Harry Cahill was a multi-talented American dancer, female impersonator, singer and composer who became a popular and well-known figure in Paris during the 1920s and because of his achievements was once described as ‘a type of product of the Jazz Age.’
Harry Bernard Cahill was born in Hoboken, New Jersey on 17thMarch 1896 and both his parents were Irish immigrants. His father Edward was a marine surveyor and by 1910 the family lived at 104thStreet in Manhattan. Harry was the youngest of five children and his siblings were Thomas (born 1882), John (born 1884), Cora (born 1890) and Charles (born 1892).
Seemingly, his first appearance on the stage was at the prestigious New York Hippodrome. In May 1914, it was revealed that Harry had been dancing in ‘the New York Hippodrome ‘last season’ and that his Russian dance had been one of the features. But which show does this refer ? The musical spectacle Under Many Flags was the more likely show since it featured scenes in Germany, Holland, Scotland, China, Persia and Russia, but the run was from31/8/1912 – 17/5/13. The show that had just closed before May 1914 was entitled America and in context may have been referred to as the ‘last season’ show. It had run from 30/8/13 – 28/3/14 but there were no references to a Russian dance or Harry.
As the dancing and cabaret craze exploded in New York from 1912, at some point, perhaps in 1913 and early 1914, Harry became a dancer working at two of the major cabarets in the city: the Oriental restaurant called The Pekin at Broadway and 47thStreet and Julius Keller’s Maxim’s at 38thStreet between Broadway and 6thAvenue. At the latter, Keller employed exceptionally good-looking dancing men to escort ladies without escorts. One such dancer was Rudolph Valentino and another must have been Harry.
By May 1914, and rather mysteriously, Harry and his sister Cora (described as Miss Corrine) had decamped to Ottawa in Canada and opened the Cahill Studio of Modern Society Dancing. No doubt inspired by the dancing craze and his experience of dancing in some of New York’s top cabaret spots, Cahill and his sister gave an exhibition of modern society dances at the New Russell Hotel (regarded as the most prestigious Hotel in Ottawa) on some evenings and a Saturday afternoon The dansant. The pair also gave individual and class lessons their dancing studio at 104 Sparks Street.
How long Harry stayed in Ottawa is not known but he next appeared in a Ned Wayburn elaborate revue called Town Topics that ran for a few weeks between September and November 1915 at the Century Theatre in New York. Thereafter, in 1916, he became part of a touring vaudeville team called Cahill, Clifton and Goss. But in July 1916, and described as ‘juvenile dancer’, he was looking for a singing and dancing partner and found Rosita Mantilla. From August 1916 through early 1917 the pair gave ‘bewitching dancing divertissements’ in a nationwide vaudeville tour where they danced and sang, with a highlight being their interpretation of a Hawaiian Hula Hula.
By mid-1917 Harry was doing an eccentric dance in an un-named musical comedy at the Liberty Theatre in New York (perhaps Out There or Hitchy-Koo), when he registered for the war effort in August 1917. On joining the army he listed his address at 439 Manhattan Ave, New York with his mother. By December 1917 he ended up at Company D 308th infantry Camp Upton, Long Island and then, in April 1918, he was transported to Europe by the US Army Transport Service.
Somehow it was decided that Harry Cahill would be better in a new theatrical unit at 77thdivision, drawn in large part from New York itself. Since Broadway was well represented it was not difficult to find musicians, singers, comedians, dancers, librettists and costumiers – in fact everyone needed to create a theatrical show. But it didn’t end there for some unknown reason it was decided Harry would behave in as girlish a manner until the completion of his duty and became the ingénue of the new company. The company itself was organized in the summer of 1918 in the Lorraine sector of France and was called the Argonne Players of 77th Division. It comprised about 30 people including Stuart Sage, Mario Rudolfi, Percy Helton, the well known juvenile actor, Jack Waldron (a comedian and dancer), Howard Greer (who designed all the scenery, costumes and posters) and Fred Roth and Alfred Dubin who wrote the book and lyrics for the show itself that became known as the Amex Revue of 1918 that comprised a succession of various acts.
The first performance was on 4thJuly 1918 in the municipal theatre in Baccarat in the Vosges and shows were subsequently given on trucks, in theaters, in Chateau and in the open air. The Argonne Players developed a style of performance all of their own and became hugely popular and famous.
Harry became a star but one wonders how he learned how to behave like a lady. As the leading lady he was dressed by Howard Greer (later to become a major dress designer) and Greer took his sketches to Lucile couture in Paris and as a result Harry had two evening gowns, two tea gowns, a luxurious set of lingerie and two gorgeous evening cloaks.
When describing the revue in August 1918, Variety said that Harry was the ‘Grace La Rue of the army’ and that he made a great hit with the boys ‘who have not had the pleasure of seeing an honest-to-god American Mademoiselle since they left the states.’ Greer himself observed that Harry could fill a big place on the American stage. ‘He is very slight, with the combined grace of Mrs Castle and Dorothy Dickson and he carries his clothes like Dolores. ‘ Harry was indeed handsome at 5 feet 8” tall, with light hair, blue eyes and a trim build.
The Paris Times said that Harry wore fashionable gowns, the latest creations in footwear and was coifed by the most famous Parisian wig maker. He also had the distinction of being the only member of the cast who was permitted to take the feminine part.
On cessation of the war in November 1918 the theatrical of the Argonne Players unit was re-organized and toured the large AEF centres at Chaumont, Tours, Bourges, Bordeaux, St Nazaire and Nantes. When President Wilson visited Paris in January 1918, the show – Ammex Revue of 1918 – was staged for him at the Theatre de Champs Elysees.
During this time it was noted by the Paris Times that ‘many Americans found that in spite of exigencies of the Services during the War, they were able to develop other talents and make an interesting career for themselves.’ Harry was a good case in point because during his travels through France with the Argonne Players, he developed song-writing proclivities. During their tour a new song was needed to replace the one Harry was singing in the show and he simply wrote it rather than find a new one. It was this song writing talent that developed into a key facet of his career.
The troupe finally sailed for home on 17thApril 1919 arriving 25thand entertained the officers and soldiers aboard the Mount Vernon. They then performed the Ammex Revue of 1918 at the Manhattan and Lexington opera houses in May prior to being disbanded on 31st May 1919. The show was described as ‘a variety of acts, musical, comic and dramatic’ and was thought to be ‘a vaudeville bill of the first class’. Harry as the heroine appeared in a costume reminiscent of Gabys Deslys and the Statue of Liberty and appeared in a double act with Rollins Grimes Jr, labeled Class and Cleverness and later in comedy skit entitled Out General. It was thought that Harry knew how to sing and dance well.
Immediately, Harry was signed by the agent Billy Grady for vaudeville to do female impersonation as an act. Presumably this is what happened and he toured through the rest of 1919 and 1920 but sadly no record can be found in any of the theatrical trade papers. By 1920 Harry was living with his mother and brother Charles at 439 Manhatten Avenue with his sister Cora Cahill married to a Maurice Collette and living in the same building. Instead of being listed as an actor his profession was described as a commercial traveller for a Cutlery company.
By September 1921, when Harry applied for a passport, he was living at 44 West 10th Street, New York (near Greenwich Village and the home of sister Cora) and said he was an actor and was sailing to Europe on 25thOctober 1921. A few months later in Paris it was reported that prior to his arrival, he had been touring on the Keith vaudeville circuit, so this may give an indication of what he had been doing between 1919-1921 besides being a commercial traveller.
In February 1922 Harry was first noticed in Paris at an event organized by the American Legion in Paris at the Union Interalle. A feature of the ball was a series of classic dances by Paul Swan, already well known in Paris, along with Harry singing topical songs and showing some eccentric dancing. In early March Harry appeared at a masked ball given by the Washington Lafayette Club at the Salle Victor Hugo, the entertainment featured the singing and dancing of Jane Henderson and Harry once again sang American songs and gave an exhibition of modern dancing.
By early July 1922 Harry had decamped to enjoy the pleasures of Deauville and was staying at either the Royal or Normandy Hotel in the company of Clifton Webb, Rosie Dolly, Louis Sherry and Muriel Spring and may have been dancing in Deauville in some capacity.
With the Deauville season in full swing after the 4thJuly celebrations, Harry met the British dancer Fay Harcourt. At a dancing contest held on the 9thJuly, she claimed fourth prize in the professional class with a partner named as M. Vontetianos. But shortly afterward she teamed with Harry Cahill and became an attraction at the Deauville Casino, where they ‘created a furore’. One wonders when and how they met. Had they met in Paris prior to the Deauville season or did they simply meet at Deauville in early July 1922 and decide to form a dance partnership and by sheer luck and tenacity gained the booking at the Casino?
Following their success at the Deauville Casino they moved to Paris for the autumn season and made their debut at the Clover Club, formerly the Theatre Caumartin at 25 Rue Caumartin in mid-September 1922. The White Lyres Jazz band played tango numbers as well as the syncopated music for which they were better known. For the first night Harcourt was wearing an exotic creation of rose petals de soie, especially designed by the British designer Dolly Tree who flew from London for the occasion. Harcourt and Cahill did several novelty turns and responded to encores with solo dances.
Such was their success that in October 1922 they moved next door to another cabaret called So Different that had been The Grand Teddy at 24 Rue Caumartin. Thereafter, until the end of the year, they performed at the famous Le Perroquet cabaret above the entrance to the Casino de Paris along with the dancer Marion Forde.
By May 1923, and through the summer, Harcourt and Cahill were part of the cabaret programme called the Midnight Blue Cabaret in the Blue Room on the first floor of L’Abbaye de Theleme along with Rene Fagan, the Goode Sisters, Barry Barnard and the singer Dora Stroeva.
Then, in June 1923, Harry Cahill became the dancing partner of the French music hall star Spinelly in a revised version of a revue at the Theatre du Vaudeville that ran perhaps until October 1923.
At the time he was described as having been a celebrated dancer at the Coliseum in London, but there are no clues as to when this might have happened. However, very strangely he was in London at the beginning of September 1923 since he renewed his passport there on 5thSeptember and claimed he was due to visit Ireland, France Belgium Holland Switzerland and Italy. Once again he listed his residence as 44th West 10th street, which was the home of his sister Cora Collette.
What happened to Fay Harcourt is not known, but by October she was one of the stars of the Ba-Ta-Can revue entitled ‘Festival des Vedettes’ along with Raquel Meller and the Fratellini trio and was doubling in cabaret back at the Perroquet cabaret.
In the winter of 1923 Cahill and Harcourt made their way to the Riviera and became the main feature as exhibition dancers at the Cafe de Paris in Monte Carlo. Their dances were regarded as ‘charming’ and they were greatly admired as being ‘two of the best dancers seen here for sometime.’ Fay was seen as ‘sweet and attractive’ with the prettiest legs and Harry was thought to be ‘subtle to a superfine degree’ and reminiscent of Vernon Castle, but the caveat was if he was a little better looking and taller his success would be more prodigious. At some point Fay had to leave suddenly for London and her place was taken by Gaby St Quentin for a period of time.
In between dancing engagements Harry appears to have done some solo work and in February 1924 provided the entertainment with his original songs and dances at a dinner and dance given by the Beaulieu Lawn Tennis Club in the Hotel Bristol. A gigantic tennis racket and tennis ball was suspended from the ceiling and the rotunda was draped with mammoth nets sprinkled with flowers. Harry was described as ‘a type of product of the Jazz Age’ as sung in his own song ‘I have syncopation of the Brain.’
Back in Paris by May 1924, Harry and Fay formed part of the attraction at Harry Pilcer’s Rector’s club (the Acacias nightclub) that was recognized as the smart rendezvous for the Anglo-American colony.
In October 1924, Harry joined Tommy Townsend playing the piano (Tommy was or had been part of the jazz band called the White Lyres) and he sang his own songs nightly for two weeks at Harry’s New York Bar at 5 Rue Daunou. Afterward was another winter soujourn on the Riviera. Once again Cahill and Harcourt appeared at the Café de Paris in Monte Carlo along with a variety of other dancing stars including Joan Pickering and Dany Fer and Nancy Jackson. They also performed in Nice at the Majestic Hotel and Cannes through the early part of 1925 and were seen in social contexts along with other notable dancers such as Hilda Kempton, Joan Pickering, Cynthia Perot, Josephine Head, Dany Fer, Albert Zapp and Elliott Taylor. Harry was at the time admired for having the ‘happy knack of being an elegant portrayer of Russian step kicking and his high kicking is without doubt the finest yet seen on the Cote d’Azur.’
Back in Paris after their time on the Riviera, Harcourt and Cahill performed at the Montmartre nightspot of the Abbaye de Theleme with Jane Aubert in March 1925 and also appeared at the Coliseum and the L’Ermitage Champs Elysees. By May the pair were dancing at London at Chez Victor, (see the post about Chez Victor) one of the most exclusive members-only night-club in London and ‘a popular haunt with the gilded youth and flapperdom’, that had opened in August 1924. However, this was the last appearance of the pair together and Harry Cahill went off to do other things while Fay acquired a new dancing partner called Nicolas.
Harry’s song writing and singing career clearly began to take precedant over his dancing and as early as 1923 he had a big hit with the song Quand j’entends c’tair des Dolly Sisters or Syncopation (on the brain). Allegedly, the song was chosen by Maurice Chevalier as the leading song in an unspecified Parisian revue (prior to 1925) and the Dolly Sisters also adopted the piece. It had a catchy air and words that were significant and become popular in France and also in America when it was introduced in the Greenwich Village Follies. By 1925 Harry had written and composed ‘a score of other dities’ and was being described as ‘brilliant young composer’ and a ‘first rate popular song writer with originality in every line.’ It was also revealed that sometime in 1924, David, the Prince of Wales paid him the compliment in Paris by asking him to play one of his numbers twice in half an hour.
In early 1925, just before Fay and Harry parted as a dancing couple, it was announced that Harry’s most recent achievement was the creation of the greater part of the musical numbers for the Spring Revue at La Cigale where he would also appear on the stage with Mlle Gina Palerme in the lead. Among the many fascinating ‘rags’ which he had written at the time were entitled ‘A Long Way Toulon away from Broadway’ and ‘Wait a little While’. The Rip revue at la Cigale entitled Mets y tous les gaz was given an April premiere but neither Harry nor Gina Palerme were in the cast and instead the latter joined Harry Pilcer in the revue Sans Chemise at the Ambassador theatre.
Another important person that Harry met at late 1924 was the American Brooke Johns. Johns was a singer, banjo player and band-leader who had become a big star of vaudeville in America and then a star of the Ziegfeld’s Follies in 1923. He first visited Europe between July and November 1924 and performed at the Piccadilly Hotel Cabaret in London and also visited Paris at the end of his trip. It was reported by the Paris Times that Brooke Johns heard almost the entire Harry Cahill repertoire in Paris one night and liked each one better than its predecessor and wanted to use his songs. The Paris Times erroneously suggested this was for the Ziegfeld Follies but it must have been for Johns’ vaudeville tour in late 1924 and early 1925 through America. Johns was back in Europe again from August to early October 1925 with a band called the Oklahoma Collegians and performed at the Kit-Cat Club and Alhambra in London.
Allegedly, Gloria Swanson also asked Harry to write, what was called. the ‘motif’ for the Paramount picture Madame Sans-Gene that was being filmed in Paris and other scenic parts of France from October – December 1924.
In mid-October 1925, Harry was entertaining at the home of Mr and Mrs William Preston Gibson on the Boulevard Jules Sandeau. Their informal gatherings featured Harry periodically enthralling their guests with his singing and playing the piano. Nothing else is heard of him until a year later when he was seen at the re-opening of Le Grand Duc by the actress Josephine Earle in December 1926. In September 1927 he was the main performer singing at the newly opened College Inn in Paris run by the famous American personality Jed Kiley.
By March 1928 Harry was back on the Riviera in Cannes performing at the Pavillon d’Armenonville along with the dancing of Billy and June Day and music from Goulesco and his Tzigane Orchestra and the Manhattan Serenders Jazz Band.
Exactly what Harry was doing in the blank periods from 1925-1928 is not known but perhaps he was singing in Paris or touring Europe. In the summer of 1928 his sister Cora along with her husband and three children arrived in Paris presumably to visit him and they returned to New York in early July 1928. They had moved out of Manhattan and now lived in a plush detached house at 137 Manor Lane, Pelham Manor, New York. According to passport applications a visit had been planned in April 1923 but since there are no records in the passenger manifests perhaps this trip did not take place.
In November 1928, Harry was one of the entertainers at the Anglo-American Press Association annual banquet at the Lido and he was also singing onthe Chicago Tribune’s Petit Parisian wireless station with a host of others.In early 1929 he was entertaining at the Cafe des Anglais in the Carlton Hotel in the Champs Elysees where he sang and played the piano during dinner from 8-12pm. By March 1929 he was singing again at the College Inn on the left bank but at the time it was noted that he used to be at Harry’s New York bar, so perhaps this is where (uncredited) Harry spent his time during 1925-1928. Certainly by October 1929 he was listed as appearing back at Harry’s New York bar and he was also listed as being in cabaret there again in February 1930 along with the Russian Choir, Roy Barton, Paul Farrell, Curt Smith and Herschel Reiser. During December 1929 Harry was also playing the piano at dinner at the Restaurant La Petite Chaise, 36-38 Rue de Grenelle on the South bank .
In late 1930, Cora and her husband Maurice made another trip to Paris and arrived back home in New York on 9thDecember aboard the Ile de France . Just over a week later on the 22ndDecember Harry also arrived back in New York and stated he was living with his sister. His journey back home with his sister was clearly of purpose and poignant and he may well have been suffering some form of illness. In January 1932 he was singing on the radio station of WBBC-WCGU Radio, but then, tragically, on 12thMarch 1932, just before his 36thbirthday, Harry died from pneumonia in the naval hospital in Brooklyn.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1/9/12
Ottawa Citizen 14/5/14
Ottawa Citizen 2/5/14
Ottawa Citizen 14/5/14
New York Clipper 11/3/16
Boston Post 12/8/16
The Weekly Democrat Chief 28/11/18
Chicago Tribune 17/1/19
Theatre Magazine April 1919
Shadowland October 1919
New York Herald 6/5/19
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 6/5/19
Washington Post 6/5/19
Chicago Tribune 27/2/22
Chicago Tribune 4/3/22
Chicago Tribune 6/3/22
Chicago Tribune 13/7/22
Le Journal 10/7/22
Le Figaro 26/7/22
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 11/7/22
Le Figaro 26/7/22
Chicago Tribune 21/9/22
Chicago Tribune 24/9/22
Los Angeles Times 23/10/22
Chicago Tribune 16/11/22
Chicago Tribune 17/5/23
Chicago Tribune 6/6/23
The Era 6/6/23
The Tatler 19/9/23
The Sketch 24/10/23
Menton & Monte Carlo News 1/12/23
Menton & Monte Carlo News 8/12/23
Menton & Monte Carlo News 15/12/23
The Tatler 19/12/23
Dancing Times January 1924
Menton & Monte Carlo 23/2/24
Chicago Tribune 2/4/24
Chicago Tribune 14/4/24
The Bystander 14/5/24
Chicago Tribune 17/10/24
Sporting Times 27/12/24
The Paris Times 24/1/25
Dancing Times February 1925
The Tatler 4/2/25
Le Journal 4/4/25
The Paris Times 15/4/25
Daily Mirror 9/5/25
The Tatler 13/5/25
Talking Machine World 15/6/25
Chicago Tribune 20/10/25
Chicago Tribune 6/12/26
Chicago Tribune 15/9/27
Menton & Monte Carlo News 17/3/28
Chicago Tribune 6/11/28
Chicago Tribune 20/11/28
Chicago Tribune 8/1/29
The Bystander 13/3/29
Chicago Tribune 14/10/29
Le Figaro 29/12/29
Chicago Tribune 7/2/30
Times Union, Brooklyn 21/1/32
Chicago Tribune 9/4/32