Recently, I was lucky enough to have a small solo show up on the Lower East Side in NYC presented by Dixon Place. The subject was chorus girls: women who began or were at some point in their careers a part of the chorus.
While researching and thinking about what women I would create pieces around, I made a long, constantly added to list of women whose careers began as dancers in the chorus, a list that began with French music hall performers and ended with Ellen Burstyn who began her career in the chorus line on the Jackie Gleason show. To frame it for modern readers, being a chorus girl was the first half of the 20th century’s version of model turned actress. The job got little respect and was used to connotate not just prettiness, but often stupidity, greed and sluttiness. The joke of a hot, illiterate baby vamp, covered in furs, spouting vulgar Brooklynese, kept by a Wall Street millionaire being a frequent punchline.
Of course, like all unfair stereotypes, there is some truth in the mix. Then as now, pretty, pretty girls used notoriety to snag rich boyfriends and husbands. But the hidden interest for me was always the matched set of economic and sexual autonomy that being a chorus girl represented. It’s no coincidence that movies about chorus girls, a staple of early sound, often played by real former chorus girls such as Louise Brooks, Barbara Stanwyck, Mae Clarke, Joan Crawford, Ruby Keeler and Ginger Rogers were released in the dozens, but the moment the Hayes Code came into being, ruining everybody’s fun, the chorus girl mostly disappeared from the movies. She was the ultimate good time girl in the drunken libertine ’20s, and she schemed and starved and wisecracked in the Depression. But there seemed to be no cultural place for her in the scrubbed and sincere late ’30s Hollywood. She took a break and then reemerged with the birth of film noir, but instead of being the protagonist, she was most often the curse and the downfall of the man the story was about. For the shady noir dame, as played by Barbara Stanwyck (again), Rita Hayworth, Gloria Graham, Lizbeth Scott, or Jane Greer, the sexual liberation was back, but this time around she was punished for it, with death, the electric chair or scalding water to the face.
But, back to the earlier part of the last century. The four women I chose to draw, (you can see thumbnails/details from the finished work above) Evelyn Nesbit, Olive Thomas, Princess White Deer and Louise Brooks all led interesting, though not always successful lives. Nesbit remains notorious for being embroiled in the sensational murder of Stanford White. Thomas was a Ziegfeld star and early silent movie star who died in 1920 from accidentally drinking mercury - the first major Hollywood scandal. Princess White Deer is a now mostly forgotten star who headlined at the Palace and the Follies and performed for the Czars of Russia and then retired from show biz in 1930, devoting the remaining 60 years of her life to tribal matters. Louise Brooks, serious modern dancer with Denishawn, Ziegfeld star and movie star turned recluse and drunk, turned writer is both the exception to most chorus girl cliches and the ur-chorus girl.
Which brings me to my show. If I had the time, I could happily make ten more about ten more women. But, for now, there are four. I’m thinking of making a limited print run which I have to figure out. So stay tuned and check in with my Etsy and Society 6 stores and I’ll keep you apprised of all chorus girl related matters here.