Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Myth³ of Helen Morgan

Helen Morgan is the flame who gave the term torch singer a light. Her voice can be described as a perfectly pitched, small, quivering soprano and fortunately, all of Morgan's recorded tracks (including classic interpretations of Bill and Can't Help Lovin' That Man from Show Boat) can be downloaded for free and added to iTunes. Unfortunately, there is not much verifiable information about Morgan's life itself - which began on August 2, 1900 and ended on October 9, 1941. There have been three attempts to define a history for Helen Morgan and these three all tell a different story.

Helen Morgan sings Bill - Show Boat 1936

Television: Helen Morgan

Playhouse 90 was a late Fifties-era anthology that produced weekly 90 minute plays and broadcast them on (the somewhat new medium of) television. Helen Morgan, an episode of this series, was directed by George Roy Hill (who achieved great fame when he directed Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting) and the drama told its story from the perspective of Helen's mother, Lulu Lang Riggins Morgan. It is unfortunate that this drama has never been available for purchase because it is the best of the lot. Polly Bergen is a phenom as Helen, acting the woman from a naive teen with long hair to a bobbed, soused entertainer dying on screen. Her takes on Helen's classic songs are spot on; not imitations of the beloved recordings but intimate interpretations in a not dissimilar voice. Ms. Bergen rightfully won an Emmy award for her performance. It is riveting in spite of the kinetoscopic quality of the print. (If you're interested in a digital file of this historic program email me for a link.)

Film: The Helen Morgan Story

The Helen Morgan Story was released to movie theatres a few months after the telecast of Helen Morgan. Ann Blyth plays Helen and lip syncs to vocal tracks provided by Gogi Grant, a pop singer of the 1950s. Ms. Grant's tracks are a major problem with the film because she sounds like a pop singer of the 1950s - and a not very emotive one at that. Ann Blyth is fine during the earlier dramatic moments but her final moments are hysterically campy. The script is fictionalized (romantic lead/bootlegger/hottie Paul Newman, for example) and is more a remake of Love Me Or Leave Me (the Ruth Etting film biography with Doris Day and James Cagney) than an original. The film also glosses over Morgan's shining professional accomplishment: her performances as Julie LaVerne in Show Boat and, in fact, ends happily with a (fictional) testimonial dinner in her honor notwithstanding the fact that she died at 41 from cirrhosis of the liver brought about by her alcoholism. It's Hollywood claptrap.

Book: Helen Morgan Her Life and Times

Helen Morgan Her Life and Times was written by Gilbert Maxwell and published in 1974. A literary biography can tell a great tale of its subject but this is no literary biography. Maxwell details Morgan's affairs and marriages (seemingly) based on newspaper accounts and the book reads as such. It feels light - presumably because even forty years ago the myths around Helen had taken hold and information was scarce. The book does collate the facts on Helen's performing career, including whole chapters on all versions of Show Boat, her 1929 film debut Applause (directed by Rouben Mamoulian), the musical Jermone Kern and Oscar Hammerstein wrote specifically for Morgan Sweet Adeline (with hits Why Was I Born? and Don't Ever Leave Me), and the legal troubles stemming from her performances in the speakeasies of the Prohibition era. It's a factual read but full of holes.

Helen Morgan, Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel, Paul Robeson
Show Boat 1936

The Myths and the Facts

There are some common threads that can be found in all of these biographies. Helen was generous to a fault, spending all of her money on friends and acquaintances and ending up with nothing for herself. (Sure you'll make a million dollars and throw it all away says her mother, Lulu, in the television drama.) Helen was also revered by the underworld; once she started opening her eponymous nightclubs, many men of this ilk were enamored by her. Helen had a decade long affair with a married man although each biography identifies a different man. And according to Wikipedia, Helen had three marriages - the book documents two, the movie mentions one, the drama none.

Helen speaking with, and singing about, first husband Maurice Mashke, Jr.
Married in 1933, it lasted two years

Her father (or lack thereof) is painted in all three biographies as the source of her somber existence, life-long depression and inability to connect with the right man (as an adult). The television drama opens with Helen going to see her father for the first time in 19 years. According to the book, Lulu gave birth alone but Tom Morgan came back again. The cinematic Helen (in the film's only reference to her father) tells her married lover, Wade, that her father was around when she was 11.

The story in which the teenage Helen, as a Cracker Jack employee, put two prizes in each box because she enjoyed imagining the faces of the children was mentioned in all biographies but, not always dealt with is the myth that concerns whether or not Helen had a child. The television drama adds an unwed, pregnant showgirl who briefly gives her baby to Helen before siccing a shyster on her to get it back. (Lulu Morgan is given story credit on the drama which makes this particular tale all the more interesting.) Neither the film nor the book mention a child, an adoption or an abortion but interestingly, the comment (pasted below the break) was posted to a forum a few years back.

Helen Morgan had a baby girl on June 25th, 1926, and she gave up the baby for adoption. In Springfield, Illinois, in the presence of Rhoda Eisenberg (aunt of the adopting parents) Minnettee Groupe and Harry Hyman Haffner. This baby, named Elaine Haffner, married Norman Danglo (deceased) and they had four children, one of them me - Jeff Danglo. Both my mother and father related the story of how Aunt Rhoda told my mother the truth about her real mother when she was 30. My Dad secretly told me of how she walked around the house singing for a year - she had a pretty good voice. In 1980 or so, I wrote Aunt Rhoda and asked for a written account of what happened. She called my mother quite upset, "Why does your son want to know about that woman!" and I dropped the matter. She died 1985 or so. Anyway, I can't prove it but it's been our family story forever. JD

Most certainly all of these three biographies cement Helen's reputation as a piano sitter. How she began sitting on pianos though depends on the source. On television, Helen jumps on an upright piano in order to be seen and heard over the loud and boisterous speakeasy crowd; a very effective scene. According to the book, this is a fallacy proffered by Billy Rose and the truth is that an enterprising, unknown admirerer picked up Helen while she was performing to packed houses at the French Troc in Montreal when she was 12 years old. And in the movie, Morgan never gets off the piano. The curtain opens on Helen's first speakeasy performance with Ann Blyth already atop a grand piano and throughout the entire movie (including ubiquitous performance montages and sundry nightclub performances) Blyth lipsyncs from atop a piano leading one to believe something was amiss with her legs. (Ooops, that was Jane Froman.) Helen was also a scarf twirler and the television drama includes another effective scene in which a fellow entertainer hands Helen one to keep her hands busy.

Her film career is barely mentioned in either of the video biographies and there is nothing to lead me to believe (as The Helen Morgan Story would have me believe) that Helen ever tried to convince drunks in a dive bar that she was, in fact, a BIG star, or that she woke up in a mental institution taking a sealed hot bath à la Neely O'Hara in Valley Of The Dolls. (The book also scoffs at this travesty of a scene.) The 1957 film does have two wonderful scenes though: one is a rent party with a fun-loving bull dyke leading the dance with a surprising outcome, and the second is in a jail cell where Helen interacts with an unknown actress who gives a perfectly comic performance as a fellow inmate.

Helen singing It Can't Go On Like This from Roadhouse Nights 1930
Jimmy Durante is the waiter

It's unfortunate that Helen's life has been distilled to the myths presented in these biographies. Time will move forward and information will not survive its ravages but at least the work survives. The first time I saw Show Boat I was floored by this sprite - emotionally succumbing to the depths of her heights. Listening to her recorded tracks and watching Applause (and the myriad videos now available on YouTube) only cements Helen Morgan's status as a legend albeit the myth of a legend.

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Lots more pictures of Helen Morgan on my Pinterest board.


  1. Helen Morgan has always intrigued me. I love Showboat - not the one with Ava Gardner - the version with Helen Morgan and I'm curious about her. I think it is interesting that her life seems to have mirrored the Showboat story, in a way. I love, love, love Helen's singing voice.

    One thought worth mentioning in regards to Helen's biography is that when a person had a drinking problem back in the 20s, 30s & 40s it was so scandalous - especially for a woman - that the details in relation to it would have been long buried.

    1. Yes, the 1936 Show Boat is one of my favorite movies too. And back in the late 19th/early 20th centuries the term for someone who had an alcohol problem was a dipsomaniac. I guess the term 'alcoholic' came into use after AA was started. I think that was in the 30s.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  2. were there any other children Helen may have put up for adoption?

    1. Unfortunately, there is no information regarding any other children so I doubt we'll ever know.

      Thanks for commenting.