Helen Twelvetrees

Helen Marie Twelvetrees (née Jurgens, December 25, 1908 – February 13, 1958) was an American film and theatre actress,[1] who became a top female star through a series of "women's pictures" in the early 1930s.

Helen Twelvetrees
Studio portrait, 1933
Helen Marie Jurgens

(1908-12-25)December 25, 1908
DiedFebruary 13, 1958(1958-02-13) (aged 49)
Cause of deathSedative overdose
Resting placeMiddletown Cemetery
EducationPublic School #119
Brooklyn Heights Seminary
Alma materAmerican Academy of Dramatic Arts
Years active19271951
Clark Twelvetrees
(m. 1927; div. 1931)

Frank Woody
(m. 1931; div. 1936)

Conrad Payne (m. 19471958)
ChildrenJack Bryan Woody (b. 1932-d.2016)

Early life

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.[2] 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.[3]


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."[4]

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.[5] She made her final two films, Persons in Hiding and Unmarried, in 1939.[6]

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.[6] 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."[7]

Personal life

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.[8] During the divorce trial, Twelvetrees claimed that Clark was an alcoholic who was drunk when they married and beat her on four occasions.[9] Their divorce became final in March 1931.[10] 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.[11]

Next, Twelvetrees married real estate broker Frank Woody in April 1931.[10] They had a son, Jack Bryan Woody, born in October 1932 (died 2017),[12][13] who became a wildlife biologist.[14] She filed for divorce in March 1936, and it was finalized the following month.[15][16] She married for a third and final time to farmer and Air Force captain Conrad Payne (13 November 1916 – 2 March 1970) in 1947.[17] 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.[5]


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.[18] 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.[19][20] Her death was ruled a suicide.[20] 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.[18]

For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Helen Twelvetrees has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located at 6263 Hollywood Boulevard.[21]

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.[22]


Year Title Role Notes
1929 The Ghost Talks Miriam Holt Lost film
1929 Blue Skies Dorothy May (episode 2)
1929 Words and Music Dorothy Blake
1930 The Grand Parade Molly
1930 Swing High Maryan Garner
1930 Her Man Frankie Keefe
1930 The Cat Creeps Annabelle West Lost film
1931 The Painted Desert Mary Ellen Cameron Clark Gable's first major role
1931 Millie Millicent "Millie" Blake Maitland
1931 A Woman of Experience Elsa Elsbergen Alternative title: Registered Woman
1931 Bad Company Helen King Carlyle
1932 Panama Flo Flo Bennett
1932 Young Bride Allie Smith Riggs
1932 State's Attorney June Perry Alternative title: Cardigan's Last Case
1932 Is My Face Red? Peggy Bannon
1932 Unashamed Joan Ogden
1933 Broken Hearts
1933 A Bedtime Story Sally
1933 Disgraced! Gay Holloway
1933 My Woman Connie Riley Rollins
1933 King for a Night Lillian Williams
1934 All Men Are Enemies Katha
1934 Now I'll Tell Virginia Golden Alternative titles: Now I'll Tell You
When New York Sleeps
1934 She Was a Lady Sheila Vane
1934 One Hour Late Bessie Dunn
1935 Times Square Lady Margo Heath
1935 She Gets Her Man Francine
1935 The Spanish Cape Mystery Stella Godfrey
1935 Frisco Waterfront Alice Alternative title: When We Look Back
1936 Thoroughbred Joan
1937 Hollywood Round-Up Carol Stevens
1939 Persons in Hiding Helen Griswold
1939 Unmarried Pat Rogers (final film role)

Further reading

  • Eames, John Douglas (1979). The MGM Story. New York City: Crown Publishers, Inc.
  • Eames, John Douglas (1985). The Paramount Story. New York City: Crown Publishers, Inc.
  • Jewell, Richard B. (1982). The RKO Story. New York City: Arlington House, a division of Crown Publishers, Inc.
  • Katz, Ephraim (1981). The Film Encyclopedia. New York City: Harper Perennial.


  1. Obituary Variety, February 19, 1958, page 63.
  2. Parish, James Robert; Leonard, William T. (1976). Hollywood Players, The Thirties. Arlington House. p. 516. ISBN 0-87000-365-8.
  3. Brettell, Andrew; Imwold, Denis; Kennedy, Damien; King, Noel (2005). Cut!: Hollywood Murders, Accidents, and Other Tragedies. Leonard, Warren Hsu; von Rohr, Heather. Barrons Educational Series. p. 287. ISBN 0-7641-5858-9.
  4. Eames, John Douglas (1975). The MGM Story: The complete History of Fifty Roaring Years (3 ed.). Octopus Books. p. 85. ISBN 0-904230-14-7.
  5. Lowry, Cynthia (August 1, 1955). "For Nine Years No Tears After Long, Briny Career". Daytona Beach Morning Journal. Retrieved February 25, 2013.
  6. Staggs, Sam (2005). When Blanche Met Brando: The Scandalous Story of "A Streetcar Named Desire". Macmillan. p. 275. ISBN 0-312-32164-3.
  7. Caryl, Naomi (January 17, 2006). "Streetcar". sitteninthehills64.blogspot.com.
  8. "Helen Twelvetress Is Granted Divorce". The Lewiston Daily Sun. March 26, 1930. p. 4. Retrieved February 25, 2013.
  9. "Actress Divorced". The Pittsburgh Press. March 26, 1930. p. 8. Retrieved February 25, 2013.
  10. "Actress Keeps Secret 3 Weeks". The Deseret News. April 17, 1931. Retrieved February 25, 2013.
  11. "Painter Held In Death Of Clark Twelvetrees". Sarasota Herald-Tribune. August 23, 1938. p. 3. Retrieved February 25, 2013.
  12. "Helen Twelvetrees Becomes Mother of Seven Pound Boy". Chicago Daily Tribune. October 27, 1932. p. 22.
  13. "Actress Poses With Baby Son". Chicago Daily Tribune. November 20, 1932. p. 13.
  14. Haederle, Michael (January 20, 1994). "Not Your Basic Pretty Pictures". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 26, 2014. His father was a wildlife biologist
  15. "Helen Twelvetrees, Husband Part". Rochester Journal. March 24, 1969. p. 1. Retrieved February 25, 2013.
  16. "Decree to Helen Twelvetrees". The New York Times. April 16, 1936.
  17. Dixon, Hugh (December 20, 1947). "Hollywood". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. p. 8. Retrieved February 25, 2013.
  18. Roberts, Jerry (2012). The Hollywood Scandal Almanac: 12 Months of Sinister, Salacious and Senseless History!. The History Press. p. 54. ISBN 1-60949-702-3.
  19. "Helen Twelvetrees, Movie Star Of 1930s". The Miami News. February 14, 1958. p. 4A. Retrieved February 25, 2013.
  20. "Death Called Suicide". The News-Dispatch. February 18, 1958. p. 4. Retrieved February 25, 2013.
  21. "Hollywood Star Walk". latimes.com. Retrieved February 25, 2013.
  22. "Review: 'I'm Looking for Helen Twelvetrees' Explores the Life of an Early Talkies Movie Star". The New York Times. Retrieved March 22, 2015.
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