Morgan, Helen (1900–1941)
Morgan, Helen (1900–1941)
American singer and actress best known for her role as Julie in the landmark musical Show Boat. Born Helen Morgan (birth name sometimes given as Helen Riggins) on August 21, 1900; birthplace variously given as Danville, Illinois, and Toronto, Ontario; died on October 5, 1941, of cirrhosis of the liver; daughter of Lulu Morgan and probably Thomas Morgan; left high school before her sophomore year; married Maurice Mashke, Jr., in 1933 (divorced 1935); married Lloyd Johnson, in 1941.
Began singing in small Chicago cabarets, where she established a reputation as a torch singer; became a star with her creation of the role of Julie in Broadway production of Show Boat (1927), which she recreated on screen and in a Broadway revival (1932); had active nightclub career in New York and Chicago speakeasies during prohibition and was acquitted of federal charges filed under the Volstead Act after several raids by government agents; career declined afterward due to health problems brought on by alcoholism; was the subject of film The Helen Morgan Story (1947).
Show Boat (1929); Glorifying The American Girl (1929); Applause (1930); Roadhouse Nights (1930); You Belong To Me (1934); Marie Galante (1934); Sweet Music (1935); Go Into Your Dance (1935); Show Boat (remake, 1936); Frankie and Johnny (1936).
Cabbies and pedestrians threading their way through New York's Herald Square one summer day in 1918 had little use for the war bonds rally adding to the already clogged three-street intersection of 34th Street, Seventh Avenue, and Broadway. No matter that Mary Pickford was manning the table where bonds to help finance America's First World War efforts could be purchased for as little as 50 cents, or that vaudeville idol Gracie Fields was the featured performer that day. Amid the horns and shouts and clatter, even less attention was paid to the slim, dark-haired 18-year-old girl who, after buying a ten-dollar bond from Pickford, was allowed to climb up on the back of an Army truck to sing "Over There" in a breathy voice that was no match for the cacophony around her. It was Helen Morgan's first appearance on Broadway. A decade later, she would be headlining in the show that would define American musical comedy for the next 40 years.
Mama, break out the Napoleon [brandy]. It's been one hell of a crazy day.
—Helen Morgan, following her 1928 federal indictment
Despite national fame, Morgan would remain very much an enigma to her adoring public; the beautiful dark-haired singer always seemed to keep her distance. One critic noted that the essence of her art was that "she never presses it all out." This reticence even surrounds the circumstances of her birth, with a number of versions current. Some accounts claim she was born Helen Riggins in a small Illinois railroad town, later adopting the name Morgan from a relative; others point to Toronto as her birthplace where, it was said, she had been born to Thomas and Lulu Morgan in 1900. By this telling, Thomas—a fireman for the Canadian National Railroad—disappeared shortly after her birth, forcing Lulu to find work in a railroad workers' soup kitchen, her baby daughter safely stowed behind the potbellied stove. Morgan herself once said that she was of Scotch-German-Irish ancestry ("a real goulash," as she put it) and never went to Canada until she was older. It is certain, however, that Lulu and Helen were living in Danville, Illinois, by 1904, and that Lulu was, indeed, working in a railyard restaurant with her little girl in tow. Morgan, much loved by the trackmen who frequented the place, would often climb up on the cowcatcher of a handy locomotive to entertain them during their lunch hour with a song—a talent discovered and eagerly promoted by Lulu. Years later, Lulu would be sure to embroider the legend by telling how three-year-old Helen had climbed up on the ironing board one day to sing "Three Blind Mice" and noted that she would give all the money she made as a singer to friends.
In 1912, the railyard was visited by a reporter for the Chicago Daily News, on assignment to write a series of articles about the wives of railroad men. The reporter was Amy Leslie , a former actress who had appeared on stage under the name of Lillie West and who was still very much a fixture of the Chicago theater world. Leslie was sufficiently impressed with the 12-year-old Helen's singing that she offered to arrange a tryout engagement for her at one of several nightclubs owned by some Canadian friends. Lulu quickly agreed. Not long after, Helen and Lulu found themselves in Montreal, where Helen appeared at Club Le Troc in the city's French Quarter, singing some of the French-Canadian folk songs taught to her by admiring railroad men to such effect that her engagement was extended and patrons were being turned away at the door. But Morgan's first taste of fame was cut short when a child-welfare worker closed down the show, and mother and daughter were forced to move back to Chicago.
For the next six years, the two struggled to keep a roof over their heads, so much so that Morgan left high school after her freshman year to find work. There followed a dreary round of jobs in, among other places, a biscuit factory; a gelatin plant, from which she was fired for eating too much of the product; and a Cracker Jacks factory, from which she was also fired for slipping an extra prize into the boxes. She quit a job as a bill collector for the Chicago Telephone Company because she said it made her too sad, then went on to become a manicurist and a counter girl at Chicago's Marshall Field's department store. She never earned more than nine dollars a week. In later years, when asked what had made her so successful, Morgan would reply simply, "Hunger."
Lulu remained convinced that better things lay ahead, and urged Helen to accept the offer of a singing job at Chicago's Green Mill, a respectable night spot with a genteel clientele. The
exposure gained her an invitation to enter the statewide Miss Illinois beauty pageant, which she won in 1918, followed by a similar victory in Canada, where she was crowned Miss Mount Royal in Montreal. The two titles were enough to win her and Lulu a trip to New York City, and her Broadway "debut" at the war bonds rally. The war ended later that year, and America entered a period of postwar prosperity and release, the "roaring '20s," which refused to be dampened by Congress' passage, in 1919, of the Volstead Act. Otherwise known as Prohibition, it was an event that would have a very direct, and drastic, effect on Morgan in later life.
Despite the boom, life was still difficult for Morgan mére et fille. Lulu went to work as a housekeeper and as a store clerk while Helen looked for a job in show business with little success, forced to accept modeling jobs at art schools for an hourly fee. Her first break came when Florenz Ziegfeld hired her as a chorus girl in one of his opulent revues, Sally, starring his currently reigning star, Marilyn Miller , who was billed "the dancing golden sprite." Helen thought she was auditioning for a singing job, but Ziegfeld merely told her she had good teeth, asked her to walk back and forth a few times, and put her in the chorus line, over Morgan's protests that she had no training as a dancer. It was an inauspicious beginning to a friendship that would last until Ziegfeld's death a decade later.
Morgan hoofed away in the back row for the show's entire run of 570 performances, but quickly found singing work when the show closed—first at Chicago's Café Montmartre and, later, at Billy Rose's Backstage Club, a tiny, charmless nightery over a garage on West 56th Street in New York. With Prohibition now in full force, the club was often raided by the minions of New York's administrator for Prohibition, Maurice Campbell, until Rose accepted an offer from two mobsters to take them on as partners, thus assuring that the right palms were greased and the club was left alone. Rose closed the club after six months, but during Morgan's time there, she came under the protective eye of the mob and forged the links with New York's raucous night life that would connect her with three of the city's most popular clubs—Helen Morgan's 54th Street Club, Chez Morgan, and Helen Morgan's Summer Home.
After the demise of Rose's enterprise, Morgan returned to the stage, appearing for two seasons in George White's Scandals, the rival production to Ziegfeld's annual Follies. Though she was just one of a cast of unbilled young hopefuls, at least she was allowed to sing and did not have to dance. White was sufficiently impressed to give her a week's solo run at the Palace Theater in the summer of 1927. The reviews were, if not raves, at least supportive, with The New York Times labeling her "a highly individualized chanteuse" possessing a "somnolent, smoldering personality with overtones of pathos which give her numbers, even the most banal of them, a certain charm and distinction." But it was her appearance in White's 1926 revue Americana the previous summer that led to more than positive reviews. White had given her a solo spot in which she sang a song written for her, "Nobody Wants Me," from the top of the piano in the orchestra pit. The audience loved her, and one of their number decided he very much wanted her, indeed. He was Jerome Kern who, with Oscar Hammerstein II, had just finished a rewrite on a musical that would open the next year. Kern was having difficulty casting one of the characters in the show, the tragic part of a mulatto named Julie Dozier. The musical was Show Boat, and Broadway had never seen anything like it before.
Adapted from the 1926 Edna Ferber novel, Show Boat was the first American musical to integrate song, story, and character at a time when most presentations on the musical stage were little more than variety shows with a flimsy plot connecting the numbers. From the moment the curtain went up on the show's opening number, "Ol' Man River," audiences knew they were seeing something markedly different. Not only was the number sung by a chorus of African-Americans, who never appeared on stage except as Stepin Fetchit-types in slapstick comedies, but the song itself was a moving depiction of a slave's hard life in the Mississippi of 1860—hardly what audiences of the time expected from a musical comedy.
Kern and Hammerstein endeavored to explore their racial subtext through the character of Julie, to whom they assigned "My Bill," a song Kern had written some years earlier, as well as a second number, "Can't Help Loving That Man of Mine." Both numbers called for a combination of sweet and sultry, and Kern found it that July night in 1927 when Morgan sang "Nobody Wants Me" bathed in the light of a single spot. Although she had had no dramatic experience, a secondary role, and the critics barely mentioned her, audiences lined up to buy tickets to see the show where "the dark haired woman sits on the piano and sings about her Bill." By the time the show closed in New York after 192 performances and went on the road, Morgan's name was in lights above even Flo Ziegfeld's, who by now had realized that she had more going for her than good teeth. "She is the Sarah Bernhardt of musical comedy," he said. Oscar Hammerstein was more precise: "Everything she did was exactly right. Her instincts were sure. Nobody had to tell her how to move, gesture, or put over a song. She behaved like a veteran." Besides the road tour, Morgan would go on to appear in a silent-film version of the show in 1929, a Broadway revival in 1932, and a second, talking film released in 1936. Both "My Bill" and "Can't Help Loving That Man of Mine" became her signature songs, with no nightclub performance complete until she had given the audience both.
The ten years from 1926 to 1936 marked the height of Morgan's career, during which she sometimes earned as much as $2,500 a week. During the first two of those years, besides playing Julie on Broadway, her nightclub schedule often required her to appear eight nights a week from one to three in the morning, after having done at least one performance in Show Boat earlier in the evening. She began accepting film roles in 1929, attracting a good deal of respectful attention for her performance as a fading burlesque queen in Rouben Mamoulian's Applause for MGM. During this period, she met and fell in love with Arthur Loew, the son of theater and film baron Marcus Loew, but she insisted on keeping the affair at arm's length unless Arthur agreed to divorce his wife, who was confined to a sanitarium. Loew was never able, or willing, to do so, and the experience left Morgan saddened and bitter. A more successful relationship developed with George Blackwood, a handsome film and stage actor who joined Show Boat just as it left New York for its national tour. He would remain one of Morgan's closest friends for the rest of her life, and, although Helen refused Blackwood's marriage proposals, their affection for each other was obvious to everyone.
It was Blackwood who unsuccessfully tried to wean Morgan away from something else that had become obvious to everyone with whom she worked—her drinking. By the time Blackwood joined the show, Morgan's alcoholism had become serious enough to be talked about, although always in private, safely hidden from the public eye by the Helen Morgan mystique. At first Blackwood went along with Morgan's ritual of consuming four ponies of brandy before going on stage each night; but one evening, when he was late getting to her dressing room, he found she had already downed the required four and was ready to imbibe four more on his arrival. "Helen just had to be fortified for that first [stage] entrance," he said years later, "and the strange thing was, the few times she went on without brandy, her performance wasn't quite up to par." Blackwood felt she needed alcohol to generate the persona of the long-suffering torch singer the public expected, but there were other theories. Ruth Etting , Morgan's rival, laid the blame squarely on Lulu, whom Etting privately claimed had pushed and prodded Morgan too hard and too quickly. Others said it was because of Morgan's unfulfilled love for Arthur Loew, while still others pointed to psychological scarring left by her father's disappearance when Helen was barely three. Whatever the reasons, Morgan's addiction grew steadily worse, especially after she found herself facing federal charges of violating the Volstead Act.
There had been rumblings of trouble ahead ever since New Year's Eve of 1927, when federal agents under Maurice Campbell raided Chez Morgan with a particular vengeance, breaking furniture and injuring not a few patrons. Morgan herself was hauled off to the 30th Precinct, but the charges were later dropped after her lawyer prevailed on the U.S. attorney for New York, who admitted that Campbell had acted without due process of law.
Morgan's dislike for Campbell was shared by almost everyone in the business. He was despised as a wealthy ne'er-do-well, the son of a family which owned (and still owns) a chain of funeral parlors in greater New York. "Honey," Morgan told a friend after the New Year's raid, "all I ask is, when I die, don't let anybody pack me off to a Campbell's funeral parlor." Campbell was also widely known to be in the pocket of the U.S. assistant attorney general charged with enforcing the Prohibition laws, Mabel Walker Willebrandt . Willebrandt seemed to have a particularly strong determination to bring down Helen Morgan, even though New York's "Queen of the Nightclubs" was Texas Guinan , a ribald, earthy Texas woman who would greet her patrons each night with a loud "Hello, suckers!" But unlike Guinan, Morgan was known across the country, and her successful prosecution in New York state would both set a national example and provide a plum for Willebrandt's office.
In the spring of 1928, a wealthy Texas couple frequently swept into Morgan's new speakeasy, Helen Morgan's Summer Home, liberally throwing around wads of cash and free drinks, and inviting Morgan to sit at their table each night after her stage set. Plying her with brandy, they repeatedly expressed admiration for the success of her club, going so far as to ask her advice in opening their own place back home in Texas. "Then why don't you do as I do," Morgan reportedly told them. "There isn't any risk. Get a couple or three good fellows to go in with you. Then, if there's any trouble, you're just an employee. They'll take the blame." The couple promised to take her advice and soon went back to Texas.
Not long after, New York's "war of the nightclubs" broke out in earnest, with raids by some 160 of Campbell's agents on 11 speakeasies during the night of June 28, 1928. Morgan's club, along with such popular spots as The Jungle, The Mime, The Furnace, and The Beaux Arts, were all cleared and shut down, with more than a hundred arrests made. Morgan escaped arrest, as did Guinan, but after Campbell let it be known that both women would be picked up unless they turned themselves in, the two of them appeared with an eager army of reporters and photographers at police headquarters. Charged and then released without bail, Morgan and Guinan were among the 108 named in indictments handed down by a federal grand jury on conspiracy to violate the prohibition laws. With Morgan's trial set for the following April, Mabel Willebrandt finally had her coup.
Morgan turned to the only person she felt could save her career, Flo Ziegfeld, who had been nicknamed "The Great White Father" by the countless showpeople he had helped out of scrapes. It was Ziegfeld who convinced Morgan to turn her back on night life, and who issued a press release announcing that "Miss Morgan has ended the cabaret chapter of her career. She will now conserve all her energies for her work as a featured artist of the legitimate stage." Guinan, never one to mince words, said bluntly, "As usual, they got the wrong party. She's just a dumb … kid."
The basis of Morgan's defense at her trial was the argument she'd used since the early club days—that she was merely an employee and had no knowledge of the club's activities, illegal or otherwise. But Willebrandt, anticipating the argument, had her proof from the undercover agents she had sent to the club disguised as the wealthy Texas couple. Morgan's lawyer, on the other hand, argued entrapment and challenged the prosecution to produce a shred of paper proving Morgan had been anything but an employee. Morgan was found not guilty of all charges against her (as was Guinan), but the strain of the trial was obvious to anyone, especially the reporters to whom Morgan tearfully said after the verdict, "I don't want to think about it anymore."
True to her word, she left the cabaret world until Prohibition was repealed in 1933 and concentrated on her stage and film work. Between 1930 and 1936, Morgan opened in another Kern-Hammerstein musical written especially for her, Sweet Adeline, which gave the world such songs as "Bicycle Built For Two" and "Hello My Baby"; starred in the revival of Show Boat in 1932; and appeared in six films, including the all-talking remake of Show Boat. But her drinking grew worse, especially when Ziegfeld died in 1932. George Blackwood said that for weeks afterward, she would barely speak above a whisper offstage and would sit for long periods, silent and staring, with a drink in her hand. A 1933 marriage to a Cleveland attorney, Maurice Mashke, ended in divorce two years later.
By 1938, her health was too far gone to allow her to work, and Morgan spent most of that year at home with Lulu. She toured the Loew vaudeville circuit in 1939, but needed the help of a chalk line drawn from the wings to the microphone to get her on stage and did not have the coordination, let alone the strength, to assume her characteristic pose on top of the piano. When she opened at the Famous Door Club in New York, audiences noticed how distant she seemed, and one night she declined the usual requests to sing "My Bill." Touching her heart, her forehead, and then her lips, she whispered, "I'm so sorry. I have it here, but it has to come out here and here, and I just can't make it." She was ushered offstage.
But she struggled on. In the summer of 1941, she married a Los Angeles auto dealer, Lloyd Johnson, who accompanied her on a national tour of a revival of George White's Scandals. When the tour reached Chicago, Morgan was too ill to go on and was hospitalized. Three weeks later, on October 5, 1941, she died of cirrhosis of the liver. Johnson confessed they did not have the money to pay the hospital bills, and appealed to an actors' charity for help. Lulu had to ask relatives to pay for the funeral.
At an army camp in Missouri, where he was in training to fight in World War II, George Blackwood read about Morgan's death in the newspapers. He spent that night in a bar, drinking alone.
Atkinson, Brooks. Broadway. NY: Macmillan, 1970.
Hart, Annie. Papers and Scrapbooks, 1922–1947. The New York Public Library, Billy Rose Collection.
Maxwell, Gilbert. Helen Morgan: Her Life And Times. NY: Hawthorn Books, 1974.
The Helen Morgan Story, starring Ann Blyth and directed by Michael Curtiz, Warner Bros., 1957.
Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York