Almost a century after her brief career and scandalous marriage, Helen Lee Worthing’s name means nothing. Yet in our own woke era, she deserves remembrance. Here was a woman persecuted, prosecuted, and pronounced insane because of who she chose to love. The Other Woman’s Story—her most substantial screen role, unseen on screen since its original 1925 release—could describe its fallen star herself.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1896, the sole child of Southern Baptists, Worthing’s violet eyes, honey-hued hair, patrician profile, and statuesque carriage ensured her entry in a movie magazine’s “Fame and Fortune Contest” (the same one that later launched Brooklyn urchin Clara Bow). Contest judges Mary Pickford, Cecil B. DeMille, and James Montgomery Flagg proclaimed Worthing “one of the three most beautiful girls in the U.S.” Florenz Ziegfeld snapped her up for his Follies.
On nightly display as a non-speaking showgirl, Worthing grew bored and restless; new pals Marion Davies and Frances Howard (soon to be Mrs. Samuel Goldwyn) persuaded her to ornament their films Janice Meredith and The Swan then to leave Broadway for Hollywood. Over the next three years, she appeared in ten movies, invariably typecast as a non-dimensional siren. “Helen Lee Worthing, of Ziegfieldian fame, is still showing her figure and undies,” wisecracked Variety of a typical role. Another critic was more sympathetic: “Somehow the very perfection of her beauty seemed to militate against her.”
Indifferent to stardom and dismissive of her image—“Beauty is terribly overrated,” she told an interviewer. “Why take it seriously?”—Worthing’s deepest desire lay elsewhere. “I wanted to be a respectable married woman,” she said later. “It was almost a complex.”
Her dream came true in stranger-than-fiction fashion: on April 11, 1927, a stalker broke into Worthing’s house and began beating her. Worthing’s terrified screams roused a servant, who telephoned for help; within minutes, dashing Dr. Eugene Nelson arrived. “We ‘clicked,’” Worthing remembered. “I loved my doctor almost at once.”
The prominent physician called on her the next day; ten weeks later, they eloped to Tijuana and afterward settled into a Hollywood mansion. Worthing refused all film offers, content to play devoted doctor’s wife.
The anonymous phone calls started soon after. “Do you know he’s a nigger?” a voice whispered. “A nigger. Just ask him.”
At the time interracial marriages were illegal in California, and miscegenation a shocking social taboo. Confronting her husband, Worthing learned the truth: born in South Carolina with its segregationist Jim Crow laws, Nelson had excelled at two historically black colleges only to be denied opportunities available to any white physician. Given the choice between a life of privilege or discrimination, he had come to California to “pass” as white.
“I think I went temporarily insane when the force of it dawned on me,” Worthing recalled later. “And through it all, my husband tried to comfort me and explain that nothing counted except our love.” But as gossip spread through the movie colony, Worthing was snubbed at restaurants and premieres while her husband’s medical practice lost patients, leaving the couple with no other choice: “We decided to live our lives for each other and go away.” And with that, the Nelsons dropped out of sight.
Two years later the couple quarreled and their story went public: BEAUTY LOVES, WEDS, LEAVES COLORED MAN, the William Randolph Hearst-owned Los Angeles Examiner reported in brazenly racist prose. “The amazing revelation that a reigning beauty noted for her exquisite charm had wedded a non-Caucasian who admittedly has African blood in his veins,” then cohabited with him “in the very heart of Los Angeles’ black belt” (as the Nelsons’ neighborhood was known) seemed beyond belief to an aghast white public. Examiner readers learned that the Nelsons had furnished their humble home with contents from their former mansion, and, if they ventured out to travel by car, she sat in the back seat while he posed as a chauffeur. Now separated from “her dusky doctor,” the Examiner claimed Worthing “was in seclusion, trying to struggle back across the racial barrier.”
If so, her “struggle” soon failed: the following day, the Nelsons called a press conference to announce their reconciliation. “I love him with all my heart,” Worthing declared. “Love is not a matter of color.” Her husband was even more defiant. “We just want to be left alone here in our garden where stupid and intolerant persons are not welcomed,” he told astounded reporters.
With their marriage now a nationwide scandal (Worthing’s disgraced father committed suicide), the Nelsons found themselves ostracized by both white and black culture, and as their relationship began to unravel, Worthing sensed her husband turning on her. Diagnosing her distrust as a nervous breakdown, Nelson prescribed medicine that left Worthing comatose. (Unbeknownst to her, the State Narcotic Board was investigating him for illegally dispensing drugs.) She also began to suspect their first meeting was a setup, with Nelson arranging a break-in, then bribing her servant to summon him to the scene.
Worthing’s worst fears were confirmed when Nelson convinced a neighbor to sign an “Affidavit of Insanity” in L.A. County Superior Court. The dirty little secret of the California mental health system until 1967, an Insanity Complaint could be filed by anyone and result in a Lunacy Division investigation whose findings would determine involuntary commitment. Those accused were not allowed legal representation.
Unsealed by court order for the first time since 1932, Psychopathic Department records for “Helen Nelson, An Alleged Insane Person” reveal a woman stripped of her civil rights by a patriarchal system intent on judging not her well-being, but life choices. For marrying a man of color, Worthing was deemed “as insane as a person can be” and remanded to a local “rest home.” Six weeks later, now on “psychopathic parole,” she accepted an annulment in exchange for spousal support. Nelson dodged payments, leaving her destitute.
Over the ensuing decade, Worthing worked as a soda jerk, seamstress, and nurse trainee, always under an alias because of her notoriety. Drinking and drug busts made more headlines—“I drink in desperation,” she told a parole officer—with loyal former servants paying her fines. She died of Seconal poisoning on August 25, 1948. One month later the Supreme Court of California struck down the state’s anti-interracial marriage law.
A complete version of this story appeared in the December 2007 issue of C magazine.
Presented at SFSFF 2018 with live music by Stephen Horne