What Ziegfeld did for Anna Held, the Shubert Brothers did five years later for Gaby Deslys. They made her famous in America before she first arrived from Paris and set foot on an American stage. Gaby Deslys was a willing partner in her exploitation.
Gaby was pretty, blonde and buxom with a cinched waist, and she possessed a sparkling stage personality. Gossip about her romance with the young and handsome King Manuel of Portugal found its way into print. The infatuated Manuel gave her costly presents at the expense of an impoverished country. When Manuel and his family were forced to flee their homeland in the midst of revolution, Gaby Deslys’ reputation was made: she was the stage beauty who brought down a kingdom.
Such claims made sensational headlines but distorted history. Portuguese revolutionaries predated Gaby’s entrance on the Iberian political stage. Well before Gaby Deslys caught Manuel’s eye, the more radical insurrectionists had assassinated the king, Manuel’s father, and his older brother, the heir to the throne. Mlle. Deslys was never blind to the advantages of capitalizing on publicity, regardless of its questionable veracity.
Gaby’s true story was one common to other famous French women of the stage. Like Sarah Bernhardt and Yvette Guilbert before her and Edith Piaf after, Gaby rose to great heights from modest circumstances. Born in November 1881 to Hippolyte and Anna Caire, the future Mlle. Deslys was christened Marie-Elsie Gabrielle Caire in the then lovely French city of Marseilles. Gabrielle’s mother wanted to go on the stage but married at seventeen and soon had a family to raise. She gave birth to one son and four daughters. The oldest daughter died in infancy.
Hippolyte was 33 when he married Anna and was fully prepared to support a wife and family. He came from a family of successful textile merchants and worked with one of his brothers, Leon. The death of his first daughter and, a few years later, in 1885, of his only son, devastated him. He grew solemn and melancholy.
Although he loved his three young girls and wife, he behaved sternly toward them. Anna encouraged her daughter Gaby-Elise to develop her singing and dancing talents, but her father became horrified when he learned of Gaby’s ambition to become an actress. He sent her to the strict religious school called the College of the Dames de St. Maur.
In 1899, Gaby’s older sister Aimee died of tuberculosis, the same disease that had claimed her young brother’s life. Gabrielle and her sister, Matichon, were terrified. There was no known cure for tuberculosis, and it was thought to be genetic. For the rest of her life, Gaby feared sharing the same fate as her older brother and sister.
After leaving the convent school, Gaby set about becoming an entertainer. She picked the stage name Gaby Deslys (derived from Gaby-Elise, a pet name given to her by her mother). In the fall of 1902, the 19 year old Gaby boarded a train for Paris. She made her debut on 9 October 1902 as a chorus girl in Y a des Surprises.
The Parisan stage brought together various elements of French society, but class distinctions were maintained. Women of the theatre were often assumed to be sexually available as mistresses to wealthy and well-positioned men of society and business. Certain sections of various theatres served as meeting places between prostitutes and clients, a situation that reinforced among many a negative opinion of women of the stage. Cornelia Otis Skinner’s book, Elegant Wits and Grant Horizontals, details some of the more notorious and exceptional figures of the time, such as “La Belle” Caroline Otero, Liane de Pugy and Emilienne d’Alencon.
Gaby practiced her dancing, and carefully observed the stage techniques of the more seasoned artists around her. She was given a new song, “Je Chante la Glorie de la Parisienne”, that she turned into a personal success at the Mathurins Theatre. After that, her social circle and career quickly blossomed.
She realized the way to promote oneself to fame in the entertainment world had little to do with talent. Gaby worked on her theatrical and musical skills, but she understood that was her lovely features, her plump and curvy form, so in vogue at the time, and her witty, flirtatious manner that won her champions among the press and in her audiences. A 1904 show, A Fleur de Peau, kept her name and face in front of a growing audience, and she became quite well-known around the town.
In 1905, Gaby’s mother separated from her husband and moved with sister Matichon to Paris. They watched with amazement and pride as Gaby rose to celebrity status. The show that made Gaby Deslys a star was Au Music Hall, at the Olympia Theatre, in which she introduced several acts and starred in several musical numbers. Shortly after the opening of the show, her picture was published on the cover of the widely-circulated Paris Qui Chante magazine.
Her performance captured the attention of two distinguished Englishmen, George Grossmith, Jr. and his friend George Edwardes, the impressario who owned the famous Gaiety Theater in London. Gaby left Paris in August of 1906 to fulfill a three-month contract with the Gaiety Theatre to plays in its production of The New Aladdin. Originally engaged to play a French maid, she found that that role was given to Jennie Aylwin, a Scottish lass. Aylwin shared the favorable notices with Mlle. Deslys, who was presented more as a variety turn.
Gaby sang and danced, garbed in beautiful, revealing costumes. She proved a favorite with the audience; they cheered her and some men even threw gifts at her or attempted to climb onstage. She returned to Paris with another contract to play British music-halls in the winter of 1907.
Gaby was neither a distinguished singer non natural-born dancer, but she could memorize a song after hearing it only a few times and was able to learn choreography quickly. She was a die-hard perfectionist. Even if she were only onstage for a few minutes, she made sure to appear alluring and paid careful attention to the details of her performance. She rehearsed until she was satisfied with every component of her work. Will Bishop, a performer with the Empire Ballet and the Gaiety Theatre, arranged many of her dance numbers in the early shows and coached her performance. Beauty, a theatrical sense and hard work paid off in engagements at Les Ambassadeur and several consecutive seasons at the large and venerable Alhambra, where she starred in Les Cloches de Corneville (in which she did her first quasi-striptease number), La Journee d’une arisienne and Les Caprices de Suzette. Gaby Deslys topped a variety playbill for the first time when she performed at the Moulin Rouge.
In 1910 she appeared at the Capucines in Sans Rancune, and it was this show that attracted young King Manuel of Portugal. He and Gaby met after the show, and the two had many more informal meetings following that night. Rumors of an affair spread through the city, especially when Gaby made an appearance in Lisbon at the request of the King. Shortly thereafter, Manuel’s mother attempted to arrange a marriage for her son with a princess from an allied country.
The once-subdued gossip linking Gaby to royalty exploded into a full-fledged scandal. It was said that Gaby had been installed in the Royal Palace and showered with gifts, including an eight-foot long rope of pearls. When Gaby was first beginning to acquire wealth, she let it be known that she preferred the soft sheen of pearls to diamonds or other jewels. Many of her early show costumes featured ropes of pearls, and they became her trademark.
None of the scandalous rumors in Portugal had a negative impact on her immense popularity in Britain and France, but, in October, a violent revolution in Portugal forced King Manuel to flee and sail for Gibraltar on a yacht crewed by fishermen. He was criticized in the press for giving Gaby costly presents at the expense of a nearly bankrupt country. Even in America, newspapers blamed Gaby for costing the King his throne.
Gaby struck while gossip was hot. She demanded more money from her employers, threatening to break contracts and get more lucrative jobs if she was not paid what she felt she deserved. She left France and arrived in New York in September 1911, under contract to the Shubert Brothers. Thanks to their publicity mill, the American public was aware of Gaby Deslys before she ever stepped on an American stage. The Shuberts tried out Gaby in their Revue of Revues, a flop that ran for 55 performances at the Winter Garden in the fall of 1911. She had a great deal of trouble with her English in her one dance-sketch, Le Debuts de Chichine, a segment of the Revue of Revues, but attracted some attention for her naughty, sexy image of the demi-monde, women of France considered to be on the edge of respectable society.
As soon as that show closed, the Shuberts put Gaby into Vera Violetta (1911), a three part entertainment. Al Jolson headed the cast along with Stella Mayhew, an he made it his show. Gaby faced a lot of competition as the show boasted three of the sexiest women in show business: Annette Kellerman, the champion swimmer famous for her daring one-piece bathing suits, Mae West, soon to become synonymous with sex, and Jose Collins, who revived her mother’s famous number, “Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-Der-E”.
Fortunately, Gaby was partnered with dancer Harry Pilcer (1885 – 1961). As well as being a compatible dance partner, he wrote the lyrics (Louis Hirsch, the music) for what became Gaby’s theme song, “The Gaby Glide”. The dance was performed with both Gaby and Harry facing forward, she in front him. Her left arm was hooked behind his neck, and he guided her by clasping her right hand behind her back. Their two bodies were pressed together; her body arched forward and her head tilted back onto his shoulder.
Harry Pilcer, the handsome son of an immigrant, was an accomplished dancer. Rumors swirled about Pilcer; it was whispered that he was homosexual, a male prostitute and a gigolo– all of which, if true, qualified him as one of the more versatile men of the American stage. Gaby was captivated by his style, and the two made a sexy dance team. Harry devised the choreography for their routines, and several of their numbers were set in boudoirs, which gave them added zest. Gaby’s and Harry’s public association on and off the stage led to rumors of romance.
Early in 1912, Gaby, at the peak of her popularity, ended her first visit to America and returned to Europe with Harry. France welcomed her home with great enthusiasm, and the pair had their choice of engagements until they returned to the USA in November 1912. She and Pilcer toured with Jolson in a Shubert revue, The Social Whirl, and then opened on Broadway in another Shubert revue, The Honeymoon Express (1913). The Belle of Bond Street (1914) with Lottie Collins and Sam Bernard, flopped at the Shubert Theatre.
Gaby’s stage costumes were expressive imitations of the latest styles, tailored to be original and shocking. She appeared onstage in short skirts, tight tops, dragging trains, accompanied by her strands of pearls and giant feathery hats. Each new outfit had to top the one before to keep men excited and women envious and talking.
Gaby was more successful in the big cities of the East Coast than on tour across the American heartland; still, she landed a film contract with Adolph Zukor, founder of Famous Players, a photoplay company that in 1912 had distributed Queen Elizabeth, which starred Sarah Bernhardt. Gaby’s movie, Her Triumph, was filmed in Paris. She sailed for Europe in May 1914 with Harry; also on board was the American singing comedienne Nora Bayes.
In the fall of 1914, Gaby starred in The Rajah’s Ruby at the Palace in Paris. The show was a hit despite the outbreak of the Great War. In 1915, she purchased a home in London and appeared in the less successful productions of Rosy Rapture and The New World. She used her fame to support the French war effort by collecting money, entertaining wounded soldiers and promising kisses to new recruits.
Gaby sought a romantic relationship that would provide emotional security, which Harry was unable or unwilling to offer. Professionally, he wanted to be more than a supporting player in Gaby Deslys’s act. When she realized she was not going to have a romantic relationship with Harry, she turned her attention to Gordon Selfridge, a well-known London businessman. Harry soon found himself another dancing partner, but neither Harry nor Gaby equaled the success they found as stage partners.
Gaby struggled with throat and voice problems during late 1914. She was admitted to the hospital for surgery and recuperated at her home in the south of France. In the summer of 1915, Gaby appeared again at the Alhambra in 5064 Gerrard. Harry Pilcer was also written into the script at Gaby’s insistence, and Robert Hale appeared as well in a dynamic and entertaining show.
Gaby and Harry were back in the USA late in 1915 for Stop! Look! Listen! She and Harry did another variation of their dance act, but the story line was carried by star Justine Johnson, Harry Fox, Marion Sunshine, Frank Lalor and Harland Dixon (who also performed with his dance partner, James Doyle). Gaby’s and Harry’s differences were making it difficult to do their best on stage. It only made matters worse that her mother, who disliked or distrusted Harry, had predicted such an outcome for their relationship a long time beforehand. In May of 1916, Gaby sailed from New York for London without Harry. Her health began to decline again, and she worried about coping with the rheumatism that plagued other members of her family. She was determined to make as much money as possible to cushion her life in her later years. Despite declining numbers in theater attendance, she remained in the spotlight by performing in numerous shows through the war years, influencing fashion and cultivating her fans.
She and Harry made up their differences and appeared at the Femina Theater in La Marche a l’Etoile. During the show’s run, Gaby met the famous Russian costume designer Romain de Tirtoff, better known as Erte, and he created some costumes for her. But by 1919, Gaby was complaining of illness again, and Harry resumed his solo career as she sought various treatments.
Physicians discovered a tumor in her throat. Despite several painful surgeries, her condition rapidly worsened. She died on 12 February 1920, just 38 years old. Her good friend Harry Pilcer had not been informed of her condition in time to visit her death bed, and he was distressed about being excluded. Gaby’s mother and Harry were both devastated, but animosity kept them apart.
When Gaby’s will was made public, it was reported that she had left small amounts of money to people who had worked for her and a generous sum for Harry Pilcer. Her jewelry and many other belongings were sold at auction through the following months. Her estate, rumored to reach into the millions of dollars by modern values, was left to her mother and sister, who were to spend only a fourth of it; the remainder was slated to be used for the poor. Gaby’s dream was that her villa be made into a children’s hospital dedicated to the memory of her brother and sisters who had died from tuberculosis. She wanted the hospital to bear her name.
As executor of the will, Gaby’s mother decided against building the mausoleum that Gaby had wanted because she thought it was too expensive. She also refused proposals to begin work on Gaby’s hospital. When Gaby’s mother died in 1936, the Villa Gaby was converted into the School of Hydrology and later into a refuge for troops during World War II. At the end of the 20th century, the building was still being used, as a hostel for international students doing medical research. Gaby’s dream of a children’s hospital was never realized.
The University of Arizona possesses a number of sheet musics featuring Gaby Deslys and Harry Pilcer as well as an original program for The Honeymoon Express (1913) from the Winter Garden in New York City and citing that it is part of The First American Tour of Mlle. Gaby Deslys, accompanied by the “50 Gaby Deslys Girls”. There are many photos of all the costumes and elaborate hats worn by Gaby in the production, the string of pearls that was her trademark. And the critical reviews included reflected on Gaby’s popular appeal: “Gaby Deslys sang in delightful broken English, danced her little hat off, and was applauded long and loud. Gaby sings and dances several times and wears wonderful little (very little) costumes. She wears also great ropes of pearls.” – The New York Globe.
Hear Gaby Deslys sing:
The University of Arizona School of Anthropology Vaudeville Collection has the following sheet music of Gaby Deslys:
COME BACK TO ME 1910 – by Worton David and Fragson and Christine. “Written expressly for and sung by GABY DESLYS”.
THE GABY GLIDE 1911 – by Harry Pilcer, Louis A. Hirsch. “The tremendous success of GABY DESLYS and HARRY PILCER in the Winter Garden production VERA VIOLETTA.
I’D LIKE TO BORROW A KISS 1913 – by Harold R. Atteridge, Al W. Brown. “The tremendous success of GABY DESLYS and HARRY PILCER in the Big Winter Garden Production of THE LITTLE PARISIENNE”.
I’LL GET YOU 1913 – by Will D. Cobb, Gus Edwards. “As sung by GABY DESLYS and HARRY PILCER at the Winter Garden, New York”
THAT HULA HULA 1915 – Irving Berlin. Cover image of GABY DESLYS, presented by Charles Dillingham in a new musical comedy STOP! LOOK! LISTEN! Book by Harry B. Smith. Staged by R. H. Burnside.
This is information taken with permission from James Gardiner’s book Gaby Deslys: A Fatal Attraction.