Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Delectable Dollies: The Dolly Sisters, Icons of the Jazz Age by Gary Chapman

The Dolly Sisters were a pair of dainty dark-eyed, dark-haired identical twins, born in Budapest in 1892, who took Broadway by storm, dancing their way to fame and fortune, starring in the Ziegfeld Follies and other shows on Broadway and in London and Paris in the early 1900s to the late 1920s when they retired.

The Dollies were the darlings of New York cabaret society, Parisian cafe society, and the London Smart Set. They were spoiled rotten by Diamond Jim Brady and wined and dined by millionaires and royalty who showered them with jewels and sables; one smitten suitor even had a matched set of large blue diamonds set in the shells of a pair of live tortoises and gave them to the twins. Their evening gowns and theatrical costumes were almost as famous as they were, designed by the likes of Lucile (a.k.a. Titanic survivor Lady Duff Gordon), Molyneux, and Patou. Their jewels were legendary, one observer commented they were "behung with baubles like a couple of Christmas trees," and equally legendary was their addiction to gambling and their feats of daring at the casinos and race track; staggering sums in the hundreds of thousands of dollars were habitually wagered on a single turn of the roulette wheel.

But as alike as they were on the outside, inwardly the Dollies were quite different. Rosie was regarded as the more reserved and stable twin, "the lucky one," who, after two divorces, found love and a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and settled down to enjoy a happy life of travel and socializing in a marriage that lasted until her husband's death twenty-one years later. Jenny was the more emotional and reckless of the pair, "the unlucky one," despite her fabulous jewels and famous luck at cards. Jenny was a wild pleasure-seeker who kept two wealthy suitors, both wanting marriage, dangling until it was too late and her luck ran out after the 1929 Stock Market Crash forced almost everyone, including millionaires, to cut back on luxury goods like keeping beautiful women in jewels, designer gowns, and furs and paying their gambling debts. After a car accident left her wracked with pain and hideously disfigured, it took seventeen costly and painful operations for plastic surgery to restore her beauty, but it was only a mask; inside, Jenny was never the same again. Her fabulous jewel collection, rumoured to be the largest in private hands, had to go up on the auction block to pay for the costly surgery and settle other debts, but only sold for a pittance of its actual value. And in 1941 Jenny, broken in spirit, took her life, hanging herself from a curtain rod one Sunday afternoon. Her twin lived on for another thirty years, though in later years, after the loss of her beloved husband, Rosie also suffered from depression and unsuccessfully attempted suicide. Rosie died, an invalid suffering from complications of a hip injury and the flu, of a heart attack in 1970.

"The Delectable Dollies" is the first full-length biography of the famous sister act. It is a fascinating rags to riches saga of the love and rivalry, devotion and duplicity between sisters amidst the glitterati of high society, royalty, and stars of the stage and screen. It is also the tale of the lucky twin and the unlucky one, and perhaps proof of the old adage "lucky at cards, unlucky in love."

Classic movie fans may have seen the 1945 lavish Hollywood musical bio-pic "The Dolly Sisters," starring leggy All-American blonde glamour girls Betty Grable and June Haver as the singing and dancing sisters in a story that is more fiction than fact, but Mr. Chapman's book presents the truth behind the fables and tells the real story of "The Delectable Dollies."

The 1945 movie musical is not exactly a gem of accuracy, but entertaining nontheless.

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