Inspired by the Folies Bergère of Paris, the Ziegfeld Follies were conceived and mounted by Florenz Ziegfeld, reportedly at the suggestion of his then-wife, the entertainer Anna Held. The stars that made the show worth watching and glaring were the lavish chorus girls dubbed: The Ziegfeld Girls.
These showgirls followed on the heels of the “Florodora girls”, who had started to “loosen the corset” of the Gibson Girl in the early years of the twentieth century. These beauties, of similar size, decked out in Erté designs, gained many young male admirers and they became objects of popular adoration. Many were persuaded to leave the show to marry, some to men of substantial wealth. The Ziegfeld Ball in New York City continued as a social event of the season for years after the last production of the Follies.
We have the privilege to savor into the splendid beauty of the Ziegfeld Girls thanks to the vast photo collection that the New York- based photographer Alfred Cheney Johnston left behind.
Alfred Cheney Johnston’s “standard” work, of course, was used by Flo Ziegfeld for the normal advertising and promotional purposes for the Follies, and mainly consisted of individual or small-group shots of the Follies showgirls in their extravagant stage costumes. However, after Johnston’s death in 1971, a huge treasure trove of extremely artistic full-nude and semi-nude full-figure studio photos (and their accompanying glass-plate negatives) was found stored at the farm near Oxford, Connecticut, where he’d lived since 1940. Most of these images (some named, mostly anonymous) were, in fact, showgirls from the Ziegfeld Follies, but such daring, unretouched full-frontal images would certainly have had no public-publication possibilities in the 1920s-1930s, so it is speculated that these were either simply his own personal artistic work, and/or done at the behest of Flo Ziegfeld for that showman’s personal enjoyment.
Perhaps the most famous Ziegfeld Girl during the run of the revues was Lillian Lorraine. Over the years they included many future stars such as Marion Davies, Paulette Goddard, Joan Blondell, Olive Thomas, Barbara Stanwyck, Billie Dove, Louise Brooks, Nita Naldi, Julanne Johnston, Mae Murray, Dorothy Mackaill, Odette Myrtil, Lilyan Tashman, Claire Dodd, Cecile Arnold, Dolores Costello, Dorothy Sebastian, Juliette Compton, Iris Adrian and other society and business successes such as Peggy Hopkins Joyce, Helen Gallagher, Anastasia Reilly, and Irene Hayes.
Ziegfeld girl Mona Louise Parsons, was a member of a resistance movement in the Netherlands during Nazi Occupation, working to return down Allied Airmen to England. She was eventually arrested by the Gestapo and became the only Canadian female civilian to be imprisoned by the Nazis, and one of the first (and few) women to be tried by a Nazi military tribunal in the Netherlands. Her original sentence was death by firing squad, but the sentence was commuted to life with hard labour. She escaped from her captors.
Although many future stars started out as Ziegfeld girls, many others were turned down by Florenz Ziegfeld to appear in his revue. Norma Shearer (in 1919 and 1920), Alice Faye (in 1927), Joan Crawford(in 1924), Gypsy Rose Lee (in 1927), Lucille Ball (in 1927 and 1931), Phyllis Haver (in 1915), Eleanor Powell (in 1927), Ruby Keeler (in 1924), Hedda Hopper (in 1913), and June Havoc (in 1927 and 1931) were among the many hopefuls that the master showman discarded after auditions. In 1957, the then-current members were featured as mystery guests on the television panel show What’s My Line?
The survivors of the chorus lines of the last century are The Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall. One of the last surviving Ziegfeld girls was Doris Eaton Travis, who died on May 11, 2010 at the age of 106. The other was Millicent Drahorad, who resided in Florida at the time of her death, in either 2012 or 2013 at the age of 102.