Held, Anna (c. 1865–1918)
Held, Anna (c. 1865–1918)
Polish-born musical entertainer who became an American theatrical legend. Born in Warsaw, Poland, on March 18, around 1865; died in New York City on August 12, 1918; daughter of Maurice (a glove-maker) and Yvonne (Pierre) Held; married Maximo Carrera (a tobacco planter), in 1894 (divorced around 1896); married Florenz Ziegfeld (theatrical producer), in 1897 (divorced 1913); children: (first marriage) one daughter, Liane.
The facts surrounding Anna Held's early life have been obscured by the extravagant publicity that made her a legend of the American theater. Her memoirs, published years after her death, only add to the confusion. She was born in Warsaw, Poland, on March 18, around 1865, to French parents, Maurice (sometimes seen as Shimmle) and Yvonne (sometimes seen as Hélène) Held. According to her memoirs, she was the last of 11 children; the others died young. She also wrote that her mother was a devout Catholic who raised her in that faith, although other sources suggest that Held was Jewish. Around 1871, the family moved to Paris, which Held later claimed as her birthplace. When she was 12, her father was taken ill, and Held went to work as a seamstress to help the family's dwindling finances.
After her father's death in 1855, Held and her mother went to London to seek lost relatives. Finding none, they barely scraped by until Held joined Jacob Adler's Yiddish Theatre. Held was with Adler for five years, until the company disbanded. She then found her niche as a music-hall comedian. Capitalizing on her considerable endowments, which included a laced 18-inch waist and large expressive brown eyes, she cultivated a "naughty" French stage persona that quickly made her one of the most popular stars in Europe. In 1894, shortly after her successful Paris debut, Held was secretly married to Maximo Carrera, a wealthy South American tobacco planter 20 years her senior.
During a London engagement in 1895, Held came to the attention of the young American theater impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, who, after seeing her perform, wangled an introduction to the star by sending a diamond bracelet and a basket of rare orchids to her dressing room. It
took Ziegfeld one hour to convince Held to sign a contract with him and come to America. Before departing for her new life, however, she gave birth to her only child, Liane, whom she sent off to Paris with a nurse; she also separated from her husband. Carrera, according to Billie Burke , Ziegfeld's second wife, was a reasonable man who recognized that he was too old for Held and, though it broke his heart, let her go with "the lucky American." Held and Carrera would divorce a year later. Around the time of her arrival in the United States, Held took up residence with Ziegfeld, and in 1897 or 1898, the two were married in what was apparently a common-law ceremony.
Held made her American debut at New York's Herald Square Theater in September 1896, in a Ziegfeld revival of the farce A Parlor Match, in which she charmed audiences with a song that became something of a trademark, "Won't You Come and Play Wiz Me?" Most critics found her delightful, although some thought her Parisian mannerisms a little too suggestive. Coinciding with Held's debut, Ziegfeld launched a publicity blitz about his new star that fascinated an eager public. It was written that she bathed daily in gallons of milk, and that she chased a runaway horse on her bicycle to rescue a former Brooklyn magistrate. In her autobiography With a Feather on My Nose, Billie Burke recounts how Ziegfeld contrived a well-publicized bet with movie director Julius Steger, in which Steger wagered he could kiss Held 200 times without losing his vigor. "The contest ended at one hundred and fifty-two kisses, Anna pale with exhaustion and Steger wobbly—or so the story goes."
Held subsequently starred in a series of light musical farces, including The French Maid (1898), Papa's Wife (1899), in which she also toured, The Little Duchess (1901), Mlle. Napoleon (1903), and Higgledy-Piggledy (1904), the first show that Ziegfeld produced with Joseph Weber after Weber's separation from Lew Fields. (The collaboration between Ziegfeld and Weber was short-lived due to artistic differences.) In Parisian Model (1906), Held created a sensation with the Gus Edwards' song, "I Just Can't Make My Eyes Behave."
According to Burke, Held was the first to suggest the Follies, those dazzling productions celebrating the comely side of American womanhood that drove Ziegfeld's career for the next 20 years. Follies of 1907, the first outing, was a triumph for Held. The show presented her in a series of extravagant costumes, displayed one after another, in front of a chorus in flesh-colored tights. As a result, American women rushed out to buy Anna Held corsets, cosmetics, and cigars. Unfortunately, Held would not benefit from subsequent Follies. In 1908, after the musical Miss Innocence, she left for Paris, claiming that Ziegfeld was never home and, when he was, never talked to her. "He was exhibiting that 'withdrawn' quality which later became so familiar to me," wrote Burke, "and which I finally understood." In 1912, Held began divorce proceedings, believing that Ziegfeld would never permit it, "but he did permit it," Burke said, "and it broke her heart."
Held continued to perform in America and abroad and, in 1915, made her only movie, Madame la Présidente. But, according to Burke, her final years were unhappy. "In spite of her enormous acclaim as a wicked French actress who performed naughtily on the stage, Anna was a hausfrau. She was frugal, domestic, and maternal." In November 1916, Held opened in the musical Follow Me. While touring with the show in Milwaukee in January 1918, she was stricken with what was diagnosed variously as myeloma and pernicious anemia. (Some reports say that her illness was the result of years of tight corseting causing pinching of her internal organs.) She recovered sufficiently to return to New York, where she died the following August at the age of 45. At the end, Flo Ziegfeld did not forget Held, asking his wife Billie Burke to send her some things to help her through her illness. "I did," writes Burke. "I was glad to. I sent fresh eggs, baby broilers, fresh vegetables and butter … daily, and my own doctor. But it was too late."
Burke, Billie, with Cameron Shipp. With a Feather on My Nose. NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1949.
James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.
Wilmeth, Don B., and Tice L. Miller, eds. Cambridge Guide to American Theatre. MA: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts