Monday, June 15, 2015

LIZ SMITH: "Ziegfeld and His Follies"

Anna Held, Ziegfeld's first great "Glorified Girl."
Monday, June 15, 2015
by Liz Smith

How "Show Biz" and Spectacle and The High Art of Beautiful Girls Really Began: "Ziegfeld and His Follies"

“YOU don’t know how I suffer with you being so crazy about Louise Wanamaker. You think I don’t know she knows what a wonderful lover you are? She’s not hanging around for something to eat ... I don’t want any lovers but I do want my husband and I want all of him. And when you don’t want me, let’s call it off. No double crossing. My dearest love, always, Billie.”
Click to order “Ziegfeld and his Follies."
THAT is part of a remarkable letter written to the great showman Florenz Ziegfeld, from his beautiful wife, actress Billie Burke. (It is but one of many notes and telegrams Burke fired off to her unfaithful husband — but despite his indiscretions, she stayed on, to the end.) The note is found in a fascinating new book “Ziegfeld and his Follies” by Cynthia and Sara Brideson.

Maybe all you know about Ziegfeld is the name — which in his own lifetime came to represent spectacle, beauty and an unrivaled sense of showmanship. Perhaps you recall the fictional representations of him by William Powell in “The Great Ziegfeld” or “Ziegfeld Follies.” (Or Walter Pidgeon’s amusing Ziegfeld in “Funny Girl,” sparring with Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice.) But he was far more complex — an urbane man who lived to bedazzle the public.

He was privately reticent to the point of driving his women to distraction, and unfaithful to the point of making his women very unhappy. He gambled on everything, and despite appearances, always lived close to the financial edge of destruction. Time and again he pulled himself up by his wits, his canny knowledge of what the public wanted. (“Here they come, those beautiful girls” as Stephen Sondheim famously wrote for “Follies.”)
Billie Burke and Flo Ziegfeld on the porch of their summer home in York Harbor, Maine, c. 1922.
WHAT DRIVES the book, for me, anyway, is how Ziegfeld truly invented the stupendous dazzle of show-biz with its publicity stunts and bravado. He made a great star out of his first wife, Anna Held (although she came to tire of his publicity antics, which possibly included staging the theft of her jewels to pay off gambling debts.) The real life tale of Anna and Flo is even more touching and tragic than how it is depicted in “The Great Ziegfeld” — all movie fans adore Luise Rainer’s famous telephone scene, “Hello, Flo? (He was only calling to tell her he’d married Billie Burke.)
William Powell and Luise Rainer as Florenz Ziegfeld and Anna Held in "The Great Ziegfeld" (1936).
THE BOOK is studded with the names “Flo” made famous — Fanny Brice ... Eddie Cantor ... Marilyn Miller (a less likeable person one cannot imagine!) ... Will Rogers ... W.C. Fields ... Helen Morgan (via his groundbreaking production of “Show Boat”) ... the tempestuous, self-destructive Lillian Lorraine (“You better talk to me right now, Flo. Or else I’ll take this coat off, and I have nothing on under it!’) ... Eugen Sandow, the muscular weightlifter who was actually Ziegfeld’s first star (as the authors point out — a “glorified boy,” rather than the glorified girls of later years.) And he elevated the objectification of beautiful women to high art.

I loved all the intrigues and machinations that were (are) part and parcel of putting on a show, or making a movie. But even though business was always a hard thing, there was a certain innocent sentiment in Flo, his stars, and the world that stood, or sat, agape at his great Follies.
BUT the heart of “Ziegfeld and His Follies” is the long marriage to the delicious, long-suffering Billie Burke. A woman of immense charm, intelligence and striking beauty. It’s fascinating to read about Burke’s early career on-stage, putting that career aside periodically to become a mother to their beloved daughter Patricia, and a hostess for Ziegfeld.
Billie Burke and Flo Ziegfeld with their daughter Patricia, and little dog, c. 1920s.
And then her struggles to re-establish herself. The Billie Burke we know today, from films like “Dinner at Eight” and (of course!) “The Wizard of Oz,” was born after years of experimenting with her image and coping with inevitable maturity. (Like many actresses, she wished to play ingénue’s after that time had passed.)

Not the scatterbrain of her films, she was extremely sensible, sensitive and ultimately forgiving: “You always love me best when I am far away ... I wish to God I had the same effect on you that others seem to have and that I seem to have on others. Men always want something they can’t get. I hope we will survive it. But I wish to God you’d gotten it out of your system before I met you.”
Billie Burke as a Ziegfeld star, and as Glinda, in "The Wizard of Oz."
This book is history, fascinating in itself, telling of that era. But it is also a primer on how we got to where we are in show business, even today. Writer Ethan Mordden wrote of the early Ziegfeld, the one who devised so many fantastic myths about Anna Held: “He anticipated modern American culture, the turning of all public life into a form of theater. If it’s news, it’s true, whether it’s true or not.”

P.S. The next time Turner Classic Movies runs “Ziegfeld Girl” pay attention to luscious Lana Turner. She is playing a fictionalized version of the real-life showgirl, hard-partying Lillian Lorraine. Lana’s dramatic walk down a staircase, to the strains of “You Stepped Out of a Dream” is cinema history. (She collapses at the foot of the staircase, ravishingly.)
"Head up, you glorified girl!" Lana Turner begins her famous descent in "Ziegfeld Girl."
"Don’t say I didn’t warn you!"
ENDTHOUGHT: Watching now-retired U.S. House representative Barney Frank the other night on MSNBC, it seems clear to me that he is the only Democrat willing (or smart!) enough to openly say that social issues — gay rights, abortion, etc. — are going to be a major theme in the coming election. The Christian right is more powerful than ever (so much for the secular “war on Christians.”)

And Republicans will pander to that base, basely. Frank said, without equivocation, that if a Republican president is elected in 2016, expect Roe V. Wade to be overturned. Others on the MSNBC panel looked a bit askance and surprised. Stop being so smug and complacent and self-amused, all you Democrats! I fear Barney Frank might be the Cassandra of our modern times — predicting disaster to fools who won’t believe until it’s too late.

And along with Roe V. Wade, I would add all gay marriages being overturned as well. Already, many are looking to Ireland as an escape from a Republican-led, semi-theocracy. Don’t say the estimable Barney Frank didn’t warn you.

Contact Liz Smith here.