In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles actress and songbird Helen Morgan.
FANNY ON THE PIANO
Some people achieve fame by playing the piano. But this little lady got that way by sitting on one. HELEN MORGAN.
She never uses perfume.
Her favorite colors are black and flame red.
She was born in Danville, Ill. Uncle Joe Cannon‘s home town. When a baby he used to tickle her under the chin.
Her first job was as a cash girl in Marshall Field’s. Later was a telephone operator and a model. She attended twenty-six schools and finally managed to graduate from public school.
Can cook and sew but can’t knit. Used to cook when her mother took in boarders while they lived in Chicago. Her mother was a Sunday school teacher.
The only flower she will wear is the camellia. her life ambition is to play Camille.
Once won a beauty contest as “Miss Montreal.” Much to the embarrassment of the judges who later discovered that she had been living only three weeks in Montreal. In New York she was received by the Mayor and crowned the “Miss 1925.”
Buys at least four dresses a week. Often purchases a hundred pairs of stockings at one time. Always takes a man with her when she goes shopping.
Was discovered by Amy Leslie, critic of the Chicago Daily News. Miss Leslie brought her to Florenz Ziegfeld who gave her an audition. He placed her in the chorus of Sally, then on the road.
Her next dealing with Ziegfeld was some years later when, without having seen her work, he signed her to play in Show Boat. She was in Europe at the time.
She is crazy about mice. Has two live white mice for pets. Her stationary is monogrammed with a mouse. Her nickname is “Mousey.”
She rouges her lips between kisses.
First sat on a piano when working in The Backstage Club. The reason she took to sitting on a piano was because the night club was so crowded that it was the only place she could sit.
Once she adopted a baby. Only to have the mother, a chorus girl, kidnap it from her two months later.
Her favorite dish is potato soup as made by herself. It is made of potatoes with lots of cream and onions.
Likes to dress in men’s clothing. Often works about the house in overalls. She sleeps in fancy colored men’s pajamas. Sleeps with her head resting on so many pillows that she looks as if she were sitting up in bed.
Some years ago she appeared in a dramatic sketch with the Grand Guignol Players under the name Neleh Nagrom. Which is her name spelled backwards.
When she sings, “Why Was I Born,” she actually cries. Because she says she feels sorry for herself.
The minute she enters a house she loosens her garters and walks about with her stockings hanging over the top of her shoes.
Is popular and very much sought after. But generally not by the man she likes. When singing “Someday He’ll Come Along, The Man I Love,” she means it.
She is fond of pets. Has two love birds, a dog named Mose, and one goldfish—the other died. She had two baby alligators. She kept them in the bathtub. Had to give them away because they snapped at her toes when she took shower baths.
Often wears a kimono, with a fur coat over it, when driving to the theater in her roadster.
She corresponds with William S. Hart regularly. This started after Bill Hart heard her sing, “My Bill.” He took it rather personally.
She has a possum claw birthmark on her right ankle.
Here’s a fascinating collection housed on the photo site Flickr, comprising passport photos of prominent actors, musicians, writers, and painters in the first half of the twentieth century.
As the collection’s curator, whose handle is “puzzlemaster,” aptly puts it, “The quality is pretty gritty, but I find them interesting, not the least because they are glimpses of these people without their artistic personas showing. Just another traveller submitting to the demands of the state.”
I strongly urge you to check out the full collection via the above link, but here are a few of the photos to whet your appetite. See if you can guess who these four people are (click on the images to see larger versions, with the name and the year the photo was taken).