Was Cabaret Singer Hildegarde the Most Romantic Wisconsin Woman of All Time?

Hildegarde

Imagine the lights dimming at a Wisconsin supper club. People dining on prime rib and sipping on brandy old fashioneds look up to see a striking blond take the stage.

Wearing glamorous and slightly seductive clothing, she sits down at a piano surrounded by roses.

With a twinkle in her eye and a bit of mischief in her smile she begins to play love songs and sing in a sweet voice – a voice that a TIME magazine writer once described as sounding the way Greta Garbo looks.

This is “The Incomparable Hildegarde” – an almost forgotten Wisconsin legend – and this is her story.

How a Small Town Girl Became an International Star

Hildegarde with autographShe was a vaudeville performer, a nightclub headliner, a radio star and a fashion icon. She traveled the globe flirting with politicians and European royalty.

Hildegarde is even credited with being the first celebrity to go by a single name.

You could call her one of the original divas. and she comes from humble beginnings in rural Wisconsin…

She was born Hildegarde Loretta Sell in 1906 to German immigrant parents who lived in the Sheboygan county village of Adell. Hildegarde’s family then moved to the Fox Valley community of New Holstein where she spent her childhood.

In her autobiography, Hildegarde writes about how her family opened a general store in New Holstein. According to her, the store was also the first soda fountain and ice cream parlor in town. She says the soda tank had to be rocked back and forth on a rocking chair to create the carbonation.

Music was all around her during those days. Hildegarde’s mother played the organ and directed the church choir while her father played both the drums and fiddle.

Her family moved to Milwaukee when she was a teenager, and Hildegarde decided to pursue a career as a musical performer. She enrolled in the School of Music at Marquette University with the goal of becoming a concert pianist and played piano at silent movies to help pay for her education.

But Hildegarde’s classical training would be interrupted by the lure of the limelight…

One night in Milwaukee, the young Hildegarde witnessed a vaudeville performance featuring four women playing four baby grand pianos together. She was blown away, and she knew she was meant for this type of show business.

In the mid-1920s she joined Gus Edwards’ vaudeville troupe and began playing piano in the orchestra pit. But the true twist of fate would come when Hildegarde met the woman who would shape her career – Anna Sosenko.

Hildegarde was an ambitious performer and Anna Sosenko was determined to become an established songwriter. The two met at a boarding house in New Jersey and formed a partnership that would last for more than two decades.

Sosenko wrote Hildegarde’s signature song, “Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup” among many other tunes. But perhaps more importantly, Sosenko helped build the image that would turn her friend into an international superstar.

Watch Hildegarde Perform “Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup” in 1935

It was Sosenko who suggested Hildy (as she was sometimes called)  start wearing extravagant clothing such as expensive dresses and long, elegant gloves, which she often wore while she played piano. This gave the singer the glamorous look that became one of her trademarks.

When the pair left America for performances in Europe, Sosenko acted as an incredible publicist. She communicated with newspapers back in the U.S., telling them of how European dignitaries were becoming enamored with the rising star. The press back home ate it up. As Monica Gallamore wrote in her dissertation on Hildegarde for Marquette Univeristy, “Hildegarde left the U.S. as a vaudevillian and returned a chanteuse.”

Another big break for this Wisconsin girl came when Life magazine featured her on the cover. The article helped propel Hildegarde into a full-blown American celebrity.

New York City gossip columnist Walter Winchell gave her the moniker “The Incomparable Hildegarde,” while Eleanor Roosevelt once called her “The First Lady of Supper Clubs.”

Hildegarde was viewed as exotic – partly because of her accent – which sounded slightly foreign. But as Gallamore suggests in her paper on the performer…

“The exotic and mysterious accent which lent an air of mystery to Hildegarde’s persona was in reality nothing more than the lingering sound of her hometown of Milwaukee and her German parents. The audiences didn’t know the difference.”

Hildegarde went on to become one of the highest-paid live performers of the 1940s.  She continued in show business well into her 70s and even made appearances at the age of 88.

Watch Hildegarde Performing Late in her Career

Hildegarde’s Enduring Pop Culture Legacy

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Hildegarde looking a little like Miley Cyrus

Before there was Cher, Madonna or Beyonce – there was Hildegarde. She started the trend of celebrities who are known by just one name. But that’s far from her only impact on the American cultural zeitgeist.

Her career is full of so many “firsts” it seems rather shocking that Hildegarde’s legacy is not more well-known. This lack of acknowledgment is a running theme in Gallamore’s in-depth dissertation on the star.

Hildegarde was one of the first people ever to perform on broadcast television. She even got the nickname “Television Girl” because of it. She was a trendsetter when it came to fashion as well, claiming to be the first woman to wear a strapless dress in America. She was listed as one of the “Best Dressed Women in America” on several occasions.

Billboard called her “America’s No. 1 Songstress” in 1945, and ratings showed that at one point, she was second only to Bing Crosby in terms of popularity among audiences in the United States.

Also in 1945, her radio program – Hildegarde’s Raleigh Room was the eighth most popular in the nation. It was even said that movie ticket sales suffered on the nights her radio program aired.

She was a celebrity spokesperson too – helping to sell bottled water, cigarettes, vitamins and more. Revlon even introduced a shade of lipstick and nail polish called “Hildegarde Rose.”

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Liberace

Gallamore writes that Hilldegarde was the first artist to have what we’d now call a “hit record.” She recorded “I’ll Be Seeing You” a popular war-time song that she typically used to close out her shows.

That closing song became a regular number for another flamboyant pianist – Liberace.

While he claims he tried not to copy Hildegarde’s style, she was obviously a major influence. Of course, just like his inspiration, Liberace was also a Wisconsinite from the Milwaukee area.

In Hildegarde’s New York Times obituary, Liberace is quoted saying…

“I used to absorb all the things she was doing, all the showmanship she created. It was marvelous to watch her, wearing elegant gowns, surrounded with roses and playing with white gloves on. They used to literally roll out the red carpet for her.”

By the 1950s, Hildegarde had become one of the most-impersonated acts in the country. In fact, she may have even inspired the persona of one of the world’s most-famous pigs.

“Miss Piggy stole the gloves idea from me,” she once said of the Muppet character with some striking similarities. Miss Piggy was also a singer in a vaudeville type setting who frequently spoke in broken French and had a chic fashion-sense.

A Woman of Romance and Mystery

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Hildegarde Give a GI a Kiss

Hildegarde made a career out of romance and sex appeal. But her own love life and sexuality is as mysterious as the persona she and Anna Sosenko created.

She was known to flirt with men in the crowd during performances – handing out long-stemmed roses to her admirers. And she would give special attention to members of the military.

Famously, she once started waltzing with grumpy-looking U.S. senator John McLellan of Arkansas. As her Washington Post obit tells it, she whispered things like “You dance so beautifully…Why go back to the Senate..And where’s your wife?” so that the everyone could hear.

Somewhat sexy storytelling was also a part of Hildegarde’s act. Her so-called “risque anecdotes” and jokes in which she poked fun at herself stood in stark contrast to how women of that time period were supposed to behave.

Hildegarde never married, though she did claim to have quite a few relationships saying…

“I traveled all my life, met a lot of men, had a lot of romances, but it never worked out. It was always ‘hello and goodbye.'”

As the story goes, two notable men who were potential suitors included the Duke of Windsor as well as Sweden’s King Gustaf VI Adolph who demanded to see her again after a performance at the Casanova Club in Paris.

But according to others, many of those stories may have been somewhat embellished by Anna Sosenko. And in fact, Sosenko herself may have been the closest companion in Hildegarde’s life. Some in the LGBT community even call them the first openly lesbian couple in entertainment. The suggestion of a romantic relationship between them has never been definitively proven

The two women did share an apartment together, but disagreements caused them to part ways in the mid 1950s. It’s unclear exactly what caused the break-up, but the two remained bitter about it for some time.

Decades later, the two friends were able to “bury the hatchet” as Gallamore explains…

“The truth was that Anna and Hildegarde knew each other better than anyone else in their lives. They had shared too much, had too much success and lived together for too long not to have remnants of that intimate connection that otherwise proved elusive for them both in later years.”

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Hildegarde on her 75th birthday

Hildegarde passed away in 2005 at the age of 99. During her lifetime, she saw so much change in the world of entertainment – not to mention the world in general.

She is without a doubt one of the most-colorful characters in Wisconsin history. It’s a shame that she is not remembered the way she should be, and it’s confusing as to why her influence on pop culture is not recognized more often.

This was a Wisconsin woman who was bold and daring, beautiful and talented, smart and successful. She could be romantic, funny and enigmatic all at once.

While she may not have had the storybook romance many dream about – she certainly lived a romantic, and very full life. It was a life that started right here in the Fox Valley.

Whether or not she found her true love or not – her performances show that she certainly seemed to understand love. And perhaps the biggest love of her life was the audience.

She loved to perform. She loved to make people smile. She found her passion in life and she made the most of every opportunity.

Do You Remember Hildegarde?

We’d love to hear more about this unique Wisconsin personality.

If you have a story about Hildegarde, or remember seeing her perform, tell us about it in the comments below.

Want to learn more about her? There’s a treasure trove of information in Monica Gallamore’s publication Introducing the Incomparable  Hildegarde: The Sexuality, Style and Image of a Forgotten Cultural Iconavailable online from Marquette University. You can see more photographs on the Hildegarde Facebook Fan Page.

For one last video treat, watch Hildegarde’s appearance on the classic TV game show What’s My Line.

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Comments

  1. Yes, Hildegard is my town’s only claim to fame: ADELL

  2. Hildegarde was one of most influential popular vocalists of the pre-rock era,especially noting her popular night club work in pre-WWII europe /Noted in my new book ‘Just Remember This’/Colin Bratkovich

  3. Lin Golab says:

    My father, Ernie Davidson, was an Australian Songwriting Pioneer. He composed his first song titled ‘Mon Coeur t’Appelle’ in 1945 after he saw the movie ‘Love and Hisses’ in which Hildegarde introduced the song ‘Darling Je Vous Aime Beacoup’ He composed the music for more than 300 popular songs between 1945 and 1995 including the first ‘all Australian’ song reviewed and listed by American Billboard on 31 January 1948. His song titled ‘Kiss-Kiss-Kissin’ in the Corn’ (lyrics by Australian Ken Taylor) was recorded in USA twice in 1947 and again in 1948. Hildegarde will remain an absolute icon in our family. My father adored her. She was his inspiration. She was an absolute superstar. Loved and remembered always.

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