But now Jessie was completely alone, abandoned by her former agents and publicists, ignored by the playboys who once jockeyed to be by her side. The only friends she had left were her fellow showgirls, aging members of the Ziegfeld Club, who sent flowers, letters and donated money for her care. She’d been in the hospital a few weeks before and had recovered enough after numerous blood transfusions to go back to her cheap hotel room. But this time Jessie didn’t have any pluck left. She died on September 18, 1940, age 43. Her only relative was a 26-year-old daughter in San Antonio whom she had not seen in decades.
|All dolled-up for the Shuberts, 1918|
I first heard of Jessie Reed while sifting through my mother’s papers after her death. It turned out my mother’s father, Leonard Minor Reno, was Jessie’s last husband. In fact, Jessie had been married to him for nearly six years, longer than any of her previous spouses. This fact had never been mentioned in my family. Both Jessie and my grandfather had died before I was born. And my mother, who was Leonard’s only child, had never met Jessie Reed. At the time my grandfather was considered a catch. He’d been a pilot in the Lafayette Flying Corps during the First World War, and was the son of a Chicago publisher. He was often referred to as “son of a millionaire,” but his father, Harry Otho Reno, founder of Furniture Age, had spent his fortune raising racehorses and probably owed more millions than he owned.
“I had nerve to burn and was willing to work,” Jessie later recalled in an article she wrote about her early days. And work she did, landing a spot that summer in The Passing Show of 1917, a Shubert spectacle at the Winter Garden. Jessie didn’t have much to do, except slide elegantly across the stage, dressed in one outlandish costume after another. Her flaming Titian-hued tresses created a sensation, as did her sultry good looks. Standing about five feet four, Jessie was not an imposing figure, although photos suggest callipygian curves and a buxom bust. But she exuded an animal magnetism and joie de vivre that leapt across the stage. “With her love of life and alluring and spectacular beauty, she had an irresistible appeal to men,” summed up Adela Rogers St. John.
|Baring what the public will bear. Cine-Mundial|
What Jessie had that struck a nerve was raw, unaffected sex appeal. Burns Mantle, describing her in Theatre magazine, likened Jessie to “a jungle cat.” She was the “It Girl” before the term had been popularized. She epitomized a new look that cast aside the constraints and propriety of the past. She oozed sensuality. One admirer summed up her attributes with poetic precision: “Miss Reed is all in warm colors; her hair is old bronze, saturated with tropical sunlight; her teeth are rice-grains; her eyes are big and glowing, with ruby glints in their pupils; her ears are tiny and buttoned close in; her nose is all that a nose should be; and her lips are piquantly persuasive.”
Artist Harrison Fisher, who glorified the American Girl in his widely published illustrations, (above) was drawn to Jessie’s luscious auburn hair and perfect complexion. He hired her to model for him, and she became one of his favorite muses. Not long after, another Fisher took a shine to her: Bud Fisher, creator of Mutt & Jeff. A rich playboy, with a taste for showgirls, Bud wined and dined Jessie, squiring her from one fashionable soiree and nightclub to the next. Gossip columns were atwitter about their affair. Jessie announced they were engaged.
|"Jungle Cat," as captured by C. Smith Gardner|
Knowing they were onto a good thing, the Shubert brothers featured Jessie in their sumptuous new Sigmund Romberg musical at the Winter Garden, Sinbad, starring Al Jolson. Some critics crowed that the show was de trop, with over-the-top Arabian Nights sets and costumes, but it ran for over a year. Jessie, in particular, was singled out for her charm and beauty.
|Broadway Cameo, 1918. Photo by Count Jean de Strelecki|
The Shuberts next showcased Jessie in the Passing Show of 1918, which featured a reenactment of the bombing of London, complete with a dogfight between planes, and starred dancing sensations, Fred and Adele Astaire. Rumors spread that Fred fell head over heels in love with Jessie. He would wait backstage, hoping to catch a moment with her between numbers, but too shy and polite to ask her out. Jessie's costumes and those of the other fashion plates, were even more spectacular than before, setting a new threshold of theatrical opulence.
|All decked out: Jessie, top right, The Passing Show of 1918, White Studio|
|Edwardian Voguing; Jessie at left, The Passing Show of 1918, White Studio|
Flo also made room for her in his latest, most extravagant edition of the Follies, that opened in the summer of 1919. In an “episode” designed by Ben Ali Haggin dubbed “Hail to the Thirteenth Folly,” Jessie debuted as “The New Folly,” surrounded by her “Twelve Sisters.” In one number she appeared as the incarnation of the Salvation Army. She also appeared in a skit with the great black comic Bert Williams and floated across stage dressed as an effervescent bottle of Sarsaparilla while Marilyn Miller sang “A Syncopated Cocktail.”
|Jessie as the Salvation Army, center, as "arranged" by Ben Ali Haggin|
But it was in the grandest number of the second act that Jessie made her biggest splash. Ziegfeld commissioned Lady Duff Gordon to design a set of magnificent costumes for his top five showgirls to wear. Jessie appeared as “Barcarolle” in “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” written for the show by Irving Berlin and sung by tenor John Steel. The tune, which had debuted as a last minute addition in June in Atlantic City, became the signature hit of the show. It would later be immortalized as the elaborate Busby Berkeley staircase sequence in the Oscar winning film The Great Ziegfeld (1936). Berlin’s lyric “A pretty girl is like a melody that haunts you night and day” summed up the effect Jessie and the other showgirls had on male audience members even if there was a price to pay for such pulchritude. Lou Valentine in his bio of Lana Turner suggests that the troubled character Sheila Regan, played so memorably by Turner in Ziegfeld Girl (1941), was based in part on Jessie Reed.
|Ziegfeld Girl, by Edward Thayer Monroe|
Jessie was paid $100 salary each week, the most any showgirl had ever been offered. Ziegfeld’s well-oiled publicity machine toiled overtime to promote her. She was sent to sit for Flo’s favorite photographers, Alfred Cheney Johnston and Edward Thayer Monroe. Jessie was touted as the Texan Cinderella, a beauty contest winner who just a year previous had been selling silk stockings at Levy’s Dry Goods store in Houston and was now the toast of the town. Doris Eaton, one of the last surviving Ziegfeld Club members (who died at 106 in 2010) recalled Jessie fondly. “I was still in the chorus then, so we had different dressing rooms," she told me, "but I do remember Jessie. She was one of the most liked of the show girls. You had to be extraordinarily beautiful to be chosen by Ziegfeld.”
|Young Man on the Move: Florenz Ziegfeld, Chicago.|
As the 1919 show played to record audiences, talk up and down Broadway was that Ziegfeld was having an affair with Jessie Reed. His wife Billie Burke (now better remembered as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz) kept an anxious eye on both. Ziegfeld stars Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers were both fans, as was “Funny Girl” Fanny Brice who teased Jessie about her “fake English accent.” Jessie took it all in stride. She adored the attention but she was no fool. She’d been well-trained as a salesgirl in Houston, she told reporters, skilled at fending off unwanted advances. She joked that “For every heart on Broadway, there are two heels.”
|Feather in her cap. Jessie at the height of her fame|
As her popularity grew, Jessie asked and got a pay raise from her boss to $200 a week. She spent it all on clothes, the finer things in life, a fashionable apartment in Manhattan that she shared with some of her showgirl friends, and endless nights out on the town. New York was in the clutches of Prohibition but Jessie had a maid named Belinda who rumor had it doubled as a bootlegger so the well never ran dry. Jessie joked that as a child growing up by the bayou, all she had known was water, but once she had tasted Champagne, she had no use for water. She had many stage door johnnies to choose from, including, she boasted, an English earl and a handful of titled Europeans. But she preferred American boys because they usually played straight. Continental men, she argued, talked a great deal but rarely lived up to their promises.
|Jessie's stormy past was a well-guarded secret|
The problem was that Jessie hadn’t told Dan that she was a divorcee and had a nearly seven year old daughter back in Texas. She fibbed to the court clerk, saying it was her first marriage. She also fudged her birth year, perhaps because she didn’t want Dan to know she was older than he was. She also had neglected to mention that she was a key figure in a murder case back in Texas just a few years before. Jessie’s ex-husband, the blackface comedian Ollie Debrow, had shot and killed a man who had threatened to run off with her.
Her ex-husband Oliver Debrow (born Durborrow) was equally notorious. He had a rap sheet as long as a player piano roll, having been arrested regularly for drunkenness, vagrancy and burglary. In 1908 he’d been caught breaking into Alkemeyer’s Dry Goods store. Ollie finally cleaned up his act when he teamed with his older brother William in vaudeville, touring in “tab shows,” a ragbag circuit of burlesque houses throughout the Deep South. Sporting blackface, suitcase shoes, suspenders and an oversize hat, Ollie was praised for his broad physical humor and quick timing. Some credit him for originating the phrase “hubba hubba.” He also wrote songs, including “Yodlin’ Blues” which was performed by Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith.
|First husband, Ollie Debrow, "hubba hubba" man|
Reports on how Ollie first met Jessie varied. One columnist said she was a waitress in Houston when Ollie walked in and cajoled her into joining his troupe. Another pegged her as a laundress in a “whistle-stop” town on one of Ollie’s “tab” tours. Still another called her a “cracker girl” at Nabisco, which had just opened a plant in Houston. She may have been all those things. But Ollie would later state that he met her at the Princess Theater on Main Street in Houston where she was a dancer in the chorus. She was only fourteen. Her name then, he said, was Jessie Rogers. Perhaps this was a stage name since on her wedding license her name is given as "Jessie May Richardson." They were married on March 11, 1912 at the First German Lutheran Evangelical Church. A handwritten entry in the church ledger confirms the spelling of her name and gives as their witness W. B. Kyle, an electrician who was out on bail having shot his roommate a few days earlier because he made advances on his wife. He was an ironic choice considering the shooting scandal that was soon to engulf Ollie and Jessie.
|Scene of the crime: the Star Theatre, San Antonio|
The shooting was front page news in Texas. It also was fodder for papers as far away as Chicago and California. The New York Clipper, a theatrical journal, covered it in detail. Ollie was charged with murder in December, and a jury trial was ordered for the following year. In June 1917, Ollie was arraigned, pleading self-defense and just cause. He was defended by Carlos Bee, a sharp-witted state senator who would later serve in Congress. In his questioning of Debrow, Bee focused on the affair between the victim and his wife. Nash was painted as the villain, and by implication, so was Jessie. What should have been an open-and-shut case of first degree murder became more nuanced. The jury could not reach a verdict and the judge ordered a retrial. Just weeks later in July, Ollie was acquitted and walked out of the courtroom a free man. Carlos Bee had persuaded a group of Ollie’s peers that in Texas at least “the unwritten law” prevailed.
Sister acts were popular in vaudeville at the time and it didn’t take long for “the Misses Reed” to get hired on Broadway. Both were cast in The Passing Show of 1917. Nora soon segued into films, appearing with Alice Brady, whom she resembled. She remained a close friend of Jessie’s for years.
Meanwhile Caswell was busy courting Jessie’s chum, fellow actress June Castleton, chasing her across New England even though she had lost her role in a play due to the controversy his advances had caused. Jessie sued Dan for divorce, citing adultery and cruelty. Dan countersued for “gross neglect of duty.” Jessie had tossed him out, he said, and refused to have anything to do with him. Dan was often seen waiting outside her stage door, well in his cups, often in tears. Jessie joked that she couldn’t understand why people called him “Dashing Dan,” since “The only thing I ever knew him to dash for was a drink and then dash out for more.” They divorced in 1921.
|Jessie, center rear, with her Follies friends, Brighton Beach, 1920s|
Shortly after her second divorce, Jessie was linked to another blackface comedian, Lew Reed, one of the top cork stars of the day. But it was nothing more than a case of mistaken identity, since there were actually two Jessie Reeds in show business then. The other Jessie Reed, nee Hyman, was a “singing comedienne” in the Keith circuit. She had married Louis Herzberg, aka Lew Reed, in 1915. But by 1923, Lew wanted out, claiming his wife was sleeping around, naming several well-known agents and producers as correspondents, including Lou Tellegen, husband of Geraldine Ferrar. One ill-informed reporter tracked Jessie Hyman down to a club in Connecticut and queried her about her career at the Follies. Hyman, knowing any publicity is good publicity, didn’t let on that she wasn’t the same Jessie Reed.
|Bee in her bonnet. The other Jessie Reed, singing comedienne|
Finally out of frustration, the real Jessie Reed of the Follies issued a statement to the press that she was not and never had been married to Lew Reed, and was already “happily divorced.” She had “neither the time nor the inclination,” she quipped, “to participate in any more divorces this season.” Nevertheless to this day Jessie is mistaken for this other Jessie Reed.
|A string of pearls and husbands|
By then Jessie had remarried. During a Follies tour to Chicago in 1924, reports surfaced that she was engaged to Russell Griswold Colt, heir to the gun-making firm and ex-husband of Ethel Barrymore. Colt allegedly gave her a large diamond solitaire that became the envy of the other showgirls. But Colt issued a statement denying it all and Jessie blamed an overzealous press agent. The very next day she was back in the papers, having run off with William Tandy Young, Jr, a handsome ad exec for an auto company from Indianapolis who was living in Chicago. The speed with which they got hitched shocked even the most jaded of observers since she had met Young at a restaurant called The Tent and then got married the next morning in Waukegan. Young defended his impetuous actions saying that he had met Jessie four years before at a seaside party out on Long Island in New York when he was a reporter for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
|Dog fight: Lafayette ace, Leonard Minor Reno, 4th husband|
It didn’t take long for Jessie to find a new man in her life. “I don’t know whether I’ll get married again,” she told reporters. “I always do, so I suppose I will.” And indeed she did. This time she pulled another surprise by marrying flying ace Leonard Reno, who had been married to another Reed, Muriel, a few years before. No doubt Leonard admired Jessie because she could hold her own in a drinking competition. Little is known of their years together other than the fact that Jessie rescued him from jail, coming up with $7300 when he failed to pay his back alimony to Muriel Reed. Other than that, the Reno marriage was a quiet affair. She separated from Leonard in 1934, claiming cruelty and non-support. In a rare moment of candor, Jessie admitted to reporters that her husband had simply “thrown her out.” He countered it was the other way around: she had walked out and he hadn’t heard from her for a year. The judge sided with him. The divorce was finalized in 1935.
|Heartthrob Eddie Condon, jazz legend|
One bright spot during all this was Jessie’s daughter Annie Carroll Debrow, who had turned out to be a well-adjusted, lovely young girl, probably due to the influence of Ollie’s sister Gertrude who raised her. Ann, as she preferred to be called, entered a beauty tournament as Miss San Antonio and got her picture in the papers. Flo Ziegfeld took notice of her, probably due to Jessie’s influence, offering Ann a spot in one of his shows as “Jessie Reed, Jr.” but Ziegfeld died before the deal was finalized. The Shuberts contacted her in 1933, eager to work with her. But in 1937 Ann married George F. Keene, Jr., an army officer and she put her theater career on hold. Keene was the son of a popular San Antonio drug store owner. Ann settled down to a quiet life in San Antonio, modeling occasionally for department stores.
|Daughter Annie Carroll Debrow, 1928|
By autumn of 1935, Jessie was running out of potential suitors. She’d run out of money, too, hocking her best dresses, pawning her jewels. The seven-carat diamond she once flaunted was long gone — so too the expensive furs that would have come in handy during those record cold Chicago winters at the height of the Depression. Jessie had no choice but to file for relief. She was behind in her rent. A reporter got wind of it and the story hit the papers. An outpouring of sympathy brought offers of money and help, but none of her ex-husbands provided assistance. Jessie said she wouldn’t accept it from them anyway. “I hate all this publicity,” she added. “If I owe rent, that’s my business. All I want is a chance to come back on the stage.”
Things were no better for Ollie Debrow, who had succumbed to heroin addiction, after his second wife, Ardy Strickland, died suddenly. As the glory days of burlesque waned, he was reduced to playing in shooting galleries where, one observer said, “customers brought salami sandwich lunches and threw peanuts at the actors.” He overdosed in 1937 in a flophouse in Houston.
|Nymph Errant, 1918. Studio of C. Smith Gardner|
When Jessie Reed died, she received the kind of news coverage one might expect of a top box-office movie star. The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Washington Post ran stories about her. As did Variety and Billboard. The Houston Daily Post paid tribute. So did the San Antonio papers, but no mention was made of her role there in a once infamous murder case. In the end, the Queen of the Follies, despite the hardships she'd endured, had not been forgotten. She was still a legend, a haunting melody that lingered on. As Irving Berlin wrote, “You can’t escape. She’s in your memory…”