Elegant star of Thirties cabaret known as 'The First Lady of Supper Clubs'

Hildegarde Loretta Sell (Hildegarde), singer and pianist: born Adell, Wisconsin 1 February 1906; died New York 29 July 2005.

One of the greatest stars from the halcyon days of cabaret, Hildegarde was always billed as "The Incomparable", and she truly was. Not only did her choice of material reflect a connoisseur's considered selection - the works of Tin Pan Alley's finest, with a little special material, a little risqué fare and some international items to showcase her linguistic ability - but her appearance was always the epitome of chic.

She wore gowns designed by the best, and in the Thirties that meant Adrian, the famed MGM stylist who dressed Garbo, Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer. Long white gloves were mandatory, and there was always a bowl of American Beauty roses on her piano. She played that instrument too, as well as singing in her silken, wide-ranging voice that was so pleasing to the ear. Her critics - and there were some - complained that she was pretentious, that a girl from Milwaukee had no right to display such sophistication, and impressionists had a field day satirising her elaborate presentation, with complex lighting effects that cast huge shadows, but she was always the first to laugh at herself: "I always appealed to the champagne rather than the Coca-Cola set."

In 1961 a proclamation was issued by Eleanor Roosevelt declaring that henceforth Hildegarde would always be known as "The First Lady of Supper Clubs". Nearly forty years later, Hildegarde was one of a quartet of stars who were saluted by the magazine Vanity Fair. Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt and Julie Wilson were the others who joined her, billed by the journal as "Sophisticated Ladies - four legendary cabaret stars who have defied time and age to light the New York night".

Adell, Wisconsin, was where she was born to German Catholic parents in 1906 and named Hildegarde Loretta Sell. Her first name was picked by her mother, after a character in a book she was reading while pregnant. She grew up in a musical atmosphere - her merchant father played the violin and drums, and her mother was a church organist and choir director. When she was 12, the family moved to Milwaukee, where Hildegarde continued to sing in the choir and play in the school orchestra. She worked briefly as a sales assistant in a Milwaukee department store, then played the piano accompanying silent films while studying at the School of Music in Marquette.

A vaudeville theatre director heard her play and was impressed enough to offer her a job, so she abandoned her music course and left town to play in his 12-piece orchestra. In 1928 she joined a vaudeville piano act, Jerry and her Baby Grands, touring with them for two years, then she worked as an accompanist for several acts, including the dancer Tony de Marco and singer Ruth Etting. In 1932 she was staying at a boarding house in New Jersey when she became friends with the landlady's daughter, an aspiring song-writer named Anna Sosenko who asked Hildegarde Sell to accompany her to New York, where she could perform Sosenko's songs for publishers.

Sosenko also became her personal manager, and secured her an audition with the singer, composer and impresario Gus Edwards, who gave her a role in his revue, Stars on Parade, and persuaded her to adopt a single name. The following year, while singing at the Hotel Pierre, she was asked to audition for the prestigious Café de Paris in London, and although her month-long engagement was only mildly successful, she and Sosenko went to Paris and began to learn how important glamour and elegance were to a cabaret performer.

An appearance at the Café Casanova there set her career on its prime course. Prince Gustav of Sweden saw her, and requested her reappearance. Soon she was the toast of Paris and London, with her fans including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the Aga Khan, the former King Alfonso of Spain and Noël Coward. Throughout the rest of the Thirties she appeared at the smartest clubs in Europe, though she always acknowledged her debt to Anna Sosenko, who was not only her lover for over 20 years, but helped create her chic image and wrote the song that was to become her signature tune, "Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup". "I made her a sensation before she was a sensation!", said Sosenko.

Part of the initial plan was to make Hildegarde's background a mystery - a French newspaper called her a "little Hollander" and a Dutch paper called her "a Viennese star". In England, where she was particularly popular, the press called her "an American with a French accent". In 1934 she was commanded to perform at a gala for the Duke and Duchess of Kent's wedding, and she was the only American invited to sing for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth after the coronation in 1937.

She made her first recording (for Columbia, in London) in 1933, the year in which she also made her screen début in a Pathé Pictorial short. In 1935 she had a hit with a recording, inevitably, of her signature song, accompanied by Carroll Gibbons and his Orchestra. Several of her early recordings were made with Gibbons (another expatriate American), including "This Year's Kisses", "So Rare" and "Love Walked In", with an occasional novelty number, such as "Listen to the German Band" to showcase her versatility.

She appeared in the film Music Hath Charms (1935) with Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra, and had a role in the West End revue Seeing Stars, with Florence Desmond, Leslie Henson and Richard Hearne. (Ironically, a decade later, Desmond would delight audiences in the United States with her impression of Hildegarde's nightclub act, starting by entering with an armful of dying zinnias, which she dumped on the piano as she sat and haltingly picked out the keys to play a Rachmaninoff prelude.)

Hildegarde was particularly popular on radio, and it was her many appearances on the BBC (always heralded with the strains of "Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup") that attracted the attention of NBC, and the offer of a contract for her own radio series took her back to the United States. A recording deal with Decca resulted in several best-selling discs, including an album of six songs by Vernon Duke.

Many of her best discs were conducted by Harry Sosnik, who from 1941 was her musical director on both radio and records. These included her movingly plaintive but unsentimental rendition of Kern and Hammerstein's "The Last Time I Saw Paris", and another song of particular resonance during the war years, "I'll Be Seeing You". The columnist Walter Winchell described Hildegarde as "the girl who sings like Greta Garbo looks!"

In 1942, she made her Broadway début with a starring role in Keep 'Em Laughing, designed to give cheer to wartime audiences. Her co-stars included Victor Moore, Jack Cole and his Dancers, and Zero Mostel in his Broadway début. In one of her numbers, "Something About a Soldier", Hildegarde effectively involved the soldiers who always formed part of the audience.

Her recording career continued to flourish with such songs as "(All of a Sudden) My Heart Sings", "My Cousin in Milwaukee" and the anthem of parted wartime lovers, "Lilli Marlene", which was popular with servicemen of all nationalities - Hildegarde's version is completely different from the equally famous one by Marlene Dietrich.

But it was in the setting of cabaret that she shone most - always soignée, in elegant gowns and elbow-length gloves, she would usually flourish a large silk handkerchief to dramatic effect. Her lighting arrangements included a blackout in which flattering coloured spotlights would pick her out, and she encouraged audience participation with her special "Tinkle Club", which called for customers to tinkle their spoons in their glasses at appropriate moments. Best of all, she sang literate and melodic songs with clarity, respect and an engagingly smooth timbre, a voice thankfully preserved on dozens of recordings. The sheet music for her songs, along with her handkerchief and gloves, is on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.

Although she retired for the first time in the Fifties, she carried on performing for many more years. (Her autobiography, published in 1962, was entitled Over 50 - So What?) She holds the record for the most performances by any star in the famed Persian Room of the Plaza Hotel in New York, and in 1980 she was touring in the nostagia show The Big Broadcast of 1944. In 1993, at the age of 87, she was still singing, and delighting packed audiences, at the Russian Tea Room in New York.

Tom Vallance

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