Anna Held was a performer with a flamboyant reputation for bathing in milk and champagne. An actor in numerous farces, comedies, and musical comedies, her life was a story of showmanship that prevents bibliographical certainty.
The date and place of Anna Held’s birth are shrouded in mystery, confusion or vanity. They range from March 18, 1865, in Warsaw, Poland, to 1878 in Paris, France, a thirteen-year difference. That she was born in Warsaw on March 18, 1873, may be most accurate. Held was the youngest and only survivor of eleven children. Her parents were Maurice (or Shimmle), a glovemaker, and Yvonne (or Helene) Pierre. Some sources suggest that both her parents were Jewish, while one source states that her mother was Catholic.
The Helds moved from Warsaw to Paris as early as 1871, but most probably in 1876. Anna Held sang in the streets at age eight. After her father died in 1884 or 1885, she and her mother moved to England, where they were befriended by an actor in Jacob Adler’s Yiddish Theatre. Shortly thereafter, her mother died.
Upon leaving the Adler company, Held capitalized on her tiny five-foot-tall, 115-pound body. With her corseted eighteen-inch waist, she played the precocious gamin with a come-hither look. Returning to Paris, she quickly became a star of light comedy. Around 1894, in France, she secretly married Maximo Carrera, a fifty-year-old South American. They had one daughter, Liane Carrera (b. 1896), who also became a stage performer.
In 1896, Held was courted with rare orchids and a diamond bracelet by twenty-five-year-old Florenz Ziegfeld. That year, she divorced Carrera and moved to the United States. Again mystery shrouds the union of Held and Ziegfeld. They had a common-law ceremony and lived together from 1896 or 1897 to 1908 or 1909. A divorce was granted in 1913. Ziegfeld’s second wife, Billie Burke, described Held as “frugal, domestic, and maternal.”
From 1896 to 1918, Held acted in numerous farces, comedies, and musical comedies and promoted the Ziegfeld Follies. She made her American debut at the Herald Square Theater in New York on September 21, 1896, in A Parlor Match, Ziegfeld’s revival of a farce. In New York, she performed in the Lyric Theatre, New York Casino, Knickerbocker Theater, and Broadway Theater. Her style was suggestive, mocking, and playful.
Held’s mythical exploits included capturing a runaway horse, daring American women to drive fast, and bathing in gallons of milk. She wore flamboyant costumes and Parisian gowns. She became an early product endorser: There were Anna Held corsets, face powder, pomade, and cigars. She made one movie in 1915, Madame la Presidente.
Held was ill for the last six months of her life. The initial diagnosis, multiple myeloma, was changed to pernicious anemia complicated by acute bronchial pneumonia. A publicity diagnosis was “lacing too tight with corsets.” Anna Held died on August 12, 1918.
AJYB 6 (1904–1905): 113; Burke, Billie. With a Feather on My Nose (1949); Farnsworth, Marjorie. The Ziegfeld Follies (1956); Held, Anna. Memoires (1954); Hoffman, Michael Owen. “Anna Held: A Biography.” Master’s thesis, Portland State University, 1982; NAW; Obituary. NYTimes, August 13, 1918, 9:3; Sandrow, Nahma. Vagabond Stars (1977); WWWIA 1.