GREAT EUROPEAN LIVES: Gilda Gray
PUBLISHED: 12:00 01 January 2019
Gilda Gray built an entire career on the shimmy, the dance she developed as a teenager, writes CHARLIE CONNELLY in the most recent Great European Lives.
“A ripple here, a quiver there and a shudder or two – then I shake all the way up from my feet, with everything.”
Gilda Gray built an entire career on the shimmy, the dance she developed as a teenager while performing to fellow Polish immigrants in the bars and honky tonks of Milwaukee’s south side. She shimmied on to Chicago’s cabaret scene and then to New York where she became as integral to the Roaring Twenties as hot jazz and bathtub gin.
Then she shimmied across the country to Hollywood and became one of the biggest stars of silent cinema’s golden age, living in a mansion on Long Island and employing a staff including three press agents, a personal secretary, two maids, two chauffeurs, three gardeners, a butler and a housekeeper.
As one profile put it, “she gave the 1920s more shakes than bootleg whisky”. She’s even namechecked in The Great Gatsby.
By the time she died of a heart attack at the age of 58, however, she was renting a room from a friend on Hollywood Boulevard, spending her days leafing through the piles of scrapbooks she’d meticulously compiled all through her glory years and planning comebacks that would never happen. Even four months before she died she was telling an interviewer about a new nightclub act she was devising. “It’ll be big, honey,” she purred, “real big.”
Despite waves of ill fortune that washed over the second half of her life, Gray never grew bitter, remaining convinced good times were just around the corner. She was never the most technically accomplished dancer nor the most gifted actor but Gilda Gray had succeeded by force of personality and making the most of what she had. She’d done it once and never lost the conviction she would do it all over again.
“I just danced the way I felt and that was how the shimmy was born,” she said, even claiming credit for the name: dancing on a table in a Milwaukee saloon one night in her teens, eyes closed, a beatific smile on her upturned face, shoulders quivering and taking the rest of her body with them, her attention was sought by a customer seeking to know the name of this extraordinary dance.
“I didn’t know it had a name,” she said, “so I shook the chemise I was wearing and tried to describe that. With my Polish accent and the noise he thought I’d said ‘shimmy’ and that’s how it all began.”
She’d arrived in Milwaukee at the dawn of the 20th century as Mariana Michalska, the small child of foster parents from Poland.
According to legend her real parents were killed during an attempted revolution in their home town of Krakow, after which Mariana and her sister had been adopted then taken across the Atlantic to grow up immersed in the wistful songs and stories of home among Milwaukee’s fast-expanding Polish community.
She was married off at a young age to a carpenter named Johnny Gorecki, a union necessitated by the imminent arrival of a son. As was the case with many showbusiness women of the period there is doubt as to Gray’s actual date of birth but if 1901 is correct then Mariana Michalska was pregnant and married before she’d reached her teens.
Speaking years later, with three marriages behind her, Gray said of Gorecki, “I guess I was too young at the time to know that he was bad, but so far he’s the best I’ve had”.
In her early teens she began performing in the bars of the city’s south side, singing ballads and developing her idiosyncratic dance, work that offered both respite from life with her short-tempered husband and an unforgiving grounding in showbusiness.
It wasn’t long before Michalska saw prospects beyond Milwaukee and at 15 she decamped to Chicago to work as a cabaret dancer under the name Marci Gray. There she came to the attention of talent agent Frank Westphal who saw something in Gray, took her to New York and left her in the care of his wife, the actor and comedian Sophie Tucker. Tucker, a huge star at the time known as ‘the Last of the Red Hot Mamas’, probably saw herself in the young dancer: she too had been born in Eastern Europe, emigrated to the US at a young age, had a broken marriage behind her when she emerged from her teens and then started performing for tips in saloons. Tucker was able to take Gray under her wing, most notably suggesting that Gilda might be a better stage name than Marci.
By 1922 Gray had met the impresario Gaillard ‘Gil’ Boag, who became first her manager then her husband. When she joined the famous Ziegfeld Follies that year the shimmy became a national craze, walking a thin line between innocent vehicle of physical expression and descent into erotic moral abandon.
Hollywood came calling, the notoriety of Gray’s signature dance demonstrated by the titles of some of the films she made: A Virtuous Vamp, The Girl With The Jazz Heart, Lawful Larceny and The Devil Dancer. The 1926 film Aloma of the South Seas, her first starring role and the first film of the $2,000,000 contract she’d signed with Paramount, was the biggest hit of the year and became the fourth-highest grossing film of the decade.
“Gilda Gray is one of the biggest box office draws in America,” said Paramount mogul Jesse L. Lasky of his expensive protégé. “Her drawing power is phenomenal.”
When she was billed ahead of Anna May Wong in the 1929 classic Piccadilly, the rise of Gilda Gray from honky tonk hoofer to one of the biggest stars of a star-spangled era was complete.
It didn’t last. First Gray’s Polish accent was considered too strong for ‘talkies’, then the Wall Street Crash brought a swift end to Jazz Age bacchanalia.
Gray was one of the highest profile casualties, her star fading almost as rapidly as her estimated $4,000,000 fortune. Her marriage collapsed and she endured a breakdown that kept her out of the public eye for more than two years. Then, at the age of 30, she suffered a heart attack.
Her spirit remained undiminished, however. Despite losing her home, her marriage and her film career in the space of a year, not to mention her mounting health problems, Gray never lost the unshakable optimism that good times would return. Yet every time she looked like bouncing back something would intercede to drag her down again.
Her heart problems kept her bedridden for long periods, in 1936 she had filmed scenes for The Great Ziegfeld, a high-profile title that she expected to revive her Hollywood profile, only to see them cut from the final film and in 1939 she was visiting Poland for the first time since her emigration when the Germans invaded, forcing her to flee her hotel in nightdress and overcoat and catch the last plane out of Warsaw.
By 1941 she was performing regularly in cabaret at the Diamond Horseshoe in the basement of New York’s Hotel Paramount, where she was also living.
“The mansion has been replaced by a two-room apartment at the Paramount and the Victorian Viennese dining room by a stool at the counter of the hotel coffee bar,” lamented a newspaper profile. But what the writer didn’t know was that Gray’s reduced living circumstances were partly due to her sending portions of her income to the Polish resistance, something that wouldn’t be revealed until her 1954 appearance on This Is Your Life. The programme would also disclose that she had arranged and financed six young Poles’ escape from communist Warsaw to live and be educated in America: if fortune had chosen to deprive her of opportunities then she could at least provide them for her compatriots.
“I’m not a star any more, I’m not a rich woman and I’ve spent years recovering from an almost fatal sickness,” she told an interviewer a few months before she died. “But you know what? I’m happy.”