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02 January 2015

Gaby Deslys

French dancer and actress Gaby Deslys (1881-1920) was an internationally celebrated - and notorious - star of the early 20th Century. She was famous for her extravagant clothes, jewels and millinery. 'The Charm of Paris' had many admirers, most notably King Manuel II of Portugal. And before her tragic, early death she also made a series of silent films.

Gaby Deslys
Italian postcard by Alterocca, Terni, no. 6144.

Gaby Deslys
French postcard.

Gaby Deslys
French postcard by SIP, no. 1537. Photo: Stebbing, Paris.

Gaby Deslys
British postcard in the Philco Series, London, no. 3265 E. Photo: publicity still for The New Aladdin, produced at the Gaiety Theatre, London, in 1906. Gaby was 'The Charm of Paris'. The New Aladdin was produced by George Edwardes and ran for 203 performances.

The Ju-Jitsu Waltz


Gaby Deslys was born in the French harbour city Marseille as Marie-Elise Gabrielle Caire in 1881, but during the latter part of her life and after her death, this identification was put under scrutiny. (Wikipedia claims that she was Czech peasant girl, born in the village of Horní Moštěnice under the name of Hedvika Navratilova).

She selected the name Gaby Deslys for her stage career - an abbreviation of Gabrielle of the Lillies. She started her career in 1898 in the Folies Bergères in Paris. Gaby was dedicated to dancing, and loved to please the audiences.

In 1906 she travelled to London and appeared at the Gaiety Theatre in The New Aladdin and performed the Ju-Jitsu waltz. She was nicknamed 'The Charm of Paris'.

Deslys became an international celebrity following newspaper stories about King Manuel's infatuation with her. He is thought to have given Deslys a pearl necklace worth $70,000 after first meeting her in Paris in 1909. More gifts soon followed.

In 1911, she appeared on Broadway at the Winter Garden in Vera Violetta. In 1913 she starred in The Honeymoon Express which also featured Al Jolson (in blackface) and a young Mae West. Gaby’s costume gowns attained almost as much attention as she herself did. She is credited for introducing the first Striptease number in a Broadway Musical.

She returned to Paris with American dancer Henry (Harry) Pilcer, who she was rumoured to have been married to. Pilcer created her most famous dance, The Gaby Glide, which she performed in Europe and in the United States. They became the most popular dance couple of the music-halls of Paris.

With her ostrich feathers and sexy costumes, Gaby Deslys introduced a new style. She also introduced the first Jazzband to Paris: Alexander's Ragtime Band.

Gaby Deslys
French postcard by E.P.

Gaby Deslys
British postcard by Rotary Photo, no. 4125 B.

Gaby Deslys
British postcard in the Lilywhite Photographic Series, Halifax, no. L 28. Photo: Claude Harris.

Harry Pilcer and Gaby Deslys
With Harry Pilcer. British postcard by Rotary Photo, no. 11843 V. Photo: Foulsham & Banfield.

Severe Throat Infection


In London Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie was so smitten by Gaby Deslys that he wrote a one-act play for her, Rosy Rapture, at the Duke of York's Theatre. This became also one of her first films, A Rosy Rapture (Percy Nash, 1914).

Deslys loved the camera and it loved her. From the beginning of her career she 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 favourite performer.

Other short films followed like the French La Remplaçante/The Substitute (René Hervil, Louis Mercanton, 1914) with Jean Angelo. In 1915 Gaby Deslys and Harry Pilcer filmed for Famous Players Lasky in Paris Her Triumph (1915).

A feature film with the couple was Bouclette/Pincurl (René Hervil, Louis Mercanton, 1918), written by French avant-garde director Marcel L’Herbier who also co-starred.

In Dieu du hasard/God of the chance (Henri Pouctal, 1919) Gaby appeared with Félix Oudart, Georges Tréville and Harry Pilcer.

She graced the cover of Pictures and the Picturegoer magazine in 1915, and Erté did a serigraph painting of her.

On a number of occasions she appeared at the Grand Casino in Marseilles. Her final performance there was in 1919. Deslys contracted a severe throat infection caused by influenza. She was operated on multiple times in an effort to eradicate the infection, on two occasions without the use of an anaesthetic, but she died in Paris in February 1920 at the age of 38.

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

Gaby Deslys was portrayed by Tamara Toumanova in Deep in My Heart (Stanley Donen, 1954).

Gaby Deslys
Austrian postcard by CP, no. 2465/66. Photo: E. Veit, Wien (Vienna), 1910.

Gaby Deslys
French postcard by Cinemagazine-Edition, no. 9. Photo: Eclipse.

Gaby Deslys
British postcard by Rotary Photo, no. 11843 Q. Photo: Talbot, Paris. Collection: Didier Hanson.

Gaby Deslys
British postcard in the Cinema Chat series. Photo Chas Urban Trading co.

Sources: Wikipedia, Dance History Archives, National Portrait Gallery and IMDb.

3 comments:

Marie Reed said...

I am left speechless! What a life she had.... filled with intrigue,fame, and sparkling talent! Do you have most of these films too in your personal collection? I seriously want to come knock at your door someday!

The postcards are priceless too! I undertand your passion for them!

MuseSwings said...

That may very well be the 70K necklace she's wearing in the top picture. What an interesting story! Happy PFF!

Linda said...

Fascinating. I'll have to look for that swan bed when I see Sunset Blvd.