Burlesque Past and Present: The glamorous Dolly Sisters

The art of the tease is on everyone's lips; with a rising interest in burlesque, cabaret clubs are in full swing and new acts are cropping up every week. At Playful Promises we just adore a bit of cheek, and would love to introduce you to our favourite burly girls, past and present! Keep your eyes firmly peeled, as each week we feature inspiring performers guaranteed to set pulses racing!

 

 

Although one could argue they weren't technically burlesque dancers, I couldn't help writing about The Dolly Sisters! While other performers were taking off their clothing, the Dolly Sisters put theirs on, adorning themselves with the most extravagant finery of the 1920s. Decked out in furs, feathers and haute couture, they perfected the single-sex "tandem" dance act. 

 

Glittering stars of their time, The Dolly Sisters rose to the top of their game. But at what price? Their critics claimed that their act was nothing special, and the way they treated men was questionable, however their elegance broke through social barriers.

 

 

Born in Budapest, twins Janszieka (Jenny) and Roszicka (Rosie) looked so alike that even their mother couldn't tell the difference and they were immediately given pink and blue ribbons to differentiate them. Times were tough and they were eventually brought to America in 1905, at the age of 12. 

 

They loved to dance, and at the age of 15 began to make money to support their family by dancing in beer halls. Once they were barred for being underage they instead turned to the vaudeville where they danced until 1911. At the age of 19 they were signed with the Ziegfeld Follies. 

 

The Dolly Sisters were extremely exotic for the time, with their dark skin and alluring eyes. Combining this with their novelty appeal, stunning costumes and impressive choreography, and they were bound to hit the big time. It is said they were named thanks to a theatre producer's wife calling them "The Dollies". 

 

 

The sisters certainly knew how to get what they wanted, and they went about it shamelessly. Men flocked to the girls, and the Dollies particularly enjoyed the attention of the rich and lonely. Legend has it they would remove their expensive jewelery when a wealthy man approached, hoping that he would lavish them with more, seeing their necks and wrists devoid of sparkle. 

 

Throughout their lifetimes they took five husbands between them, but were constantly pursued nevertheless. One such admirer was Diamond Jim Brady, who, as you can imagine, was the flashiest man in New York! At 20 years old the girls received diamond rings and a Rolls-Royce wrapped in ribbons, among dozens of other gifts. 

 

 

In 1920 the sisters came to London to star in a Charles Cochrane stage show, performing dances accompanied by a troop of dogs, calling the act "The Dollies and their Collies". 

 

The London socialites were enamored, and soon Edward The Prince of Wales, the world's most eligible bachelor, was attending their performances. Later at a private party he rushed up to shake their hands, telling them they were wonderful. They danced together, and continued to regularly cross paths throughout Europe, fueling gossip. The Dolly Sisters refused to comment on their friendship, leaving one reporter at a loss; "If the Prince of Wales ever kissed the Dolly Sisters, they're not telling on him!"

 

Gordon Selfridge, the founder of the famous Oxford Street department store, fell hopelessly in love with Jenny that he squandered a large part of his fortune on her. Despite being almost twice her age, he fawned over her for ten years, giving her anything and everything she desired, including ice cream flown daily from London to Paris. Some say he eventually lost financial control of his business due to the money he lavished on the Dolly. 

 

The Dollies caught a taste for the cards, and soon became recognizable as the most extravagant gamblers in Europe. They bet recklessly, winning and loosing colossal amounts of money, with poor Selfridge picking up the tab. 

 

 

Then, in 1927, reality hit. Rosie nearly died from appendicitis and intestinal poisoning, a sure sign that in their mid-30s it was time for them to retire from showbusiness. The Dolly Sisters was over, but as for the sisters themselves, they continued with their high-lives, gambling and social prominence. 

 

In retirement the sisters finally began to live separate lives. Jenny opened her own couture house in Paris, which resulted in a flop, then adopted two five-year-old girls (things never change...), claiming she had found them in an orphanage in Budapest. Bizarrely, and possibly in an attempt to fill her sister's absence, she claimed the girls were twins, and that she was teaching them to become the next Dolly Sisters. On the other hand, Rosie had found the supposed love of her life, Irving Netcher. 

 

Jenny wallowed in her loneliness, until she fell in love with a french aviator, and shady character, Max Constant. One morning they were in a horrific car crash, leaving Jenny in a coma for 5 days. She awoke into her worst nightmare; a punctured lung, fractured skull, and worst of all, the right side of her face was in bloody ruins, and with it her wealth and fame. 

 

For the rest of her life she wished she hadn't survived the crash, and sold most of her jewelery to pay for countless plastic surgeries in an attempt regain her lost beauty. She became a shade of her former self, feeling constantly flawed and broken. Her solitude consumed her as her friends deserted her and her marriage fell apart. What finally drove her to the edge was the mistaken belief that Rosie had turned her back on her also, after failing to invite her over for the Memorial Holiday Weekend. 

 

In May 1 1941, Jenny put herself out of her misery, hanging herself with her dressing gown tie in the shower of her hotel room. 

 

Distraught over her sister's death, but determined to carry on, Rosie lived long enough to see a biopic made of their lives in 1945, inevitably called The Dolly Sisters. However, in 1962 she also attempted suicide using sleeping pills. She lived for another 8 years, finally passing of heart failure on 1 February, 1970.

 

Not long before she died, Rosie gathered her friends around her, telling them, "It's been a beautiful life. Life has been grand to me and I thank God every day, every night, that he's given me a beautiful, wonderful life."