Helen Menken: Of Broadway and Bogart

New York stage actress Helen Menken (Helen Meinken, 1901-1966) made her Broadway debut at only age 16 in the original production of Parlor Bedroom and Bath (1917, best known today for later being adapted into a Buster Keaton film). This would be remarkable in and of itself, but is more impressive when we learn that she was raised by two deaf parents and didn’t learn to speak until she was four years old. Certainly, whatever challenges she had to overcome added to her skill in performing.

Menken was a Broadway star for nearly two decades, creating several roles which would later be better remembered in relation to the Hollywood actresses who took them on in in their screen adaptations. Her part in Seventh Heaven (1922-24) was later played by Janet Gaynor; her role of Elizabeth I in Mary of Scotland (1933-34) was played onscreen by Florence Eldridge; and her title role in The Old Maid (1935) would be played in the movie version by Bette Davis.

In 1925, Menken starred in an experimental Phonofilm sound short for Lee Deforest. In 1926 she married a lesser known Broadway actor named Humphrey Bogart. It was the first marriage for both of them. In 1927, Menken and the entire cast of The Captive, a lesbian-themed drama were arrested on obscenity charges, as part of the same sweep that resulted in Mae West’s Broadway arrests. Bogart divorced her in early 1928, possibly to distance himself from the scandal. Bogart of course went on to much greater fame in Hollywood. It has been speculated that Menken’s lack of a Hollywood career may have been in part due to this early notoriety.

Menken’s last Broadway play was The Laughing Woman (1936). After this she starred on the radio soap opera Second Wife (1936-46) and played other roles in radio, while also working to support the American Theatre Wing. Among other things, the ATW put on the Stage Door Canteen during World War Two. Her cameo in the eponymous 1943 film is her only Hollywood screen appearance. After Bogart, Menken was married three additional times — fodder enough for her role on Second Wife.