Drama long shadowed Ziegfeld
Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. was clearly the sort of person around whom legends will form. Put him up there with P.T. Barnum and David Belasco among America’s canniest impresarios, a man who prided himself on “glorifying the American girl” in revue after revue — or follies, as many of them were called — on Broadway in the first decades of the last century and who went on to produce the first great work of American musical theater, “Show Boat.”
His advocacy was essential to the success of W.C. Fields, Will Rogers and Fanny Brice, among many others. Indeed, Ziegfeld is a leading character in “Funny Girl,” the fictionalized showbiz biography of Brice that won Barbra Streisand her first fame on Broadway and, later, an Oscar. He integrated the New York stage by casting the brilliant Bahamian comic Bert Williams in an otherwise all-white production. When some cast members complained, Ziegfeld responded that he could replace all of them “except the one you want me to fire.”
He was also a difficult, imperious man who regularly bedded his stars and chorines and refused to attend the funeral of his first wife, the Polish-born actress AnnaHeld. By then, he was married to Billie Burke, who survived him by nearly 40 years and memorialized their life together in two autobiographies. Burke also was an actress of some distinction and was reportedly furious when MGM refused to cast her as Ziegfeld’s wife in a 1936 faux-biography, “The Great Ziegfeld.” (She was past 50 at the time.) Still, she won immortality three years later when she played Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, in “The Wizard of Oz.”
“Ziegfeld and His Follies” was written by two sisters, Cynthia and Sara Brideson, who previously wrote “Also Starring ... : Forty Biographical Essays on the Greatest Character Actors ofHollywood’s Golden Era, 1930-1965.” For those with an interest in theatrical history, the newbook will recommend itself as the first detailed biography of Ziegfeld in four decades. (Ethan Mordden’s 2008 study is best described as a witty and engrossing gloss on the producer’s artistry and influence.)
There is much to enjoy in the Bridesons’ book, including 76 photographs — some of them rare, all of them evocative.
The Bridesons get most of the facts right, have assembled dates and partial cast lists for all of Ziegfeld’s productions and have had unprecedented access to the producer’s letters to Burke and their daughter, Patricia. Some of the anecdotes are hoary ones, of course, having been told and retold for more than a century, but who can resist characters with such names as A. ToxenWorm, as one hapless rival of Ziegfeld’s was christened?
A lively story of Ziegfeld’s early promotion of the professional strongman Eugen Sandow and his attempt to wrestle a “man-eating” lion deserves mention: “Sandow put up his fists as if preparing to box another man. The lion yawned at him. Sandow pulled at the big cat’s whiskers to rouse him. The lion half rose but then lay down again. Sandow then grabbed the lion’s mane, but the cat did nothing more than flick sawdust in the strongman’s face with his tail. . . . In an attempt to salvage the evening, Sandow lifted the lion as if it were a house cat and carried it around the ring. The lion seemed to enjoy being carried, which only angered the crowd more.”
As it happened, an old, infirm lion from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park had been brought in (and likely drugged) for the occasion. It would be some 20 years before Ziegfeld visited the Bay Area again, and even then, the local newspapers remembered and mocked him for his long-ago subterfuge.
Not all the writing is so lively. When Burke learned, to what cannot have been any great surprise, that Ziegfeld was once again involved with another actress, the Bridesons indulge in special pleading: “Her faith in Ziegfeld may have seemed naive or even pathetic to cynical New Yorkers, but it was actually a sign of great strength.” Well, maybe. Of the short-lived actress Olive Thomas, we are told: “Legend has it that her restless spirit still wanders the New Amsterdam Theatre. Janitors and night watchmen claim they have seen her white, shrouded figure hovering in the halls.” Well, maybe not.
Still, for the most part, this is an agreeable book about an important figure, suffused with vignettes of the oldNewYork, a place that later New Yorkers often vainly try to pretend still surrounds them.
Tim Page, a former music critic at The Washington Post, is a professor of music and journalism at the University of Southern California.
Rosie and Jenny Dolly of the Ziegfeld Follies, circa 1912. Florenz Ziegfeld prided himself on “glorifying the American girl” on Broadway and was played byWalter Pidgeon in the film “Funny Girl.” The authors of “Ziegfeld and His Follies” had unprecedented access to Ziegfeld’s letters to his wife, Billie Burke, and their daughter.
Barbara Stanwyck, in a photo from about 1923, when she danced with the Ziegfeld Follies.
ZIEGFELD AND HIS FOLLIES A Biography of Broadway’s Greatest Producer By Cynthia Brideson and Sara Brideson Univ. Press of Kentucky. 516 pp. $40