Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,140

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,140


This is the grave of Florenz Ziegfeld and Billie Burke.

Born in 1867 in Chicago, Ziegfeld grew up pretty well off. His family was well-connected to European nobility and politics, even as parents chose to immigrate to the United States. His father ran the Chicago Musical College. He also owned a nightclub in 1893 to make extra money off the Chicago World’s Far and that is what attracted his now grown son’s attention. Young Florenz helped out here, including hiring the legendary strongman Eugen Sandow as the club’s bouncer. Not enough strongmen these days.

Ziegfeld decided this show business world was great. He wrote for Broadway and put on productions. They were successful. Ziegfeld was pretty well off, involved in entertainment in the U.S. and traveled to Europe a bunch. He got to know Anna Held in 1896, the singer and actress who was a major force in European popular theater. They got together in a relationship too, though they never officially married, the next year. However, they were considered common-law spouses, which will become relevant down the line here as let’s just say Ziegfeld had a thing for sleeping with his chorus girls. Anyway, Ziegfeld and Held worked together in many of his early productions and they were quite successful. In 1906, they put on A Parisian Model, which was a blockbuster success. This was a big show and it led Ziegfeld and Held to take a risk–they decided to put on a Parisian style revue, the real deal, in New York.

This, as you’ve already guessed, turned out to be Ziegfeld’s Follies, one of if not the single most successful entertainment of the early twentieth century. The Follies ran for 24 years, from 1907-31. This was a transitional period in American entertainment, as the old 19th century immigrant entertainments moved into the more organized vaudeville movement and then into the talkie film and new forms of mass culture. Ziegfeld was a key individual in this transition. His Follies combined the best entertainers of the day with the girls he thought were the hottest possible chicks out there. And that’s pretty much how he operated on the latter front. On the former, he hired people like Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and George Gershwin to write the music. I mean, this was the top of the game. But Ziegfeld was far more interested in girls. He picked them out individually, making them do all sorts of private dances and the like, some of which, well……The Ziegfeld Girls were famous, at least as a group. So a lot of women would put up with Ziegfeld’s usually unwanted advances here. It wasn’t hard to justify to yourself that it might be worth it. Among the Ziegfeld Girls over the years included Paulette Goddard, Joan Blondell, Olive Thomas, Marion Davies, Louise Brooks, Nita Naldi, Claire Dodds, and many other big stars. For that matter, Ziegfeld personally rejected such future stars as Joan Crawford, Lucille Ball, Norma Shearer, Eleanor Powell, and Hedda Hopper. But it was all up to him, which was very much the point.

The Ziegfeld Follies were known for its incredibly elaborate dance scenes, with the Girls wearing over the top costumes meant to both amaze and titillate. He built his own giant theater off Broadway and borrowed the money from William Randolph Hearst, another man who had a great interest in young women and who would go on to have a long relationship with Marion Davies, who he first met there. Not only did Ziegfeld hire future female actors and big time composers, but everyone else who wanted to move to show business wanted a shot too. Pretty soon, getting a gig with Ziegfeld was the way to make it big. Among the people who got a big boost in his shows include W.C. Fields, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, and Eddie Cantor.

Ziegfeld’s theater opened in 1927 and was an immediate success as a venue. The first play there was Rio Rita, which had over 500 performances and then it was followed by the massive, blockbuster hit Show Boat, perhaps his most famous operation. Today, this is one of the classics of Broadway, having been put on many times and a great way for someone to get some Tony nominations.

Again, Ziegfeld slept around like crazy, with many of his dancers as a one off thing and a few longer relationships. Anna Held finally divorced him in 1913, sick of this. This was specifically because of his relationship with a low-talent but attractive young girl named Lillian Lorraine, who he discovered when she was a mere 15 years old and started promoting and sleeping with soon after. By 1909, he was making her a lead performer, despite her questionable talent, because he was in love with her, or at least lust. Lorraine became so notorious for her social life that she became the inspiration for the Lorelei character in Anita Loos’ novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, most famously played by Marilyn Monroe in the much later film. But he didn’t stay with her either. Shortly after the divorce, Ziegfeld married another showgirl named Billie Burke in 1914.

Burke was born Washington, D.C. in 1884. She grew up in an entertainment family and her father was a clown in the Barnum and Bailey Circus. So she spent her youth on the road, including in Europe. She started on the stage in 1903, ended up a leading actress on Broadway by the late 1900s, met Ziegfeld, was cast in his plays, and then they started a relationship and soon married and had a child, Patricia, who much later wrote a book about her childhood growing up with her famous parents. Burke became a highly desired silent film actress as well. Her first film was Peggy, in 1915. She became the lead in Gloria’s Romance, a 1916 serial with 15 episodes. That made her a pretty big star. She starred in lots of films and became a fashion icon of the day. She really preferred the theater though and spent most of her time in the late 20s back on Broadway.

Ziegfeld’s Follies got killed by the Depression. Moreover, it’s not as if he was some kind of careful financial planner. He was investing big money to make big money. That was exactly the wrong position to be in when the Depression hit. He managed to scrape by for a couple of years but it was just too hard. Then he died in 1932, at the age of 65, from pleurisy.

When Ziegfeld died, he was in a lot of debt. Burke had to figure out how to pay it off. So she went back into the movies. That’s why you know her–she’s Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. She’s actually a lot more than that, but that’s how you know her. George Cukor thought she was a great actress and so he brought her back in 1932 playing Katharine Hepburn’s mother in the latter’s first film, A Bill of Divorcement. Cukor also cast her in A Dinner of Eight in 1933, which was a huge hit and made Burke something of a movie star again. In 1936, MGM decided to film a biopic of Ziegfeld. The Great Ziegfeld was a huge hit but Burke was furious. That’s not because they made the movie–she was totally cool with that. No, it’s because the studio cast Myrna Loy as her instead of herself. MGM’s position was that Burke was too old for the role now, but to say the least, Burke disagreed. But she remained an important actor. She was nominated for an Oscar for Merrily We Live in 1938. Then came The Wizard of Oz. She was offered the Aunt Pittypat role in Gone With the Wind, but turned it down.

During World War II, Burke mostly moved to the radio and she had her own comedy show on CBS from 1943-46. She appeared on a variety of other radio and television shows into the early 50s. She had something of a renaissance in her film career in the 50s as well, getting a key role in Vincente Minnelli’s Father of the Bride and Father’s Little Dividend. She did some more theater as well. But her ability to remember lines began to fade in the late 50s and she retired after a small role in John Ford’s 1960s film Sergeant Rutledge.

Burke died in Los Angeles in 1970. She was 85 years old.

Florenz Ziegfeld and Billie Burke are buried in Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other people involved in Ziegfeld’s Follies, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Eddie Cantor is in Culver City, California and Anna Held is in Hawthorne, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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