Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Delanceyplace.com 12/2/08-The Ziegfeld Follies

In today's excerpt-Florenz Ziegfeld (1869-1932), the great impresario of the Ziegfeld Follies, and his first Ziegfeld Girl, the international sensation Anna Held. Ziegfeld, one of the greatest showmen of his or any age, created a fervor for his stars and his shows through masterful publicity tales, staged scandals, and dazzling, sexy theater:

"Some of Ziegfeld's publicity tales about Anna Held mark her as an unnaturally bold member of her sex; that was Ziegfeld's point. He was a salesman, and his product was not just song and dance but the unnamable feelings of pleasure and stimulation that musical theatre create in us. To Ziegfeld, talent in a man was useful. But talent in a woman was sexy; and part of Anna's talent lay in the way she played at life, dared in life, adventured in it.

"So the height of all his regulating of the media was the story of the milk baths, still spoken of today. Master promoter though he was, Ziegfeld couldn't think of everything himself, and he seems to have offered to make it worth one's while to dream up yet another fable that would prove irresistible to newspaper editors. A minor writer of this and that, Max Marcin, conceived the notion that Anna had a standing order with a dairy to deliver to her hotel suite forty gallons of milk a day--eighty on Sundays! This, of course, would be what gave Anna her lustrous skin tone, her Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire volupte. Marcin even found a milk dealer to stooge for this nonsense, his name given variously as R. H., H. R., and H. B. Wallace, of 25 Patchen Avenue in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, Wallace was not warned about the tale's kicker: Ziegfeld was going to default on payment because the milk was sour. Imagine bathing in sour milk! So, as the story ended, Wallace was supposedly taking Ziegfeld to court.

"It was all Marcin's fantasy, of course, though the press printed it--just as they printed Wallace's expose. He had never delivered any milk to Anna, he said, and was outraged at the suggestion that he sold spoiled milk. Ziegfeld was delighted, because it is all but impossible to dispel a tale that allows people to believe the worst of a celebrity, impossible even with the truth. The question is not, Who has the facts? but rather, Who is persuasive? Anna had beautiful skin; besides, she was French. ... But Ziegfeld was no more than anticipating modern American culture, in which all public life is a form of theatre. If it's news, it's true, whether it's true or not. You call it lies. Ziegfeld calls it the script.

"And he must be right, because, ever after, most people believed that Anna Held took milk baths. Actually, as she later revealed, her beauty-secret ingredient was Italian olive oil, three tablespoonsful a day, taken internally, along with external applications as part of massage therapy. However, that was too sedate an explanation for the vivacious Anna. Many were the clerics, professional bluenoses, and other custodians of the American moral character who insisted on returning to the milk baths when inveighing against this hussy, this professional Jezebel."

Ethan Mordden, Ziegfeld, St. Martin's Press, Copyright 2008 by Ethan Mordden, pp. 43-44.


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