Ziegfeld and His Follies
A Biography of Broadway’s Greatest Producer
Cynthia Brideson and Sara Brideson
Screen Classics Series
Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2015
Hardcover. vi+515 pages. ISBN 978-0813160887. $40
Reviewed by Linda Mizejewski
Ohio State University
The dust-cover photo of a biographical book usually features the subject of the biography, but Ziegfeld and His Follies : A Biography of Broadway’s Greatest Producer instead features a woman posed and dressed like a topless haute couture model, a long string of pearls hanging between her breasts toward her sheathed lower torso. It takes a second to realize she’s not nude but has been elegantly transformed, by the photography and the costuming, into an art deco figurine or classical statue. The dust cover credits the Library of Congress photo collection but nowhere identifies the woman herself. In the logic of commodity branding, her anonymity is appropriate, because for fans or historians of musical theater, she is instantly recognizable as a Ziegfeld Girl, a brand and a type more than an individual woman. Her status as an art object or statuette points back to the Pygmalion-like subject of this biography, who prided himself on the transformations of young white American women into what he called the Glorified American Girl.
Florenz Ziegfeld (1867-1932) rose from obscurity to become the most powerful Broadway producer of his time, and he died almost penniless as a result of spendthrift ways and bad business decisions. Ziegfeld didn’t exactly invent the showgirl as we know her in her Las Vegas feathers, but he was the one who thoroughly saturated American culture with a specific showgirl ideal. Like the later Playboy Bunny, the Ziegfeld Girl was above all the American girl next door; in the Ziegfeld version, her nudity was stylishly accessorized with real jewels or was glimpsed teasingly through sheer curtains. In Ziegfeld’s spectacular Broadway revue shows, she was “glorified” in stunning costumes designed by British couturier Lucile, Lady Duff Gordon. Onstage, platoons of Ziegfeld Girls materialized in complicated tableaux of The Arabian Nights or battlefield victories, or they glided down staircases balancing enormous feathered headdresses.
The kitschy details of the revues and the rise-and-fall melodrama of Ziegfeld’s life have been recounted in five previous Ziegfeld biographies, most recently Ethan Mordden’s Ziegfeld : The Man Who Invented Show Business, published just seven years ago.* So why another biography? The Bridesons’ is the first scholarly one, offering to theater historians a responsibly documented narrative of a highly influential Broadway producer. The grand theatrical Follies revues that were his trademark eventually lumbered off the cultural stage, but Ziegfeld was also a pioneer in the development of the Broadway musical as we know it today. In addition, scores of entertainers such as Maurice Chevalier, Fred Astaire, and Louise Brooks got their start on the Ziegfeld stage, and though he’s best known for his showgirls, Ziegfeld launched the careers of comedians Fanny Brice, W.C. Fields, Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers. Ziegfeld and his Follies carefully documents the Follies, the other musical productions, and the host of talent, both onstage and behind the scenes, that Ziegfeld marshaled from his first Broadway shows in the late 1890s through the Follies and Frolics, 1907 to 1931. In addition, Ziegfeld and His Follies includes four chapters on the Ziegfeld legacy as a style and reference in theatrical productions and cinema.
The book’s title is a double entendre about the excessive shows that made Ziegfeld famous and Ziegfeld’s excessive behavior with women and money. In the introduction, the authors state that their book is “primarily the story of Ziegfeld’s personal follies, but because his work was so much a part of him, we intertwine the follies and triumphs of his private life with those of his professional life” . Indeed, the showman’s personal life and Broadway shows intersected across the bodies of his female stars. Ziegfeld’s personal life was messy and often destructive. He promoted and then abandoned his first wife, the European chanteuse Anna Held, whose gay-90s hourglass figure and coy style became increasingly outdated in the new century. Movie buffs will remember Luise Reiner’s touching portrayal of Held in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) which won her an Academy Award. More widely known today is Ziegfeld’s second wife, Billie Burke, beloved to generations as Good Witch Glinda in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Ziegfeld repeatedly broke her heart with his widely-known affairs with his stars.
The Bridesons are not interested in the implications of a womanizing entrepreneur producing “girls” during the era of suffragism and the women’s rights movements; even their comment that he was always interested in strong women is without irony. However, they write clearly about both the shows and the personal follies, often with dramatically imagined quarrels and conversations: “Billie had no patience for his dismissive attitude and flew into a rage, throwing china and crying over her foundering career” . The payoff for imagining the broken china is that more so than the earlier biographies, Ziegfeld and His Follies foregrounds the centrality of Burke in keeping Ziegfeld at least partially grounded and gives her credit for the intelligence and resourcefulness that made her a successful survivor.
The jacket cover of Ziegfeld and His Follies promises new material from previously unpublished personal letters between the showman and his family. Unfortunately, these letters cover only the period 1920-1924, so they’re cited in just two chapters. The footnotes show that for the rest of the historical material, the Bridesons have meticulously cherry-picked details from the five previous Ziegfeld biographies as well as books on his family, his stars, and the theatrical era. That is, roughly 90% of the research comes from secondary sources, so it would be difficult to say there is much new here. However, Ziegfeld and His Follies serves as an index to material in the other biographies and includes footnotes, a bibliography, and an appendix of shows produced and coproduced by Ziegfeld, making it a useful tool for scholars of theater history.
* The previous biographies are Eddie Cantor & David Freedman, The Great Glorifier (New York: Alfred H. King, 1934); Charles Higham, Ziegfeld (Chicago, Regnery, 1972); Randolph Carter, The World of Flo Ziegfeld (New York: Praeger, 1974); Richard Ziegfeld & Paulette Ziegfeld, The Ziegfeld Touch : The Life and Times of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. (New York: Henry Abrams, 1993), and Ethan Mordden, Ziegfeld : The Man Who Invented Show Business (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008).
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