In the Roaring Twenties, Helen Menken was the queen of Broadway; “people gasped in awe when they spotted her on the streets of New York.” Though considered one of the greatest and most charismatic actresses of her time, in 1926 she married a struggling nobody, an actor named Humphrey Bogart. While “Bogie” would one day become one of Hollywood’s greatest, most charismatic icons, Helen was about to embark on a tragic downward slide, socially and professionally – and all because of one brave, tragic choice. Menken was emblematic of the Jazz Age, but also very ahead of her time, and in the end it destroyed her.
Like silent screen superstar Lon Chaney, Helen Menken was born to deaf parents. She learned to talk by listening to strangers on the street, as well as the milkman, landlord and anyone else who happened to come to the apartment. Helen saw the upside of her parents’ disability: “Our parents never scolded us, and they didn’t mind how much noise we made.” Like Chaney, perhaps Helen developed extraordinary communication skills that didn’t rely on speech. They must have given her an advantage when she started going on theatrical auditions at age five. By age six she was traveling cross-country as a faerie in a touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Helen grew up fast. At 14 she was on the vaudeville circuit; at 16 she slept in seedy rooms (likely with even seedier people) as part of a mediocre Shakespeare troupe. One night a rooming house caught on fire, and Helen woke up surrounded by smoke and screams. Terrified, the teenager “climbed down from the second-floor window since the fire was raging up the only stairway. I raced out into the night and was standing out on the highway before I realized I was stark naked.” She recalls, “It was twenty degrees that night.”
All her experience, on and off-stage, eventually payed off. Mature for her age, at eighteen she landed the prime role in 1919’s Three Wise Fools, and Menken was soon dubbed “the youngest leading lady on Broadway.” In the comedy she played Sidney Fairchild, an orphan girl taken in by a trio of curmudgeonly old men. (Will her charming warmth melt their crusty, cold hearts? Oh, the suspense!) The play included a scene where a suitor gifts Sidney with a wristwatch. On tour on Christmas Eve performance, instead of the tin prop, on stage Helen was handed a real watch – “a very grand affair in platinum and wee diamonds and works and everything!” The watch had come in the mail that morning, a gift from her boyfriend back in New York. Helen herself replaced the fake watch with her new one and fought back tears on stage at the sight of her new treasure. While we might call that “Method Acting”, Menken put it more poetically, explaining she did it “just for sentiment and perhaps because I am alive with romance and happiness.”
But Helen didn’t just run on romance and happiness. The truth is, the girl was hell on wheels – which is to be expected after her hardscrabble upbringing. During that Christmas Eve scene where she’d switched watches, the actor playing Helen’s on-stage boyfriend was cared sh-tless. She admitted she’d threatened him with “all sorts of dire and dreadful things … if anything befell the gift from my real beau.” The actor had good reason to be somewhat terrified. Helen was well-known to be, as the New York Times put it, “one of the worst spitfires ever to appear on the stage.” Infamous for her foul mouth, “the Irish Menk” was known to wallop fellow performers who’d made a mistake onstage and smack those who made her sore off.
That Christmas Eve when she switched watches Menken and the cast got a boisterous standing ovation, and Helen was called back for multiple bows. Buoyed by the acclaim and, no doubt, the diamonds, the reporter to whom she confided how alive she was with romance and happiness described Menken as “breathlessly in love.” (The diamond watch no doubt helped.) Alas, love didn’t last. Helen’s New York boyfriend wasn’t an actor but a nice, normal guy with a stable life devoid of drama. As is so often the case, this didn’t do it for the “spitfire”. Histrionic and insecure, Helen’s psyche had that familiar blend of low self-esteem and high drama. Menken cried, screamed and threw things, and apparently, she liked her romantic partners to do the same. Humphrey Bogart was just her type.
(“Bogie” also seems to have had a type, and spitfires who punched people and heaved heavy objects at him were right up his alley. Humphrey’s third wife, actress Mayo Methot, was known for being quite the brawler. His affectionate nickname for Mayo was “Sluggy”.)
After Three Wise Fools, Helen played the lead, Cassie, a “good girl” drifting into depravity while traveling abroad in a melodrama called, funnily enough, Drifting. The play also had 21-year-old Humphrey Bogart playing a bit part as a butler – and he doubled as a stagehand. Helen’s first night onstage as Cassie, a set fell on her. (Dun-dun-duuuun) When the curtain came down, Menken thundered backstage, found Bogart, and as one writer put it, “let loose an inventive series of curses at him.” When she finally ran out of invective, the play’s lead turned to walk away when that stagehand kicked her as hard as he could and she fell to the floor. Naturally, love blossomed. Less than three months later, the New York Times announced their engagement. Helen Menken was characterized as a major Broadway stage actress. Humphrey Bogart was described as “the son of Dr. Belmont D. Bogart.”
Soon afterward Helen got the lead in the play Seventh Heaven. (The movie version of the play garnered 5 Oscar nominations and had Janet Gaynor winning film’s first Best Actress Oscar.) Now Menken wasn’t just a star, she was a bona fide sensation. New Yorkers crowded the sidewalk outside the theater just hoping for a glimpse. As Menken’s star skyrocketed and Bogart’s remained largely unknown, their engagement limped along. At last, four years after the engagement announcement, four years after taking out a marriage license, Helen called friends in the middle of the night and intoned – “in a tragic voice” – “We are about to take the fatal leap.” With that cheery start, on May 20, 1926, the couple married in Helen’s Manhattan apartment. The only guests were Menken’s parents and Bogart’s mother. (In consideration for mother and father, 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.” The many offers Helen had been receiving from movie producers would soon all disappear, never to reappear, thanks to that “new play”.
Before heading to Hollywood, Menken proudly announced her next role, one in which she felt a profound kinship. She would play the anguished, lustful lead in the first English-language production of The Captive, a lesbian-themed tragedy that would soon become as tragic for the actress as it was for the play’s heroine.
Four months after the play opened, one night in February 1927 before the curtain rose, uniformed policemen surroundedThe Captive’s cast backstage. “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. Helen’s co-star was outraged. Basil Rathbone (yes, that Basil Rathbone – Sherlock Holmes) growled, “This is legitimate theater!” Likewise, “The Irish Menk” gave the officers such a withering look they wilted on the spot. The police let the show go on, with the officers standing in the wings, furiously taking notes to present as evidence in court. You’d think policemen were shockproof, but the notion of women loving women was too grisly for New York’s finest. The police stormed the stage to stop the play halfway through the second act.
Our brave men in blue weren’t the only ones horrified by the notion of a passionate lesbian relationship. A hundred years ago gay people were perverted and therefore mentally ill, or even worse, villainous predators hungry to corrupt innocent men and women. Homosexuality wasn’t just frowned upon, it was illegal. So, as art so often can, a play like The Captivefelt resonant and validating for gay men and women living in secrecy and shame. Humphrey Bogart was astounded that years later, “Helen was still getting letters from the Sappho crowd from everywhere.”
Bogart wasn’t thrilled with his wife’s decision to do The Captive, but it wasn’t because of the scandalous outrage. In their divorce papers Helen claimed Bogart was drunk when she came home from rehearsals, that he often slapped or punched her. Speculation was that it wasn’t just artistic bravery that had Helen taking on the role. Bogart, like many of Menken’s friends and fellow actors, knew “her secret”; Helen empathized with the “Sappho crowd” because her own sexuality went both the Coke and Pepsi route. Rumors abounded that Menken had had affairs with the infamously bisexual Tallulah Bankhead and other women. Is it possible that Bogart found this embarrassing or emasculating?
Anyway, policemen dragged The Captive’s players and producers into New York’s 54th Street night court. The cast was crammed in next to the regular crowd of defendants – thieves, hookers and brutes – as an outraged but glamorous Helen marched up to the bench. Reporters jockeyed for a statement, calling out, “Miss Menken! Miss Menken!” while flashbulbs popped as everyone clamored for a shot of Helen berating the judge. Still, Helen struggled to maintain her composure as she left courtroom, ignoring the reporters she usually engaged and charmed.
It’s worth noting that Helen’s play wasn’t the only one targeted in that February raid. The city’s acting mayor, Joseph “Holy Joe” McKee, was determined to remove the “degenerate” theater. Mae West’s play, Sex (the title’s pretty on the nose, huh?) was also raided (though the Daly Theater cut a deal with the cops to do it after the show finished, so they wouldn’t have to refund any tickets and so the cast could change clothes before ascending into the ‘paddy wagon’). However, unlike Helen, Mae couldn’t have been more thrilled. This was exactly what she wanted. Mae had no delusions, or aspirations, about being an actress in ‘legitimate theater’; West just wanted to be famous and sell tickets. (West said, “I believe in censorship, I made a fortune out of it.”)
But Mae was pretty much overshadowed at the courthouse, and she wasn’t a happy camp-er (pun intended) to see Menken suck up most of the attention. Though West was gay-friendly when it came to men (she wrote a play called Drag) she wasn’t quite as broadminded when it came to broads who were broad-minded. “Well, anyhow, we’re normal!” she quipped about Helen’s arrest. While Mae may have played second fiddle in the headlines the next day, ultimately her plan worked. West’s arrest did make her famous. Mae’s Sex’s sex was about good old-fashioned hetero sex, the kind America likes, despite what moralists might claim. Unfortunately, Menken’s play was about “deviance”, the kind of sex Americans in the 20s found more repulsive than rapturous. And just as Mae was closely associated with the ‘sexy’ characters she played in her roles, Helen was now earmarked as a “lezzy” – on and off-stage. Menken went from being one of Broadway’s biggest lights to an untouchable in a flash, and all her big Hollywood offers disappeared practically overnight.
The Bogarts split up soon after her arrest. Helen married three more times, but all her volatile relationships ended, much like her career. (Meanwhile, in a decade or so Humphrey would go on to become one of cinema’s biggest stars.)
Like most of America, Helen Menken was hit hard by the Great Depression and just narrowly escaped bankruptcy. Once a huge, sought-after star, she was forced to go back out on the road and resume her life in crummy hotels. Some years later Menken finally played Broadway again, in hit shows like “Mary of Scotland” and “The Old Maid.” But she no longer played leads; she was neither Mary nor the “Maid”.
Still, Helen remained devoted to the theater for the rest of her life, even eventually became president of the American Theatre Wing, the organization behind the Tony Awards. Menken always took drama and her art seriously. When she died in 1966, she’d only ever left one play off her official resume: The Captive. She let go that play, she let go all her husbands, but there was one piece of her past she never let go. Until her dying day, she treasured that platinum watch she received on and off-stage on Christmas Eve back in 1920. It was the one with the “wee diamonds and works and everything”, an emblem of the sentiment and romance she never relinquished.