There’s no doubt as to who forever changed Broadway in Ethan Mordden’s biography “Ziegfeld: The Man Who Invented Show Business.” Among the many questions that follow are how — and with whom — Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. did it.
In his meticulously researched and detailed portrait of the ultimate Rialto manager-producer, Mordden recalls with equal parts snark and smarts Ziegfeld’s life and shows.
Flo, as he was often called, was born in Chicago in 1867, and showcased his first find, Eugen Sandow, at that city’s World Fair in 1893. In an effort to put a spin on the expected, to “surprise and delight,” as Mordden describes it, Ziegfeld not only put the European strongman on display, he also invited women to get a backstage closeup, an edgy variation that would come to define the Ziegfeld style: Find a unique talent and then riff on an old theme to create something new.
He created his “Follies,” by adding a twist on the revue, honing the impresario skills he employed on hit tuners such as “Show Boat.” Flo helped launch the careers of Fanny Brice, Will Rogers and Bert Williams, among others, shrewdly navigating warring producer factions along the way.
Mordden is candid and conversational, but casual readers might become overwhelmed at the sheer number of names and show titles. In the end, what we know about Ziegfeld is that he possessed a certain alchemy of tenacity, great timing and true showmanship. Mordden captures the glamour, the seduction of the stage and, of course, the women who seduced both audiences — and Ziegfeld himself — through their beauty and talent.