Anna Held—the First Star of Ziegfeld Follies

Whatever she lacked in talent, she more than made up for with her spectacular looks and playful flamboyancy. With her hourglass figure, flirty personality, and love of show business, Anna Held completely captivated America’s collective imagination as one of the turn-of-the-century’s most glamorous stars. The original leading lady of the Ziegfeld Follies and the first wife of Flo Ziegfeld, Anna personified the allure of Broadway and the naughtiness of Paris.

Florenz Ziegfeld constantly kept her in the spotlight by feeding the media stories of her unusual habits such as bathing in milk and in champagne. To make sure her milky white skin was constantly talked about, he started a rumor that the milkman was suing him for unpaid bills. It was later revealed that the milkman was paid to file a suit for non-payment and that he didn’t even know about Anna Held and her marble complexion.

Though the whole world (with the possible exception of the milkman) seemed to know that Anna Held bathed in milk, nobody knew the year she was born. The dates range from 1865 to 1878—a thirteen-year span! Another unclear fact about her life is her birthplace, which was either Warsaw or Paris. Whether both of her parents were Jewish or just her father is another unknown. She started her acting career in Yiddish Theater but soon moved on to performing on various European stages. Her exquisite looks and tiny waist made her into a star and attracted powerful men. After a short marriage to Maximo Carrera, a 50-year-old South American playboy, she caught the eye of 25-year-old Florenz Ziegfeld, who would change the course of her life forever.

The union of Ziegfeld and Anna Held was both a common-law marriage and a show business collaboration. She became a star of the Ziegfeld Follies and a darling of showbiz. In fact it was Anna who suggested to Ziegfeld to produce the Ziegfeld Follies—an American version of the Parisian Folies Bergère. Ziegfeld made sure she was talked about by constantly creating publicity stunts and scandals. Anna Held quickly rose to national fame and became an early version of an influencer: there were Anna Held corsets, face powder, pomade, and cigars.

In New York Florenz Ziegfeld and Anna Held lived in a 13-room suite in the Ansonia Building. Their ninth-floor apartment was decorated with a practically life-size, solid gold statue of Ms. Held. On the 10th floor of the same building resided another Folly’s star and mistress of Ziegfeld, Lilian Lorain. Hoping to save the marriage, Anna Held chose to ignore his indiscretions, but alas, it didn’t work. Ziegfeld left Anna and married yet another star of his Follies, actress Billie Burke.

Anna Held, the original star of the Follies, died in 1918. Her age—like her birthday—remains unclear, as well as the cause of her death. While creating a fuss around her during the time they were married, Ziegfeld had promoted a story that her famous 18-inch waist was achieved by the removal of a rib. This fact was cited as a possible cause of death, although it was possibly just another tale contributing to her legend.

The only thing we know for certain about Anna Held is that she possessed breathtaking looks—her eyes were beautiful, her waist was tiny, and her skin was as white as marble. She probably did indeed bathe in milk.

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