Rediscovering the Ziegfeld Club and Its Showgirls

Rediscovering the Ziegfeld Club and Its Showgirls

The club could not be in a more unlikely location. After knocking on a side door of the neo-Gothic Central Presbyterian Church on East 64th Street, visitors are ushered onto a hand-operated, wood-paneled elevator that lurches to the fifth floor. But inside the compact office, memories of the flamboyant past suddenly come alive. The walls are lined with portraits of starlets in alluring poses. On a shelf sits Ziegfeld’s favorite model elephant made of bluish porcelain. (The beast, with trunk raised, was the personal mascot of the impresario, who fell in love with many of his showgirls.)

Several filing cabinets overflow with memoirs and letters, many from aged “Follies” veterans pleading for financial assistance. (“I’m living in desperation and the Ziegfeld Club is the only place I can turn,” goes one note from a cold-water flat in Hell’s Kitchen. Another elderly woman pleads on powder-blue stationery for money for aspirin, rent and cat food.) “The letters offer a snapshot of women’s lives,” Ms. Sanderson said. “Many started young on the stage and had no other job training or savings. A lot ended up in pretty bad shape.” She says she is often contacted by descendants of Ziegfeld Girls trying to find out about their grandmothers’ “secret” lives on the New York stage.

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