11 March 2011

Gaby Deslys

Gaby Deslys (November 4, 1881 – February 11, 1920) was a famous dancer and actress of the early 20th century from Marseilles, France. She selected her name for her stage career. It is an abbreviation of Gabrielle of the Lillies. She had many admirers among royalty, most notably Manuel II of Portugal.

Deslys heritage has been disputed. A detective employed by an imperial personage discovered that her true name was Hadiwga Nawrati. Another spelling of the surname is Hedvika Navrátilová. The investigator reportedly found that Deslys denied her elderly mother's claim to kinship when he brought her to see the dancer. Deslys paid her mother a large amount of money to leave. Deslys attempted to conceal her identity, but claimed to be of French ethnicity. The probe disclosed that she was in fact a Czech peasant girl, born in the village of Horní Moštěnice. At least twenty-four people with the surname Navratilová exerted claims to Deslys' fortune after her death.

In January 1930 the Minister of Foreign Affairs (France) said he had settled the disagreement about Deslys' birthplace. According to him Deslys was born at Marseilles on November 4, 1881. She was the daughter of Hippolyte Caire and his wife née Terras. The study alleged that the claim of the Navrátil family was based on a statement that their daughter was the double of Gabrielle Caire, and adopted the stage name Gaby Deslys. Friends of the family asserted that the original Gabrielle Caire either died in obscurity or remained alive in England.

Deslys became a celebrity following newspaper stories which gossiped about King Manuel's infatuation with her. Manuel is thought to have given Deslys a pearl necklace worth $70,000 after first meeting her in Paris in July 1909. More gifts soon followed. One was a diamond necklace with black and white pearl drops set in a platinum band. Deslys cultivated a pearl fetish. She became so absorbed in collecting them that before she died she asserted she owned her weight in them. Deslys' other suitors included American dancer Harry Pilcer, who she was rumored to have been engaged to. She denied this and other reports that suggested she had married one of her many wealthy admirers.

Before Manuel's extravagant actions Deslys was popular in the dance halls of Paris and London, England. She was a practitioner of several types of dance i.e. Ju-Jitsu waltz, Ballroom, Grizzly Bear, Turkey Trot and her most famous The Gaby Glide. Her appearance at the Liverpool Olympia was also well received. She had been to the United States where she had earned $4,000 per week. She was dedicated to the art of dancing. At least a part of her popularity was a result of her desire to please the audiences who came to watch her perform.

While she was dancing at the Hyperion Theater at Yale University, in November 1911, students rushed the stage. The Yale News had complained about ticket prices for the production being raised to $2. The performance followed the Yale - Princeton University football game played earlier the same day. The inflated price of admission is thought to have triggered the students to pull the seats to pieces and proceed with the outbreak. Deslys retreated to her room while stage hands used fire extinguishers to subdue the students.

The same month Deslys performed at the Winter Garden Theater in a production of Vera Violetta. In 1913 Deslys appeared with Al Jolson (in blackface) in the musical comedy "The Honeymoon Express". On a number of occasions she appeared at the Grand Casino in Marseilles. Her final performance there was in 1919. Her passion for Marseilles was matched by her animosity toward her critics among French editors. One of her most prominent detractors was Ernest Charles. She sued him for $50,000 francs in August 1912. She at first considered hiring a groom to horsewhip Charles before her lawyer advised against it.

Deslys from the beginning of her career had posed for numerous still photographs. These stills, as with many other actresses, were sold as part of cigarette packages or after performance lobby cards aimed at patrons, usually male, who wanted a take home keepsake of their favorite performer. Deslys loved the camera and it loved her. She began her movie career in 1914 with Rosy Rapture, a short film based on the play of the same name she appeared in in England. This film according to IMDb had a scene with George Bernard Shaw in it.

Her American feature film debut came in 1915 with Her Triumph costarring her dancer boyfriend Harry Pilcer. The film was presented by Daniel Frohman and produced by Famous Players-Lasky. Her Triumph featured Deslys doing one of her famous dances with Pilcer. The film is lost but surviving stills show a scene with Deslys and Pilcer and also the intro card with Deslys's picture in the credits. Deslys made only two more French silent films in 1918 and 1919, both with Harry Pilcer in the cast, before getting the illness that would take her life.

Deslys contracted a severe throat infection caused by influenza in December 1919. She was operated on multiple times in an effort to eradicate the infection, on two occasions without the use of an anaesthetic. Surgeons were inhibited by Deslys' demand that they should not scar her neck. She died in Paris in February 1920. Thus her unique talents and persona could not be recorded for posterity by motion pictures as sound film didn't arrive until 1926 with the Vitaphone shorts.

In her will Gaby Deslys left her lovely villa on the Marseilles Corniche Road, and all of her property in Marseilles, to the poor of Marseilles. The property was valued at half a million dollars. Her carved and gilded bed, in the form of an enormous swan, was bought at auction by the Universal Studios prop department, and was used in the 1925 film of "The Phantom of the Opera". In 1950 it was in "Sunset Boulevard" as the bed of Norma Desmond.

source: Wikipedia

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