Actress Jeanne Eagels was an attractive, petite entertainer with delicate features. According to her friends and peers she was childish, adult, reasonable, unreasonable – usually one when she should be the other, but always unpredictable. The Oscar nominated actress was born Amelia Jean Eagles on June 26, 1890, in Kansas City, Missouri. She was the second of four children born to Edward Eagles, a carpenter, and Julia Sullivan Eagles.* Edward and Julia were from Kentucky and both had an ancestry that could be traced back to France and Ireland.
As a child Jeanne was frail, but mischievous. There wasn’t a boy on the block that wasn’t afraid of her. According to the sole biography written about the famed thespian by Edward Doherty and entitled The Rain Girl, Jeanne was a tomboy. She liked to climb up onto the roof of barns, swing from the limbs of trees, walk fences, and skip from rafter to rafter in the attics of the buildings in the neighborhood.
“She was six or seven when she fell from a fence she and her sister were walking on,” Doherty wrote about Jeanne. “She broke her right arm and ran home to her mother. A doctor was called, but he wasn’t the best in the world. He set the arm, but it pained her all the rest of her life, especially when it was wet. And it was wet every night and every matinee for five years when Jeanne performed in her most recognizable stage role-that of Sadie Thompson in the play Rain.” Throughout the duration of her career Jeanne told newspaper and magazine reporters that she had broken her arm while traveling with the circus. She claimed she’d fallen off a white horse she was riding around the ring. It was the first of many stories she herself would contribute to the legend of Jeanne Eagels.
Jeanne made her stage debut at the age of eleven starring as Puck in A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream at a drama school in Kansas City. From that moment on she set her sights on a stage career and could not be persuaded to take anything else as serious as entertaining. She was educated primarily in public schools but never cared much for formal classroom settings and in 1905 dropped out of school completely.
Jeanne was fifteen when she took a job at a department store in a stock room earning $5 a week. Before she turned sixteen she had convinced a prominent Midwest casting agent to hire her to perform in vaudeville and tent repertoire shows as a bit player. Jeanne learned a great deal about theatre as a part of the O. D. Woodward Stock Company and was equally adept at comedy and drama.
While working with the stock company Jeanne met the Dubinsky Brothers, three actors and businessmen who ran a traveling melodrama troupe. Their careers, which began with the traveling tent shows, led to work on the silver screen, and building one of Kansas City’s largest theatre companies.* Jeanne was involved romantically with Maurice, the oldest of the Dubinskys. He signed Jeanne on with their troupe and she played the heroine in a variety of shows opposite Maurice who regularly performed as the villain.
Jeanne quickly became accustomed to the life of an intrepid actor and entertainer. Whether the venues where she and the troupe performed were regular opera houses with a stage and footlights, or a bare, cold room over a grocery store, with a row of kerosene lamps for footlights, and only a wall to prop the scenery against, she relished the opportunity to appear before enthusiastic audiences. There were boys who whistled for virtue and triumphant, and hissed the villain when there was dirty work afoot. And there were girls who sat pop-eyed and still all night and hardly breathed until the curtain fell. Jeanne loved them all and watched them from back stage.
In the spring of 1906, Jeanne married Maurice Dubinsky. He was her protector and mentor. He shared with her all his ideas of acting, gave her the best parts in his dramas, and saw to it that her name was featured on the playbills. Jeanne informed her family in Kansas City of the union months after the wedding had taken place. She was in Excelsior Springs, Missouri on a belated honeymoon when she sent a wire about the nuptials. After a short celebration Jeanne and the other members of the troupe continued on with their tent show through the Midwest. By 1911, the Dubinskys were in New York. A great deal had happened in the five years they had been married. In addition to rehearsing and performing new plays in a series of venues in Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Illinois, the couple had had a child.
Whether the infant died at birth or Jeanne and Maurice gave him up for adoption is not clear. Fellow actors in the troupe such as Ina Claire, shared with a reporter for Liberty Magazine in 1929, that Jeanne told her that her son had passed away. Director Sam Forrest told reporters at Liberty Magazine that Jeanne had shared with him that her child had not died, but that Jeanne was too ashamed to admit she’d let him be adopted. “I let people take him from me,” Jeanne cried in 1910 during a rehearsal for the play A Gentleman’s Mother. “I don’t know whether he’s dead or alive. I don’t know whether he’s a gentlemen or a burglar. He may be a tramp, and I would see him somewhere and would not recognize him.”
Jeanne and Maurice divorced in late 1911. Friends of the couple speculated that their marriage was doomed once they decided to part with their son. “Neither was meant for parenthood,” an anonymous source told a reporter for the December 23, 1939, edition of the Ogden Standard-Examiner. “Both were meant for careers. Jeanne must give herself only to the drama. Something in her would not let her quit the theatre. She was what she was, and she could not help it. She did not make herself. She could not change herself. She was an actress. And though she might have given birth, she could not be a mother.”
Like many aspiring Broadway actresses, Jeanne worked with theatrical producer Florenz Ziegfield making $35 a week portraying a character named Olga Cook in a play entitled The Mind-the-Paint Girl. Her part in a Ziegfield show led to other supporting roles in The Crinoline Girl, The Professor’s Love Story, Disraeli, and Hamilton. Hamilton opened at the historic Knickerbocker Theatre, the first theatre on Broadway to advertise their productions with electrical signs.
According to an article in the November 22, 1914, edition of the Boston Daily Globe, Jeanne’s performance in The Crinoline Girl at the Colonial Theatre was “noteworthy”, but paled in comparison to the performance she gave dramatic critic Edward Harold Crosby after the show. “Jeanne Eagels is tall and willowy and has sunny hair and blue eyes,” Crosby wrote in his column. “All this is very desirable, though not especially startling, yet Miss Jeanne Eagels is in many ways a remarkable young woman. In the course of our conversation, when she was dilating on her hopes and ambitions, she made a statement that nearly caused me to fall off the chair in which I was sitting.
“She said that she had long wished to become an actress and had studied hard to that end, but she had no inclination to play emotional roles. I do not recall another young woman on the threshold of professional life who expressed the same views. Tears and lamentations seem to be the goal of the majority, but here was one who thought it was preferable to bring sunshine and honest laughter, to lighten the burdens of life rather than augment them, and I wanted to assume a patriarchal attitude and observe, “Verily, daughter, thou art wise beyond thy years!” I am quite convinced that Miss Eagels’ originality will cause her to become a shining light in the profession in the immediate future,” Crosby concluded.
Audiences agreed with Edward Crosby and proved their admiration for Jeanne at theatres in the Southeast where she toured in the comedic production of Outcast. The press called her acting “genius” and proclaimed that her “talent was of a rare type.”
In between the launch of new plays Jeanne kept company with wealthy businessmen who were infatuated with her and who showered her with presents, provided her with an expensive, posh apartment to live and automobiles and chauffeurs. One of the generous men was an associate with the financial house of Kuhn, Loeb and Company, now known as Shearson and Lehman/American Express. According to Doherty’s biography, Jeanne didn’t care for the wealthy businessman, but she always accepted his gifts. “The millionaire was but a glorified john,” Doherty wrote, “and Jeanne had learned how to handle johns of all sorts. This man could help her, not only financially but in many ways. He took her to shows and dinners, and gave parties for her to which he invited influential people. He introduced her to his banker and broker friends, and, listening to their talk, and asking them questions, Jeanne learned more than most people ever learn about finance, though somebody else always had to take charge of her finances.”
When the run of The Crinoline Girl ended Jeanne branched into film, lending her talent to the Thanhouser Company. The Thanhouser Company was one of the first motion picture studios in America, producing over 1,000 silent films between 1909 and 1918. Jeanne initially found the work fascinating because it was different. She learned to act without an audience and without rehearsing. In the process she made new contacts and created new opportunities for herself. Her films, including The Outcast and The House of Fear, played throughout the United States and were particularly popular in Texas and New Mexico.
Jeanne returned to the stage in 1916 and 1917, starring in such plays as The Great Pursuit, What’s Your Husband Doing, and The Laughter of Fools. Her performances were well received but she earned the most notoriety in that time with her role in The World and the Woman. The January 23, 1917, edition of Newark Daily Advocate praised Jeanne for her work and noted that her portrayal of a servant girl “clings to me constantly.” “I am sure you do not fully realize the strength of the work you have done,” the critic concluded in his review. The success of The World and the Woman prompted Thanhouser executives to quickly sign Jeanne to another motion picture.
Actors Clifton Webb and Willard Mack were instrumental in helping Jeanne advance in the theatre. Willard, a playwright as well as a thespian, was taken with Jeanne from the moment he met her in late 1916. He was helping a friend cast a Broadway production when she came in to audition for a part. The two discussed Broadway and traveling tent shows, acting, and producers. Willard believed Jeanne had the potential to be the greatest living actress and promised to help her achieve that goal. Willard and Jeanne eventually became romantically involved. Her relationship with Clifton was never more than a deep abiding friendship. Clifton and Jeanne spent lots of time together. Along with Clifton’s mother Mabel, the pair attended show openings, operas, and dinner parties.
Both Willard and Clifton encouraged Jeanne to appear in a feature film produced by the World Film Corporation entitled The Cross Bearer. Set in the Belgian city of Louvain during World War II, Jeanne portrayed the ward of the church cardinal in love with a Belgian officer. Her character wanted to marry the officer, but the German governor general desired to have her for himself. The film premiered on March 26, 1918, at Carnegie Hall and audiences and critics praised the production and Jeanne’s performance.
Before returning to the stage in September 9, 1918, in the comedy Daddies, Jeanne made two more films with the Thanhouser Company entitled Fires of Youth and Under False Colors. Jeanne enjoyed working on stage and in movies equally and was anxious to remain a part of both. The hours were long but according to her biographer Doherty, she loved it. Filming would begin early in the morning and she would be done in time for theatre rehearsals or matinees. Years of performing in various shows and traveling with dramatic troupes prepared her for such a demanding schedule. Jeanne worked fourteen hours a day every day but Sunday.
In the summer of 1921, Jeanne traveled to Europe for a five month stay. She was exhausted and had developed an addiction to sedatives she hoped to shake abroad. Gossip columns from New York to San Francisco claimed Jeanne was going to Europe with Clifton Webb and that the two were to be married. According to the July 17, 1921, edition of the Sandusky, Ohio newspaper The Register, the reporter wondered how Clifton was “able to cut through the ring of rich professional men, and Apollos of the stage who surrounded Miss Jeanne Eagels and won her away from one and all of them.”
“Isn’t Miss Eagels beautiful?,” the article continued. “Yes, indeed, she is – just look at her pictures. Successful? Eminently so. Couldn’t she have married money? Well, of course. At least a dozen millionaires a year offered their names and fortunes to her. She could have picked blindfolded out of them a husband who would have given her a hundred thousand dollars a year play money, a yacht, a flock of automobiles, jewels, a box at the opera and all the other luxuries most women desire. A husband who would have taken her, if she desired it, from the more or less precarious position of the footlights, or, if she did not desire it, could have lavished his wealth upon safeguarding and perfecting her artistic career.
“Can Mr. Webb, the dancer and actor, do all this? Nothing like it. They will both now share the perils, accidents, surprises and precariousness of their profession.
“Most women who are familiar with actor folk only from the newspaper or from the theatres seats they buy will marvel how Mr. Webb managed to overcome his bride-to-be’s natural womanly desire for all these gifts of wealth. The stage folk themselves add to this same wonder another point of view peculiarity that of the stage’s own. Although Mr. Webb has played many parts, nominally and technically he is only a dancer. And nowhere on earth is there more caste than in the American theatre. The leading woman is a very important individual. Her associates, if she designs to have any, are the star or leading man or a highly paid villain or some famed character actor.
“One of those whom Miss Eagels might have had was Thomas L. Chadbourne, the millionaire corporation lawyer whom President Wilson invited to join the commission that should adjust the difference between labor and capital in this country, but did not. He admired the beauty and the talent of the young Western-risen star. His magnificent limousine carried her daily to the theatre in which she was appearing.
“When Mrs. Eagels was preparing to play the leading role in The Wonderful Thing – the wonderful thing being love – the astute lawyer sat watching the evolution of dramatic order out of the chaos of first rehearsals. Tho bumps on the way to perfecting troubled, pretty Miss Eagels. She became acutely nervous. One especially wearing afternoon she sank sobbing to the floor of the stage.
“She sobbed once or twice and fainted! Had Mr. Chadbourne been an actor or athlete he would have leaped from the orchestra to the stage. Being a dignified man of the law he walked hastily around behind the stage box and hurried to the side of the stricken beauty. He lifted her in his arms and carried her to the star’s dressing room. There smelling salts and a glass of ice water quickly revived her.
“I’m so sorry and ashamed,” she said when her strength returned.
“Whether Miss Eagels meant she was sorry and ashamed because she fainted or because Mr. Chadbourne hadn’t leaped like a goat of William S. Hart over the rails and the gaping gap of the auditorium upon the stage was not known. At any rate, soon after this the multi-millionaire gave up hope of making the star his own leading lady.
“There were many others who pursued for a time and then gave up the chase. When attractive and unattached or otherwise leading men played ardent love scenes with her there was speculation as to whether they could withstand the allure of her remarkable beauty and her high-power magnetism plus propinquity. Broadway audiences and players speculated on the outcome when Cyril Scott, as the villain, made fervent love to her in a recent successful melodrama at the one-time millionaire’ theatre, the Century.
“Mr. Scott shortly afterward faced tragedy in hideous form when his wife, after twenty years of happy marriage, hanged herself in their home at Bayside, Long Island. They speculated too, these super-sophisticated playgoers and playmakers and players, when handsome Bob Warwick, distinguished soldier and actor, as her stage husband, played his scene of maddened love and jealousy with her in a recent success.
“They speculated while dancer and actor Clifton Webb smiled, that from the moment of that meeting he thought her dark and calling eyes had held a promise of happiness for him. Mr. Webb thought right – despite the handicaps against him.
“Jeanne Eagels is still very young. If it takes her no longer to win success for Clifton Webb than it did for herself, and if her romance with the dancer and actor is no more lengthy than many Broadway romances are, there may yet be time for her to marry wealth and high social position, as such a surprising number of her fellow stage stars have done.
“When Miss Eagels, sailed to Europe a few days ago Mr. Webb and his mother were on the same ship. The marriage, Broadway’s informed and informers say, may occur in Paris or in Madrid, according to Miss Eagels.”
Clifton and his mother Mabel did indeed travel to Europe on the same ship with Jeanne but there was no plan to marry. In addition to taking a much needed rest, Jeanne was also hoping the many creditors she owed money to would forget her debts while she was away. According to Clifton and Mabel Webb, Jeanne spent or gave away most all the money she earned. She showered herself, friends, and family with gifts on a regular basis and paying bills was unimportant to her. Whenever she found herself lacking funds she would become involved with wealthy businessmen who would support her as long as she allowed. Such was the case with the rich, Italian entrepreneur who escorted her to Europe named Jimmie Auditore.
Jimmie fell in love with Jeanne after seeing her in the films she made. The fact that he was married with children was of complete indifference to Jeanne after a while. Jimmie, an influential man with dubious connections, aggressively pursued Jeanne. He sent her tubs of orchids, a variety of jewelry, and furs. Initially, she returned his gifts and boldly announced she wanted nothing to do with him. It wasn’t until Jimmie presented Jeanne with a coffin made of brocaded silks and satins, with handles of ivory and solid gold, containing an abundance of flowers that she relented. The note that accompanied the intimidating gift read, “Love me or lie among the flowers.” Their romance was brief and only ended once they returned from overseas and Jeanne announced publicly how much she hated him.
“When fascinating Jeanne Eagels, all kinds of a star, tripped down the gangplank of a transatlantic ship news reporters gave her an appreciatively squint, noted the latest cuts in Paris skirts, and then asked one another why Miss Eagels somehow seemed different,” an article in the January 13, 1922, edition of The Lima News read. “It wasn’t her face, pink and piquant as ever. It wasn’t her manner, or her chic frock, or her dashing hat. The ship’s news sleuths observed that Miss Eagels, famous for wearing shimmering jewelry, was not wearing a single bauble. Just before sailing to Europe, she dazzled those on board the ship with her gorgeous diamond rings and her expensive, diamond necklace.
“Further inquiries into the unique situation revealed that she was wearing no such jewelry when she went through customs upon returning to the United States. According to rumors among the ship’s passengers, Jeanne’s rings were crushed and her necklace was missing all together. And there the story might have died if the notion of those crushed rings and the missing necklace hadn’t persistently piqued the curiosity of the ship news gang. And when the ship news began to interview a few of the people who crossed to France with Jeanne Eagels they unearthed a sea mystery of the Flying Dutchman or any other ocean legend and much more romantic.
“They located the necklace after a fashion. It is somewhere at the cozy bottom of the Atlantic or adorning a mermaid, or reposing in the lining of some fish not too choosy about his diet. And they confirmed what happened to the rings. It was feet – feet furiously jumping up and down – that cracked them and crushed them and ground them into the promenade deck of the steamship.
“But what the ship’s news reporters can’t find out and what a lot of Broadway gossipers would like to know is who plucked the necklace from Miss Eagels’ slim throat and flung it forty fathoms deep, and whose feet performed the clog on Miss Eagels’ other sparkles?
“Miss Eagels, it is established, was the center of a gay little group about the ship. There was Clifton Webb, the dancer and actor, Clifton Webb’s mother, and Louise Goody, another Broadway star. And there was also sailing at the last minute Jimmie Auditore, New York’s millionaire stevedore, as buff and democratic as when he used to shove banana crates along the East River docks before he built his fortune out of the business.
“One evening Miss Eagels decided to take a stroll on deck. Just what happened above decks then only the stars and the sea know. Unless you count Miss Eagels and the mysterious owner of the hands and feet that did such dreadful things to all her Tiffany pretties. But, below decks a few minutes later did happen, according to the passengers on the ship.
“Louise was in her suite preparing for bed when she heard someone outside the passage and then someone pounding heavily on her door. She quickly answered it to find Miss Eagels on the other side. Her hair was mussed, cheeks burning, and eyes blazing. Apparently, Miss Eagels had been arguing with Jimmie Auditore. ‘The brute – the brute!’ She could be heard saying. ‘He grabbed me like I was a sack of something and jerked the necklace right off my neck and threw it overboard! He threw it overboard – my diamond necklace! Oh dear – the brute! And he jerked my rings off my fingers and threw them and stamped on them.’
The slam of a door muffled the monologue just when it was getting most interesting, and though Louise’s neighbors almost split their ears straining they got nothing after that but a low murmur. And that was all the ship’s reporters got too when they began their little investigation. And there the story rests while the necklace rests at the bottom of the sea.”
On January 21, 1921, Jeanne opened on Broadway at the Century Theatre in a play called In the Night Watch. Critics called her performance as a captain’s wife “persuasive” and “riveting”. The following year Jeanne was offered a part in a play that would solidify her place among the finest stage actresses on Broadway. The part was of a harlot in South America who meets a missionary who tries to reform her. The character’s name was Sadie Thompson and the play was Rain. A review in the December 10, 1923 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle extolled the virtues of Jeanne’s brilliant presentation and in so doing inadvertently listed the parallels between the actress and the part she played.
“She neglects nothing that adds a light by which to judge Sadie – that tender little bit on the old sofa that brings memories of her home in Kansas, for instance,” the article in the Chronicle began. “How lovingly she fingers the woodwork, as she perhaps had done hundreds of times as a child, and all the while, she is talking flippantly to a crowd of men around her, trying to make an impression.
“A shallow creature, this Sadie, untaught, hard from the knocks she has received at the hands of the world, a good deal of a child for all her worldly wisdom, hating men for their treatment of her, but using them to such pleasure out of life as it holds for her, impudent and loose of tongue, an enticing little devil, choice enough to tempt even the anchorite, Reverend Dawson. Miss Eagels makes her all these things, and adds her own vibrant subtly feminine personality to make a magnificent creation of this wanton from the purlieus of Honolulu.”
“Rain is a powerful drama, wonderfully moving for all its occasional brazen ugliness and unyielding realism,” an article in the November 26, 1922, edition of the Salt Lake Tribune noted, “and amazingly well acted by Jeanne Eagels as Sadie Thompson. It is another of those flashing hits common to our stage in which an impassioned ingénue tears smugness and hypocrisy to tatters and exits amid the tumultuous shouts of sympathetic audience. Miss Eagels carries her scenes perfectly.”
In addition to a wealth of accolades, the thirty-two-year-old Jeanne reaped healthy financial rewards from the success of Rain. With the well-earned income she purchased a large home in Westchester County New York.
Clifton and Mabel Webb helped Jeanne settle into her new home but recognized she was melancholy and pensive. The mood was unexpected. She was a star, the greatest actress in the world. She had reached the heights and all her ambitions had been realized. The Webbs anticipated that Jeanne would be happy that all her dreams of glory had come true, but instead she was the exact opposite. She had taken up smoking when she began rehearsing Rain and began drinking whiskey as the show began the second season on Broadway in mid-November 1923. The smoking and drinking increased after meeting Heisman Trophy winner Ted Coy and wealthy patron of the arts Whitney Warren, Jr. Both men were romantically involved with Jeanne and both were married and or engaged to others when they began keeping company with the actress.
According to the December 23, 1923, edition of the Ogden Standard-Examiner, Whitney’s parents didn’t approve of his relationship with Jeanne, but theirs was not the first romance the Warren’s disapproved. “The course of the romance for Mr. Whitney Warren, Jr. apparently is not the joyous and triumphant affair one would expect for such a forceful and good-looking young hero and one who comes of such a rich and in every way distinguished family,” the newspaper reported. “Whether it is some heiress of fashionable society or some charming genius of the stage on whom he sets his heart, there seems always to be a stern parental hand to reach out and seize the young man by the coat collar and drag him firmly away from the object of his devotion.
“He falls in love only to be promptly yanked out again and the deeper he falls the more vigorous the restraining and restoring yank of what is suspected to be a watchful father’s hand. At least this is how it looks to an envious public, which is beginning to find richer food for gossipy speculation in Whitney Warren’s troubled love affairs than it has found in other young man’s in a long time.
“Whitney Warren won the heart of Geraldine Miller Graham, the California heiress when the Prince of Wales pronounced the most superbly charming of any of the American beauties with whom he has danced and flirted. The engagement was announced with all the formality fashionable society demands. And then, after the anticipated brilliant wedding had been postponed for months came the news that it would never take place – that the engagement had been broken by mutual consent.
“The real truth of the matter, however is believed to be that the hero was yanked out of the love match by a parental hand. The Warrens are thought to have decided that Miss Graham was not the right bride for him. Whitney Warren plunged into theatrical work. He became connected to the brightest star of all – Jeanne Eagels. She is an actress who has risen from humble trouping with “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” companies to one of the most admired and also one of the most sternly criticized roles on New York’s Broadway.
“Very soon it began to be whispered that the young aristocrat who had been unable for some mysterious reason to marry the fashionable Graham heiress was showing in Miss Eagels a much deeper interest than ordinarily would be expected from an employer of a theatrical firm with the actress whom many think its greatest star.
“The whispers of gossip soon grew to shouts of positive belief that the romance had already reached the point of a secret engagement and that they would be married early next spring. The young man’s father, Whitney Warren, the noted architect, flatly denied that any engagement existed between his son and the actress. The young man himself declined to discuss the matter. Miss Eagels? Well, the reporters were unable to reach her.
“The mother of Miss Eagels, living in a fashionable home just a few doors from New York’s most fashionable avenue, denied the report that she had already planned a great party to celebrate the engagement of her actress daughter to the wealthy architect’s son. Three denials and refusals to confirm or deny and reports of hearty laughter only strengthened the theories of the gossip. As they well know from experience with many romances, this is quite the way it always is when some son of the smart set falls in love with some beauty of the stage.
“Whatever the objection the Whitney Warrens might have had to Geraldine Graham might easily be multiplied in the case of Jeanne Eagels. Whatever her accomplishments are on stage it is speculated that her success does not make her a desirable candidate for a daughter-in-law. It is strongly suspected that such a prejudice is responsible for the reported effort of the Warren parental hand to yank the son and heir out of another relationship.”
When the relationship between Jeanne and Whitney reached the conclusion his parents had hoped, Jeanne was left to focus all her attention on Ted. Ted’s wife, Sophia filed for divorce over the affair leaving the couple free to marry. Sophia threated to smear the athletes name in the press if he didn’t relinquish his rights to his two sons. Outraged by the suggestion, Jeanne hired a private detective agency to look into the woman’s background. The detectives learned that Ted’s wife was a mistress of a powerful, well-known banker. The banker proved to have more influence over the press than Jeanne and was not only able to suppress information about the affair with Sophia, but arranged to have articles written about Jeanne and Ted’s relationship. Sophia was granted the divorce based on the grounds of desertion and was awarded custody of the children.
Ted Coy loved Jeanne Eagels and she may have loved him as she claimed, but their marriage, which occurred in August 1925, in Bay Ridge, Connecticut, was a catastrophe for both. Their union began in scandal and the press did everything they could to cast the two in a bad light. The couple struggled financially too. The divorce had drained Ted of the majority of his funds and Jeanne was fiscally irresponsible with every dime she earned. To offset the rumors that the newlyweds were living entirely off of Jeanne’s earnings. Ted proposed that he become Jeanne’s manager. In that capacity he could earn a living and feel less humiliated about the way he was getting by. Jeanne refused to hire him on. She didn’t like the idea of being managed by anyone.
In addition to the financial issues the pair was socially imbalanced as well. Ted had trouble connecting with the theatrical personalities who were friends with Jeanne. He had little in common with them and although his wife’s associates were kind to him, Ted didn’t fit in and was uncomfortable most of the time.
Jeanne’s drinking became a major stumbling block in her new marriage. She often drank to excess and would pick those times to air the couple’s marital troubles. She made a scene in restaurants, at premier parties, and press events. Ted would do his best to control her outbursts but she would slap him if she felt he was trying to rule over her. As time went on Ted decided to remain behind at Jeanne’s farm in upstate New York rather than travel with his wife where she was performing. He decided not to go with her when she was on tour with Rain and the play that followed entitled The Garden. Ted was faithful to pay Jeanne’s bills when she sent money home, but all too often she did not send money home. Prohibition was in full swing but Jeanne always managed to find a party where alcohol was being served. She generally bought rounds of drinks for everyone at speakeasies she frequented.
Although Jeanne never missed a rehearsal or a performance because of her drinking, the effect of the over indulging life she was living was reflected in the way she looked. She was pale, listless, and the shows directors accused her of looking “half-dead.” The producer of Rain demanded that an understudy be hired in case something happen to the spirited actress. Jeanne threw a fit and refused to continue on with the play at all if an understudy was hired. The producer gave into Jeanne’s demand. “Maybe I am half-dead,” she told the director and producer, “but I’ll always be able to play Sadie Thomson.” True to her word Jeanne never failed to appear as Sadie. She played the character of Sadie for five years on Broadway and on the road to theatres in San Francisco. During that time she missed only eighteen performances due to illness.
In late 1926, Jeanne was cast as Roxie Hart in the play Chicago. The numerous arguments she had with the plays director led to her dismissal from the role and Francino Lammore, rising star and stunning Italian beauty was given the lead instead
The January 2, 1927, edition of the Oakland Tribune reported that the reason Jeanne was not starring in the production was because she was “engrossed in the business of divorcing her husband.” Ted Coy and the tempestuous actress were indeed on the verge of ending their union. Jeanne told anyone who would listen that Ted was physically abusive. In February 1926, a bruised and battered Jeanne was spotted by a friend checking into the Hotel Sherman in New York. When the friend asked what had happened Jeanne remarked that Ted had broken her jaw. The true story about what really happened wouldn’t be divulged until late 1929.
Between losing the part in Chicago and dissolving her marriage to Ted, Jeanne performed on Broadway in a comedy entitled Her Cardboard Lover. Critics were pleased to see Jeanne embrace a role other than that of Sadie Thompson. A notice in the March 27, 1927, edition of the Lima News read that it “relieves the fear that Jeanne might have clung forever to her old hit, Rain.” Owing to bad reviews, Her Cardboard Lover did not linger on stage long. Once the show closed Jeanne traveled to Los Angeles to star in a picture with John Gilbert called Man, Woman, and Sin. Produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Jeanne played a newspaper editor who fell in love with a cub reporter devoted to his mother. The silent film was a commercial success and audiences were “amazed by the portrayal of what goes on behind the scenes in the newspaper world.” Moviegoers called Jeanne’s performance “sweet” and “charming.”
Behind the scenes of Man, Woman, and Sin, Jeanne was anything but sweet and charming. According to Doherty, Jeanne hated everyone on the studio lot except the director and her leading man. She was irritable and hard to get along with and the supporting players in the picture with her noted that she now “found the entire movie making process boring.”
At one point during the filming Jeanne walked off the set and didn’t return for three days. Studio officials complained that it was her drinking that caused problems. It was rumored in Hollywood that Jeanne had to be propped up and held while the cameraman shot her close ups and that a double was used whenever possible to speed up the picture. Jeanne’s friends and family blamed the fact that she was humiliated by her impending divorce for her drinking large quantities of champagne.
In February 1928, the marriage between Jeanne Eagels and Ted Coy was legally terminated. The courts granted Jeanne a divorce based on the ground of extreme cruelty. By August 1928, Ted had remarried. His third wife was Lottie Bruhn of El Paso, Texas. According to the August 16, 1928 edition of the Laredo Daily Times, “the twenty-one year old bride was a college girl whose father was a wealthy, retired businessman.”
Producers of the play Her Cardboard Lover had reworked the play were taking the show on the road in March 1928, and Jeanne was the star of the traveling troupe. The play was to open in Milwaukee. The Milwaukee Press Club had bought out the house for every night in the week and sold thousands of dollars’ worth of advertising for the program. But Jeanne Eagels was a no show and there was no understudy to fall back on. The cast and crew spent days looking for the actress. They searched every speakeasy between Chicago & Milwaukee. She was finally located at the Congress Hotel in Chicago – she was ill and very drunk.
The manager of the theatre in Milwaukee along with the troupe’s company manager persuaded Jeanne to come with them to the Milwaukee, but she refused to leave her hotel room once she arrived. She insisted that she was extremely ill and that alcohol was not the cause of her sickness. Doctors examined Jeanne and found that she had a throat infection and was suffering from exhaustion. The theatre manager refused to believe the physicians diagnosis. He was convinced that Jeanne’s problem was that she drank too much champagne and demanded something to be done about the financial hardship she had caused him. He took his demand to the Actor’s Equity, the labor union that represents actors and stage managers.
Once it was announced by representatives of Actor’s Equity that some action would be taken against Jeanne, the May 6, 1928, edition of the San Antonio Light featured an article about the temperamental actress’s situation and asked if the union could cure Miss Jeanne Eagel of “staritis?” “It was a bitter pill that the actor’s union made the actress swallow, but, then ‘staritis’ is an awful thing to have and it is catching,” the article read. “Stage temperament is different. All stars are supposed to get that. It is a sort of occupational disease of the theatre that comes on as soon as an actor sees his name in electric lights. As long as the symptoms are confined to emotional outbursts at rehearsals and in the manager’s office, nobody minds much, but when it gets so bad that it closes a show and throws a whole company of actor’s out of work, that is serious, and Broadway calls it ‘staritis’.
“Miss Eagels caused a great deal of problems because of her absence. Days passed, the theatre remained dark, the company idle, the management began to tear its hair, already made gray by the erratic star. Here was a hit losing more money than the worst failure because its much advertised star was lost somewhere in the depths of Chicago. Someone suggested that she might have been kidnapped by gunmen.
“Toward the end of the week the lady of mystery turned up with the simple explanation that she hadn’t been feeling well. Genius is supposed to be simple and so is Miss Eagels sometimes. It was too late to do anything in Milwaukee, but there was a fine advance sale in the next town, St. Louis. So the manager bought flowers for the star and the company took turns petting and pitying her and asking no questions. Such perpetual adoration usually will soothe even the most impossible prima donna and all might have been well if the Equity had not heard of these strange actions and sent a representative from Chicago to see why a good actress was apparently turning into a “bad actor.”
“Equity’s main business is to see that actors get all that is coming to them from the managers, but it also undertakes to police its own members to the extent of making them have some regard for contracts. With her usual simplicity, Miss Eagels refused to see the Equity delegate, but it didn’t settle the matter anymore than refusing to see a policeman. Also, his call seems to have made the star indisposed again and when the company went to St. Louis she simply did not choose to go with them. The manager knew where she was this time, but it didn’t do him any good.
“In despair the management brought the company back to New York, paid it off and called the attention of the Equity to the losses caused by the charming actress. The thespian union summoned Miss Eagels to appear before the council of twenty-five members to determine just what had gotten into her. They read a long list of charges, most of which have not been made public. The actress explained the snubbing of the union’s plenipotentiary by stating that she didn’t think she was a genuine representative. This excuse would not go very well with a traffic cop and it didn’t go well with the Equity either. To justify her remaining in Chicago when she should have been in Milwaukee and in Milwaukee when she should have been in St. Louis, thereby wrecking the show, she offered in evidence certificates from twelve doctors which stated that she had been “too ill to work.”
“The documents were greeted with a sad smile. Every time Equity asks an actor where he has been he flashes one of these medical alibis. They seem to be about an easy to get as one for a pint of rye. However, the council was inclined to agree that she was far from a well woman and needed treatment. The diagnosis of the committee was “staritis” in its most aggravated form and all being actors they ought to know. It was a verdict of a jury of her peers.”
Equity representatives finally decided to fine Jeanne $3,600 for her actions and also banned her from the stage for eighteen months. Their findings were announced on April 6, 1928.
Jeanne retreated to her home in Ossining, New York. She eventually joined a vaudeville show and toured the northeast. It was a triumph for her. She was a headliner wherever she went. According to Doherty, “She drank more than ever after the show and kept a supply of liquor in her dressing room.” Jeanne was not always drinking alone. She kept company with actor Barry O’Neill, business owner Jack Colton, and many other men who coveted her attention. The offer to make talking pictures for Paramount in mid-1928 inspired her to remain sober for a time. She took a hiatus from romance while she was filming as well.
Jeanne’s lucrative movie contract was for three films, The Letter, Jealousy, and The Laughing Lady. She would only be able to make two of the pictures because her health was failing. Her throat infection had never been cured and she had been diagnosed with neuralgia and kidney disease. More and more drugs were needed to help her sleep and then be revitalized. In spite of her physical issues she delivered stellar performances particularly in the picture The Letter. Jeanne played a bored and restless housewife who shoots and kills the man with whom she is having an affair. She received an Academy Award nomination for best actress for her performance.
Jeanne struggled with her eyesight when she was making Jealousy. She had ulcers on her eyes and needed an operation to correct her vision, but she didn’t want to take the time to bother with it. She drank as way to cope and frequently forgot her lines. The film crew had to write her dialogue on a blackboard so she could read them as she performed. Depending on her mood, she would either read the lines as written of makeup whatever lines came into her head.
According to Jeanne’s biographer she loved her performance in The Letter, but hated Jealousy because she believed so many of her best scenes had been cut out of it. “I have grown to hate the movies,” she reportedly told a friend. “They’re stupid. They’re inane. I want to go back to the stage.” Audiences loved to see Jeanne wherever they could. The August 25, 1928, edition of the Kingston Gleaner noted that “her beauty and talent are brilliant both on stage and in films.” The May 12, 1929, edition of the Salt Lake Tribune also boasted of the actress popularity and the devoted fans she had in all walks of life. “Jeanne Eagels, disciplined by Equity, was barred from the stage and life looked exceedingly dark for her until along came The Letter,” the report read. “Today she is known in small towns and hamlets that had never heard of the name Jeanne Eagels before. In spite of an unfortunate temperament and a strong tendency to do what she pleases, she is today highly regarded as a screen actress and her public adores her. The movies certainly came into Miss Eagels life at the best psychological moment, if you pardon the banality.”
There were times Jeanne’s fans got too carried away with their affection for her. In late May 1929, she had to hire a private detective because a moon-eyed youth was calling her home on a constant basis and even laid in wait for her in the lobby of the hotel where she was staying. The man was eventually arrested.
In September 1929, Jeanne announced that she was going to abandon film work indefinitely because she found it “wholly unsatisfying.” Her plan was to take a break from work until the forced hiatus Equity had imposed was lifted. She would travel back and forth from her Park Avenue apartment to her farm in Ossining, reading plays and considering which project she wanted to do next. She continued to drink heavily and frequented speak easies in the evenings.
On Thursday, October 3, 1929, Jeanne had breakfast with her secretary at her apartment and the two women then discussed gowns and what they would wear at the opening of a new night club that weekend. Not long after Jeanne’s secretary left Jeanne received a call from Barry O’Neill. She informed him that she was going to her home in Westchester County for a few days. By mid-afternoon Jeanne had become violently ill and had asked her chauffer to take her to the hospital. The thirty-five-year- old actress died shortly after arriving at the private sanitarium on Park Avenue.
The theatrical world was shocked by Jeanne’s passing. The Ogden Standard-Examiner was just one of many papers that reported the news about her death and the results of the autopsy. The autopsy was performed by Dr. Thomas A. Gonzales, assistant chief medical examiner. The October 4, 1929, edition of the Ogden Standard-Examiner noted that the cause of death was alcoholic psychosis. “It’s the same old story, nothing unusual,” Dr. Gonzales said. “Miss Eagels died of alcoholism, not acute alcoholism, but from alcoholic psychosis.”
“Jeanne Eagels was a star,” an article in the October 7, 1929, edition of the Thomasville Times-Enterprise read. “We are always learning that the success of a star depends more on the life she leads than on her stage effects. Jeanne was weak lamentably so. She was an enemy to her career and debauched herself to the extent that her usefulness quickly ended. Death came as a result of alcoholic poison and the resultant use of sleep potions to drive away the nightmares that are its final symptoms.
“Poor woman. She strove for happiness perhaps, but went the wrong path to get it. She did not have the fine qualities of a true woman nor could she curb and appetite that has bound her until death. So it is with many of the flutterbirds of the stage and screen. They think they can go the paces, drink unceasingly and then come back strong the next night for the performance. The physical strain is too great, the mental stress too keen and the result is a disabled body and a weakened mind. So ends the chapter of another of the brilliant victims of the demon rum.”
According to the October 7, 1929, edition of the Oakland Tribune, Jeanne Eagels’ body was returned to Kansas City, Missouri to be laid to rest. Her mother, two brothers, and Jeanne’s sister planned the actress’s funeral service which was attended by more than three thousand people including many Broadway and Hollywood stars. Among those stars were Clifton Webb and Barry O’Neill.
Ted Coy wept when he heard that Jeanne had passed away. He was further grieved when he heard that one of the four rings she was wearing when she died was the diamond wedding ring set with seven diamonds and a pearl that he had given her. Months after her passing Ted shared with newspaper reporters that the broken jaw and bruises she had when he was married to Jeanne were the result of a fall she took on a train when she was drunk. “She hit her head on the sink in our passenger car,” he told reporters. “She’d had too much whiskey and fell over trying to make it to the bathroom.”
Jeanne Eagels is buried at the Calvary Cemetery in Kansas City, Missouri.
- Jeanne changed her name from Eagle to Eagel when she signed on with the traveling troupe because she thought it sounded better.
- The chain of theatres the Dubinskys founded is now known as AMC Theatres.