Book Review: ANNA HELD AND THE BIRTH OF ZIEGFELD’S BROADWAY (Eve Golden, Updated Edition)

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by Vaughan Edwards on June 7, 2021

in Books,Film


Before reading Eve Golden’s exuberant biography, what little I knew of Anna Held came from the 1936 biopic The Great Ziegfeld and the 1980 Broadway musical Tintypes. The Anna of the film appears to be a relatively accurate portrayal, somewhat marred by Luise Rainer’s relentlessly winsome (albeit Oscar-winning) performance. Tintypes dismisses Held in short order as no more than an untalented airhead. As Golden makes clear, the truth is more complex.

Although her generation’s idea of the chic Parisienne, Helene Anna Held was actually born to Jewish parents in Poland somewhere between 1870 and 1873; the actual date is anyone’s guess and if Anna knew, she wasn’t telling. A rise in anti-Semitism in Poland brought the Helds to Paris in 1881. Anna fell in love with the city at first sight, and for the rest of her life insisted she was French, or at least Parisian.

The Helds were poor and Anna went to work as a seamstress. In 1884 her father died and she and her mother moved to London. They lived in Whitechapel, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, notorious for the Jack-the-Ripper murders. Anna supported her meager income by singing on the streets and working as a chorine in Whitechapel’s Yiddish theatre. When fire destroyed the theatre in 1887 Anna returned to Paris where she achieved success as a cabaret singer, eventually headlining at the Folies Bergeres. She was appearing in London when a fledgling producer named Florenz Ziegfeld caught her act. He brought her to New York amid great fanfare and for the next twenty years, Anna Held was a Broadway star, appearing every season from 1896 to 1917 in forgettable and forgotten shows.

Like many actors, she was tiny (just over five feet) with a disproportionately large head and enormous eyes. Those eyes became her stock-in-trade, so much so that she had an “eye song” in every show. The titles say it all; “I Just Can’t Make My Eyes Behave”, “Those Great Big Eyes”, and “The Maiden with the Dreamy Eyes”.

According to contemporary reviews her acting technique was limited to rolling her famous eyes and wriggling her (usually bare) shoulders. But she must have had something; no one can star on Broadway for twenty years without some talent. She triumphed over consistently mediocre material, provoking the disdain of critics and moralists alike. This was a period when “French” was synonymous with “salacious” or worse. One critic suggested Anna was pandering to “the depraved passions of a sin-slaved public” which seems excessive.

Held was clear-eyed about her limitations as a performer and perfected the persona of the naughty-but-nice Parisienne. Synonymous with the Belle Époque in Europe and North America, her position in the pantheon of American theatre is tenuous to say the least. In twenty years on Broadway, she never played in a memorable show. Admittedly it was not a stellar period for musical theatre; shows were thrown together by committee, the scores containing work by a dozen different composers.

If it weren’t for her fifteen-year personal and professional relationship with Ziegfeld, Held would be a very minor footnote in theatre history. They were in many ways equals. Anna is generally credited with inventing the Ziegfeld Follies, utilizing her experience of French music hall at the Folies Bergere and other Paris night spots. She came up with the idea of a cleaned-up version of the French model but without the nudity, though as edition followed edition some of the showgirls’ costumes came perilously close to nudity without actually breaking the law. The Follies became a Broadway institution, with almost annual incarnations from 1907 to 1931. In fact, the Follies were to prove more enduring than the Ziegfelds’ marriage; they divorced in 1912 and things were never the same for Anna after that. Without Ziegfeld’s powerful production machine to support her, her career faltered. Her shows became less original, the productions less opulent. It took the outbreak of war to give Anna a chance to reinvent herself. Through the four years of war, she worked tirelessly as both nurse and entertainer, and by the time of her death in 1918 she was a decorated war heroine.

Eve Golden paints a lively picture of the theatrical world of the time, and extensively quotes from contemporary reviews and accounts of Held’s performances, but in the age of the internet even the most die-hard musical-theatre enthusiasts like their idols to be accessible on YouTube. Anna Held made no recordings and her only film, Madame la Presidente, is apparently locked forever in a vault at UCLA. Gold’s book is a splendid evocation of the theatre of the period on two continents, but of Anna Held the performer there’s barely a trace.

photos courtesy University Press of Kentucky © not to be duplicated

Anna Held and the Birth of Ziegfeld‘s Broadway (Updated Edition)
Eve Golden
University Press of Kentucky
paperback | 288 pages | June 29, 2021
available at Amazon

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