Eugenia or Amelia Eagles (later Jeanne Eagels) was born between 1888 and 1894 (depending who you ask). She was one of six children born to a poor carpenter in Kansas City, MI. She began acting at seven in local theater productions of Shakespeare. By the time she was eleven she had dropped out of school to work at a department store.
Between twelve and fifteen she joined the Dubinsky Brothers’ Travelling Theater Show and began touring the midwest. She started first as a dancer and later as a leading lady. At some point she married one of the Dubinsky Brothers, Morris, and the two had a child. We do not know what later happened to that child. On theory is that the child died, causing Jeanne to have a nervous breakdown. Another is that she gave the child up for adoption when she and Morris divorced due to his infidelity.
Show Biz, Baby
In 1911 she left for a new travelling show and ended up in New York City. Determined to make a name for herself she changed her name to Jeanne Eagels and bleached her brown hair blonde. She worked her way up from chorus lines, working for a short time as a Zeigfeld Girl, to Broadway. She went to Paris and studied acting under Beverly Sitgreaves, a colleague of the great Sarah Bernhardt. When she returned to NYC she continued working in theater.
In 1913 she had her first film roles in “Ace of Hearts” and “The Bride of the Sea” with the Ryno Film Company. Remaining in theater, she performed in the successful play “Outcast”. In 1916 Jeanne made the film version “The World and the Woman ” with the Thanhauser Film Corporation. She made a total of three films with the studio while simultaneously performing in theater at night. To battle her fatigue and insomnia she began self-medicating with drugs (including cocaine and heroin) and alcohol. In 1918 she was working on the film “Daddies” with David Belasco until she suddenly quit. This was apparently due to him constantly sexually harassing her.
In 1919 she returned to Broadway and had great success in plays like “A Young Man’s Fancy” and “The Wonderful Thing”. By now she was a major Broadway star. With that fame brought a change of character and she started to become a diva. At this time she was known for being temperamental and a big drinker. In 1922 she starred as Sadie Thompson in “Rain” and she toured with the play for four years. During this time, in 1925, she married her second husband, a former football star for Yale and stockbroker “Ted” Coy.
In 1926 Jeanne Eagels began rehearsing for a role as Roxie Hart in “Chicago ” when she suddenly walked out and left the play. Her behavior was becoming a problem. In 1927 she worked with Leslie Howard in “Her Cardboard Lover” , Even though it was getting decent reviews, Jeanne was becoming increasingly more difficult to work with. By now she was addicted to heroin and although she went to multiple sanitariums she remained addicted. It began to seriously affect her health.
During this time she made the film “Man, Woman and Sin” with John Gilbert. It was rumored they had an affair, although he said she was the most difficult actress he had ever worked with.
She would disappear for days during filming until the director grew frustrated and had her contract terminated. Jeanne returned to performing “Her Cardboard Lover” on Broadway. But, after not showing up for a performance due to alcohol binges, she was barred by the Actors Equity from performing in theater for 18 months. This same year she divorced her husband saying he threatened physical abuse.
Jeanne returned to film and signed a three picture contract. Her first film “The Letter” was very successful and her acting was praised. Her next film “Jealousy” did not do as well and Jeanne asked to be let out of her contract. All parties agreed.
It All Comes Crashing Down
In 1929 Jeanne was ready to return to theater. Before doing so she had eye surgery due to her recurring sinusitis and breathing problems. An unfortunate symptom brought on by her drug use. After recovering in the hospital for ten days she returned home. When she went back to the hospital for a follow up visit she began convulsing in the doctor’s office and died. She was only 39 years old.
Three different autopsies were done. One attributed her death to “alcoholic psychosis” from the alcohol in her system. One blamed the heroin in her system. One blamed the sedatives in her system. Perhaps the mixture of the three was the ultimate culprit.
After her death she was posthumously nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress at the 2nd Academy Awards for “The Letter”. She lost to “America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford in “Coquette”. In 1957 Kim Novak starred as a fictionalized version of Jeanne in Columbia Pictures’ “Jeanne Eagels”. Columbia was later sued by Jeanne’s family for the way they portrayed her.
In all, Jeanne Eagels made twelve silent films and may have gone on to have had a long career. Her erratic behavior onset and her crippling drug abuse took her away before we could find out.