Recently, during one of the twice-a-day power cuts we’ve been experiencing in South Africa, I was reading a printout of the September 1919 inaugural issue of Shadowland,
the movie magazine I mentioned in my last post. There was an article about the “Fame and Fortune” contest that Motion Picture magazine, Shadowland’s sister publication, had been running to select a future movie star. Fifty thousand young women had sent in their photographs, and, after months of deliberation, the celebrity jury, which included Mary Pickford and Cecil de Mille, was about to make its decision. The Shadowland article profiled four of the finalists.
For lack of anything better to do in the absence of electricity, I started Googling the contestants on my phone. Three of them went on to, at best, brief, lackluster acting careers. The fourth, Helen Lee Worthing, joined the Ziegfeld Follies, went into the movies, married a black doctor…
So began a week of obsessive research about Worthing and her husband, Eugene Nelson. The story of the early success and subsequent decline of these two talented people is one of the most fascinating, and one of the saddest, that I have come across during this project.
Worthing was born in Massachusetts and grew up in Louisville, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. Her tombstone and Wikipedia profile list her birthdate as January 31, 1905. Since this would mean that she was fourteen at the time of the Shadowland profile, which describes her driving around Louisville doing “errands of mercy” for the Red Cross, she seems—like many actresses before and since—to have shaved a few years off of her age. If the age listed in her Los Angeles Times obituary is correct, she was actually born in 1898 or 1899.
The contest judges ended up picking four winners, but Worthing wasn’t one of them.* She soon became a popular member of the Ziegfeld Follies, though, and often appeared in newspapers doing things that were considered newsworthy when done by chorus girls, like having a pet pig
and working out on an exercise bicycle.
Worthing married a Wall Street businessman named Charles MacDonald in 1921. Or maybe they secretly married in 1917—like many aspects of Worthing’s life, details are blurry. They divorced in 1922. According to a syndicated article called “When a Husband is Jealous of His Wife’s Job” (or alternatively, “When a Wife is Jealous of Her Husband’s Job”), Worthing blamed the failure of her marriage on her career success.
“My business was my husband’s rival, all right,” she said, “for I made the mistake of earning more than he did. There were other things of course. Our working hours didn’t coincide for one thing and then neither of us was willing to give in to the other. But it all came back to my salary.”
I couldn’t help sympathizing with MacDonald about the working hours issue:
“I go to work at quarter of twelve midnight and am not done until after two. Mr. MacDonald usually goes to bed about the time I am going to work. And I come in all thrilled and ready to make an evening of it, at 3 A.M., when he is getting his beauty sleep.”
The article also contains a troubling remark:
“He did not mind if I went to dinner with some other man or if a thousand cavaliers sent me violets…If, just once, he had blackened my eye, because I thought of some other man, I could have forgiven him everything. If he had loved me enough to be jealous—all would have been well. But not he.”
That is, if Worthing actually said this. I always take quotes in newspapers from this period with a grain of salt. The cavaliers with violets and the “but not he” sound particularly bogus. In any case, Worthing was later quoted as accusing MacDonald of giving her a black eye with his “big Irish fist.”
It was a month later that Worthing’s self-destructive behavior first made headlines. On April 20, newspapers—including the New York Times, which wasn’t as fascinated by the personal lives of chorus girls as other papers—reported that she had poisoned herself with bichloride of mercury. She claimed that she had meant to take aspirin, but her “friends” said they believed she had tried to take her life.
A few weeks before, Worthing had had an altercation with fellow Follies chorus member Edna Wheaton, possibly about a boyfriend of Worthing’s named Jack. “They fought, kicking and scratching one another until separated,” a news report stated. “The fight cost her her position.” A Hearst newspaper ran a cartoon of the scuffle.
A young society man named Daniel Caswell, in a syndicated article he wrote following his own marriage to a chorus girl, expressed skepticism about Worthing’s suicide attempt:
Swallowing bichloride of mercury is considered the best [method of pretending to attempt suicide] by most of the chorus girls, for the reason that the poison can easily be pumped out of the stomach with little damage to their looks or their figures.
In 1925, Worthing’s appearance on Palm Beach with fellow showgirl Phoebe Lee caused a sensation. As a reporter recalled six years later, “When they came onto the beach the town gasped, telephone wires began buzzing, cameras started clicking, and the Misses Worthing and Lee walked into temporary fame.” What really got the crowds agitated, apparently, was the “weird contrast” between their attire—Worthing was wearing a “smart bathing suit of red silk” and Lee “a home-made bathing suit of calico somewhat resembling blue rompers.” Worthing and Lee had had to beg for a vacation, but, after this excellent publicity, managers started dispatching chorus girls to popular resorts to drum up business for their shows.
There was one undesired piece of publicity that year: Worthing testified in the extortion trial of Gregory Clow, editor of the scandal sheet Broadway Brevities, that she had paid him $150 to kill a story. Clow was found guilty on several counts and sentenced to prison. Worthing was back in court in 1926, suing a perfume company for using her photographs without her permission.
On the whole, though, things were going well. Worthing acted in a half-dozen movies between 1924 and 1926, including Don Juan, in which she appeared with John Barrymore (along with a number of other women, of course). The New York Times said of her performance in The Swan, released in 1925, “Miss Worthing is capital in this part, very pretty and carefully gowned.” The Washington Star called her “very fair to look upon” in the 1926 movie Watch Your Wife.
Then, in 1927, she married Dr. Eugene Nelson.
Nelson was born in South Carolina in 1888, attended college at Prairie View Normal and Industrial College near Houston, and graduated in 1911 from Meharry Medical School in Nashville, the first black medical school in the south. He moved to Los Angeles, which was considered one of the best places in the United States for African-Americans to live at the time (if only because their numbers were small and racism was primarily directed against Mexican-Americans), and opened a medical practice.
In October 1924, the leftist African-American magazine The Messenger ran a profile by its co-founder, Chandler Owen, titled “Dr. Eugene Curry Nelson: A Professional Business Man of a New Type Among Negroes.”
While he was on his way to Los Angeles, Owen wrote, fellow train passengers kept telling him to look up Dr. Nelson. When he arrived in L.A., his host took him to the Humming Bird, a nightclub that turned out to be owned by Nelson.
An excellent orchestra was producing the sort of subdued syncopated music that fills one with the very joy of living. Chicago, New York and many other cities have beautiful places of amusement similar to the Humming Bird, but none better…It is the Fountain of Youth for the tired and jaded, the bored and melancholy.
A 1924 Los Angeles Record article on a raid on the Humming Bird, written by 16-year-old reporter George Hodel, describes the club differently: “The atmosphere is saturated by the odor of intoxicants. The spirit of the men and women inside is changing from tipsy fun to licentious debauchery.” The police swept in “while white women careened drunkenly in the Arms of Negro escorts.” The Humming Bird, officers tell Hodel, “has been a nightlife rendezvous, where whites dine, dance and drink with members of the city’s Negro colony.” It’s a place, Hodel reports, where “the wildest sorts of orgies are carried on nightly.”
Hodel mentions in passing that this was the third raid on the Humming Bird in three nights, so it struck me that the attempts by the police to shut it down may have been less than sincere. I assume that after the broken bottles and the screaming there was a payoff in a back room before the festivities resumed. (Hodel, by the way, went on to be the chief suspect in the notorious 1947 “Black Dahlia” killing. His story about the raid appears in a book by his son, retired LAPD detective Steve Hodel, who believes he was guilty.)
Owen gave a speech, which Nelson attended. A few days later, he joined Nelson and his wife, mother-in-law, and two daughters at their home.**
We soon found ourselves seated at the table, which was artistically decorated for the evening repast. As we chatted I learned of his interest in literature, art, and science. He has a bent for poetry and fiction.
Nelson’s business interests weren’t confined to the Humming Bird. Among his other enterprises, he was the driving force behind a bank that financed black businesses and owned a share in an oil well. Owen—seeming to forget momentarily that he’s a socialist—waxes lyrical about the white American business giants whom Nelson, in his eyes, resembles.
Nelson is, Owen concludes,
a man of high character and intelligence—a great asset to any community. Some day when you go to Los Angeles, you will very likely hear the same complimentary remarks about the good doctor that it was my pleasure to hear. And, what is far more important, you will find them to be true!
Most accounts of Nelson and Worthing’s relationship say that they met in April 1927, when he was called to treat her after she was assaulted by a stranger in her home. The Los Angeles Times said in its report on the incident, however, that Worthing had been “confined to her bed due to a nervous breakdown and was under the care of Dr. Eugene Nelson.” In a reminiscence that was published in Ebony magazine in 1952, after her death, Worthing wrote that they met when her maid called him after she fell ill following a party during the filming of The Swan, which was released in February 1925.*** Given that this was just a few months after the account in the Messenger of Nelson’s apparently happy domestic life, it may have suited Nelson and Worthing to give the impression that they met later.
Newspapers all over the country ran stories about the attack. Worthing said she had been awakened in her bedroom at 10:30 p.m. and gotten up to turn the light. She didn’t remember anything after that until her maid, May Roziner, found her unconscious, lying in a pool of blood with her nose broken and a tooth knocked out. Nothing was stolen. “Owing to its unusual character, [the incident] was not reported to the police,” the Los Angeles Times said. Roziner later claimed that she had seen a strange man lurking about the Worthing bungalow, which, the papers reported (helpfully to future intruders), was located at 6823 Iris Circle, Hollywood. There was a skeptical tone to some of the newspaper accounts, but no one pointed out that this was exactly the type of situation in which you would call the police or otherwise called Worthing’s bluff on this bogus-sounding story.
So what did happen? One possibility is that Worthing fell while intoxicated. The Los Angeles Times reported that “at a consultation of Dr. Nelson with other physicians…it was decided that her injuries could not have been due to a fall caused by a sudden lapse of consciousness, and that she must have been attacked,” suggesting that Nelson was trying to forestall rumors of a drunken fall.
There are holes in Worthing’s account of her first meeting with Nelson as well. There must have been dozens of doctors on call to treat ailing Hollywood residents. Calling a black doctor wasn’t something that was generally done—“it caused some comment that she should call a Negro physician,” an African-American news service later reported. So there had to be a particular reason why he was called. Like, for example, an unwanted pregnancy. This possibility makes sense given details of Nelson’s practice that later came to light.
However they met, they fell in love. This is one part of the story about which there seems to be no doubt.
Interracial marriage had been illegal in California since 1850 (and would remain so until 1948), so Nelson and Worthing were married in a civil ceremony in Tijuana on June 28, 1927, two months after the purported attack. The story was featured prominently in the African-American press.
“East is East and West is West and Never the Twain shall meet” may be true and good in everything but love and war,
the report in the July 30 issue of the Indianapolis Recorder began.
At least that is the opinion of Helen Lee Worthing, beautiful Hollywood film actress and former Follies girl, as she planned to cinch her recent civil marriage at Tia Juana, Mexico, June 28, to Dr. Eugene Nelson, prominent and wealthy colored physician, by repeating the marriage troth with a marriage ceremony to be performed this week at Mexico City, D.F.
Dr. Nelson, Beau Brummel of the local profession, financial backer of Culver City “black and tan” resorts and whose professional clients include a mixture of all nationalities and races with the Negro in the minority, seems not at all disturbed at the premature release in a Los Angeles daily, of the secret marriage and in a personal interview with a representative of the P.C.N.B. [an African-American wire service] as to the correctness of the report merely shrugged and replied: “Well they say I have done it. However the announcement came prematurely. We didn’t intend for the story to get out but I think a girl friend of her’s told it in New York and the story got out that way.”
The couple honeymooned blissfully in La Jolla. This carefree time didn’t last for long, though. When they returned home, Worthing wrote in the Ebony article, she saw an article headlined “Film Colony Shocked as Helen Lee Worthing Marries Colored Physician.”
One night, after Worthing and Nelson had moved into a luxurious home on Wilshire Boulevard, they attended a theater opening. They arrived in a limousine, she in a mink and he in a tuxedo. There were some comments about how lovely she looked, then jeers and derisive laughter as people noticed Nelson. During the intermission, Worthing saw a friend from the Follies, but “there was no recognition or friendliness in her eyes. I might have been a stranger to her.”
Worthing’s screen career ended and she disappeared from the papers until December 1929, when news of her separation from Nelson caused a sensation.
As reported in the Los Angeles Examiner, via a December 19 article in the Bismarck Tribune,****
the mysterious disappearance two years ago of Helen Lee Worthing, former New York stage beauty, apparently has been solved with the revelation that she has separated from her husband, Dr. Eugene C. Nelson, a negro physician of Los Angeles who admitted that he was a ‘colored’ man but denied that he was an ‘African.’
Accused of dodging the questions of his race, Nelson said he did it to protect his wife.***** “I am what I am. It can’t hurt me much.” Race had nothing to do with the separation, he said. “It was simply that she was jealous. I believe she would like a reconciliation.”
An AP story said that Nelson and Worthing
lived for some time in Hollywood and later moved to the section in Los Angeles where persons of the colored race predominate. Miss Worthing gradually dropped all of her screen colony friends although, it was said, they had no idea that her husband was not a caucasian.******
So what was he, exactly? Inquiring minds wanted to know. The United Press reported that
asked if he was a negro, he said: “What is a negro? As I understand it a negro is African. I am not an African, I am an American. You might say I’m ‘colored.’”
This nuanced explication of racial terminology is, apparently, what the press meant when they kept saying that Nelson had “denied he was a Negro.”
Just a day later, the papers reported that Nelson and Worthing had reconciled. “I hope no one feels badly about it,” Worthing was quoted as saying in a United Press report. “I love him too much to leave him. I know he has Negro blood, but he’s all the world to me.” The AP quoted her as saying, “To me he is not what the world would call a negro. He is not black in skin or black in heart. I believe he loves me better than anything in the world, and I know that I do him. No social barrier in the world can separate us.” Nelson was quoted in the UP story as saying, “We belong to different races, but we both are intelligent and our love surmounts any racial barriers.”
On December 21, the AP reported that Worthing and Nelson were planning a second honeymoon in Palm Springs.
“Our troubles now are happily over,” Mrs. Nelson said as she rested in the “garden of love” of her home today. Dr. Nelson, debonair mustached professional man, whose skin is little darker than the olive complexion of a Spaniard, nodded agreement with his white wife’s words.
This happy time didn’t last long. Over the next few years there were reports of separations, reconciliations, alimony disputes, and medical treatment for Worthing for fake-sounding conditions like “persistent insomnia.” Worthing filed, and dropped, several suits for divorce. She accused Nelson of “physical pain and unspeakable humiliation,” including locking her out of their house while she was dressed in a negligee and giving her drugs to make her crazy. He accused her of infidelity, including with a 16-year-old boy, and of using her alimony payments to buy narcotics. A neighbor in the Glendale apartment house where Worthing was living said that she was suffering from hallucinations and had attempted suicide. A judge ruled that she was mentally ill and paroled her to Nelson’s care.
During what turned out to be their final divorce proceeding, Nelson counter-filed for an annulment on the grounds that they had not met Mexican residency requirements when they married in Tijuana. Worthing fought back for a while and then, during a February 1933 hearing, burst out, “Let him have the annulment.” When her attorney tried to stop her, concerned about her alimony, she said, “I have confidence in the doctor.”
In June 1933, Worthing disappeared from a New York-bound train in Pasadena. Police, suspecting that she had jumped, searched the area around the tracks. She was found shortly afterwards in a Los Angeles hotel. She and Nelson had been discussing a reconciliation, she said, but he had changed his mind and put her on the train.
The rumored reason for Nelson’s change of heart: a romance with a white woman named Margaret Fay Desmond, whose husband was suing him for $100,000 for alienation of affections.******* The United Press reported that Nelson had used terms like “Dear heart,” “Fay, my love,” and “Honey love” in letters to Desmond, who was working as a stenographer in his office. (Desmond’s husband lost the suit.)
In April 1935, Worthing was arrested for public intoxication when police found her sitting on a curbstone, singing to herself. “Helen Worthing…singer now,” the Indianapolis Times said, meanly, in a caption under a picture of Worthing in her chorus girl days.
In September of that year, while living in a charity home, Worthing tried to commit suicide because, she said, the man she loved was marrying someone else. “With all my other troubles, this was more than I could stand,” she was quoted as saying. “But I don’t want any sympathy. I should have been stronger.”
In 1939, Worthing pleaded guilty to forging a narcotics prescription. During her probation hearing, the AP reported, four of her former “negro servants”—two maids, a cook, and a chauffeur—promised to contribute $15 a week to pay for her training as a “beauty culture instructor.”
In August 1948, after many attempts to end her life, Worthing died of an overdose of sleeping pills. She had been living in the three-room Hollywood home of Jerry Oro, a 39-year-old man from the Philippines, who said that he had been her friend for ten years. Her tiny room, the AP reported, was full of “yellowed clippings depicting the rise, and quick fall, of the dancer.”
Scrawled on the leaf of a book found next to her bed, the Los Angeles Times reported, was a note saying, “I can’t stand another straw—it would be too much.”
Nelson also met a sad end. In 1940, his medical license was revoked for the performance of an illegal operation, i.e. an abortion. He continued practicing, however, and the next year he was arrested for performing an abortion on a 25-year-old woman named Otilia (Tillie) Durazzo, who died after the procedure. Nelson was killed in a head-on collision in 1962, at the age of 74, while driving on a coastal highway north of San Diego. His tombstone says “husband,” so he was married at the time—to whom, I’m not sure.
What struck me most about Nelson was the aplomb he demonstrated through all this. After he married Worthing, journalists never asked about his professional accomplishments, or whether he and his wife had encountered racism. All they cared about was whether he was a “Negro” and whether he had lied about it. He fielded one ridiculous question after another with laconic good nature. “I am what I am. It can’t hurt me much,” he said.
Except, of course, it did.
I had mixed feelings about posting this sordid and depressing story during Black History Month, and on Valentine’s Day. But history isn’t just a parade of heroes. It’s also the story of flawed people and the social forces that acted on them. Worthing and Nelson committed an exceptional act of courage in marrying, and they paid a high price.
And love is still love even if it’s not destined to stand the test of time. Let’s leave Worthing and Nelson on their honeymoon in La Jolla, where, Worthing wrote in the Ebony article,
our luxurious hotel suite looked out over the ocean and during the night I could hear the surf breaking on the rocks below. Once I remember thinking, dreamily—the restless waves are like my soul—yearning and seeking for peace. And now at last I have found it.
*None of the four finalists went on to stardom, either, but the contest became an annual feature and the winner in 1922 was 16-year-old Clara Bow.
**Owen says that the Nelson family lived at 108 South Oxford Street. There doesn’t appear to be such an address in Los Angeles today. There’s a 108 South Oxford Avenue in the Wilshire Central neighborhood, but, as far as I can tell from my very limited knowledge of L.A. geography, it seems to be an unlikely residence for Nelson. Most African-Americans lived in the neighborhood now known as South Central, then referred to as the “Black Belt.” (My efforts to parse Los Angeles geography were greatly assisted by this amazing map.) (UPDATE 1/15/10: According to this dissertation by Alison Rose Jefferson, which became the book Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era, Nelson’s residence was in fact at 108 South Oxford Avenue and his medical practice was at one point in the West Adams district, not far from there.)
***I wasn’t able to access the Ebony article, so I’m relying on a description of Worthing’s account in the book Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood.
****For this post, I’ve made extensive use for the first time of the newspaper archive on the Library of Congress website. It doesn’t have most major newspapers (which tend to be hidden behind infuriating paywalls), but the newspapers in the collection relied extensively on wire service reports and articles from larger papers.
*****It’s not clear what “it” was. Given that Nelson was a leader in the black community and lived there for most of his life, the charge of “passing” seems ridiculous, even if you accept the flawed premise that his ethnic background was anyone’s business. My theory is that, during the short time he and Worthing lived in a white area, he didn’t go out of his way to tell everyone he met that he was African-American, and this was regarded as deceptive.
******These “friends” appear in news stories over and over, claiming that they had no idea that Worthing’s husband had “Negro blood” and expressing bewilderment about why she had “withdrawn” and moved to a black neighborhood. No journalist ever raised the possibility that her friends had withdrawn from her rather than vice versa.
*******Alienation of affections laws have since been repealed in California and most of the rest of the United States. However, I was surprised to learn that they remain in effect in six states. The Supreme Court has refused requests to review their constitutionality.