Whatever anyone says about the dancing Dolly Sisters, remember them in this photo taken on Deauville beach. Don’t they look charming? Full of life, cheeky and so innocent despite those racy swimming costumes, they are having the time of their lives. Their real gift was not the stage, but making everyone around them feel just as fun and joyful as they did themselves. A gift indeed.
Of course they were shockers, the pair of them.
Two stars are born
The Dolly Sisters first shone in America. Born in Hungary on 24 October 1892, twins Jancsi and Rózsika Deutsche arrived in the United States with their parents Julius a photographer and Margaret a dancer, in 1905. They trained as dancers and were briefly earning money in beer halls at 13, until it was discovered just how young they were; too young for the laws of New York. So they toured then playing Vaudeville, building a reputation as crowd pleasers.
They changed their names to Jenny and Rosie and when a producer’s wife described them as being like two dollies and the name stuck. They became the Dolly Sisters. Florenz Ziegfeld Jr signed them up for his Ziegfeld Follies in 1911 saying “You can’t do much, but you’re cute”.
And cute they both were. Dainty, but curvy in the ‘right’ places, they had identical large eyes, rosebud lips, heart shaped faces and glossy dark hair. Dancing together they had a unique exotic appeal enhanced by lively, endearing personalities.
The Pony Trot devised by famous actor, dancer and singer Clifton Webb became their trademark dance. The Trot had them scantily, if fluffily dressed, led over little hurdles by Clifton in top hat and tails. Of course they trotted neatly in time, making the most of their identical looks.
After a couple of years as Follies, they chose to work apart. But despite both making (rather minor) motion picture debuts, the sisters realised their greatest chance for success was as a double act. Together they appeared in Ziegfeld’s risqué Midnight Frolic, a very late night revue that shook up New York with its extravagance. The sisters were a wild success.
The first of the Benefactors
Their looks also attracted the attention of businessman, financier and philanthropist Diamond Jim Brady, who showered them with jewels, gave them a Rolls Royce wrapped in ribbons and loved to show the sisters off at New York’s fanciest venues. They took to luxury living very well, dressing in couture on stage and off. Charming and fun, they were welcome everywhere with even the wealthy Vanderbilts and Hearsts inviting them to their homes.
French director Leonce Perret was ‘caught by their lithsomeness, their personalities, the sheer expressiveness of their twinkling feet, their nimble bodies and their provocative faces. ‘Absolutely’ he said to himself ‘the Dolly Sisters were born for the screen.’ So in 1918 he devised the romantic fantasy film Million Dollar Dollies, a name that would stick with them forever. However girls recognised their real talent was on, and off the stage.
The Dolly Sisters take Europe
Now able to command thousands of dollars per week, in 1920 Rosie and Jenny travelled to London to appear in a Charles Cochrane stage extravaganza. Both were recently divorced and free to make the most of their time in Europe. They performed an ‘Exotic Persian Dance’, and ‘The Dollies and their Collies’ accompanied by a troop of performing dogs.
Hugely successful, London was agog at tales of their extravagance, their jewels and their flirtations. The memoirs of dancer June Tripp recall that ‘If one could believe the tales, thrones were about to crumble and multi-millionaires willing to go broke for love of them.’
It was a Prince who confirmed their entrance into European high society.
Rave revues from Royalty
After seeing their show, 26 year old Edward Prince of Wales introduced himself to the twins at a Park Lane party. Gary Chapman’s book The Delectable Dollies reveals Rosie described him as ‘a blond, pink-faced youth’. “I think you’re wonderful,” he said as he foxtrotted with them. “Pinch me, I’m dreaming!” Jenny whispered to her sister. He was “a wonderful dancer, the cutest trick, a great sport” they told a reporter. Apparently Jenny was his favourite, but he was strongly warned off romance by Palace advisors. The independently minded Prince of Wales remained a fan.
After two years in London the Dolly Sisters took their act to France, signing a six week contract to appear at the Royal hotel in Deauville for the summer of 1922. Here they entertained the wealthiest spendthrifts in Europe. Hugely popular, they were soon booked to appear in Cannes and Paris.
Wealth and infamy
The newspapers kept a close eye on Rosie and Jenny’s outrageous activities. On 4 August 1924 newspaper Paris Soir announced ‘It seems that the Dolly Sisters have lost three hundred thousand francs in Deauville at Bacarrat. They are consoling themselves by thinking that they have won about a million playing at the Palace [Theatre Paris]”.
The Prince of Wales was not known to be a gambler until 1924 when, as reported by Le Monde Illuste, he travelled to Deauville with the Dolly Sisters and enjoyed the casino (wining 80,000 francs), dancing and of course their delightful company.
Their followers included a large smattering of the less responsible European royals including playboy King Alphonso of Spain. ‘We became greatly attached to him,’ Jenny recalled. Their relationship did not go unobserved. Le Journal Amusant reported on 11 July 1926;
‘At an evening given by the King of Spain at his Embassy the artistic program included, in principle, an Argentinian dance by Maurice Chevalier and the Dolly Sisters. But the Queen was expected to attend… They say, indeed, rightly or wrongly, that the King has flirted a little in Deauville for three years with one of the Sisters and, to avoid any family incident, protocol made it clear that it was better not to ask American stars to dance that evening … ‘
Gambling, and a bit more gambling
Rosie and Jenny were introduced to gambling by Diamond Jim and it was their favourite pastime. While performing at the Casino de Paris, after their Saturday night show they would take a private train from Gare Saint-Lazare filled with champagne and caviar to Deauville. Here they played Chemin de Fer and Baccarat, travelling back to Paris in time for the Sunday matinee, sleeping on their journey.
The Dolly’s charm did not make them a push-over. They were tough. They had worked hard for their fame and fought hard to keep it. In November 1926 they took the Moulin Rouge to court in a widely reported case. The theatre had promised the Dolly Sisters would be promoted at the top of the bill on all posters and advertising, but the theatre had not done so. The court found in the sisters favour, awarded them thousands of dollars compensation and releasing them from their contract. The Dolly’s announced they would give their award to a charity that supported impoverished actors.
For the love of Jenny; Harry Gordon Selfridge
They could afford to be so generous. They were earning thousands but their admirers were even more generous. When Harry Gordon Selfridge, founder of London’s grand Selfridge’s department store, fell in love with Jenny in 1925 he was 69 and extraordinarily wealthy. He invited them to stay at his villa outside Deauville and, an enthusiastic gambler, gave them unlimited credit at the casinos of Deauville and Trouville.
Over the next few years he spent millions on Rosie and Jenny. He once presented them with four carat blue diamonds set by Cartier into the shells of two live tortoises and had ice cream flown over from London to Paris just because he knew they liked it. Harry regularly covered their gambling losses that ran into several million francs.
Around this time Lady Thelma Furness, close friend of the Prince of Wales, said of Jenny “I have never seen so many jewels on one person in my life. Her bracelets reached almost to her elbows. The necklace she wore must have cost a king’s ransom and the ring on her right hand was the size of an ice cube.”
Rosie, the heir and the unpaid bill
Rosie married Imperial Tobacco heir Mortimer Davis in 1927 but it was not a success. The papers were on hand to keep the public updated with the juiciest details. On 19 August 1929 Cyrano reported:
‘In these times of journalistic famine, Miss Rosie Dolly came into the world, from whom two jewellers are demanding payment of 8 million for a necklace. Miss Rosie is one of two Dolly Sisters. She married, a few moons ago, with the rich son of a family of whom she is, moreover, separated, as is customary to happen in this world free from many consequences. The necklace that the husband, Mr. Mortimer Davis, had given but had failed to pay for – we are in such a hurry in America that we forget a lot of things – had disappeared as well as the pretty artiste. As soon as she was informed, the dancer made only a leap to Paris, to the Prefecture of Police, and returned the necklace. The jewellers have breathed a sigh of relief ’
Mortimer’s horrified family had stopped his allowance. The couple were divorced in 1931.
End of an era
Harry Selfridge continued to pursue Jenny, but despite his repeated requests garnished with offers of millions, she refused to marry him saying their age difference was too great. She did allow him to help her buy a chateau near Fontainebleau and fill it with antiques. Harry’s free spending ways eventually led to him being booted from his own company. He died in poverty some years later.
By the late 1920’s the sisters were feeling perhaps a little old for their act, and certainly too rich to continue their stage careers. After Rosie just survived appendicitis in 1928 they decided to retire although their high living continued.
Then Wall Street crashed in 1929 and the next decade was very different for the sisters. No longer working together, their lives went in very different directions.
Rosie’s third marriage was a success and she retreated from public life, living in America bringing up a family and and doing charitable work for Hungarian children.
Jenny was not so fortunate. She opened a couture house in Paris and adopted twin girls to be the new Dolly Sisters. Unfortunately the couture house failed, the girls had little talent and were not really twins.
Then one day in 1933 Jenny was travelling in a car driven by one of her many suiters, a young pilot named Max Constant, near Bordeaux when they crashed into a tree. Jenny nearly died, suffering many internal injuries and her face was smashed. Her fortune had already been dented by the Wall Street Crash and she would spend much of what remained on surgery trying to regain her looks. The surgery had some success but Jenny always felt she was ‘a broken shell’. Perhaps her injuries damaged more than her body as she suffered terrible depressions. She killed herself in 1941.
Rose lived a happier life, well into her 70s. By then the Dolly Sisters and their extraordinary fame were a very distant memory.
Happy memories always linger, in Deauville.
Deauville is still a rich, elegant outpost of Paris on the pretty Normandy coast. Perhaps not as wildly glamorous as in those crazy 1920’s days. But Deauville still remembers all the Dollies, the Maharajas, the Princes and Princesses. Walking though villa lined streets towards the beach there is a timeless sensation, as though a chic vintage crowd is just around the corner, or behind a firmly closed elegant door.
As a warm breeze shimmies over Deauville summer sands, and sunlight sparkles like an old man’s diamond gifts, don’t be surprised if you hear the giggle of two identically pretty sisters, laughing at the foolishness of men and their own silly, fabulous lives.
The very entertaining and informative Jazz Age blog.
Illustrated World 1936 article ‘Edward VIII in France’
Newspapers scanned into Gallica digital library.
More about wicked King Alphonso, in Deauville