Today is the 101st birthday of the actress Jean Brooks. The world is a better place because she was in it and still feels the loss that she has left.
BEST KNOWN FOR: American film actress and singer who appeared in over thirty films.
Brooks was born Ruby Kelly in Houston, Texas. Some publications list her date of birth as December 23, 1915, though biographer Douglass Daniel lists Brooks’ birth year as 1916 in his book Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks. She spent her early years in Houston, as well as New York City and Costa Rica. She was fluent in both English and Spanish.
Brooks began her professional career as a singer at New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where she sang in Enric Madriguera’s orchestra. She adopted the name Jeanne Kelly for her entertainment career. With the help of Erich von Stroheim, whom Brooks had met while working at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, she began her acting career. Her first screen role was in the Arcturus Pictures release Obeah (1935), a film about Obeah curses.
After a couple of bit parts, she starred alongside von Stroheim in The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1935). Brooks parted ways with von Stroheim some time after Crespi. She then acted in the New York stage melodrama Name Your Poison.
In 1938, Brooks attempted to get back into film acting. After a failed screen test with 20th Century Fox, and the collapse of Major Productions (who had signed Brooks three weeks before going out of business), she signed a contract to star in Spanish language films for Paramount Pictures. She landed two starring roles with Paramount, acting under the stage name Robina Duarte.
After the Paramount contract, Brooks spent another year taking bit parts. In 1940, she landed a contract with Universal Studios. After more bit parts and small roles, Brooks was awarded with her first leading role in a feature film, playing “Laura” in The Devil’s Pipeline in 1940. Her performance was not well received: Variety described her as “flat.” Universal never gave her star treatment, preferring instead to cast her in small roles and B-movies.
In 1941, Jean met and married writer and future film director Richard Brooks. (Though this is known to have been her second marriage, there is no information on her first. It is rumored to have been to Erich von Stroheim.) Shortly thereafter, Universal dropped Brooks’ contract. She spent most of 1942 working bit parts, now performing under the name Jean Brooks. It is likely that she adopted her husband’s name as a stage name because dancer Gene Kelly began acting in films in 1942.
In 1943, she signed a contract with RKO Radio Pictures. At RKO, Brooks was to achieve her greatest success, though stardom eluded her. She appeared in six of The Falcon mystery movies, and was cast in two of Val Lewton’s horror classics, as the heroine Kiki Walker in The Leopard Man, and as the depressed devil-worshipper Jacqueline Gibson in The Seventh Victim, this latter role being the one for which she is most widely remembered today.
It is a sad coincidence (and perhaps part of the film’s success) that, while portraying the depressed Jacqueline, Brooks’ own life was falling apart. During the filming of The Seventh Victim, Brooks had separated from her husband. She and Richard Brooks divorced in 1944. It was also widely rumored that she had begun drinking heavily. (Cecilia Maskell, the daughter of Brooks’ cousin, Gloria White, has remarked that alcoholism runs in the family.)
Though Brooks continued to land prominent roles with RKO throughout 1944, most notably The Falcon and the Co-eds and Lewton’s juvenile delinquency film Youth Runs Wild, her career unraveled. RKO began casting her in smaller and smaller roles, and she was noticeably gaining weight. She arrived at the September 1945 premiere of First Yank into Tokyo drunk. In other personal appearances she would pass out in public.
Though RKO was angry with her, Brooks reportedly tore up her contract before they could fire her. She never made another film. Apparently, no one in Hollywood had contact with her again.
In 1946, Brooks met newly returned Marine Corps veteran, William Douglas Lansford, and they married. The marriage lasted 10 years, most of which were spent while Lansford was back in the armed forces (Army) and they were stationed at various bases in the U.S. It was a happy time for her while she formed amateur theater groups and worked in productions along with her husband who was a writer, at the various places they were stationed. But alcoholism persisted. Lansford, too, was a heavy drinker and soon it overwhelmed the marriage. They were divorced in 1956 and Lansford remarried to Ruth Ketcham of Long Island, NY. Brooks also remarried to an old friend, Tom Leddy.
In the mid-1950s, Brooks married Thomas H. Leddy in San Francisco. She died in 1963. Her death certificate listed her as having suffered from “nutritional inadequacy” for 15 years, probably from alcoholism. She also suffered from Laennec’s Cirrhosis in her final five years of life. She was buried at sea the following year. Her burial was reported in the papers in Costa Rica, though there were no obituaries, and apparently no knowledge of her death, in Hollywood.
Sadly, none of her old Hollywood associates knew anything of her life or her condition. On August 7, 1990, 27 years after Brooks’s death, the following appeared in The Hollywood Reporter: “Anyone know the whereabouts of Jean Brooks? Once married to director Richard Brooks, thus her name, she was aka Jeanne Kelly and under contract to both Universal and RKO in the 1940s…Even Richard B. and several of the actress’ former pals say they’ve lost all contact with her whereabouts.”