Sunday, 19 August 2012

Stars of the 1920s: Gilda Gray

"I have to laugh hearing about Mae West, Bea Palmer and everybody else inventing the shimmy. I invented that and the Charleston and Black Bottom too, honey. Yes, sir!"
Gilda Gray 

This is an unusual entry in the "Stars of" series because its subject, Gilda Gray, was not a belly dancer. However, almost more than anyone else, Gray turned the Western world on to the joys of the shimmy.

As we all know (or ought to know), in 1893 the precocious (he was 23 at the time) empressario Sol Bloom unleashed what he called 'hootchy kootchy' on the Chicago World Fair in the form of authentic-ish Algerian and North African folk performances. The audiences were thrilled and scandalised in equal measure. Thus the awkward relationship between the West and belly dance was born, complete with the arguments over sexual exploitation and cultural appropriation which fuel the Bhuz forums to this very day.

Here comes the however. However, Bloom's show could, by its very nature, be seen only by those who could physically attend a live performance. For its influence to extend any further, that had to happen by second-hand eyewitness accounts, third-hand newspaper reports, and out-and-out lies. "Hootchie kootchie" was a thing many people may have talked and read about, but few actually did.

It was not until much later -- about twenty years later, in fact -- that those hip and shoulder movements found their way into mainstream popular culture. That was thanks to the magic of the movies, where the bright young things who danced their nights away in jazz clubs found a way to make a dollar as the shapers of public taste.

One of the brightest young things was a flapper named Marianna Winchalawska (or Michalska). Born on 24 October 1901 in Krakow, Poland, Marianna was orphaned during the Polish revolution. Her foster parents fled with their teenage charge to America just as World War I broke out, and found themselves in Wisconsin. It may have been more than the imminent war that caused the family to emigrate, however. According to Time magazine's obituary, at the age of 12 Marianna was already a married and a mother. It's more likely that the obituary writer confused the dates: at around 14 or 15, Marianna married concert violinist John Gorecki, with whom she had a son, Martin. These are pretty inauspicious beginnings for a Ziegfeld girl and movie star, but that's just what Marianna became.

It was her agent's wife, singer Sophie Tucker, who encouraged her to change her name to Gilda Gray on account of her golden hair. By this point Gray had shed John Gorecki as well (they divorced in 1923), to be replaced almost immediately by new husband Gil Boag. This marriage would later end, in part because of Gray's affair with her manager. The turmoil in her personal life -- combined with her beauty, European exoticism and willingness to shake her stuff on stage -- consolidated Gray as an "It Girl" in the Clara Bow mould: unconventional, slightly dangerous, and emblematic of a new generation ready to party away the horrors of war.

Here's the cute, and entirely apocryphal story, of how Gray became synonymous with the Shimmy:
...her shimmy was born one night when she was singing the Star Spangled Banner and forgot some of the lyrics. She covered up her embarrassment by shaking her shoulders and hips. Although the shimmy was already a well-known dance move, Marianna appropriated it as her own when she was asked about her dancing style. She replied in her heavy Polish accent, "I'm shaking my chemise," which sounded to the English-speaking audience like "shimmy." 
Despite being decorated by the Polish government for her services to the Polish people, her frantic love life and her astonishing work ethic, Gray is all but forgotten today. Even by the time of her premature death, shortly before Christmas  in 1959, Gray was almost destitute and scraping a living out of theatre performances. The Great Depression had already made the cocktails and fringe excesses of the early '20s both unsupportable and unpalatable. The studios wanted people to be uplifted and inspired, but not have their noses rubbed in the wealth and joy of others. Film is, after all, a fragile medium and more vulnerable than most art forms to rapid changes in taste, technology and style.

As proof, I present this clip of Gray hamming it up with the ultimate ham, Liberace, on his show. The word "brassy" was invented to describe this, I swear!:

This is a lovely and mesmerising stills montage, rather appropriately set to a string arrangement of Lady Gaga's Bad Romance:

At last, here's the guts: Gray dancing in Picadilly (1929) with Cyrill Ritchard. The "disgruntled diner" in this scene is the legendary British comic actor Charles Laughton:

Just as belly dance teachers around the world now advertise their classes to those dubious about the propriety of belly dancing as a great way to "get fit and tone up your abs", back in the day would-be Shimmy Dancers were assured that though this was not something they'd want to do in public, it was a great way to beautify their necks and shoulders!

The sources for this post were the Allure blog and the ever-reliable Wikipedia. A gallery of Gilda Gray images, most depicting her in dance costumes and from her time in the Ziegfeld Follies, has been uploaded to Jilly the Squid's Facebook page.


  1. you ding great with this history research!

    Thanks! very interesting!

  2. Gilda Gray - worth her niche in history.