Elegant. Debonair. Suave. In a career that spanned from the late teens to the early 1960s, Adolphe Menjou made a unique mark, not only for his formidable acting talent, but for how he looked while he was doing it. His was a rich and well-spent life.
Adolphe Jean Menjou was born on February 18, 1890, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was the first son born to parents who had been married the one year earlier. His father, Jean Adolphe Menjou, was a spirited hotel and restaurant manager, who had emigrated to the United States from his birth town of Commune D’Arbus, in France. His mother, Nora Joyce Menjou, was born in County Galway, Ireland, and was a distant cousin of Irish novelist James Joyce.
The two met when Jean managed the Hotel Duquesne in Pittsburgh. Among the hotel employees were four Joyce sisters – the youngest, Nora, caught the eye of the manager. After a whirlwind French courtship, the two were married, in 1889 – by coincidence, that was the year in which Thomas Edison perfected the motion picture machine.
After the birth of their first son, a brother, Henri, followed. The family was extremely close, and Adolphe’s childhood was stable and happy. He attended the famed Culver Military Academy in Indiana, and later went to Cornell University. His father hoped that his eldest son would become an engineer: but after transferring to the College of Liberal Arts, and experiencing the thrill of collegiate theatricals, Adolphe chose his path in life.
Adolphe found himself in New York in the early teens, first working in a haberdashery firm, then at his father’s restaurant, Maison Menjou. Those endeavors quickly took a back seat to the burgeoning medium of motion pictures – from early extra roles to rapid leading man status, Adolphe found a tremendous outlet for his unique brand of charisma and screen presence. He had an elegance that was obvious quickly: his famed mustache, first grown on his 21st birthday, perfectly framed a most expressive face. His European roots lent an air of sophistication and grace to his movements. He grew in strength with each performance – but it was 1921 when a role with a soon-to-be-superstar propelled the career of Adolphe Menjou into screen immortality.
Rudolph Valentino had extremely humble cinematic roots – until one role, in The Sheik, set female hearts swooning world wide, and made stars of the trio of Valentino, Menjou, and Agnes Ayres. Appropriately, all three rest in Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Adolphe, in the role of the Sheik’s confidante, finally established himself as a true star – an elegant and debonair man of class. In addition to that, he became one of the most sought-after talents in Hollywood – making as much as $7500 per week.
Adolphe Menjou was credited with having been responsible for the use of the word “suave” as a noun – as in “for this part we want somebody with plenty of suave … you know, the Menjou type.” He was a shining example of the impeccable man of the world in numerous sophisticated roles – he could play the lover, the businessman, or the villain, with equal ease. And, be it comedy or drama, he stood out in any scene he graced.
Truly, Adolphe Menjou was one of the most sartorially elegant actors that ever graced the arena of motion pictures. He was honored with an Academy Award nomination in 1930 (for his role in The Front Page), and enjoyed great popularity during a career that spanned more than five decades. Among perhaps his most prized accomplishments, was his prominent presence in numerous lists of the nation’s best-dressed men. It was this dapper aura that nabbed him, perhaps, his ultimate prize.
After two failed marriages, Menjou married actress Verree Teasdale in 1934, and the two remained married for the rest of his life. They adopted a son, Peter, and maintained a home in Beverly Hills, enjoying quiet domesticity when away from the studio. Menjou amassed quite a collection of art and coins, enjoyed music, and could even look elegant on the golf links. When service to his country beckoned, he answered the call, entertaining World War II troops, and making radio broadcasts in French, Italian, Spanish, German, Russian, and English.
His final film role was in the 1960 Disney classic, Pollyanna. For this role, the normally impeccable Menjou showed his versatility, seamlessly portraying an unkempt eccentric.
Adolphe Menjou died at his Beverly Hills home on Tuesday, October 29, 1963, at the age of 73, after a nine-month battle with chronic hepatitis. His wife and son were with him at his bedside. With his passing, so went with him a brand of elegance and sophistication rarely seen in current cinema, and which may never be seen again. However, as long as his glorious films are watched and enjoyed, the legend of Adolphe Menjou will continue to amaze new fans, and his great tradition of grace and suavity will endure … forever.