Jessica Walker uncovers a forgotton icon and her sexy songs
Jessica Walker makes musical theatre about forgotten women of the past. Her latest show, All I Want Is One Night, centres around sultry songstress and artist’s muse Suzy Solidor. Although you might never have heard of her, Suzy was a megastar in the 1930s. She was also wonderfully outrageous, even by today’s standards. She sang explicit ditties about lesbian sex, had multiple female lovers at the same time and regularly posed in the nuddy. I couldn’t wait to find out more about this eccentric star of yesteryear and Jessica’s exciting new play.
DIVA: I love all those fabulous performers from the old days, even more so when they’re queer! Why did you decide to make a show about Suzy Solidor?
JESSICA WALKER: She was an extraordinary woman who was not only incredibly bold and modern with her open- ended sexuality, but was also a muse for the great artists of her time. There were 225 portraits of her and she sang surrounded by the portraits.
I’ve read that she had lots of relationships with women. Was she bisexual or lesbian?
Well… she had opportunistic relationships with men who gave her lots of money but all of her long-term relationships were with women. Generally, she had several of those on the go at the same time. She had one steadfast companion, Daisy, who she treated rather badly. They’re buried together in a cemetery in the South of France. I went to see it and somebody still puts fresh roses on the grave.
I’m a fan of the artist Tamara de Lempicka and I know Suzy posed for her. Did they have an affair?
They did. Tamara de Lempicka tended to sleep with all of the people who sat for her, but Tamara was really affected by Suzy and really fell for her. Late in life, she came to see her before they both died. That affair is in my play.
Are her songs in the show as well?
Yes. The songs are extraordinary because they were written for her and they are lesbian erotic songs. That’s what she was famous for and they were actually quite rude. I’ve written English versions. What’s amazing is that she was an entirely mainstream artist in the 30s and 40s. When you think of that in the context of today – I know that Lady Gaga has released songs that are a bit gay – but I can’t think of anyone who’s done what [Suzy’s] done.
What’s her raunchiest song?
There’s one called Ouvre, which means Open, and it’s all about how she’s going to have sex with a woman, including how she’s going to gently open her legs and put her tongue somewhere. That just would not be acceptable today. She was very fearless. She did what she wanted. She enjoyed flirting with her gender identity. She called herself Admiral and Uncle when she was older. She never labelled herself, which is interesting if you look at our modern fixation with putting ourselves into boxes. There’s a lot to be learned from her sense of freedom.
How did she get away with being so explicit?
I think she was unusual, even in Paris in the 30s. She was a business woman, the first woman to have her own club, a thoroughly modern woman. Most of the people who got away with being very overt came from very monied backgrounds. Suzy Solidor was self-made. She was accepted by Paris society. She toured America.
What happened to Suzy as she grew older?
She was a rather grumpy and unpleasant old lady who drank far too much whisky and dressed as an admiral. She spent her later years largely cross- dressed. She felt she looked better in a uniform than as an overweight old girl. When she was younger she used to wear stunning evening gowns. She was very sculpted because her first lover in Paris, a female antiquarian, tried to mould her into physical perfection. She had lots of personal training and people working on her body. She used to model swimwear on the beach so she was very proud of her body. Man Ray photographed her quite a lot. There’s no nudity in my show, I hasten to add!
What’s it like playing such a colourful character?
It’s really nice to be a person who was full of desire and not ashamed of that. And I get to say some quite rude lines and sing these very seductive songs, which in my real life I wouldn’t dream of saying to anybody. It’s a rather freeing experience.
Who else have you made shows about?
I tend to take people who I feel have been unjustly marginalised. Sexuality is a big part of it for me. It feels really important to expose people to lesbian and bisexual history. I love going to the theatre and I never see myself represented. The only famous lesbian play I can think of is The Killing Of Sister George and that’s incredibly depressing. It’s wrong. It feels like a real omission. This play is a celebration of somebody who was really extraordinary and absolutely thrilled with who she was.
THEATREMAKER JESSICA WALKER DISCUSSES HER NEW SHOW ABOUT A FABULOUS BUT FORGOTTEN QUEER ICON INTERVIEW ROXY BOURDILLON
As well as being a performer, we hear you’re also a doctor?
I am a doctor of performance. I did practice-led research about my projects at Leeds University. Singers tend to be viewed as passive and not creative. I’m on a mission to dispel that myth and encourage singers and performers to be more creative and take control of their work. We live in very difficult times and you can’t just sit there waiting to be employed. It’s very hard to make a living as a freelance creative artist. Nevertheless, there’s a big disconnect between the way conservatoires for acting and singing are preparing people for the profession and what that profession actually is.
Were you classically trained?
I was, and miserably so. I went to the Guildhall and I just spent five years there being told why everything about me was wrong. It was such a narrow path. I was an opera singer for some years, really only because I was bullied into it. Then I woke up one day and thought, “I don’t even like this, why am I doing it?”. So that’s when I made a big change.
Well, it seems like it paid off and now you’re making theatre you’re truly passionate about. How much are you enjoying working on this Suzy Solidor show?
It’s a really great piece to be involved in. It’s an all-gay cast. The design team, the lighting design, everyone’s gay in this project and all chosen because they were the best people. It’s good. We need to redress the balance. A lot is written about how there are many more men than women represented in theatre, but it’s much worse than that for lesbians and bi women. Being in an all-gay cast feels empowering.
All I Want Is One Night is on at Wilton’s Music Hall in London, 27 June–1 July, and the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester, 2–9 July. Jessica also performs cabaret concerts all over the UK.
“As Suzy I get to say some quite rude lines, which in my real life I wouldn’t dream of saying to anybody”