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Gertrude Hoffman, Outlaw Dancer

Apr 21, 2011 10:40 AM | 2 comments

I wrapped up last week's introduction to the early 20th century dancer, Gertrude Hoffman, with a promise of more tales of scandal and glamour to come.  As usual, a trip to "the morgue" unearthed several gems from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  Gertrude Hoffman made her first major impression on New York audiences in 1908, when a debacle erupted over her interpretation of the "Salome" dance at Oscar Hammerstein's Roof Garden in Manhattan.  The dance was based on the biblical story of the execution of John the Baptist; more to the dismay of prudish audiences, it involved the shedding of seven veils and a love scene with a decapitated head.  (If you're wondering what's so shocking about this, you're in luck!  The Museum of the Moving Image is screening a 1923 film of the Salome dance Sunday, April 24th, at 4:30pm.  It's not Hoffman dancing, but it is still a beautiful production).  Hoffman had seen Maud Allen perform the dance in Europe, and was quick to bring the equally artful and titillating routine to the American vaudeville stage. 

A veiled Hoffman is ready for her close-up.

If the allusion to striptease inherent in the dance wasn't enough to shock audiences, the costuming surely promised to push the boundaries of public morality.  Indeed, it seemed the production was designed to induce a collective gasp.  Before the show even opened, rumors abounded in papers like the Utica Herald-Dispatch as to just how little Hoffman would be wearing onstage. 

After Hoffman began her nightly sheddding of veils, critics were focused more intently on her much-hyped costuming choices than on her dancing.  In its review of the new show, on July 14, 1908, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that Hoffman "appeared in the famous transparent drop skirt so much as been written about.  Like Miss Allan, she does not see the necessity of wearing tights, shoes or stockings, while a corselet and a few drop pearls is the only decoration used above the waist."

It was this aversion to "tights, shoes or stockings" that would get Hoffman into hot water.  On July 23, 1909, the audience at the Roof Garden held not only the usual mix of sophisticated urbanites out on the town, but also a few New York police, who waited impatiently and, we can only imagine, uncomfortably, in the wings while Hoffman finished her nightly spectacle.  As Hoffman described the incident to the New York Times the next day, she was just leaving the stage when she was stopped by Captain George Walden and Lieutenant Frank Rathgeber and asked:

"Excuse me, Miss Hoffman, but do you wear tights in your act?"

To which the dancer replied, "Certainly I do."

When the policemen asked for proof, Hoffman declined, and was promptly arrested for what the Eagle delicatedly described as "a marked lack of drapery".  The New York Times was a good deal more specific: Hoffman had violated "Section 1.530 of the Penal Code by offending public decency." 

It wasn't the first time Hoffman would be accused of dancing blissfully across the line of propriety -- in March of 1909 she had been arrested in Kansas City for performing "barefooted and bare ankled and almost bare-kneed" at that town's Shubert Theater, according to the Kansas City Journal.  Nor would it be the last.  Another police investigation came in 1917, in Chicago, followed by an arrest in St. Louis later that same year.  She was eventually acquitted of the St. Louis charges in what was seen as a victory for the arts.  As the New York Clipper optimistically reported in December of 1917, "the decision will wipe out forever the official prudery that has long made the middle west a standing joke among lovers of art."

But it is perhaps too easy to cast Hoffman as a high-minded artist suffering at the hands of a crude, unenlightened public.  In his compendium on all things vaudevillian, No Applause, Just Throw Money, Brooklynite Trav S.D. asserts that at least some of Hoffman's arrests were in fact merely publicity stunts, arranged in advance by her producer.  Although I've yet to track down the original source for this bit of juicy gossip, the tale is corroborated in Michael Capuzzo's book about a series of shark attacks that plagued beachgoers in 1916, Close to Shore: a true story of terror in an age of innocence.  (You may be wondering why Hoffman's name comes up in a book about shark attacks... well, that's a story for another day).  After looking into Hoffman's history, the faked arrests seem not only plausible, but likely.  In newspaper clippings, she often comes across as a turn-of-the-century reality star; one of those attention-hungry celebrities who is ever willing to stir up trouble for herself in slavish devotion to the idea that any publicity is good publicity.

Hoffman done up as a peacock... how fitting!

At the very least, Hoffman was a performer who never hesitated to turn lemons into lemonade (or better yet, cash; or better still, attention).  Seeking restitution for her rough treatment in Kansas City, the dancer sued those who had her arrested for $100,000 in 1909.  With a typical show of chutzpah, Hoffman promised the New York Times that she'd personally lend an "added attraction" to the trial proceedings by dancing the scandalous Salome on the courtroom floor. 


4/21/2011 6:52:18 PM #

"almost bare-kneed."  How shocking! I hope the children aren't reading this blog/


5/3/2011 10:05:20 AM #

I Can't wait for the next installment of the Gertrude Hoffman saga!