THIS magnificent bronze and ivory figure by the great Romanian-born Art Deco sculptor Demetre Chiparus may not be unique – numerous editions would have been cast – but the two exotic vaudeville dancers it depicts surely were. They were the Dolly Sisters, the original dolly birds, alluringly naughty legends in their own lifetime on both sides of the Atlantic, who drove their fabulously rich suitors mad with desire.
The Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII, and his close friend Edward “Fruity” Metcalfe were both reported to have had affairs with the identical twins. Media magnate William Randolph Hearst and entrepreneur “Diamond” Jim Brady were captivated, while Harry Selfridge, the widowed American founder of the Oxford Street store, was said to “bat the Dolly sisters back and forth like ping-pong balls” between himself and newspaper tycoon Max Beaverbook.
Selfridge’s indulgence knew no bounds, He squandered millions on the twins who were
mirror images of each other and ended up bitter and impecunious in a London flat after paying their gambling debts and showering them with jewels. But then to be seen out in society with one sister was glamorous enough. To be seen squiring one on each arm was every aspiring young playboy millionaire’s dream.
And yet, it all ended in tragedy. Behind the façade of sisterly love, fame and fortune, was rivalry, disaster and tragedy.
Born in 1892 in Budapest as Roszika and Janszieka Deutsch, they emigrated to New York aged 12, when their parents’ business hit on hard times. Already keen dancers, they turned professional to help their family make ends meet and before long, they were appearing with the Ziegfield Follies. When someone remarked they looked like dolls, the name stuck. Rosie and Jenny were the Dolly Sisters and fame followed.
In May 1916 Margaret Burr of Theatre magazine wrote: “It must be admitted that the chief fascination of the twin Dollies lies not so much in the grace of their dancing, nor in the charm of their personalities, nor in the naiveté of this manner, nor yet the quaintness of their accents – sufficient as are all of these – but rather in the amazing duplicity of Nature.”
They were strikingly beautiful. Small, dark-haired and exotic, they won minor Hollywood roles and delighted audiences with guest Broadway appearances in flamboyantly extravagant identical outfits and routines, the choreography matched to perfection. It was not long before they discovered there was even more rewards to be had from wealthy admirers only too eager to shower them with gifts.
Demetre Chiparus (1888-1947) was born in Romania and schooled in Italy and then just before the outbreak of the First World War in Paris, where he was a pupil of the sculptors Anonin Mercier and Jean Boucher.
His first exhibition was at the Salon of the Société des Artistes Français in 1914. He showed a number of small sculptures in bronze and received an honourable mention, an accolade that was much coveted among the artistic fraternity. Another recipient of the award was Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Chiparus subsequently went on to experiment with the process of combining painted bronze with ivory, a technique known as chryselephantine.
The use of ivory for faces, hands and bare flesh gave the figures more natural, lifelike and tactile and adds greatly to their exotic appeal.
Chiparus became a naturalised Frenchman, married and had several children, some of whom feature in his figures.
However, he was fascinated by the dancers in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, who entertained the cafe society in Paris, Leon Bakst’s stage designs and subsequently the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 which heavily influenced his designs and subject matter.
The Dolly Sisters were a natural subject for Chiparus who was obsessed with vaudeville and the music hall.
The girls would have worked at the Follies Bergere, the Moulin Rouge and the Alcazar, each hosting sumptuous Hollywood-style productions featuring flashy costumes and dancing which Chiparus loved to visit.
His sculpture of the sisters is regarded as one of his finest and is regularly chosen to represent his work.
Some Chiparus figures were made in spelter cold-painted to represent bronze and ivorene, an early plastic, which was cast and also painted in bright colours.
Other examples of his work can be seen in the bronze figures commissioned by the firm of Arthur Goldscheider which were also reproduced in pottery.
Authentic examples of Chiparus bronzes (although by no means all) are each etched with this signature in the marble base and some show the name of the foundry where they were cast. However, there are many fakes.
Another distinguishing feature is the long slender fingers of the subjects. Look carefully and the detail of each fingernail is also carved delicately in the original, a feature the faker overlooks.
His figures were produced in three different sizes. This large size figure of the Dolly Sisters, one of only five known, measured an impressive 74cm and was sold at Bonhams in London last week for £277,250, an auction record for that particular sculpture and the most valuable of four works by Chiparus in the sale.
Despite Prohibition, their New York apartment boasted a magnificent cocktail bar and for much of the 1920s, in both Paris and London, they were continually in the news for their extravagant living, gambling, predilection for jewellery and high profile love affairs with the rich and famous. Both sisters married and then divorced, gaining huge financial settlements.
In one season’s gambling at the chic French resort of Deauville, they won $850,000, while Jenny once won four million francs (then around £80,000) in one evening in Cannes, which she converted into jewellery before going on to win another 11 million. Losses were equally substantial, but there was always a millionaire handy to pick up the tab, including King Alfonso of Spain, and his son Prince Fausto.
It could never last. Although completely devoted to one another, a degree of tension emerged between them, often as an on-going game of rivalry. At the end of 1927, after more than 20 years on stage, they retired and went their separate ways. Jenny bought a fabulous chateau in Fontainebleau, opened a couture establishment and adopted two young girls whom she hoped would become the “New Dolly Sisters”.
Tragedy followed in 1933 when, in the midst of an affair with French aviator and film star Max Constant, Jenny suffered serious facial injuries in a car crash near Bordeaux. Her financial and emotional condition was already poor and after the accident she moved back to America and sold off her jewellery – reputed to be the largest collection in private hands in the world – to pay for plastic surgery. She married attorney Bernard Vissinsky but hanged herself in 1941, during a trip to Los Angeles.
In 1943, Rosie sold the film rights to a far from accurate musical about the Dolly Sisters, but even Betty Grable and June Haver could not make The Dolly Sisters a box office hit. Rosie attempted suicide in 1962 but by then she had settled down with a new, rich husband from Chicago, confirming the generally held view that she had always been the lucky one. She died in 1970.