Friday, July 24, 2015

Haunted Melody

"Queen of the Follies," Jessie Reed.

Seventy-five years ago, in a charity ward of Chicago’s Osteopathic Hospital, a once-celebrated beauty lay immobile under an oxygen tent, barely able to breathe. A painful throat infection made it impossible for her to talk. A fever clouded her mind. Pneumonia had set in, sapping all her strength. She was penniless, despite four high-profile marriages, and four notorious divorces. Even the whiffs of scandal surrounding her (including her part in a sensational murder) were lost in time. Back in the early 20s, as Jessie Reed, she had been the belle of Broadway, a household name, the highest paid showgirl of the Ziegfeld Follies. 

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. 

The next day, papers all over the country trumpeted the news. There was an outpouring of sympathy for Jessie’s tragedy, but also a sense of shock since it seemed inconceivable that someone who had had it all — diamonds, the latest French fashions and more than one millionaire husband — could die without a nickel to her name and in such dire circumstances. Adela Rogers St John had dubbed her “the Queen of the Follies — the Champion.” But fate had been unkind, St John added, and she became “Bad Luck’s Baby.” How could this fall from grace have happened? Blame was laid all around, but Jessie’s once-lusted-after alabaster shoulders bore the brunt of it. She got what she deserved, some moralized, for having been such a scheming gold digger. But one couldn’t help but feel sympathy toward her. It was as if the American Dream itself had failed, for Jessie Reed’s rags-to-riches tale had seemed the archetypal stuff of dreams, or at least countless dime-store romances. 

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.

The Jessie Reed Story, as it were, begins in 1917, twenty years after her official birth, when she first sailed into New York as a bright-eyed, young ingenue on a steamer from Texas. She arrived like Venus rising out of the sea, for no one was quite sure who she was or where she was from, or who her parents were. Her roots were murky at best, and remain so. 

“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

One night the legendary producer Florenz Ziegfeld happened to stop into the show and spied Jessie in the chorus line. He sent her a note backstage, which Jessie recalled, she assumed was a pink slip from the Shuberts and didn’t bother to read until later. When she did open it, she was floored. Ziegfeld was offering her a lucrative contract to appear in Midnight Frolic, his hit revue on the New Amsterdam theater rooftop. She immediately accepted. Flo worked her into a skit with W. C. Fields. She had little acting experience but she held her own against the acerbic comic. 

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.” 

By 1920, Jessie Reed’s reputation as a gold digger, a word that only recently had come into vogue, was firmly in place. The type figured prominently in Anita Loos’s classic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, first published in 1925. Jessie was more like the character Dorothy Shaw (played by Jane Russell in the movie) than Marilyn Monroe’s Lorelei Lee. No breathless airhead, she had a pragmatic streak and keen business sense. While Jessie may have been showered with jewels from her many admirers (one gave her a seven-carat diamond), she also worked full time. The life of a showgirl, even a headliner, was no cakewalk. 

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. 

One of these stagestruck young Americans was “Dashing Dan” Caswell, who came from an affluent family in Ohio. His father had been a real estate developer, a partner and adopted son of Nelson Ambler, who’d built Ambler Estates in Cleveland. Dan often bragged that President McKinley was his godfather. Dan followed in his father’s footsteps by attending Williams College. In the fall of 1920, aboard the 20th Century, en route to Boston to present an engagement ring to a society deb his mother Elisabeth had picked out for him, Dan’s life changed dramatically. As he slipped from his berth to the bar, he spied Jessie Reed in a parlor car. She was on tour with the Follies. For Dan it was love at first sight, even though Jessie initially, he admitted, coldly brushed him off. He invited Jessie out to dinner in Boston that night, forgot all about his future fiancee and presented the large and expensive ring to Jessie. Unable to find a church in Boston that was free, they crossed over to Rhode Island and were married in Pawtucket the next day. 

At the time, Jessie had been engaged to Louis Grovat, a pilot from Long Island. In fact, the day Jessie married Caswell, a broken-hearted Grovat intended to fly up to Boston to see her with one of her best friends, Emily Drange, also of the Follies. Their plane, however, fell to the ground just after take-off. It was a telling omen for Jessie’s nuptials as her marriage with Caswell would quickly crash and burn. 

The news of Jessie’s whirlwind courtship hit the papers the next morning from coast to coast. Dashing Dan reportedly spent $37,000 on the wedding celebrations. No doubt Ziegfeld’s publicist saw a good angle and played it up. But the ploy backfired. Before the newlyweds got back to Boston, reporters were waiting for them back at their hotel with very pointed questions about Jessie’s shadowy past. It soon became evident that she wasn’t really “Jessie Reed” at all. She was someone else entirely, someone with a dark secret that she’d been hiding for years.  

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. 

It’s no wonder that Jessie had tried to put some distance between herself and her roots. Her troubled early life in Texas was a far cry from her elegant success on Broadway. In a short memoir she wrote in 1935, and published as a series of articles, Jessie talked about her difficult childhood, how her parents had died when she was young. An only child, she dropped out of school in 8th grade and scraped by doing odd jobs. Houston still had a frontier edge in the early 1900s, a rough-and-tumble oil town with a gun-happy citizenry. Jessie grew up amid some pretty tough characters. Her first crush, she said, was a boy named Red. One wonders if this was Red, a leader of a gang of hoodlums and petty thieves in Houston who was frequently in the news.  

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. 

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 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. 

Ollie and Jessie’s marriage started off happily enough. In November, 1913, they had a child, Annie Carroll Debrow [Note: here the birth certificate gives Jessie's name as "Jessie May Richards." It's still not clear which was her real name. Richards or Richardson. Adding to the confusion, her death certificate says Richard.] Ollie named their daughter after his half-sister Annie Carroll who had been shot a few years before by her boyfriend and become paralyzed. She had died earlier that year. Having a child didn’t slow down Jessie’s career on the stage. As Jessie Debrow, she traipsed across the South with Ollie, playing Waco, Galveston, Dallas, Beaumont, and Little Rock. In 1915 the Debrows performed at the Majestic in Birmingham, in Al and Gertrude Bernards’ Boys and Girls From Dixie musical revue. Annie stayed in San Antonio with Ollie’s half-sister Gertrude. 

By the summer of 1916, however, signs appeared that their partnership was unraveling. Jessie separated from Ollie and went to New Orleans. He went back to Birmingham. By fall, she was again in San Antonio, working in the chorus at the Star Theater, a popular picture house just off College Street. Ollie was in Houston but came down at the end of October to see her. 

Ollie was disturbed by rumors he’d heard that a tall, handsome 18-year-old chauffeur named Leslie Nash, who worked at a garage next door to the Star, had been hanging about backstage, flirting with Jessie. The manager had warned Nash to make himself scarce as only folks on the payroll were allowed backstage. But Nash persisted, becoming a nuisance. Ollie also learned that Nash was taking Jessie out for joy rides in his car. Jessie’s friend Eva Flippen, an actress, went along on a couple of these jaunts. Nothing indecent had transpired, she said. They were just innocent excursions. 

Late in the afternoon of Halloween, a few hours before curtain time, Ollie cornered Nash and demanded to know what his intentions were. They stopped into Hewgley’s bar and had a few drinks. Nash assured him he and Jessie were just friends. Ollie went back to the theater around 8:30 pm where he confronted Jessie in her dressing room. He later testified that she confessed then to having an affair with Nash and that she was going to leave him. Ollie stormed outside and called to Nash who was chatting with a young woman, Rose Falbo, and a young boy, both affiliated with the theater. When Nash turned to face him, Ollie pulled out a handgun and fired twice. Jessie, who was now in the wings, heard the gunshots and fainted. The bullets pierced Nash’s lungs and stomach. He collapsed, then died shortly after in the hospital. Debrow refused to comment except to say that “My wife and baby were all I had in the world, and I meant to keep them.”

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. 

Jessie hadn’t waited around to find out what the verdict would be. She had already fled Houston — and Ollie, who must have loomed as a threat to her if acquitted — before the verdict was read. She sued for divorce in absentia. The terms of Jessie’s separation gave her visitation rights, but her daughter remained with Gertrude in San Antonio. She never saw Annie again. 

All Jessie needed now was a new identity. She found it through her best friend Nora Flippen, Eva’s sister. Nora, who had been in vaudeville since she was eleven, married actor Ben H. Reed. But in 1914 they divorced. Nora kept her married name Reed and used it on the stage. Like Jessie, she had dreams of making it big on Broadway. The two hatched a scheme to pose as sisters. They booked tickets to New York and left Houston for good. 

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. 

Ironically, the revelations of Jessie Reed’s stormy past did not hurt her career. If anything she became more popular and in demand. But the Caswells’ marriage was doomed from the start. Jessie still had a contract with Ziegfeld and continued to tour. Caswell carped that Jessie’s friends and admirers made him pick up the tab for their frequent all-night parties. When Dan brought Jessie to meet his mother in Cleveland, they were blackballed by his country club and ignored by family friends. His mother soon cut him off and he was forced to sell his fancy touring car to pay his mounting bills. 

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 January 1922. 

Jessie threw herself back into work. “I love home life as well as any woman in the world,” she wrote to Ziegfeld, “but for some unknown reason I am unhappy when I am away from the stage, and so long as it affects me in this way, I intend to continue my theatrical work.” She rejoined the Follies and also appeared in extra roles in movies, including the lavish "Enemies of Women" with Lionel Barrymore and another directed by Raoul Walsh for the Mayflower Corporation. She was now earning an extra $100 a week. 

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, below, wasn’t the same Jessie Reed. 

Bee in her bonnet: the other Jessie Reed

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. 

Dan Caswell, still smarting from his divorce from Jessie, wed June Castleton, who immediately regretted it, due to his drinking binges, gambling, temper tantrums and roving eye. Desperate for cash, Dan wrote a kiss-and-tell memoir about his life with Jessie that was syndicated across the country, depicting Jessie as a ruthless femme fatale. But in the end, it made Dan look like an ungrateful spoiled brat who had taken advantage of her, not vice-versa. In 1923, in a last ditch stab at fame, Dan debuted a vaudeville act of his own that bombed so badly, due to nerves, that he did not even finish his routine. Dan’s alcoholism soon caught up with him. June divorced him. Then he entered a sanitarium after suffering a nervous breakdown, and died in 1925 in New York from typhoid fever. He did not live long enough to inherit the fortune his father had left him in trust. 

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

Now styling herself as Jessica, Mrs. Young left the Follies for good and settled in a suburb of Indianapolis with William. Jessie claimed to enjoy the role of housewife and was tired of life in the fast lane. Less than three years later, however, she filed for divorce due to mental cruelty, complaining that Young didn’t take her out enough. She returned to Chicago. Young ended up doing well on his own. He became a Brigadier General in the Air Force in the Second World War, and later President of the Leo Burnett ad agency. He remarried a couple more times. He and his brother Collier Young, a film producer married to Ida Lupino and later Joan Fontaine, were often photographed out and about with the smart set in Hollywood and New York. William T. Young died in Palm Beach in 1981. There was no mention in his obituary of his three-year marriage to Jessie Reed.

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.

Jessie, the trouper, second from left, with former Follies stars, Chicago, 1930s

Jessie moved into a small residential hotel called the Buena Vista. It was a bargain at $5 a week. She still looked as good as ever. Jazz legend Eddie Condon reminisced in We Called It Jazz, that he was in Chicago around this time on tour when he recognized Jessie Reed in his hotel lobby. He knew who she was and was floored by her looks. He asked her to dinner. They had a brief, but by his account, highly memorable, fling. 

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 lovely young girl. Ollie’s sister Gertrude helped raise her. Annie entered a beauty tournament in Galveston as Miss San Antonio and got her picture in the papers. At 15 she was appearing as "Jessie Reed, Jr." in a Southern tour of "Rio Rita" and eloped with one of its actors, Elwood Brown. They were married in Hattiesburg, Mississippi on January 21, 1929. The marriage didn't last long. The 1930 census shows her back at home with Gertrude in San Antonio, listed as "divorced." Flo Ziegfeld took notice of her, probably due to Jessie’s influence, offering Ann a spot in one of his shows, but Ziegfeld died before the deal was finalized. The Shuberts contacted her in 1933, eager to work with her. But perhaps she had lost the acting bug.  In 1937 Annie married George F. Keene, Jr., an army officer and son of a popular San Antonio drug store owner. Annie settled down to a quiet life in San Antonio, modeling occasionally for department stores. 

Daughter Annie Carroll Debrow, 1928

Single again, 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.” 

Jessie left the Buena Vista and moved to the Metropole, above, former residence of Al Capone. Impresario Al Quodbach offered Jessie a spot at his Casa Granada on the South Side, known for presenting Guy Lombardo. She got a new dress, a new publicist, some new pictures. But by then her voice was shot, her hands shaky. Reviews were mixed. Next she played the Carousel. In July 1935, she was featured at the famed Oriental Theatre, posing as a fashionplate, where Variety reported she was warmly received but seemed "extremely nervous." Promoter Frankie Howard then hired her as a hostess at his club the Paddock, below. Her drinking increased but her earnings did not. 

The Paddock bar, Chicago, 1940.

Things were no better for her ex-husband Ollie Debrow, who had succumbed to heroin addiction. His second marriage, to Artie Strickland in 1926, had ended tragically when she died less than a year later. As the glory days of burlesque waned, Ollie was reduced to playing in shooting galleries where, one observer said, “customers brought salami sandwich lunches and threw peanuts at the actors.” He overdosed from "bootleg dope" in 1937 at a flophouse in Houston. 

In 1938 Jessie was reported as having slipped on the street and broken her kneecap. She’d been putting on a few pounds due to her drinking. Some columnists made fun of her newly plump figure, her frayed, out-of-date dresses, and her duties as a nightclub hostess. Every now and then a reporter would seek her out and chat her up. It was not unlike that scene in Citizen Kane when Kane’s ex-mistress is interviewed, slumped over a drink in a seedy roadside bar. Perhaps Orson Welles had read the less-than-flattering news reports of Jessie’s downward spiral. The similarity is uncanny. Each night Jessie peddled cocktails and split the take with the management and lived off tips. One columnist insinuated that she was doing more than just hustling drinks. 

By 1940 Jessie’s binge of bad luck hit bottom. At the close of summer, Jessie’s health collapsed. She needed blood transfusions to combat a severe case of strep throat. Her teeth were extracted. A press report revealed that one of her few bedside visitors was her last husband, Leonard Reno. He came with his new wife and they both donated blood to help save her life. Jessie rallied briefly and returned to her room at the Metropole. Then pneumonia set in and she was back in the hospital. She died on September 18, and was buried in Olivet Cemetery. Her daughter Ann was too sick from an operation to attend. Actors Equity and the Ziegfeld Club covered the funeral expenses.  

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…”