Peggy Fears: Ziegfeld Girl, Producer, Queen of Fire Island

Peggy Fears as a Ziegfeld Girl.

This is a guest post is by Maya Cantu,
a dramaturg, scholar, theater historian and director.
The Ziegfeld Club is the sponsor
of The Marbury Project through December 2015.

Jeweled and be-feathered, looking as if they’d just “stepped out of a dream,” the Ziegfeld Girls were the most fabled group of women in early-20th-century America. Half girls-next-door, half glamour goddesses, Ziegfeld Girls — many of whom sprang from humble backgrounds and European immigrant families — seemed to live out a glittering fairy tale (as I discuss in my book American Cinderellas on the Broadway Musical Stage: Imagining the Working Girl from Irene to Gypsy). If stereotypes were to be believed, the Ziegfeld Girls glided down narrowly defined paths: discovered by Hollywood to become movie stars; married to millionaires to live happily ever after; dying young, broke and in obscurity. But as the archives of the Ziegfeld Club reveal, these stereotypes and tabloid morality tales fail to capture the rich complexity and sheer variety of the lives of these showgirls and chorus girls of Florenz Ziegfeld’s revues and musicals.

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Take the extraordinary Peggy Fears, who appeared in four Ziegfeld productions between 1925 and 1927, when she married a millionaire, A.C. Blumenthal, and dabbled in the movies, then produced four Broadway shows, including a Preston Sturges’ play, Child of Manhattan (1931), and Kern and Hammerstein’s Music in the Air (1932). Indeed, not long after Ziegfeld’s death, theater critic Percy Hammond nominated Fears as his “candidate for the Ziegfeld flambeau” and “the most solvent and intrepid of the newer impresarios.”

Peggy Fears ProfileThat was Fears’ professional side. At a time when the Ziegfeld Girl connoted feminine heterosexual glamour, she pioneered New York’s underground lesbian community, building the Fire Island Pines into a glamorous gay resort in the 1950s. A flamboyant figure — appearing at opening nights with a lightning-streak of grey in her auburn hair and a “spectacular repertory of fur coats” — Fears was a driven and accomplished woman who flouted stereotypes at every turn.

From a young age, Fears displayed a headstrong nature. Born in New Orleans, she moved to Dallas, where her father managed the Dallas Credit Clearing House. By her own admission, she was a wild teenager who was “suspended seven times from the same school.” At 15, she eloped with Tom Wharton, the playboy son of an eccentric cattle heiress, only to have her father annul the marriage a day later and send Fears, who was already stage-struck, to New York’s Semple School.

Her father, of course, forbade his daughter to pursue stage work. But Fears resolved to escape boarding school and join the Ziegfeld Follies, which drew thousands of young women to audition every year, a small fraction of whom were interviewed by Ziegfeld himself, as Fears recalled:

I had read how Mr. Ziegfeld picks his girls, and I made up my mind to get his attention if possible…For days, I kept going to his office, and then an odd thing happened. I started to get on the elevator one day, and someone else collided with me. It was no one more nor less than Mr. Ziegfeld himself.

In the 1926 Ziegfeld revue No Foolin'.
In the 1926 Ziegfeld revue No Foolin’.

Soon, Fears was a chorus girl in 1925’s Louie the 14th, which featured music by Sigmund Romberg. From there, she rapidly ascended the ranks. First, Ziegfeld moved her to the Follies of 1925, where she became the inseparable companion (and rumored lover) of the formidably intellectual Louise Brooks, a featured dancer in the Follies and on the brink of Hollywood stardom. Fears also lived out a show business myth: the chorus girl going on for the star. When singer Vivienne Segal fell ill, Fears was summoned by Ziegfeld and told to go on. Fears was petrified, but her friend and cast-mate W.C. Fields fortified her from a well-stocked bar in his wardrobe trunk. She was promoted to “prima donna” rank in the Follies and appeared in Ziegfeld’s Palm Beach Nights in Florida. After a Warner Brothers screen test fell through, she returned to the Ziegfeld fold for 1926’s No Foolin.’ The New York Sun described Fears in that show as “a vivacious, refreshing sprite who sings and dances charmingly.”

Also charmed was the aforementioned Blumenthal, a business associate of Ziegfeld and flamboyant New York Mayor “Gentleman Jimmy” Walker. “Blumey” tirelessly pursued Fears until she married him in 1927, living out yet another myth: the Ziegfeld Girl who marries a millionaire, despite a closeted identity as bisexual.

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In 1931, Peggy announced her production of Sturges’ play, a slangy romance about a Manhattan playboy who, according to critic Hammond, “falls in love with a trampled Cinderella of the dance halls” As a rare female producer on Broadway, Fears joined a small circle that included Bessie Marbury (the Marbury Project’s namesake), Rosalie Stewart, Cheryl Crawford, Theresa Helburn and — a few years later — Billie Burke Ziegfeld, who produced the 1934 and 1936 Follies. While some Broadway insiders viewed the beautiful and well-appointed Fears as a dilettante, Child of Manhattan earned her strong reviews as a young producer with a keen sense of stagecraft. Hammond wrote:

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The production is the initial enterprise of Peggy Fears and it is marked by a worthy cast of actors and collection of (scenic) backgrounds in many ways superior to the drama itself.

In the Depression, was Fears depressed? Hardly. She stunned Broadway by announcing a half-dozen new plays and musicals that she intended to produce. In The New York Sun, Ward Morehouse marveled:

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If the astonishing Miss Fears of Dallas continues with her play-buying and she actually produces all the properties she seems to have acquired, Broadway will cease to worry about its untenanted playhouses.

In the Herald Tribune in 1932 with fellow Broadway star Lenore Ulric.
In the Herald Tribune in 1932 with fellow Broadway star Lenore Ulric.

With Music in the Air, Fears found herself atop “the season’s first unquestioned musical smash,” as Variety reported, praising her “showmanly skill.” The tuner delighted audiences as a witty backstage operetta about Munich musicians and showfolk, featuring a tuneful, tightly integrated score in the Show Boat narrative tradition. Curiously, Fears’ owed this success to Ziegfeld’s untimely 1932 death, after which Blumenthal picked up management of a Show Boat revival and Fears assumed Ziegfeld’s option on Music in the Air.

Her decline as a Broadway impresario was as sudden as her rise: when her marriage to Blumenthal crashed, so did her producing funds. It’s a story underscoring the reality that for many women in the theater in the early 20th century (and for many Ziegfeld Girls), economic agency and professional success were tied to issues of beauty, sex and alliances with rich, powerful men. Fears would only produce two more plays: A Divine Moment, in which she starred, and The Day I Forgot, which bombed in London and led Blumenthal to withdraw all support for her.

For the rest of the ’30s, Fears pursued an independent career. She starred in a Hollywood movie capitalizing on her Follies glamour as Gaby Aimée, “the most talked-about woman in Paris” in 1935’s The Lottery Lover. By 1938, the tabloids were tsk-tsking Fears for being “down to her last string of pearls” and singing for her supper in nightclubs like New York’s Rainbow Room and Miami’s Palm Beach Club, where, as a worldly chanteuse, she crooned “April in Paris” and “Speak Low.”

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By the 1940s, Fears entered the circle of prominent lesbian and bisexual women of letters and theater seeking summer recreation (and refuge) at Fire Island’s Cherry Grove. Along with Cheryl Crawford, Nancy Walker and Carson McCullers, Fears became involved with the Arts Project of Cherry Grove, which historian Carl Luss describes as “the nation’s first gay summer theater in America’s first gay town.” The Arts Project presented witty, intimate revues both inspired by, and different from, the Ziegfeld Follies fairyland. Fears appeared in The Cherry Grove Follies of 1948, among other shows that featured risqué skits and, not infrequently, drag performances.

Tedi Thurman.
Tedi Thurman.

Also during this time, she met the love of her life — a woman who, like Fears, physically embodied midcentury ideals of non-threatening feminine beauty. Tedi Thurman was a statuesque, five-foot-seven redhead who later became famous as the weather-reporting pin-up on NBC news-variety show Monitor. Over sultry music, Miss Monitor lounged and purred the weather report in a sex-kitten voice, all the while quipping lines like “I know what you want. You want me to tell you about the weather. In New York, it’s 74. And me, I’m 36-26-36.”

With Thurman as her lover and companion, Fears, looked down the beach at Cherry Grove toward the Pines, determined to grow it into a ritzier summer resort. And that it soon became, attracting a Who’s Who of Broadway and Hollywood. In 1953, Peggy built the original Fire Island Yacht Club and Botel, which drew Marilyn Monroe, Judy Holliday and a circle of gay theater figures from Tennessee Williams to Jerome Robbins. Although many of the gay men and women who visited the Pines remained closeted in the midst of McCarthyism and homophobia, Fears helped set the stage for the more open gay activism that followed in the 1960s and beyond. As Fire Island Pines historian Robert Bonanno describes, she would call the Pines “one of my nicest productions.”

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Thinking back on a remarkable career that encompassed roles as a Ziegfeld Girl (who “met a big financier”), Broadway producer, almost-movie star, down-on-her-luck nightclub singer and Fire Island icon, Fears might have felt frissons of recognition in Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here” from the musical Follies (1971):

First you’re another sloe-eyed vamp,
Then someone’s mother,
Then you’re camp.

Not only would Fears have identified with the song, a 1971 Chicago Tribune article announced that Follies’ director, Harold Prince, “is giving Peggy the title of ‘Technical Adviser and Special Promotions Director’.” It was her final part: she died in Montrose, California in 1994.

In 2015, with so many brilliant women taking the creative lead on Broadway, Off-Broadway and regional theater, Fears must be credited as one of many undersung pioneers who blazed paths for women in the American theater.