Cynthia and Sara Brideson are twin siblings, and the co-authors of Also Starring… , a 2012 book profiling forty character actors of Hollywood’s Golden Era. For their latest project, Ziegfeld and His Follies, they have chosen an even more ambitious topic – the life and times of that most fabled of Broadway producers. Many other writers and film-makers have explored this subject, but while Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.’s name remains a symbol of glamour and excess, the man himself is a shadowy figure – like the great and powerful Oz.
Born in 1867, Ziegfeld was the son of a German immigrant, who founded the prestigious Chicago College of Music. The young Ziegfeld was more interested in the city’s street life, and the less highbrow entertainments of vaudeville and burlesque. His gifts as a talent scout were first seen at the Chicago World Fair in 1893, when he turned a Prussian strongman, Eugen Sandow, into a nationwide sensation.
Ziegfeld set his sights on New York, although it was not yet a theatrical hub, and popular tastes were still heavily influenced by European culture. While visiting London, he was enchanted by Anna Held, a performer who epitomized the French coquette. With a series of touring shows and elaborate publicity stunts, he made her the talk of Broadway and beyond, bringing the ‘Gay Nineties’ to American audiences.
They lived together as man and wife, and it was Anna who suggested that he should mount a Parisian-style revue. Ironically, the Follies ultimately destroyed their marriage, as Ziegfeld embarked on a flagrant affair with his next discovery, Lillian Lorraine – one of the first in a long line of showgirls who would usher in a golden age of musical theatre.
His second wife, Billie Burke, was already an established star in her own right. After their marriage, and the birth of their adored Patricia, Ziegfeld enjoyed a new stability. Although he could be eccentric and demanding, the showman did not relish the spotlight. With each new venture, he pushed himself to the limit, suffering ‘the tortures of the damned.’
While he had no specific skills, Ziegfeld oversaw every detail of his shows, and nurtured some of the great entertainers of the era – including his comedic ‘three musketeers’, Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor and Fanny Brice – and musical talents such as Irving Berlin. He championed his female stars, albeit in a paternalistic manner. Perhaps his most difficult protégée was Marilyn Miller, who embodied a modern Cinderella in Sally (1920), and would later denounce her mentor.
Famously spendthrift, Ziegfeld was a compulsive gambler who was perennially in debt. Even his biggest successes often failed to make a profit, and the artists and investors he courted would sometimes go unpaid. Prohibition called a halt to his late-night revue, The Midnight Frolic, but his fortunes revived, with four simultaneous hits in 1927 – including Show Boat, arguably the first serious, plot-driven musical.
After losing $3,000,000 in the 1929 stock market crash, Ziegfeld’s career never truly recovered. His extravagant brand of escapism fell out of favour, but his influence can be seen in the lavish Hollywood musicals of Busby Berkeley, Vincente Minnelli and Arthur Freed. Even today, a full century after Ziegfeld’s rise to glory, the high-scale musical retains its dominance on Broadway.
Readers hoping to find sordid details of Ziegfeld’s entanglements with showgirls may be disappointed, but with access to family correspondence, they succeed in revealing more of the private man. His larger-than-life persona concealed a deep shyness, and he would often retreat after his shows opened. The great showman craved ‘the simple life’, and spent summers in the wilds of America.
Ziegfeld and His Follies explores a career which veered between triumph and disaster, and the conflicting actions and impulse of a man who chose to hide in plain sight. Weighing in at just under 600 pages (including nearly eighty images), it is a comprehensive study of both Ziegfeld and his work, which came to represent both the nation’s pursuit of happiness, and its final impermanence.