The Hengler Sisters
At the turn of the century the Hengler Sisters (May and Flora) were child protegees of society who became stars on both sides of the Atlantic, famous for their singing and dancing act. But gossip suggested that huge bills for their stage dresses and transatlantic fares consumed nearly all they earned. They were one of the first trail-blazing sister acts that would later become such a popular feature of the Jazz Age.
They were both born in Brooklyn – May in 1880 and Flo in 1883 to May Fanning (nicknamed Muddicup) and the actor, composer and mistrel T.M. Hengler (Tom) who had been part of the celebrated variety team of Delehanty and Hengler. May’s mother, Grandma Fanning (the Dutchess) was born to British peerage but ran off and married Captain Fanning (a Connecticut yankee and captain of a clipper ship) and moved to the USA. He was lost at sea leaving his wife and two daughters alone and May Fanning’s sister moved in with the wealthy Bernard Family. It was throug hthis connection that May Fanning got to know the wealthy and influential Edith Kingdon (1864-1911). the actress who married George Jay Gould 1, the millionnaire financier, who introduced May to Tom Hengler whom she married. Alas, Tom died young after the birth of his daughters May and Flo.
The girls were clever and when very young attended a Christmas benefit festival arranged by Dan Frohman and Tony Pastor in 1891. May played her fathers songs on the paino and Flo sang and danced. Subsequently they received education in the art of step dancing from Eddie Collyer and Mme Eloise Kruger instructed them in fancy dancing. However they were forced to abandoon the professional stage on account of the law which claimed they were too young to perfrom in public. Instead they made their debut in society at the New York home of their friend and mentor Mrs Edith Kingdon Gould and they were also taken up by Mrs Stuyvesant Fish and Mrs Oelrichs who also gave parties at which the Hengler sisters performed in private. These associations ‘created friendships that led to the deep sense of custodianship which endured throughout their European career.’
One summer they went to Newport as the guests of Mrs Lispenard Stewart Senior and appeared at parties given by Mrs Henry Claw, Mrs Fish and Mrs Pembroke Jones and one night at the yearly Vanderbilt Cinderella ball, the fairygodmother Edith Gould demanded they came down from their box to perform. Here they met members of the Stewart clan including Henry Stewart Trevor, who was Flo’s true love. Back in New York they sneaked in appearances in the Opera Club at the Metropolitan Opera Club for a whole season.
In 1893 when May was 13 and Flo 10, they made their first trip to Europe with their mother May as escort. They were given introductions to London society and attended soirees given by the Duchess of Manchester and Mrs Ronald and were also given a profesional try-out at a place in Camden town. But then at a try-out at the Alhambra they were so successful that they were given a long contract.
Back in America they were still not allowed to work in New York because of their age and so went to Chicago appearing a play by Will J. Davis. This was then followed by an appearances in Edward E. Rice’s historical extravaganza 1492 in Boston during Christmas 1894 as two little Spanish girl, two lttle lords and a spectacular tableaux vivant. In Boston they were taken under the wing by society leader Mrs Jack Gardner who introduced them to John Sargent the great painter.
In the Spring of 1895 the Henglers made their second trip to Europe and spent the summer in London appearing at the Alhambra and they began to be noticed by other theatre managers in London and Paris. They returned to New York in August 1895 and Edward E. Rice sneaked them into his next production Excelsior Junior (November 1895) but they were ‘shopped’ by their understudies the Abbott sisters who were older and clearly envious of them. Once their age was known and they had to retire.
At this point they met the three Charles’s – Charles Frohman, Charles Hoyt and Charles Dillingham, all distinguished theatrical luminaries. Dillingham suggested they should grow up quickly and wear long dresses which they did and in early 1897 they went into Hoyt’s comedy farce A Contented Woman, written especially for Hoyt’s wife Caroline Miskel. Dillingham was keen on Flo and continued to woo her for many years to come. Afterward they made their third trip to Europe and stayed away for several years.
Firstly they appeared at the Alhambra in London and then in October, went to Paris and got a contract to appear at the Folies Bergere with Loie Fuller, Lina Cavalieri and Yvette Guilbert. Flo was taken ill with an inherited anemia that continued to be a problem all her life and she was advised to go to Switzerland, where the air might help her condition. In Geneva they were welcomed at the Hotel Beau Rivage by George Ade and Sarah Bernhardt and despite her condition and the idea of a rest, gave three performances at the Kursall but cancelled their appearance in Milan and went to Lucerne instead. Here, W.R. Grebst (Billy) of Gottenberg, Sweden and his guest the Count de Bylandt of Ostende, who had seen them perform in Paris, persuaded them to take a cruise with them on his yacht and they sailed to Stockholm where the sisters had an audience with King Oscar.
After their Swedish adventure they went to Berlin and performed at the Winter Garden theatre but Flo became ill again and they had to cancel their Leipsig and Hamburg contracts and went to Wiesbaden Spa in the Black forest where Flo improved. During this sojourn, Flo became enamoured with the handsome young Prince Serge Galitzin (who had seen them in Paris) who showered both of them with gifts.
They opened in Cologne but after three days Flo took a turn for the worse and nearly died but but after another longer rest recovered. Soon the sisters were back performing again in Paris, London, Ostend, Dresden, Moscow, St Petersburg. In Dresden they met the Winthrop twins (Harold and Gerald) at a society gathering and Harold fell for Flora.
In Russia they appeared between acts of the Opera and were presented to the Czarina and her daughters. Prince Serge Galitzin switched his attention and proposed to May. Two Americans who had married Russians (Julia Dent-Cantacuzene and Sarah Whittier-Beloselski) advised her not to marry because he had a powerful and possessive divorced wife. As a result May hestitated and the Prince became offended. Before long they were back in Paris (Mid 1900) appearing once again at the Folies Bergere and the late night evening cabaret at the famous Maxim’s restaurant before spending a few weeks in the early part of 1901 on the Riviera.
Returning to America, they signed a contract with Weber and Fields to become members of their stock company for next season and then appeared in the Christmas 1901 show of The Sleeping Beauty and the Beast. This was followed by Tommy Rot in late 1902 followed by the Shubert production of Old Heidelberg. Returning to Europe in early 1903 they broke a contract to appear in Berlin and went to Paris and Russia instead. Prince Serge Galitzin continued to woo May and gave her a large Romanoff ruby ring, but to no avail (Serge later died during the First World War).
The Hengler sisters (May now 22 and Flo 20) arrived from Southampton aboard the St Paul on 15 March 1903 with their mother and went into The Runaways followed in early 1904 by the London hit Glittering Gloria and The Cingalee (late 1904). Other shows followed including the smash hit The Red Mill (September 1906 – May 1907), The Little Mischus (early 1907), The Rogers Brothers in Panama (September -November1907) and Dillingham’s The Old Town (early 1910).
Then May and Flo went to London to talk to James M. Barrie about their play Mayflowers, which had been especially written for them and was to be staged by Charles Frohman whom Flo was expected to marry. Unfortunately fate took Charles Frohman from Flo when he died on the Luistania in 1912. This cancelled the Mayflowers project.
What happened next is unclear but the sisters clearly retired from the stage. It is not known if either of them married. May died in New York on 15 March 1952 aged 68. Flora carried on but it is not known when she died.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent