Cabaret Performer Hildegarde Dies at 99

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 1, 2005

Hildegarde, 99, the cabaret sensation whose elegant piano and vocal style -- combined with flirty banter and a champagne smile -- made her an icon of nightclub sophistication for decades, died July 29 at a hospital in New York. The cause of death was undisclosed.

From vaudeville obscurity, Hildegarde became one of the highest-paid performers of the 1940s. Specializing in such wistful songs as Jerome Kern's "The Last Time I Saw Paris" and Noel Coward's "I'll See You Again," her substantial recording career, high-profile musical engagements and onstage charm brought her such nicknames as "The Incomparable Hildegarde" and the "First Lady of the Supper Clubs." The second came from another first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.

Entertainer Bobby Short, long a fixture at Manhattan's Cafe Carlyle, found Hildegarde's act "produced down to the last sigh, even to the blue spotlight that brought out the color in the red roses that invariably sat by her piano."

Few were flashier and more conspicuous about clothing than Hildegarde, although she noted a fondness for $6 shoes because "nobody can see them anyway." A Catholic, she gave her old gowns to poor priests to make vestments and once told an interviewer, "The brocade and velvet one work best."

Much of Hildegarde's image and refinement had to do with her early manager, Anna Sosenko, with whom she formerly shared a 10-room apartment in Manhattan's Plaza Hotel, surrounded by masterpieces by Renoir, Manet and others.

Sosenko wrote Hildegarde's signature song, "Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup," and tried to shroud the Wisconsin-born Hildegarde in publicity that lent her an exotic allure. She planted stories in the media about such implausibilities as an elderly Swedish monarch going gaga for her.

A noted flirt, Hildegarde wore long, white gloves ("Miss Piggy stole the gloves idea from me," she once said), and told risque anecdotes while parceling out long-stemmed roses to men in her audience.

During a performance in Washington, she nestled up to a dour-looking Sen. John L. McClellan (D-Ark.) and waltzed with him while she whispered for all to hear, "Oh, Senator, you're entrancing. . . . You dance so beautifully. . . . Darling, you're terrific. . . . Why go back to the Senate. . . . And where's your wife?"

Wise investments and work as a pitchwoman for a bottled water company, barley vitamins and bathtub device called the PercussOwhirl provided her with a comfortable income through the rock era.

The daughter of German immigrants, Hildegarde Loretta Sell was born Feb. 1, 1906, in Adell, Wis., and raised in Milwaukee. She played piano for silent film showings to pay her way through Marquette University's music school.

She hoped to be a concert pianist but in 1926 saw an act at a Milwaukee theater called Jerry and Her Baby Grands, featuring four women playing four baby grand pianos. "I was overwhelmed and visualized that I would be one of them," she told an interviewer. To get the attention of the act, she banged out a hot rendition of "The 12th Street Rag," the tune that she later said "got me into show business and out of Milwaukee."

While staying at a boarding house in Camden, N.J., she met Sosenko, an aspiring songwriter and the daughter of the owner. With a handshake, they formed a business partnership that lasted two decades. Their friendship dissolved amid circumstances that never were made clear publicly.

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