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is impossible to discuss Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.'s development
as a showman without considering Anna Held's contribution to his life and
career. Ziegfeld got his taste in clothes, knowledge of stage presentation, and even the
idea for his Follies from her. She was one of the first celebrities to win
transatlantic fame, and a leading musical stage star for more than two
decades. It is no exaggeration to say that she was one of the most remarkable
women of her time.
Although she later insisted that she was a native Parisian,
Helene Anna Held was born in Warsaw, the daughter of a German Jewish glove maker
and his French wife. Her "official" birthday was March 18, 1873, but
some sources suggest she was born five to eight years sooner. When anti-Semitic
pogroms swept Poland in 1881, the Held family fled to Paris. When her father's
health faded (some sources suggest he was a heavy drinker), teenage Anna and her
mother had to support themselves as sweat shop seamstresses. Anna occasionally sang
in the streets to earn extra pennies.
To the Stage
Held at age 15 with her mother.
After her father's death in 1884, Anna and her mother went to live
with relatives in London. There she made her professional stage debut in the
legendary Yiddish theatre companies of Avram Goldfadn and actor-manager Jacob Adler.
She returned to Paris, where her rolling eyes, eighteen inch waist and naughty songs made
Held a major star in the finest cafes. She increased her fame by such shrewd gestures
as riding horses astride (rather than side-saddle), and by being one of the first women
to ride the newly invented bicycle and motorcar.
She had an affair with wealthy South American gambler Maximo
Carrera, and they married
barely in time to legitimize the birth of their daughter Liane sometime around
1895. The child was raised in a convent, and the uncaring parents both went back
to their separate lives. Anna's primary benefit from this marriage was that it
gave her the excuse to convert to Catholicism. While she cared little for
religion, she was anxious to escape the stigma faced by Jews in most of Europe.
It also made it easier for her to perpetuate the myth that she was a native born
French woman a claim she clung to long after the press had proven
in Paris, sometime around 1890.
Anna resumed her career, touring Germany and England with
success. She was appearing at London's Palace Music Hall in 1896 when the brash
American producer Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. bribed his way into her dressing room.
Ziegfeld wanted Held to appear in an upcoming Broadway
production, and offered her the then-staggering sum of $1,500 a week. Anxious to
get away from her husband's mounting gambling debts, Held was quite willing to
make the trip. Thanks to Ziegfeld's masterful publicity (and his
selective bribery of the press), Held's name and photo soon appeared in every
newspaper and souvenir shop in New York. By the time she arrived in the U.S., she
was a ready-made celebrity.
Held and an unidentified co-star roller-skate in
A Parlor Match.
A Parlor Match (1896) was the story of a clever hobo who hoodwinks a
gullible millionaire out of his valuables. At one point, the hobo uses a rigged
"spirit cabinet," producing performing "ghosts"
to prove that his victim's house is haunted. Held appeared as one of these phony
phantoms, singing her popular hit, "Won't You Come and Play With Me?"
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.
Her charming, suggestive delivery and outrageous French accent (the word
"with" pronounced "wiz," etc.) made a tremendous hit with the opening
night audience, and she had to sing
several encores. After the premiere a wild group of admirers (possibly paid
by Ziegfeld) unhooked Held's carriage from its horses and pulled her through the
streets. So what if most critics were less than impressed by Held's performance?
She was the talk of New York, and talk sold more tickets than reviews did.
Whenever she was
photographed, Held preferred poses that showcased her petite waist .
Always in search of a fresh publicity angle, Ziegfeld got an
idea from the milky bath mixture Held used to condition her skin. He informed the
press that Miss Held bathed in several gallons of fresh milk every day, and
reinforced the story by saying he had returned one shipment from a local
dairy because it had gone sour. The dairy owner sued Ziegfeld for libel
and the hoax was eventually revealed but Held's name made headlines
every step of the way, and soon people all across the country were clamoring to
see this semi-scandalous celebrity.
At its time, the milk bath incident 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.
- Linda Mizejewski, Ziegfeld Girl: Image and Icon in Culture and Cinema
(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), p. 41.
Over the next twelve years, Ziegfeld featured Held in
seven Broadway musicals tailored to showcase her charms. Each ran
in New York before going on tour (where most shows made their real profits at
that time), but Held's first few shows were not the smash hits she and Ziegfeld
had hoped for.
After living with Ziegfeld for over a year, Held finally wrangled a divorce
from Maximo Carerra. At a dinner party in 1897, Flo and Anna
announced to friends that they hereby considered themselves "married."
Although they never bothered with a formal ceremony, their longstanding
cohabitation made them common law spouses as of 1904. This spared Held any wrangling
with the Catholic Church (which forbade both divorce and remarriage without a costly
dispensation), and made it easier for Ziegfeld to keep his options
open -- options he would exercise before long.
On to: Held Bio - Conclusion