Hildegarde (February 1, 1906 – July 29, 2005) was an American cabaret singer whose elegant piano and vocal style -- combined with flirty banter and a champagne smile -- made her an icon of nightclub sophistication for decades, From vaudeville obscurity, Hildegarde became one of the highest-paid performers of the 1940s.
Hildegarde was born Hildegarde Loretta Sell in Adell, Wisconsin as a Roman Catholic in a family of German extraction and raised in New Holstein, Wisconsin. Her father, a merchant, played the drums and fiddle and her mother was an organist who directed the church choir. When Hildegarde was twelve, the family moved to Milwaukee, where she and her two sisters participated in the school choir and orchestra. Her first desire was to be a concert pianist and she enrolled for awhile at the School of Music at Marquette University in the 1920s.. However, circumstances prevented her from continuing, so she went on to find work in vaudeville.
After several years of this, Gus Edwards "discovered" Hildegarde and sent her across the country in a travelling show. Later she went to Paris where she gave her first command performance for King Gustov of Sweden in the Casanova, a Parisian Boite. She continued to appear in many famous rooms in London, Cannes, Brussels and at private concerts.
She was known for 70 years as The Incomparable Hildegarde, a title bestowed on her by columnist Walter Winchell. She was also nicknamed The First Lady of the Supper Clubs by Eleanor Roosevelt.
She was once referred to as a "luscious, hazel-eyed Milwaukee blonde who sings the way Garbo looks". During the peak of her popularity in the 1930s and 1940s, she was booked in cabarets and supper clubs at least 45 weeks a year. Her recordings sold in the hundreds of thousands, and her admirers ranged from soldiers during World War II to King Gustaf VI Adolph of Sweden and the Duke of Windsor. On some of her recordings, she was accompanied by band leader Carroll Gibbons.
Best known for Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup, from 1934 she made plenty of other notable recordings. She introduced I'll Be Seeing You in the late 1930s; there was The Last Time I Saw Paris, recalling - from 1941 - the French capital before Nazi occupation; and she was an early English-language singer of Lili Marlene.
In the late 40's and through the 50's Hildegarde was considered by many to be the top dinner and supper club entertainer in America but it was in New York where she headquartered her performances. Her favourite prop was her handkerchiefs, of which she had a large collection of (even her table cards featured tiny hankies embedded in them). She sported stunning gowns by Fontana of Rome. Roses, long gloves and upswept hair were also personal signatures.
"Miss Piggy stole the gloves idea from me," she once said. A noted flirt, she told risqué anecdotes while giving long-stemmed roses to men in her audience. During one performance she waltzed with a U. S. Senator. Her recordings sold in the hundreds of thousands. She is credited with starting a single-name vogue among entertainers. Investments and work in ads for a bottled-water company, barley vitamins and bathtub device gave her a comfortable income through the rock era.
She appeared on the cover of Life in 1939, and Revlon introduced a Hildegarde shade of lipstick and nail polish. She was an inspiration for Liberace, who once acknowledged her influence on his performances: "Hildegarde was perhaps the most famous supper-club entertainer who ever lived. I used to absorb all the things she was doing, all the showmanship she created. It was marvellous to watch her, wearing elegant gowns, surrounded with roses and playing with white gloves on. They used to literally roll out the red carpet for her."
|Hildegarde with Harry S. Truman|
From the 1950s through the 1970s, in addition to her cabaret performances and record albums, she appeared in a number of television specials and toured with the national company of the Stephen Sondheim musical Follies. She appeared as the Celebrity Mystery Guest on What's My Line? on May 8, 1955.
Hildegarde never married although she was quoted as saying "I traveled all my life, met a lot of men, had a lot of romances, but it never worked out. It was always 'hello and goodbye.'" She was the business partner and "good friend" of Anna Sosenko whom she met at the beginning of her career. That relationship ended up in litigation over the control of receipts from their joint efforts. Her autobiography, Over 50... So What!, was published by Doubleday in 1961.
She died at the age of 99 in a hospital in Manhattan on July 29, 2005 of natural causes.
(Info edited mainly from Wikipedia & bigbandsandbignames.com)