Anna Held: The Trend-Setting Star from “Paris” by David Soren

Helene Anna Held (Warsaw, 1873?– New York, August 12, 1918), known as Anna Held, was one of the most inventive, beautiful and engaging stars of the beginning of the 20th century. Her birth date is uncertain, variously reported to have occurred in Warsaw or Paris anywhere from 1865 to 1878. She is usually thought to be Polish and she was fond of telling stories about her past that may or may not have been true. A birth date in the 1870s seems to fit best with earliest visuals we have for her in which she appears to be a young lady not long out of her teens. Her Jewish father was a glove-maker and it has been suggested that her mother may have been Catholic.

The family moved from Warsaw, it is believed, to Paris to escape anti- attacks known as pogroms, and after the death of her father somewhere around 1885 she and her mother moved to England where her mother soon died. Anna was already singing and became associated with Jacob Adler’s famous Yiddish Theater in London. As she grew a little older she left Adler, who was at this time doing highly creative work but notoriously difficult and complicated to work with, and sought work in Paris where she became rather well known as a beautiful young lady with a super-thin, 18 inch waist and a saucy, flirtatious demeanor not unwilling to show a bit of flesh.

Around 1894 she married a fifty year old South American named Carrera and had a daughter named Liane Carrera in 1895 (1895-1988) who also became a performer sometimes billing herself as Anna Held Jr. She would likely have been about 22 years old at this time but the marriage was not successful, although details about it are sketchy. Soon after this period Florenz Ziegfeld whose remarkable taste for theatricality had singlehandedly rescued the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 with his insertion into the festival of half-naked strongman Sandow demonstrating his talents and packing in hordes of ladies to the exposition. Ziegfeld was at this time young, full of ideas and energy and well-off due to his father being a famous classical musician and orchestra impresario. At heart Anna was not like the flamboyant Ziegfeld but had converted to Catholicism and renounced Judaism and she had a very devoted and domestic nature when she was with the man she loved and not on stage.

In 1896 Held divorced the dastardly Uruguayan playboy Carrera and to the United States with 25 year old Ziegfeld who had a common-law ceremony and lived with her for approximately ten years, finally divorcing in 1913. Held has been described as very devoted to her daughter and trying to tame the irrepressible Ziegfeld who was always planning something new, running up huge debts and womanizing. Apparently she suggested to Ziegfeld the idea of producing a stage extravaganza similar to the kind of show put on at the Folies Bergére in Paris which was all the rage in the 1890s. By 1906 he had turned it into the Ziegfeld Follies, the greatest success of his career, although she was pregnant at the time with Ziegfeld’s child and could not be in the first Follies.

She made her American debut, to lukewarm critical reviews, at the Herald Square Theater in New York September 21, 1896 in A Parlor Match and also performed at various venues in New York exhibiting a coquettish style and exposing a little leg and smilingly offering suggestive lyrics. Her great beauty and entrancing eyes and Ziegfeld’s push and showmanship turned her into a famous star in New York and she also became an early part of the European wave of sexy exotic stars who were to captivate American audiences, including the Dolly Sisters and Gaby Deslys, and, later, Irene Bordoni, in shows and vaudeville.

Ziegfeld, who used the casting couch for those American girls that he wanted to take a special interest in, had an affair with beautiful Lillian Lorraine in 1909 and this brought an end to his liaison with Anna Held. His passion for Lorraine continued despite her own marriages to others and her behavior which at times made her unable to work and has fueled speculation that she was suffering from mental illness. Held was reportedly devastated by the open passion and lack of propriety displayed by her husband in his relationship with Lorraine.

A her break from Ziegfeld, Anna Held produced and starred in a number of her own Broadway musical comedy shows, working often in the company of her friend, the so-called nut comedian Henry Lewis, who became popular for his silly songs and eccentric stage behavior. One of his characters was named A. Knutt. Anna’s shows also featured her in magnificent costumes in the Ziegfeld tradition and her songs were always naughty in their lyrics while not lewd and her eyes were ever flirtatious and darting about.

After the Ziegfeld break Anna also received a great deal of sympathy from the general public who knew of Ziegfeld’s indiscretions and felt that she was a victim of his amorous adventures. She also became quite beloved for her interest in the American, French and British soldiers during World War I. She went back to France and raised money for the war effort and entertained the troops even in the front lines. She then returned to America and made a movie, toured in vaudeville and began to produce more shows.

She doing well on Broadway with several hit shows, most notably Follow Me with Henry Lewis, although some critics noted that she seemed to be aging and even too old for her coquettish part. Still she was a greatly beloved American icon at this point when, while touring successfully with Follow Me, she became seriously ill, collapsed on stage, closed the show, and soon died in New York City, aged somewhere around 45, from multiple myeloma, a form of bone marrow cancer, which came upon her unexpectedly with only symptoms of exhaustion. In 1976 her daughter opened a museum about her mother in San Jacinto, California and almost immediately it was vandalized and key items stolen, forcing its closure. Ziegfeld, who was hated by Anna Held’s daughter due to his treatment of them, did not atte the funeral due to his obsessive fear of death and dying. He was castigated severely by the media for his absence.

Anna Held’s legacy is that of one of the greatest and most beloved stars of vaudeville and theater. She was a person who triumphed over severe hardships early in her life, and even persecution, and she was remembered with great affection by the troops who served in Europe in World War I and by an American public who adored her. She also helped to create the image of the sexy French entertainer and paved the way for many others who came after her to American movies, the stage and the cinema.

The University of Arizona School of Anthropology Archive is proud to own 15 sheet musics illustrating the various aspects of Anna Held’s career including several of her major hit songs from her shows (all of the sheet music shown on this page is from the School of Anthropology collection):

I Want Dem Presents Back (1896) by Paul West dates to the very period of Held and Ziegfeld’s arrival in New York City and was an early attempt to market her by giving him popular songs to do and publishing them with M. Witmark and Company. The song was not a major hit but gave Anna early visibility.

The Maiden With the Dreamy Eyes (1901) dates before the Florenz Ziegfeld Follies and he was using his actual first name of Florence but claiming Held was under his direction. The show was not a big hit but this song was commissioned by Ziegfeld to three young and virtually unknown African-American composers, which was quite remarkable. They were J. Rosamond Johnson, James Weldon Johnson (his brother) and Bob Cole, a songwriting team that was highly influential during the famous Harlem Renaissance and they had been writing, amazingly, hit “white” musicals for Broadway such as The Sleeping Beauty and the Beast, which brought them to Ziegfeld’s attention as men of great talent. The song was designed to highlight Held’s beautiful eyes in the show The Little Duchess and it was an interpolation into the show which generally used white composer Harry B. Smith. The show ran a respectable 144 performances. A has both the green and yellow cover sheet musics for the song.

Dearie (1904) – Gustav Linders, Joseph Herbert. This is from the show Mam’selle Napoleon and is quite rare as the show bombed and only went to 43 performances, thus sheet music for it is seldom found. The public did not care for its early nineteenth century theme and the songs were considered unmemorable.

Game of Love (1904) – by Edgar Smith and Maurice Levi. This lovely sheet music features a color image of Anna Held and was a successful musical star-studded revue presented at the Broadway Weber and Field Music Hall as a collaboration between Weber and Ziegfeld, and picturing both of them on the cover. The two had formed a partnership which led to something called the “All Star Stock Company” and a show loosely set in Switzerland and Paris and featuring stars under the direction of these two rich and powerful men. Weber had separated from his partner Lew Fields and went into this collaboration with Ziegfeld which did not endure and Weber took over the operation of the music hall which was referred to as “The Old Stand.”

I Just Can’t Make My Eyes Behave 1906 – by Gus Edwards and Will D. Cobb. Published by Edwards, this song highlights Anna Held in A Parisian Model and became one of her greatest hits and signature songs, celebrating her wild long hair and flirty eyes and billed as “Anna Held’s Sensational Eye Song” “meeting with unparalleled enthusiasm”. This was a successful show on Broadway and helped to put Anna into the forefront of major stars of the time.

Kiss, Kiss, Kiss 1906 – Max Hoffmann, Harry B. Smith. Another tune from A Parisian Model, this one with lyrics by Smith who wrote the book for the successful show.

It’s Delightful to Be Married 1906- Also from A Parisian Model came this genuine hit with music by V. Scotto and English words by Anna herself. The song was popularized with the phrase “All Eyes are on Anna Held When She Sings….” This song which later proved ironic due to her husband Ziegfeld’s constant womanizing was one of the tunes most associated with Anna Held over the years.

My Pony Boy 1909 – Bobbie Heath, Charlie O’Donnell. The famous “Giddyup Giddyup Giddyup Whoa” song was actually sung by Anna Held’s sexual rival for Ziegfeld, Lillian Lorraine in the show Miss Innocence at a time of great tension in the marriage. The show had a very respectable run of 179 performances. Anna played the title character.

Oh! That Yankiana Rag 1909 – E. Ray Goetz, Melville J. Gideon. by Anna Held in Miss Innocence. Often Ziegfeld would have many composers working for his shows and would pick the best songs from them, hoping for hit tunes. This is one of the less successful interpolations in this show.

When It’s Buzz, Buzz, Buzzin’ Time in Bee, Bee, Bee Town 1913 – by Stanley Murphy, Henry I. Marshall. The lovely color cover photo of Anna Held in gown and wild double-plumed hat is from a show called M’lle Baby, described as an All Star Varieté Jubilee! Anna was now on her own, having been deserted by Ziegfeld. She was now being managed by John Cort. Cort had made a fortune in the Klondke Gold Rush and was now in his late forties and making a splash in the legitimate theater on Broadway and buying up properties all across the country. This rare sheet music is from the tour for this was not a Broadway show but a national tour by train that stopped in various cities for a number of days, set up the elaborate sets and displayed $50,000 worth of costumes for Anna in an attempt to travel her all across America a la Anna Pavlova, the Russian ballerina, famous for her train tours across many countries.

It Was On My Wedding Day, That I First Heard Them Play The Bells 1914 – Lou Klein, Frank Stillwell. “Sung with great success by the world famous artist Anna Held.” This was a song from Anna Held’s vaudeville touring days prior to her return to France and her service to the troops. It was not a hit and so is very rarely found. Of special note is the color cover portrait of Anna. During this period Anna was also writing song lyrics and poetry and worked with composers such as Alfred Bryan and Harry Tierney.

Follow Me 1916 – by Helen Trix. Anna Held had returned a heroine from the front in France and was much beloved by the American public and the critics welcomed her return to Broadway after the long absence. She was clearly now in middle age but still playing the flirtatious ingénue. Now under the control of Lee and Jacob Shubert, the powerful theater producers and owners, the show called Follow Me did not do very well as Anna seemed too old for the part now and it closed after a run of 78 performers, upon which Anna decided to take it on tour.

It’s a Cute Little Way of My Own 1916 – by Anna Held, Alfred Bryan, Harry Tierney. Anna continued as a lyricist for this song rom the Follow Me show but it was not a hit.

What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes at Me For (When They Don’t Mean What They Say) 1916 – by Joe McCarthy, Howard Johnson, Jimmie Monaco. The cover shows Anna with “nut comedian” Henry Lewis and the duet for this song was one of the big national hits of this show, in fact becoming one of Anna’s very biggest songs even though the show did not do so well in its initial run. But with the popularity that developed for this song it was possible to tour the show with a good recognition value for the show’s hit tune.

There’s Just A Little Bit of Monkey (Still Left in You and Me) 1916 – Grant Clarke, Jimmie Monaco. The cover again shows Anna with Henry Lewis who for a time during this period was very popular as a comic but his star quickly faded after the closing of Follow Me. This tune and it’s sheet music depicting cuddly monkeys in top hats (!) proved to be another national hit for the show at the Casino Theatre in New York City but this hit belonged to Henry Lewis who introduced it.

Name: Held
Topics: Broadway | Theater