Westley, Helen (1875–1942)

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Westley, Helen (1875–1942)

American actress who was one of the founders of the Theatre Guild . Name variations: Helen Ransom. Born Henrietta Remsen Meserole Manney in Brooklyn, New York, on March 28, 1875; died in FranklinTownship, New Jersey, on December 12, 1942; younger of two children and only daughter of Charles Palmer Manney and Henrietta (Meserole) Manney; educated at Brooklyn School of Oratory, Emerson College of Oratory in Boston, Massachusetts, 1894–95, and the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York City; married Jack Westley (an actor), in New York on October 31, 1900 (separated 1912); children: one daughter, Ethel Westley.

Made stage debut in The Captain of the Nonesuch (September 13, 1897); acted in vaudeville and stock companies; member of the Liberal Club; with Lawrence Langner and others, formed the Washington Square Players; was one of the founders of the Theatre Guild and was on its board of directors for 15 years; had a successful career in Hollywood beginning in 1934, acting in nearly 30 films.

Helen Westley had a long and successful career as an actress, both on stage and in the early decades of film. Born Henrietta Manney, she decided in childhood that she wanted to act. She prepared for this by studying first at the Brooklyn School of Oratory, then for a year in 1894–95 at Emerson College of Oratory in Boston, eventually ending at the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York City. She started her career touring with the stock company headed by Rose Stahl , making her New York debut with Stahl at the Star Theater on September 13, 1897, in a production of The Captain of the Nonesuch, in which she acted under the stage name Helen Ransom. She then performed in vaudeville and with a number of stock companies for about three years. When she married actor Jack Westley, on October 31, 1900, she gave up the stage for the domestic life, and eventually gave birth to their only child, Ethel Westley . In 1912, Helen separated from her husband and returned to the stage.

As a settled New Yorker, she joined Greenwich Village's famous Liberal Club, which counted such notables as Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Susan Glaspell , George Cram Cook, and Lawrence Langner among its membership. In 1915, Westley, Langner, and some of their friends organized the Washington Square Players, an off-Broadway resident theater company. In its first production of one-act plays, Westley appeared as the Oyster in Another Interior, a spoof of Maeterlinck's Interior. In 1916, she performed in Anton Chekhov's The Seagull. She subsequently performed in several Broadway plays as well.

Even in her youth, Westley was known as a character actress, portraying stern, unpleasant, eccentric, and even evil women, as well as more mature roles. In late 1918, she was among the players who formed the Theatre Guild, and served actively on its board for the next 15 years. She played Doña Sirena in The Bonds of Interest, the Guild's first production that opened on April 19, 1919, and afterwards appeared in at least one Guild production every season.

The next phase of her career took Westley to Hollywood where she played Mrs. Morris in Moulin Rouge (1934) and launched herself successfully into film work. Although she returned to Broadway once, to play Grandma in The Primrose Path at the Biltmore Theater in 1939, she spent the rest of her working life performing in films. In less than a decade, she made almost 30 films, including The House of Rothschild and Death Takes a Holiday (both 1934), Roberta (1935), Showboat (1936), Heidi (1937), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Alexander's Ragtime Band (both 1938), and My Favorite Spy (1942).

Cardiovascular disease forced Westley's resignation from the board of the Theatre Guild during the Guild's 1941–42 season, and she died shortly thereafter, in December 1942, of a coronary thrombosis, at age 67. Her friends eulogized her as a forthright person, honest, outspoken, and uninhibited, who maintained the highest standards and was unwilling to sacrifice art for money.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Malinda Mayer , writer and editor, Falmouth, Massachusetts

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Westley, Helen (1875–1942)

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Westley, Helen (1875–1942)