While attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Brooklyn, 19 year-old Helen Jurgens married fellow student Clark Twelvetrees and adopted his unusual and unique surname as her own. Clark was a troubled man, who once attempted suicide at a dinner party. He jumped from a high-story window, but survived. Helen divorced Clark in 1931. He died after a street altercation a few years later.
With minimal stage experience, Helen headed to Hollywood with the idea of replacing silent movie actors experiencing difficulty making the transition to the new trend — talkies. She nabbed roles with Fox Films, but after three screen appearances she was let out of her contract. She was immediately signed with Pathé and, along with contemporaries Constance Bennett and Ann Harding, Helen was featured in a succession of critically-acclaimed tear-jerkers. After Pathé was absorbed by RKO Pictures, Helen left to persue roles as a freelance actress.
The 1930 film Her Man defined Helen’s career as a sympathetic woman supporting the wrong man. She costarred with Spencer Tracy and Maurice Chevalier as her popularity grew. One critic was prompted to describe Helen as: “having a gift for projecting emotional force with minimal visible effort.” Her career riding high, Helen filmed Thoroughbred, a film based on the celebrated racehorse Phar Lap, on location in Australia. However, she fell ill upon her return to the United States. Her slow recovery damaged her film career, but the always determined Helen left Hollywood for a career in summer stock.
She appeared across the country in numerous productions, including The Man Who Came to Dinner and A Streetcar Named Desire. Her Streetcar co-star Naomi Caryl recalled that Helen possessed “the saddest eyes I’d ever see.”
Helen married for a third time in 1947 and promptly retired from show business. Her husband, a US Air Force captain, traveled the world and Helen happily accompanied him.
In 1958, Helen Twelvetrees was discovered unconscious in her Central Pennsylvania home. Long suffering from a kidney ailment, Helen had purposely taken an overdose of prescription sedatives. She died at an Air Force base hospital, just a few months after her 49th birthday. Her funeral was attended by her widower and one close friend.
What if 1940s Hollywood made a different kind of teenager romp?
Inktober 2021 comes to a close and the final subject is Dwight Frye.
Dwight Frye packed nearly 70 screen credits into a career that spanned almost half a century. He is best remembered for tow roles in classic horror films — both released in 1931. Dwight played the sadistic assistant “Fritz” in the original Frankenstein. He also played the crazed, insect-eating “Renfield” in the original Dracula.
Just a few days before filming was to beginning on a biopic of President Woodrow Wilson, Dwight (who was slated to play the title role) suffered a fatal heart attack on a Hollywood city bus. He was 44 years old.
Alice Cooper paid tribute to Dwight on his 1971 album Love It to Death with the song “The Ballad of Dwight Fry” — the final “E” purposely left off.
Twenty-year-old Evelyn McHale boarded a train at 7 in the morning in on May 1, 1947. She was headed back home to Tuckahoe, New York after visiting her fiance in Easton, Pennsylvania to celebrate his 24th birthday. When she arrived at Penn Station, she walked to the Empire State Building and purchased a ticket to the 86th Floor Observation Deck.
Around 10:30, a New York City police officer, who was directing traffic at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, spotted a white scarf floating lazily through the air. A moment later, he heard a loud crash and saw a crowd of people gathering a few hundred feet away. A woman’s body was lying still, cradled in a large contour dent in the roof of a United Nations limousine that was parked by the curb. The woman was Evelyn — her eyes closed, one hand at her throat, her fingers entwined in a short string of pearls. He makeup appeared to have been freshly applied. Her ankles were casually crossed, although the impact of her body hitting the car roof had caused her shoes to come off and her right stocking to rip. She looked as though she was asleep.
A suicide note was found in Evelyn’s purse, which was stacked atop her neatly folded coat on the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building. It read:
“I don’t want anyone in or out of my family to see any part of me. Could you destroy my body by cremation? I beg of you and my family – don’t have any service for me or remembrance for me. My fiance asked me to marry him in June. I don’t think I would make a good wife for anybody. He is much better off without me. Tell my father, I have too many of my mother’s tendencies.”
As the crowd milled around the ghastly scene, photography student Robert Wiles took a picture of Evelyn, a mere four minutes after she ended her life. The photograph appeared in Life magazine eleven days later, with the caption: “At the bottom of the Empire State Building the body of Evelyn McHale reposes calmly in grotesque bier, her falling body punched into the top of a car.” The photograph, which has achieved iconic status, has come to be known unofficially as “The Most Beautiful Suicide.”
Evelyn’s sister identified the body, and, according to her wishes, Evelyn was cremated and no memorial service was held.
Evelyn’s fiance moved to Florida and remained unmarried until his death in 2007.
Robert Wiles never published another photograph professionally.
Inktober 2021 winds down to week 4.
A popular pin-up during World War II, Anne Gwynne appeared dozens of film noir and musical comedy. But her few forays into horror were memorable among her fans. In 1940, she played Boris Karloff‘s daughter in Black Friday and 1944 she returned to the Universal lot for House of Frankenstein, a mish-mash of the of the genre that was so poor, screenwriter Curt Siodmak asked that his named be removed from the final cut.
Anne retired from the silver screen and passed away in 2003 at the age of 84.
Anne’s son, Robert Pine, carried on the family acting mantle. He was a featured regular in the TV series CHiPs. Her grandson is actor Chris Pine.
What if the trouble in River City began in the 1920s?
After some modeling work, 22-year old Nora Lane was cast in the silent Western Jesse James in 1927. She went on to co-star in over 80 films throughout her career, including a recurring role in the Hopalong Cassidy serials. Her popularity led to a spokesperson gig for Lux Soap in the early 1930s.
In the summer of 1931, Nora was travelling aboard the Southern Pacific Railroad to Yuma, Arizona. Two trainmen and sixteen passengers were killed when the train wrecked in a rain-softened section of roadbed and track. Nora escaped without injury.
In 1941, Nora married Burdette Henney, a Los Angeles insurance broker and public address announcer at the LA Coliseum. In 1948, the couple vacationed in Bishop, California where they enjoyed some fishing. But, during the trip, Burdette suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 46 years old.
One month to the day after Burdette’s death, Nora died from a self-inflicted gunshot. She left a note for her stepson, explaining that she could not go on living without her husband. Nora was 43.