Famous in her time as the most popular of all torch singers, Helen Morgan had a style—drinking a little too much, perching atop a piano, and singing sad songs of unrequited love—that became the model for all the others. Morgan’s repertoire included many songs that have become closely associated with the performance style she perfected, songs like “Why Was I Born,” “More than You Know,” “Body and Soul,” and “Don’t Ever Leave Me.”
As a young woman in Chicago, Helen Morgan worked as a manicurist to earn enough money to pay for singing lessons. She began her career singing in Chicago speakeasies before making her New York debut in a Ziegfeld production called Sally. She performed in clubs in both cites for several years—some of which were so small, she performed sitting on the piano because there was no room for her to stand on the stage. During this time, she developed her signature voice and performance style, which would be endlessly copied by other torch singers. In spite of her increasing popularity and financial success, Morgan drank heavily and spent money carelessly. Though on stage her boozy, grief-stricken persona was compelling to her audience, it was difficult to manage these traits in real life.
Today, Morgan is perhaps best remembered in the role of Julie in Showboat, a part she played on Broadway and in the 1936 film. It was in this role, after an evening performance, that Morgan became one of Carl Van Vechten’s first photographic subjects. Already a little drunk when she arrived, Morgan asked her chauffeur to bring a bottle of brandy from her car after Van Vechten had taken only a few pictures. They drank and talked and Van Vechten photographed Morgan well into the night; “Helen did not depart until four-thirty in the morning,” Van Vechten’s friend, Donald Angus, remembered, “but during the interim Carl had captured both the bitterness and the ebullience of the story of her wretched life, which she told at length as the time passed and the brandy dwindled.”1