My Great-Grandmother Was A Showgirl

Eventually the city life took its toll and although she met some of the great actors of the time, she fell in love with a French artist; they married and moved to New Hampshire. She soon stopped dancing and became a mother and wife, choosing virtual obscurity over the possibility of fame had she stuck it out in New York a little longer.

By the time my father knew her, the Alzheimer’s had already set in and her husband was long dead. She was living in an elderly home in Concord, NH where she’d spend her days rocking in a chair always with a baby doll cradled in her arms. On days when she was lucid, she’d break out one of the exquisitely elaborate headdresses from her days as a Ziegfeld Girl, but since those lucid days of awareness were few and far between, the headpieces usually just remained in her closet collecting dust like any memory that has seen better days.

I love both these women and these stories so much, because I can see a lot of myself in them. One was deemed insane, but before she could be trapped in a cage, in a place where she was probably too fragile to have survived, she escaped. Although no one will ever know what became of her, whether she died shortly there after or did go on to live a very long and happy life under the guise of someone else, for me, she is a true example of creating something else for yourself when the one you’ve been presented with isn’t working out so well – as did Mary. Mary came to this city where dreams either flourish or die on these hard sidewalks. And although she didn’t make a name for herself in the world’s eyes, to us, her family, she will always be a star.

I know the New York and Brooklyn she knew then are a far cry from the ones I know today, but I like to believe that occasionally I step somewhere exactly where she once did. I like to hope that those in my family who come after me will recall me in the same light even if I do end up walking away from this place someday. I think we all leave a lasting impression here; and whether or not we ever know it, New York City is a better place because of each and everyone of us who have walked these dirty, nasty, gum-stained streets. I like to think Mary would agree.


Photo: Ziegfeld Follies1912 (advertising art via Wikipedia)

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    • Ellen W.

      She left Allentown for Broadway! It doesn’t matter if it’s the wrong Allentown, it’s still 42nd street!

      • Amanda Chatel

        Very true! Even if it was short-lived… but I guess NYC does that to a lot of people (most of us.)

    • winifred beckmann

      my grandma was a ziefeld girl too they probably dance together and i also have a few pictures maybe she is in one of them.

      • Amanda Chatel

        I would love to see them, if you’re willing to share! As I said (evil) aunt swiped everything… I only have photos of her as an oldie but goodie. Email me some, maybe?

        Perhaps they were buddies…

    • Sugar

      My great grandfather was in NYC at that same time. He once inadvertently helped bank robbers escape when their car broke down. Ha!

      • Amanda Chatel

        If Mary was anything like me she probably dated one of those bank robbers… silly Chatels.

    • holleeta

      How long as your family been in this country for? I always assume that those with familial roots in New England have centuries of history with the States.

      • Amanda Chatel

        I’m not sure to be honest… but I think a long time on my dad’s side. I know we had one ancestor who was killed by a Native American… something my father thinks is great considering what the “white man” did to them… and, as a liberal, I agree, natch.

        I can’t believe I actually used “natch.”

        My mom’s side, which is Irish, doesn’t go back too far. My great-grandfather on that side was born in Ireland, came here and married a Swede. What is with Chatels and Swedes?!

      • Sugar

        Maybe it’s because Chatel is Swedish?

      • Sugar

        Ok, wow, that’s not what I meant to type. Ugh.

      • Amanda Chatel

        Such a typo, Sugar!

        We’re French… we just love the Swedes for some fucked up reason. Or at least two members of my family loved two particular Swedes, so maybe saying we love all Swedes is a stretch.

        I do not like Ikea. Or ABBA.
        I do love Håkan Hellström and Tiger Lou… and maybe an occasional Swedish vodka.