THE FIRST SEX SYMBOL
TO MANY, she was a naked opportunist. Others thought her a libertine with barefaced cheek. To millions, she was simply naked.
Blonde, beautiful and wearing only a knowing smile, Sally Rand danced behind two fans of ostrich feathers, offering tantalising glimpses of silky flesh with every swirl.
She made the peek-a-boo dance world famous, pushing the boundaries of sexual freedom, a trailblazing precursor of sex symbols from Lana Turner to Marilyn Monroe.
She regularly said that since the day she ditched her clothes she hadn’t been out of work.
Sally Rand became a household name, an American sex icon who appeared in more than 30 movies.
She starred on stage opposite Humphrey Bogart, romanced flying ace Charles Lindbergh and partied with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.
Yet she was perpetually in debt, arrested repeatedly for indecency – four times in one exhausting day – and died broke in obscurity.
Long forgotten, her tragic life is revealed in the biography, Sally Rand: American Sex Symbol.
“She shattered cultural barriers, offering sexual liberation ahead of her time,” says author William Hazelgrove. “Sally Rand embodied the can-do spirit of the 20th century, representing hope to millions. Sexually voracious, she thought that if something felt good you should do it.
“She embraced her sexuality, blazing the way for pop icons like Madonna and Lady Gaga. She was a rags-to-riches story who transcended her time.”
The 5ft bombshell exploded into international fame with a shamelessly self-promoting stunt emulating Lady Godiva. Naked on a white horse, wearing only a long blonde wig, she gatecrashed a dinner party where 3,000 of America’s finest were toasting the opening of the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago.
“The Fair was a celebration of science, technology and art, but Sally Rand created a sensation,” says Hazelgrove. “She was arrested, but only after photographers’ flashbulbs popped. Overnight she became famous worldwide.”
When thousands clamoured to see Rand, Fair organisers rushed to hire the burlesque dancer who was pioneering her fan dance.
At the height of the Great Depression with millions out of work and starving, Rand, 29, was suddenly earning $5,000 a week starring at America’s most prestigious event.
Oddly, it was her second bite at fame. Born Helen Beck in Missouri’s hillbilly Ozarks in 1904, the daughter of a soldier and a teacher, she ran away to the circus and made her way to Hollywood where, aged 21, she caught the eye of director Cecil B Demille.
“She had blonde hair, baby curls, luminous blue eyes and a figure that could stop a man cold,” says Hazelgrove. “Demille called her the most beautiful girl in the world, and saw her as America’s next sweetheart.”
Demille cast her in 20 silent films from 1925 to 1928. While shooting his Biblical blockbuster King Of Kings, she had an affair with actor HB Warner, playing Jesus. The lovebirds arrived late on set and Demille famously yelled: “Miss Rand, leave my Jesus Christ alone! If you must **** someone, **** Pontius Pilate!”
But the arrival of the talkies in 1928 ended that bid for stardom.
“Sally’s voice was soft and childlike, with an Ozark accent and a lisp,” says Hazelgrove. “Hollywood dropped her.”
When the stock market crashed in 1929 ushering in the Depression, she returned to the vaudeville circuit, until her Lady Godiva stunt made Rand an instant cultural icon.
Her balletic fan dance became a sensation, offering fleeting glimpses of her athletic curves. Sometimes she wore a sheer body stocking, but was often completely naked.
“I reasoned that if I kept the fans moving fast enough no one would know if I had a costume on or not,” she said.
Sally was viewed not as a stripper but an artiste, welcomed at white glove mansions across America, and invited to address Harvard University. Welcomed back to
‘Sally’s voice was childlike’
Hollywood wood she shared top billing with George Raft and Carole Lombard in 1934 drama Bolero, leading to several more movies.
She was immortalised in a 1941 Merrie Melodies cartoon, Hollywood Steps Out, directed by Bugs Bunny creator Tex Avery, also caricaturing Clark Gable, Cary Grant, James Cagney, Bing Crosby, and Greta Garbo.
Rand staged revues featuring dozens of erotic dancers, earning millions as she charmed huge audiences. “Long before Kim Kardashian and Zsa Zsa Gabor, Sally Rand became famous for being famous,” says Hazelgrove.
But her appetite for high living, and repeated arrests for indecency that shut down her shows, ultimately lost her a fortune.
“She was habitually in debt and would all her life be hounded by debt collectors, lawyers, judges, tax liens and foreclosure proceedings,” says the author.
And morality was changing. The Second World War, with its Betty Grable pin-ups and liberated women in factories, was followed by co conservative American value values and growing distaste for R Rand’s open sexuality. “M “Middle class morality wou would always be a problem, lem,” says Hazelgrove. “She was hounded by chur churches, lawyers and poli politicians. She liked to view her show as an exp expression of art, but mid middle America still vie viewed her as obscene.” S She was arrested and ev even jailed for indece cency, yet courts were sy sympathetic. A San Fr Francisco judge saw th the show and ruled: “A “Anyone who could fi find something lewd a about the dance as she p puts it on has to have a p perverted idea of morals.” Sally Rand was dancing naked for decades, fighting the tide of time.
“She had face-lifts, used tape, leotards, make-up, wigs, lighting, fans, corsets, anything to stay one step ahead of reality,” he says.
Rand was 60 when invited to perform for government officials and Gemini astronauts at the 1964 opening of Nasa’s Mission Control in Houston, Texas, her ostrich fans undulating like birds in flight.
Tom Wolfe captured it in his bestseller The Right Stuff: “It was quite electrifying... beyond sex, showbusiness and either the sins or rigors of the flesh.” But life on the road had been tough. Rand survived three failed marriages to husbands who bled her financially, surviving on amphetamines and chain-smoking cigarettes, dancing into her 70s.
“What’s wrong with a grandmother dancing naked?” she asked.
“She paid a high price for her fame,” says Hazelgrove. “She lived out of hotels and trailers for 30 years and was chronically broke, living hand-to-mouth, a lonely life.”
Rand suffered a heart attack and, battling asthma and congestive heart failure, died in 1979 aged 75, leaving a $10,000 unpaid hospital bill among her many debts.
“Sammy Davis Jr paid the debt, remembering a star who had given him a hand when he was a young performer trying to make it,” says Hazelgrove. “It was a tragic end for the woman who changed America’s attitudes about sex and celebrity. She believed a woman’s body was her own to use as she wanted to make a living.
“Sally may be largely forgotten, but the changes she fought for, liberating sexuality and art, live on.”
‘She was living hand to mouth’