Monday, 8 February 2010

The magnificent Tilly Losch

Tilly Losch, 1923, originally uploaded by Trevira.

This beautiful photograph in my collection came from the archive of the newspaper The San Francisco Examiner. There's a damaged relic of a pasted-on label on the reverse giving the title "Serpent of Hell" (the production title? Her character's name?) and a date of April 14th, 1923, which might be the publication date.

Ottilie Ethel Losch was born in Vienna on November 15th 1907, which would make her 15 years of age in this photograph. You can read a summary of her extraordinary life and career in that link over her full name, which details her first stage appearance as a dancer at the age of six with the Vienna Imperial Opera ballet school, her promotion to prima ballerina at the unusually young age of 15, and her subsequent work with Max Reinhardt as both dancer and choreographer (and much more, of course, but we'll come to that soon).

What is puzzling is that according to the Binghamton University Library, which holds Losch's papers, she didn't arrive in the United States until 1927.

Why, then, is she appearing in a popular American newspaper (owned by William Randolph Hearst, by the way) in 1923? In a costume that looks much more Max Reinhardt than something you might expect from the Vienna Imperial Opera, and a full four years before she was reported to have first been invited to perform for Reinhardt in 1927?

The remains of that label note that she was wearing "phosphorous tights" - and I sincerely hope they mean phosphorescent, by the way, or her health might have been seriously endangered.

I'm speculating wildly here - its a bad habit of mine - but perhaps either the photograph date is wrong, or there's something missing or incorrect in that summary of her life?

No matter, Tilly Losch's life was extraordinary anyway, and she is one of those 20th century figures who seems to have orbited around many of the most significant cultural figures of her times, like a female Zelig, only much more beautiful!

She married Edward James, the wealthy English art connoisseur who was a patron of Salvador Dali (he was the proud owner of the first iteration of the iconic Mae West lips sofa, which was installed in his surrealist country pile Monkton House, and was captured by Magritte in this famously baffling portrait). But their marriage ended in a scandalous divorce in 1934 - Tilly accused him of homosexuality, he in return cited just one of her numerous affairs.

Other names that crop up in her life that might still ring a bell to the modern ear include Noel Coward, Fred and Adele Astaire, Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya, George Balanchine, Berthold Brecht, Jean Cocteau (an ardent fan), the Sitwells and Cecil Beaton.

Her career in Hollywood has left us with some appearances in films such as The Garden of Allah (1936) with Marlene Dietrich, The Good Earth (1937) and Duel in the Sun (1946). All of which I'm pretty sure are readily available on DVD.

Later she retired from dancing and acting and turned to painting, which apparently suited her reportedly shy nature, and was enobled by her 1939 marriage to the Earl of Carnavon to the status of countess. Despite their divorce after the Second World War, they remained on friendly terms and the Earl was one of the few mourners at her 1975 funeral.

But let's go back to the top of this post and contemplate that amazing vision of her as an accomplished teenage dancer making news across the Atlantic - wasn't she magnificent?


Miss Peelpants said...

They don't make women like that any more. At least, I never hear about them.

Amazing photo, and what a costume. Sighhhhhh.

Sarah said...

Cheers Miss P!

I agree its hard to think of her modern equivalent - Tilda Swinton? Bjork? No one comes close.

williecross said...

Interesting and well thought through blog, stunning early picture of Tilly. What a find. Congratulations. You and your fellow bloggers may wish to know that following on from my books on Lady Evelyn Stanhope and Elsie Howard, the two Fourth Countesses and Almina Wombwell, the indefatigable Fifth Countesses of Carnarvon, I have now completed a book on the two Sixth Countesses of Carnarvon. " Catherine and Tilly: Porchey Carnarvon's Two Duped Wives. The Tragic Tales of the Sixth Countesses of Carnarvon" . This will play out for what it’s worth or not alongside Highclere's latest romp on the American refugee Catherine Wendell. My narrative draws on original papers, newspapers and the Wendell papers in Portsmouth Athenaeum, in Maine, USA as well as the good will of members of the Wendell family. It will also be based on interviews and testimony from several people who knew and dearly loved Catherine. The book also includes a long detailed narrative on the life and times of Tilly Losch the great dancer, and bit part actress, an icon of the Twentieth Century, a sort of wonder woman with the combined force of Garbo, Monroe, Madonna and Lady Gaga. Kind Regards, William Cross, FSA Scot.