Today, it’s my absolute pleasure to introduce readers to novelist, biographer, reviewer, blogger and all round good egg, Tara Hanks. As well as reviewing for respected mags like For Books’ Sake, running her own blog, penning articles and writing books, Tara raises two lovely boys. We met many years ago now – through the hagsharlotsheroines project – and so it’s fitting that Tara writes about one of her heroines in her latest book Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed. Take it away, Tara.
I first heard of Jeanne Eagels through another tragic star, and heroine of my second novel. Marilyn Monroe wanted to play Sadie Thompson in Rain, the role that Eagels made immortal. I referenced her twice in The Mmm Girl, but she remained a mystery. What did Lee Strasberg, godfather of Method acting, see in Marilyn that reminded him of Jeanne?
My previous books were fiction, but closely based on fact. Since I discovered blogging, however, I’ve come to enjoy writing articles and reviews – initially to promote my novels – but as I grew more confident, I began covering a wider range of subjects, including literature, art, music and film.
One of the benefits of writing about a subject as famous as Monroe is that there are plenty of experts out there. Thanks to the internet, I was able to connect with them despite geographical barriers. One of the Monroe authors I’ve got to know is Eric M. Woodard, whom I first contacted around ten years ago when I ordered a signed copy of his first book, Hometown Girl. We stayed in touch through various fansites and on social media.
Eric is a native of Florida, although he recently moved to Palm Springs, California. An accomplished graphic designer, he has worked as a spokesman for the estate of the late William Travilla, costumier to everyone from Marilyn to the stars of TV’s Dallas. In 2013, Eric wrote an article for Examiner.com, ‘Marilyn Monroe and Rain: The Project That Never Came to Be’, based on archive material from the ill-fated production. While researching Monroe’s lost role, Eric became interested in Jeanne Eagels, the hallowed actress who started it all.
That summer, Eric asked me to read a draft first chapter for a proposed biography on Eagels. I was fascinated, and made some suggestions which led to a contract with Bearmanor Media, an independent publisher dedicated to uncovering Hollywood’s forgotten history. It was then that Eric invited me to co-write Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed.
Whereas Monroe has inspired hundreds of books, there was only one biography of Jeanne: Eddie Doherty’s The Rain Girl, published in 1930, a year after her death. It was initially serialized in Liberty magazine (the Heat of its day), with this tagline: “Genius and Drunkard—Artist and Hellion—Poet and Devil—She Battled to the Stars!”
Although quite well-researched, Doherty’s account was critically panned, drawing accusations of sensationalism from Jeanne’s friends and family. Almost thirty years would pass before her life was given the Hollywood treatment. Novelist John Fante – whose tales of Los Angeles lowlife would make him a posthumous cult figure – was among a team of writers assigned to bring Jeanne’s story to the big screen.
Unfortunately, the resulting biopic bore scant resemblance to the truth. Jeanne, as played by Kim Novak, was depicted as a former carnival dancer who clawed her way to the top, when in fact she had enjoyed a long, distinguished theatrical career. Worst of all, it was falsely alleged that she had ‘stolen’ the role of Sadie Thompson from another actress, who then committed suicide. The cruel, unfair perception of Eagels as a delusional, drug-crazed diva was thus cemented in the public imagination.
The lion’s share of research was conducted by my writing partner, Eric. With most of Jeanne’s peers long dead, he delved into the vaults. ‘Newspaper archives and genealogical websites are the key,’ he told me in a recent email. ‘Lots of printouts, three-hole-punched, and chronologically placed into notebooks. Gone through with a highlight marker, and then either written out on pads of paper (my preference), or inputted directly into the computer.’ We also read widely in order to better understand the times in which Jeanne lived.
Some of the misunderstandings about Jeanne were propagated by the actress herself. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the mass media was still in its formative stage, and fact-checking was a haphazard process. Eagels would often embellish her humble background – she was born in 1890, to a large, working-class family in Kansas City – and her flair for drama wasn’t confined to the stage. She was a remarkably eloquent interviewee, whose stubborn independence was often mistaken for egotism. Nonetheless, her highly personal approach to acting anticipated Lee Strasberg’s ‘Method’, and he would acknowledge her performance in Rain as a seminal influence.
While writing her story, I learned about Broadway in its golden age, as well as the early days of silent film and the rise of talking pictures. While many movies from this era are now lost, two of her early performances can be viewed online at Thanhouser.org, while her transition to sound in The Letter – has been digitally restored, and is now available on DVD.
The theatre was Jeanne’s first love, and she would never play Sadie Thompson on the screen. Gloria Swanson beat her to it – and after Jeanne’s death, Joan Crawford and Rita Hayworth would star in remakes of Rain. It remained a staple of American theatre for half a century, but it now seems rather dated. Every actress who took on the role of Sadie would be compared to Eagels, and was inevitably found wanting.
As with so many stars who die young, the fiercest debate about Jeanne is focused on the circumstances of her untimely death. She was first believed to have died of alcoholic psychosis, but unconfirmed reports suggested she was also using heroin. It was later revealed that she had been under the care of a controversial doctor for many years – in fact, she died in the waiting room of his exclusive Manhattan practice. It is with that doctor, we believe, the answer lies.
Our book also includes an index, and a full bibliography which details all references used. Eric also acquired over a hundred photographs, some not seen since first publication. Over the next six months, he would send me draft chapters, which I then polished and expanded – adding my own research and commentary. We then spent another six months revising the manuscript before submitting to the publisher. At every stage, it has been a partnership of equals.
As we worked with editors, new information came our way – firstly as the archives of the Kansas City Star, Jeanne’s hometown newspaper, were opened; and secondly, when Eric acquired an archive of around fifty original photographs at auction. Finally, fellow biographer Michelle Morgan – author of Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed – wrote a preface to our book.
Two years in the making, Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed was published in June 2015, on the eve of what would have been her 125th birthday. Unveiling the mysteries of Jeanne’s life (and dispelling the myths) has been a mammoth task, and we have hopefully served a measure of belated justice to a brilliant, complex woman.
Tara Hanks is the author of two novels: Wicked Baby (2004), based on the events of the Profumo Affair; and The Mmm Girl (2007), about the life of Marilyn Monroe, as she might have told it herself; and a biography, Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed (2015, with Eric M. Woodard.) Tara also writes about literature, art, music and film at For Books’ Sake, ES Updates, and Art Decades magazine. Find out more here.
To buy Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed please click HERE.
Thanks, Tara, and Good Luck with the book. Can’t wait to read my copy.