Saturday, August 02, 2008

THE REAL "TORCH SINGER"-- HELEN MORGAN


This is what's left of the old Helen Morgan piano that she would "sit on" in that crowded night club which made her famous. You can see it at Orange County fair this year. There wasn't much left of it and t was rescued from an auction and made into this garden tribute.

Does anyone remember the great singer Helen Morgan? She died tragically in 1941 -- a drinking problem plagued her all of her life. I remember as a kid watching the movie "The Helen Morgan Story" that starred Paul Newman and Ann Blythe. Helen was really the first and the very best of the "Torch Singers"Helen was born 'Helen Riggins' on August 2, 1900 in rural Danville, Illinois. Her father was a farmer and a schoolteacher. After her mother remarried, she changed the last name to 'Morgan'. Her mother's second marriage ended in divorce, and she moved to Chicago with her daughter. Helen never finished school beyond the eighth grade, and worked a variety of jobs just to get by. In 1923 she entered the Miss Montreal contest, even going to New York to meet Miss America Katherine Campbell, but when she returned, her American citizenship was discovered and she was disqualified. She also worked as an extra in films. By the age of twenty Morgan had taken voice lessons and started singing in speakeasies in Chicago.Helen Morgan's high, thin, and somewhat wobbly voice was not fashionable during the 1920s for the kind of songs that she specialized in, but nevertheless she became a wildly popular torch singer. Her heart bled about hard living and heartbreak onto her accompanist's piano. This draped-over-the-piano look became her signature look while performing at Billy Rose's Backstage Club in 1925. In spite of the National Prohibition Act of 1919 outlawing alcohol in the United States, Morgan became a heavy drinker and was often reportedly drunk during these performances.During this period several Chicago gangsters tried to help fund her various attempts to open her own nightclub. However, Prohibition agents kept too strict an eye on her and these attempts failed. In 1927 Helen Morgan appeared as Julie LaVerne in the original cast of Show Boat, her best-known role. She sang "Bill" (lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse and Oscar Hammerstein) and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" in two stage runs and two film productions of the famous musical over a span of 11 years. (In the first film version of Show Boat, made in 1929, Morgan appeared only in the song prologue; Alma Rubens played Julie in the film proper, which was mostly silent. However, Morgan did play the role in the 1936 film version of the musical.)
After appearing in the 1929 film version of Show Boat, Morgan went on to star in Kern and Hammerstein's Broadway musical, Sweet Adeline. The title was a pun on the famous barbershop quartet song. In the musical, Morgan introduced the songs "Why Was I Born" and "Don't Ever Leave Me." Oddly enough, when Sweet Adeline was filmed in 1934, Morgan's role went to her future Show Boat co-star, Irene Dunne, who possessed a lovely soprano, but was certainly not a torch singer. Helen was noticed by Florenz Ziegfeld while dancing in the chorus of his production of Sally in 1923 and she went on to perform with the Ziegfeld Follies in 1931, the Follies' last active year. During this period she studied music at the Metropolitan Opera in her free time.In the late 1930s Morgan was signed up for a show at Chicago's Loop Theater. She also spent time at her farm in High Point, New York. Alcoholism plagued her and she was hospitalized in late 1940. Her career underwent something of a comeback in 1941, thanks to the help of manager Lloyd Johnson. However, the years of alcohol abuse had taken their toll. She collapsed onstage during a evening performance of George White's Scandals of 1942 and died in Chicago of cirrhosis of the liver on October 8, 1941. Helen was married three times, to a fan Lowell Army, whom she met at a stage door while she was performing in Sally (see--that kind of stuff really does happen, folks) , to Maurice "Buddy" Maschke (they married on May 15, 1933 and divorced several years later), and to Lloyd Johnson, whom she married on July 27, 1941. Helen was portrayed by Polly Bergen in a 1957 Playhouse 90 drama, directed by George Roy Hill, and won an Emmy Award for her performance. That same year, the aforementioned mentioned feature film The Helen Morgan Story starred Ann Blyth as Morgan. Johna and I went to the Santa Monica Beach on Thursday. It was simply a beautiful day and I won a stuffed animal in the arcade. I haven't done that in absolute ages. The marketing campaign that we've begun continues. We are really proud of the packages and they look really professional.

7 comments:

Jeff Danglo said...

April 2009 - Helen Morgan had a baby girl on June 25th, 1926, and she gave up the baby for adoption. In Springfield, Illinois, in the presence of Rhoda Eisenberg (aunt of the adopting parents) Minnettee Groupe and Harry Hyman Haffner. This baby, named Elaine Haffner, married Norman Danglo (deceased) and they had four children, one of them me - Jeff Danglo. Both my mother and father related the story of how Aunt Rhoda told my mother the truth about her real mother when she was 30. MY Dad secretly told me of how she walked around the house singing for a year - she had a pretty good voice. In 1980 or so, I wrote Aunt Rhoda and asked for a written account of what happened. She called my mother quite upset, "Why does your son want to know about that woman!" and I dropped the matter. She died 1985 or so. Anyway, I can't prove it but it's been our family story forever. JD

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David Hill said...

Thanks for the family account, Jeff. Having been a life-long fan of Helen Morgan and read everything I could about her, including Gilbert Maxwell's book, I have seen this story mentioned several times over the years. I too believe it to be true. The circumstances fit the early life and hard times of Helen (Riggin) Morgan... emotionally and professionally. Clearly, Helen's personal "identity" was that of a performer... not that of a struggling single mother. Likewise, I believe her drinking problems were also (ultimately) related to the deep heartache one always feels in regards to such life-altering decisions, i.e. giving up a child for adoption.

One thing is known for sure, Helen Morgan loaned (read: "gave") money to anyone who asked for it. Yet, she and her last husband couldn't even pay her hospital and funeral bills. However, her well-known life-long generosity prvailed and all her debts were forgiven due to her generosity. This is obviously quite a contrast to that of a young woman who gave up her only daughter for adoption... but, in my opinion, never forgot that fateful decision and spent her life trying to compensate for it.

PS: Do you think that piano that is on display in Orange County is really the one your grandmother, Helen Morgan, used to sit upon and sing her famous torch songs in her NY nightclub? That's quite a claim.

Respectfully,
--David Hill
Email: TheHillman@comcast.net
Blog: http://TheHillmanBlog.blogspot.com/
Alt. Email: Hillman009@gmail.com

Anonymous said...

David Hill,

... "However, her well-known life-long generosity prevailed ... This is obviously quite a contrast to that of a young woman who gave up her only daughter for adoption." ...

I urge you to rethink your logic. Helen Morgan was the epitome of "selfless". And to give up a baby for many is the ultimate act of selflessness. Think about it. There is NO contrast here at all. She remained true to nature thru it all!

SeoZones said...

My mom has the shawl that Helen used to drape over the piano. Contact me.. 720-891-1371

MELT: Massage and Bodywork said...

Hello, I am writing here to reach out to Jeff Danglo. It is possible we are related via Helen Riggins Morgan. I don't want to be spammed (as I'm sure you don't either, but we have been trying to piece this together for some time now and Jeff's post is the first sign of other life out there. Any suggestions? I'm not as bold as SeoZones.
Thank you.
TsJ