Vera Olcott: From Cooch Dancer to Countess

An acknowledgment today of dancer Vera Olcott (1893-?), who led a strange, wonderful and still-mysterious life.

Olcott was apparently from a family of wealthy international bankers and financiers, although her father was a railroad detective. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she turns up as early as 1905 (when she was only 13) in New York, already aspiring to break into the stage. Her first known professional credit was at the Silver Lake Casino in White Plains, NY in 1907. The following year, she garnered attention as a conspicuously ignorant Salome dancer at Huber’s 14th Street Museum in 1908. Her Dance of the Seven Veils next got her booked as a a “Joy Rider” at the Gaiety Theatre in 1909, and as a Ziegfeld girl in the Follies of 1910, with which she toured to Chicago. Then came the Weber and Fields reunion show Hokey Pokey/Bunty, Bulls and Strings (1911-12). In 1912 she married an Alf Oscar Wyller in Manhattan, although that alliance appears not to have lasted long.

From here she went on to Paris in May 1914, where she danced in cabarets and society gatherings. While there, she met and secretly married Count Alexis Constantinovitch Zarnekau, a Russian nobleman and a cousin of the Tsar. This relationship was not to last long, however. When World War One broke out in August, Olcott returned to New York. After spending some time in San Francisco, she next appears in the Broadway show Jack O’Lantern (1917-1918). Zarnekau divorced her in absentia in 1918 and remarried. Soon after this he was captured and shot by the Bolsheviks.

Throughout the ’20s Olcott was a highly paid nightclub dancer, bringing the latest American steps to London, Berlin, Paris and the French Riviera. She won cash prizes for possessing the “daintiest feet” and “most beautiful legs” in Paris. In 1926, it was reported that she was seeking the whereabouts of Zarnekau amongst the exiled Romanovs in Berlin. Her eventual fate is unknown. This very interesting web site speculates that Olcott was a spy and that her family had deep, sinister connections to secret societies. It makes quite a good case for her being a cousin of Col. Henry Steel Olcott, husband of Madame Blavatsky and co-founder with her of Theosophy. It makes a less convincing one that she may also be related to stage star Chauncey Olcott, although that can’t be ruled out. There is also lots of good information and documentation on her here.

To find out more about vaudeville and the allied variety arts please consult my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,