The Sins of Tilly Losch

November 15 was the birthday of dancer, choreographer, actress and painter Tilly Losch (Ottilie Ethel Leopoldine Losch, 1903-1975), not to be confused with Lillie Tossas (not that you would, but I would.)

Losch started out with the corps de ballet at the Vienna Opera as a child. In the 1920s she began working with Max Reinhardt as a choreographer and dancer, collaborating with him in his famous productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Everyman, and Danton’s Death. In 1928 she appeared in the Noel Coward revue This Year of Grace on the West End and Broadway, and this is how she found her way to popular audiences. Next came Wake Up and Dream (1929) with Jack Buchanan. In 1930 Norman Bel Geddes made a short film of her Dance of the Hands. In 1931 she choreographed a ballet for the musical The Gang’s All Here, and performed in The Band Wagon with Fred and Adele Astaire.

Meanwhile, Losch had married millionaire poet and Surrealist art patron Edward James (1907-84). James set her up to star with Balanchine’s company Les Ballets 1933. Their most famous collaboration, The Seven Deadly Sins, co-starred Lotte Lenya, with text by Bertolt Brecht and music by Kurt Weill and premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. Losch is said to have had affairs with Lenya and Thomas Mitford (hapless brother of the six remarkable and eccentric Mitford Sisters), and was divorced by James in 1934, ending that frankly lucrative set-up. (Losch countercharged that James had had his own homosexual affairs).

In 1936 Losch danced in the British film Limelight a.k.a. Backstage starring Arthur Tracy, which then led to appearances in the Hollywood films The Garden of Allah (1936) with Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer, and Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (1937), both of which traded on her “exotic” image.

From 1939 to 1947 Losch was married to Henry Herbert, 6th Earl of Carnarvon. At a certain point she stayed at a Swiss sanitarium (either for depression or TB, I’ve seen both). During this period she retired from dance and performance and took up painting, which she pursued seriously for the rest of her life.

In 1946 she landed a brief but showy role as Jennifer Jones’ “wicked” birth mother (a dancer) in the Selznick western A Duel in the Sun. She then choreographed the 1947 musical film Song of Scheherezade, and returned to Broadway that same year in the short-lived show Topaze. In 1949 she appeared on the television show Broadway spotlight. Most of her remaining years were spent moving within the art world.

For more on vaudeville and show biz history (including stage revues), please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,