Jeanne Eagles tryst with acting began early. She first stepped on the stage at the age of seven. To Eagles, the stage seemed to be a place of solace. When girls of her age hardly pronounced English perfectly, Eagles was performing on Shakespearean play with élan.
She backed her school performance by playing bits and parts in local theatre productions in Kansas City. She appeared in a variety of small roles, polishing her skills and making herself ready for the professional world.
At the age of 15, she became a part of the Dubinsky Brothers’ traveling theatre company. She left Kansas City and toured with them to the Midwest. Originally a dancer, she worked her way up the ladder to take up acting roles and eventually lead roles in several comedies and dramas including, ‘Camille’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and so on.
Around 1911, Eagles left Dubinsky troop to make her own career. She moved to New York City where she first took to working in chorus lines. She eventually rose her way to become a Ziegfeld Girl.
While in New York, she got a makeover done. She dyed her hair blonde from brunette and claimed to have Spanish and Irish lineage. She also changed her surname from Eagles to Eagels, asserting that the latter looked better on a marquee. She impersonated in an English accent and presented herself to public as an ingénue.
From a Ziegfeld Girl, she managed to win for herself supporting roles in several plays including ‘Jumping Jupiter’ and ‘Mind the Paint Girl’. From 1916 to 1917, Eagels played opposite George Arliss in three successive plays.
She journeyed to Paris, where she studied acting with Beverly Sitgreaves, an expatriate American actress. She also received training by other acting coaches.
While in Paris, she attracted the attention of Julian Eltinge, the famous Broadway female impersonator. Though the two never met in Paris, upon returning to New York, they found themselves paired opposite each other for the play ‘The Crinoline Girl’.
She next found herself the role of a prostitute who becomes a faith healer for the play, ‘Outcast’. Her role play of a prostitute earned she lot of accolades as an actor. Her brilliance on stage was critically acclaimed in New York when the touring company returned after their successful stint in South.
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Following her super impressive line-up of works, she gained herself a film contract by the Thanhouser Film Company to star in the film version of ‘Outcast’ which was slated for a 1916 release. The film was renamed ‘The World and the Woman’.
In 1917, she starred alongside George Arliss in the Broadway hit ‘The Professor's Love Story’. She followed up the hit with two more plays, ‘Disraeli’ and ‘Hamilton’ both of which became huge hits.
In 1918, she appeared in David Belasco's production ‘Daddies’, an original play about the plight of war orphans. Despite being a major hit, Eagels quit the show. Though the exact reason for her abandonment is not known, some claim it was due to exhaustion while some say she was sexually harassed by Belasco.
Eagels took a step further in terms of popularity with her next show, a comedy titled ‘A Young Man’s Fancy’, in 1919. The show was a major hit and firmly seeded the already celebrated star status that Eagels enjoyed.
She followed up the success of ‘A Young Man’s Fancy’ with the play ‘The Wonderful Thing’ in 1920. By then, Eagels had become a true Broadway diva. Her simple entry on stage was marked by thunderous applause that ceased to stop. She had to literally wait for the applause to end to deliver her lines. Eagels gained a reputation for her distinctive style and excellent approach to characters.
She juggled her career frantically following her film break in 1916, shooting for movies in daytime and performing for stage at night. The hectic schedule took a toll on her health as she suffered from fatigue and insomnia. It was during this period that Eagels hooked on to drugs. The frantic situation continued until 1920 when she suffered from chronic sinusitis and other maladies. Her fancy for drinks and self-medicating her ills largely hampered her later career.
In 1921, she appeared for the modestly successful Broadway play, ‘In the Night Watch’. While she was performing for the play, Eagels received an opportunity to essay the role of the prostitute Sadie Thompson in the theatrical adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's short story ‘Rain’. She clenched on it almost immediately.
Interestingly, when ‘Rain’ was showcased on road in Philadelphia, it was greatly panned by the public. After some alteration in writing, it made its Broadway debut on November 7, 1922 at the Maxine Elliott’s theatre. Surprisingly, for a play which was so severely slammed, ‘Rain’ became a huge hit, running for 256 performances.
After its huge appreciation on the road show, when ‘Rain’ returned to Broadway to re-open at the Gaiety Theatre, it created history by running for another 648 performances. The show was the magnum opus of Eagel’s career and elevated her stardom to new heights. She was counted amongst the pantheon of American theatre greats.
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Following the unmatched success of ‘Rain’, Eagel’s career graph reclined as she either turned down offers or quit plays after signing up. Year 1926 marked her return to Broadway with the light hearted comedy ‘Her Cardboard Lover’ opposite Leslie Howard. Though the play did moderately well, it was Howard rather than Eagels who was better praised.
She went on tour with ‘Her Cardboard Lover’ for several months. After missing some performances due to ptomaine poisoning, Eagles returned to the cast in July 1927 for an Empire Theatre show. Her fondness for drinks and self-medication caused problems during the runtime of the show as she often displayed erratic behaviour on stage.
Following ‘Her Cardboard Lover’ success, she starred opposite John Gilbert in the MGM film ‘Man, Woman and Sin’, which released in 1927. It was a Monta Bell directorial.
In 1928, she failed to appear for a performance in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Due to the same, she was banned from appearing on stage by Actors Equity for 18 months. During this time, Eagels concentrated on her film career, making two movies with Paramount Pictures ‘The Letter’ and ‘Jealousy’, both of which released in 1929. ‘The Letter’ was a massive hit and Eagels was appreciated for her electrifying performance in the film.
With the Actor’s Equity ban about to expire in the fall of 1929, Eagels prepared to return to Broadway. However, due to her health complications, she never made it to stage again.
Personal Life & Legacy
Jeanne Eagles was twice married in her lifetime. The first was to actor, Morris Dubinsky, whom she married when she was a teenager. The couple had a son, who either died in infancy or was given for adoption after the duo separated.
In August 1925, Eagels married Edward Harris ‘Ted’ Coy. He was a former Yale University football star turned stockbroker. The couple had no children. This marriage too ended in divorce in July 1928.
It was during the peak of her career that she became a victim of drug abuse. She also developed alcohol addiction. Though she tried to get rid of her dependency, it was without vain. By mid-1920, she had begun using heroin. This led to her suffering from bouts of ill health that were further augmented by her excessive use of drugs and alcohol.
In September 1929, she underwent a surgery to treat ulcers in the eye at St Luke’s Hospital in New York City. During that time, she also suffered from breathing problems and neuritis.
Following her return to her apartment on Park Avenue, she suffered from ill health. She visited the hospital wherein she began having convulsions and died on October 3, 1929. An autopsy afterwards concluded that she died of ‘alcoholic psychosis’. Her death was attributed to an overdose of the chloral hydrate.
Posthumously, Eagels was nominated for the second annual Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in ‘The Letter’. However, she lost the same to Mary Pickford for ‘Coquette’.
In 1957, Columbia Pictures released a fictionalized film biography, titled ‘Jeanne Eagels’, starring Kim Novak in the titular role.