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Carol Bergman, Ziegfeld Girl

I had Googled myself which I do from time to time to find out where my writing might have drifted—without payment—and I found an entry for a Ziegfeld Girl, circa 1929, by the name of, yes, you guessed it: Carol Bergman aka Caryl Bergman. Had she changed the spelling of her first name? Or had a publicist done it for her? Needless to say, I was intrigued. There were two artful/saucy portraits of her online, one of which I include here. They were taken by Alfred Cheney Johnston, a well known theatrical portrait photographer and a favorite of Florenz Ziegfeld’s.

There were the regular photos for posters and front of the house display and then there was a private stash discovered in Johnston’s home after his death. According to Laurie Sanderson, the president of The Ziegfeld Club, this stash was not commissioned by Ziegfeld who championed women. Many, like Ms. Sanderson’s grandmother, Nanon Gardner, lived in the Hotel des Artistes where Johnston also had a studio. Did he pay the girls for posing after-hours? Did he give the photos away? Sell them as soft-porn postcards? And would it have been possible to decline the invitation to pose? Ms. Sanderson says that her grand-mother did not pose. Were there consequences? Many of the images are now available on eBay. Vintage Photos Hashtags: #SexyByNature #Health #Beauty #Fitness. I could go for those as applied to me, nude or clothed.

I’ve been reflecting on all this—the life of another Carol Bergman way back in the roaring 1920’s which we now know as The Jazz Age. Florenz Ziegfeld interviewed about 15,000 “glorious specimens of American womanhood” a year, and 3,000 were selected to be in his shows. Ms. Bergman made the cut. (I respectfully give her the modern moniker Ms.!) She starred in four musical comedies: “Sweet Adeline,” “Through The Years,” “Show Girl” and “Rosalie.” These girls could do anything: a bit of singing, a bit of dancing, a bit of acting. And they were very young. Caryl Bergman was just seventeen when the photo I have attached here was taken.

At first, roses arrived from “Flo” Ziegfeld with a note: “May I make you a star?” Later, roses and notes arrived from men in the audience. Some remained anonymous, some didn’t. These were showgirls. They were on parade. Was there an unwritten clause in their contracts, perhaps, to be cooperative with the photographer? Those photos. How could Ziegfeld not have known about them? And how were they used?

Here is photographer Johnston’s description of Caryl Bergman’s beauty:

“Her hair is of the natural hue one attributes to the Nordic race: not a golden blonde not a silver blonde, but that glorious shade between. Her eyes are blue—a gray blue, and her lashes long and darker than her hair. Her nose is small and straight, and her little mouth parts into a gracious smile more often than not—and shows an even rose of small, pearl-like teeth. Her skin is soft and creamy in coloring. It is skin not as white as the Gainbsborough blonde--not as peach-like in tone as the Greuze brunet. With her very light hair, it calls for a light rachel powder and medium shade of raspberry rouge . . . . "

And all I can say to that hyperbolic, evocative/provocative piece of writing is: really? Nordic? Well, it was the 1920’s.

From a Ziegfeld Girl's point of view it was a job like any other, or no other, and if I were asked to moonlight in Johnston’s studio for extra bucks, I surely would have done so. Aren’t all theater people happy to be employed? And to be a Ziegfeld Girl—I would have been proud.

Ziegfeld went bankrupt in the Depression and ended up working for Samuel Goldwyn in Hollywood. After he left New York, his employees scattered and found jobs elsewhere, if they were lucky. Caryl Bergman headed for Europe and in 1934—as reported in the Pittsburgh Gazette—she turned up in a “tent club” in that city. Later, she got married, wrote a novel and became a peace activist. There is no record of her death. Perhaps she is immortal or has returned—in spirit—to grace the cover of Vanity Fair.  Read More 
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Family Trees

I have received another family tree from a scholar in Rome. It isn’t the first and probably won’t be the last. Someone Googles me, finds something I’ve written, finds out that my father had a valuable art collection (Egon Schiele), decides to be helpful, or cannot resist sharing years of meticulous research. This person may or may not be a relative though usually they claim that they are. I need only study the tree, they suggest, to find us both on a branch connected by squiggly or straight lines.

I should be interested but I’m not. I glaze over and barely look at the carefully researched trees. I usually send a thank you note and that’s it. Maybe some day, I tell myself, when I am writing one thing or another, I’ll be able to make use of that tree. I do save them, or gmail does. And if the historian/researcher turns up in New York, I graciously suggest that we meet for a coffee.

Most people adore genealogy—there are websites and TV programs devoted to it. So why don’t I care? Or, put another way, why do I shut down?

It has to do with ghosts. And having just finished Erik Larson’s masterpiece, “Dead Wake,” about the last Atlantic crossing of the Lusitania in 1915 before it was torpedoed by a German u-boat in the Irish Sea, I am even closer to an explanation. After that ship went down, killing more than 1,000 people, one of the survivors described a vision of his heavily pregnant mother giving birth in the water. That was the last he saw of her; he was haunted by the vision for the rest of his life.

I feel the same way when I glance at a family tree, especially as it nears the 20th century. Most of the people on that tree—on both sides of my family—were murdered. I never knew them, I could not save them, they are, simply, gone. Their names on a piece of paper, no matter how accurate or well drawn, will never bring them back to me.

Now I can say to myself, as I often do, that the unsolicited gift of a family tree has brought a new person into my life—perhaps a relative, perhaps not—who I did not know existed before. And that’s a good thing, for which I am grateful.  Read More 
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Incubator Baby

I had been in the hospital visiting a friend, standing by the elevator waiting to leave, when two nurses rolled an incubator into the hallway.

Even a baby has a story. She had been taken downstairs for x-rays and was wrapped up inside the incubator, a little hat on her head, a striped blanket covering her and oxygen pumping through a tube into her nose. Such a small little baby. The two nurses had stethoscopes around their necks, one on each side of the incubator, like angels guarding the baby. A priest was standing next to them, and when the elevator arrived, everyone gave way for the procession: two nurses, the baby inside the incubator, the priest. “This baby gets right of way,” I said. Where were her parents? How could they have let their baby out of their sight? Why did she need an x-ray? I began to cry, just a soft, whispering cry. Then everyone in the elevator fell silent, and as it began to move, the priest raised his finger and pressed it against the glass near the baby’s head. He said a blessing. “This baby needs to be blessed,” the priest said. So we all blessed the baby.

Premature babies died until the incubator was invented; it was an adaptation of the chicken hatchery. And then came hucksterism, a freak show of “live babies" at World Fairs and Coney Island’s Dreamland, circa 1903. It was Dr. Martin Couney’s idea. Don’t people like an unusual story that pulls at their heartstrings, he asked? Entrance fee: 10 cents. Outside carnival barkers (including a very young Cary Grant) drew people into the exhibit. The sign over the entryway said, "All the World Loves a Baby." Ain’t it so, dear readers? Who can resist a story with a baby in it? Not I.

Back in 1903, desperate parents volunteered their babies willingly and who can fault them? If they hadn’t, they would have died. Dr. Couney never charged them any money.

Those who survived were called “Couney graduates.” I met one many years ago in Seattle and interviewed her. “Just imagine spending the first few weeks of your life in an incubator at Coney Island?” she said. Did she remember? Not really. But it sure made a good story.

The incubator exhibit at Coney Island closed down in 1941. Now, of course, incubators are commonplace in the developed world as are the survival rates of premature babies.  Read More 
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