Gilda Gray (October 24, 1901 – December 22, 1959) was a major star as an actress, dancer and flashy personality in the 1920s. Extraordinarily beautiful and famous for her legs, she became one of the symbols of the liberated woman in the flapper era, along with the likes of Clara Bow, an image she enhanced by frequently appearing in exotic roles and wearing next to nothing. Her foreign accent also added to the mystery.
In real life she was an orphan, Marianna Michalska of Krakow, Austria-Hungary (now Poland), whose parents died in an accident and whose foster parents emigrated with her to Milwaukee in 1909 along with her sister Josephine. Life was not easy for the family but Marianna was very lovely and made some money singing in her father-in-law’s saloon. There she quickly attracted a lot of male attention and in fact she was married by age 15, to concert violinist John Gorecki, perhaps because of an unintended pregnancy resulting in the birth of her son who became bandleader Martin Gray. The marriage was predictably unsuccessful and the couple formally divorced in 1923.
In 1919 and 1920 new dances of all sorts were becoming popular as the jazz age ramped up the musical volume and raucousness and the saxophone and ukulele became popular instruments. Gilda claimed to be the originator in New York in 1919 of the shoulder-shaking dance which she said meant shaking her chemise or dress in French while keeping the rest of the body still. The word chemise was allegedly corrupted into shimmy and the dance was named accordingly. Mae West also had a claim at the time but it is more likely that this was an African-American dancing style which had been taken over by white dancers and thus made officially acceptable. In fact Mae West claims that she saw it done in African-American night clubs and appropriated it from there.
As early as 1917 Spencer Williams, African-American composer, performed his own song Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble and the classic song I Wish That I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate was a naughtym 1919 Clarence Williams and Armando Piron song long associated with the black community and singers such as Nellie Lutcher. So what Gilda Gray did was appropriate the dance and combine it with flimsy costuming which allowed her to shake more of her upper torso publicly and not just her chemise. Gilda Gray also performed Hawaiian hula dancing or the hula-hula as it was called, which was yet another excuse for displaying her form under the guise of art. Things from Hawaiian had become a craze since ca. 1916 in America and the ukulele had become a wonderfully portable instrument with which to serenade young ladies who had been driven far enough away from home in that new invention, the automobile.
Attracting attention everywhere she went and becoming increasingly discussed and even a bit notorious, she was found by pianist, bandleader and agent Frank Westphal and introduced to his wife Sophie Tucker who changed her name from May Gray that she was using at the time to Gilda Gray to capitalize on her beautiful blonde hair. A series of Broadway shows followed but a big break came when she was chosen to be a featured Ziegfeld girl in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1922.
Now, under talent agent Gil Boag, she was headed for the top of the entertainment profession and they married. Another aspect of Gilda Gray which came out in her personal appearances was that she could also sing and is responsible for introducing a number of songs which appeared on sheet music. It is often forgotten that she had a powerful, sexy, bluesy voice of the style of Sophie Tucker and she could deliver a song with terrific power and expressive movement of her entire body as if she were dancing it at the same time. At her peak, Gilda Gray was not just a sex phenomenon but was a gifted dancer and singing talent. Her success was not just because of her lithe and attractive body. She delivered the goods at every live performance.
This brought her to the attention of Jesse Lasky of Famous Players-Lasky Pictures, who starred her, appropriately, as an exotic girl in the sexy silent movie Aloma of the South Seas (1926), one of the top grossing new star debut movies ever. Filmed on location in the Caribbean, the film featured Gilda in a grass skirt doing her exotic dancing which Christian groups condemned, fueling the publicity for the film. Her performances were said to have been inspired by the devil. The Devil Dancer and Cabaret were further star vehicles for her for Paramount Pictures. Paramount also showcased the dynamic star with personal appearances accompanying the movie premieres in major cities and as part of the prologue to the show she would dance the shimmy and wear exotic costuming from the film. The results, predictably, were high grossing.
But Gilda Gray was to be a phenomenon of the 1920s and her second act, her later life, took an unexpected turn outside of show business. In 1929 she was all but wiped out in the stock market crash of October. She continued dancing and even starred at the Palace Theatre but her financial stress impacted her marriage and at least one major affair. She was also aging and suffering from health problems some of which were brought on by a heart condition that impacted her ability to perform her wild exotic dance routines. Although still extremely beautiful, she was no longer the young mysterious goddess of the flapper era and the thirties became an era celebrating stars with more subtlety and sophistication on screen, such as Jean Harlow, the reinvented Mae West and Alice Faye.
At age 30 she suffered a heart attack which affected her life dramatically. She was linked romantically with band musician and singer Art Jarrett, known for his eye for the ladies, but they never married and Jarrett married the beautiful swimmer Eleanor Holm in 1933, the same year that Gilda married Hector Briceño de Saa, an Argentine diplomat. Perhaps she did this on the rebound from losing Jarrett but it was a disaster from the start and led quickly to separation and divorce.
In the midst of this downturn in all of her fortunes during which in 1941 she filed for bankruptcy, came World War II and devastation for her native Poland. Working with the Polish underground she became a fund-raiser for the liberation of her country. During the Communist take-over in the Cold War era, she helped to smuggle out six citizens to freedom and was decorated years later by Poland for her heroism. But that would be one of the last hurrahs for the once famous Gilda Gray. In 1953 she was the subject of a This Is Your Life program and in 1954 she guested on the Liberace television show, delivering a sensational singing version of the St. Louis Blues of W. C. Handy. She ended her days broke and living in small quarters provided by a Warner Brothers fire captain and his wife at their home. At age 58 food poisoning and a second heart attack killed her and she had no money left for a funeral, which was paid for by the Motion Picture Relief Fund, such a sad ending for a once great star.
The University of Arizona collection has an original still from the Gilda Gray movie Cabaret plus a number of examples of her appearing on sheet music of the time.
Liberace on his television show took great pains to bring back the stars he so admired from yesteryear. In 1954 he brought back Gilda Gray near the end of her life and near financial destitution to perform with him. Here she sings the St. Louis Blues with a remarkable power and emotion and does one of her famous singing dances at the same time. Despite being saddled with a heart condition, she gives a moving presentation here that suggests the stage presence she must have had in her Aloma days: