Anna Held and the Birth of Ziegfeld's Broadway

Anna Held and the Birth of Ziegfeld's Broadway

by Eve Golden

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Overview

Anna Held (1870?-1918), a petite woman with an hourglass figure, was America's most popular musical comedy star during the two decades preceding World War I. In the colorful world of New York theater during La Belle Époque, she epitomized everything that was glamorous, sophisticated, and suggestive about turn-of-the-century Broadway. Overcoming an impoverished life as an orphan to become a music-hall star in Paris, Held rocketed to fame in America. From 1896 to 1910, she starred in hit after hit and quickly replaced Lillian Russell as the darling of the theatrical world. The first wife of legendary producer Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., Held was the brains and inspiration behind his Follies and shared his knack for publicity. Together, they brought the Paris scene to New York, complete with lavish costumes and sets and a chorus of stunningly beautiful women, dubbed "The Anna Held Girls." While Held was known for a champagne giggle as well as for her million-dollar bank account, there was a darker side to her life. She concealed her Jewish background and her daughter from a previous marriage. She suffered through her two husbands' gambling problems and Ziegfeld's blatant affairs with showgirls. With the outbreak of fighting in Europe, Held returned to France to support the war effort. She entertained troops and delivered medical supplies, and she was once briefly captured by the German army. Anna Held and the Birth of Ziegfeld's Broadway reveals one of the most remarkable women in the history of theatrical entertainment. With access to previously unseen family records and photographs, Eve Golden has uncovered the details of an extraordinary woman in the vibrant world of 1900s New York.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780813121536
Publisher: University Press of Kentucky
Publication date: 03/28/2000
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Eve Golden is the author of five theater and film biographies, including Anna Held and the Birth of Ziegfeld's Broadway; The Brief, Madcap Life of Kay Kendall; and Vernon and Irene Castle's Ragtime Revolution.

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl


Anna Held's stardom burst onto the new century like a fireworks display. For that brief prewar period known as La Belle Époque, Anna represented everything that was glamorous about Broadway, everything that was naughty about Paris. Backed by the demented zeal of her husband, producer Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., she sang and danced and flirted from one hit show to another. A later Ziegfeld star, Eddie Cantor, reminisced about the impact of Anna's stardom. "For a generation America succumbed to the Anna Held craze," he wrote in 1934. "There were Anna Held corsets, facial powders, pomades, Anna Held Girls, Anna Held eyes and even Anna Held cigars. She toured the country like a conqueror and no matter where her private car stopped, she had to step out on the observation platform and greet laborers and shop girls who waited since daybreak to catch a glimpse of her before reporting for work. Anna Held was the most buoyant and cheerful spirit that ever swept across our stage. To this day stage-hands throughout America doff their hats at the mention of her name"

    This carefree, lighthearted Parisienne lived the life of an empress for more than a decade. But her working life began in the sweatshops of the garment industry and ended in the frontline trenches and field hospitals of wartime France. The Anna Held of the fabled milk baths and champagne giggle died a decorated war heroine. But while she played, she held the world in the palm of her hand.


Anna Held's birthdate and hometown are a dark mystery, thanks to her ownmythmaking. Theatrical history books claim she was born in Paris on March 18, 1873. This is certainly not the case. Actresses can be forgiven for lying about their age, and Anna was no exception: No birth certificate exists, but a careful look at Anna's early career suggests that she was born closer to 1870. Her gravestone reads 1872, but gravestones are notoriously inaccurate. Jacob Shatzky of the Institute for Jewish Research wrote a letter to the New York Times in 1956 claiming that Anna had been born in 1865. But Shatzky offered no sources for his assertion, and this date seems a little too early when taking into consideration Anna's career and the testimony of her neighbors. Even her birthday is somewhat cloudy, as one newspaper report has her celebrating it in November rather than March.

    Equally problematic is Anna's nationality, as she was the very embodiment of France to prewar Americans. Called "the musical comedy Sarah Bernhardt," Anna spoke and sang in a heavy French accent, vacationed in Paris every summer, and virtually gave her life for France in World War I. "I was born in Paris," she stated point-blank in 1907. "Voilà! That is settled. For they have had me born everywhere else, even in Indiana.... They have had me from Poland, but that was not I but my mother. And my birth the chroniclers had made to occur in London. But I did not see London until I was twelve years old. It was Paris, Paris, Paris."

    It was Warsaw, actually. Her passport and the reminiscences of childhood neighbors and early coworkers all give lie to her almost violent claims of French birth. But Anna's early escape from Poland with her family was so hair-raising, and her experiences in London so hellish, that it's no wonder she claimed Paris for her own. In one very real sense, "Anna Held" was born there.

    Her father was a modestly successful glovemaker, Shimmle (he later anglicized his first name to Maurice) Held; her mother, Yvonne Pierre, was later described by Anna's daughter as conservative, "rather helpless," and very religious. Anna later said that her father was probably of German origin, accounting for the name Held (which means "hero" in German). If he had emigrated, mid-nineteenth-century Warsaw was not an unfriendly place for Jews. Poland was occupied by Russia, where the liberal Czar Alexander II had been in power since 1855. Alexander II lightened some of the harsher laws against Jews; they were allowed into universities, into more professions and towns. By the late nineteenth century, Warsaw was 40 percent Jewish, and most of its citizens felt secure in their own little world. It never paid for Jews to get too secure, of course. They were still not officially citizens and had few recourses to law. Poland was a heavily Catholic country: If you were not Catholic, you were not Polish, in the opinion of most citizens. Many Jews converted for business and social reasons, but Judaism was still considered a "race," not a religion. Converted or not, a Jew was a Jew.

    Helene Anna Held (nicknamed "Hannelah") was the youngest child of Maurice and Yvonne. She was also the only one to survive childhood; her six brothers and sisters all died young. She became, naturally, her mother's spoiled darling and was allowed to accompany her father to work and chat with his wealthy customers. Anna learned to sew at her father's shop, a skill that soon came in handy. The Helds lived a comfortable middle-class life until all hell broke loose in 1881.

    On March 1 of that year, an event occurred that affected the lives of all Eastern European Jews: Alexander II was killed by a bomb thrown by a Polish student. The new czar, Alexander III, had long hated Jews and blamed them for this assassination (as well as for most of the other problems in Russia). Incited by police and mobs of street gangs, the worst of the pogroms began in southern Russia shortly after the assassination. Jews were attacked and murdered throughout the spring and summer of 1881. All the advances gained under Alexander II were overturned: Jews were thrown out of most professions, out of universities, and out of their homes. Jewish women were forbidden to wear silk, velvet, or gold. Synagogues were looted and burned.

    Alexander III did all he could to punish the Jews of Russia and the countries it controlled, including Poland. Jewish schools were closed, presses outlawed, communities broken up. Impoverished refugee camps sprang up around Eastern Europe. Thousands of Jews took whatever few belongings they had left and fled to America, Palestine, England, or France. The Helds were soon part of the horde. In the spring or summer of 1881, Anna and her parents packed up and moved to Paris.

    Paris in the late 1800s was growing and reinventing itself, lurching toward the twentieth century—just as little Anna herself was doing. Electric lights, improved heating, ready-made clothes, better food, water, and transportation were becoming available even to the middle classes (though not yet to poor immigrants like the Helds). Everyday implements like telephones, bicycles, typewriters, and elevators were slowly becoming accessible to the public at large.

    The press, freed from government control in 1881, reported on all this to an increasingly literate population. The widely distributed newspapers also brought crime, drugs, and depravity to the attention of the reading public. Oddly enough, the rate of murder, arson, robbery, and assault rose alarmingly during the years Anna lived in Paris, then dropped when she left (one can only hope this was a coincidence). Anna, who was conversant in French, became an avid newspaper reader and for the rest of her life tried to read a paper cover-to-cover each day. The four most popular papers during Anna's lifetime were Le Petit Parisien, Le Petit Journal, Le Journal, and Le Matin—as well as the conservative Le Figaro, whose ill-fated editor Gaston Calmette would later play a minor role in Anna's life.

    Vagrancy in France had doubled between the 1870s and 1890s, and poor immigrants like the Helds were hardly welcome, especially in the crowded Quartier Montmartre where Anna and her parents lived along a street full of other Polish refugees. The fact that the Helds' French was accented and rusty didn't really set them apart; many people from far-flung French villages spoke regional dialects and were even more unfamiliar with Parisian French. Paris in the early 1880s, like Warsaw under Alexander II, really wasn't a bad place to be Jewish. There were not many Jews in late-nineteenth-century France—they accounted for only .18 percent of the population—so few people bothered about them one way or the other. Organized anti-Semitism really didn't take off until the legislative elections of 1889, by which time Anna already considered herself a born Frenchwoman. When the Helds arrived in Paris, if they were hated at all, it was for being Polish: Poles, Germans, and especially Italians experienced much more prejudice than did Jews. As historian Eugen Weber once noted, "The fact that [the French] may not particularly like the Jews is irrelevant ... because the French do not particularly like anybody."

    Anna, however, loved the French, and especially Paris. She fell for the city at first sight. Perhaps her terrified exit from Warsaw had turned her against her homeland, but for the rest of her life she considered herself a born Parisienne. The wide airy boulevards with their active street life, the ornate Second Empire architecture, the flourishing theater, art, and literary life—Anna adored everything about Paris. Even as a poor newcomer, unsure of her pronunciation, she wandered in her spare moments around the city, gazed at the beautifully dressed women, the shop windows, the expensive hotels and restaurants, and planned her future.

    For a few a months, Maurice Held managed to eke out a living making gloves in Paris, but his health was failing and soon his business, as Anna later put it, "went up in smoke." He was reduced to taking a janitorial job at a neighborhood synagogue. Yvonne Held was an expert cook, so the family opened up a small kosher restaurant, and Anna helped in the kitchen. "I am very, very proud of my ability as a cook," she later said, "and I am not ashamed of the way in which I learned it. There is no disgrace in working.... There was no silver spoon around at the time I was born and whatever success I may have attained is due to the fact that since I was old enough to work at all my ambition has never deserted me."

    It was a good thing for Anna that she possessed such a tough, matter-of-fact attitude, as things got worse and worse for the family. It's a well-worn platitude to call a hard-knock childhood "Dickensian," but the life survived by Anna truly sounds like a chapter from The Old Curiosity Shop or Little Dorrit. Yvonne Held's restaurant failed, and Maurice soon became too ill to work. So it was up to Anna to pay the rent and buy groceries. Child labor laws were not passed in France until 1892, so it was easy for Anna to find work in the garment district. She got a job curling ostrich feathers; then her tiny fingers and skill at sewing got her a factory job making buttonholes. "Because I was little and the youngest, they gave me the darkest corner," she recalled.

    Anna could only take so much of that treatment and left to get a position making fur caps in a friendlier factory. She admitted to mixed emotions when she saw rich children trotting off to school in the fashionable caps she'd just finished sewing. But Anna made friends in her new workplace and entertained them by singing songs she'd heard from her neighbors. She had a light, nasal voice, but one with a lot of verve and personality. At the suggestion of her coworkers (and her boss, who felt she was spending too much time entertaining and too little sewing), she spent her off-hours singing for loose change on the streets.

    According to a neighbor in Paris, Anna got a job singing at a little Jewish theater as well. Mrs. Joseph Kutzen spoke to a Detroit newspaper in 1908, by which time Anna had become the queen of musical comedy. "I taught her 'The Cuckoo Song,'" Mrs. Kutzen reminisced, "and, oh, she made a hit." When asked if perhaps the actress she'd recently seen onstage and her little Parisian neighbor were two different girls, Mrs. Kutzen drew herself up and snapped, "Haven't I taken her across my knee often enough to know her, no matter how she has grown up? Spanked her? Cuddled her? I should say I have."

    Looking back through rose-colored glasses, Anna referred to this time as "the happiest days of my life," perhaps remembering the early weeks of her love affair with Paris. At night, after her workday had ended, Anna sold flowers for a franc or two per bunch on the boulevards, singing her heart out. "My clothes were ragged and torn, and I slept in a little attic room, which was cold and barren," she said of these "happy" days. She had her regular customers, wealthy men who would slip her an extra franc for a song or perhaps a kiss, though Anna seems to have been lucky enough to escape having to give them more than that.

    Sometime around 1884, Maurice Held died at a hôtel-Dieu, or charity hospital. He was buried in a pauper's grave, and Anna and her mother were at a loss as to their future. Yvonne recalled having a paternal aunt in London, so the two women packed up and took the train and ferry across the channel, despite being largely unable to speak English. When they arrived at the aunt's home, she had moved, leaving no forwarding address. Once again, the two immigrants were alone in a strange country.

    London's small Jewish community had exploded in numbers throughout that decade, the poorer settling in the slums of Whitechapel (it was here that Jack the Ripper conducted his brief reign of terror in 1888 and 1889). The charity organizations were overwhelmed, and in the cold winter of 1883-84, coal strikes resulted in large numbers of starving homeless, Jews and gentiles alike, wandering the East End.

    The Whitechapel that Anna and her mother moved into in the mid-1880s could only have reinforced her love of Paris. Whitechapel was a veritable medieval horror of ancient, crumbling buildings overhanging narrow, winding streets. Dubious shops competed with pushcarts selling food and other necessities. Sad, frightened families, many (like Anna and her mother) not able to speak English, were huddled in garrets and cellars, wandering the streets in search of someone from their home country who could help them. The cold, the fog, and the overcrowding all contributed to illness, and Yvonne Held already was not very healthy. There were synagogues and government organizations to help as best they could, but one had to find them and wait in very, very long lines.

    Happily, Anna was fluent in Yiddish and that saved her life. A curious blend of Hebrew and German (with dollops of Polish, Russian, French, and other languages thrown in over the centuries), Yiddish was the secular language of many Eastern European Jews. Yiddish theater had been flourishing since the 1870s, due largely to its three most prominent proponents, all of whom would play roles in Anna's life: Jacob Adler, Yisrol Gradner, and Avrom Goldfaden. Goldfaden was a teacher, journalist, and poet who teamed up with folksinger Gradner in 1876 and began writing, adapting, and performing Yiddish plays throughout Romania. Within a few years, the two split up and toured in competing companies. In 1879 Adler, then only twenty-four years old, cofounded a Yiddish theater troupe in Odessa. Competition between these three men was often cutthroat.

    In 1883 Yiddish theater was officially outlawed by Alexander III, and the theatrical community fled along with their fellow Jews. Most of them landed in London, where Yiddish theater quickly caught on. Hordes of people hungry for entertainment, for Yiddish, and for the company of fellow refugees flocked to the shows. Even wealthier Jews from London's West End began to show up, and by the mid-1880s there was a flourishing Jewish theatrical community in Whitechapel. Describing his work at this time, Adler said, "our life together had ... the heart-warming spirit of the commune.... We laughed together, ate, drank, jested together." Adler's company specialized in dramatic plays, while Goldfaden leaned more toward lighter musicals.

    In late 1885 Jacob Adler moved into Smith's Theater at 3 Prince's Street. This became the headquarters of London's Yiddish theater for the next two years. The company played every night (except Fridays, of course), and Adler's people were paid a fixed salary, an unusually generous practice at the time. Although the plays (and performers) were largely secular, the company was closely monitored by the religious community to make sure they didn't do anything offensive to observant Jews.

    Anna later said her entrance to the theatrical world came through a neighbor who managed a local theater. Knowing how ill her mother was, he asked Anna if she'd like a job. "Yes, but I don't know what to do," she answered. By this time, though, she was hardly an amateur, having worked as a street singer for some time (more than a generation later, Edith Piaf would come to fame via that same route). For five shillings a night, Anna joined the chorus of Yisrol Gradner's company, eventually working her way up to bit parts. ("I was so young the only way they could use me was to dress me up as an old woman. I must have played all the silent old women in the Jewish repertory.") Anna's coworkers later remembered Yvonne Held accompanying Anna to work several times to make sure it was respectable enough for her daughter. It was more than that: Gradner ran a tight ship, and Anna was much safer in his theater than in the garment factories.

    Safe from sexual advances, anyway, but not from jealous chorus girls. Anna had only been with Gradner three weeks, she recalled, when she was attacked backstage by a fellow chorine, jealous of her quick rise. Anna stayed home for a week with two black eyes and various bruises, "but the attack only seemed to make sympathy for me. The manager began giving me parts to play and songs to sing, and my salary increased."

    It was around this time that Yvonne Held died, leaving Anna an orphan—she was twelve years old, according to her own chronology, but probably actually in her mid teens. Anna had saved just enough money to give her mother a decent burial but not more than that. Then, shortly after he'd moved into Smith's Theater, Jacob Adler spotted Anna and stole her away for his own company. He was the first to notice something really special, some incipient star quality, in her. "There was so much coquetry in her speech," he later wrote; "she spoke each word with such sweet glances, looking at whomever she addressed with such graciousness and moving her clear white fingers in a manner so adorable, it was impossible to resist her enchantment."

    Little "Hannelah" became the pet of Smith's Theater. She was befriended by actress Dinah Feinman, who loaned the poorly dressed girl shoes and dresses to wear onstage. It was a close-knit community. There was Adler, of course, as well as leading men Max Rosenthal and Max Radkinson, and actresses Fanny Epstein, Sophia Goldstein, and the dark, attractive Jennye Kaiser. Anna was soon supplanted as the company's up-and-coming starlet by Kaiser, who became the married Adler's mistress and the mother of his child. Within a few years Anna would have good reason to empathize with Adler's actress-wife Sonya. Tragically, Sonya Adler died in childbirth in 1885, and Jennye vanished from Adler's life (she herself later became a theatrical producer).

    Anna's story about being only twelve years old is made even less likely when one considers that her first major role with the company was the lead in the dramatic folk opera Shulamith. The work had been written and first performed some years before by Avrom Goldfaden, based on a fable about a girl whose fiancé forgets her and marries another. Shulamith's curse causes the death of the couple's children, and the wife gives her husband up; the old lovers are reunited (though one doubts they lived happily ever after). Anna's street-trained voice was put to use in this show: One of the numbers, "Raisins and Almonds," had already become a popular folk song. It was her first major role and Anna was terrified. She was only given the chance because Adler's current leading lady had left without giving notice. Anna hurriedly learned her lines and songs and was practically pushed out onstage to make her debut as a leading actress. The jealous chorus girls in the company may have been plotting her demise, but the more professional members of the company helped Anna out, prompting her in whispers when she went up in her lines, patting her on the back behind the scenes, and bucking her up enough to get through that first night. She was enough of a hit in Shulamith that she went on to appear in other shows with Adler's company: Bar Kochba (a drama about the Maccabean rebellion), a Yiddish-language version of the popular hit The Ticket-of-Leave Man, and others.

    Anna's days with Adler's company ended on January 18, 1887, when Smith's Theater burned to the ground during a performance of Gypsy Girl. Seventeen people (most of them women and children) died in the ensuing panic, many from suffocation or from being trampled. This tragedy seemed to take the heart out of London's Yiddish theater community. Jacob Adler sailed for New York later that year, where he went on to become the founder of a great theatrical dynasty.

    After the fire Anna left London and returned to her beloved Paris, where she acted with former Adler costar Max Rosenthal, who'd formed his own theatrical company. She later joined Avrom Goldfaden (she may have already been familiar with his work, as Goldfaden had run the El Dorado Theater in Warsaw during Anna's youth). A director told her she would never get very far with the failing Yiddish theater company and suggested she work up some songs and routines and enter the music hall. "I did, and so I succeeded," she succinctly summed up, making it seem like child's play. Actually, the next five years were ones of hard work, travel, competition, and fighting to avoid becoming a kept woman. The late 1880s were a booming time for music halls, which meant both more opportunities and more competition for Anna. Through hard work, clearheaded planning, and the wits to make herself different and noticeable, Anna Held joined the group of colorful performers who made late-nineteenth-century Paris so vibrant.

    Cafés chantants were establishments peculiar to France; first popularized in the 1700s, these were coffee houses and cafés featuring live entertainment. By the late 1880s, there were dozens thriving on the main Paris boulevards, patronized by families, tourists, and playboys alike. The Eldorado, the Chatelet, and La Scala (a high-class establishment at 13 Boulevard de Strasbourg) were among the most popular, but the plush, glittering Folies-Bergère, which had opened in 1869 at 32 Rue Richer, was the goal of ambitious young singers. At the same time, grittier cafes were opening in Montmartre and the Latin Quarter (Le Mirliton, La Chat Noir, Le Moulin Rouge). Anna had to compete with established singers, dancers, comics, and various other assorted acts. Anna had beauty, freshness and youth going for her. One writer on the period noted that café chantant singers tended to vary between "beefy, middle-aged females" and "libertine little lambs.... Most of the favorites had little education, depending for success largely on spontaneity and pungent individuality." Anna had plenty of both, as well as a steely determination to succeed and an astounding amount of energy.

    Some of the most successful artistes were ladies better known as "grandes horizontales." Ballerina Liane de Pougy and dancers La Belle Otero and Cleo de Merode got acres of press coverage and attracted rowdy audiences more because of their reputations as courtesans than their onstage talents. All these ladies were vituperative in defending their professional credentials, however: De Merode said of Otero, "She was no dancer; she was a cocotte, a woman of the streets; she would sleep with anybody willing to pay her price." For her part, Otero dismissed a rival named Carmencita with, "There are plenty of Carmencitas in Europe. Every tom cat knows a Carmencita there."

    There were also the "professional beauties": society girls, minor royalty, and ladies-about town whose postcards were sold in shops and some of whom—notably Lillie Langtry—tried for stage careers. Writer John Brown remembered them as "ladies who, when they went driving in the park, would have people leaping up on chairs and benches, in order that they might catch a better glimpse of them as they passed." Among the more successful performers of the day were the ethereal dancer Jane Avril, the Dutch-born "exotic" dancer Mata Hari, the brilliant and innovative Loïe Fuller (famed for her colorful and abstract "Butterfly Dance"), and the chubby, self-destructive Louise Weber, known as La Gouloue ("the glutton"). Perhaps the most bizarre act during Anna's reign in the Paris music halls was that of Joseph Pujol, known as Le Petomane (loosely translated as "The Fartomaniac"). Through amazing intestinal control, he was able to sing, do imitations, play instruments, and blow out candles with his nether regions. "They fell over themselves to hear him," recalled singer Yvette Guilbert, "and the laughter, shouting, the women's shrieking and the whole hysterical din could be heard a hundred yards away."

    Anna's main competition was not Le Petomane but Guilbert herself, described by one writer as "the embodiment of seduction." Thin, vibrating with energy, Guilbert was about Anna's age and came to fame about the same time. Like Anna, she was more of an actress than a singer; her voice was thin and nasal (the same was said of Anna's own voice), and she sang low songs of love, the rough life, and contemporary scandals. Though she traveled the world, her fame was more confined to Paris than Anna's was. Her biographer noted that Guilbert's character numbers "were biting or sardonic rather than gross; a few even glowed with pity or chastised with wit, but always it was a degraded or morbid side of life they were preoccupied with. These were songs with a glitter all their own, though undeniably a darkened glitter."

    Anna was a diamond to Guilbert's black pearl. Anna sang naughty, sinful ballads and childish double entendres, but, unlike Guilbert's, her numbers did not deal with subjects like the guillotine, abortion, and betrayal. But as different and fresh as Anna tried to make herself, there were always comparisons drawn. One reviewer rather inaccurately noted that Anna's songs were "much the same order as those of Guilbert, and for the most part deal with things which are not the ordinary subjects of conversation in polite society. She sings about the frayed edges of humanity, the sinful and unfortunate of both sexes." Anna became frantic with rage when she was called a Guilbert imitator and was far from happy when one critic wrote that comparing Anna to Guilbert was like comparing "a trick horse with a Bach fugue." For her part, Anna could be as catty as the next actress. "I am very fond of Yvette," she told a newspaper reporter. "She is a good comrade, but—well, remember.... I do not say anything from jealousy—I do not admire her. She is an artist, yes, but she has no voice." Anna sweetly added, "I am very fond of her, though. She is a good fellow."

    Anna did not confine her act to Paris but also traveled with music hall troupes and alone back to London, to Holland, Berlin, and smaller towns around France. She had a bad reception while playing Amsterdam, where she was mistaken for a woman who'd recently been paroled from jail after killing a policeman and had taken to the stage. This was compensated for by a wonderful tour of Norway around 1890, where she got to chat with Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen in Norwegian ("I was very adept at acquiring languages," Anna noted modestly) and to see the midnight sun. She was so dazzled by the sight that she went out for a late-night frolic behind her hotel and was so intent on sky-gazing that she knocked herself out on a low-hanging branch.

    She also returned to London, where she was featured in their popular, rowdy music halls. The London stars were bouncy and often coarse but essentially innocent, and audiences saw Anna's French double entendres as pleasantly shocking. The popular British singers of her day included jolly, bucktoothed Marie Lloyd and her lovely sister Alice, bumptious Cissy Loftus, male impersonators Vesta Tilley and Vesta Victoria, cockney Kate Carney, and such now-forgotten artistes as Billie Barlow, Katie Lawrence, and May Yohe. There was nothing quite like Anna Held in London, and audiences took her to their hearts. There was little outrage over her naughty lyrics or eye-rolling; it was all taken in good fun, and Anna felt more and more secure in her act.

    By 1893 Anna was a minor star and had many male admirers; she banked their gifts of money and wore their jewels. She developed a good relationship with Edouard Marchand, director of the Folies-Bergère and manager of La Scala. Marchand was the first director to emphasize pretty girls at the Folies-Bergère, and he often hired Anna to headline at his two glittering theaters (though, unlike Yvette Guilbert, Anna avoided the smaller, darker establishments of Montmartre). She was no innocent flower by this time, though she had certainly avoided (through smart money management and old-fashioned morals) becoming a grande horizontale like Otero or de Pougy. Still, no one had really captured Anna's heart.

    Then in 1893 she met Maximo Carrera, a rather notorious playboy-about-Paris. He didn't look the part; nearing fifty, he was rather short and balding, with dark, flashing eyes and a walrus mustache. He spotted her first: Every night he would appear in a box seat for Anna's performance and leave after her last curtain call. According to their daughter, Anna openly flirted with him from the stage. She spotted her still anonymous admirer again while performing in Trouville; an actress in a more paranoid time might have labeled him a stalker. But Anna was charmed, and the two got acquainted in the gambling casino at Trouville's Hôtel de Paris.

    Carrera was of Spanish descent, but his family had lived in Uruguay for decades. He'd been in that country's army but was now living the life of a stage-door Johnny and hard-gambling playboy in Paris, while his two older sisters managed their large tobacco plantation back in Uruguay. He lived in a huge bachelor apartment on the Champs-Élysées and had a troupe of mistresses flocking in and out. His daughter later reminisced that "he was reputed to have in and around Paris some twenty mistresses, every one kept in great luxury." He was also a confirmed gambler, and for the first time Anna got a close look at the addiction that was to cause such grief in both of her marriages. Carrera's indulgent sisters sent him sufficient funds to cover his debts, but he put little aside for his own future.

    It was around this same time that Anna bought her own home, a four-story townhouse at 86 rue de Faubourg Saint-Honoré. It stood just across the grand boulevard from the beautiful, ornate Élysée Palace, the residence of France's presidents. From her front windows, Anna could view crowds of tourists, the comings and goings of the world's politicians, the handsome red-uniformed guards at the gate. (The house was also just up the street from the site of the infamous 1847 scandal at 55 rue de Faubourg Saint-Honoré. It was there that the Duchesse de Praslin was murdered by her husband, a crime which inspired the novel and film All This and Heaven Too.) Anna's apartments were a riot of eighteenth-century French furniture—both real and faux—all curlicues shining with gilt. Lace curtains and tablecloths, heavily framed paintings, and shelves holding knickknacks from her travels filled the space. One reporter described it as "an exquisite little home of the bijou type ... its furnishings in blue and white and gold and as delicate as those of a fairy bower." And, like a fairy bower, its bathing facilities were somewhat primitive. Anna had running water in the downstairs kitchen but just couldn't see her way to spending for a modern bathroom. Her dressing room faced the back courtyard, which contained the block's communal water supply. Her cabinet de toilette was a folding screen covered in red cambric with a sunburst design; this was set up to hide her large bathtub. Anna's maids carried water up from the courtyard, and Anna sprinkled the tub with either bran, cornstarch, or salt, depending on her mood. After soaking, she'd sponge herself with perfumed water, and the poor maids had to empty the tub—accidents were not uncommon. After fame and fortune descended on Anna, she finally updated her bathing facilities to the extent of arranging for a large hose to pump water from the courtyard directly to her dressing room, but she never did opt for the hot-and-cold running water that most wealthy people thought essential by the early years of the twentieth century.

    It's not likely that Anna was able to buy her new house—in what is still one of Paris's most fashionable districts—on her own. She had quite a respectable bank account, but the savings and salary of an up-and-coming variety artist could not come close to affording such luxury. Since Anna bought the house shortly after meeting Maximo Carrera, it's fairly safe to assume that he at least helped her with the purchase price, if not the whole amount.

    Then, suddenly, Anna put her career on hold and unexpectedly married Carrera. It was an odd match on both sides: Why would the career-obsessed Anna, fawned over by men in a half-dozen countries, marry a middle-aged gambler with dozens of mistresses? And why would the notorious playboy (but nominal Catholic) Carrera marry a Jewish variety actress? The explanation seems to be an old one and a simple one: Their daughter, Liane Carrera, was about to be born. Her birth supposedly came in 1895, but the timing seems a bit off. Anna and Carrera married, so they said, in Trouville in the spring of 1894, and Liane was said to be born about a year later. But Anna had returned to the stage with great success by February 1895, and her movements can be followed from then on. Even if Liane had been born in January of that year, February was a bit soon for Anna to be back onstage. So it would appear that Liane got in just under the wire and that Anna had insisted on marriage when she discovered her predicament.

    There were immediate problems with Anna's new in-laws. Carrera's sisters in Uruguay looked the other way when their rapscallion brother gambled and kept mistresses, but when he married a music hall girl, it was the last straw. It was probably at this time that Anna converted to Catholicism, for many reasons. One of them may have been, of course, genuine religious belief in her new faith. But the fact that Anna was never seen near a church and never made reference to her religion other than denying her Judaism does not indicate a sincere belief in Catholicism. And Anna's insistence—even in the face of so many facts—that she was born Catholic leads one to believe there were deeper forces at work as well.

    For one thing, the Carreras never would have let Maximo marry a Jewess. For another, anti-Semitism was growing by leaps and bounds in Anna's Paris of the early 1890s. A particularly nasty political campaign was fought on anti-Jewish feeling in 1890, and in 1893 the failure of the Panama Canal Company was blamed on influential Jews. The following year the epoch-making Dreyfus Affair began gaining public notice. In 1894 Capt. Alfred Dreyfus of the army general staff was arrested for passing information to Germany. He was convicted and sent to Devil's Island (though many felt that he deserved execution).

    Dreyfus's Jewishness became a huge issue in this case, which dominated public discussion when it became clear by 1897 that he had been railroaded. Emile Zola's incendiary newspaper commentary in early 1898 brought the case back to court (and into the streets, where deadly anti-Jewish riots took place). Dreyfus was finally pardoned in 1899. But from 1894 till well into the twentieth century, anti-Dreyfusards cluttered the newspapers and streets with violent anti-Semitism. Many felt—and said—that Dreyfus's fellow Jews had exerted pressure to get him released. All in all, France was becoming a less friendly place for Jews as the nineteenth century closed.

    Anna had already seen her family run out of Poland; they had been secure and patriotic, well liked and "safe." Anna could see it all easily happening again, being forced to leave her beloved adopted homeland because she was a Jew (and events of the 1940s prove she was not just being paranoid). Her parents were dead, she had no relatives, her name didn't sound Jewish; it was very simple for Anna to become an instant "cradle Catholic." Life suddenly became a lot easier for her—until, of course, childhood acquaintances and early coworkers began showing up and shooting their mouths off to the newspapers.

    But Anna never backed down. She spun an imaginary childhood for herself and shamelessly reminisced about it. Early in her fame she invented a fanciful tale about her favorite childhood Christmas. She was given permission, she recalled, to leave "the convent," to join her parents on vacation in Germany. The train was delayed outside of Nuremburg and a farmer put them up in "a dear, old-fashioned place, with immense porcelain stoves and furniture." The farmer dressed as St. Nick and the Helds had dinner and spent the night. "I bear few Christmases in mind more clearly than I do this one," she sighed. She never made any kind of anti-Semitic statements, but Anna was firm in her story. When a newspaper offered to reunite her with her old Paris neighbors the Kutzens, she said, "No, I do not know them. Tell them I am not a Jew," and changed the subject.

    She had become Anna Carrera in name only; the couple never lived together. Anna wanted to return to her burgeoning stage career, and Carrera wanted a quiet little housewife who would stay at home, bear children, and look the other way at the goings-on in the Champs-Élysées apartment. Almost immediately, the two began to amicably drift apart. Both had played their role in the social game, had given Liane a name, and had no hard feelings for each other. But they hardly considered themselves man and wife.

    The Carreras back in Uruguay may also have had something to do with the breakup of the marriage. Maximo Carrera's sisters severely reduced his allowance, making it quite clear that his new wife was not welcome in their family. But it was too late for that: The very-Catholic family did not believe in divorce, and there Carrera agreed with his sisters. Anna and Maximo never divorced, but they never lived together either. It was a marriage in name only, and accomplished its purpose of saving their daughter from being illegitimate. Divorce had been legalized in France in 1884, but it was still highly irregular and unpopular. The only causes for divorce were adultery, cruelty, slander, or criminal conviction, and Anna and Carrera were on such good terms that neither wanted accuse the other of those crimes.

    Anna and her husband remained cordial, but by the end of 1894 he was back to his mistresses and whatever gambling he could still afford, and Anna was back at her old stand, competing with Yvette Guilbert for audiences' affections. It's a good thing the Carreras remained on friendly terms: As a married woman, Anna had no say over her own money. Not until 1895 could a woman even withdraw money from a bank without her husband's permission, and until the early 1900s married women did not "own" anything they themselves had earned. Happily, though, there were few financial quarrels between Anna and her husband, and those were several years in the future.

    There were also few quarrels on what to do with their baby daughter: She was promptly sent off to a wet nurse in Rueil, then a good two hours' ride from central Paris. Aside from a visit or two when convenient, both of her parents pretty much forgot about her for the next few years. When she was old enough, Liane and her pet puppy were sent to the Pension Gelot, a boarding school in Neuilly run by two elderly women. Liane herself later claimed that her two aunts in Uruguay wanted to adopt her but that her father fought them "tooth and nail." Liane idolized her father, though, and her claims must be viewed with some suspicion. She was clearly hurt by her mother's abandonment: "It was practically the life of a princess in a fairy tale that my beautiful mother was living," she later wrote with some bitterness. "Everywhere the whole world was at her feet. Why should an old man or an insignificant child intrude?"

    Anna's career had lost some momentum with her year-and-a-half break. Finally, in February 1895, she introduced a newly tooled act. No longer did she sing of the sadness of love and the futility of life. The new Anna Held was all gaiety, champagne, naughtiness, and high kicks. She discovered a talent for suggestively using her arms, and especially her large, expressive eyes. No more ragged, plain clothes and simply tied-back hair. She spent as much as possible on flouncy, low-cut dresses and jewels, and she accentuated her full, unruly hair with huge feathered hats and side-combs.

    Her songs were still of love, but of the kind of love tourists in France want to hear about: naughty boulevard girls, loose actresses, bits of fluff on the side. Her biggest hit was "Die Kleine Schrecke," which she'd learned at the Berlin Wintergarten; German audiences enjoyed hearing something in their own language, and Anna's stumbling linguistic mistakes were considered cute. Back in England, she had the childishly naughty song translated, and it became her biggest hit:


I wish you'd come and play with me, For I have such a way with me, A way with me, a way with me, I have such a nice little way with me, Do not think it wrong. I should like you to play with me, To play with me, to play with me, I should like you to play with me, Play with me all the day long.


It was a cute, lilting tune, and Anna's eye-rolling, shoulder-wiggling rendition brought down the house. She would choose a susceptible-looking man from the "bald-head row" and direct the song to him, much to his delighted embarrassment. "Won't You Come and Play with Me?" soon became her theme, and audiences demanded it at every show—she eventually had to have special encores written for her curtain calls. Another hit song was "Le Colignon," for which Anna dressed as a tough Parisian cab driver, complete with whip and tight pants. She also sang a postage-stamp number; in a frothy white ballet dress covered with stamps, she suggested her audience come up and "lick" her. Not only did her fans throw bouquets to her, but many a man, carried away in his enthusiasm, threw his pocket watch. Anna kept these in her French bank vault back at the Credit Lyonaisse and after a few years had quite a collection.

    Audiences may have been charmed by Anna's new persona, but moralists were not. One noted that Yvette Guilbert "was not risqué for the mere purpose of purveying impropriety that would attract audiences, a plan which comprises Anna Held's sole conception of art." Anna's new act, unlike Guilbert's (and her own former) songs of the slums and life in the raw, shocked this particular reviewer: "Such winks, shrugs, wriggles, kicks and grimaces accompanied by words freighted by insolently impure meaning, convey impressions that cannot be described without impropriety." Readers did not wait to have them described; they lined up at the theater to be pleasantly shocked for themselves.

    She was becoming something of a public figure and was interviewed and photographed more often for the popular press. Anna's habit of riding horses astride, wearing a split skirt, caused much comment, and in 1896 when the bicycling craze hit, Anna became one of Paris's most enthusiastic cyclers—again in her scandalous split skirt. Enough modern, devil-may-care women had begun wearing these "culottes" that the minister of the interior released a statement that "the wearing of masculine clothes by women is only tolerated for the purposes of velocipedic sport."

    New York theater critic Alan Dale saw Anna perform in 1895 and brought Americans their first mention of her. After noting that her name was on posters all over town, Dale said that "she came on late—like all star attractions," and when he later briefly met her, he reported that "Miss Held is young and comely, and as far as I could discover she has no very exalted views to profess.... I like that." Anna's presence was also requested at benefits. She wasn't paid for these performances, but it was quite an honor to be asked to help out fellow artists, war widows, the unemployed. Only top stars were on these bills, and Anna began developing a social conscience. For the rest of her life, she would take time off from touring to appear at bazaars and benefits.

    By the summer of 1896 Anna was headlining at London's Palace Theater of Varieties. Newspapers that season noted that she had been "the rage of Paris and London" for more than a year, billing to her as a "café-concert singer." The article also noted that she combined "the talent and originality of Yvette Guilbert with beauty of a remarkably high order." Her voice, it was said, "has melody," and she herself possessed "an ability to use it intelligently." Anna was used to receiving flowers from her fans, so when bouquets from someone named Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. began arriving, she took little notice. Even the diamond bracelet attached to the bouquet made little impression. It took a good bribe to the stage doorman to get Ziegfeld into Anna's dressing room. One night after her performance, he simply burst in unannounced and—with an enthusiasm unusual even for an American—proceeded to sweep her off her feet.


While Anna Held and her parents had been struggling for a living in the slums of Europe, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. was being raised in the lap of upper-middle-class luxury in Chicago, Illinois. He was born on March 21, 1867, making him perhaps a year or two older than Anna. He was the eldest child of the German-born Florenz Ziegfeld Sr. and his French-born wife, Rosalie de Hez. By 1875 the family also included younger siblings Carl, William, and Louise. Ziegfeld Sr. spent much of the late 1860s trying to establish himself in the music business: He had a rickety music school above the Crosby Opera House, published music and sold instruments with Ziegfeld, Gerard, and Co., and finally opened the Chicago Musical Academy in 1867. The school started small but—like Chicago itself—grew by leaps and bounds and by 1871 was a respectable concern.

    That was the year of the disastrous Chicago fire, the blame for which myth lays upon Mrs. O'Leary's cow. Myth also says that Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. developed his love of colorful spectacle by watching his hometown burn from his family's perch under a bridge in Lake Park. Chicago was rebuilt, and so was the Chicago Musical College, as it was renamed in 1872. Ziegfeld scored a coup that year by enticing famed composer Johann Strauss to participate in the Boston Peace Jubilee. While Flo Jr. grew up, his father became one of Chicago's leading citizens, his Musical College the most successful and elite of its kind in the area.

    Ziegfeld Jr. was basically a spoiled rich kid with a lot of charm. He did his lessons sporadically and with no good grace, working for his father while attending Ogden High School in the early 1880s. After graduating, he was sent out west to "become a man," probably because his boundless energy and lack of respect for his father's business was driving his parents to distraction. From the older generation's point of view, this trip was a mistake: Flo Jr. fell in with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and the Chicago Musical College seemed even duller by comparison.

    Back home, he buckled down to work as assistant treasurer for his father's college (he couldn't have been a very good one, as his later life shows he had no more financial sense than a goose). As a wealthy young playboy, Ziegfeld divided his free time between dancing and dating, and trying out his own show-business schemes. These included the infamous (and possibly apocryphal) Dancing Ducks of Denmark, an appalling act in which the ducks "danced" in a gas-heated cage. There was also the bowl of water billed as "The Invisible Brazilian Fish" (not even the dumbest rubes fell for that one).

    Ziegfeld's big break came with the Columbian Exposition of 1893, which was held in Chicago and which his father saw as a great opportunity to introduce hordes of tourists to his college. Ziegfeld Sr. and Theodore Thomas were put in charge of the fair's many and varied musical programs, and Ziegfeld entrusted his son with rounding up some of the talent. In late 1892 Ziegfeld Jr. sailed for Europe and began booking acts: There wasn't enough money for the classical orchestras and famed pianists and violinists his father would have preferred, so young Ziegfeld improvised.

    The acts that he brought back to Chicago included the Von Bulow Military Band, the Muhlemann Swiss Mountaineer Trio, Iwanoff's Russian Singers and Dancers, and myriad European music hall performers: jugglers, magicians, acrobats. Ziegfeld Sr. was not pleased, and for good reason. His personal exhibition, peopled by these acts, flopped. Tourists were more interested in seeing Little Egypt do the hoochie-coochie, wasting money at the gambling halls, or visiting the breathtaking architectural and mechanical wonders of the fair.

    So in the summer of 1893, Ziegfeld Sr. sent his son to New York to scout out some more promising and audience-drawing acts. In a move calculated to annoy his father, young Ziegfeld zeroed in on Eugen Sandow, a German-born strongman performing at the Casino Theater, under the management of one Rudolph Aronson. Sandow is generally dismissed as an empty-headed pretty boy, but he was actually a brilliant businessman who invented and popularized the modern concepts of the gym and bodybuilding. That he was also breathtakingly handsome was the icing on the cake.

    Ziegfeld's genius for promotion and for guessing just what the audience wanted kicked in. He bought Sandow's contract and, in August of 1893, he presented the new act at the Chicago World's Fair. Rather than the run-of-the-mill weight lifting and posing, Ziegfeld "glorified" his new acquisition, with a combination of sex and spectacular nonsense: Both of these elements would later play a role in Anna's success as well. Sandow performed eye-catching stunts, such as lifting a man with the palm of his hand, wrestling three takers at once, and hefting a barbell containing a man in each "bell."

    The sex part of the act was even more effective: For one thing, Sandow posed dressed in little more than a thong (in many of his postcards he wore nothing at all). And Ziegfeld invited prominent ladies backstage to politely grope the agreeable muscle-man. It was all a huge success, and at the end of his Chicago run Ziegfeld packed up his new star and took him on the road. Ziegfeld, Sandow, and their little troupe of second-string performers toured successfully through the end of 1895 (the only disaster being a lion-fighting act wherein the tired old lion collapsed upon entering the ring). In 1894 Ziegfeld took Sandow to Thomas Edison's laboratory in New Jersey, where a brief film immortalized him.

    But the independent-minded Sandow moved on, and by early in 1896 Ziegfeld found himself in New York with no act. There he met Charles Evans, coauthor and costar of the long-running comedy A Parlor Match. The show had opened in 1884, featuring Evans and his brother-in-law, William Hoey, as a couple of ne'er-do-wells trying to bilk a rich mark out of his fortune. The show was very loosely constructed, which is why it was able to tour the United States for nearly ten years: New material and new performers were added from town to town, without disturbing the plot. The popular songs "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo" and "Daisy Bell" (better known as "A Bicycle Built for Two") were first introduced to the public via A Parlor Match.

    Ziegfeld had the idea of reviving A Parlor Match, with its original stars and some flashy new talent. It seems Ziegfeld could talk anyone into anything, as he would prove time and again. His enthusiasm infected Evans and Hoey, and the two wealthy stars agreed to his plans. Ziegfeld and Evans sailed for Europe to scout new talent for the revival (and to cut a swath through Paris: Both men were young, handsome, and full of mischief). While in London, the two met up with T.D. "Teddy" Marks, well known as a snappy dresser, boulevardier, and incidentally a theatrical manager. When Marks heard what Ziegfeld and Evans's mission was, he directed them to the Palace Theater, where Anna Held was performing. It was a tip that would change both Anna's and Ziegfeld's lives in ways no one could imagine. It was like nitro meeting glycerine.

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Anna Held and the Birth of Ziegfeld's Broadway 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is a teriffic piece of broadway history. I think, generally, if any of us know anything about Anna Held, we think of Louise Rainer in the 'Great Ziegfeld'. Actually, before Ziegfeld, there WAS Anna Held and this is a fascinating potrait of a quirky, delightful woman who through hard work and discipline made it to the top of her profession. Her relationship with her child is peculiar and interesting. Unfortunately, Anna seems to have been born without a bit of maternal instinct. This biography is quite interesting and written in an intelligent, witty manner. You won't regret reading this.