Helen Marie Twelvetrees (née Jurgens, December 25, 1908 – February 13, 1958) was an American film and theatre actress, who became a top female star through a series of "women's pictures" in the early 1930s.
She was born in Brooklyn, where she attended Public School 119. Her family moved to Flatbush, where her younger brother was born. One night during the winter of 1919, the four-bedroom apartment in which the family resided caught fire. Twelvetrees's brother perished in the burning structure, but the rest of the family was rescued. Later she attended Brooklyn Heights Seminary. After graduation, she enrolled in the Art Students League of New York, where she studied for a year before enrolling at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. While attending AADA, she met actor Clark Twelvetrees, whom she married in 1927. She adopted her husband's surname which she used as her professional name.
With some stage experience, Twelvetrees went to Hollywood with a number of other actors to replace the silent stars who could not or would not make the transition to talkies. Her first job was with Fox Film Corporation, and she appeared in The Ghost Talks (1929). After three films with Fox, she was released from her contract. However, she was signed by Pathé shortly thereafter, and along with Constance Bennett and Ann Harding, Twelvetrees starred in several lachrymose dramas, not all of which were critically acclaimed. When Pathé was absorbed by RKO Radio Pictures, she found herself at various times miscast in mediocre films. With the arrival of Katharine Hepburn at RKO, Twelvetrees left the studio to freelance (Harding and Bennett would also subsequently depart).
The 1930 film Her Man set the course of her screen career, and she was subsequently cast in a series of roles portraying suffering women fighting for the wrong men. Later she played opposite Spencer Tracy in 1934's Now I'll Tell (also known as When New York Sleeps) from a novel by Mrs. Arnold Robinson; opposite Donald Cook in The Spanish Cape Mystery; and costarred in Paramount's A Bedtime Story with Maurice Chevalier. She also starred in two Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer films, which prompted author John Douglas Eames to note that she "had a gift for projecting emotional force with minimal visible effort."
In 1936, she traveled to Australia to star in the Cinesound Studios production Thoroughbred, about the rise of a Melbourne Cup winning racehorse. The filming was done at Cinesound Studios sound stages in Bondi Junction, Sydney. After filming completed, Twelvetrees returned home to Brooklyn, where she fell ill. After a slow recovery, she returned to acting in the USO production of The Man Who Came to Dinner. She made her final two films, Persons in Hiding and Unmarried, in 1939.
Twelvetrees left films in favor of summer stock and made her Broadway debut in Jacques Deval's Boudoir in 1941. The play folded after only 11 performances, and she largely retired after marrying for a third time. She continued to act occasionally and successfully essayed the role of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire in summer stock in Sea Cliff, New York, in August 1951. Fellow cast member Naomi Caryl (who played Eunice Hubbell) recalled that Twelvetrees had "the saddest eyes I'd ever seen" and "it was also obvious that she had an extremely fragile psyche."
Helen Twelvetrees was married three times. She married her first husband, actor Clark Twelvetrees, in February 1927. During the marriage, Clark attempted suicide in the middle of a dinner party by jumping out a fourth-story window of a hotel facing West 63rd Street in Manhattan. He struck two awnings and then a parked taxi. He was hospitalized for several months afterward. In March 1930, she filed for divorce, citing mental cruelty. During the divorce trial, Twelvetrees claimed that Clark was an alcoholic who was drunk when they married and beat her on four occasions. Their divorce became final in March 1931. Clark Twelvetrees died in August 1938 of a skull fracture after striking his head on a curb when a man who witnessed him hitting a woman with whom he was arguing attempted to intervene.
Next, Twelvetrees married real estate broker Frank Woody in April 1931. They had a son, Jack Bryan Woody, born in October 1932 (died 2017), who became a wildlife biologist. She filed for divorce in March 1936, and it was finalized the following month. She married for a third and final time to farmer and Air Force captain Conrad Payne (13 November 1916 – 2 March 1970) in 1947. After their marriage, Twelvetrees occasionally acted in stage productions but essentially had left acting. She spent her remaining years traveling around the world with her husband, who was stationed in the United States and Europe.
On February 13, 1958, Twelvetrees was found unconscious on the floor of her living room at her home in Middletown, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Harrisburg. She was taken to Olmstead Air Force Base Hospital in Middletown, where she died. According to the county coroner, Twelvetrees had been suffering from a kidney ailment for some time and took an overdose of sedatives. Her death was ruled a suicide. Twelvetrees's remains were later cremated. Her funeral service was attended by only her widower and a close friend. Her ashes were interred in a grave in Middletown Cemetery. The gravesite was left unmarked until January 2013, at which point her surviving family placed a headstone.
For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Helen Twelvetrees has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located at 6263 Hollywood Boulevard.
In popular culture
The play I'm Looking for Helen Twelvetrees explores her life through the eyes of an actor who went to see her perform in Long Island, New York. Parallels between Twelvetrees and the character she played, Blanche, are explored.