Fanny Elssler

   Posted by: rring   in Americana, Classes, Students

[Posted by Susan Hood for “America Collects Itself: From Colony to Empire”]

The Letters and Journal of Fanny Ellsler, Written Before and After Her Operatic Campaign in the United States, Including Her Letters from New York, London, Paris, Havana, &c. &c, [sic]. Published by H.G. Daggers, New York, 1845.
Purportedly by Fanny Elssler (1810-1884), a celebrated artiste of the Romantic ballet, this 65-page pamphlet was actually written by Henry Wikoff (c. 1813-1884), an American diplomat, adventurer, and occasional reporter. His reputation waxed and waned due to professional and personal triumphs and intrigues in Europe and his native United States. (For instance, Wikoff befriended Mary Todd Lincoln while acting as an undercover spy in the White House for the New York Herald, but that’s another story.)
Wikoff turned impresario by accident when the New York theater manager who had engaged Elssler for an unprecedented American debut died. Wikoff arranged for the ballerina’s debut on May 17, 1840 at the Park Theatre in New York City. From the next two years, over her repeatedly extended tour of the United States, he handled the bookings and contract negotiations, and served as publicist and company manager. She gave 208 performances, and received a then-astonishing fee of $500 for each.
Scholar and collector Allison Delarue reveals the history and authorship of the Letters and Journal in his book, Fanny Elssler in America (Dance Horizons, New York, 1976). He states that the articles first appeared in London in the December 1843, and January and February 1844 issues of Fraser’s Magazine, whose editor “made it clear that the work was not from the pen of Fanny Elssler, but it did contain her impressions….” Delarue notes that the New York Herald reprinted the articles (without giving dates, however), and that the newspaper’s editor credits Wikoff. In conclusion, he writes: “Fanny Elssler’s travels were of sufficient interest to be published anonymously as a pamphlet.”
In this pamphlet, however, the ballerina’s surname name is misspelled, possibly due to a typesetting error (her surname was occasionally misspelled in Europe).
In the Letters and Journal, Wikoff reminds readers that the majority of sophisticated Europeans view America as a “barbarous” place, and many warned Elssler that it was “a country hardly yet cut out of its primeval forests, where life is spent in unremitting toil for its necessaries, where few enjoy its comforts, and where none care for its luxuries.” The pamphlet also contains telling details and charming anecdotes that could only have been learned from Elssler. Here are a few examples:
“…how should a poor dancer, whose travels have been chiefly confined to the Opera-house, who has crossed rivers with the aid of a mechanist, and scaled mountains by running up some hidden stairs, be expected to know anything of a half-savage land, thousands of miles away? [Letter II]
“Then think of the consumption in satin shoes; I seldom use less than three pairs each night, and the slightest soil condemns them, and that upon the dirtiest stage in the world, purposely kept so to avoid slipping. These opera-shoes are of such peculiar make, uniting a certain stiffness with the most perfect pliancy that only one man in Europe has been found with genius adequate to the work—Jansin de Paris. [Letter III. The cobbler was Janssen.]
“The curtain fell amid a roar that sounded like the fall of mighty waters, and that soon brought me before them. Their applause was perfectly frantic, cheers and bravos saluted me, and flowers and wreaths fell like rain upon me. You cannot suppose that I stood unmoved amid such sights and scenes. My heart beat till I thought it would leap from its socket, and my eyes overran in grateful testimony of their fervent goodness. I essayed to speak, and stammered forth a few simple words of thanks, and withdrew. [Letter XVII, on her New York debut.]
The Watkinson’s copy of The Letters and Journal of Fanny Ellsler [sic] was purchased for 75 cents (slightly less than $19 in contemporary currency) at Anderson Auction Galleries in February 1909. A librarian noted on the title page “not in Sabin or Lowe,” indicating that this 1845 publication was omitted from standard American bibliographies a century ago.
Possibly bibliographers of Americana had their sights set only on materials pertaining to colonial and revolutionary times. Most had no interest in the performing arts. Furthermore, ballerinas were widely considered but a rung above prostitutes, and their performances were considered entertainment for men.
Delarue’s Fanny Elssler in America should be of interest to many bibliophiles of Americana, for it contains facsimiles of period publications and lithographs, including an early–and lengthy–comic strip. This and Ivor Guest’s definitive life of the ballerina (Wesleyan University Press, 1970) are invaluable in understanding the social, cultural, and historical forces at play in America during 1840-42. Although Elssler was admired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and President Martin Van Buren, in 1841 she was subject to a series of attacks from the press (notably Horace Greeley in the Tribune) and from the pulpit (Reverend Henry Ward Beecher). Her artistry, combined with Wikoff’s press support, squelched the anti-Elssler campaign.
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