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The Ziegfeld Club

by Laura W. Haywood

 

I was born in 1938 — well after the days of the Ziegfeld Follies. Nevertheless, I was a member (albeit honorary) of the Ziegfeld alumnae association.

Back in the 1960's, I worked for a company that represented newspapers (I was the only woman repping papers in New York at the time, and was not a big hit at agency meetings — the boys felt constrained not to tell their dirty jokes) and published several trade magazines, including one that went owners and operators of resorts. The advertising manager (he and I were both stage struck) of the publication decided it would be a good idea to have a column featuring nightclub entertainers, and I got the assignment.

Since I don't drink, I rarely went to nightclubs, but I found another way to locate acts. I went to Broadway shows and read the actors' bios before the curtain went up. I made a mental note of the ones who had done nightclub work, watched for them in the show, and if they were good, I wrote asking for a photo and resume. (If the performer was a really cute guy, I sometimes asked to interview him.)

In time, I made enough contacts that I was able to see the shows without paying, and people knew I was looking for nightclub acts and sent referrals. One of the referrals led to my being able to see a private show that the magicians union puts on for its own members. It was a spectacular.

Another referral led to my meeting Mignon Laird, who had appeared in the Follies. It is one of the great regrets of my life that I didn't see her act. She danced while playing the harp. When I have an occasional bout of insomnia, I spend the time trying to figure out just how in hell she did that.

Mignon used to join us for Christmas dinner and her contribution was an imitation of Nazimova doing a play about a Gypsy woman spurned by a non-Gypsy man. She gave it everything she had and it brought down the house.

Mignon was a very interesting woman. Her father had been a doctor in Oklahoma and he made his rounds by train. At each stop, he put on a show in which Mignon was the child star, and then treated his patients before moving on. There is an airport in Cheyenne, Oklahoma, that is named for Mignon Laird. She wanted me to write the story of her life for American Heritage, and I would have loved to do it, but Mignon had a severe allergy to naming any dates that might reveal her true age.

It was Mignon who got me into the Ziegfeld Girls Club and I used some of the ladies who were still performing in my column. The highpoint of my membership was attending the 'girls' annual fashion show. The girls had to be in their sixties by then, and the fashions all required drop-dead figures, but most of the girls had maintained their shapes. You'd never guess the age of most of them. Many had also married well and could afford the clothing being shown. It was humiliating. I was thirty years younger than the girls, and didn't look as good as most of them.

Before the show started, however, there was a moment I'll never forget. A magnificent woman entered, and a hush fell over the room as she made her way to her chair. The woman next to me leaned over and whispered, "She was the original Tondelayo in White Cargo." She was gorgeous, magnificently dressed, and sporting a dazzling assortment of diamonds. She was still a star.

From that day on, my ambition in life was to look like a Ziegfeld alumna when I hit my sixties. And I succeeded. Unfortunately, the Ziegfeld girl I wound up looking like is Fanny Brice.

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