‘In more than one way the Dolly Sisters were original Glamor Girls of Cafe Society – even though theirs was an era -that fabulous period of the Roarin’ twenties – when the term Cafe Society had not yet been coined.’ Cholly Knickerbocker c.1945
What was it that made the Dollies so successful and popular? For a start they were unusually beautiful. They did not conform to the full bloomed figure that was the accepted vision of beauty of the time with pink and white skin. Instead they were small and dark with an oriental grace that made them exotic.
Their dancing delighted audiences and critics alike with the sheer flamboyance of their elaborate and identical costumes and perfectly matched routines. They also had extraordinarily vibrant personalities that made them quite simply irresistible. But most importantly they were not just sisters but identical twins, one the mirror image of the other – and this was the real secret of their allure.
At their peak in Paris during the 1920s they were continually in the news for their extravagant living, gambling, predilection for jewellery and high profile love affairs with the rich and famous, as much as for their talent as entertainers.
Although they were completely devoted to one another, a degree of tension emerged between them as they reached adulthood often seen as an on-going game of rivalry. This could be explained by the fact that although they were identical in appearance they were completely different in personality.
Over the years many myths have developed about the Dolly Sisters, myths that were accentuated by the 1945 musical The Dolly Sisters released by Twentieth Century Fox and starring Betty Grable and June Haver which was not an accurate representation of their lives but merely a musical loosely based on their career.
Some of the myths were reflected by Robert Wennersten who interviewed Rosie before her death and decided that the Dollies didn’t live to dance but used their talent as a calling card and entree to good times. Author Meredith Etherington-Smith believed rather caustically that all they did was walk on and off stage in a succession of superbly extravagant clothes and were kept by a series of rich protectors. Yet it was undeniable that they loved their career and loved performing. They clearly had talent otherwise they wouldn’t have been as successful as they were. The fact that rich suitors besieged them with requests of marriage and showered them with gifts was simply a reflection of the fact in those days every young actress aspired to marrying a millionaire and every young millionaire aspired to marrying a gorgeous actress!
Even in recent years the magic of the Dollies is undimmed. After Rosie’s death in 1970 there were rumours that a TV musical based on their lives was in production and in the 80s a play was staged about them in New York. Angela Carter’s Wise Children was undoubtedly influenced by the story of the Dolly Sisters and even Bill Bryson fell under their spell by explaining in Notes From a Small Island that Gordon Selfridge fell into rakish ways with a Dolly Sister on each arm. Their legend continues.
‘Perfect Mirror Images – whose Gold Sister Fever during the Scott Fitzgerald days infected an already dizzy, reeling generation. The sisters’ plumed fans, fabulous diamond headdresses and reckless nights at Monte Carlo’s casino underscore a bitter showbusiness tango that fatally seduced the beautiful bodies who danced it.’
Press Release for Yesterday is Over, a play inspired by the Dolly Sisters, staged June 1980 in New York.
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