Two days ago I was browsing through The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg and I came across a poem mentioning the death of Anna Held. I thought I should look her up because I had never heard of her, but let it go.
The next day I was reading the biography of Irving Berlin called As Thousands Cheer by Laurence Bergreen, and page 62 had another mention of Anna Held. Synchronicity told me to look her up.
She was famous for many things, but as the mistress of Flo Ziegfeld for a time she was responsible for the idea of a European, slightly risqué review that became the famous Ziegfeld Follies and made a fortune for both of them.
Sadly, she died when she was in her 40s. Since there is dispute about her birth date I winged it and picked one for the photo, but it might not be accurate.
It was such a different time. Gritty, rather awful in many respects due to poverty and death, grim, and yet we romanticize it. The image of Anna Held echoes that romanticism of the Belle Époque, or the Gilded Age before World War I that wasn’t really all that golden unless you were wealthy.
Carl Sandburg always seems to be able to get at the grittiness of things:
AN ELECTRIC SIGN GOES DARK
by Carl Sandburg
Poland, France, Judea ran in her veins,
Singing to Paris for bread, singing to Gotham in a fizz at the pop of a bottle’s cork.
“Won’t you come and play wiz me” she sang … and “I just can’t make my eyes behave.”
“Higgeldy-Piggeldy,” “Papa’s Wife,” “Follow Me” were plays.
Did she wash her feet in a tub of milk? Was a strand of pearls sneaked from her trunk? The newspapers asked.
Cigarettes, tulips, pacing horses, took her name.
Twenty years old … thirty … forty …
Forty-five and the doctors fathom nothing, the doctors quarrel, the doctors use silver tubes feeding twenty-four quarts of blood into the veins, the respects of a prize-fighter, a cab driver.
And a little mouth moans: It is easy to die when they are dying so many grand deaths in France.
A voice, a shape, gone.
A baby bundle from Warsaw … legs, torso, head … on a hotel bed at The Savoy.
The white chiselings of flesh that flung themselves in somersaults, straddles, for packed houses:
A memory, a stage and footlights out, an electric sign on Broadway dark.
She belonged to somebody, nobody.
No one man owned her, no ten nor a thousand.
She belonged to many thousand men, lovers of the white chiseling of arms and shoulders, the ivory of a laugh, the bells of song.
Railroad brakemen taking trains across Nebraska prairies, lumbermen jaunting in pine and tamarack of the Northwest, stock ranchers in the middle west, mayors of southern cities
Say to their pals and wives now: I see by the papers Anna Held is dead.