Helen Twelvetrees was born Helen Marie Jurgens in Brooklyn where she attended Public School #119. Her family moved to Flatbush where her younger brother was born. She later attended Brooklyn Heights Seminary. Upon graduation, she enrolled in the Art Students League of New York where she studied for a year before enrolling at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. While attending AADA, she met actor Clark Twelvetrees whom she married in 1927. She adopted her husband's surname which she used as her professional name.
With some stage experience, Twelvetrees went to Hollywood with a number of other actors to replace the silent stars that could not or would not make the transition to talkies. Her first job was with Fox Film Corporation and she appeared in The Ghost Talks (1929). After three films with Fox, she was released from her contract. However, she was signed by Pathé shortly thereafter, and along withConstance Bennett and Ann Harding, Twelvetrees starred in several lachrymose dramas, not all of which were critically acclaimed. When Pathé was absorbed by RKO Radio Pictures, she found herself at various times miscast in mediocre films. With the arrival ofKatharine Hepburn at RKO, Twelvetrees left the studio to freelance (Harding and Bennett would also subsequently depart).
The 1930 film Her Man set the course of her screen career, and she would forever be asked to play suffering women fighting for the wrong men. Later she played opposite Spencer Tracy in 1934's Now I'll Tell (also known as When New York Sleeps) from a novel by Mrs. Arnold Robinson; opposite Donald Cook in The Spanish Cape Mystery; and costarred in Paramount's A Bedtime Story with Maurice Chevalier. She also starred in two Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer films, which induced a critic to note that she "had a gift for projecting emotional force with minimal visible effort."
In 1936, she travelled to Australia to star in the Cinesound Studios production Thoroughbred about the rise of a Melbourne Cup winning racehorse. The filming was done at Cinesound Studios sound stages in Bondi Junction, Sydney. After filming completed, Twelvetrees returned home to Brooklyn where she fell ill. After a slow recovery, she returned to acting in the USO production of The Man Who Came to Dinner. She made her final two films, Persons in Hiding and Unmarried, in 1939.
Twelvetrees left films in favor of summer stock and made her Broadway debut in Jacques Deval's Boudoir in 1941. The play folded after only eleven performances and she largely retired after marrying for a third time. She continued to act occasionally and successfully essayed the role of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire in summer stock in Sea Cliff, New York in August 1951. A cast member of that production recalled of Twelvetrees that "she had the saddest eyes I'd ever seen" and "it was also obvious that she had an extremely fragile psyche."
Twelvetrees was married three times. She married her first husband actor Clark Twelvetrees in February 1927. During the marriage, Clark attempted suicide by jumping out a window. He was hospitalized for several months afterwards. In March 1930, she filed for divorce citing mental cruelty. During the divorce trial, Twelvetrees claimed that Clark was an alcoholic who was drunk when they married and beat her on four occasions. Their divorce became final in March 1931. Clark Twelvetrees died in August 1938 of a skull fracture after striking his head on a curb after a man who witnessed him hit in woman with whom he was arguing attempted to intervene.
Twelvetrees married real estate broker Frank Woody (known as Jack Woody) in April 1931. They had a son, Jack Bryan Woody, born in October 1933. She filed for divorce in March 1936 which was finalized the following month.
She married for a third and final time to farmer and Air Force Captain Conrad Payne in 1947. After their marriage, Twelvetrees occasionally acted in stage productions but largely retired from acting. She spent her remaining years moving around the world with her husband who was stationed in the United States and Europe.
On February 13, 1958, Twelvetrees was found unconscious on the floor of her living room at her home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She was taken to Olmstead Air Force Base Hospital in Middletown where she died. According the county corner, Twelvetrees had been suffering from a kidney aliment for some time and took an overdose of sedatives.Her death was ruled a suicide. Twelvetree's remains were later cremated. Her funeral service was attended by only her widower and a close friend. Her cremains were interred in a grave in Middletown Cemetery.
For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Helen Twelvetrees has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located at 6263 Hollywood Boulevard.