Ziegfeld Girl: Image and Icon in Culture and Cinemaby Linda Mizejewski
In the first decades of the twentieth century, Broadway teemed with showgirls, but only the Ziegfeld Girl has survived in American popular culture—as a figure of legend, nostalgia, and camp. Featured in Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.’s renowned revues, which ran on Broadway from 1907 to 1931, the Ziegfeld Girl has appeared in her trademark feather headdresses, parading and posing, occasionally singing and dancing, in numerous musicals and musical films paying direct or indirect homage to the intrepid producer and his glorious Girl. Linda Mizejewski analyzes the Ziegfeld Girl as a cultural icon and argues that during a time when American national identity was in flux, Ziegfeld Girls were both products and representations of a white, upscale, heterosexual national ideal.
Mizejewski traces the Ziegfeld Girl’s connections to turn-of-the-century celebrity culture, black Broadway, the fashion industry, and the changing sexual and gender identities evident in mainstream entertainment during the Ziegfeld years. In addition, she emphasizes how crises of immigration and integration made the identity and whiteness of the American Girl an urgent issue on Broadway’s revue stages during that era. Although her focus is on the showgirl as a “type,” the analysis is intermingled with discussions of figures like Anna Held, Fanny Brice, and Bessie McCoy, the Yama Yama girl, as well as Ziegfeld himself. Finally, Mizejewski discusses the classic American films that have most vividly kept this showgirl alive in both popular and camp culture, including The Great Ziegfeld, Ziegfeld Girl, and the Busby Berkeley musicals that cloned Ziegfeld’s showgirls for decades.
Ziegfeld Girl will appeal to scholars and students in American studies, popular culture, theater and performance studies, film history, gender studies, gay and lesbian studies, and social history.
“A smart, assured book about the construction of an important figure in America who represents a contradictory, and perhaps uniquely American, constellation of types—the chorus girl, the ideal beauty, the golddigger, the perfect wife, and the tramp—all bundled into one glorified pulchritudinous package.”—Pamela Robertson, author of Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna
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Image and Icon in Culture and Cinema
By Linda Mizejewski
Duke University PressCopyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Celebrity and Glamour: Anna Held
A Glimpse into the Boudoir
More than a decade before Ziegfeld's Follies Girl appeared on the New York stage, her immediate predecessor made an off-Broadway splash that rippled through theater and pinup girl history. In the 1890s, Florenz Ziegfeld was more interested in the uniqueness of individual stardom than in the production of a brand-name "type." As a publicity stunt for the performer advertised as Parisian chanteuse Anna Held, his first female musical star, Ziegfeld arranged the "news" that she took a daily bath in fresh milk—supposedly one of her scandalous French beauty secrets. To provide evidence for eager journalists, Ziegfeld choreographed what would now be called a media event, with deliveries of milk being timed for the arrival of reporters. The reporters—and by extension, the public—were invited into Held's suite for a glimpse of the luxurious Anna in her creamy bath, a move that invoked both nudity and its occlusion in one brilliant stroke.
The 1896 milk bath incident, perhaps the original American beauty-in-the-bubble-bath image, has become a signature item of Anna Held, included in every biographical sketch and foregrounded in the 1936 film The Great Ziegfeld. At its time, the milk bath made titillating headlines for weeks and supposedly started a brief fad, an auspicious beginning for Ziegfeld's aggressive publicity blitz for Anna Held as a daring European performer. "The name of the young woman became as well known in this country as the name of the President," the New York World declared a year after her arrival. Less well known, but rumored and often denied, was her previous Polish Jewish identity as Hannale or Annhaline Held, choristka of Jacob Adler's Yiddish theater. In her more recent incarnation as the imported Parisian music hall singer, Held starred in a number of musical-comedy hits on Broadway and on tour from 1896 until 1912. Though she never appeared in his Follies, Anna Held continued her association with Ziegfeld throughout that period, during which he was her manager, common-law husband, and producer of many of her shows.
More important, Anna Held sustained her status over the years as a particular kind of celebrity, a turn-of-the-century embodiment of how female sexuality could be publicly known and visualized. The milk bath episode—as public relations, legend, and fantasy—suggests the meanings of her body as a tease between sexual knowledge and secrecy, between visibility and imagination. As a herald of the Ziegfeld publicity style, the milk bath stunt also presages the economics and dynamics of the later Ziegfeld Girl promotion. The milk bath media event organized sexual knowledge as class privilege and commodiflcation, the economic luxury of hundreds of bottles of milk. The entire package also promised authenticity—an exposed body, an imported beauty secret.
While the milk bath remained the Anna Held legend par excellence, her later publicity also focused on her famously corseted waist and her notoriously mischievous eyes, all three sensationalized through teasing strategies of concealment and revelation. But the concealment most carefully maintained in her representation was her ethnicity and race: her eastern European origins and her Jewish parentage. Ziegfeld publicists positioned Held as a desirable female heterosexuality precisely through its distance from those identities and through its definition as western European (French beauty secrets) and as class entitlement to certain commodities.
Recent studies of stardom have emphasized its function in cultural debates about meanings of gender and sexuality. Tracing the development of stardom in silent cinema, for example, Richard deCordova uses this approach to develop insights particularly relevant to Anna Held's celebrity. DeCordova describes the star's body and persona within the modern project of "speaking sex," in Foucauldian terms, of making sexuality available as a discourse. The personality of the early film star, he argues, was orchestrated as a series of "secrets," or teases about the "real" person behind the screen image. The ultimate "truth" of the star was his or her sexuality, with sexual scandal being the "primal scene of star discourse."
The Anna Held case illustrates, first, how much cinematic practices of star promotion are indebted to earlier theater practices and, second, the specific historical nature of the star's "secret," in this case, the relationship between racial and sexual knowledge/secrecy. Held's commodification and her circulation as sexual imagery were constituted by issues of authenticity, revelation, and transgression directly linked to her Jewish identity, its occlusion, and its curious status as an "open secret." The "ultimate truth" of Held's stardom was not simply a primal scene or even the body in the milk bath but also a specific cultural scene, European Yiddish vaudeville, positioned as lower, dirtier, and grittier than the upscale Broadway trade, but also more fascinating for its sexual energy.
Anna Held's high-profile discourses on Parisian fashion and beauty tips were the standard entrée for imported female celebrities at the turn of the century, offering the Old World as elegant shop. But for Held, these discourses were also loosely layered strata under which the Old World lurked with its damp, musky secrets. Anna Held's appeal rested within the liminal space between these two Old Worlds, fashionable and filthy. Her music hall comedy, her borderline-risqué song lyrics, and her usage of African American dialect songs link her to the style of Fanny Brice, who would make her name in the Follies near the end of Held's career. The Jewishness on which Brice based an entire comic style, however, was exactly what Held had to repress and what became, in effect, the forbidden underside of her desirability.
As all this suggests, Anna Held's marginal position in the Ziegfeld enterprise—her moment previous to the Glorified American Girl—illustrates the exclusion of ethnicity and transgression in the development of the latter. Eventually, Ziegfeld's publicity promises about women and authenticity would lead him away from Anna Held's European exoticism and toward a redefinition of what he would call "native" Americans—that is, toward the Glorified American Girl. Many of Ziegfeld's Follies Girls became, like Anna Held, individual stars whose particular talents and bodies were promoted as unique. But "glorification," the rhetoric assuring a standardized, guaranteed quality, was per se an abstraction and idealization into a recognizable "type." Anna Held's performances, saucy and intimate, in those theaters "so small you could touch her," embodied an earthiness from which the Glorified Girl—particularly the posing, clothesmodel Follies showgirl—would be removed.
Illusion, Fetish, and the Baffling of Facts
In popular theatrical history, the Ziegfeld Girl has overshadowed Anna Held precisely because the later Ziegfeld pitch for a nationalized Girl was so successful. But the publicity campaign for Anna Held was also, in its time, a nationwide coup. At the peak of her career in the 1900s, journalists referred to "the Anna Held craze," the widespread public fascination for the woman who "couldn't make her eyes behave." Eddie Cantor and David Freedman remember the "craze" lasting for an entire generation, and their account of its commodification reads like a laundry list of fetishes: "There were Anna Held corsets, facial powders, pomades, Anna Held Girls, Anna Held eyes and even Anna Held cigars." Cigars indeed.
Throughout the "craze," New York newspapers gave sensationalized coverage of each publicity stunt for Held (a record-breaking series of kisses, a challenge to an automobile race, purchases of fabulous horses) and carried press releases about her beauty and fashion advice and her various proclamations chiding American women for their prudery ("A leg is a leg, not a leemb," she declared). But newspapers around the country—from Rochester to Toledo to St. Paul and San Francisco—were equally attentive to this Parisian import, especially in the wake of her nationwide tours. She was featured as well in national journals such as Vogue, theCosmopolitan, and later the Green Book. Even the seriously oriented New York Times, openly critical of Held's talents, nevertheless covered her career and personal life thoroughly, giving front-page attention to her supposed betrothal to Ziegfeld in 1897 and later to her filing for divorce from their common-law marriage. After her estrangement from Ziegfeld in 1912, she continued theatrical work in the United States and then in Europe. The regular newspaper updates of her final illness and the accounts of thousands of people at her New York funeral suggest her celebrity was still going strong at her death in 1918.
The professional creation of entertainment personalities was gaining momentum in the United States at the time of Ziegfeld's 1896 debut of Anna Held. Public relations as a business was relatively new in that decade and was primarily associated with the theater. By the time the Follies was first produced in 1907, film studios were also becoming savvyabout the use of publicity to generate interest in individual players. The concept of Florenz Ziegfeld as "the man who invented women," which I cited in my introduction, is more accurately tied not to the mythic power of a Broadway producer but rather to these machineries creating the public personality and the public body. By the late 1920s, the industrialization of celebrity was complete, including the production of specialized fan magazines and the established professions of press agent and publicist.
This new industry created glamour: not an illusion or abstraction but a real way of thinking and perceiving desire and sexuality. Florenz Ziegfeld did not originate this quality, but he was enormously influential in its proliferation, from Anna Held through the Ziegfeld Girls. Glamour, like voyeurism, requires both visibility and distance, goals of the public relations business in producing insatiable, commodified desires.
Channing Pollock, one of Ziegfeld's publicists, has described his own work in those days in creating client visibility. As Pollock makes clear, image was all, and advertising budgets were slim, so publicists depended on the fake news story. "The fake story became more than part of our job; it was a matching of wits with city editors, and the filling of a demand for news far in excess of the supply," he writes in his memoirs. Explaining the Anna Held milk bath episode, Pollock compares publicists, as "professional liars," with novelists. Novelists, he concedes, "admitted writing fiction, while we had to baffle shrewd investigators pledged to print only facts." The "baffling" with facts marks the beginning of modern public relations as a specialization or perversion of journalism. Like his predecessor P. T. Barnum, Ziegfeld demonstrated that the ideal publicist was a "creator" rather than "purveyor" of news.
The milk bath episode also illustrates the slippery nature of authenticity in the publicity business and the necessary manipulation of distance (between star and fan) that would become important characteristics of the twentieth-century celebrity business. As Joshua Gamson points out in regard to contemporary celebrity sightings, "the celebrity encounter is used to confirm and reconfirm that surfaces have something, in this case someone, beneath them." Thus authentic bottles of milk appeared for Anna Held in time for reporters, who were then granted distanced glimpses of the bath itself. For both glamour and celebrity, authenticity slips into the machinery of the fetish: the desirable object is more valuable than it could possibly "really" be, its illusion more valuable than its possession. Recall the adoring exclamation in Farnsworth's Ziegfeld Follies: "Women could not possibly be as desirable, beautiful and breath-taking as that... yet they were, under the Ziegfeld master touch of illusion." The path from Anna Held to the Glorified American Girl is this fetish and wish.
The "master touch of illusion" was played rather heavily with Anna Held. Her photographs reveal a pleasingly attractive woman whose best feature is certainly her "misbehaving eyes" and whose wasp waist seems violently indented between plump bosom and hips. But the photographs and modest talent cited in reviews of her performances hardly seem commensurate with the celebrity, the evidence of the truly national sweep beginning with her 1896 debut and continuing for over twenty years. Alexander Woollcott's 1929 essay on Ziegfeld as the grand illusionist frankly declared that Held was "something of an Invisible Fish," alluding to Ziegfeld's carnival-days trick with a bowl of water and a flashy advertisement for a rare, elusive sea creature.
While cinema fans may have hunted for the "real" person behind the screen performance of silent film stars, fans of Anna Held were offered a "real" person long before she performed on any American stage. For months before her debut in the States, Ziegfeld orchestrated a frenzied promotion of her as the "chanteuse excentrique" and "the comet of the century's end," emphasizing the enormous salary he had offered her (fifteen hundred dollars a week) to star in his show. He also stressed the legal dispute he was fighting on her behalf because she was still under contract to the Folies Bergère. (Will she come? Will he get her? She's not coming! She's en route!) The New York Herald dutifully published a two-column cable from Paris, signed by the newspaper owner James Gordon Bennett, announcing her imminent New York arrival. Bennett, then living in Paris, was furious. The cable had been written and dispatched by Ziegfeld himself.
Thus twenty-three-year-old Anna Held landed in the New York harbor in 1896 to find that her arrival was a news event covered by the Times as well as the other New York papers. Reporters were invited to an interview at her hotel, where she delighted them by speaking charmingly broken English, singing in French, and inquiring about the word "cocktail"—combining the allure of the foreign with the ratiness of a relatively new trend, an alcoholic concoction for ladies.
Heralded as keeper of French sexual secrets, Anna Held as a product of publicity was no secret at all. Fetishization is, after all, both a wish and a disavowal. The presence of Ziegfeld manipulating the publicity machines behind the curtain was never a secret. Held's 1896 debut was described by the New York Times as a success "thanks partly to good looks, but much more to good advertising.... She would not be a 'sensation' at all if the idea had not been ingeniously forced upon the public mind that she is inherently and delightfully naughty." The "ingenious" publicity was transparent, at least on some level. A few weeks after her arrival in this country, Ziegfeld publicity released an outrageous story about Held as a heroine in a runaway buggy incident, which the New York Times first printed, then recanted, angrily protesting "the invention of a dirilling tale," the likes of which have "elevated Miss Held's press agent to the summit of his profession ... for so tremendous a whopper." Nor was the Times the only skeptic. An article in the Cosmopolitan just a few weeks after Held's debut claims her beauty is entirely the work of good photography: "Her pictures are exquisite, but in the woman it puzzles one to discover what it is that makes any one think her beautiful." Fourteen years later, Held was described by a smaller Cincinnati newspaper as "a splendid invention of the press agent. Great advertiser is Florence [sic ] Ziegfeld and skillful is Anna in distributing the pellets he has compounded." The illusion is not so much exposed as cherished, and Ziegfeld as promotionist is lionized rather than chided as the savvy and competent pharmacist manufacturing "pellets" that will produce a suspension of belief.
The above commentaries about Anna Held and public relations, by such disparate sources as the New York Times and the Cincinnati Commercial, imply a public knowledgeability and fascination with the packaging of personalities as products—in particular, as sexual products. Most of all, they suggest that an invented Anna Held or prepackaged Ziegfeld Girl was not foisted onto an innocent public but rather emerged in a more complex way as part of public curiosity and anxieties about this way of seeing and speaking female sexuality.
Anna Held Facial Cream, Anna Held Eyes
Throughout her career with Ziegfeld, Held was publicized specifically as the Parisian tutor of American women on issues of fashion, beauty, and jewelry. The Parisian identification immediately authorized Held's sexuality and desirability. French was "the naughty language" because it was the language of Flaubert, Zola, and Balzac. Paris was home of the wicked Folies Bergère and the site of Toulouse-Lautrec's music halls. Theatrical imports, farces with French origins and ribald overtones, were popular in American theaters through the 1890s. Held's music hall precedent was the French singer Yvette Guilbert of the Moulin Rouge, made famous by the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec, brought to the United States in 1893 by William Hammerstein, and similarly renowned for the eroticism of her songs, even though her impact was never as sustained and nationalized as Held's.
Excerpted from Ziegfeld Girl by Linda Mizejewski. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author
Linda Mizejewski is Associate Professor of English at Ohio State University and the author of Divine Decadence: Fascism, Female Spectacle, and the Makings of Sally Bowles.
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