The pioneering, tragic life - and alternative lifestyle - of Helen Menken
Everyone loved Helen Menken. Everyone except Menken herself.
In the early 1920s, people gasped in awe when they spotted her on the streets of New York. She was the queen of Broadway, a versatile perfectionist who actually achieved perfection -- night after night.
In 1926, the beautiful and earthy Menken, who had just married a struggling young actor named Humphrey Bogart, was poised to become the greatest and best-known actress of her generation. Already a Broadway sensation, she was considering making a moving picture at the end of the theater season.
A stunning portrait of her in Vanity Fair magazine -- showcasing a regal profile, her head tilted back as if in becalmed ecstasy -- had caused a stir in Hollywood. Movie studios had already made lucrative offers.
But unlike her husband, a film career never happened for Menken. You will not find her films on cable TV's classic movie channels or even on Netflix. The magnetic stage actress has disappeared almost completely into the folds of history, all because of one disastrous decision.
Before heading to Hollywood, Menken announced her next stage role. She had found a part that resonated deep within her. She would play the anguished, lustful Irene De Montcel in the first English-language production of "The Captive," Edouard Bourdet's lesbian-themed drama.
The choice would change everything for Helen. "The Captive" was a tragedy, but many people -- including people in positions of power -- viewed it as far more than that. It was a threat.
The fiery, foul-mouthed 'Irish Menk'
Menken's rise to fame, which included a pivotal appearance in Portland on Christmas Eve 95 years ago today, fascinated her public almost as much as her performances on stage.
She was born in New York City in 1901 to deaf, impoverished parents. She and her sister learned to talk by listening to strangers on the street, as well as to the few people -- the milkman, the grocer's son, the rent-collector -- who came to the apartment. "Our parents never scolded us," she said in a witty interview published in The Oregonian. "And they didn't mind how much noise we made."
Helen started going to auditions when she was 5 years old. The next year, she appeared in Portland for the first time, playing a faerie in a touring production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." At 14 she joined a vaudeville circuit, and at 16 she went out on tour with a second-rate Shakespearean company, "sleeping in seedy rooms" in bad neighborhoods. Touring with a theater troupe certainly wasn't the safest way for a teenager to grow up. Helen was asleep at a rooming house in Trenton, New Jersey, one night when the building caught fire. She woke up amid screaming and smoke. Panicked, she ran into the hall. "I climbed down from the second-floor window since the fire was raging up the only stairway," she remembered. "I raced out into the night and was standing out on the highway before I realized I was stark naked. It was twenty degrees that night."
But Helen soon left the firetraps behind by proving she had serious acting chops. In 1919, long before she met Bogie, she landed the role of Sidney Fairchilds in "Three Wise Fools," leading the newspapers to dub her the "youngest leading lady on Broadway." After a successful run on the Great White Way, the production set out on the road. In late December 1920 the cast arrived at the Heilig Theatre in the heart of downtown Portland's Theater Row. It wasn't Helen's first Christmas away from home, nor would it be the last, but it proved to be one of the best.
"Three Wise Fools," a comedy about a trio of curmudgeonly old men who take in an orphan girl, includes a scene in which a young suitor presents Sidney with a birthday gift: a wristwatch. But during the Christmas Eve performance, Helen found herself taking possession not of the tin fake watch kept in the property locker. Instead, she held a glittering real watch -- "a very grand affair in platinum and wee diamonds and works and everything," wrote The Oregonian.
It was a present from her boyfriend, who was back in New York City. The watch had arrived by mail earlier in the day. Onstage, Helen fought back tears at the sight of the gift, which was exactly what she was supposed to do. She had switched the watches herself -- "just for sentiment and perhaps because I am alive with romance and happiness," she said after the show.
During the scene, her on-stage boyfriend had never been so nervous in his life. She had threatened him with "all sorts of dire and dreadful things ... if anything befell the gift from my real beau," she admitted. And Helen was not someone you wanted to anger. She was known in theater circles, the New York Times would write, as "one of the worst spitfires ever to appear on the stage." Helen had "a foul mouth," the actress Marjorie Lord recalled years later. Backstage, "the Irish Menk" had clouted more than one fellow performer who'd blown a scene with her.
There was no need for such histrionics during the Christmas Eve performance of "Three Wise Fools." The cast luxuriated in a raucous standing ovation, with Helen called back for bow after bow. The local reporter who interviewed her after the show described her as being breathlessly in love -- and she was. But she also knew it couldn't last. Helen's generous New York boyfriend wasn't an actor, and his stable, normal life unnerved her. She was naturally high-strung, forever fearful she wasn't good enough, forever convinced she didn't quite fit. She needed to cry and scream and throw things. And she seemed to need her romantic partners to do the same.
Enter Humphrey Bogart, who liked fiery women -- and who could give as good as he got.
'The fatal leap'
Not long after her memorable Portland Christmas, Helen took over the lead in "Drifting," a melodrama touring the East Coast after a brief run on Broadway. The 21-year-old Bogart had a bit part as a butler and doubled as a stagehand. On Helen's first night playing Cassie, the good girl who was "drifting" into depravity while traveling abroad, a set fell on her.
After the curtain came down, Menken roared backstage, found Bogart standing with the other stagehands, and let loose an inventive series of curses at him. Bogie was stunned and humiliated. When Helen turned away from him, he kicked her as hard as he could, sending her sprawling.
Less than three months later, the New York Times announced their engagement. America's paper of record listed Helen's varied stage successes. About Bogart, the Times offered only that he was "the son of Dr. Belmont D. Bogart."
The gulf between the young lovers' professional achievements would only widen. Helen scored the lead in the romance "Seventh Heaven," and when the play opened in the fall of 1922 she jumped from rising star to Broadway sensation. The New York papers praised her "haunting spiritual presence" and theatergoers lined up at the stage door hoping for a glimpse of the great actress. Soon, she began to field offers from the burgeoning film colony in far-off Hollywood.
As Menken's career boomed and Bogart's sputtered, their engagement dragged. Finally, four years after taking out a marriage license, they decided to go through with it. With Bogie beside her, the Consolidated Press reported, Helen called friends after 1 a.m. one night and, "in a tragic voice," announced, "We are about to take the fatal leap."
They married on May 20, 1926, in Helen's Manhattan apartment. The only guests were Menken's parents and Bogart's mother. The pastor of St. Ann's Church for Deaf Mutes performed the ceremony. "The couple will live at 43 East Twenty-fifth Street," the New York Times reported. "At present they have no immediate plans (for a honeymoon), as Mr. Bogart is playing in 'Cradle Snatchers,' at the Music Box. Miss Menken will soon appear in a new play."
There never would be a honeymoon, thanks to Miss Menken's "new play."
Sex in the city
On Feb. 9, 1927, the cast of "The Captive" was backstage before the curtain when uniformed policemen suddenly materialized around them.
"I am sorry that I have to inform you that I have a warrant for your arrest (and) the cast," Lieutenant James J. Coy told the theater's manager. A disbelieving Basil Rathbone, Helen's co-star and later famous for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, hissed a protest: "This is legitimate theater!"
For her part, Helen cut the officers with a withering glare that made them drop their eyes to the floor. The show went on, and the police in the wings began to take notes to present as evidence in court. They were so shocked by what they were witnessing that they stormed the stage midway through the second act.
"The Captive" had opened four months earlier. Moralists found the play terrifying, and they didn't have to explain why: the show focused on a passionate lesbian relationship. Homosexuals at this time were widely viewed as mentally ill at best, vicious predators at worst. Homosexuality was, to one degree or another, illegal in every state in the country. Most gay men and women lived secret, underground lives. For them, "The Captive" was a beacon of acceptance. "The last I heard, Helen was still getting letters from the Sappho crowd from everywhere," Bogart would marvel years later.
While the production was underway, Bogie outwardly appeared bemused by his wife's decision to take up the role of a lesbian, but he wasn't. Helen often returned home from rehearsal to find him drunk. She would later claim in divorce papers that he slapped or punched her more than once. The reason for his furious despair: he knew her secret. Helen hadn't accepted the role in "The Captive" simply as an artistic exercise. Friends and colleagues believed she was struggling with her own sexuality.
"The Captive" wasn't the only show targeted in the February raid. The city's acting mayor, Joseph "Holy Joe" McKee, was determined to remove all "degenerate" sexual behavior from the theater. New York's Finest also entered the off-Broadway Daly Theatre, where the plainclothes detectives and the manager quickly cut a deal: The show would finish, so the house wouldn't have to refund tickets. Then the cast would don acceptable dress and climb into the paddy wagon out front.
Mae West peeked out from behind the stage curtain and smiled at the sight of the cops along the Daly's tramlines. Unlike Menken over at the Empire Theatre, this was exactly the response she wanted from the authorities. Her play, after all, was called "Sex." She wrote it because she could no longer land roles in Broadway shows. The 33-year-old former showgirl had recently returned from touring the rural Midwest on a third-rate vaudeville circuit, where she had appeared fourth on the bill, one slot below "Marcel and his Trained Seal." She understood that the outcome of this raid could mean her banishment from the legitimate theater, but, considering the state of her career before "Sex," it was a risk worth taking.
A similar scene occurred for the cast of "The Virgin Man," a silly comedy about a sexually innocent Yale undergraduate who takes a trip to New York, where a giggling but voracious group of "sophisticated" young women chase after him. On stage, star Dorothy Hall was a man-eater. At the sight of policemen backstage, however, she burst into tears.
A fall from grace
At midnight, the usual muggers, hookers and burglars felt out of place at New York's 54th Street night court. Fur-bedecked actresses and silk-suited producers surrounded them, crowding them into the hall.
Reporters focused on Helen as she led her play's cast to the bench. "Miss Menken! Miss Menken!" they called out, even though they knew the actress was a married woman. "Bang, bang, bang," went the flash bulbs, the New York Times reporter wrote, as photographers clamored to capture Helen's image as she stood before the judge.
Helen stared straight ahead when she left the courtroom. Normally she liked to call everyone darling, to appear above it all, whatever it was. On this night, however, she struggled to maintain her famous composure.
She wasn't the only one. West -- along with Hall -- had been mostly ignored at the courthouse. Seeing all of the attention being paid to La Menken, West's mood soured.
She knew the rumors about Menken. She'd heard that the popular actress had had affairs with Tallulah Bankhead and other young women. She considered Helen a sexual deviant. "Well, anyhow, we're normal!" she said with a laugh when asked about her rival's arraignment.
West couldn't secure top billing in the next day's papers, but her arrest would eventually make her name, just as she'd hoped it would. Her play, after all, was about good old-fashioned sex, the kind America wanted more of. She'd soon be in Hollywood, her name emblazoned on movie theater marquees across the country.
"I believe in censorship," she said years later. "I made a fortune out of it."
Helen, on the other hand, tumbled from her pedestal. She suddenly had a new reputation, one that would be very hard to shake. "It's a bit disconcerting," a female reporter would write a decade later, "to walk (into) her dressing-room after the Biltmore show and find her sketchily garbed in a very small towel."
Helen's marriage to Bogart ended rancorously just months after her arrest, sending her into an emotional tailspin. (She'd marry three more times, all volatile relationships.) "The Captive" wouldn't tour the country: no theater owner would dare touch it. In the wake of the scandal surrounding the show, acting offers slowed to a trickle for Helen.
Bogart, meanwhile, moved to Hollywood at the end of the decade. In 1938, he married for the third time, to Portland native Mayo Methot. He was now regularly scoring the tough-guy roles that would transform him into one of the biggest movie stars in the world.
Menken's career, however, was stuck in Nowheresville. The Los Angeles Times wrote in 1932 that "a pallid young woman with distinguishing red hair and intense brown eyes slipped into the Federal Building here several days ago and said her name was Helen Smith and could she go into bankruptcy, please, because she owed $20,000 and wanted 'peace of mind.' "
"Helen Smith" was really Helen Menken. She ultimately managed to avoid bankruptcy -- barely -- and in the midst of the Great Depression she headed back out on the road. She stayed in second-rate hotels in the Northwest and elsewhere along the well-traveled regional theatrical circuit. Through it all, she still had her old platinum watch from that Portland Christmas back in 1920, the one with the "wee diamonds and works and everything" -- a symbol of the "normal" life she never had.
Menken did finally make it back to Broadway in the mid-1930s, co-starring in the hit shows "Mary of Scotland" and "The Old Maid." By then it was too late for the Hollywood career that had once seemed a sure thing. For the rest of her life -- she died in 1966 -- she remained devoted to the stage, even becoming president of the American Theatre Wing, the organization behind the Tony Awards.
For all that devotion, Helen left one -- and only one -- Broadway show off her official résumé: "The Captive."
-- Douglas Perry; originally published in The Oregonian in 2015. Winner of the Society of Professional Journalists feature-writing award.