Shrouding herself with an exotic sounding name and persona, Gypsy Rhoumaje struck the big time in London and Paris from 1926 and delighted fashionable continental audiences with her exotic style of dancing and her own personal beauty. Of course nobody, least of all journalists, could spell her name right with several attempts that included Gypsy Rohoumage, Gypsy Roumahje, Gypsy Rhouma-je and Gypsy Rhouma (all with Gipsy variants).
Gypsy Rhoumaje was American, born 11th July 1908 in Arkansas although in later years some reports claimed she had been born in South America. She came from a well-known American family being the grand-niece of the great American President Ulysses S. Grant who defeated Robert E. Lee (18th president 1869-1877). All attempts to locate her true identity and her link to the Grant family have proved elusive but she may well have been a descendant of the President’s brother Orvil Lynch Grant or sister Mary Francis Grant.
One of her first appearances was on the West Coast dancing in a movie stage presentation at the Pantages theatre, Los Angeles in October 1924. Along with other acts she was billed as Gypsy Rhouma, a Hungarian dancer, and presented a series of eccentric and classical dances which according to the Los Angeles Times allowed ‘the spectators to glimpse a mode of terpsichore quite different from what Los Angeles is accustomed to.’
Thereafter, she migrated to New York and presumably first appeared in the chorus of cabaret shows including Club Lido before became a featured player in Paul Specht’s new revue at the Moulin Rouge, controlled by a Chinese syndicate, in late 1925. She was then snapped up by an overseas agent who gained numerous engagements in Europe. She arrived in London in January 1926 at the age of 17 and stepped into a featured spot in the Piccadilly Revels cabaret show at the Piccaddily Hotel, launched 25th January and produced by Harry Foster. This edition of the popular cabaret also featured the eccentric dancing of fellow Americans Hal Sherman, Barrie Oliver and Frances White (Famous American comedienne), the British artists Max Wall, Doreen Reed and the fabulously inventive Hank the Mule (Woodward and Morrissey), plus of course the sixteen girls in delightful costumes designed by Dolly Tree. Amongst other numbers, Gypsy Rhoumaje portrayed ‘Mustika’ in ‘From the Wine List’. She also doubled each night at the Kit Kat Club in the Haymarket owned by the same management.
From London she migrated to the bright lights of Paris and made her first appearance at a Gala at L’Ermitage (72 Avenue des Champs Elysees) in mid April in a dancing entertainment with June Roper and Kenneth Kinney (celebrated American dancers) and Harry Reso (described as the king of comic dancers). As the summer progressed, besides continuing to appear at L’Ermitage, she performed in some of the other famed summer Parisian hotspots in the Bois de Bologne including the Florida nightclub, the Chateau de Madrid (with Florence Walton and Leo Leitrim) and doubled at the Perroquet nightclub, above the foyer of the Casino de Paris. After two months in Paris, the theatrical world of Paris paid tribute to her by saying ‘she has created something of a sensation with her repertoire of everything from aesthetic dances to the charleston. She is running another American star – Nina Payne – a close race for popular favourite in the French capital.’
The Deauville Casino was her next stop at the height of the August season before she started a two month engagement on 1st September in a revue at the Deutches Theatre in Munich, Germany. Back in Paris she appeared briefly at the Champs Elysees music hall in December and then spent the winter on the Riviera dancing at some of the well established nightspots including the Carlton in Monte Carlo.
By January 1927 she was back in New York. Described as a very tall girl with a dark appearance that accentuated her name of ‘Gypsy’ she was being taught the Black Bottom dance at the Billy Pierce dance studio, before returning to Europe to fulfil more contracts. She intended to add a novelty dance to her repertoire by doing an acrobatic Black Bottom!
Presumably, 1927 was spent in Paris and Vienna because at some point in 1927 she appeared in Hubert Marischka’s show Wien Lacht Wieder! (Vienna Laughs Again) staged at the Stadt Theatre. Back in Paris she was dancing at the Empire Music hall in early November 1927 before spending the winter at an unspecified engagement in Egypt.
Gypsy Rhoumaje next featured in the spectacular Henri Varna revue Luxe de Paris at the Palace Theatre, Paris from March 1928 with the Spanish singer Raquel Meller as star along with the Irwin sisters. She appeared in no less than six numbers including: Dream Land (Les Chimeres) where she was the golden fleece (La Toison d’or); the Flowers of Paris as the blue Flower; the Marvellous Jewels as the Princess of Sapphires; a solo number in the dance of the fans; tropical sunshades as the coconut flower (fleur de coco) and she danced the dirty-dig. Seemingly, her Burmese dances were one of the hits of the show.
In the midst of appearing nightly in the Palace revue she may well have doubled in cabaret. At the American ball at Claridges in early June, for example, she was one of the star performers along with Harry Pilcer, the Dodge Twins and Miss Florence. However, at some point she slipped and fell injuring her back. She obtained two medical certificates saying she was unable to perform for at least a month. She claimed that she left the show with Varna’s permission, thus taking thirty days off. However, Varna was not pleased and took court action and claimed damages which he won. She was fined FF45,000 and was forced to work off the judgement for two weeks in the Empire, another of Varna’s theatres in May 1929.
Once recovered from her injury, Gypsy Rhoumaje spent the autumn of 1928 in Vienna where she must have appeared in another legitimate stage show and in a show at the Berlin Wintergarden with the Alfred Jackson girls (November). She then must have made her way back to London because in March 1929 she was appearing in a cabaret show at the Mayfair Hotel and was so popular she was held over for several weeks. During this period she was cast in several British movies. According to Variety she had ‘vamp roles’ in Altantic (released 15/11/29) a fictionalised version of the Titanic story directed by EA Dupont and Alf’s Button (released in 1930) a comedy-fantasy directed by W.P. Kellino. In the latter Tubby Endlin was Alf Higgins who learns that a button on his jacket was fashioned from Aladdin’s lamp. Rubbing the button for luck, he summons a genie named Eustace who gives him the traditional three wishes. However, the more prestigious film was J.B. Williams’s White Cargo (released May 1929) based on Leon Gordon’s play of the same name starring John Hamilton, Leslie Faber and Maurice Evans and Gypsy Rhoumaje who played the half-caste wanton, Tondeleyo. It was slammed by the New York Times who thought it was sluggish and unimaginative but the journalast did not like the stage production either calling it ‘no masterpiece’. Gypsy faired no better in their criticism and they thought that she simply did not realize what is demanded of her in the way of acting. Interestingly, when the film was screened at the Regal Cinema, London, in late October 1929 she appeared on the stage in a mini-show before the film showing off her various ‘native dances’ and at the same time was doubling at the Cafe de Paris in Coventry Street.
She must have remained in Europe for the first half of 1930 and returned to New York from Bremen, Germany arriving 18th August 1930. By April 1931 she was in a show at the Villa Royale on Babcock Boulevard, Pittsburgh, one of the city’s most popular roadhouses that also starred the Cutler Sisters (late of George White’s Scandals). There must have been further engagements in Europe thereafter, because she returned to New York aboard Aquitania in August 1931. Through the rest of the 1930s she was engaged as a dancer and singer in various cabarets in New York and the East Coast and was based at the Hotel Courtlandt on 49th street. For example, in March 1936 she appeared in a venue called Benny the Bums in Philadelphia and in March 1939 was a featured player in a show at the Arabian Nights in New York. This cabaret was run by the famous Joe Zelli (former nightclub owner in Paris) and had a Parisian flavour and Gypsy was regarded as a glamorous type and smart and although she sang ‘Donkey Serenade’ it was her dancing that was her forte.
What happened to her thereafter is a mystery. If anyone knows her real identity or has details of her early career in America and what happened to her, please leave some comments.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
The Encore, The Stage, Variety, Dancing Times, Chicago Tribune (Paris Edition), The New York Times, La Semaine a Paris, Dance magazine, Paris Plaisirs