- A Doughgirl with the DoughboysElsie Janis, “The Regular Girl,” and the Performance of Gender in World War I Entertainment
The May 31, 1918, issue of the recently launched military newspaper Stars and Stripes featured a notice about the christening of two new 155mm “Big Bertha” field cannons by the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF): “Following the gallant custom of the French Artillery, the boys of Battery B of our own F.A. Regiments decided to name their guns after those whom they considered the outstanding figures among the patriotic women of American history.”1 These artillery guns were some of the mightiest in France and were christened with the intention of inspiring future soldiers and honoring their namesakes. The two patriotic women chosen for this honor were Betsy Ross, who “made for General Washington the first American flag,” and Elsie Janis, who “made the first hit of the A.E.F.”2 American vaudeville star Elsie Janis (1889–1956), known as “The Regular Girl,” was one of the most popular entertainers of the early twentieth century. Born in Ohio, Janis was on the variety stage by the age of three and a noted musical comedy star by sixteen. Famous for her light songs, acrobatic dancing, and uncanny impersonations, she charmed audiences in the United States and headlined popular revues in London and Paris. She was also a best-selling writer, nationally syndicated columnist, film producer, and movie star, as well as the first female announcer on nationwide radio. For all these successes and celebrity, Elsie Janis largely defined herself by the period she spent entertaining troops in World War I. Her epitaph at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California, reads simply, “Sweetheart of the A.E.F.”
At a time before the creation of the USO, and without the assistance of the [End Page 56] YMCA or the Red Cross, Elsie Janis organized and funded her own mission to entertain and support Allied soldiers. Commissioned as a general in the U.S. Army by General John J. Pershing for her service as an entertainer, Janis was esteemed by the men she visited. An enthusiastic Stars and Stripes editor (possibly Alexander Woollcott, who is listed on the masthead for the newspaper) noted: “Elsie Janis is as essential to the success of this Army as a charge of powder is essential in the success of a shell.”3 This explosive analogy—together with the naming of the artillery gun after Janis—suggests that the troops perceived Janis as highly capable and even forceful. She was not simply another woman in need of male protection. Colorful nicknames given to her by the military, such as “Playgirl of the Western Front”4 and “Doughgirl,”5 further reveal the unorthodox position Janis occupied in this wartime world of men. It was a position Elsie Janis made for herself through careful management of her identity. She claimed new territory by establishing herself as the soldiers’ colleague, a dough-girl with the doughboys, through her performances, her choice of clothing, her interactions with the men offstage, and her self-reporting to a reading public. This article explores Janis’s balancing of conventionality and audaciousness to create of an effective and significant persona for her wartime activity. Special attention is paid to Janis’s use of male impersonation in her theatre work so as to better understand her subversive gender representation. The article also briefly considers the concurrent practice of cross-dressed entertainment by soldiers in order to examine relationships between the image of “The Regular Girl” Janis presented and the archetype used by the male soldiers in their performance of stage “girls.”
Germany declared war on France and Belgium on August 3, 1914, and a few months later Janis was already overseas entertaining wounded British troops. By late 1916, Janis was spending more time in London hospitals visiting Allied soldiers than in the theatre. “We spent six weeks in London,” she recalls of the summer of 1916, “during which time I did not play at all, but sang every day and all day to the poor Tommies who had already been at it nearly two years.”6 Once the U.S. entered the...