The Dolly Sisters and Mr Selfridge

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

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Image numbers (left to right): 10503017, 10235725, 10503053 & 10503018

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.

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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.

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Image numbers (left to right): 10503046, 10503060 & 10503038

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.’

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Image numbers (left to right): 10503042 & 10089352

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.

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Image numbers (left to right): 10503012, 10503073, 10503010, 10503024 & 10503071

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

www.jazzageclub.com

www.eddittpublishing.com

 

How to catch a ghost? Harry Price’s wondrous ‘ghost-hunting’ kit

During the recent run of Christmas television, viewers were acquainted with the weird and wonderful world of Harry Price in the TV drama, Harry Price: Ghost Hunter, with the fine Rafe Spall taking on the role of the world-famous ‘debunker’ of the paranormal. Throughout the programme we were introduced to Price’s remarkable way of thinking and his persistent determination to find scientific reason behind so-called ‘paranormal occurrences’. The programme’s plot centred around the supposed haunting of a high-profile MP’s country home – a haunting fabricated for TV viewing and not one of Price’s famous investigations (for example, the Borley Rectory), but the method in which Price investigated these disturbances and the show in general remained relatively true-to-form and was closely based on how Price carried out his investigations into alleged hauntings. Price (born January 1881 in London) is best known as one of the leading (and most controversial) researchers and authoritative voices on all-things paranormal, his popularity gained predominantly through his work investigating well known haunted houses and exposing fake spiritualists during a time when séances, and the ‘paranormal’ in general were at the peak of public interest.

HPC BLOG 1Image numbers (left to right): 10004168, 10020093 & 10003882


It can be said that Harry Price was the pioneer for modern paranormal research and following his untimely death in March 1948, the University of London was bequeathed Price’s ‘Library of Magical Literature’, an extensive wealth of information he collected over the years on the subject, which, by the efforts of external donations and contributions has now grown to become an asset of almost 13,000 works detailing all aspects of the occult. The pictorial element of this otherworldly collection is something that Mary Evans has represented for some years, and out of the many peculiar collections we have the privilege to work with, the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature is certainly one our most curious.

A couple of images from the collection which have fascinated me for some time, and I continue to be drawn to, are the images of Price’s tools of the trade, or collectively his ‘ghost hunting kit’. During Harry Price: Ghost Hunter, we had the pleasure of seeing elements of this kit come to life – a fascinating spectacle, if a little dramatised. These photographs give us a more accurate look at the equipment that Price used on his investigations and are dated circa 1925 – 1930; around the time of Harry Price was Honorary Director of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research.

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Looking at the images it is certainly apparent that the contents of the kit demonstrate Price’s scientific approach to alleged hauntings. Price always strived to carry out all of his investigations in conditions suitable for scientific experiment. He would carry a sketch pad, pencils and drawing apparatus in order to precisely plot a location and would use steel tape, plaster, string, and tools to seal rooms, doors and windows. This was always essential to any investigation and would ensure that nobody could tamper with the equipment once set up, or, provide an opportunity for a group or individual to fabricate paranormal activity during the night. It also helped keep external draughts at bay and safeguard any trigger objects from being set off due to natural conditions. For further safeguarding, Price would also initial any tape used in sealed areas. Miscellaneous electric apparatus and bells can also be seen, which I assume may have been set up to sound, if, for example a sealed area had been breached or potentially to record a change in atmospheric conditions.

In terms of cameras, visible here is an Adams and Co Reflex Camera that would have used infra-red film (a necessity for early night photography) and a Cine camera which would have taken the Agfa Novapan Film, also seen in the kit. These cameras would often be placed in the area central to the activity with trigger weights and a trigger thermograph. The trigger set up meant that any change in temperature or movement in the room would cause the shutter to release.

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Image numbers (left to right): 10252585 & 10252587

A bottle of Mercury was also carried and at the scene of an investigation would be placed in a bowl, any movement of the mercury in the bowl would show and this was perfect for detecting any tremors in the room. If any disturbance was recorded, Price also used chalk to mark areas of activity. In addition, he carried brushes and powdered graphite for developing potential finger-prints.

For practical purposes a flashlight and matches would be used to navigate in low light. However, Price was also known to use matches as a ‘trigger object’ or something used to ‘entice’ a ghost. The matches were used in particular to see if a ghost who once smoked, would respond.

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Image numbers (left to right): 10252577, 10252576 & 10252579

Examining and explaining these images of his ghost hunting kit serve to highlight Price’s triumphs in debunking the paranormal and uncovering reasons behind the unexplained. The ‘ghost hunting’ equipment of today is far more technologically advanced and sophisticated, but in fact not too dissimilar to Price’s original kit and further argues that Price was indeed the pioneer of modern ‘ghost hunting’ techniques.

A great deal has been written on both Harry Price himself and his work over the years, with opinions both slating and praising his work. Whatever your opinion on the work of Harry Price, it is likely his legacy will continue to intrigue and fascinate for years to come.

You can view more images from the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature here.

Black Bounty – the Mary Evans ‘Black Beauty’ Book Collection

A very warm welcome to our new Mary Evans blog: The Inquisitive Archivist. They say that every picture tells a story, and, working as we do among a cornucopia of original, historical material ranging from books and periodicals to scraps and cigarette cards, being distracted by the stories behind the pictures we supply is a daily hazard (or perk) of the job. And so it seems natural that we should combine our fabulous archive with our own insatiable appetite for history and bring you… ‘tales from the archive’. We aim to combine the fascinating and topical, strange and curious, fun and irreverent elements of history for your delectation with posts from the Mary Evans team as well as guest contributors. Mary Evans Picture Library is renowned for the depth and eclecticism of its world-class collection, and we hope this blog will be a fitting reflection of our unerring enthusiasm for the past.

The decision as to what to choose as a first blog post is of course a weighty responsibility but looking across the office at the bookshelves running parallel to our desks, it suddenly became patently obvious. We often talk of how the library’s founder, Mary, was a great dog lover – and she was. The library has a superb collection of dog photographs (particularly the Thomas Fall archive), and countless doggy books from the 19th and 20th century. But she was an animal lover in general, and was also very fond of horses. Nowhere is this better represented than in her extraordinary collection of Black Beauty books. Filling several shelves here in the library, it is difficult to give an accurate number, but a rough estimate would put the collection at around 350 individual books, and is, we imagine, the world’s largest and most complete set of different editions of Black Beauty.

When Black Beauty was first published on 24 November 1877, its author, Anna Sewell (1820-1878), had been a housebound invalid for seven years. She died just three months after publication and £30, paid by the publisher, Jarrold of Norwich, was the sole amount ever received by the Sewell family for what would become one of the world’s best-selling books (sales figures are estimated around 50 million). Sewell had loved horses since childhood, pleading at the age of two to be allowed to go outside the family’s Shoreditch home to the Bishopsgate cab rank to feed the working horses there. Her passion continued into adulthood. Black Beauty was never intended as a children’s book, but, written BY rather than ABOUT a horse, it set out to highlight the terrible cruelties suffered by horses during the 19th century, in particular the use of the bearing reign which forced a horse’s head upright and back while pulling loads. Her expert equine knowledge is evident throughout the book to the point where, Edward Fordham Flower, the harness expert, wrote of it, ‘It is written by a veterinary surgeon, by a coachman, by a groom; there is not a mistake in the whole of it.’ When the book was published in the United States for the first time in 1890, by George T. Angell, the founder of the Massachussetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, it sold an astonishing million volumes in the first two years. Mary acquired an American first edition for her collection, as well as a first English edition with an inscription by Sewell herself offering thanks to her good friends, Mr and Mrs Tench, who proofread the book.

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These two first editions of course are jewels within the collection. There is also a limited edition from 1915, one of only 600, illustrated and signed by the famous equestrian artist, Lucy Kemp-Welch. But beside these treasures are many, many more; several volumes illustrated by the great sporting artist, Cecil Aldin and plenty of children’s budget versions from various decades including one I remember owning myself, when I first wept as a child at the adventures of Beauty, Ginger, Merrylegs et al. Her quest for completeness also extended to other blast-from-the-past examples, notably several Black Beauty annuals based on the 1970s Sunday tea-time drama, ‘The Adventures of Black Beauty’ (apologies if this triggers incessant humming of the famous theme tune in any readers!).

It’s easy to see why Black Beauty appealed to Mary. She was a fervent supporter of animal welfare, a vegetarian and as a young girl, had, like Sewell, been horse mad. Acquiring as many editions as she did is firm evidence of her collecting bug that forms the basis of the library. A note to Clarissa Cridland who had sent her a signed book plate to accompany Mary’s copy of ‘Pony Thieves’ which Clarissa had written when she was fifteen, reveals the pride Mary took in her ever-growing Black Beauty collection:

‘Dear Mrs Cridland
How kind of you to send me a signed book plate. I shall treasure that greatly. I have read your book from cover to cover and really enjoyed it. It took me back to my pony passion childhood and teenage years. Your book will be in good company on my bookshelves along with my horse book collection with ‘Ponies of Bunts’ and all the classic books of the time…I also have a large collection of ‘Black Beauty’ different editions which I treasure and am still adding to.’

This note is within a folder found among the Black Beauty books, also containing numerous pieces of Black Beauty-related correspondence and research. Included is an original leaflet, which looks to be from around the 1890s or 1900s, produced by the Anti-Bearing-Rein Association. Clearly, animal rights activism is not a recent phenomenon. A further note, dated 1999, from Mary to Norfolk and Norwich Central Library who had sent her an article about Anna Sewell’s birthplace in Great Yarmouth, seems an apt quote to end on.

‘Thank you very much for the piece about Anna Sewell House. I must come and look at it to see what it is like now. How I would love to take it over and restore it as a museum – and put my large collection of “Black Beauty” books there!’

Mary’s unique collection of Black Beauty books remain here, in the library at Blackheath. Now thoroughly mired in nostalgia for the book, I don’t mind admitting that it’s sorely tempting to browse the shelves and choose one to take home for bedtime reading tonight.

For a selection of our Black Beauty images please click here.