“Ziegfeld and His Follies”
CMH Exclusive Interview with Authors Cynthia & Sara Brideson
Cynthia and Sara Brideson’s latest book, “Ziegfeld and His Follies,” offers a comprehensive look at both the life and legacy of legendary impresario Florenz Ziegfeld. Meticulously researched and lavishly illustrated with over 75 images, the book presents an intimate and in-depth portrait of the man who profoundly changed American entertainment.
And now, CMH is happy to present an Exclusive Interview with authors Cynthia and Sara about this fascinating and informative book. A big Thank You to Cynthia and Sara for their time, and for supplying CMH with exclusive photos to use in this blog post!
CMH: Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourselves?
Cynthia and Sara: We’re identical twin sisters, born and still living in Sacramento, California. We’ve been writing ever since we could hold a pen! We began collaboratively writing when we were in high school, at which time we also took more of an interest in doing nonfiction work rather than novels.
CMH: How did you become interested in Classic Movies?
Cynthia and Sara: Our interest in classic movies really began because we became enamored with The Wizard of Oz as children. We especially took an interest in Dorothy and Glinda, who we found out were really Judy Garland and Billie Burke. We began to seek out any movie the actresses were in, and in those searches we came across dozens of other classic movies that sealed our obsession with all things old Hollywood. Meet Me in St. Louis, Dinner at Eight, Doubting Thomas, Easter Parade….all those movies were so well-made and appealing to kids as well as adults. Even the side characters in these films caught our interest! Our classmates had crushes on stars like Justin Timberlake and brought teen magazines to look at during silent reading time in the classroom while we idolized Jimmy Stewart and Gene Kelly and brought in old Hollywood memoirs with black and white photos. The other kids thought we were quite strange!
CMH: I have to chuckle at your answer to the last question because I think that many classic movie fans, including myself, can relate to that! But, that said… can you tell us… What inspired you to write about The Great Ziegfeld?
Cynthia and Sara: After reading Billie Burke’s memoirs, we wanted to know more about the larger-than-life figure to whom she was married. We found a beautiful book called The Ziegfeld Touch (by Richard and Paulette Ziegfeld, distant cousins of Florenz) and were entranced with the photos of the decadent shows Ziegfeld produced as well as his lavish home. His and Billie’s home, Burkeley Crest, seemed like an amusement park—complete with a menagerie of wild animals, a pool big enough to accommodate a canoe, a home movie theater, and a playhouse for their daughter with a complete working kitchen and guest room. Finally, the era in which Ziegfeld was most active (we call it the Titanic era through the Jazz Age, roughly 1912 to 1930), has always been the most fascinating time in American history to us. So much changed in popular culture and society; music, women’s place in the world, film, literature—everything was being reshaped and revolutionized. There was so much creativity; innovation seemed boundless. Ziegfeld, as one critic once said, created “musical mirrors of his time” that truly harnessed all that was going on in his era in a manner that both the masses and the elites could appreciate.
CMH: I can only imagine how difficult it would be to write such an extensive biography. How did you approach compiling and organizing the research for this book, and how long did it ultimately take to write?
Cynthia and Sara: Compiling research for the book was a very lengthy process. We first read Billie’s memoir seventeen years ago, followed by Patricia Ziegfeld’s candid account of growing up with Ziegfeld as a dad, The Ziegfeld’s Girl. So, that was about a year’s worth of research. We took a break for about ten years just to get through elementary school and high school. Then, five years ago, we found Grant Hayter-Menzies’s biography, Mrs. Ziegfeld, and it reignited our ambition to write a book about Ziegfeld. We wrote a rough draft, which took a year. In 2012, we really began the hard work. We found the Anna Held Papers (Held was Ziegfeld’s first wife, common law that is) in the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library. The papers included lengthy, unpublished correspondence between Billie and Ziegfeld as well as Ziegfeld and Patricia. We spent hours deciphering Billie’s rather sloppy handwriting, but it was worth the effort. We also found tons of primary sources including memoirs by Eddie Cantor, Ziegfeld girls Marcelle Earl and Doris Eaton Travis, and Will Rogers. Overall, with edits included, the entire project took almost four years. We were so thankful to the University Press of Kentucky for accepting our book and for helping us with the crucial editing process.
CMH: You clearly have great knowledge and appreciation for Ziegfeld and his work, but was there anything you learned while researching the book that truly surprised you about Ziegfeld?
Cynthia and Sara: What most surprised us was learning about Ziegfeld’s sensitive, warm side. He is stereotyped as a ruthless, publicity mad womanizer, but in truth that was not the real Ziegfeld. He was a devoted father and husband despite his periodic indiscretions. The most interesting part of our research was finding the unpublished letters between him and Patricia, written when she was a very young girl. Ziegfeld was a doting father and though many colleagues called him “Mr. Ice Water” because of his poker face, his letters to Patricia reveal that he did indeed have a sense of humor. His humor also came through in his correspondence with his best friend Will Rogers—the only comedian he said did not make him feel like hiding in his office. We were also surprised to learn of his benevolence to his employees. He was a father figure, but not a “Sugar Daddy”! For instance, he would give showgirls money when he knew they could not make ends meet to feed their families. He gave even the washer women at his theatre bags of gold coins as bonuses. One girl with whom he did have an affair, Lillian Lorraine, he supported throughout her life after she became somewhat crippled by a spinal injury.
CMH: Your book provides a comprehensive look at the life and legacy of Florenz Ziegfeld, but it is also, in a sense, a biography of his greatest stars. Can you elaborate on that a little for us?
Cynthia and Sara: The stars who we talk about the most are Anna Held, Lillian Lorraine, Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor, Marilyn Miller, W.C. Fields, Fanny Brice, Billie Burke (for whom he did produce several shows), and Bert Williams. We talk also of his first star, body builder Eugen Sandow, as well as the Eaton Sisters, the Dolly Sisters, and Nora Bayes (who co-wrote “Shine on Harvest Moon”). Of course we devote the most time to Billie Burke and Anna Held, since they were his spouses. Marilyn Miller fills considerable page space as well; Billie Burke stated that Ziegfeld loved her as “the perfect actress.” We spend much time discussing their tumultuous professional and personal relationship and debunk the unfounded assumption that Marilyn and Ziegfeld had an affair. Because Eddie Cantor wrote so extensively of Ziegfeld, we were able to put in more about him. Ziegfeld and Eddie had a sort of father/son relationship, complete with squabbles! We mention in passing a plethora of other famous people including Louise Brooks, Paulette Goddard, and Ruby Keeler—all of whom got their starts in Ziegfeld shows.
CMH: Ziegfeld was known as the “glorifier of the American girl”. Can you explain what this means?
Cynthia and Sara: When Ziegfeld began his theatrical career at the turn of the nineteenth century, the girls glorified on stage were often copycats of popular French and English actresses. Their wardrobe, acting and singing style — everything — bore European influence. Once Ziegfeld began his series of revues and separated from Anna Held (who was French), he sought to shine a spotlight on American beauties. He wanted to create a new definition of beauty unique to America. Surprisingly, he preferred chorines to wear little make-up, which was a far cry from the heavy make-up worn in European-inspired shows. He made women look less like porcelain dolls and more like the girl next door dressed in a fantastic costume. As well as conveying their natural beauty, Ziegfeld gave the women in his shows more powerful positions. They dominated his shows; men in Ziegfeld productions were afterthoughts. Ziegfeld glorified the American Girl at the time that American women won the right to vote and took on more position outside the home. He was not an exploiter of women but a champion of them. Through his showgirls, he helped set trends and showcase modern dance and music crazes—ragtime, jazz, and the like. This being said, he still did pamper his female stars — he did not expect them to be so liberated that they would reject a bit of spoiling. He employed the best photographers, (i.e. Alfred Cheney Johnson), the best costumers (i.e. Lucile Duff Gordon), and the best lighting technicians to ensure that his girls looked and felt that they were the best in the business. Eddie Cantor once stated that if someone saw a Ziegfeld Girl on the street, he would never guess she was an actress. But with the right clothes, lighting, and attention, she blossomed into one of Ziegfeld’s Glorified Girls.
CMH: Ziegfeld was most famously known for his theatrical revues and musicals, but can you tell us a little about how he influenced classic movies?
Cynthia and Sara: Virtually any musical you watch bears some influence from Ziegfeld shows. For instance, the famed storyline of poor girl making good has its roots in Ziegfeld’s phenomenally popular musical comedy Sally and later Betsy and Show Girl. Also, the oft used “living mannequin” style of musical number you see in sequences like “The Girl I Love Is on a Magazine Cover” (Easter Parade) and “Beautiful Girl” (Singin’ in the Rain) originated in Lucile Duff Gordon’s fashion shows, which Ziegfeld adopted for his own revues. Finally, there is a plethora of movies depicting the Follies or telling the stories of those who worked in the revues. Ziegfeld Girl (1941) and Easter Parade (1948) show girls working in the Follies and make reference to Ziegfeld in name only—as a sort of omnipresent but unseen figure. Then there are all the biopics of Ziegfeld stars: Funny Girl, The Helen Morgan Story, The Eddie Cantor Story, The Will Rogers Story, The Dolly Sisters….the list becomes rather lengthy. There are also adaptations of his shows such as Show Boat and Rio Rita. In our book, we give a complete list of Ziegfeld-inspired films as well as two pictures he co-produced himself, Whoopee! And Glorifying the American Girl. The former stars Eddie Cantor and the latter Mary Eaton (with a cameo by Cantor). Also notable is that Whoopee! was choreographed by Busby Berkeley, whose later films like 42nd Street adopted the “poor girl makes good” story used in several Ziegfeld shows.
“Beautiful Girl” from “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The girl I Love is on a Magazine Cover” from “Easter Parade,” sequences inspired by “Ziegfeld Follies” numbers
CMH: Can you tell us a little about how Billie Burke influenced Ziegfeld and his work?
Cynthia and Sara: Fashion became even more dominant in Ziegfeld’s shows after he and Billie married in 1914. Billie was a fashion trendsetter; she actually introduced him to Lucile Duff Gordon, who gave the Follies their signature style from 1915 to the early 1920s. Billie also “tamed” Ziegfeld to an extent. Once Patricia was born in 1916, his shows were more family-friendly. Billie also suggested that he give Marilyn Miller a part in the Follies; given her tremendous impact on his shows, particularly his musical comedies, this is perhaps the largest contribution Billie made to his work.
The Christmas scene in “the Great Ziegfeld,” the only moment Billie Burke deemed genuine in the film.
CMH: How does the real Florenz Ziegfeld compare to William Powell’s portrayal of him in the 1936 film, The Great Ziegfeld?
Cynthia and Sara: The real Ziegfeld was not the polished and extraverted socialite William Powell played onscreen. He was actually rather shy and awkward around people and had few close friends. He was more of an outdoorsman than William Powell’s portrayal. He was in his element when camping and fishing. What Powell and Ziegfeld share was an impeccable style of dress, extravagant showmanship, and an eye for beautiful women and/or potential stars.
A comparison of the real Billie Burke, Florenz Ziegfeld, and Anna Held with their cinematic counterparts, Myna Loy, William Powell, and Luise Rainier, in “the Great Ziegfeld” (1936).
CMH: And, to continue along those lines, how did the real Billie Burke compare to Myrna Loy’s portrayal of her in that film?
Cynthia and Sara: Billie Burke was much more strong-willed than Myrna Loy’s portrayal. She was known to have a fiery temper and admitted to hitting Ziegfeld over the head with a soup bowl when his gambling or suspected affairs became too much for her. Billie stated that the most accurate scene in the film is the Christmas scene in which Ziegfeld is shown lavishing gifts upon his family, enjoying the act of giving far more than receiving. Billie also admitted that she would rather have had Miriam Hopkins portray her in the picture. Given Hopkins’ more temperamental characters she played onscreen, we can see Billie’s reasoning.
CMH: What made the Great Ziegfeld so great?
Cynthia and Sara: What made Ziegfeld “The Great Ziegfeld” was in one word: taste. He defined his touch as “splendor and intelligence,” which when put together equal taste. He had an eye for color and spectacle that other producers did not. He never stooped to broad comedy or bawdy burlesque; rather, he produced witty comedy, timely satires, and even shows with weighty dramatic elements like Show Boat. He also was a star maker. Virtually all the great musical and comedy stars of the 1910s and 1920s were either discovered by or made famous by Ziegfeld. The same could be said for songwriters. Ziegfeld gave George Gershwin his start and helped popularize Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, and, most notably, Irving Berlin. Tunes from Ziegfeld shows have lasted while tunes from other producers’ revues were not so immortal. Everyone still knows “Ol’ Man River,” “Look for the Silver Lining,” “Mandy,” and “Shine on Harvest Moon.” Finally, what made Ziegfeld so great was that the word impossible was not in his vocabulary. Even when he was broke, he still insisted that everything in his shows be the finest quality. Costumes used real pearls and gems and ostrich feathers. Money was no object. Ziegfeld stated near the end of his life at a time when movies were threatening to displace legitimate theatre: “Beauty in the flesh will continue to rule the word.” Ziegfeld did indeed give audiences visions that would be difficult to replicate onscreen. Seeing splendor before one’s eyes is something a recording of the same image cannot duplicate perfectly. It is like comparing a photo with a painting. A painting shows the dream while a photo shows the reality. Ziegfeld made dreams realities for audiences, for his family, and for his employees.
Character actors spotlighted in “Also Starring”:Frank Morgan, Edna May Oliver, Charles Winninger, Shelley Winters, Claude Rains, Joan Blondell
CMH: One last question… “Ziegfeld and His Follies” is actually the second book that you’ve written. Can you tell our readers a little bit about your first book?
Cynthia and Sara: Our first book was published in 2012 by BearManor Media and is titled: Also Starring: Forty Biographical Essays on the Greatest Character Actors of Hollywood’s Golden Era, 1930-1965. The idea for the book came about the same way as the idea for the Ziegfeld book. When we watched all the films we could find of Billie Burke and Judy Garland, we could not help but notice that several supporting actors seemed to show up again and again. We would say: “It’s that one guy!” And then we’d wonder, who is that person? We chose forty of the most memorable character actors (Billie Burke included) and wrote substantial sketches on each one. We found material about the actors through newspaper archives and rare memoirs (who knew S.Z. Cuddles Sakall wrote a book?) that allowed us to give more than just career overviews. A few people we spotlighted were actually Ziegfeld veterans including Charles Winninger, Edna May Oliver, and Frank Morgan. We also included a few stars that began as leading ladies/men but became character actors as they aged such as Shelley Winters, Joan Blondell, and Claude Rains. We also included people almost forgotten by history such as Jules Munshin and Virginia O’Brien. No star is too little, in our opinion, to receive the same attention as a box office draw.
Thanks again to Cynthia and Sara Brideson for this fascinating book and interview. For those of you who’d like to purchase their books, you can buy them on amazon by clicking below.
Sara and Cynthia Brideson are avid classic movie fans, and twin authors of Ziegfeld and His Follies: A Biography of Broadway’s Greatest Producer and Also Starring: Forty Biographical Essays on the Greatest Character Actors of Hollywood’s Golden Era, 1930-1965. They also are currently working on comprehensive biographies of Gene Kelly and Margaret Sullavan. You can follow them on twitter at @saraandcynthia or like them on Facebook at Cynthia and Sara Brideson.
–Annmarie Gatti for Classic Movie Hub