The Broadway impresario’s ‘maelstrom of mirth.’Sep 7, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 48 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
Although I was a frequenter of burlesque in its last days, with its comedians, strippers, and feeble orchestra—the Casino Theater in Boston was a good escape from the toils of graduate English at Harvard—I knew little about its more dignified ancestor, the Ziegfeld Follies. So this account of the man and his work was new territory, even though that territory has been pretty fully covered already by Charles Higham’s (1972) and Ethan Mordden’s (2008) biographies.
Cynthia and Sara Brideson propose to examine Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.’s “multi-layered relationship with his stars, his friends, and his lovers, paired with an examination of the productions, innovations, and content.” Such an examination, they believe, “comes as close as possible to revealing Ziegfeld the man.” In the introduction, they engage in some uncharacteristic wordplay by calling their book “primarily the story of Ziegfeld’s personal follies” which, along with his productions, made his name “a brand that would endure forever.”
Forever is a long time. Ziegfeld, for awhile, was Ziegfeld Jr., his father being the head of a classical music “college” in Chicago and an intimidating “Prussian autocrat” (as someone called him) whose musical tastes held no interest for his son. After working for a time with his father, Florenz Jr. launched as an investigator of more popular forms of entertainment, as they were to be found in New York, London, and Paris. In Chicago, the burlesque appealed to audiences more than higher forms of musical presentation. By the turn of the last century, Florenz Ziegfeld became, according to one historian, “a figure who could fuse naughty sexuality . . . with the savoir-faire of lobster palace society.” The Bridesons take seriously the claim that Ziegfeld raised things to a higher plane and rid burlesque of its low origins.
In Paris, he discovered the first of his “women,” Anna Held, who became a popular star of his earlier revues. The biographers conceive the scene of discovery as follows: “Strolling along the boulevards of Paris while on his honeymoon” (he and Anna were never legally married, since she was already married), Ziegfeld found himself “increasingly enamored with the city’s revues. The shows included tasteful nudity and a joie de vivre that electrified audiences.”
If you can swallow the phrase “tasteful nudity” without smirking, you will also believe that the shows “electrified” audiences and that Ziegfeld became “enamored” with them. The writing here is typical of the popular style in which the biography is told, and a reader must put up with the repeated use of “comedic” as an all-purpose word and “disinterested” to mean not interested.
One will also keep a straight face, more or less, when hearing about a musical comedy from an early revue of Ziegfeld’s, The Parisian Model, in which Anna Held starred and which contained a song titled “Won’t You Be My Teddy Bear?” This number was inspired by the teddy bear craze attendant on President Theodore Roosevelt’s refusing to shoot a bear that had been tied to a tree, and it featured two children dressed as bears and six chorus girls sitting astride fake bears. The biographers call it “a wholesome act in the midst of a risqué show.” Roosevelt must have felt it wholesome enough to have invited Ziegfeld and Anna out to dinner more than once.
Ziegfeld’s finances were always in chaotic shape. His favorite and frequent escapes from economic rigors were expensive cars, splendid clothes, and lots of gambling. Early in the last century, he and Anna took a suite at the famous Ansonia Hotel on upper Broadway, the hotel featuring a lobby fountain with live seals, 2,500 rooms, staircases of green marble, and serving kitchens on every floor. Ziegfeld’s “decadent” apartment contained a salon, a music room, a wood-paneled library, and sizable butler’s pantry—ideal for throwing large dinner parties.
The revues were comparably lavish; for example, the Follies of 1908, which had Adam and Eve viewing the “accomplishments of their progeny.” Its most memorable production number consisted (in the Bridesons’ words) of “chorines dressed as giant mosquitoes flying through the newly-built Holland Tunnel between New York and New Jersey.”
The irresistible rise of Saul Bellow.May 25, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 35 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
Saul Bellow died in 2005, a few years after he was accorded full biographical treatment by the critic James Atlas. In 700 pages, Atlas provided a crisply written, fair-minded account of the novelist and fellow Chicagoan up through the publication of his final book, Ravelstein (2000). With some notable exceptions (Richard Poirier and James Wood), the biography was well received.
Finding sustenance in the afternoon serialsMar 9, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 25 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
Why should I, an elderly literary gent who spends much of his time reading, talking, and writing about Shakespeare or W. B. Yeats, spend an hour every weekday watching a soap opera? How odd is it that after a hardworking class teasing out the syntax and ambiguities of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, or some complicated Yeatsian lyric, I come home at noon to plunge wholeheartedly into a world not of language but of characters, of people I like or dislike? After warning students not to “identify” with Prospero or with J.
The writer as celebrity, and vice versaDec 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 14 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
Norman Mailer entered Harvard in the fall of 1939, just as World War II began. His famous novel about part of that war, The Naked and the Dead, was published in 1948, and at age 25, like Lord Byron, he awoke to find himself famous.
An English satirical talent hits his strideNov 17, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 10 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
Although Edward St. Aubyn has received handsome praise from a number of more than respectable novelists and critics, my sense is that he is still something of a secret, less known than he should be to readers who try to keep up with contemporary fiction.
Doth this ex-Ivy Leaguer protest too much?Sep 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 01 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
It's polemical title leaves us in no doubt of what to expect from this book. William Deresiewicz has written a passionate attack on everything that’s wrong with today’s elite universities and colleges and the credentialed students who attend them. He terms it “a letter to my twenty-year-old self,” who would have benefited from hearing about such matters.
A definitive life of the great American composer. May 26, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 35 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
Terry Teachout is a remarkable man of letters whose interest in the arts is multi-directed. Officially, he serves as drama critic for the Wall Street Journal and has reported on theater performances all over the country. He is also critic at large for Commentary, where he publishes a regular column covering the arts.
Apr 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 30 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
There never was a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn’t be. He is too many people, if he’s any good.
Jack London’s thousand words a day. Jan 27, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 19 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
In one of the most charming moments of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin (1957), our hero is about to be visited by a 14-year-old American boy, son of Pnin’s former (and dreadful) wife and her fraudulent lover, Dr. Eric Wind. Pnin wonders what gifts of welcome he can give young Victor, and decides that along with a football, he will provide some pleasurable reading.
The Indian summer of the Great Conductor on 85 discs. Nov 11, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 09 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
The convergence of two events has shaped my life as a music listener over the past few months. The first was a significant birthday, after which I decided to reacquaint myself with the classical records—many of them long-playing vinyl—that I’ve lived with over the decades. I resolved to spend less time listening to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and the songs Frank Sinatra recorded with Tommy Dorsey in the early 1940s, and celebrate, instead, Haydn and Brahms and Debussy.
The definitive Updike, in two volumes. Oct 21, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 07 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
There have always been readers of John Updike’s work who find his most impressive achievement to be his short fiction rather than his novels.
A second look at Evan S. Connell's domestic masterpiece.Feb 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 23 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
The death of Evan S. Connell last month prompts reflection on an American original who, over a lifetime of steady work—many volumes of novels, stories, biography, essayistic speculations—left as his permanent contribution to letters one brilliant, memorable book: the novel Mrs. Bridge, published in 1959.
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