Category Archives: Music Hall

Ballet Girls

She was ‘only a ballet girl’ was a term often used in theatre circles to cover everyone from the flying fairy to the corps de ballet and its principal dancer. Ballet girls were seen as having easy morals and were treated with scant respect. Albert Smith in the Natural History of the Ballet Girl, published 1847, points out that a gent imagines he has but to wink at a fairy on stage to be immediately received as her accepted admirer. Ballet girls were employed in large numbers to look decorative as well as to dance and would often be placed as ‘extras’ around the stage. Their dancing skills were often found wanting. Opera and pantomime were originally a good source of employment for them and in 1877 Davenport & Wright, Musical and Dramatic Agency, required 150 young attractive ballet ladies for pantomimes in London and the provinces. Music hall managers, always looking for something new, began to stage ballets as part of their programme and in 1866 the Canterbury Music Hall in London advertised a grand ballet spectacle with a fairy orchestra and upwards of fifty ballerinas.

The ballet girls were often mocked for their lack of training and poor skills but it was a hard life with little romance. In the 1860s a dancer paid for her own petticoat, tights, fleshings (flesh coloured tights) and shoes and much time was spent repairing and re-covering worn shoes. Wages were low and sometimes dancers were not paid for rehearsals, which were long with only an hour or two off before the evening performance. This could last until midnight and occasionally a rehearsal could be called after the performance. Those in the front line were paid more than those at the back so competition was fierce with ballet girls dreaming of working their way through the ranks to become principal dancer or coryphée. Things had improved a little by the end of the nineteenth century but dancers were still responsible for buying their own shoes and tights and were encouraged to take professional dance lessons at their own expense.

The Star Trap

It could be a dangerous occupation with newspaper reports of dancers sustaining serious burns when costumes caught fire when moving too close to, or falling into, the limelights along the edge of the stage. They ran the risk of scenery falling on them and those dancers propelled from beneath the stage fervently hoped the star trap would open for them to make their dramatic appearance. The vagaries of the licensing laws were also a problem. In Edinburgh, Henry Levy applied to renew the license for the Southminster Music Hall in 1872. A petition had been received from ninety-five working men who were dissatisfied with the entertainments provide by the Southminster with many of the songs and dances being of a mischievous and immoral tendency – – also of a significantly suggestive character, exercising a corrupting influence on the young of both sexes who so largely frequent this place of amusement. The can-can ballet was their main target which had been put on nightly for a few months and enjoyed by the gallery boys and girls. The license was renewed on the understanding that the can-can would no longer feature in the programme.

The Empire
The Alhambra
Nelly Power



The status of ballet changed over the years but music hall kept it alive and introduced audiences to a a different form of entertainment. In 1870 the burlesque actress and music hall star Nelly Power appeared at the Canterbury Hall, London, in a Grand Ballet entitled Four-leaved Shamrock. She played the roles of several characters and imitated the most popular comic songs of her day – with no advance in the prices. The London halls, the Empire and the Alhambra were renowned for their ballets which took over one half of the programme. We can assume there was a rivalry between the two as a former Alhambra dancer opined they were expected to dance, unlike the corps de ballet of the Empire, who merely held up the scenery. The managers of these two halls became aware of the Diaghilev Ballet and the attraction of supremely talented artistes. The Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova and the Danish Adeline Genée were engaged and changed the public opinion of ballet forever.

Anna Pavlova
Adeline Genée


Thanks to The British Newspaper Archive, vintagepointe.org, The Natural History of the Ballet Girl -Albert Smith, My theatrical and Musical Recollections – Emily Soldene, Monomania collection.

A market for vice and drinking

Mrs Ormiston Chant

In late Victorian times music halls were a countrywide institution and had moved on from grimy rooms at the back of public houses to full blown palaces of entertainment with elaborate architecture and lavish interiors. However, they still had their critics with the foremost among them being Mrs Ormiston Chant of the Purity Party whose view was that the halls catered for people who had a small proportion of brains. She began a campaign to remove the much appreciated Ladies of the Promenade from the Empire, Leicester Square, in London. This did not please a young Winston Churchill who wrote in his autobiography we were scandalised by Mrs Chant’s charges and insinuations. Churchill was filled with scorn when a canvas screen was put up to hide the exquisitely dressed prostitutes and was part of a crowd who later tore it down. The council closed the bars and the canvas screen was replaced by railings but the decision was reversed at the next licensing session and the discreet ladies returned. Marie Lloyd fell foul of the prudes on the prowl at the Empire when Mrs Ormiston Chant made a public protest by shouting out during one of her songs. Even the Empire’s footmen in blue and gold livery could not convince the purity campaigner that this was a respectable house.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, Marie Lloyd received a less than flattering description from Virginia Woolf after a visit to the Bedford Music Hall in Camden Town. We went to the Bedford Music Hall last night and saw Miss Marie Lloyd, a mass of corruption – long front teeth – a crapulous way of saying desire and yet a born artist – – A roar of laughter went up when she talked of her marriage. She is beaten nightly by her husband. This was at the music hall built in 1899 on the site of the original Bedford Music Hall (1861). The original being later known as the Old Bedford and providing the setting for a series of Sickert’s music hall paintings.

The dancer, Maud Allan, caused a stir in 1908 with her classical dancing and costume particularly when performing Salome which was banned from some music halls and theatres. The Palace, Manchester, received a visit from the Chief Constable who watched her performance and advised the Manchester Watch Committee to prohibit her appearance. He expressed a wish to go on the stage to get a closer look at her costume but was denied this by the managing director, Mr Alfred Butt. The Chief Constable was very anxious to accept Mr Butt’s suggestion that he look at the costume when Miss Allan had changed but was stopped by the official who was with him. Maud Allan agreed in some cases to dispense with the carrying of St John the Baptist’s head on a platter during her performance. I was amused to see that on one occasion she was followed on the bill by Juliette’s Sea-Lions.

America was not without it’s perils for the music hall star as male impersonator, Bessie Bonehill, found out during a season at Tony Pastor’s theatre in New York. She kept an anonymous note she received which quoted a passage from the scriptures, The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, for all that do so are an abomination. Bessie Bonehill had short hair, unusual for the time, and did not wear wigs unlike many male impersonators. The Daughters of America tried to have her expelled from the country but she was enormously popular.

Thanks to British Newspaper Archive, Marie Lloyd and Music Hall by Daniel Farson, Marie Lloyd Queen of the Music Halls by Richard Anthony Baker, England’s Gem – the story of Bessie Bonehill by Richard Bonehill


The Latest Scourge

The latest scourge – a term used to describe the flu pandemic of 1918/19 when the country was already reeling from the devastating effects of the First World War. Theatres and music halls were a welcome escape for many of the population and the authorities saw them as a morale booster in difficult times. There was much debate as to whether music halls should remain open and which, if any, preventative measures should be taken. Local authorities took their own decisions. By October 1918 no regulations had been issued in Oxford as to the closing of places of amusement, even though influenza was rife. Audiences declined considerably and the military authorities placed music halls out of bounds for infantry cadets, although Royal Air Force cadets could still attend. In contrast, at the beginning of November 1918 the licensing committee in Birkenhead issued regulations covering the opening of music halls. The first performance was to take place between 6.30 and 8pm with the premises thoroughly ventilated until 8.45pm when the second performance began. Children under fourteen were not to be admitted under any circumstances and overcrowding should be avoided. Scrupulous cleanliness was expected.

In many areas the military of all ranks were forbidden to attend the halls which had a severe effect on their takings and led to calls for restrictions to be eased. Various medical experts shared their opinion that it was useless to close places of amusement while allowing travel on omnibuses and trains. Oswald Stoll, music hall manager, declared that the epidemic was much more likely the result of a diet lacking in fats and sugar than visits to the music hall. The London Palladium installed an ozone ventilating system and sprayed a strong germ killer all over the theatre between each performance. The Illustrated London News suggested there was no better preventative than a good sneezing fit once or twice a day and various manufacturers talked up the efficacy of their products.



Despite some measures to combat the virus it dealt a blow to performers as well as audiences with popular artists unable to perform. The trade papers sought to play down the seriousness of the outbreak but were reporting many stand-ins for advertised artists. Daisy Jerome, irreverent mimic and singer, cancelled her appearance at the Palladium after succumbing to influenza while coster act, Duncan and Godfrey, appeared at the Holborn Empire still suffering from the after effects of the illness. Anthony Burgess, the writer, tells us of his mother’s death from influenza in 1918 when he was two years old. He talks about her life in music halls and her marriage to his father, a pianist in the pit orchestra. I can find no other evidence of Elizabeth Burgess/Wilson appearing on the halls and would be grateful for any information.

Elizabeth Burgess Wilson

Music halls were perhaps more fortunate here than in the States, Canada and Australia where the halls closed for weeks at a time inflicting severe hardship on performers and venues. In her autobiography, Take it for a Fact, Ada Reeve talks of being hospitalised with flu in South Africa with theatres closed and the public warned not to go to places of amusement. All in all, many parallels with the current pandemic and then, as now the fervent wish was to get back to normal.

Ada Reeve


Thanks to British Newspaper Archive, thestage.co.uk, Take it for a Fact – Ada Reeve
Photograph of Elizabeth Burgess/Wilson reproduced with kind permission of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation


An update on the mysterious relative

I’m very pleased to have found out a little more about the life of Marie Levison/Kate Toole who featured in the previous post. Thanks to the help of @heathertweed my enthusiasm was renewed for more research. Marie/Kate was born in 1859 in Worcester and her original name was Catherine Lee. She was one of nine sisters which included my friend’s Great Grandmother, Jane Lee. It seems the family cast her adrift when she went on the stage. This story had come down through the family but was still not really talked about. According to her obituary, Catherine started her career under the stage name Marie Levison, singing and acting with various companies until she was engaged by the D’Oyley Carte company. It seems she spent some years there and then as Kate Toole took to the music halls and pantomime where, for a time, she enjoyed success. She was said to have an excellent stage presence and a rich sympathetic voice.

While my friend found out about Catherine’s beginnings I looked into her death and burial guided by @heathertweed. Kate Toole, as she was still known, died of alcohol poisoning and had been found in bed by her landlady. She was living in Bermondsey and was buried on March 5th 1903 in Nunhead Cemetery. She was 44 years old when she died. Kate was buried in consecrated ground but in a public or communal grave along with twenty-one other people. This usually happened when the deceased had no resources to pay for a private grave or no relatives prepared to pay the costs. As Catherine had changed her name twice it’s possible her family had lost track of her – a better thought than that they refused to help. The site of the grave is now a nature reserve.

The obituary states that, in her day, Kate Toole was a popular and much appreciated artiste but that in later years her name had entirely disappeared from the London programmes. We will probably never know if her star faded and she took to drink or if alcohol was the cause of her downfall, as it was with so many music hall performers. I’m glad we could give her some recognition and I feel moved by her story and grateful to have had the chance to get to know her in a small way.

Thanks to @heathertweed, British Newspaper Archive, Nunhead Cemetery

 

 

 

Roller-Skating: An Aid to Health

The general population in the early 1900s was as susceptible to fashion and new-fangled ideas as we are today. The craze for roller-skating came over from America and swept the country. As ever, the music hall reflected life in the outside world and took the opportunity to bring new delights to its audiences. Roller-skating acts were soon included in music hall programmes and managers were encouraged to update the halls with flooring to accommodate skaters, or rinkers as they were known. As seen below, the suggestion seems to be that rinkers could use the halls for skating between performances and managers could cash in at the same time.

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Specialist roller-skating rinks opened all over the country for the general public but were not universally popular among those already providing other forms of entertainment. In some areas publicans organised an anti-rinking campaign and billiard saloon owners met to discuss the way to combat the attraction of roller-skating. The trade paper, The Era, tells us that music halls seemed not to suffer a decline in trade and the manager of a large venue declared that skaters liked a quiet seat at an entertainment at least one evening a week. This may have been wishful thinking as Mr Alfred Graham, proprietor of the Hull Hippodrome and Middlesbrough’s Oxford Music Hall, was declared insolvent and blamed skating rinks for his troubles.

Health benefits were said to be gained from roller-skating with even the most BE3D3A36-13DE-4723-98BF-8BB09D9B57F6delicate people finding it beneficial. Headaches would become a thing of the past as the blood coursed more vigorously through the veins. Little is said about falls and broken limbs. Seeing the experts performing at rinks and music halls increased the popularity of the pastime with participants attempting dance steps and couple dancing, with mixed results.
326EEF08-1E76-4E68-9F79-BF0C1E4CB870Dolly Mitchell was a young Scottish roller-skater who teamed up with her American teacher, Harley Davidson, to give displays in rinks and music halls. Advertised as the greatest skaters in the world and giving a wonderful exhibition of trick, fancy, acrobatic, graceful and artistic skating. They displayed over £1,000 worth of gold and diamond medals won in competition. When appearing in Scarborough they cake-walked, two-stepped and waltzed on roller-skates before executing a perfect ballet dance. Harley Davidson described Dolly Mitchell as being sixteen years old, the daughter of a doctor in Aberdeen and the granddaughter of ‘old John Begg’ a whisky distiller. They visited London to have a portable maple floor made to fit any stage at a cost of £140 and Harley boasted they would be ‘the first roller-skating dancers and poseurs to travel with such a flooring’.

Rosey Anslow and Ella Grahame were working in Poland AB13BD1D-B9AD-4060-8092-EDBDB7E5C0E3and had this publicity photo taken by Léo Forbert’s studio in Warsaw. Ella writes on the back of the card ‘What price this for swank. Do you like me in pants? The people can’t get past the size of my bottom here’. Let’s hope the audience appreciated their skill as well.

Information worth sharing is that Mr H. W. Izod, manager of a roller-skating rink in Earls Court London had, on two occasions, entered a wild beasts’ cage in public. The first time he played a game of ping-pong in the presence of eleven lions and the second time he shaved another man with fifteen lions around him. He was said to be a sworn enemy of monotony.

The rinking craze was short-lived and by 1911 many rinks had closed with investors losing considerable sums of money. However the music hall soldiered on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vaudeville’s happiest girl

Jen Latona, real name Emma Jane Letty Carter, was born in 1881 in Birmingham. By the age of sixteen she was appearing in music halls under the name of Jennie Gabrielle. In January 1896 the Hull Daily Mail commented on her appearance at Hengler’s describing her as ‘the child musician, who possesses a singularly sweet and mellow soprano voice’. We learn from a review of her performance at the Palace Theatre in Edinburgh that she sang humorous songs and accompanied herself on the piano and concertina.

Jennie married an American performer twenty-five years her senior, born Benjamin Franklyn Titus, whose stage name was Frank Latona. Jennie Gabrielle became Jen Latona. Frank performed as a tramp musician, playing the trombone and a one-stringed fiddle, and included various effects in his act which he constucted himself. In a handwritten pencil note on a scrap of paper Frank reminds himself to ‘make whiskers to blow out and curl up – air pumps and rubber tube’.

Frank Latona

Jen and Frank worked together as a double act with music, song, gags and repartee. In the archive of their work, presented to the Mayor of Lambeth by Jen Latona in her retirement, can be found handwritten sheets of ‘gags’, while jokes were often constructed from cut out newspaper articles. A handwritten notebook of sketches and gags contains this gem – ‘Why, that is the meanest man you ever saw. He is so mean he goes to the track and makes faces at the engineers so they will throw coal at him’. Newspaper personal ads were fair game too, with ‘Two girls want washing’ setting the standard. The couple performed extensively in New Zealand and the United States scribbling down material for their act on hotel notepaper and receiving offers of new songs from American songwriters.

Margaret Cooper

When Frank Latona retired, Jen became a successful solo performer. She was on the bill with Vesta Tilley at the opening of the Croydon Hippodrome and was described as an ‘entertainer of exceptional merit’ to be compared with Margaret Cooper, a classically trained pianist who moved over to the music hall. However the writer quickly explains that Miss Cooper’s songs are of quite a different nature but that Jen is ‘a turn quite above the ordinary found at the halls’. Jen composed much of her stage music and the sheet music of the day shows she had a prolific repertoire with such songs as I’m going to buy you the R.I.N.G. and You can’t blame a Suffragette for that.

Frank died in 1930 and Jen retired a few years later. She lived in Streatham in London and when she died in 1955 her home and possessions were put up for auction, including a Schrieber grand piano and a souvenir programme of Sarah Bernhardt at the London Coliseum in 1913. The proceeds of the sale went to the Variety Artists Benevolent Fund.

Frank had a genius for mechanical invention and invented and patented the Ednor Tank Washer. Of more interest to music hall fans here is a drawing in Frank’s hand of the workings of a dog to be used in an act with a mule.

We’ll leave the Latona’s with a final joke. ‘You are the most ignorant man I ever saw. Why, only yesterday I saw you giving hot water to the hens to make them lay hard-boiled eggs’. I hope you hear the echo of laughter.

Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive and Lambeth Archives. Images Monomania.

Jolly Katie Lawrence

Katie Lawrence

Katie Lawrence was born in 1868 and is first mentioned on the music hall stage in 1883 with first appearances at the South London Palace and the Windsor Castle Palace of Varieties in Woolwich. At the South London Palace punters could avoid the crush by entering through a newly available side door for only threepence extra per person! In November 1883 she appears in an advert in the Entr’acte as Jolly Katie Lawrence, a pupil of J W Cherry. The advert describes her as a dashing serio and dance artist who has enjoyed great success at the Middlesex every evening. J W Cherry was a composer and opened a ‘Music Hall Academy’ giving singing lessons to hopeful music hall artistes. Marie Kendal was also a pupil who went on to great success.

In an interview in the Era in 1893 Katie Lawrence talked of starting her career as a child actress and studying dance at the academy of Madame Katti Lanner, who was herself said to have trained at the ballet school of the Vienna Court Opera. In 1887 the Empire Theatre of Varieties opened in London’s Leicester Square and Katti Lanner became the ballet mistress working with the resident company which could have provided a connection between the two. We do not hear if Madame Lanner felt music hall life was a step down the ladder of success. Katie Lawrence was often praised for her dancing and during an extensive tour of Australia in 1889 her butterfly dance was encored again and again with her skirts taking the part of wings ‘so curiously do they seem to be part of herself’.

Things were going well for Katie in 1887 as a notice in the Era states that she was taking a holiday in Paris and would not resume business until October 31st. This was probably placed by her agent, George Ware, who was known as an astute judge of talent. He also managed, among others, Nelly Power and Marie Lloyd. In 1892 Katie had her big success with a song ‘Daisy Bell’ written by Harry Dacre which touched on the new and modern topic of cycling. Those of us who know the song today think of it as ‘Daisy, Daisy’ or ‘A bicycle made for two’. It’s worth saying that in music hall days a catchy chorus and a simple melody was a must so that the audience could keep the tune in their heads as they left the theatre. The performers could only hope that their songs would become a hit which would secure future bookings.

Katie Lawrence Second turn at Gatti’s

Around 1903 Walter Sickert painted Katie Lawrence at Gatti’s, a music hall built under the arches of Charing Cross station, but she seems not to have been enamoured with the artist’s work. At one point Sickert offered her one of his music hall paintings but she said she wouldn’t have it – even to keep the draught out from under the scullery door.

‘Daisy Bell’ became a huge success in the States as well as this country and Colin MacInnes in his book Sweet Saturday Night tells us that Katie was able to build Bell House near London Zoo. This happy state of affairs did not last as gradually Katie Lawrence’s name dropped off the bill of the more prestigious music halls. She found work in smaller halls and remained popular in the Midlands but experienced hard times despite her previous popularity in London, New York and South Africa. There is mention of Marie Lloyd giving her a helping hand at this time and it could be true as they had shared an agent and had often been on the same bill. Katie Lawrence died in Birmingham in 1913 where a benefit concert had been arranged for her and her name was on the bills for an appearance at a local hall.

Thanks to British Newspaper Archive, Sweet Saturday Night- Colin MacInnes, Marie Lloyd, Queen of the Music Halls – Richard Anthony Baker

Just a quick word

Postcards were a fashionable and practical way of communication in the time before phones and social media. They were used in different ways – to wish a friend a happy birthday, to pass on information or just to keep in touch. Performers would send them out to agents in the hope of getting work and fans would search for the perfect card to add to a collection. There are many apologies on the backs of cards for failing to find the desired image and hopes expressed that the card sent will be enjoyed. Picture postcards could only be sent from 1894 and postcards sent previously could be devoted to writing only. The postal service was reliable, with more than one collection and delivery a day. This meant that arrangements could be made, changed or confirmed at short notice.

Marie Dainton

A card of Marie Dainton sent to Miss Railton from Bridgend in 1905 tells her that Mother has arrived safely and that Mrs Gammon and Herbert was meeting us at the station. In February 1904 the same Marie Dainton sends a postcard to herself from herself for luck. She was appearing in the Chinese Honeymoon as Mrs Pineapple.

Hetty King

Minnie writes to Mrs Locker on a card of Hetty King in 1906 to let her know that she is going on alright with her housekeeping and that Clare comes down to visit and she makes me the beds.

Gertie Gitana

Ethel Larder in Louth receives a card of Gertie Gitana which the writer, Florrie, bought at the Palace Theatre in Hull. She says Gertie was the star artist and the card was sold to support the Belgian relief fund.

The Edivictas

A card of a cycle act is sent with the stark message don’t forget to give our Willie the milk to bring up.  There is no date, sender or recipient so it could have been left propped up on a mantelpiece or pushed through a letterbox. Perhaps Willie turned up with the milk before it was sent.

La Milo

Pansy Montague, known as La Milo, caused raised eyebrows by posing as a living statue covered in alabaster whitening with a few strategically placed pieces of white material. She took part in a parade in Coventry in 1907 as Lady Godiva which caused a great scandal, although an anonymous correspondent writing to Clara cannot see that there is much in the postcard to make a fuss about. He had enjoyed himself at the music hall the previous night.

‘M’ receives a card asking if she has ever tried the Halls. The writer suggests the picture is M in a bathing costume and encourages her to try the hand balance in the sea where it would be an attraction, although cold.   

Finally an all lady rifle act send out postcards to say they are ‘vacant’ October 27th and onwards (no year). Their permanent address is 29 Richmond Terrace, Clapham Road, London.

Molly O’Morgan

 

It all began when I bought a postcard of a young woman in rustic dress standing b410cc75-0878-4596-8c44-0b5abc0437eawith a barrel organ. The card on the barrel organ reads ‘Molly O’Morgan’. The young woman is staring out from the photograph as if she has a story to tell. There is a story of Molly O’Morgan, the daughter of an Irish mother and an Italian organ-grinder father, who had dark brown hair and laughing eyes. It is said her mother died when Molly was young and she and her father left Ireland with a barrel organ and monkey to take their chances in Europe. Molly would dance while her father played the barrel organ and the crowds were charmed into parting with their coins. They travelled from city to city and eventually arrived in Monte Carlo where Molly’s fortunes changed. She was noticed by Duke Medici-Sinelli, an elderly widower, who naturally enough was also rich and charming. The Duke arranged for Molly to appear at a theatre and in the way of fairy tales she immediately became a star. Molly and the Duke married and unkind rumours suggested she was a gold-digger although the couple seemed devoted to each other. When the Duke died Molly did not marry again but came to Monte Carlo every year and stayed in the same suite in which she and the Duke had spent their honeymoon. She was said to live in Hungary with a distant branch of the Duke’s family.

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Ella Retford

In February 1929 the Nottingham Evening Post reported the death in Hungary of the Duchess Maria della Casa Medici-Sinelli, formerly Molly O’Morgan. The article recounts her story as true and as the inspiration for the music hall song Molly O’Morgan ‘with her little organ’. The song certainly existed, written in 1909 by Fred Godfrey and Will Letters, but Molly herself may have been part of a romantic myth. The Nottingham Evening Post article is the only reference I can find to a real Molly O’Morgan. Ella Retford had a great success with this song in the pantomime Jack and Jill and the Sheffield Evening Telegraph stated ‘Molly O’ Morgan goes with a swing that is irresistible and compelling. You positively must sing it’.

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Alice Lloyd

In the same year, 1909, Alice Lloyd had a hit with the song in New York and determined to feature it throughout her American tour. It would be delightful to believe that Molly O’Morgan existed but I’ll leave that for you to decide. The young woman in the photograph is not named and I’ve come to the conclusion she is in fancy dress – an unromantic end to a romantic story. 

 

 

 

Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive and fredgodfreysongs.ca

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

La Belle Otero

9580BBBF-26FC-40F7-AB5A-717125DD61E8‘I was extraordinarily pretty’ states Caroline Otero in her autobiography My Story and this much is true. Music hall singer and dancer, courtesan and gambler, La Belle Otero lived a life of extremes and exaggerations that would raise eyebrows today. She claimed her mother was a beautiful Andalusian gypsy, Carmen, who danced, sang and told fortunes. Such was her beauty that a group of passers-by including a young Greek army officer, gazed at her in admiration as she was engaged in the unromantic task of hanging out the washing. The autobiography makes much of the courtship and devotion of the young man and tells of his death in a duel with Carmen’s lover. It is more likely La Belle Otero was born into a poor family in Galicia  in November 1868 and given the name Augustina although she adopted the name Caroline at a young age. As a child she was sent away to work as a servant and is said to have been raped at the age of ten. It’s no wonder she gave herself a more romantic beginning.

 

At thirteen or fourteen Caroline Otero seems to have run away with a young man 334D4B3F-BC4D-4EF3-AA73-F0B81E0278F0who found her work as a dancer in a Café. She moved up the scale from theatre to theatre, starring at the Folies Bergère , collecting and discarding admirers and lovers. It is said men fought duels over her and left themselves penniless after showering the object of their affection with flowers and jewels. A writer in The Sketch in 1898 reports that Mdlle Otero came on to the Alhambra stage in a salmon-pink dress covered in diamonds and turquoises with her fingers heavy with rings, the dress setting off her pale complexion and black hair to great advantage. The diamonds, worth millions of francs, were tokens of the esteem in which she was held by her admirers. The writer goes on to say that ‘most performers humbly seek the suffrages of their audience; La Belle Otero, whose equipment is in many respects inferior, from the artistic point of view, to that of her competitors, demands them as a right.’ 

 

0097154A-42F7-43D3-9B4C-99D11BEDACFEOtero was adept at self publicity and in 1902 the Paris correspondent of the Express writes that an engineer in Brussels was constructing an airship for her ‘by means of which she hopes to make a triumphal entry next August into Biarritz.’ She was worried it could be dangerous and so the balloon was to be dragged along by a car attached by a thin wire. If there was an accident she could ‘descend to the car by means of a rope ladder, which she will have tied in to the airship. The airship will float gracefully above the automobile at a height of 100ft.’ Mistress to ambassadors, princes, including the future Edward VII, and nobility throughout Europe, La Belle Otero scandalised and fascinated society in equal measure. Her weakness was gambling and she lost vast sums of money at the tables, sometimes her own and often her admirers’ fortunes. The Tatler tells us that in 1909 police raided a gambling club in Paris and found fifty women and ten men. On further investigation another woman, Caroline Otero, was found in a cupboard.

 

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Liane de Pougy

Stories were rife of her exploits including a report in a Mexican newspaper that Otero had shot a love rival, Liane de Pougy, through the heart. Liane de Pougy was another famous courtesan and actress of the day. Both ladies were said to be very much amused by the report. In 1907 she insured her ankles for £15,000 each and was advertised as the only dancer with ankles worth £30,000. She was not universally admired and in 1895 the Evening Telegraph and Star reported a court case from Paris concerning the notorious Otero. She was living in an apartment in the Rue Charron rented by her English friend, Mr Bulpett, and the landlord charged him with not fulfilling the terms of the lease, namely that the apartment should be kept in a respectable manner. The landlord claimed Otero was damaging to the value of his property as other people objected to her. Two other tenants had signed a petition saying if she did not move they would break their leases. The defence denied any scandal had been caused by Otero’s presence in the apartments and that she and Mr Bulpett had as much right as other tenants to give dinners, hold receptions, have a carriage at the door and live a life of luxury. The judgement was in favour of Mr Bulpett.

 

The author, Colette, knew Otero when the great dancer was in her forties and describes her in My Apprenticeships as dancing and singing for her guests for up to four hours and having a body that had ‘defied sickness, ill-usage and the passage of time.’ The character of Lea in Colette’s novel Chéri is largely based on Otero and her lifestyle.

 

La Belle Otero retired after the First World War having built up a vast fortune but her love of gambling was to be her undoing and she died in relative poverty in 1965 at the age of 96. The Tatler had rather prematurely announced her death in 1947. Her autobiography is a ripping yarn rather than a factual account but she had a sensational life and career and who can deny her a little economy with the truth.

 

Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive, My Story – La Belle Otero,

My Apprenticeships – Colette