Ziegfeld and His Follies: A Guest Book Review By Cheryl Rice

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So much for labor saving! One of the happy benefits of having written a popular book (and now a popular blog) is that I have accrued pen pals all over this great land of ours. Hudson Valley Poet Cheryl Rice has been among the most valued for many a long year now. She suggested a review of this book and I lobbed the task back to her….and of course what do I want to do after reading the review? Read the book, of course! And so I say “so much for labor saving”. You can read Cheryl Rice at her own blog here: http://flyingmonkeyprods.blogspot.com/

By the way – – she didn’t format it like this, that’s just how it turned out after I cut and pasted it. And, ya know what? I like it better this way! She’s a poet, so read the review like a poem! 

 

What little impression among the general public remains of Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.,

(Broadway’s legendary producer of a century ago) often consists of half-naked showgirls, old-

fashioned limelight stages, and creaky old ballads. But Cynthia and Sara Brideson’s new

biography, Ziegfeld and His Follies (2015: University of Kentucky Press), quickly reminded me

of a grand opera. The scope of Ziegfeld’s dramatic life as covered in this new book is both wide

and finely detailed. From his earliest attempt at carnival barking, in defiance of Ziegfeld Sr.’s

classical music leanings and school, through his greatest stage triumphs (the Follies of course,

but other productions, too, including the still performed musical Show Boat), to his death as a

financially ruined man, each act of the drama , each supporting player is in place. The elaborate

costumes, the soft blue and pink lights that Ziegfeld favored, even the behind-the-scenes scandals,

are fully envisioned.

 

The Brideson sisters have succeeded brilliantly with an intimidating subject under

challenging circumstances. All of Ziegfeld’s contemporaries are long departed. Probably the last

person on earth to have known him, his daughter Patricia, passed away in 2008. Last of the

Ziegfeld Girls, Doris Eaton Travis, who made her debut in the Follies at the age of 16 in 1918,

died in 2010 at the age of 106. Much information is drawn from books in my own

collection—autobiographies by Eddie Cantor and Billie Burke among others. These often

contradictory (and understandably whitewashed) accounts are skillfully supplemented by

newspaper and magazine articles of the time, and personal letters exchanged between Ziegfeld

and Burke, husband and wife for eighteen years. The Bridesons also make use of a goldmine of

telegrams, which Ziegfeld used the way other bosses might use Post-Its. These additions add

dimension and texture to what otherwise could have become a self-serving rehash that disclosed

more about the author than the subject.

 

Contradictions, rather than being rationalized or omitted, are allowed to stand, creating a

three-dimensional portrait of a man who was unknowable to most in his own time. A devoted

father and husband, Ziegfeld regularly seems to have, Pygmalion style, fallen in love with many

of the stars he created, with varied results. The generosity of the Ziegfelds to their Hastings, New

York neighbors contrasts with Flo’s disregard for songwriters and other laborers, often paying

them late or not at all for services provided. The impeccable dresser was as comfortable in the

saddle as the boudoir. And the mystery of the source of his gift, his exquisite taste, remains just

that. Some influences are obvious—a love for spectacle, the ability to not just imitate but

improve upon what he saw on other stages, the subtle lessons in style from his first wife, Parisian

actress Anna Held. By the time he and second wife Burke set up their home together, he seems to

have been a fully formed Glorifier, of himself as well as American Girls (and one Guy, if one

counts early star Sandow).

 

In the end, as his style of musical theater began to pass into history, Ziegfeld could

perhaps have found the strength for one last flourish, despite ill health, if the Stock Market crash

of ’29 hadn’t put the final nail in his financial coffin. In this book, Ziegfeld’s demise plays out

with as much power as any Greek tragedy. I found myself tearing up about this man who has

been dead for 83 years, despised by some, revered by others, appreciated by most for the

imperfect genius he was.

 

What fascinates me about theater and vaudeville of the early 1900s is the shadowy traces

left behind. Like Ziegfeld himself, we are left with just wisps of silk, grainy black-and-white

photos, and hazy memories sometimes filtered through ghostwriters or defiant survivors

(Patricia’s memoir being a notable exception). This is all we have to use to get at what it was all

really, really like. I believe that Cynthia and Sara Brideson’s account has succeeded in coming

closer to the actual essence of Ziegfeld and his times than anything else I’ve ever read. I can

smell the anticipation of the audience in the New Amsterdam before the curtain goes up on

opening night, feel a feather from Marilyn Miller’s expensive costume graze my cheek as she

pushes past, taking care not to offend her. Like Ziegfeld, the Brideson sisters have pulled bits

and pieces from disparate sources and put on a show as worthy of the Great Glorifier as might be

possible. All the beauty, yes, and the injuries too, of Broadway’s early days can be found in the

pages of Ziegfeld and His Follies. I can’t see how we’ll get any closer, short of time travel.

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