits include The Vagabond King (1930), Only the Brave (1930), and The First Year (1932). In the midst of her budding film career, Voelkel married Hollywood director William Keighley on September 1, 1931. The marriage ended in divorce in 1936, and Voelkel married filmmaker Irving Hartley on October 18, 1940. They had one son.
Beginning in the 1960s Elda Voelkel Hartley embarked on a film production career. With her husband Irving Hartley, she produced numerous documentary films that focused on travel, education, and world religions. In 1976 Elda and Irving founded the Hartley Film Foundation which was dedicated to promoting a broader understanding of spirituality and religion. They traveled the world and profiled religious rituals and philosophical principles of major religions through their video productions. Her many film releases included Trip to Awareness: A Jain Pilgrimage to India (1976), Buddhism: Path to Enlightenment (1978), and The Therapeutic Touch: Healing in the New Age (1979). Her book, Perennial Wisdom: Unity in the World of Faith, was published in 1985. She continued film production throughout the 1990s.
Elda Voelkel Hartley died at the age of ninety in Greenwich, Connecticut, on March 6, 2001. Her husband preceded her in death in 1986.