Documentation of The Not So Conservative Life of Agnes Moorehead
The tale unfolds.
For many long years I’ve been interested in the life of Agnes Moorehead. As a child I grew up knowing that she was a distant relative and I, like every other breathing “Baby Boomer” on the planet was fascinated with the character I associated with her, Endora.
It was not until the fad for genealogy that prompted digitization of huge amounts of information that I would become personally familiar with the person named Agnes Moorehead as opposed to the image of the person herself. In doing this research, in part for family documentation and in part out of curiosity, I discovered everything I knew or thought I knew was a version of the truth open to the interpretation of the reader of the information.
The very first half-truth I discovered was her date of birth. If you believed everything you read, and back in the day we did because there was no way of verifying it, you thought that Agnes was born on December 6, 1906 in Clinton Massachusetts. It didn’t take long after the digitization of record to learn that she had shaved 6 years off her age. In all honesty most women in the entertainment industry did alter their birth dates or place of birth to keep up with a field that demanded, even then, that you be younger, faster, and more beautiful at any cost. But why six years it seemed such an odd number to me. Ten yes, five definitely but six? In plowing through records and books I took notice that in the only biography written about her talked, albeit briefly, about a sister. No other paperwork of any kind mentioned any siblings. I had come to think, as most people did, that she was an only child. It wasn’t until I began reading census records, I still blame them for my trifocals, that I found in Saint Louis in the year 1910 the Moorehead family. Reverand Moorehead, Mary Moorhead, Agnes Moorhead and Margaret Moorhead. I felt as if I’d hit the mother load. Not only was there a sister but a sister who was born in 1906. I continued reading census records and located the family again in Reedsburg Wisconsin on the 1920 census. The 1930 census was not yet available so I moved on to other family things.
I stopped looking at documents for well over a year, actually probably closer to 2 years. It wasn’t until the sight Ancestry.com started loading newspapers into their database and updating their census files that I would start again in earnest reading. As the technology improved so did my ability to research. I have continued reading ever since. I also began the process of obtaining family documents to support the research I was doing online. I finally managed about three years ago to get my hands on the game-changing piece of documentation, the death certificate of Margaret Ann Moorhead. Peggy, as her family knew her, committed suicide in 1929 by drinking Bi chloride of Mercury. It seemed that Agnes had paid homage of sorts to her sister by taking her sisters year of birth.
I was actually shell shocked when I found out about this suicide. It made me look at Agnes in a completely different way. I found that I was open to a perspective that the vast majority of people who were interested in her would never see let alone understand. The psychology of her creation, her forensic psychology if you will, became the tablet I began to tell her story on. Suicide is a burden even today but then it was a scandal, a mark of shame, a genetic weakness and something that a family did not talk about ever.
As I read through a letter that Agnes wrote to her sister after her sister’s death it chilled me to a level I had not expected. What torture to have to endure being the one left behind to carry the weight of family expectations. Many long years later during an interview with Boze Hadleigh Agnes said that marriage was an expectation, something that had to be done and so she did it. I began to run through scenarios in my head of what life would have been like for her had Peggy not taken her own life. It is my firm belief that she would have remained single her entire life because Peggy would have taken on the burden of marrying and producing grandchildren there would be no need for her to do the same thing. It was an established pattern in her father’s family. Her maiden aunt Camilla Moorhead never married along with an uncle who remained a bachelor. She would have been able to do as she pleased and nobody would have been put out by it one bit. She would have been free.
“John, she’ll get her name in the paper!”
In a bit from her one-woman show Agnes poked fun at her Aunt Cam’s concern that she would gain notoriety that was disrespectful if she pursued her career in the performing arts. I used to laugh at it thinking Agnes was a paragon of virtue and I had never seen her name in any paper except to announce an appearance or give a television schedule. I could not have been more wrong if I had deliberately tried to be.
Centra, although at the time she was a married woman so it seemed odd that she would have a roommate, everyone had to do with radio. The further down the history line I went the more I found radio, radio, and more radio. Then in 1941 the game changed again she was beginning to make a name in motion pictures.
The Hollywood Tabloid has existed as long as Hollywood itself. We’ve all read one and we’ve all read the gossip that they throw out. Back in the 1940’s it wasn’t a tabloid world it was a neatly groomed press machine that told you exactly what to believe and whom you should believe it about. They did it in movie magazines and directly to the newspapers. The nation devoured it and most importantly, they believed it. But every once in awhile a piece of news not rubber stamped by the studio machine made its way into the mainstream. Mostly having to do with court events or family tragedy they are out there if you look closely enough.
Once I began reading the newspapers of the 1940’s I began to see her name becoming a standard mention. She would firmly plant her feet in Hollywood with an Oscar Nominated performance in “The Magnificent Ambersons.” The Foreign Press Corp awarded her a Golden Globe for her performance. The world took notice of her and she took notice of them right back. She began to feel the need to control what was printed about her. She openly courted the opinion of Hedda Hopper and won her over. From that point forward she would begin a tightly fisted control over her public image.
The Volcano Goes Off.
Agnes went out of her way to achieve good press. She ate it up by accepting honorary degrees from her Alma mater or by donating time to help support the troops. She created visions of a perfect life. Her perfect life was horribly, horribly flawed though because she could not control the man she had married. A would be actor whose career, unlike her own, went absolutely no place. They had started out on even footing but John Griffith Lee could not keep pace with his wife no matter how hard he seemed to try. You see, Jack, as he was called, was quite docile and happy as long as he was permitted to be the man of the family but once his wife stepped into those shoes he became a belligerent drunk with a very bad temper.
For the first four years or so life was quiet on Monte Mar Terrace in the Lee household but then August 25th 1945 happened. The illusion was shattered and the newspapers noticed.
Hollywood August 25 (UP)
Actress’ Husband Barred From Home
Fearing bodily harm actress Agnes Moorehead today had her husband, Jack G. Lee, barred from their home and filed a suit for separate maintenance.
In her suit, filed in the Santa Monica Branch of Superior Court, Miss Moorehead expressed fear that her husband of 15 years might attempt to destroy their home. Superior Court Judge Clarence M. Hanson issued a temporary order barring him from the home.
She asked maintenance of only $1.00 per year, saying she is able to support herself.
It would not be until October 7, 1946 that they would reconcile for the first documented time.
Over the next 3 years Agnes maintained control of the media output surrounding herself and her husband. There would be a visit to the family farm complete with happy shining pictures. There would be articles about her flying to New York to spend Christmas with him while he was appearing in a show. There would articles about her home showing photo’s of her cooking for him. It appeared as though everything was just right. The key word is appeared. Under the surface tension was rising like a volcano. In 1949 the volcano blew and the results were down right horrendous.
May 8, 1949
Nevada State Journal
Agnes Moorehead and her husband Jack Lee have reconciled after a 4-day trial separation.
June 9, 1949
Nevada State Journal
The Agnes Moorehead-Jack Lee marriage is coming apart at the seams.
June 15, 1949 Agnes filed for separation from Jack again but this time he remained in their Monte Mar Terrace home and she was residing at the beach. The majority of what follows are blurbs about movies. One is even tempted to forget about the problems until May 16, 1950. Then the door to her private life is kicked open with tremendous force and everyone settles in for what promises to be a long drawn out fight.
May 16, 1950
Married 19 Years Files for Divorce
Los Angeles May 16 (AP)
Actress Agnes Moorehead, suing to divorce actor Jack G. Lee her husband of 19 years, says she does not want alimony. She charged cruelty in her suit filed yesterday and said they separated last June.
June 1, 1950
Portsmouth New Hampshire
Actor Jack Lee is blocking the path for a Reno divorce by his estranged wife, Agnes Moorhead. The community property fight may be a bitter one.
August 15, 1950
Actor Does About Face, Sues Ex-Wife
Los Angeles August 15 (UP)
Actress Agnes Moorhead’s husband demands $200,000 in community property in a counter divorce suit.
Radio-television actor Jack G. Lee charged the actress with extreme cruelty and asked that he be given all the property including securities, three automobiles, two Ohio farms and a home here.
Miss Moorhead in her divorce action last May said all the property was acquired by her earnings and should be considered hers alone. Both she and Lee are 47. They married in 1930.
August 25, 1950
Berkshire Evening Eagle
Table Missile Held Divorce Grounds
Los Angeles August 25 (AP)
Among other things, says actress Agnes Moorhead, her estranged husband threw a table at her.
She wants a divorce. So does Lee, a radio actor. Both want all the community property estimated at $200, 000. Each charges the other with cruelty, Miss Moorhead didn’t throw any tables however.
They were married in 1930. Miss Moorhead originally filed for divorce. Lee filed a cross complaint last week. Yesterday Miss Moorhead amended her suit and mentioned the table-tossing episode.
October 4, 1950
Syracuse Herald Journal
Los Angeles October 4 (AP)
Miss Moorhead Cruel, Says Hubby
Actor Jack G. Lee says, his wife, actress Agnes Moorehead, berated him because of his dress, speech, posture and manner of eating. The assertions were contained in a cross complaint filed yesterday.
Lee also alleged that she humiliated him by instructing that the servants in their home answer the telephone with the phrase: “Miss Moorehead’s residence.”
On one occasion, he added, she banned him from her bedroom on grounds that he snored too loudly.
He charged that she hired a publicity man “whose purpose was to break up the marriage.” And that she then began keeping company with “a strange man.”
The actor cited these instances as cruelty in asking a divorce and all of their $200, 000 worth of community property.
I feel the need to insert the following into the aforementioned insanity that began in 1949. It’s one thing to have a nasty divorce drag you into the courts but it’s quite another when your family feels compelled to do the same thing. None of this made it beyond the pages of the newspapers in Zanesville Ohio but it illustrates another stress on an already stressed out individual.
April 14, 1949
The Times Recorder
Mark Moorehead Illness Fatal
Mark Moorehead 78, life resident of Rix Mills, died Monday afternoon at 8:15 o’clock at the Hesket Rest Home, Cambridge, after two weeks illness.
He was born December 18, 1870, the son of Robert and Hannah Moorehead, and was a member of the Mills United Presbyterian Church.
Surviving are a brother, Howard A. Moorehead of Denver, and a niece, Mrs. Agnes Moorehead Lee, well-known Hollywood actress. A brother and a sister are deceased. The body is at Speck Funeral Home, New Concord.
July 13, 1950
The Times Recorder
Film Actress Is Named In Suit
A partition suit filed in common pleas court yesterday names Mrs. Agnes Moorehead Lee, motion picture character actress, defendant together with her mother, Mrs. Mary Moorehead of Reedsburg Wisconsin.
Agnes Moorehead, as she is known on the screen, owns five eighths of an eighty-acre tract in Union Township according to a petition filed by Mrs. Lou E. Park of New Concord.
Mrs. Park, a cousin of the actress, claims ownership of one quarter of the property and states that Mrs. Mary Moorehead owns one eighth.
Another piece of ground adjacent to the land in question, in Rich Hill Township, is owned completely by Mrs. Lee. She spent summers there as a child.
Joseph McNerny represents the plaintiff
July 30, 1950
Agnes Moorehead Lee, who resides at 1720 Monte Mar Terrace, Los Angeles, California and Mary Moorehead who resides at Reedsburg Wisconsin, will take notice that on the 12th day of July 1950, the plaintiff, Lou E. Parks, filed her petition against them in the Court of Common Pleas of Muskingum County, Ohio, the same being cause number 31248 in said court for the partition of certain real estate in said petition described to-wit. Situated in the county of Muskingum, Township of Union, and being the south half of Lot 1 Township, Range 5 and containing 80 acres.
The prayer of said petition is for the partition of said real estate and/or other equitable relief. Said defendants are required to answer said petition on the 11th day of September 1950 or judgment will be taken against them.
What this translates to is pay me or I’m suing you for money and property. Mrs. Park was also a niece of Mark Moorhead and you’ll notice she wasn’t even mentioned in the obituary. She was living locally. Most of us would expect to be in the obituary of a close relative that practically lived next door to us. I have no doubt that property in question was owned by Mark Moorhead and either he died in testate or he divided it up in his will in a manner that was unclear allowing for this suit to be realized. Personally, I cannot imagine having all of this tossed on my plate at one time. Not to mention the expense of legal teams for both cases had to be staggering financially.
The Don Juan In Hell Years
As she stumbled into 1951 she found that she would continue to be at the forefront of this divorce case as well rumors that had been circulating in newspapers for well over a year about her relationship with Robert Gist. Agnes also found herself involved in a theatrical phenomenon that placed her exactly where she wanted to be, treading the boards in serious theatre productions.
Reading through all the things that transpired in 1951 is exhausting but most likely only a fraction as exhausting as the actual year was for the woman who lived it. It stunned me to read where she had been, when she had been there and to know that in between all of that she was juggling, movies, a divorce, a relationship, and most of all touring the United States and Britain in “Don Juan in Hell” as Dona Ana. When did this woman sleep? I’ve worked in theatre for thirty years myself and I know first hand how exhausting a touring schedule can be. I just can’t work out when there was time for anything peaceful in her life. A sample of her schedule gleaned from all the newspaper accounts, incoming passenger lists, UK passenger lists and other documentation:
February 13th, 1951 2 performances North Texas State College
February 23rd, 1951 University Field House Fayetteville Arkansas
February 25th, 1951 Kiel Opera House St. Louis Missouri
March 4th & 5th, 1951 Lincoln Auditorium
April 1951 50 performances of “Don Juan in Hell” have been completed
June 6th, 1951 Arrives on the Queen Mary at Southampton England bound for the Savoy Hotel in London.
July 23rd, 1951 Departs the United Kingdom on a BOAC flight arrives in New York
1951 The Blue Veil
1951 Fourteen Hours
1951 Adventures of Captain Fabian
October, 1951 Carnegie Hall New York City
November 29, 1951 Don Juan in Hell New Century Theatre closes December 31, 1951
In addition to the grinding schedule the tour presented she also manages to testify in her suit for divorce in Los Angeles:
May 21, 1951
Statesville North Carolina
Agnes’ Cruelty Tale, Judge Says, Is Too Ancient
Los Angeles May 18
The movie actress is seeking a divorce from husband, Jack Lee, and in court she testified to numerous incidents which she described as cruelty. She also said Lee had been drinking heavily for more than 15 years.
But all events described in the testimony dated from 1945. The couple did not separate until 1949. The judge said it wouldn’t do. So, Miss Moorehead has to do it all over again providing testimony about more recent events. She says she can do it.
The Don Juan phenomenon grabbed peoples attention. It made her a physical being to people who had only seen her on the screen or heard her on the radio. It was a spotlight and she adored it right up until she realized that the spotlight could not be controlled. During the tour of Don Juan it began to leak out whether on purpose or by accident that she was being courted by a man who was substantially younger than she was. He would be identified from the get go as Robert Gist an actor with whom she had appeared in "The Stratton Story" in 1949. You have to ask yourself if her pairing with Gist was simply a coincidence or a plan. Personally I believe the later of the two and I think that it was purposeful on the part of Gist to attach himself to Agnes. He had a mission, he wanted to be "somebody." Unfortunately he seems to have accomplished that and the price for it was the dignity of the woman that he used as a stepladder to Hollywood.
Coming in the next installment
The Gist of The Matter or What's the Matter with Robert Gist?