1895 – Polaire's first visit to New York
Translated from French by Ms Rita Lamb

1895 – Premier séjour de Polaire à New York
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Like almost all those who are interested in or have written about Polaire, we have always believed that she went to New York for the first time in 1910, arriving on June 4 aboard the transatlantic La Savoie and returning to France on August 2 aboard the Kaiser Wilhelm II.

But in October 2010 we received an email from a Ms Rita Lamb in which she asked us if we had information on a stay Polaire might have made in New York in 1895. Attached to this email was an article from The New York Times dated October 15, 1895.

The New York Times – October 15, 1895

Proctor's Pleasure Palace. – « [...] Mlle. Polaire, the French singer, has become a great favorite at this house, and yesterday she sang some new songs, which were thoroughly appreciated by the large audience present. »

In her email, Ms. Lamb pointed out that «[in] editions of The New York Times there are several brief references to the appearance of an entertainer called "Mlle Polaire"». And indeed, after searching on the site of the U.S. daily, we found six articles mentioning a singer named Polaire.

The first is the one we have quoted above. The second, dated October 20 1895, states only that in addition to "Weber & Fields's company [which] will appear at Proctor's Pleasure Palace this week
[...] [there] will be George Lockhart's comic elephant, Mlle. Polaire, the French singer; the daring Zalva trio...".

On October 27, 1895, Polaire is mentioned again briefly:

The New York Times – October 27, 1895

Proctor's Pleasure Palace – « George Lockhart's performing elephants continue their wonderful performances at Proctor's Pleasure Palace. Other foreign importations on the bill are the Zalvas and Mlle. Polaire, who has become a great favorite with the audiences. »

On November 5, 1895, a journalist from The New York Times writes that "se-veral favorites [of the Proctor's Pleasure Palace] remain over. The new French singer, Mlle. Polaire, is one of them."

In its edition of November 17, 1895, The New York Times tells us that Polaire has moved from the Proctor's Pleasure Palace venue to that of Koster & Bial's. «This Week at Koster & Bial's the new features of the programme will include the first public appearance in America of Lorenz and Kennedy, in their "mysterious mental telegraphy," and the first appearance here [at Koster & Bial's] of Mlle Polaire, "chanteuse excentrique". (1) »

(1) In French in the text

The New York Times dated November 19, 1895, mentions Polaire again. She is described by the journalist as "one of those Parisian importations".

The New York Times – November 19, 1895

Koster & Bial's – «Mlle. Polaire was a new performer. She is one of those Parisian importations known as "chanteuses eccentri-ques (sic)." Everybody who has been in the up-to-date New-York music halls knows what this means.»

Although these articles seemed to indicate quite strongly that Polaire had visited the U.S. in 1895, we believed it was necessary to find another source to confirm it. One could not totally exclude, for example, an error in article indexing – even if it seemed to us highly unlikely from an institution as vene-rable as The New York Times.

And after a fairly lengthy search, we found an article published in The Daily Times (New Brunswick, N.J.) dated October 10, 1895 (i.e. five days prior to the first of the six articles in The New York Times) in which the following passage confirms, without doubt, that the artist in question is indeed Polaire:

The Daily Times – October 10, 1895

Proctor's Pleasure Palace, New York – «The American debut of M'lle (sic) Polaire was immensely successful. She is a petite and piquant chanteuse, possessing the great charm and so popular in Paris that for two years she was starred equally with Yvette Guilbert at the El Dorado (sic).»

So, Polaire actually made her "American debut" at Proctor's Pleasure Palace. And since The Daily Times was dated Thursday, October 10, we may sup-pose she had sung there for the first time the previous day, that is to say on Wednesday, October 9, 1895.

However we have since found a further article in The New York Times, dated October 8, 1895, in which the journalist writes about new artists on stage the previous evening at Proctor's Pleasure Palace. Among them is Polaire. She therefore sang there for the first time on October 7, 1895.
Let us add that the description of Polaire's waist – "her waist was hardly more than a good span" (2) – finally lays to rest any doubts we might have had on the identity of the singer in question.

(2) Width from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the little finger when the hand is fully spread (about nine inches)

The New York Times – October 8, 1895

Proctor's Pleasure Palace – Nearly the entire bill offered last night at Proctor's Pleasure Palace, in Fifty-Eighth Street, near Lexington Avenue, was new. [...]
A French singer, new to this city, appeared in Mlle. Polaire. Her skirt was an object of feminine admiration, her hair a study in confusion, and her waist was hardly more than a good span. Her songs were not all fresh, but she gave them a turn quite original and pleasing. Evidently she will find her stay here agreeable.

Some time before we received Ms. Lamb's email we had contacted an Ame-rican collector, a friend of our site, and offered to buy from her an American cabinet card she owned. This offer she was kind enough to accept.

We sent a scan of this card to Mrs Lamb, and she was able to inform us that the author of this Polaire photograph was Napoleon Sarony, an American photographer best known for his numerous portraits of late-19th century Ame-rican theatre celebrities. He is also the author of many portraits of Mark Twain and Sarah Bernhardt.
Sarony's studio was located 37 Union Square in New York, so very likely it was in this very studio that Polaire posed for him.

But one detail in the biography of Napoleon Sarony particularly caught our attention. This was the date of his death, which occurred on November 9, 1896 – that is to say, one year after the publication of the New York Times articles we have quoted.

It means, firstly, that the cabinet card is conclusive evidence that Polaire was indeed in New York in 1895. But it is also an exceptional testimony of her first stay in this city. Polaire was then aged 21.

Any doubts we had on the reality of Polaire's first stay in New York being now cleared up, one question remains which we are unable to answer: how is it that none of the many documents of the time we know of devoted to Polaire mention this first visit?

Polaire by Napoléon Sarony – October 1895

PolaireOctobre 1895
Photographed in New York by
Napoléon Sarony

We consider, for example, the many articles published in France in 1910, in numerous newspapers and periodicals, on what appeared to be her very first trip to New York. No journalist mentions any prior visit she had made there, and Polaire herself, who speaks of this (second) stay in many interviews, never mentions it either.

We must also bear in mind, of course, Polaire's autobiography, published in 1933. The New York visit that she evokes is that of 1910: "[...] the American impresario Maurice Gezt came to offer me a very interesting contract for the Hamestein (sic) Theatres, in New York ... "(3). And a little further on: "Ah! the arrival in New York! The famous Statue of Liberty struck me as looking like a welcoming hostess... "(4). Nothing in these lines indicates she had already traveled to New York fifteen years earlier. On the contrary, everything bears out the impression that, with some amazement, she was discovering this city for the first time.

(3) Polaire par elle-même, page 187
(4) Ibid, page 188

Of course, this second visit was surrounded by much greater publicity than the first, both in New York (where the posters designed by William Hammerstein presented her as "the ugliest woman in the world") and in France. But one would have thought that her first taste of this city in 1895, when she was 21 years old - and she had arrived in France only five years earlier - would have deserved at least a mention in her autobiography.

The New York Times articles published in 1910 also do not refer to any previous stay by Polaire in New York. But it is of course possible that their authors were not aware of it. And the fact that Polaire herself does not mention it to the American journalists who interviewed her is probably less surprising than the fact that she also does not mention it in Polaire par elle-même. It is quite conceivable that William Hammerstein asked her not to do so, so as not to interfere with the sensational nature of the advertising campaign he had orchestrated before her arrival. Talking about her earlier trip to New York would have punctured the unique eclat of what was in reality merely her second visit to the city.

So it was at Proctor's Pleasure Palace in New York, on Monday October 7, 1895 that Polaire sang for the very first time on an American stage. The hall, located East 58th Street between Third and Lexington Avenues, had opened a month earlier, on September 2, 1895 (Labor Day).

Proctor's, of "colossal" dimensions, had required an investment of one million dollars from its director, Frederick Freeman Proctor, and (according to The Daily Times of October 10, 1895) could "[rival] in every way the great music halls of London".

The New-York Daily Tribune had announced, in its edition of October 6, 1895, that "[the] American debut of Mlle. Polaire occurs tomorrow" and that she had previously been engaged only once to perform abroad, "and that was in St. Petersburg".

New-York Daily Tribune – October 6, 1895

New-York Daily Tribune October 6, 1895

« The American debut of Mlle. Polaire occurs to-morrow. She is said to possess great charm. Heretofore she has played but one engagement outside Paris, and that was in St. Petersburg. »

A month later The New York Times, in its edition dated Sunday, November 3, 1895, gives the names of the artists who will still be performing on stage at Proctor's the following week (that is to say, probably, until Saturday November 9): "Mlle. Polare (sic), who is soon to return to the Folies Bergere in Paris" is one of them. Polaire had therefore been performing for four weeks at Proctor's Pleasure Palace.

But she did not in fact return to Paris then, and on November 10, 1895, The New York Times informs us that she is now singing at Proctor's Theatre:

The New York Times – November 10, 1895

Proctor's Theatre – « In Mlle. Polaire, the piquant Parisian ; Billie Barlowe, the Briton, and Maud Raymond, the New-Yorker, the audiences at Proctor's Theatre in West Twenty-third Street will find this week three contrasting types of music hall singers, each quite representative in her way. »

Proctor's Theatre in 1893

Proctor's Theatre in 1893
141 West Twenty-third Street, New York

Polaire sang there only a week and The New York Times dated November 17 tells us that the following week (from 18th) she would be singing at Koster & Bial's. We have also found two small advertisements for this theatre published in two issues of The Sun dated 17 and 24 November, 1895, on which the name Polaire appears (Mlle. Polaire on the first one, Polaire alone on the second).

Advertisement in The Sun – Novembre 17, 1895

Advertisement published in The Sun Novembre 17, 1895

Advertisement in The Sun – Novembre 24, 1895

Advertisement published in The SunNovembre, 24 1895

The last mention of Polaire we have found in an American daily newspaper of 1895 is another advertisement in The New York Daily Tribune dated November 26, 1895. Polaire seems to have sung two weeks only at Koster & Bial's, pro-bably until November 30, 1895, probably returning to France in early December.

Her stay in New York had lasted almost two months.

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