Born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth, WASP-y Helene Reynolds had an almost demonic desire to act, going against her family and her whole social caste to do so. After quite a rocky road she ended in Hollywood, a beautiful young starlet on the way to stardom. Sadly the stardom part never came and another talented woman was wasted on a short, minor career. Despite this, she still boasts several worthwhile movies in her filmography, in addition to her work on the stage.
Helene Reynolds was born as Helene Kenyon Fortescue on July 4, 1914, in Brussels, Belgium, to Granville Roland Fortescue and Grace Fortescue. Her older sister, Thalia Fortescue, was born on February 14,1911.
Helene’s parents finances were not as brilliant as they wished, but they were careful not to show it to the general public. Her father did not have much family money, just his paycheck as a US military man and her mother would only get into some money after the death of her parents.
Helene was brought up in Europe, attended a convent school in Belgium and then was transferred to Cathedral School for Girls in Washington. She was bit by the acting bug around that time, playing her first lead role on stage in the school production of Barbara Frietchie. Her passion for playing less-than-pretty characters earned her a reputation for modesty among her peers, and her father even wrote a small play for her 12th birthday, where she played a witch.
Helene made her society debut in 1934. Finally of the right age, she decided to try her luck in the acting profession. She refused to do all the standard things debutantes do (attend soirees, travel to Europe for a prolonged sojourn, look for a suitable husband), and attended American Academy of the Dramatic Arts in New York. She worked extensively in summer stock, but had no luck with Broadway, her desired destination.
Her way to Hollywood opened totally unexpectedly in 1938, while she was waiting for her divorce decree in Reno, Nevada. To shorten the obligatory 4 week waiting period, she appeared in a amateur stage production of The Women. A RKO scout, looking for an actress to play Fleur-De-Lys in the new production of Hunchback of Notre Dame, saw her performance and knew Helene was the girl he wanted. Half an hour after the curtain went down, she was signed and on the way to Tinsel Town.
Helene’s aristocratic lineage dictated her early Hollywood roles under the name of Helen Whitney. She was cats in the best adaptation of the Victor Hugo story The Hunchback of Notre Dame (with the ever impressive Charles Laughton and the beautiful Maureen O’Hara), as the high society darling Fleur-deL-ys. As the member of France’s high class, she was a well groomed, elegant and gracious, but spiteful and petty, a direct contrast to Esmeralda, a good natured but low class lass. Helene’s blonde, delicate beauty also worked very well against Maureen’s more robust, passionate, red-haired look.
Making a decent impression with her movie debut, Helene as pushed right away to be a leading lady in the Simon Templar movie, The Saint’s Double Trouble. Despite all her beauty and elegance, she is no match for the bon vivant supreme, George Sanders, who simply glides like a swan over the whole movie, nor doe she have the ropes to fully utilize her thin role. Her inexperience did her in for this one. With an absurd, over the top plot, this is one of the lesser Simon Templar movies and it did not catapult her to stardom as one might have expected.
Her inbred high class manner was easily (under)used in typical socialite roles in The Philadelphia Story, which is at least a very good movie and again in a sub par Millionaire Playboy, a vapid, airheaded comedy with Joe Penner , an actor who never made it in Hollywood.
The most fruitful part of Helene’s career began in 1941. While never the lead, she was a supporting actress for top productions and actors. Her type was the “other woman”, a staple in comedies and serious dramas alike, giving her a broad repertoire of possibilities. Helen was always polished, elegant and reeked of style, but never did manage to get the man since she lacked that vital element – warmth. She was and remained a untouchable siren, a distant star in the sky, dazzlingly visible but forever out of reach, much like society girls appeared to the normal, middle class viewers.
She started well enough in the pleasant Confirm or Deny
, a small, not well remembered
movie that hides more than one can see at first sight, tackling the issues of war and politics very subtly. She was pretty good in a shady role in Blue, White and Perfect
, a formulaic detective story. Next, she was supposed to be one of the leads, Velma
, in the movie Roxie Hart
(made on the basis of the stage musical Chicago
) but on the transition from stage to celluloid, her role lost so much screen time and relevance to the movie in general it ended up little more than a cameo.
Next Helene was in, The Man Who Wouldn’t Die
. another detective potboiler with the same detective as in Blue, White and Perfect
, Michael Shaye. Moontide
is more about the interaction between its stars, the superb Ida Lupino
and the legendary French actor, Jean Gabin
, than the plot or indeed any narrative, so all the supports, including Helene and screen greats Claude Rains
and Thomas Mitchell
, suffered in comparison. She had a small part in the kaleidoscopic Tales of Manhattan
, and was again the other woman for Don Ameche
and Joan Bennett
in Girl Trouble
, this time a more lightweight but still well made comedy.
Helene had one of her juiciest roles in The Meanest Man in the World
, a Jack Benny
showcase, where she plays the wife who torments Benny, and then her husband, madly jealous, tries to make Benny’s life hell. Her next movie, Dixie Dugan
, was so Z class there is nothing written about it.
Helene’s most famous film is probably Heaven Can Wait
, where she is one of the many girls Don Ameche romances during his time on Earth. She is a very effective in her role, putting forth all of her breeding and style to create an alluring, pretty rival for Gene Tierney
, who plays Ameche’s wife. Afterwards, Helene had an uncredited role in Wintertime
, typical Sonja Henie
Helene’s last movie before going into stage was Bermuda Mystery
, a B detective movie that patterns itself after the Thin Man
. While Helene’s has a prominent role, nobody was set on fire with either her or the movie.
In May 1945, Helene left Hollywood to appear ont he stage, her long time passion ignited once again. The play was “Bee in her bonnet”. The cast boasted the theater legend, Dorothy Gish
, and Helene toured briefly with the play. Luck struck once again, and she was finally, after years of trying, on the Broadway stage, in “Too Hot For Maneuvers” with Dick Arlen
. but the show failed to make the grade and closed after only 5 performances. While in New York, she did her first TV movie, the forgotten The Front Page
Little by little, Helene switched from acting to another art form – painting. By 1957, she was having her own solo exhibitions in New York, working in an unusual mosaic-like technique. She also owned a gallery in Manhattan and dabbled in selling artworks.
In 1984, Helene wrote her first play, about her mother’s life. It was never produced.
Helene was a lively woman with a acute sense of mischief, who liked to have fun.
Helene’s sister, Thalia Massie, was embroiled into a big scandal in Hawaii, where she lived for a long period of time. A short description from Wikipedia.
In September 1931, Thalia Massie was found by a passing driver, Eustace Bellinger, wandering along Ala Moana Road in Honolulu at about 1 am on a Sunday morning. She had been beaten and had suffered a broken jaw after being abducted while leaving a party at the nearby Ala Wai Inn. When questioned by Bellinger and his passenger George Clark, Jr., she stated that a group of 5 or 6 Hawaiian boys had assaulted her. Later at the hospital she claimed to police that she had been raped as well as assaulted, although the evidence did not entirely support the rape claim.
Subsequently, five young men, Horace Ida, Henry Chang, Joseph Kahahawai, Benny Ahakuelo, and David Takai, two of Hawaiian ancestry, two of Japanese ancestry, and one of half Chinese/Hawaiian ancestry, who were initially arrested for assaulting a Hawaiian woman, Agnes Peeples, earlier that same night were later also charged with the rape of Massie. Joseph Kahahawai, a boxer, admitted to the earlier assault on Peeples, whom he had slugged and knocked over during a road rage incident at King and Liliha Streets, but all defendants denied having been involved in the assault on Mrs. Massie. The men were represented by two of the foremost criminal lawyers in the islands, William Heen and William B. Pittman, and the mixed race jury deadlocked along racial lines. The five defendants were released on bail to await retrial at a later date.
Thalia’s mother, Grace Fortescue, was deeply disturbed by the release of the defendants and many U.S. Navy personnel at Pearl Harbor were outraged. A short time later, Joseph Kahahawai was abducted when leaving the courthouse after a probation hearing and was found, shot dead, in the back seat of Grace Fortescue’s car. Defended by attorney Clarence Darrow of the Scopes Monkey Trial fame, Fortescue, Thalia’s husband Thomas Massie, and two Navy sailors were eventually tried and convicted of manslaughter in the death of Kahahawai. Originally sentenced to 10 years, their sentence was commuted to one hour in the executive chambers of Governor Lawrence Judd of the Territory of Hawaii.
Helene married Julian Louis Reynolds, a tobacco and steel heir of the famous Reynolds family, on July 15, 1936, in Washington, DC. Their son, Ronald, was born early in 1937.
They separated in February 1937, and divorced in 1938. Reynolds alleged she slept with a plethora of prominent men, among them Charles McArthur, husband of Helen Hayes. He was awarded custody of their son. Helene counter sued, and then she was awarded custody along with 333$ dollars per month in alimony and child support. This battle for child custody continued for some time later, even after she went to Hollywood, and she boy had to be shuffled back and forth between his parents.
Helene’s beaus were always either high class, high Hollywood or high money. In 1941, after her divorce, Helene dated Charley Wrightsman, the wealthy society, but she was always second best for him, as he also dated Alice Faye. She was very serious about Victor Payne Jennings, but it did not yell. Her next was Carl Leamme Jr., son of the famous movie mogul. After Leamme in mid 1942 came Ivan Goff, the noted screenwriter. They dated for several months, until August 1942. She quickly switched to Harrison Evans the same month, but then got back with Goff in about October. By November wedding bells were on the horizon for the couple, but they broke up before the year was over.
That same year Helene changed her name back to Helene Fortescue, but used the old moniker for her acting career. She was asked to present her birth certificate for the name change, but could not find it since she was born in Belgium during WW1. One wonders how that ended…
In 1943, she was seen with Orson Welles. In july the news was out that Helen has been dropped out of the Blue Book, the social register, due to her Hollywood career.
In 1944, she dated Alex Steinert and Nino Martini simultaneously, and was escorted, casually, by Victor Mature around town.
Helene took up sewing after landing in Hollywood, and became quite proficient at it in a short time span. It came in handy during the war, when she donated many of her work for the war relief agencies. She even made a retouch of her wardrobe when she took an old 350$ dress and transformed her into two new garment pieces, or make a new sports dress for only 35 cents.
Helene retired from acting to dwell in Palm Beach, where she lived with her mother, Grace. She was a regular at society functions around town and was in the local papers monthly. She was a gracious hostess and gave off cocktail parties and intimate dinners, most often in the honor of her mother. In 1959, she romanced her former husband’s employee, L. de Gogodzna.
In the 1960s, Helen was a good friend of fellow Palm Beacher, Anne Spalding, and was a role model for her son, the future matinee idol, George Hamilton. When Hamilton lost his car, it was Helen who loaned him her pink Thunderbird convertible. As she was often away traveling, he could use it whenever she was not in town.
A great tragedy befell on Helene when her only child, son Roland, died in a freak accident involving a plane propeller in October 1966. Unfortunately, this was not all. In 1963, her sister was found dead by an overdose of barbiturates.
Helen lived in Palm Beach until the late 1980s, when she moved to Atlantis, Florida.
Helene Reynolds died on March 28, 1990, in Atlantis, Florida.