Moss and Fontana

Marjorie Moss and Georges Fontana were the most graceful and sought after British dancing duo in the Jazz Age. They secured high praise in London and Paris in the 1920s before conquering New York in the late 1920s and were regarded by some as ‘the greatest pair of dancers since the Vernon Castles.’

Moss and Fontana, London, early 1920s

Moss and Fontana, London, early 1920s

As a young girl, Marjorie Violet (Mollie) Moss (born 1893) attended classes with the legendary ballet dancer Pavlova at Ivy House in 1913. Here she met the dancer Phyllis Bedells who took her under her wing. When Pavolva left London, Mollie Moss became one of Bedell’s special pupils and performed for the first time in The Vine produced 22nd March 1915 at the Empire Theatre. Bedell trained Moss as her understudy and described her as having ‘flaxen curls and a simple charm.’ It is believed that Moss also served an apprenticeship with the Theodore Kosloff Company. She was tiny, fragile and delicate and in later life emerged having a limitless capacity to socialise. Although she liked to keep her early life a secret you couldn’t help notice her cockney accent.

Nothing is known about Georges Fontana’s early life but his career appears to have begun in the summer of 1919 when he was dancing at charity events with a certain ‘Olga’ and appearing in The Girl for the Boy at the Duke of Yorks theatre. However, by the autumn he had partnered with Marjorie Moss and they were appearing daily at midnight to huge applause at the Grafton Galleries, in Grafton Street, the Valhalla of dance clubs, giving an exhibition of ballroom and novelty dances including the tango and shimmy. Of their Valse, Dancing Times said that it was ‘without doubt the best exhibition number I have seen and is exceedingly well rendered by these two…. the acrobatic portion of the number is restrained and dainty and executed without effort.’ They were a perfect match.

The couple moved on in early 1920 to the Trocedero Restaurant in Piccadilly – another late night rendezvous and a popular after-the-theatre supper and dancing club. Here they danced daily from 11.30pm for a long extended season until Moss fell ill. This was a recurrent problem for many years to come, as she was frail and susceptible to illness. By the summer she had recovered and they began a six week season at the Casino at Spa, Belgium from the middle of July and dressed in oriental attire in one number they delighted audiences with their character dances. Moss thought that ‘the dancing here is not very good…’ but they delighted in teaching new steps to everyone.

Moss and Fontana in the Midnight Follies cabaret at the Metropole Hotel, London, 1923

Moss and Fontana in the Midnight Follies cabaret at the Metropole Hotel, London, 1923

Moss and Fontana in the Midnight Follies cabaret at the Metropole Hotel, London, 1924

Moss and Fontana in the Midnight Follies cabaret at the Metropole Hotel, London, 1924

On their return to London that autumn they stepped into a featured slot at the new cabaret show at Murray’s night Club in Beak Street and also returned to the Grafton Galleries. Their appeal and popularity was blossoming and they accepted an amazing array of offers for 1921. As Phyllis Bedells said ‘they owed a great and international popularity to the delightful way they had adapted the technique of classical ballet to the ballroom.’

In early 1921 they took the Riviera by storm with their grace and panache and entertained the elite of European society at the Cannes Casino to the music of Billy Arnold’s band. Their success was so great that their engagement was extended until the end of the season on 2nd April. Moving to Paris they danced for a variety of private parties including one for the American Ambassador Hughes Wallace before commencing a season in the ballroom of the salubrious Claridge’s Hotel on the Champs Elysees from 25th May for a month. The hotel was always filled with a smart crowd both afternoon and evening particularly on Tuesdays and Fridays, which were the gala nights. Their dancing, once again to the music of Billy Arnold’s band, apparently sent the Parisians and the Americans into ecstasy.

Dancing Times observed ‘there is very little of ballroom dancing in their work. In this they differ entirely from such world famous couples as the Castles and Maurice and Florence Walton. These two have evolved a style of their own which is rapidly finding many imitators. Light as a feather and graceful as a bird on the wind, Miss Moss’s grand jete en l’air as she is raised from the floor without the semblance of an effort by Mr Fontana is one of the most beautiful things to be seen in dancing today….. though they dance in the ballroom they are not ballroom dancers and though they generally wear the ordinary evening dress of the smart man and woman of today, theirs is the true spirit of the dance which will endure for all time.’

As the season moved forward Moss and Fontana followed Billy Arnold and Varaldi and their bands from Claridge’s in Paris to the Deauville Casino during the August season, where dance, teas, dance suppers and dance dinners were held daily. The rest of the year was spent back at Claridge’s, Paris where they delighted Parisians with amongst other things a Bacchanalian dance.

Moss and Fontana in This Year of Grace, New York, 1929

Moss and Fontana in This Year of Grace, New York, 1929

They were back at the Cannes Casino in early 1922 along with Billy Arnold’s Band and enjoyed all the glittering galas including a Fete au Clair de Lune where they were dressed in Pierrot and Pierette costumes, Fete au village dressed as peasants with a village dance, Fete aux Indes with an oriental dance, Fete des Oiseaux and Fete au Zulu. They were described as ‘the most graceful couple seen dancing on the Riviera.’ Moving back to London, they completed a two-month engagement at the elite Embassy Club in Bond Street and filled the place to overflowing. They were such a draw that Dancing Times exclaimed ‘I have not the slightest hesitation in saying that when the Tatler described them as ‘the greatest pair dancers since the Vernon Castles’ it was correct. There is no couple which can do such a spin as these two.’ At a Tango Ball held at the Princes Galleries on 18th May they demonstrated a correct ballroom tango that was regarded the most instructive ever.

Sadly, Marjorie Moss fell ill again and had to undergo an operation on 12th June cancelling the final three weeks at the Embassy and their forthcoming Deauville engagement. Her recuperation period was long and in the interim, Fontana danced with Olivette (who was his wife and ran a dancing academy in Bond Street) at Murray’s Club.

By the Spring of 1923 the team re-appeared and commenced a month long engagement at Ciro’s London branch on 2nd March to much adulation ‘these two are without doubt the most attractive exhibition dancing couple now performing in Europe.’ They were soon back on the circuit and in Paris performed at Harry Pilcer’s Les Acacias night-spot for six weeks, before dancing at the Pre-Catalan summer resort in the Bois de Bologne. The Parisian society fixer, M. Andre de Fouquires paid them a handsome compliment by saying ‘with them it is the art of dancing seen in all its beauty.’

Moss and Fontana, New York, 1928

Moss and Fontana, New York, 1928

From mid-July to the end of the year they were the stars of a new edition of Carl Hyson’s sumptuous cabaret the Midnight Follies at the Hotel Metropole, one of the largest and most popular shows in London. During the winter Hyson transfer the show to the Restaurant Des Ambassadeurs in the Hotel Metropole, Monte Carlo in early 1924. One of their character numbers was a poupee dance in which Fontana was the blackist of golliwogs and Marjorie Moss a darling girl baby doll. As usual there was high praise ‘seldom has any exhibition dancing received so much applause.’ Further appreciation was rapturous saying their work demonstrated ‘sheer beauty and grace.’

Serge Diaghileff went specially to see them and was captivated. He went back several times taking Mlle Nijinska, his maitre de ballet and all his principals. He was so delighted with what he saw that he announced that he was contemplating producing a ballet in which the dances will be modelled after their style of dancing.

During April, on their return to London via Paris they danced for a short season at the fashionable Le Perroquet in Paris above the foyer of the famous Casino de Paris music hall and at the beginning of May opened in Carl Hyson’s Spring edition of the Midnight Follies at the Hotel Metropole. They also conducted daily tea dances and a series of Dinners Fleuris held every Sunday that were modelled on those given in the Ambassadeur Restaurant in Monte Carlo. The first was called ‘Un Soir a la Nagasaki’ where they performed in a bower of mauve wisteria while the restaurant was lit by dozens of tiny Japanese lanterns and the tables decorated with sprigs of almond, cherry and apple blossoms.

During the summer, when most of London cabaret’s closed, they passed through Paris on route to Aix-Le-Bains where they were the star attraction at the Villa Des Fleurs. For one gala called Les Venus Poudrees the ballroom was transformed with white decor and a white ballet was given along with Moss and Fontana performing as a white Pierrot and Columbine. They returned to London for the autumn season in the Midnight Follies but were then made an offer by the American booking agent E. Ray Goetz who believed he could get them added to a Florenz Ziegfeld show. In early November they sailed for America arriving in New York 15th November. Since no show appearance materialised they performed at the Beaux Arts and fulfilled a series of engagements at private houses. Then on 7th January they made their debut at the Club Mirador at 51st and 7th street, a venue co-owned by Goetz. The Mirador became the smartest New York rendezvous, with sky high prices and waiters and bus boys from noble families who could speak three languages without errors. Moss and Fontana were hailed unanimously as the greatest dancers that America had seen since the Castles.

Moss and Fontana in cabaret at the Club Mirador, New York, 1929

Moss and Fontana in cabaret at the Club Mirador, New York, 1929

In the summer of 1925 they were back in Europe and spent a long season at Harry Pilcer’s Acacias night club before returning to America and Club Mirador. Eventually, they were placed in the Charles Dillingham show Sunny. Once again they caused a sensation ‘Miss Moss possesses the grace of Pavlova and the fire of Bernhardt. Mr Fontana is incomparable both as a dancer and actor.’ In the winter they made a trip to Miami Florida, a location that was becoming a winter resort par excellence shadowing Newport and other traditional vacation spots. Here on the oceanfront was a vast, luxurious houseboat with a restaurant, cafe, veranda, ballroom and apartments and Moss and Fontana were the star attraction onboard. They arrived back in New York at the beginning of April to appear again at Club Mirador for several weeks before returning to Europe. They danced at Edmund Sayag’s Ambassadeur’s theatre-restaurant in Paris for two weeks before transferring to his Kursaal pleasure palace at Ostend and then back to the Champs Elysee Music Hall in Paris and Le Perroquet from the autumn. They had a triumph with the usual glowing praise stressing the class and personality of their performance.

Back in London, toward the end of the year they starred in the new Midnight Follies show at the Hotel Metropole, this time produced by Cyril Richard and Quentin Todd. But then, once again, shortly after opening, disaster struck and poor Marjorie Moss was struck down with pleurisy on 9th December. She was sent to Chamounix in France to recuperate for a long period in early 1927 and this meant the abandonment of their Club Mirador contract in New York that had been due to start in May.

It was not until September 1927 that Marjorie had recovered sufficiently for her to resume her career. Moss and Fontana made their debut at Le Perroquet in Paris in September before opening at the Club Lido in New York in early October. Their success was once again phenomenal and they created an absolute furore through the spring of 1928 and even doubled up in vaudeville appearing at Keith’s Palace Theatre performing their rendition of El Tango Tragico. Here they received their first snub with Variety saying that since they were only ballroom dancers, they lacked sensationalism and were unsuitable for vaudeville but thought they looked good as ‘eye fillers with a good set and fetching costumes.’ Later in the year, along with Beatrice Lillie they were the stars of Charles Cochran’s New York run of This Year of Grace at the Selwyn Theatre.

Moss and Fontana in This Year of Grace, New York, 1929

Moss and Fontana in This Year of Grace, New York, 1929

Their popularity throughout 1929 and 1930 at the Club Lido continued and the venue became the favourite gathering place of the ultra sophisticated New York crowd. They performed three dances nightly ‘showing the last gasp in gracefulness, costuming and co-operation, still right on top of their profession and rate $1,700 weekly, a certain class draw.’ In the spring of 1930, Moss and Fontana were also the stars of Lew Leslie’s International Revue, an extravagant production launched at the Majestic Theatre. But it was costly, unwieldy and overlong and only ran for 12 weeks.

After this Moss and Fontana’s busy schedule slowed down, Late in 1930 Marjorie Moss conducted a dance studio in conjunction with the hat-shop of Princess Francesco Rospigliosi although she performed with Fontana in Sweet and Low, Billy Rose’s production at the Chanin’s 46th St Theatre. In early 1931 they were back in London for a short visit and were appearing at the famous Kit Kat Club in the Haymarket, but this appears to have been their last engagement together and Marjorie was soon back in New York. One of her good friends in New York was the show business socialite Mercedes de Acosta well known for numerous lesbian affairs with other leading female personalities. When Acosta gained a writing contract at RKO in Hollywood, she left for the West Coast with Marjorie. Still battling a recurrent respiratory condition, perhaps the climate was of benefit. Of course there were, and still are, rumours about their relationship.

In Hollywood Marjorie met fellow Brit, film director Edmund Goulding, and they became friends. According to Matthew Kennedy, Goulding’s biographer, Marjorie said she didn’t have any place to hold parties so he offered his house. He proposed and she said yes. It all happened very quickly and they were married in November 1931, to the great surprise of many. Louise Brooks claimed the hasty marriage was due to Marjorie’s tuberculosis and her uncertain future. For others it was simply a lavender marriage as after all most of their inner circle was gay. Whatever the truth of the relationship, Goulding cared for her but their time together was short since Marjorie’s TB accelerated and on 3 February 1935 she died.

Georges Fontana teamed with Anna Ludmila in early 1932 and appeared in New York, London and Paris for a few years but by 1934 he was dancing with an English girl called Connie Carpenter. He continued dancing through the 1930s and in March 1941 partnered the temperamental and legendary film star Mae Murray in a Merry Widow Waltz in Billy Rose’s new cabaret show at the Diamond Horseshoe in New York. He was last known to be running a lucrative liquor agency in 1946 and did not ‘worry a bit about his waistline.’

All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent

 

 

Chronology

1919    Grafton Galleries (Dec)
1920    Trocadero Supper club (Jan/Feb)
1920    Marjorie Moss suffering from illness (Apr-June)
1920    Casino at Spa Belgium for 6 weeks (July/Aug)
1921    Cannes (Ambassadeurs Restaurant, Casino) (Feb-April)
1921    Claridge’s Hotel, Paris (open 25/5)
1921    Casino, Spa, Belgium (Jul)
1921    Deauville Casino (Aug)
1921    Claridge’s Hotel, Paris (Sept-Dec)
1922    Cannes (Ambassadeurs Restaurant, Casino) (Jan-Mar)
1922    Embassy Club London (from 2 April for 3 months)
1922    Tango Ball Princes Galleries exhibition & judging competition (18/5)
1922    Marjorie Moss underwent serious surgery (June)
1923    Ciro’s (from 2/3 for one month)
1923    Acacias, Paris (6 week season from May)
1923    Pre-Catalan, Paris (June)
1923    Deauville (Aug)
1923    Cabaret Midnight Follies at Hotel Metropole (Sept-Dec)
1924    Monte Carlo (Ambassadeurs Restaurant) (Jan-Mar)
1924    Le Perroquet, Paris (Apr)
1924   Midnight Follies, Hotel Metropole, London (4 May -12 July)
1924    Aix Le Bains (Aug)
1924    Arrived New York (15 Nov onboard Paris via Plymouth)
1924    Beaux Arts, NYC (Dec)
1924    Club Mirador, NYC (Dec – Spring 1925)
1925    Acacias, Paris (Aug)
1925    Sunny, New Amsterdam Theatre, plus Club Mirador (Sept)
1925    Miami, Florida (winter)
1926    Mirador Club, NYC (Apr)
1926    Ambassadeurs Restaurant, Paris (Sayag’s Blackbirds show) (Jul)
1926    Theatre des Champs Elysees Theatre, Paris (Oct)
1926    Le Perroquet, Paris (Nov)
1926    Marjorie Moss taken ill (Dec) engagements postponed until September 1927
1927    Club Mirador NYC (Sept)
1927    Club Lido, NYC (Dec)
1928    NYC Palace Theatre Bill (from 6/2)
1928    This Year of Grace NYC (from 7/11)
1929    Club Lido, NYC
1930    Lew Leslie’s International Revue, NYC (Feb-May)
1930    Sweet & Low (from 17/11)
1931    Gala show at the Kit Kat Club (Feb)
1931    Marjorie Moss married Edmund Goulding (Nov)
1932    Georges Fontana has new partner Anna Ludmila (Aug)
1935    Marjorie Moss died 3/2

 

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