Myth and legend permeate the theatrical institution known as The Ziegfeld Follies. This is curious, because the theatrical life of The Ziegfeld Follies was comparatively short, extending primarily from 1910 through the Depression. Nonetheless, the afterglow of the Ziegfeld approach to the Broadway revue has continued to exert a strong pull on the imagination of those who value the Broadway musical and its traditions. The image of the "Glorified American Girl" and the plethora of stars who illuminated the Ziegfeld stage—including Billie Burke, Marilyn Miller, Lillian Lorraine, Fannie Brice, Gertrude Hoffman, and many others—contributed to its appeal. Even so, it was Ziegfeld's first common-law wife, Anna Held, who was not only his inspiration but also his collaborator in developing many of the conventions commonly associated with The Ziegfeld Follies.
Eve Golden has written a book on this incredible musical theatre performer, whose impact on the Broadway stage in the early twentieth century was remarkable. Some of her contemporaries referred to her as the "Sarah Bernhardt of the musical comedy." It is the author's contention that the Ziegfeld Follies was primarily the idea of Anna Held, and that it was Ms. Held who "suggested an American version of Paris's popular Folies-Bergere: part girlie show, part fashion show, with some comedy thrown in" (111). With this, Ziegfeld was able to apply his gift for promotion to develop the revue that bears his name. Golden is persuasive in her point of view and she elaborates throughout the book on how this collaboration worked. [End Page 337]
Orphaned by age twelve, Anna Held was born a Polish Jew in the early 1870s. After apprenticing with Jacob Adler and the Yiddish theatre in London, she moved to an 1890s Paris characterized on the one hand by the risqué La Moulin Rouge and La Chat Noir, and on the other by the infamy of the Dreyfus Affair. This is where Held made her home and sharpened her skills as a vaudeville entertainer. Singing songs with double entendres and rolling her eyes in a come-hither manner became the staple of her long career. Although she married and had a daughter with playboy gambler Maximo Carrera, her enduring love was reserved for the American theatre entrepreneur, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. Most of Golden's book chronicles the relationship between Anna Held and Flo Ziegfeld and their influence on the Broadway musical theatre stage of the early twentieth century.
Golden examines how Held conceived and Ziegfeld developed what would become the most popular musical theatre revue. Held and Ziegfeld shared a keen appreciation for the business side of show business. She often collaborated with him on publicity stunts: on the opening night of her first appearance on the Broadway stage in the 1896 musical A Parlor Match, fans (probably paid by Ziegfeld) "unhooked Anna's carriage from her horses and pulled her up Broadway to her hotel" (29). She also encouraged his use of attractive chorus girls as part of the "moving scenery" of the musical. She was so self-assured as a performer that she traveled with her own Anna Held Girls, a chorus of attractive women who were expected to show off the costumes they wore with style and class in their dances and musical comedy routines. She did not see these increasingly younger and more beautiful performers as upstaging her, but rather as complementary to her own stage persona. Finally, Held shared with Ziegfeld an eye for fashion that they used to set a high standard for the costuming of these progressively larger extravaganzas. There are many examples in the book in which the author documents the collaboration that often occurred between the producer and his wife, the stars, designers, and dance directors. "Style over substance" may have been their motto, but they did it with calculated flamboyance.
Golden is a writer who knows New York. She sets the stage in each chapter for the historical and political context in which we follow the life of Anna Held. She balances...