“Jeanne Eagels was the Marilyn Monroe of the 1920s: beautiful, blonde, talented, vulnerable and mercurial – and a complete and utter mess. Indeed, Marilyn was a model of emotional stability compared to Jeanne,” author Eve Golden wrote, in ‘Golden Images’ (2000.) Both actresses died young, and their lives have become mythical. But beyond the legend, what do these two women really have in common?
While working on ‘Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed’, the first full-length biography of the actress to be published in eighty-five years, with my co-author, Eric Woodard, I was struck by the parallels between Eagels and Monroe. In this article, I explore their shared history and consider why Marilyn is still renowned, whereas Jeanne is almost forgotten.
The Girl From Missouri
The story of their intertwined fates began in Barry County, Missouri, in 1870, when a nineteen year-old farmhand, Tilford Hogan, married Jennie Nance. They raised three children, and moved frequently, to wherever Tilford found work. Despite grinding poverty and limited education, he was a sensitive, intelligent man who loved to read, and was known for his generosity.
After twenty years, however, they separated, and Jennie took the children – including their rebellious teenage daughter, Della May – to live with her mother, while Tilford stayed with his sister in Linn County. Divorce made Tilford a pariah among his pious neighbors, and he cut a lonely figure.
As the century’s last decade dawned, another Missouri couple welcomed a new baby. Amelia Eugenia Eagles was born to Edward, a carpenter, and his wife Julia, residents of Kansas City. The second child in what would become a large brood, Eugenia (or Jennie, as she was often called) was prone to illness. Nonetheless, she was a lively, mischievous girl.
Kansas City was a growing hub of industry, and entertainment. By 1900, the city boasted several theatres. With the new mediums of film and radio still in their infancy, the stage’s dominance of popular culture remained unchallenged. That year, the city’s most prestigious troupe – the Woodward Stock Company – opened an acting school, headed by Georgia Brown.
Realizing that Eugenia was bright and imaginative, the Eagles had enrolled her in a local Catholic school. When she performed in a children’s production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, Brown recognized her potential. After her mother, Georgia Brown would be the most significant influence in young Eugenia’s life.
“Once I’d played in front of an audience, it was battle royal to keep me off the stage,” Jeanne Eagels told the Boston Globe in 1925. “I did all this in the face of pretty stiff family opposition, for the perfectly natural idea was that I ought to be going to school uninterruptedly.”
The Kansas City flood of 1903, which left 16,000 people destitute, impressed the girl as a sign from God that her future lay elsewhere. At home, her father’s ailing health put pressure on family finances. Her schooling ended shortly afterward, and at fourteen she took her first job, as a stock clerk in a department store. There was no more money for acting lessons, but she often played bit parts in Woodward productions.
In 1907, Eugenia was hired by the Dubinsky Brothers, performing in tent shows across the Midwest. “Oh yes, I was a leading woman at fifteen,” she recalled (though in reality, she was closer to eighteen.) “Then, between acts I’d go out and sing and dance, but my great specialty was imitations. I used to imitate Eva Tanguay, Anna Held, Harry Lauder, and all the rest of them.”
It is rumored that she was briefly married to her boss, twenty-four year-old Maurice Dubinsky, although she and her relatives denied it. “The love she had for Maurice I think was a beautiful thing,” Ed Dubinsky said later. “I believe it was the mainspring of her entire career … I am certain she never shook off his influence.”
“Marriage I have put behind me, with other unsuccessful experiments,” was her only public comment on the matter.
After Edward Eagles died in 1910, Eugenia left the company. Without the Dubinskys’ knowledge, she travelled to Chicago, winning a place in the chorus of a musical play. She would never again live in Kansas City, but dreamed of one day returning as a star.
Meanwhile, Della May Hogan had married in 1898, leaving Missouri behind for Mexico, where her husband, Otis Monroe, worked on a railroad. After their daughter, Gladys, was born in 1902, the couple moved to Los Angeles. Otis died in 1907, however, and by the age of fifteen, Gladys would elope. Her husband was abusive – and after she left him, he kidnapped their two children and returned to his native Kentucky.
By the time her third child, Norma Jeane, was born in 1926, Gladys was separated from her second husband. Norma Jeane was born illegitimate, although her father may have been Charles Stanley Gifford, Gladys’s married supervisor at Consolidated Film Industries, where she worked as a cutter. Wounded by Gifford’s rejection, Gladys denied him access to Norma Jeane, who was cared for by the Bolenders, a Christian family.
Della died in 1927, having been admitted to a psychiatric hospital after suffering hallucinations caused by heart disease. One of her final delusions was that her parents had reconciled.
By 1933, Gladys was able to care for Norma Jeane independently. A lifetime of trauma would soon catch up with her, and she was troubled by the news that her grandfather, Tilford Hogan, committed suicide. At seventy-seven, he had just remarried. But his health was failing, and like many other tenant farmers during the Great Depression, he was facing eviction. His widow found him swinging from a noose suspended over a high beam in their barn.
Although Gladys had never known him, his death troubled her. She became convinced that madness ran in the family, and before long, would suffer a nervous breakdown. Norma Jeane spent the next few years moving between the homes of distant relatives, foster parents, and an orphanage.
Growing up close to the heart of the film industry, she loved movies and imaginative play. One of her first idols, actress Jean Harlow, was – like Jeanne Eagels – a native of Kansas City. According to some biographers, her mother took in a lodger who worked as a stand-in for the great English born actor, George Arliss. (Others believe the understudy was a family friend, and that he may have molested the little girl.)
After her mother was committed to a state asylum, Norma Jeane was taken under the wing of two older women: Grace Goddard, a friend of Gladys who also worked as a film cutter; and Grace’s aunt, Ana Lower, a kindly and devout Christian Scientist who took her in after the Los Angeles River flooded in 1935, leaving her homeless.
But when Norma Jeane was fifteen, Grace’s husband accepted a work promotion which meant the family would have to move to West Virginia. As Norma Jeane was still a ward of the State of California, she was unable to join them.
For several months, she had been dating a neighbor, Jim Dougherty, and to avoid a return to the orphanage, she agreed to marry him. In later years, she would insist it was a loveless marriage – but Jim remembered it differently. While he was serving overseas, Norma Jeane began a modelling career. They divorced in 1946.
The Fires of Youth
While toiling in the chorus line of ‘Jumping Jupiter’ (1910), Eugenia Eagles began a long process of reinvention. Her childhood nickname, “Jennie”, was strongly associated with Jenny Lind, an operatic star of the nineteenth century. She decided instead to use the more elegant “Jeanne”, and altered the spelling of her last name to “Eagels”.
In years to come, she would also modify details of her life story – shaving four years off her age, and claiming to have been born in Boston. While she had no qualms about embellishing the truth, she was not ashamed of her roots, and remained close to her family.
After a successful tour, ‘Jumping Jupiter’ came to New York – but much to Jeanne’s disappointment, it was panned by the critics and folded in March 1911. Nonetheless, she was determined to make her name on Broadway. During these lean years, she relied on the goodwill of friends, including actress Helen Broderick, who gave her a place to stay.
Jeanne also attracted a host of male admirers, who lavished her with gifts. But Jeanne was not interested in settling down. “I am timid and afraid of men and far too busy to become well acquainted with them,” she told the New York Sun in 1917. “My work fills my life, and I should not care to fall in love or marry before I am very, very old – about thirty-five – because a woman gives too much of herself when she loves, and that would interfere with her career.”
After a few more plays, and several short films, her career stalled. Undeterred, she studied acting with Beverly Sitgreaves, and in 1915, landed her first leading role, replacing Elsie Ferguson – to whom she bore an uncanny resemblance – in ‘Outcast’.
Jeanne’s role as a streetwalker who discovers a gift for faith healing was influenced by Christian Science. She would re-enact the part in a 1916 film, ‘The World and the Woman’. One of her few surviving performances, it can be viewed online. “A real actress, and at the same time a real beauty,” was Motion Picture News’ verdict.
In 1917, George Arliss chose Jeanne to play “the girl” in ‘Professor’s Love Story’. During rehearsals, Jeanne expressed strong opinions about how her character should be played. Though initially perturbed, Arliss came to respect her “unerring artistry.”
She then won a part in ‘Disraeli’, a portrait of the English politician. After a five-year run, it had become Arliss’ signature role. At the same time, Jeanne began shooting another feature-length movie, ‘The Fires of Youth’. A shorter version of this film also survives. Moving Picture World found her “natural and pleasing as a pretty and wholesome young factory girl.”
At the age of twenty, Norma Jeane was ready to pursue her dream of acting. She dyed her hair blonde, and decided to change her name. For a brief period, she was known as “Carole Lind” – after actress Carole Lombard, and Jenny Lind. But the memory of Lombard’s tragic death was too fresh.
She would ultimately choose Marilyn Monroe, after a talent scout said she reminded him of the Broadway star, Marilyn Miller. Keeping her mother’s maiden name was her own suggestion, and a perhaps an attempt to stay loyal to her roots.
After a year as a stock player at Twentieth Century-Fox, Marilyn’s contract was not renewed. She would later be dropped by Columbia, having rebuffed sexual advances from her boss, Harry Cohn. While supporting herself by occasional modelling, she worked hard to learn her craft, taking classes at the Actors Lab, and later hiring a personal coach, Natasha Lytess. She also studied with the great Russian actor, Michael Chekhov.
In 1948, Marilyn posed with Clifton Webb on the set of his film, ‘Sitting Pretty’. A glamour shot of Monroe would be used in another Webb film, ‘For Heaven’s Sake’ (1950.) Marilyn would remember Webb as the first Hollywood star to befriend her.
She also won the hearts of veteran producer Joseph M. Schenck, and agent Johnny Hyde, who became her lover. In 1950, she played small, but significant roles in two Oscar- winning movies: ‘The Asphalt Jungle’ (as the mistress of a corrupt businessman) and ‘All About Eve’ (as an ambitious starlet.)
The Wonderful Thing
Along with many others in New York’s theatrical community, Jeanne Eagels responded to the devastation of World War I by performing in countless fundraising events. Most spectacular of all was the National Red Cross Pageant, staged in October 1917, and screened nationwide. Jeanne appeared in a segment celebrating France’s heroine, Joan of Arc (played by her friend, Ina Claire.)
Given her heavy workload, it is perhaps unsurprising that Jeanne’s health was under strain. It is believed that she began using prescription drugs around this time. Clifton Webb’s mother recalled visiting Eagels at home and finding her in a hysterical state, until her physician gave her a “mysterious elixir” which subdued her instantly.
As the Great War came to an end, Broadway found itself in the midst of a revival. The theatre was dominated by a handful of powerful producers, including David Belasco, who cast Jeanne as a war orphan adopted by a wealthy bachelor in ‘Daddies’ (1918.) It was sentimental fare, but audiences loved it.
“Thousands of girls have come to me in my time,” Belasco recalled, “but never such a girl as this Jeanne Eagels. She was a contradiction. A girl in shabby clothes, with the air of a Duse, and the voice of an earl’s daughter, and the mien of a tired alley cat.”
Belasco’s attempt to seduce Jeanne backfired, though she admired his professionalism. She left the show in 1919, after some 350 performances.
“She was a creature of moods, strange and aloof most of the time and with most people,” recalled her co-star, George Abbott. “But at other times she would come into the theatre wearing a warm expansive aura and would talk to me with considerable intimacy. She talked about two things; music, which she loved, and men, whom she hated. She gave me the impression that men had wronged her and that her life work was to get even with them.”
In 1920, Jeanne became engaged to Thomas L. Chadbourne, one of America’s leading lawyers, and a prominent Democrat who had the ear of President Woodrow Wilson. However, Chadbourne broke off the relationship months later, and married a socialite instead.
As her fame increased, the press focused on Jeanne’s private life. In 1921, a syndicated article reeled off a list of her alleged affairs. Most were fictitious, and her ongoing romance with the musician and composer, Arthur Fiedler – who would later conduct the Boston Pops Orchestra – was overlooked.
Embarking on a seven-year contract with Twentieth Century-Fox in 1951, Marilyn Monroe worked constantly. Most of her roles were decorative, but she won acclaim in 1952 for her performance as Peggy, a feisty cannery worker, in ‘Clash by Night’; and as Nell, a disturbed young woman hired as a babysitter, in ‘Don’t Bother to Knock’. She was also cast alongside Charles Laughton, a veteran of both stage and screen, for a cameo role in ‘O. Henry’s Full House’.
As her star continued to rise, a series of scandals threatened to derail Marilyn’s career. Firstly, it was revealed that she had posed nude for a calendar some years before. At the time, it was unheard of for any major star to appear naked, and studio bosses urged Marilyn to deny it. But her frank admission – “I needed the money” – won over the public.
Within weeks, another story was making headlines. While studio publicists claimed Marilyn was an orphan, a journalist tracked down her mother Gladys. Marilyn had agreed to say her mother was dead to avoid publicity. In 1953, she arranged for Gladys to enter a private sanatorium.
In her first star vehicle, ‘Niagara’, Marilyn played a ruthless femme fatale. But it was her next role, in a musical adaptation of ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ – Anita Loos’ comic novel, first published in 1925 – that would change the direction of her career. As the gold-digging, not-so-dumb Lorelei Lee, Marilyn was witty and alluring.
In 1953, Clifton Webb attended the premiere of ‘How to Marry a Millionaire’, in which Marilyn co-starred with Lauren Bacall. At an after-party, Webb told Humphrey Bogart that Marilyn reminded him of Jeanne Eagels. Bogart, who considered Eagels the greatest actress he had ever known, was astonished.
“She’s ambitious and anxious to know her job,” Webb said of Marilyn, in a 1955 interview with Picturegoer magazine. “This girl, when she was making very little money, spent practically every cent she made on various coaches. Now she will work all day, go to her little flat for a little bit of dinner on a tray, and then work with her coach on the next day’s scenes. And often they will work until early morning.”
Her wedding to the retired baseball hero, Joe DiMaggio, made them one of America’s golden couples. After less than a year, their marriage imploded. Naturally reserved, and prone to jealousy, DiMaggio could not tolerate his wife’s burgeoning career.
Monroe’s ascent was boosted by her popularity with American troops fighting in North Korea. She would visit the country in 1954, entertaining soldiers on a whirlwind tour which she described as the happiest time of her life.
The Rain Girl
Marie Savage, a veteran of the Metropolitan Opera, became Jeanne Eagels’ voice coach in 1920. Jeanne would often stay at her apartment, helping out with housework. ‘Madame Savage’ (or ‘Mama Froggy’, as Jeanne called her) was both mentor, and mother figure. “If I had been your daughter,” Jeanne told her, “I would be happy and content today – but I would not be Jeanne Eagels.”
In 1921, ‘Miss Sadie Thompson’ – a provocative short story by the English author, W. Somerset Maugham – was published in Smart Set, a leading literary magazine. Based on a real encounter during Maugham’s South Sea travels, the story focused on a prostitute marooned on a remote island, who angers her neighbours – including a fanatical preacher – with her raucous antics.
After the preacher threatens to have her deported to San Francisco, where she faces jail, Sadie repents – only to discover that her self-proclaimed saviour is no more immune to lust than other men. This tale of moral hypocrisy shocked America, when in 1922, it was brought to the stage under a new title – ‘Rain’.
With her fresh-faced, ethereal beauty, Jeanne Eagels was not an obvious choice. After meeting her at a party, Maugham said to producer Sam Harris, “This girl is Peter Pan, not Sadie Thompson.” He soon changed his mind, commenting, “Jeanne Eagels is truly an amazing young actress. Little did I ever dream that Sadie Thompson would be played so perfectly.”
“One of the great performances of that time and of my theatregoing experience was that of Jeanne Eagels in ‘Rain’,” Lee Strasberg wrote later, while Robert Lewis, co-founder of the Actors Studio, recalled, “If any of you are old enough to have seen Jeanne Eagels in ‘Rain’ you will remember that the thing that made it wonderful was that the essential quality of the actress was a certain inner purity. Eagels had pink cheeks, the prettiest face you ever saw, and a desire to be good. No then, with all of that, she dressed up like Sadie Thompson and when she came on you said, ‘But that’s a basically good girl!’”
Jeanne’s intensely personal approach to the role was akin to the teachings of Stanislavsky, which would later be co-opted by the Actors Studio. Eagels assembled a distinctive costume for Sadie, and insisted on major changes to the final act. As playwright John Colton observed, she was “nobody’s yes-woman.”
In November 1923, it was announced that Jeanne was engaged to Whitney Warren Junior, but his snobbish father – one of New York’s leading architects – issued a swift rebuttal, even sending his son on a cruise to separate him from the actress.
Although Jeanne wanted to try other parts – including that of Lord Nelson’s mistress, Lady Hamilton – she was committed to a nationwide tour of ‘Rain’, beginning in 1925. That summer, she brought a country home in Ossining, New York, and got married. Her new husband, Ted Coy, had been a football star in his Harvard days – and an idol to F. Scott Fitzgerald – before establishing himself on Wall Street. But it soon became apparent that Coy’s glory days were over, and he was uncomfortable with being “Mr Jeanne Eagels.” When ‘Rain’ came to Los Angeles, Jeanne spoke of her wish to play the role onscreen, despite the opposition of Will Hays, the Hollywood scourge whom she likened to the play’s antagonist, Reverend Davidson. Eagels’ outspokenness may have worked against her, and in 1928, Gloria Swanson was cast as Sadie in a movie vetted by Hays, and financed by Joseph M. Schenck.
Eagels’ remarkable four-year run in ‘Rain’ ended in October 1926. She was then cast as Roxie Hart in ‘Chicago’, but withdrew from the play, which later became a huge hit.
In late 1954, Marilyn Monroe moved to New York where she studied acting with Lee Strasberg, and formed an independent production company. It was around this time that she acquired a reputation for being difficult to work with – largely as a result of her chronic insecurity, and innate perfectionism. But in 1956, she received glowing reviews for her performance as Cherie, a downtrodden nightclub singer, in ‘Bus Stop’.
After marrying playwright Arthur Miller that summer, Marilyn filmed ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’ with Sir Laurence Olivier. She bought a farm in Connecticut with Miller, and yearned to have children. But after two miscarriages, Marilyn sank into depression. She was also becoming addicted to drugs prescribed for her insomnia.
Despite tension and conflict behind the scenes, her next film, ‘Some Like it Hot’, is now considered one of the finest comedies ever made.
For her next role, Jeanne Eagels moved away from the grit of ‘Rain’. ‘Her Cardboard Lover’ was a light comedy in which she played the owner of a Parisian boutique. This time, however, it was her leading man, Leslie Howard, who stole the show, and Jeanne resorted to playing childish tricks to upstage him.
“The legends about certain stars don’t mean a thing,” said director George Cukor, who – like Howard – would go on to find success in Hollywood. “They may dodge newspaper photographers and otherwise behave in temperamental ways, but they can’t dodge their directors, and they must do their best real acting for the stage.”
In August 1927, Eagels began filming ‘Man, Woman and Sin’ for MGM, opposite the screen’s “Great Lover”, John Gilbert. It was an unhappy experience, as Jeanne found it hard to adapt to the demands of film-making. After shooting ended, the studio’s plans to add Eagels to their star studded roster were scrapped.
“On the stage you do the same thing night after night and improve with each performance,” Jeanne reflected. “But here we go through a scene three or four times then forget it and then on to something else. I really don’t get a chance to learn my parts at all, but must act entirely by first reaction.”
Jeanne returned to the stage for a tour of ‘Her Cardboard Lover’, with a different co-star, and more favourable reviews. But in March 1928, a week-long absence from the stage resulted in Eagels being suspended. She invited the cast to stay at her country home while the tour was on hold. Although medical evidence confirmed that she had been too sick to perform, Actors Equity banned her from the legitimate theatre for eighteen months.
Jeanne’s divorce was finalised that summer. Determined to save her career, she assembled a variety show and toured the vaudeville circuit. In the fall, she made one of the first talking pictures, ‘The Letter’, hailed by the New York Journal-American as “one of the most gorgeous portrayals ever caught upon the silver screen.” A fully restored version is now available on DVD.
After signing a two-picture deal with Paramount, Jeanne began work on ‘Jealousy’. But the strain of recent events was taking its toll, and in March 1929, the New York Times reported that she had broken down in tears on the set.
In July, it was announced that Eagels’ next film would be ‘The Laughing Lady’. But shortly after filming began in September, Jeanne was taken ill with a sinus infection. She then had an operation to counteract the damage done to her eyes by harsh studio lights.
Jealousy was released to mixed reviews. “Jeanne Eagels was great,” said co-star Fredric March, “but the film we made together was a stinker.” With her recovery still underway, it was announced that Ruth Chatterton would replace Jeanne in ‘The Laughing Lady’. Nonetheless, Eagels’ Broadway ban was over, and she was ready to return to the stage.
By 1960, Marilyn Monroe’s marriage to Arthur Miller was falling apart. In ‘The Misfits’, which Miller had written for her, Marilyn was superb. But the strain was beginning to show. She was deeply troubled by the death of her co-star, Clark Gable.
In early 1961, a newly-divorced Marilyn was briefly committed to a psychiatric ward. This seemed to crystallise all her fears of inheriting “the family illness.” Ex-husband Joe DiMaggio, to whom she remained close, had her moved to an open hospital where she slowly recovered. Later that year, she underwent major surgery to remove her gallbladder.
Meanwhile, she was planning a dream project: a television remake of ‘Rain’, starring herself and Fredric March. “You know, I had a letter from Somerset Maugham the other day,” she revealed to journalist Margaret Parton, “saying how happy he was that I was going to play the part of Sadie, and telling me something about the real woman on whom he based the character. I’m really excited about doing the part – she’s so interesting. She was a girl who knew how to be gay, even when she was sad. And that’s important – you know?”
“I thought that she could have brought it to the same kind of tremulousness which I remember Jeanne Eagels possessing,” Strasberg told author Fred Lawrence Guiles. “An inner kind of quality, a sense of something really taking place, a reaching out, a wanting to be different and better, wanting to raise herself out of the kind of morass that she’d gotten into and her terrible disappointment when she (Sadie Thompson) discovers that the preacher is only a man, that all he wants is what every other man wants. It’s very vivid in my mind … I felt that Marilyn could do that wonderfully and in certain ways, even more so.”
While producer Rod Serling wanted to update the story, Marilyn insisted on keeping the original script. She also refused to consider working with another director. Impatient with the delays, Fredric March backed out. Marilyn was also under pressure from Twentieth Century-Fox, to whom she still owed two movies under her existing contract. ‘Rain’ was shelved by NBC, though Marilyn still hoped to bring it to the big screen. In early 1962, she began making a new film, ‘Something’s Got to Give’, with director George Cukor. By then, the old “star system” was in disarray, and the studio was facing bankruptcy. In June, after prolonged absences from the set due to sinusitis, Marilyn was fired. In a subsequent interview for Life magazine, Marilyn spoke eloquently of her struggles in Hollywood. “I am not an actress who appears at a studio just for the purpose of discipline,” she told Richard Meryman. “This doesn’t have anything at all to do with art. I myself would like to become more disciplined within my work. But I’m there to give a performance and not to be disciplined by a studio! After all, I’m not in a military school. This is supposed to be an art form, not just a manufacturing establishment.”
Something’s Got to Give
For several days in October 1929, Jeanne Eagels had been under the care of her longtime physician, Dr. Edward Spencer Cowles. On the evening of October 3, she got dressed for a night out. But at the last moment, she began feeling unwell again and drove with her maid to Dr. Cowles’ surgery. While sitting in a waiting room with a nurse, Jeanne began having convulsions. The nurse ran out and called for help, but by the time she returned, Jeanne Eagels was dead.
“Miss Eagels died of alcoholism, not from acute alcoholism but from alcoholic psychosis,” the autopsy stated. “She had been acting strangely for three or four days but had not taken a drink in two days.”
Jeanne’s best friend, Clifton Webb, helped to prepare for the memorial service in New York. “There she was lying with a pompadour,” he remembered. “So my mother called an attendant and asked for a comb and she took it and dressed her hair. Jeanne wore her hair in ringlets. Mabelle took flowers and put them in her hands. So we did all we could.”
Her body was then removed to Kansas City, where a family funeral was held. In November, the New York Daily Mirror claimed that traces of heroin had been found in Jeanne’s brain. Although this rumour was never confirmed, it has become part of the Eagels myth. In another article about Jeanne’s death, Liberty magazine concluded that she may have died from a large dose of Chloral Hydrate – a sedative often prescribed by Cowles.
In 1930, Jeanne’s performance in ‘The Letter’ earned her a posthumous Oscar nomination. ‘The Rain Girl’, a full-length biography by Eddie Doherty, was published that year. “In writing of Jeanne,” said her mother, Julia, “this man has not only abandoned the principles of charity, generosity and good taste. He has not even been governed by a spirit of fair play. He traveled far and wide seeking those witnesses whose testimony would be the most sensational. All that her friends can say on her behalf has been minimized or disregarded.”
In 1932, a would-be actress named Dea Lloyd made headlines with her claim that she was Jeanne’s secret daughter. In fact, she was a serial fraudster who had previously posed as an English aristocrat.
The story of Sadie Thompson would be replayed many times on stage and screen, and in 1957, Kim Novak starred in a poorly-received biopic, ‘Jeanne Eagels’, which propagated the many misunderstandings about Jeanne’s life and character.
Perhaps the most fitting tribute came in ‘All About Eve’, the Oscar-winning satire of life in the theatre, which also featured a young Marilyn Monroe. In one scene, the acerbic critic Addison Dewitt (played by George Sanders) pays the ultimate compliment to aging star Margo Channing (Bette Davis).
“Margo, as you know, I have lived in the theatre as a Trappist monk lives in his faith. I have no other work, no other life – and once in a great while I experience that moment of revelation for which all true believers wait and pray. You were one. Jeanne Eagels another.”
In the last days of her life, Marilyn Monroe was making plans for the future. It is believed that she was in talks with Fox to resume filming ‘Something’s Got to Give’. She was also having daily psychoanalytic sessions with Dr. Ralph Greenson, who was consulting with her physician, Dr. Hyman Engelberg, to manage her drug intake.
In the early hours of August 5, 1962, Dr. Greenson called the police from Marilyn’s home. She had been found dead in her bedroom. An autopsy showed that she had taken a fatal combination of the barbiturate, Nembutal, and Chloral Hydrate. Her death was ruled a “probable suicide”, though it is not clear if it was intentional.
“I am so shocked,” Clifton Webb said on hearing of Marilyn’s death. “People should have been more tolerant of her. She was a tender and wonderful person.” Marilyn’s longtime make-up artist, Allan ‘Whitey’ Snyder, prepared her body for the funeral.
Greenson’s treatment of Marilyn has since been widely criticised, while some have even suggested that she was murdered to cover up an affair with President John F. Kennedy – although the evidence is mostly hearsay.
Over fifty years later, Marilyn remains one of the most famous women who ever lived. Her films are regularly revived, and countless books have been published about her. She has inspired artists, musicians and novelists. Photographs of her are constantly reproduced, and there is a seemingly inexhaustible demand for Monroe memorabilia.
Jeanne Eagels’ finest work was on the stage, and all but a handful of her films have been lost. Until now, her memory has been neglected. Like Jeanne, Marilyn Monroe was brilliant, and fragile. But despite endless speculation, her legend remains undimmed.
By Tara Hanks