Wigs, corsets and kings

SHOWGIRLS by Andrea Stuart Cape pounds 18.99

"All the great Parisiennes I have known," Mistinguett was told by Edward VII, who had enjoyed the company of many in his time, "have been either great ladies capable of behaving like actresses, or actresses capable of behaving like great ladies." The King had a rather narrow view of Parisian society, but he did appreciate that it offered women certain opportunities. Mistinguett ("absolutely, genuinely" Parisienne, as Edward assured her), had managed to escape from her father's cafe in Enghien into the demi-monde of the Parisian showgirl, on an escalator that could carry one upwards into the company of kings or directly down into the gutter.

The ambivalence was part of the allure. The brothel in the Belle Epoque was decorated in the same (regal) red plush and gold paint as the theatre or the music hall, and put on a rather similar show, with women feigning different tastes to appeal to different sexual needs. Unlike the actress or the prostitute, the showgirl had no precise job description, but existed in an undefined space between the other two, acting out the fantasies of her audience without openly offering herself to satisfy them; the uncertainty about her private morals fuelled the fantasy.

She needed no asset except an attractive appearance, and the first thing that strikes one about Andrea Stuart's book is that none of the seven she chooses to epitomise the profession is properly speaking a showgirl. Mistinguett, Colette, Josephine Baker, Barbette, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West and Marilyn Monroe each had other talents. The showgirl ceases to be one when she marries the prince or distinguishes herself in some other way.

One of the seven was actually a man. Barbette, the tightrope walker, would perform his act in drag, then conclude by removing his wig and female clothes. There is nothing paradoxical in including him here: as Andrea Stuart argues, he could be considered the most authentic showgirl of all. For if the showgirl's act consists in inventing a version of femininity to excite the fantasies of her male audience, then Barbette, whose femininity was entirely the product of art, might well be more perfect than a natural woman. This was Cocteau's argument.

Stuart intercuts brief lives of her seven subjects with broader reflections on their significance, linking Mistinguett to changing concepts of the city under the Second Empire, Colette to the sexual ambivalence of the demi-monde, Baker to notions of the exotic, and so on. "When it comes to blacks, the imagination of white folks is something else," Josephine Baker remarked.

Famous for her banana-dance and typecast in her unmemorable movies as a semi-naked savage, Baker came in reality from the East Side of St Louis, Missouri. She would eventually be awarded the Legion d'honneur and the Medaille de la Resistance, in recognition of her work during the Occupation. Of course, her first arrival in France in the mid-1920s was the occasion for some blatantly racist comments in the press, and there were elements in the way that her body was exploited, to appeal to the imagination of white folks, that most people now would find distasteful, but Stuart does not work herself up into a fury of belated indignation about it. She knows, as Baker herself did, that the climate in France was a good deal more favourable to black performers than it was in America, and that successful showgirls are women who exploit an exploitative system and turn its mechanisms to their own advantage. It is noticeable that all except Monroe survived to respectable old age.

Stuart avoids becoming embroiled in the question of whether these women were betraying the wider cause of their sex. She has tremendous admiration for all of them: for their courage in defying convention, for their talents, for their ability to invent and reinvent themselves. It is a pity that she did not have the services of a careful copy-editor or proofreader to avoid a number of glaring mistakes, and she could have paid more attention to the difference between the theatrical world of her first four showgirls and the cinema milieu to which Dietrich, West and Monroe chiefly belonged. But this is a readable and thought-provoking book, the product of wide- ranging research, which justifies its implicit claim that the showgirl is worthy of close inspection by sociologists, feminists and cultural historians as well as by middle-aged men with opera glasses.

Books about Monroe always contain some never-before-seen testimony or photograph, and their authors have usually "been silent up to now". George Barris took the last pictures of Marilyn on Malibu beach (above) on 1 June 1962. During the shoot she talked about her life, and his notes and comments make up Marilyn in her Own Words (Headline pounds 14.99). Jock Carroll's Falling For Marilyn (Virgin pounds 14.99) shows the young star on the set of Niagara, her first starring role. Carroll was doing a photospread for a Canadian magazine, and 40 years later his record was disinterred from the files. The photographs are enchanting, goofy and gorgeous by turns: remember her this way. Matthew Smith's The Men Who Murdered Marilyn (Bloomsbury pounds 16.99) posits the fatal enema theory, as evidenced by the empty stomach and the purple-stained colon. Yuck.

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