We admit it—we’re a little obsessed with Mr. Selfridge. Maybe it’s the decadent sets, the exquisite Edwardian fashions, and the never-ending intrigue in the lives of Selfridge and his employees. Or maybe it’s because Harry Selfridge bears a remarkable resemblance to Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., the subject of our book, Ziegfeld and His Follies: A Biography of Broadway’s Greatest Producer (University Press of Kentucky). To those unfamiliar with film and theater history, the name Ziegfeld may mean nothing. However, among theater and film buffs, the name Ziegfeld still summons the same reaction as it did in the “Selfridge era,” roughly between 1910–1929. Ziegfeld’s friend and one of his greatest stars, Eddie Cantor, described his employer as, “. . . all the gods rolled into one. The greatest name in show business!” We have been interested in Ziegfeld’s life and work since we were eight years old; then and now, many have asked us what draws us to Ziegfeld. We answer the question with “Billie Burke.” Burke, Ziegfeld’s second wife who is now immortalized as Glinda the Good Witch, dazzled us as children. When we learned about her life with Ziegfeld and simultaneously learned about his spectacular productions, our answer as to why he so interested us expanded: “He made everything so beautiful.”
If Masterpiece had not turned the life of Harry Selfridge into a television extravaganza, he may have remained as obscure to the general American public as Ziegfeld. But, with the popularity of the television series and still extant store bearing his name, Selfridge’s legacy is well-secured. Selfridge’s formula for a magical shopping experience has been adopted, in varying degrees, by nearly every chain store. The notion of “just browsing,” in-store restaurants and fashion shows, and restrooms on the premises all began with Selfridge. Ziegfeld may not have a television show or a store, but his formula for a magical theatrical experience is ubiquitous in Hollywood and Broadway. You know the Cinderella story of a poor girl winning love, fame, and fortune that has been told time and again on the screen and stage? That’s Ziegfeld’s Sally (1920), the mother of the updated Cinderella story. You’ve probably watched a variety show at least once in your life. They are the grandchildren of Ziegfeld’s Follies. In one evening, Ziegfeld treated viewers to melodies by Irving Berlin, Will Rogers’ musings, Fanny Brice’s burlesque of ballet, and a parade of living mannequins dressed in over-the-top costumes designed by Titanic survivor “Lucile” Lady Duff Gordon.
Harry Gordon Selfridge and Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. were both showman, masters of seducing the public, setting trends, and concocting wild publicity schemes. Few know that Selfridge actually took inspiration from Ziegfeld before the theatrical impresario had even built a name for himself. While working for Marshall Fields, Selfridge visited the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 where Ziegfeld was promoting body builder Eugen Sandow. When Ziegfeld invited a socialite woman at the fair to feel Sandow’s biceps, she allegedly fainted. Then, every woman in the crowd wanted to touch the strongman’s muscles. Selfridge came away from the fair with a greater knowledge of how to attract and entertain a crowd. The idea of “sampling” goods used essentially the same concept as Ziegfeld allowing audience members to touch and interact with his star. Ziegfeld’s most famous (or shall we say infamous?) publicity stunt involved his first musical theater star (and later common law wife) Anna Held. He planted a story in every newspaper that she bathed in 40 quarts of milk a day to preserve her creamy complexion. Such conspicuous consumption both enraged and fascinated the public, but one thing was certain: the milk bath bonanza equaled high ticket sales.
Selfridge employed numerous elaborate publicity schemes as well. He invited French pilot Bleriot to bring his plane into the store after a solo flight across the English Channel and also invited ballerina Anna Pavlova and actress Mabel Normand as guest shoppers. Selfridge took great care to make his store akin to a theatre; shoppers always anticipated the unveilings of the still life tableaux in his store’s front windows.
Just as Selfridge changed the entire conception of a shop and shopping itself, Ziegfeld changed the conception of the theater and the theatergoer’s experience. Both men, we should mention, particularly changed the shopping/theater experience for women. In the 1936 Best Picture winner, The Great Ziegfeld (1936), screenwriter William Anthony McGuire wrote an accurate bit of dialogue in which Ziegfeld articulates his vision for his productions: “I want a show with silk drapes, with lace, with beautiful girls. . . . I want to dress them [the girls] not for the bald heads in the front row but the women in the back row.” The scantily dressed showgirls of the Follies could have been deemed exploitative, but in Ziegfeld’s era, they symbolized the new, liberated woman who did not have to hide her sexuality. “Unliberated” women flocked to Ziegfeld’s shows to “gaze, just once a season, on vice when it is well dressed and glitters.”
Selfridge similarly catered to women, especially those in the growing middle class. He tailored his shop to women, moving the perfume and cosmetics counters so that they were the first things customers saw upon entering his store. Selfridge’s allowed women to “cross the lines” and purchase goods and enjoy shopping without risking their reputations. “They came to the store and realized some of their dreams,” Selfridge stated.
As much as Selfridge and Ziegfeld helped give women larger roles in society, they had reputations as womanizers. Ziegfeld’s most notorious affair was with showgirl turned alcoholic Lillian Lorraine. The affair was quite public and publicized, culminating in a scandalous confrontation in front of Billie Burke. Approaching the couple while they dined at a fine restaurant, Lillian threatened to throw off her floor-length fur coat if he did not speak to her. “And I’ve got nothing on under it!” she shrieked. Selfridge had his share of scandal, as well. Though not Ziegfeld’s mistresses, we were especially interested to learn that the Dolly Sisters, who performed in many Ziegfeld shows, carried on liaisons with Selfridge. As identical twins ourselves, the Dolly Sisters’ connection to both Ziegfeld and Selfridge holds special fascination to us. The Dollys, heirs to Ziegfeld’s friend Diamond Jim Brady, were gambling addicts. Selfridge squandered millions of pounds at the baccarat table with Jenny goading him on. Over three decades, he lost over three million pounds gambling and entertaining his lady friends.
Ziegfeld and Selfridge both enjoyed the lives of impresarios; this is what made them both icons in their own times and led to their downfalls. They were, in Selfridge biographer Lindy Woodhead’s words, “curiously naïve” in their financial outlooks. Little surprise is it then that both men failed to save any money and were broken by the Great Depression. In 1932, Ziegfeld died of pleurisy—penniless and half delirious, murmuring the words “all that beauty…” Selfridge did not die until 1947, but he was ousted from his store in 1939. After that time, he could be found wandering the streets, gazing at what had been his empire. He died in a humble London flat.
As the third season of Mr. Selfridge approaches, we cannot help but wonder if someday Ziegfeld will be immortalized and rediscovered to the degree that Selfridge has. We can only hope that our book will give readers a vision of a sumptuous era when song, dance, laughter, and beauty reigned and anything seemed possible. As a last thought on Ziegfeld and Selfridge, we refer to Will Rogers, who once made a statement about Ziegfeld that could equally be applied to Selfridge: “He can never truly die. You can’t ever kill magic.”