b. Helene Anna Held, 18 March 1872, Warsaw, Poland, d. 12 August 1918, New York City, New York, USA. Driven from Poland by anti-Semitic pogroms, the Helds took refuge in Paris in 1881 and following her father’s death she and her mother moved to London in 1884. She did some theatrical work in London but was soon back in Paris where she sang in restaurants. In 1895, in hurried succession, she married, had a daughter, converted to Catholicism, and firmly set her past behind her. Her correct year of birth is only one of many cloudy matters. While appearing in London in 1896, she was seen by Florenz Ziegfeld who asked her to star in his next New York production. Eager to escape her gambler husband, Held took the job. She and Ziegfeld lived together almost from the start and following her 1897 divorce did so openly. Held’s Broadway debut, A Parlor Match (1896), was undistinguished, but Ziegfeld’s publicity campaigns ensured her stardom. She appeared in a succession of Ziegfeld shows, including Papa’s Wife (1899), Mam’selle Napoleon (1903), The Parisian Model (1905), and Miss Innocence (1908).
Held’s relationship with Ziegfeld was important to him for her sophistication and theatrical knowledge. It was she who suggested to the impresario the concept of the Follies with which his name is inextricably linked although she herself never appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies, the first edition of which opened in 1907. Ziegfeld and Held had a troubled relationship, exacerbated by his womanizing and gambling. She had become independently wealthy and carefully secured her fortune against Ziegfeld who had become her common-law husband in 1907. During the next few years, Ziegfeld’s open affairs with showgirls, notably Lillian Lorraine, took their toll and he and Held legally separated. Following the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Held returned to Europe and visited troops in the trenches. Back in the USA, she appeared in a silent film, Madame La Presidente (1916), and then returned to Broadway in Follow Me (1916), which was produced by Ziegfeld’s chief rivals, the Shubert Brothers. When its Broadway run ended, Held went on the road for a year with Follow Me before collapsing on stage in Milwaukee. Back in New York, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, and died soon afterwards. When Hollywood made The Great Ziegfeld in 1936, Luise Rainer won an Oscar as Best Actress for her portrayal of Anna Held.