I first read Anna Held and the Birth of Ziegfeld’s Broadway by Eve Golden back in 2014 without knowing anything about Anna Held. Zilch. In fact, aside from references in other biographies, some related Wikipedia searches, and Peg Costello’s (Joan Blondell’s) quote from Desk Set(“We’ll get together once a year regularly, like the Ziegfeld girls”), I really didn’t know much about Anna’s onetime husband, showbiz whiz Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. either.
What I did know was that Eve Golden could write a heck of a biography and that the cover art depicting a beaming and ultra-femme Anna Held was intriguing. After all, what kind of person can dance in a corset that makes her waist look all of 2 inches big and a hat about 5 times the size of her head and still smile like that? I had to know.
The book does not disappoint and starts off with a deliciously intriguing scene…
New Year’s Eve, 1913: Flo Ziegfeld brings his drama queen girlfriend Lillian Lorraine to a costume party also attended by ex-wife, Anna Held. Everyone is waiting for a confrontation between the two divas (Flo hadn’t waited to end things with Anna before he started them with Lillian), but Lillian storms off instead. Anna performs for the crowd, but instead Flo’s eyes turn to the entrance of another young woman, ingenue and Flo’s eventual wife, Billie Burke, while a heartbroken Anna looks on at the sparks flying… “When midnight struck on January 1, 1914, Anna Held’s old world of Diamond Jim, Lillian Russell, ostrich plumes, and champagne dinners had ended. It was time to reinvent herself,” Golden gives us before looping back to Anna’s beginnings.
Anna Held’s origins were muddy by her own design, not wanting to dwell on her true age or her impoverished and chaotic childhood as a Warsaw-born Jew during a time when Jews were persecuted there. The family fled to Paris and Anna fell madly in love with the city, identifying from then on as a Parisienne full stop. Orphaned before she was even a teen, Anna had no choice but to work. Fortunately she possessed a personality that was both determined and optimistic as well as a passable singing voice and innate ability to work a crowd. Anna worked her way up from street singer to musical comedy headliner, known for her coy, naughty songs full of fun and flirting. Author Golden spares no detail and paints an incredibly rich and colorful picture of Anna’s early days in the theatre. What I enjoy about her writing is that she really dives deep and gets into the hows and whys, provides context, and tries to allow the reader to understand the subject as best we can.
Anna met and married a playboy, had a daughter, and kept on working, though the marriage fizzled. Then one day an admirer came backstage and she was hooked. American Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. was mostly all talk at this point, having come from money with big dreams of becoming a showman, but who had not yet produced a Broadway show. He did have one planned, however, and was in Paris to recruit acts for it when he saw Anna perform. Sparks flew and Ziegfeld enticed her into coming with him to America where he would make her a star. That Anna, a bigger star than he was at this point, followed him speaks to his persuasiveness and charisma. She was right to believe in him. Some savvy promotion and publicity stunts, Ziegfeld’s knack for putting on a show, and Anna’s own charming Parisienne ways won over American audiences and she was a huge hit.
Somewhere along the way Anna and Flo fell in love and became common-law spouses, while he kept putting her in shows and she kept selling them out. It was Anna who gave Ziegfeld the idea for his Follies in 1907 (based on the French Folies Bergère – Anna was a Francophile of the highest degree), the show which made Ziegfeld a household name. If you are not familiar with what the Folies Bergère (and the Follies) had to offer, Golden describes it as “part girlie show, part fashion show, with some comedy thrown in.” Unfortunately, several of the “girlies” caught Ziegfeld’s eye and one in particular put the nail in the coffin of Anna and Flo’s marriage.
Lillian Lorraine struck Flo in a way that no other dalliance had up until then and their affair prompted a hurt Anna to seek divorce. Lillian was described throughout the book as “breathtakingly beautiful” and a “a great beauty no matter what era,” a figure Anna (“while Anna was described as ‘cute’ and ‘pert,’ Lorraine was a knockout”) could not compete with in the looks department. This is the one point I cannot agree with Golden on (or anyone else as Lorraine’s legendary beauty is a common POV), especially when comparing photos of the two. Photos can definitely be deceiving, and there are not as many of Lillian as there are Anna floating around, but to me Anna is the more striking. Speaking of photos, there are many in this book, a feature that I both expect and appreciate in a good biography.
While the world changed around her, Anna did what she did best: performed. During World War I, she used her talents to raise money for the war effort and was revered for her efforts. She died of cancer in 1918.
Some additional highlights of the bio include:
- Anna throwing shade at flappers and her promotion of and views on corsets (the photos don’t lie; she was, indeed, a superfan)
- Anna throwing shade in general
- The physical descriptions of Anna (“she rolled her eyes like a pair of dice”)
- The lyrics and descriptions of Anna’s songs and performances, especially her two biggest hits, the delightfully titled “I Just Can’t Make My Eyes Behave” and “Won’t You Come and Play With Me?”
I highly recommend this book for anyone who loves a good biography; you don’t need to be an Anna Held fan to become one. Really, she said it (sang it?) best:
I wish you’d come and play with me,
For I have such a way with me,
A way with me, a way with me.
I have such a nice little way with me,
Do not think it wrong.
This post is part of The Great Ziegfeld Blogathon 2020, hosted by yours truly. A bit more Anna in the banna below.