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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Number 137: Carl Sandburg "An Electric Sign Goes Dark"

An Electric Sign Goes Dark

Poland, France, Judea ran in her veins,
Singing to Paris for bread, singing to Gotham in a fizz at the pop of a bottle’s cork.

“Won’t you come and play wiz me” she sang … and “I just can’t make my eyes behave.”
“Higgeldy-Piggeldy,” “Papa’s Wife,” “Follow Me” were plays.

Did she wash her feet in a tub of milk? Was a strand of pearls sneaked from her trunk? The newspapers asked.
Cigarettes, tulips, pacing horses, took her name.

Twenty years old … thirty … forty …
Forty-five and the doctors fathom nothing, the doctors quarrel, the doctors use silver tubes feeding twenty-four quarts of blood into the veins, the respects of a prize-fighter, a cab driver.
And a little mouth moans: It is easy to die when they are dying so many grand deaths in France.

A voice, a shape, gone.
A baby bundle from Warsaw … legs, torso, head … on a hotel bed at The Savoy.
The white chiselings of flesh that flung themselves in somersaults, straddles, for packed houses:
A memory, a stage and footlights out, an electric sign on Broadway dark.

She belonged to somebody, nobody.
No one man owned her, no ten nor a thousand.
She belonged to many thousand men, lovers of the white chiseling of arms and shoulders, the ivory of a laugh, the bells of song.

Railroad brakemen taking trains across Nebraska prairies, lumbermen jaunting in pine and tamarack of the Northwest, stock ranchers in the middle west, mayors of southern cities
Say to their pals and wives now: I see by the papers Anna Held is dead.

--Carl Sandburg

Hap Notes: Here's somewhat a contrast to O'Hara's "Lana Turner Has Collapsed" in that Sandburg is not playing it for laughs. Anna Held was a hugely famous star on Broadway whose life was the subject of much publicity. She was known all over America as a vital and charming actress/singer/performer even though she spent little time in the country outside of New York save for a vaudeville tour or two. Her picture made good copy.

Held was born to a Jewish couple in Poland in the mid-to-late 1800s (her birth date is somewhat up for grabs- somewhere between 1865-1873-actresses, you know.) Her mother was French, hence the first line of the poem. She was pert and lively on stage and she sang suggestive flirtatious songs- she showed her legs on stage- oh my! Anyway Florenz Ziegfeld meets her when he's in Europe, is smitten and feeds the press a bunch of sensational stories about his new theatrical "find." (Ziegfeld was a very famous Broadway show maker and producer- you knew that, right?)

Ziegfeld told the press she bathed in milk and/or champagne. She was a tiny five foot fireball of a performer who wore super-tight corsets to emphasize her 18 inch waist. She was a sensation before she'd even hit the stage. There were Anna Held corsettes, face powder, pomades (for the hair) and cigars. And of course there were postcards showing her in elaborate and feathered French gowns and pearls.

She became Ziegfeld's common-law wife. She helped him create the famous "Ziegfeld Follies." She was enormously famous, somewhat naughty (she reputedly wore a nightgown when meeting reporters seeking interviews) and thoroughly charming. Ziegfeld made her a millionaire. She once told the press she was visiting a movie set and shot a runaway tiger. There was always some titillating story around about Held. She sang "I joost cahn't make my eyes be'ave" and fellas swooned.

Now the story gets a bit sad. She had been previously married and had a child from that marriage. The child is given to the birth father so Held can continue her career. The child (who is in her early teens) comes to America to seek her mother and is used as sort of fuel for the Held image as a mysterious French coquette- the "hidden child"- ooh la la!

Then she either had a miscarriage or an abortion (it was Ziegfeld's child) in 1908. Ziegfeld's interest in her was waning. She entertained the troupes in France during WWI, going close to enemy lines and was thought to be very brave. But Ziegfeld had gone on to other women and finally settled on a red-haired beauty named Billie Burke whom he married. Billie Burke had the opposite reputation from Held- she was billed as the pure, old fashioned American girl. You probably only know Burke as "Glenda, the Good Witch" from the "Wizard of Oz" movie but she was also a great beauty and very famous in her early career as a "Ziegfeld Girl."

Held dies in her mid-forties of cancer although the newspaper jive was that her internal organs were damaged by corsets laced up too tight. She flitted through the fantasies of men the world over and even Sandburg has his moment of remembering her.

Unlike "Lana Turner Has Collapsed" though, Sandburg is pointing out the way people react to celebrity tragedy- they comment but their private thoughts and fantasies (then, anyway) drift through their memories unspoken.

Here's where we've talked about Sandburg before:

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