Times Square Tintypes: Helen Morgan

In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles actress and songbird Helen Morgan.


Some people achieve fame by playing the piano. But this little lady got that way by sitting on one. HELEN MORGAN.
Caricature of Helen MorganShe 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.
Reads all current novels. Her favorite author is Ernest Hemingway. She owns a copy of James Joyce‘s Ulysses, which was punctuated especially for her.
Is shy about exposing her body. Wouldn’t let her mother see her in Americana because she had to wear short panties in a dance number.
Necklaces and bracelets annoy her. Earrings give her a headache. The only jewelry she wears is a love altar. This was given to her by a titled Englishman who wanted to marry her.
She dislikes hearing her own phonograph records. At parties, whenever anyone plays them, she gets up and breaks them.
Always has her hair cut by the same barber. The coiffure is now known as the “Helen Morgan Haircut.” She combs her hair carefully. So as to make it look as if it hadn’t been combed.
Her most valued possession is a pitcher than an Atlantic and Pacific grocery store gave her in return for coupons when she was a kid.
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.
If she were a man she’d be a sailor.

In Your Hat, pt. 12

In Chapter 12 of In Your Hat, the 1933 tell-all memoir by Hat Check Girl to the Stars Renee Carroll, she reveals what various celebrities wrote in her collection of autograph books, and she follows that with tales of what the stars of the day liked to eat when they patronized Sardi’s.

If you took a rabbit out of those suckers’ hats
They would squawk just the same:
They all have two strikes on them
When they are born.


THAT’S an autograph left in my book by Tex. I’m not quite clear as to its meaning, and I don’t think she is either. But vaguely, it’s Broadway’s philosophy. If somebody pats you on the back, he’s only locating a spot for the knife thrust. If you give a sucker a break, he’s liable to shove his hand in and rip it apart.
Of course, all this is only sentimental hooey, and the boys and girls on Broadway are just as maudlin about one another as boys in an English boarding school. They all want to appear like awful, terrible “bad mans” with no hearts at all. The visage is stern, but the head and heart are made of mush, and it oozes through your fingers when you squeeze it.
I’ve got three books full of autographs. Perhaps a glance at some of them might throw an interesting light on the writers. I particularly like that of Frances Williams, whose cheeriness and glibness is not limited to her appeareances on the stage.

“May every hat check bring you a fat check—and may no meanie neglect my Renee—who never wrecks hats each time she checks hats—Frances Williams.”

Most of the celebrities pore over the book, seeking inspiration in the lines already written. Very few show any originality at all. Al Jolson, in one of his brighter moments, scribbled:

“Oh, look, I am in your book—thanks for letting me.”

And Louis Sobol, the Journal‘s columnist, wrote:

“To Renee, who expects something clever from me but won’t get it.”

Russell Patterson, the artist, who very rarely wears a hat, said as much, regretfully, with:

“To Renee, from her worst customer.”

Tony Canzoneri, the prize fighter, dragged his trade in by the teeth when he inscribed:

“To a real and sweet girl, with loads of knockouts.
                                           Tony Canzoneri,
                   Lightweight Champion of the World.”

The professional gate crasher, Tammany Young, waxed philosophical and wrote:

“To Renee—
   “Who takes what you give graciously. All life is a game of give and take. For what she takes she gives in a return a smile, a cheerful greeting and your belongings. May you go a long ways and prosper. Keep smiling Renee, it’s what we all go for.”

I think George Jessel‘s autograph amusing:

“To Renee—
            Duchess of Sardi,
               Baron George Jessel,
               Colonel of the Bronx Grenadiers
               And Vis-count of Brownsville.”

Sidney Skolsky, the paragrapher, gave me away with:

“You’ll always be Miss Shapiro to me—one of my best yarns. Sidney Skolsky
               P.S. She sleeps in the raw!”

If you can remember Herbert Rawlinson, you’ll remember his signature, too:

“My hat’s off to you. (Get it?) Je parle français aussi. (I hope that’s right).”

And Jesse Crawford noted:

“My autograph I here inscribe,
A member of the organ tribe
               Jesse Crawford,
               Poet (?) of the Organ.”

The little movie star, Marian Marsh, gave me a a straight tip with:

“Keep your face towards the sun and the shadows will fall behind you.”

And Reri who starred in F.W. Murnau‘s Tabu and was brought to American by Ziegfeld, wrote in the only language she knew:

“A mon amie Renee en souvenir des Ziegfeld Follies 1931.”

I offer the inscription of Sam Shipman, the playwright, because it is more or less typical of Broadway sentiment and ways of thinking:

“A hat girl who has more in her head than all the brains those hats cover. A little princess on a door mat—An oriental pearl in a suffocating shell—a ruby in a musty purse, but watch her.”

And Everett Marshall, the lusty-voiced baritone, dropped this:

“To Renee. In memory of my first daughter of four kilos.”

While Faith Baldwin, the author of Self Made Woman, wrote simply:

“Because I like red-heads.”

I’ve got lots of drawings, too, by famous artists, all of them too risqué for reproduction, and in some cases too combustible for safekeeping. Some of our best known illustrators have garnished the pages of my little books with drawings that would make those paintings on the bathroom walls of old Pompeii quiver with shame.
But not all the good things happen in autograph books or at penthouse parties. I have a lot of laughs right in the restaurant.

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In Your Hat, pt. 5

Here’s Chapter 5 of In Your Hat, the 1933 tell-all memoir by Hat Check Girl to the Stars, Renee Carroll, in which she dishes on 1930s press agentry and Broadway columnists such as Walter Winchell, Louis Sobol, Mark Hellinger, and others.

     THE press boys are divided into two sections. Those who are in and those trying to get in. Those already in are such lights as Winchell, Hellinger, Sobol, Skolsky, Yawitz, Sullivan and the rest. On the other side of the gate, trying day and night to crash it, are a host of diligent workers, most of them intelligent youngsters who have experienced softening of the brain.
     The press agents, who like to think of themselves as connected with the newspaper business, are in such great numbers that it would be difficult to name them all. But the majority of the best ones are connected with the films.
     It has been said that if you scratch a star you’ll find a press agent, and if you scratch a press agent, he’ll thank you. The press agent is a nervous, erratic type who works in twenty-four hour shifts (while you sleep) and succeeds in bringing the name of his client before the public—or gets thrown into the street in the attempt. If you walk along and see a man dusting himself off, you can lay odds it’s a press agent with another idea gone wrong.
     The reason I say that most press agents are in the preliminary stages of dementia praecox is because they write things that under ordinary circumstances they would admit were insane, and yet they expect editors to print the stuff without question. Their efforts are so frantic that in no time at all they get farfetched and nutty, and the result is shown partly in the collection of press-agent’s squibs that I have collected from time to time. All of the copy is from movie press agents gone wrong.
     For example, one of them, having nothing else to do, will write a story and send it to the editors expecting them to print it. This one is an extract of a story sent from Hollywood:

   “…the physical measurements of 124 of the chorus girls under contract to this studio reveal that they have grown, on an average, one-fourth of an inch in height in the past eight months since most of them were placed under contract. There has also been an average of increase of three pounds in weight despite the strenuous dancing which is part of their daily routine.”

     This startling item may make the nation growth-conscious and it may, on the other hand, make the press agent obnoxious.
     Another great news break for managing editors comes printed in sotto voce type, telling the gaping world that an English actor who appeared as a butler in many films “has received letters offering him jobs as the major-domo in the service of many Park Avenue dowagers.” It goes on to say that the actors has received 279 offers.
     Another story teller sends out a squib saying that love scenes have not suffered with talking films, for a hero and a heroine meeting for the first time on the set no longer find it necessary to simulate warmth in their celluloid caresses. Science has come to Cupid’s assistance in the guise of a portable set-warmer, which sends gales of hot air into chilly stages. SIZZLING LOVE SCENES ARE BECOMING A REALITY AT TALKIE STUDIOS! (The capital letters are the press agent’s.) Operated by gas and electricity, the heating units, etc. An electric fans blows hot air in any desired direction.
     They might have saved expenses and put the writer on the scene.
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