The rags to riches story of identical twins Jenny and Rosie is set against the glittering backdrop of high society and the Jazz Age in America and Europe before the onset of the Second World War. They had a colourful life where nature’s duplicity enabled a highly successful career as dancers which made them ‘stars’. And yet, lurking behind their glamorous story of fame, fortune, mistaken identity, millionaires, love and sisterly devotion – that made them legends – is another of rivalry, duplicity and tragedy.
When you write a book it is annoying when years later you find a very interesting piece that would have been wonderful to include but was missed. So the other day checking a reference for something else I looked at The Glass Ladder an autobiography by the actress and dancer June and there was a page all about the Dolly Sisters. I was well miffed that I had not seen it before..
June has met the Dolly Sisters at parties in London when they were performing in League of Notions during 1921 and said ‘to me they appeared to be marvellous birds of paradise.’
She described that from the moment of their London debut in Jigsaw in 1920, the town rang with extravagant tales of their wealth, jewels and amorous conquests. ‘If one could believe the tales, thrones were about to crumble and multi-millionaires willing to go broke for love of them.’
There was one suitor who was a ‘certain duke’ who was enamoured with Rosie and held out a case containing a fabulous emerald and diamond necklace to dismissed because she ‘did not care for men with red hair.’
She related that when the Dolly Sisters were working at the Casino de Paris in Paris during the period 1925-1926, a private train would take them to Deauville after their Saturday night performance. Cavier and champagne would be served in its drawing room and after playing chemin de fer or baccarat until daylight, they would board the train and sleep their way back to Paris arriving in time for the Sunday matinee.
‘In London under Cochran they were lionised. No Mayfair party seemed complete until they arrived, chattering like magpies, one taking up when the other paused for breath and trailing chinchilla or foxes or sables as if they were dish rags.’
The Dolly Sisters: Icons of the Jazz Age out now in paperback and e-book versions http://bit.ly/WPudP5
Rosie Dolly and Irving Netcher decided to get married in New York and so travelled from France to America in March 1932. Before sailing from Cherbourg, Rosie announced to the press that they would not purchase joint property in France because of the high taxes and because their future life would include too much travelling, so she must have already sold her properties in Paris. ‘If this marriage doesn’t take, I am entering a nunnery,’ Rosie added, as she sailed away aboard the Olympic with 12 trunks containing 40 hats, 50 pairs of shoes, 15 evening gowns and 20 dresses of green, black and white and beige made specially for her honeymoon. On arrival in New York, Rosie and Irving were guests of Mr and Mrs Nate B. Spingold, a motion picture executive and his wife, who had formerly been the famous New York modiste Mme Francis, in their apartment at the Waldorf Astoria.
At a civil wedding ceremony on 17 March 1932, conducted by Mayor James J. Walker of New York, Rosie, wearing an almond green gown, green shoes and a hat to match, tied the knot with Irving. Irving’s brother Townsend, his wife Constance Talmadge and the Manhatten millionnaire William Seemen and his wife, the former movie star Phyllis Haver, were witnesses. Norma Talmadge was also one of fifty intimate friends in the wedding party. Rosie said that she was prepared to be a playmate bride not a drudge to her new husband: ‘Men want companions when they marry . . . they want their wives to play, to be merry and happy not to take life too seriously . . . You see I’ve had experience . . . I think I know what men want. I’ve tried marriage before, so I should be better qualified to make this marriage successful.’
The Dolly Sisters: Icons of the Jazz Age out now in paperback and e-book versions
It was in early March 1921 that the Dolly Sisters first met David, Prince of Wales during the run of Jigsaw at the London Hippodrome. They declined to simply appear as entertainers and dance at a party Sir Philip Sassoon was giving and intrigued he went to see them. He appreciated their point of view and as a mark of his appreciation he invited them to his Park Lane home and the party as guests. The Prince of Wales was there with Prince Henry and they both engaged the Dolly Sisters in conversation and danced with them.
‘Pinch me, I’m dreaming,’ Jenny said during a break; ‘it’s like a fairy book.’
This was the beginning of a long friendship that endured into the 30s with a more serious entanglement between Jenny and David, Prince of Wales (Edward VIII) in 1924.
The Dolly Sisters: Icons of the Jazz Age out now in paperback and e-book versions
As Jenny Dolly and her companion Max Constant returned to Paris by car on the misty dawn of 2 March 1933, Jenny’s chauffeur Noel apparently dozed at the wheel and the car left the road at 75 miles an hour just outside Cavignac, 30 miles from Bordeaux. The car bounced from one tree to another along the roadside before overturning and hitting another tree throwing Jenny 30 feet. Her injuries were extensive. The entire right side of her face was terribly torn and mutilated, and she had an eye injury. One of her lungs was punctured. Several ribs were shattered. She had concussion, and her skull was fractured. But most seriously she had severe internal injuries, which included a displaced stomach. She was in a coma for five days and delirious for one month. Max Constant was in a coma for forty-eight hours but was less critically injured. Noel, the chauffeur, also survived the crash, but there were no reports of his condition.
The Plantation, a Broadway cabaret–restaurant formerly known as the Folies Bergère was located in the Winter Garden building and opened on 15 February 1922, with an all-coloured show in a Southern plantation setting staged and conceived by Lew Leslie.
This was the inspiration behind the creation of the Southern Plantation setting at the Acacias nightclub in Paris in June 1922 with a show that featured Jenny Dolly and Clifton Webb.
At the New York Plantation, you went through a gate at the entrance and were immediately inside a big room where there was a log cabin with a big black Mammy cooking waffles. The 45-minute show had a Mississippi river set and was called Night-time Frolics in Dixieland, starring Florence Mills from Shuffle Along and other featured performers and six chorus girls. The music was by the Red Devils’ Jazz Band, who looked as if they came straight from a farm in Virginia playing Southern melodies. Variety observed that the New York night-going public did not mind the $2 cover charge, because it was a novelty and well worth watching. The Plantation was a huge success and anticipated the rise of the Harlem nightclubs that were soon to proliferate, and Lew Leslie became the pre-eminent figure in their development.
The Dolly Sisters described as ‘New York’s greatest stage attraction’ began filming The Million Dollar Dollies in February 1918. This was their only known appearance together on the screen.
In essence, the film played up the Dollies as the Dollies, ‘varying in behaviour from pouty and pert to coquettish and kittenish’.
The had an amazing wardrobe, which allegedly comprised forty-eight different costumes created especially for them by the world famous Lucile (Lady Duff Gordon).
The Dolly Sisters often appeared in the Battle of the Flowers at Cannes in early February. Once they were dressed alike in white in a carriage, decorated with carnations of various tones and lilac, which was drawn by two black horses. They stole the show and were the immediate target for all the press photographers.
What was the Battle of the flowers? One of the major events of Carnival, the first flower parade was organised along the Promenade des Anglais in Cannes in 1876 and had by the 1920s become a huge event. Every species of wheeled vehicle decorated as flower floats slowly appeared from the casino gardens, and a prize for the best decorated was awarded. They were overflowing with pretty young girls, who threw flowers into the crowd of spectators, although the original idea was to throw flowers at those they desired.