Times Square Tintypes: Florenz Ziegfeld

Sidney Skolsky was a former Broadway press agent turned columnist who made his living writing profiles he called “tintypes” of Broadway figures like Flo Ziegfeld (see below), Eddie Cantor, and Irving Berlin. In 1932, he moved west to Hollywood, where he continued as a columnist and became a movie producer as well (some claim it was Skolsky who first nicknamed the Academy Award “Oscar”).
But his book Times Square Tintypes, which was published in 1932, collected his Broadway columns, and like In Your Hat, the 1933 tell-all memoir by Sardi’s Hat Check Girl to the Stars, Renee Carroll, it’s a great time-capsule look at an exciting era in New York City cultural history.
The introduction that precedes the book’s first chapter below was written by Gilbert Wolf Gabriel, who worked with Skolsky at the Evening Sun. Gabriel went on to write for Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and many other publications. He eventually became a drama critic of some note.


I am not here to introduce Mr. Skolsky, the author of these subsequent sketches. Like all true biographers, Mr. Skolsky has a passion for self-effacement. He will hiss me for disclosing him in even the most general terms.
It is my theory that all good Broadway columnists—a race apart—are small of frame, soft of voice, racy with all the sophistication of the naïve-at-heart, with eyes that are incurably big with the wonder and glee of what they see in that fabulous district, the vicinity of Times Square. Mr. Skolsky is a favorite Broadway columnist, and he looks his likable part.
On The Sun, we used to leave Mr. Skolsky to his own sly devices. It would be better fun to wait and see what new personality he’d choose to lightning-sketch and pin up on the New York sky line each succeeding week. He was—still is, in his new-found quarters on The News—inexhaustible about that business. His world brims with possibilities for his peculiar sort of portraiture. His asylum of the great and the near-great will never run empty. He will always, I”m sure, greet every up-and-coming understudy with her literary tintype before she is six paces on her way to stardom.
The charcoal with which Mr. Skolsky draws is a native product. It can be made out of nothing else than Broadway’s compressed soot. And he wields it with a hand grown exceedingly quick and sure in the nervous racket of Broadway crowds. His wit has the telegraphic tempo which insures clean and telling strokes, and I have yet to see a single smudge of dirtiness in any of his shadows. More astounding still, he does without malice . . . in a territory where malice is both the coin and the curse of the realm.
I cannot remember that any of the ladies, proverbially famous for vanity, took exception to their Skolsky portraits. One, perhaps two, inordinately modest gentlemen did. Why, I can’t guess. He did them most merciful justice, and for his kindness was once imprisoned in a slowly descending elevator with a subject so indignant that Mr. Skolsky was momentarily expecting a shove to the bottom of the shaft. Broadway has its battlefields and its war crosses. Columnists must sign their ease and prepare to be first casualties.
But the larger, more constant embarrassment of this gallery of well-knowns must have been, not indignation, but, on the contrary, supplication. No sooner was Mr. Skolsky’s series a pronounced success—and it was such a success much sooner than it was a series—than the coy requests began to pour in. He was invited, advised, urged, begged to grow staccato concerning the semi-private lives of almost every semi-private person in New York.
He had me always wondering how he escaped wasting time and space on opaque and uninteresting third-raters. Until I saw that the fun lay all in Skolsky himself, and that he has his own happy way of turning kithen-maids into Columbines and dullest dogs into blue-ribbon wonders of the Broadway age.

*   *   *   *   *


Florenz Ziegfeld. That’s his real name. His father was Dr. Florenz Ziegfeld, founder of the Chicago Musical College. His mother, Rosalie de Hez, a French girl. He was born in Chicago, March 21, 1869.
His telephone bill is $10 a day.
Likes to munch sweets. Generally carries a small box of candy in his pocket.
Can’t sleep after six in the morning. Starts his day’s work in bed. With a masseur working on him, he dictates telegrams. Only one-third of the telegrams he writes are actually sent.
Talks with a nasal tone. Which is mimicked by some of his stars behind his back.
Whenever he goes on a long trip he takes along his own chef and his own food in a special car.
His theatrical fame and fortune really started on July 8, 1907. It was then he produced his first Follies. It was presented in the theatre now known as Loew’s New York Roof.
Knows more ways of escaping process servers than any other man in the world.
He can’t keep a secret.
Wears lavender-colored shirts, pointed perforated shoes, usually brown, and a hat that costs $40. In the winter he always wears a heavy beaver coat. He hates evening clothes and seldom wears them.

Is an expert tangoist. And in his youth won several prizes for his ballroom dancing.
The one thing in life he can’t stand—it drives him nuts—is the sound of drums.
Anna Held was his first wife. He is now married to Billie Burke. The thing he cherishes most is their daughter, Patricia, age thirteen. One day she tried to catch a butterfly and failed. The next day he bought a $500 collection of butterflies for her.
At rehearsals the brim of his hat is turned down. And he wears a brown sweater vest.
Is a wizard with a rifle. Owns about forty guns. Often will stop at a shooting gallery and win a bet from an innocent friend who doesn’t know this.
His monument is his theater. He hates to be reminded that the letters “Ziegfeld Theatre” over the marquee are removable.
On his desk there are two gold-plated Continental type telephones. They were made especially for him when he complained that he couldn’t hear over the ordinary French phones. The gold is polished daily.
Elephants are his luck charm. Always carries a jade elephant in his vest pocket.
He owns three cars. A Rolls-Royce, a Hispano-Suiza and a Ford. Has the same license number on all his cars every year.
In his office, on a table in the middle of the room, there is a bronze bust of himself. Next to it is a crystal ball and some elephants of varying sizes. Whenever he is perplexed about something he looks at the statue of himself and rubs the crystal ball with his right hand.
He doesn’t know a laugh until someone else laughs.
His pet enemy is Arthur Hammerstein. One day, outside of the New Amsterdam Theatre, a man hit him over the head with an umbrella. To this day he insists that the man mistook him for Arthur Hammerstein.
If his show’s a hit he sends the author gardenias.
His home at Hastings, N. Y., called Burkley Crest, cost nearly a million dollars. The bathroom alone cost $20,000. He has a live bear there and a doll’s house (almost large enough to live in) for Patricia. As you enter the estate three parrots greet you by saying: “Hello. Hello. Hello.”
Is always pessimistic about new shows. His nickname is “Gloomy Gus.”
He uses one perfume, an especially mixed scent called “Parfum Ziegfeld.” Uses it to scent his theater just because his nostrils are used to it. He never stopped to think his audience might not like it.
His daughter Patricia gets a percentage of every show he produces.
Thrives on publicity. Would rather go to court over a bill and gain the publicity than to pay it immediately. One day he sailed for Europe when an international affair held the front pages. Two days later his press agent received this cable: “Why did you sneak me out of America?”
Loves to go fishing and hunting. His favorite pastime, however, is pitching horseshoes. Every Sunday he sees about seven feature pictures at home in his private theater.
Another of his recreations is yachting. Has a change of apparel for each shift of the wind. Sails gayly down the coast while one of his cars follows along the shore, waiting for him to tire of it.
He has very tender skin on his face. Almost like a baby’s. Always gets shaved in his office. He doesn’t want men in public barber shop to see him bleed.
When courting Billie Burke he used to meet her secretly in Grant’s Tomb.
If he likes you he is not at all a bad guy.
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