Helen Morgan (August 2, 1900 – October 9, 1941) was an American singer and actress who worked in films and on the stage. A quintessential torch singer, she made a big splash in the Chicago club scene in the 1920s. She starred as Julie LaVerne in the original Broadway production of Hammerstein and Kern's musical Show Boat in 1927, and appeared in its two subsequent film adaptations, in 1929 (prologue only) and in 1936, becoming firmly associated with the role. She suffered from bouts of alcoholism, and despite her notable success in the title role of another Hammerstein and Hart's Broadway musical, Sweet Adeline (1929), her stage career was relatively short. Helen Morgan died from of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 41. She was portrayed in the 1957 biopic The Helen Morgan Story.
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.
Morgan 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 performance of George White's Scandals of 1942 and died in Chicago of cirrhosis of the liver on October 8, 1941.
Morgan was married three times, to a fan Lowell Army, whom she met at a stage door while she was performing in Sally, 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.
Morgan 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 feature film The Helen Morgan Story starred Ann Blyth as Morgan.
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