Gaby Deslys, 1881-1920: Material Girl

Norman Douglas on the subject of Menton writes in passing that the Riviera seems to have produced no persons of note other  than Andrea Doria and Gaby Deslys.

Clearly a joke that left them in the aisles in 1922, but hers was not a name I was familiar with. My wife, given the name without context, thought she might have been be one of Yves St Laurent’s muses.   Good guess, but wrong.

She was a dancer and and chanteuse and one of the most notorious stage presences of her day.  The Madonna of the aughts and teens,  making up for modest innate talent with colossal work ethic and a flair for publicity.  A multi-millionaire at the time of her death, she hung her numerous hats on the Corniche (229 Avenue Kennedy, Marsailles) in the sort of place that might entice even Gerard Depardieu back to France.

Born Gabrielle Caire in Marseilles to a moderately successful textile merchant family and trained at the local conservatory in singing, at which she excelled.  Art was calling for her, but how best to express it?

“I knew well enough that  I would never be a tragedienne or comedienne…My style was a kind of mixed salad that was out of place in classic theater.  I therefore considered the options and common sense told me to get out of theatre and turn to the music hall.”

So off to Paris in 1899, where she adopted the stage name Gaby Deslys and started in the chorus line.  Off hours she spent learning how to dance, and by dint of hard work and professionalism and simply being there, she got a break with small roles that lead to bigger roles that led to local stardom and a headliner at the Olympia.

She was also no fool.  She knew the value of publicity and was keenly aware that the camera loved her. Pictures of her suited to every taste from Coy to Come Hither to Zut Alors!  flooded the market.

Local success in her case was capable of transplanting, and so from Paris to England in 1905, to Portugal in 1909.


It seems that King Manuel II, all of age twenty, had fallen for her, and fallen hard.  He said it with pearls rather than diamonds, allegedly in a necklace worth some $US 70,000 – enough to get any girl’s attention.  Gaby was soon to be seen at the royal residence at the Palácio das Necessidades.  Local Lisbon papers were discreet on the matter, and she herself was never one to kiss and tell (people will talk more if you maintain a dignified silence), but the rest of the world press couldn’t get enough.

Still, a girl must work, and revolution was in the Portuguese air, some said in part due to her.  She was advised to leave town quietly.  The king was to give up his throne in 1910.   As to their little romance, alas, it was not to be, cherie, and she was back on the boards in Paris and London.

Don’t cry for her. She found solace in an affair with Gordon Selfridge, another giver of pearls. (He also set her up in a London house, furnished by, where else? Selfridges.)

In 1911 Lee Shubert came to Paris to sign her on, and succeeded at the staggering sum of $US 4,000 a week.   A sensation at the Winter Garden Theater, she earned yet more newspaper ink  when the undergraduates of Yale University, outraged at the 2 dollar a ticket price for her show, tore up the seats and otherwised trashed the Hyperion Theater.   (So much for the originality of rock and roll fans.  Oh, and there was also a PR concocted “secret marriage” to her frequent co-star Harry Pilcer when the Yale story went stale.)

Such was life for an international superstar, a paripatetic mixing it up with leading lights.  In 1913, J.M. Barrie saw her on stage and immediately besotted, invited her around to tea (!) and proposed writing a stage play for her, much to the shock of his more respectable theater friends. I mean to say, the woman had appeared on stage without sleeves!   Her dance the Grizzly Bear was banned in Philadelphia!  She was French, dammit!  Nothing dismayed, he crabbed out “Rosy Rapture, the Pride of the Beauty Chorus” for her, a west end popular if not necessarily critical success the vehicle for her first film (bit parts for George Bernard Shaw and G.K.Chesterton of all people) presumably lost (please correct me if I am wrong).

She worked with such up and comers as Maurice Chevalier and a young Al Jolson, who matched her limited acting talent with his mugging and upstaging.   She got Mae West fired from the 1912 Broadway show Undine for wearing a Deslys trademark headpiece before the real start went on.   In the strange rumor department, there was the allegation that she was in fact Hedwig Navratil (a Czech doppelganger), or that Hedwig was she, or that one or the other had been a spy for the allies during the war – all very tangled, and well disentangled here.

Even through the war years was playing both sides of the Atlantic, to such success that she was able to grow the personal fortune and indulge extravagant tastes in clothing, jewelry, real estate and furniture (her swan shaped bed eventually turned up in the Phantom of the Opera and Sunset Boulevard).  In 1918, she was able to buy that house on the Corniche.

Alas, the following year she came down with the Spanish flu.   She survived the disease, but it left her with a persistent throat infection which several operations (two allegedly without anaesthesia) were unable to eradicate.  She died of it, leaving a fortune that brought out vultures (the Navratils again) who claimed  that the stuff was rightfully theirs.

The will left her jewels to the poor of Marseilles.

Well, again, not a name I was familiar with, though I gather it does live on in the form of the Gaby Glide, popular dance of the era, and more lastingly, of a classic cocktail, to whit, the Gaby Des Lys:

  • 1 jigger (1/ 1/2 oz)  gin
  • 1/2 pony (1/2 oz) orgeat
  • 1 scant tsp absinthe

Shake, then strain into a Manhattan glass

Now that absinthe is making a comeback, maybe she can too.  She did make some recordings, after all.  In any event, to be remembered for a cocktail, well, not a bad legacy. Not bad at all.

(As to Manuel – in 1913, he married Princess Augusta Victoria of Hohenzollern  (1890-1966).  He died in 1932 in Twickenham, of all places, without issue.  No call backs to the throne of Portugal, and no cocktail either.)

Gaby Deslys: A Fatal Attraction by James Gardiner


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