The Adventures of Vera Zorina

“Vera Zorina” would be an excellent professional name for a fortune teller or a Circassian Beauty. As it happens, it was the stage name adapted by Eva Brigitta Hartwig (1917-2003), a ballerina, actress and musical theatre star of both stage and screen.

Hartwig was the daughter of a German father and Norwegian mother; she was born in Berlin, and raised in Norway. Both of her parents were singers. Eva was trained in dance in childhood, and debuted professionally at a Norwegian opera house. She was only 12 when Max Reinhardt cast her in his stage production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1929), followed by Tales of Hoffman (1931). In 1933 she hired for the prestigious Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, successor to Diaghelev’s company, which is where she met George Balanchine, who became her husband in 1938. It was due to her involvement with the company that she chose her Russian stage name.

Zorina’s entree to the world of musical comedy came when she starred in Rodgers and Hart’s 1936 musical On Your Toes, choreographed by Balanchine, also appearing in the 1939 screen version and a 1954 broadway revival. In the show, she played a character named Vera Baranova, clearly a variation on her own name, and danced in a ballet called “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue”. The lead part of a vaudeville hoofer with big artistic ambitions was originally devised for Fred Astaire, though Ray Bolger played it on Broadway and Eddie Albert in the film.

In 1938, Zorina made her Hollywood debut in The Goldwyn Follies a revue showcase that also featured Kenny Baker, and Adolphe Menjou, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, the Ritz Brothers, Bobby Clark, and Phil Baker. Later that year she returned to Broadway as the title character in the Rodgers and Hart show I Married an Angel, with Dennis King, Vivienne Segal, and Walter Slezak. (Jeanette MacDonald played her part in the 1942 film).

In 1940 Zorina starred in Gregory Ratoff’s comedy film I Was an Adventuress, as part of a trio of con artists with Erich Von Stroheim and Peter Lorre, who falls in love with one of their marks (Richard Greene). This was an apparent attempt to try her as a non-musical film star. The results were inconclusive, neither a triumph nor a disaster. Later that year, she starred in the original Broadway production of the Irving Berlin/Morrie Ryskind show Louisiana Purchase, produced by Buddy DeSylva. her co-stars included William Gaxton, Victor Moore, and Irene Bordoni. The next year she starred in the Hollywood film version, with Gaxton replaced by Bob Hope.

1942 proved a turning point in Zorina’s film career. She was due to co-star with Gary Cooper in For Whom the Bell Tolls, but was replaced by Ingrid Bergman. The part might have catapulted her forward as a film star. Instead, she was fated only to make a few more screen appearances, including two patriotic wartime musicals Star Spangled Rhythm (1942) and Follow the Boys (1944). She returned to Broadway in 1944 to star in Dream with Music, followed by a critically acclaimed 1945 production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which she naturally played Ariel. In 1946 she appeared in her last Hollywood film Lover Come Back, with George Brent, Lucille Ball, Charles Winninger, Raymond Walburn, and Wallace Ford.

Also in 1946, Zorina divorced Balanchine and married composer Goddard Lieberson, later the President of Columbia records, another major sea change in her life. Their son, composer Peter Lieberson, was born that year. In 1948 she appeared in the Broadway show A Temporary Island and played the title role in the opera Joan of Arc at the Stake, a part she was to play many times over the decades. In the early ’50s she dabbled in television variety a little, performing on The All Star Revue, The Colgate Comedy Hour, and the Ed Sullivan Show.

In the ’60s, Zorina began directing plays and operas at venues like Lincoln Center, the Santa Fe Opera and the Oslo Nye Teater. In 1982, at the age of 65, she danced in Persephone with the New York City Ballet. She published her memoir four years later.

Zorina’s granddaughters, Teeny, Lizzie and Katherine Lieberson, were members of the Brooklyn band TEEN, which was active from 2010 to 2019.

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous