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.”