Glamour has always been a part of Hollywood. It’s just that the standards and the standard-bearers have changed over the decades.
Though focused on the business of entertainment, Variety was always aware of and reflected the changing face of beauty on its covers and in its pages.
The faces of the most alluring — and often the most talented — women peopled the pages of Variety from the earliest years, reflecting changing tastes, norms of decency, and inadvertently, the status of women at the time.
Ads in those early years hawked the latest miracle remedies, targeting first the folks whose job it was to look good (Hollywood actresses), then the larger population.
But things were different 100-odd years ago: It was, after all, the tail end of the Victorian era. Everyone was much more covered up, and lace was everywhere. Judging from the earliest photos in Variety, hair salons were not yet doing a thriving business but restaurants were. No one had their hair coiffed (let alone dyed) with any noticeable style, and no one looked razor-thin.
Most of the female vaudevillians or stage actresses — Lily Lena, Rena Gauffney, Margaret Webb, Maude Wolford, Dorothy Vaughn and one Estrelita — all looked, well, matronly on those 1910 covers. Almost all wore hats; cleavage was unthinkable; none wore a smile.
As for their “independence” in such a rambunctious business, that too was debatable. An early column called The Skirt, which ran in Variety for decades, had this to say on the issue on June 4, 1910:
“I heard about a peculiar complaint the other day. It was from a wife and partner in an act. She said her husband would not give her any money out of the joint weekly salary, and that she didn’t know what to do. I understand this is not an isolated case.”
The columnist went on: “I know myself that were it not for many wives, there would not be so many actors owning their homes, having a bank account, and being generally prosperous. The other side of the no-pay picture is the wife who is really the act, and the husband is lucky he is holding on by his teeth.”
Given that the entertainment world was male-dominated, this sentiment can only be construed as progressive. It came right on the eve of the suffragist movement and must have been in the air.
Ten years later, women had the vote, but little else seemingly had changed.
A column called “Among the Women,” penned by one Alice Mac, mainly detailed what costumes female performers wore onstage. It also included catty items: “A hotel in Times Square was the background recently for a lively affair, a free fight between two actresses during a card game. Yes, it was over a man.”
Female performers were still generally getting second and third billing, except for stars like Evelyn Nesbitt, Marie Dressler or Eva Tanguay, who was regularly on the front page of Variety. A vaudevillian with various talents, she was known as the “I don’t care girl,” and apparently flaunted her independence — a precursor, it would seem to Mae West or even Rosie McDonnell. Though not especially pretty, she apparently had “it.”
Others that might want to appear sexy could find all sorts of potions, lotions and notions buried deep in the hundreds of ads that filled the back pages.
One Dr. Pratt on West 34th Street in N.Y. advertised every week to remove “disfiguring wrinkles, ugly crowsfeet or unsightly flabby skin or furrows.” Another doctor in Chicago, Dr. W.E. Balsinger, touted his work reconstructing the faces of WWI soldiers in France. He promised “the proper correction of defects by a skilled surgeon.”
While the appearance of women changed noticeably during the 1920s as flappers, floozies and fun-loving types came into vogue, the treatment of women would have to wait several more decades for any radical improvement.
First in a two-part series on women in the pages of Variety.