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Death of Helen Menken, notorious and accomplished actress

March 28, 1966

Helen Menken was born to be a star.  Her rapid rise through the ranks of prominent actresses began at an early age: within two years of her debut in Humpty Dumpty at the age of three, she was playing Peaseblossom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Born on December 12, 1901, to artist Frederick William Menken and Katherine (nee Moden) in New York City, she was acting professionally at age 15.  A serious actor who challenged herself throughout her life, in the mid-1920s, she presented a string of powerful performances in challenging dramas by Ibsen and Karel Čapek.  She married Humphrey Bogart on May 20, 1926.

At the height of her career in 1926, she appeared with John Barrymore in The Captive, where Menken portrayed a woman who abandons her husband to take up with a female lover.  On February 9, 1927, the performance was stopped when the police arrested the cast, along with the casts of The Virgin Man and Sex, including Mae West, Sex’s playwright and star.  Menken, wrapped in elegant gray furs, was handcuffed and charged with “contributing to a common nuisance “and “obscene exhibition.”  The production was closed down.   Amidst the turmoil, Bogart and Menken were divorced on November 18, 1927.

Menken went to London to perform in Seventh Heaven, one of her Broadway successes.  She returned to New York in 1928 to star in The Beaux Stratagem and performed a season of Shakespeare in 1931.  Turning to producing plays in which she starred, in 1942 she undertook her greatest producing effort in creating the Stage Door Canteen with the American Theatre Wing.  The Canteen offered servicemen free entertainment, dancing, and food, with celebrities both performing and waiting on soldiers. Eight versions of the Canteen were created in the US, and London and Paris branches flourished too during World War II.  The success of the Canteen was captured in the film Stage Door Canteen, in which Menken appeared along with Katherine Hepburn, Harpo Marx, and Helen Hayes, along with the Count Basie and Bennie Goodman bands.

Menken worked as president of the American Theatre Wing and its volunteer activities in education and service from 1957 until her death of a heart attack at the Lambs Theatrical Club on this date in 1966, surrounded by other stage professionals.  She was posthumously awarded with the Wing’s most prestigious honor: a Tony, the highest accolade one can earn in New York theatre.

Helen Menken
Full image

Helen Menken with Basil Rathbone in the notorious production of The Captive in 1926.  Public domain.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Death of Helen Menken, notorious and accomplished actress." (Viewed on October 31, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/mar/28/1966/this-week-in-history-death-of-helen-menken-notorious-and-accomplished-actress>.

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