In the fourth and final series of ITV’s ‘Mr Selfridge’ currently showing on Friday evenings, two new characters are introduced – The Dolly Sisters. We’ve invited contributor Gary Chapman, owner of the wonderful Jazz Age Club Collection and biographer of The Dolly Sisters, to provide us with an introduction to this fascinating duo.
Welcome to the wonderful, glittering world of the delectable, dancing Dolly Sisters.
‘To me they appeared to be marvellous birds of paradise….If one could believe the tales, thrones were about to crumble and multi-millionaires willing to go broke for love of them…. In London under Cochran they were lionised. No Mayfair party seemed complete until they arrived, chattering like magpies, one taking up when the other paused for breath and trailing chinchilla or foxes or sables as if they were dish rags.’
The actress June in her autobiography The Glass Ladder
The last series of the hit TV show ‘Mr Selfridge’, will bring the Dolly Sisters to a much wider, global audience. Let’s hope viewers realise that, like all the characters, they will be portrayed in the context of a make-believe drama, bearing only vague resemblance to their true, glamorous story. For a start, they were not blonde and they were identical twins – unlike the unrelated actresses who portray them in the TV show. Also, only one sister was the object of Harry Selfridge’s affection, not both of them.
The dark and exotic-looking Dolly Sisters first met Harry Selfridge at the Kit-Kat Club in London in the summer of 1925 when they were at the height of their fame and fortune. They had already conquered Broadway, London and Paris with their dainty dancing, glamorous good looks and immense charm and were, quite simply, legends in their own time on both sides of the Atlantic.
Born in Budapest, Hungary 25th October 1892, Janszieka (Jenny) and Roszicka (Rosie) were keen dancers but their father did not approve of his daughters becoming entertainers. Due to the unfortunate deterioration of his business he moved to America where the girls arrived with their mother in 1905, followed by their younger brother Edward (later to be a successful stage and screen choreographer). In New York, they began to earn their living as entertainers to help make ends meet. From their rather humble origins they swiftly danced their way to fame and fortune on Broadway finding work with the great Ziegfeld and the Shubert Brothers. They were close friends with the elite of Broadway and Hollywood and became the essential prerequisite for any Broadway festivity. Sporting sleek black bobs, their identical appearance and chic sense of style was a magnet for dress designers, significantly Lucile, Jeanne Lanvin and Jean Patou, who provided costumes and wardrobes for the Dolly Sisters in what was often a mutually convenient arrangement of celebrity endorsement.
Rosie married songwriter Jean Schwartz (1913) and Jenny married comedian and entertainer Harry Fox a year later. However, none of their friends was more important than the millionaire Diamond Jim Brady who indulged their every whim and taught them the art of a flutter with the horses. Such was his infatuation, he once bought them a Rolls Royce wrapped up in ribbon.
In 1920, they abandoned their husbands and conquered London in shows produced by Albert de Courville and C.B. Cochran, showing off such numbers as the Dollies and the Collies and the Pony Trot. But they found Paris, Cannes, Deauville and Le Touquet far more to their liking and in Paris they appeared in a string spectacular revues with Paris Sans Viole (1923), Oh Les Belles Filles (1923), Paris En Fleurs (1925), A Vol D’Oiseau (1926) and Paris – New York (1927).
Earning incredible salaries, the Dollies invested in property and vast collections of jewellery. ‘Behung with baubles like a couple of Christmas trees’ they were renowned as the most extravagant gamblers in Europe.
The toast of, first London, and then Parisian society, they were romantically linked with dozens of named and unnamed men of title or wealth, including the Prince of Wales (later to become Edward VIII), King Alphonso of Spain, Henri Letellier and Viscomte de La Rochefoucauld. Each vied with the other in an elaborate game of falling in love, engagement, rumours of marriage and then cold feet.
When Jenny met Harry Selfridge, Rosie was engaged to the French socialite Francois Dupre, but Jenny had another prominent suitor in the form of Jacques Wittouck – a wealthy Belgian businessman. All was not simple and clear-cut. From 1925, Selfridge and Wittouck would be inextricably linked with Jenny for the next ten years, with constant rumours of marriage as each took it in turn to be her escort as they vied for her attention in a rather unusual menage à trois.
One of the oft-quoted pieces of mush leveled against them was that they had ‘ruined’ Selfridge and were ‘gold-diggers’. Let’s get this straight right away – Selfridge’s fall from grace and his ruination must be attributed to himself, no other. He was obsessed with all things beautiful, not least glamorous women, whom he showered with gifts. He also had a passion for gambling and was more than reckless. He did give Jenny expensive gifts, property, shares and aid her in a business venture. But she was also known for her acts of generosity and kindness as much for her jewels and furs. Their attraction was also re-enforced by their mutual love of gambling. This is the best description of their relationship ‘I should say that he saw at least part of his own daring and acquisitive image reflective in her tingling absorption in games of chance. She may have seen in him the father image, approving her daring.’
Rosie, never married Dupre but instead, ran off and married, and then swiftly divorced, Sir Mortimer Davis Jr, the heir to an estate worth $150m and affectionately called ‘The Fat Boy.’ Much more gossip, scandal, and ultimately tragedy followed.
Although they were not the first sister act to appear on the stage, the Dolly Sisters were certainly the most famous and paved the way for many of the subsequent duos and trios that proliferated in their wake. Even the Gabor sisters followed in the Dollies’ dainty footsteps.
When they retired in late 1927, numerous imitators took their place, but none were more outrageous than the Norwegian Rocky Twins, two boys who dressed up in drag as the Dollies and parodied their routines.
Living close to the rhythm of the time the Dollies were adept at always being in the right place at the right time in the company of the right people. It was a recipe that was to maximize their success. As true icons of the Jazz Age, their lives mirrored luxurious ‘society’ on both sides of the Atlantic and their story provides a fascinating glimpse of this privileged world that was eventually eroded by the Second World War.
The TV show ‘Mr Selfridge’ can only introduce the Dolly Sisters with ‘cameo’ appearances, a little taster of what was a much bigger and more fascinating true story, every bit as dramatic and engrossing as the best fiction.
For a selection of our Dolly Sisters images please click here.
Gary Chapman is the author of the only biography about the Dolly Sisters and has also compiled a lavish picture book about them. He is an expert on the Jazz Age and has a private collection of material solely licensed through Mary Evans Picture Library.
The Dolly Sisters: Icons of the Jazz age
The Dolly Sisters in Pictures