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A Hooch 'n Hellraisers blog post: Entrepreneurial women thriving in Prohibition America

Helen Morgan: Torch singer

Helen Morgan was born in Canada in 1900. After her family moved to Illinois, she started her singing career at age 12. She was so small that she had to sit on a piano to be seen by the audience. At 18, she was crowned Miss Illinois, won $1,500 in a second beauty contest in Canada and moved to New York to study opera.

Working as a singer in speakeasies during Prohibition, first in Chicago, Morgan made her breakthrough in 1924 in New York when show producer Billy Rose (associated with mobster Arnold Rothstein) had her headline in his classy speakeasy, the Backstage Club.

She soon became famous for sitting atop a piano while singing “torch songs” about sad romances with men. She was cast in revues on Broadway, and in one, Americana, from 1926 to 1927, she sang the torchy “Nobody Wants Me” perched on a piano in the orchestra pit. Another huge break followed when she won the part of Julie in the debut on Broadway of the Florenz Ziegfeld-produced musical Show Boat in 1927.

Billy Rose’s Backstage Club, a tiny, charmless nightery over a garage on West 56th Street in New York. With Prohibition now in full force, the club was often raided by the minions of New York’s administrator for Prohibition, Maurice Campbell, until Rose accepted an offer from two mobsters to take them on as partners, thus assuring that the right palms were greased and the club was left alone.

Rose closed the club after six months, but during Morgan’s time there, she came under the protective eye of the mob and forged the links with New York’s raucous night life that would connect her with three of the city’s most popular clubs—Helen Morgan’s 54th Street Club, Chez Morgan, and Helen Morgan’s Summer Home.


She opened her own speakeasy that year, the Fifty-Fourth Street Club, at 231 West 54th Street, but the feds padlocked and closed it. In 1928, while at a new club, Helen Morgan’s Summer House, another arrest led to a trial but the jury acquitted her. More professional success followed. In 1929, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II (writers of Show Boat) wrote a Broadway show for her to star in, Sweet Adeline. She starred in the movie Applause that year and in Roadhouse Nights in 1930. Several records she recorded were national hits, such as “Why Was I Born?” and “Body and Soul.”

After Prohibition ended in 1933, Morgan’s career endured with performances on national network radio shows, starring roles in the movies Sweet Music in 1935 and Frankie and Johnnie in 1935 and a full sound movie version of Show Boat in 1936. But behind the scenes, she battled alcoholism.

In 1941, while on stage in Chicago, performing in Scandals of 1942 (a version of which she played on Broadway in the 1920s), she collapsed and later died of liver and kidney aliments. She was 41.

In later years, when asked what had made her so successful, Morgan would reply simply, “Hunger.”

Other blog posts in the Hooch ‘n Hellraisers series:

Coming soon….

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