October 21, 1884 – Claire Waldoff:
“Clear the house of all the men / It’s time for the women to get on in!”Lyrics from Waldoff’s song Raus Mit Den Männern Aus Dem Reichstag (Throw the Men Out of the Reichstag).
Shall we start our week off with a some sour kraut?
At the end of the 1920s and well into the 1930s, Berlin was undergoing a revolution. Poverty, insecurity and political polarization were the norm. Yet at the same time, the German capital was enjoying a taste of freedom that had once seemed impossible. Fascism had not arrived yet, and women and queers were eager to claim their place in society.
Or so it seemed. Even though female emancipation was making day-to-day progress, crossdressers could still be arrested on the streets, and same-sex relations were criminalized. Lesbians, often considered the most invisible subset in what is now called the “LGBTQ community”, had a glimpse of a new way of living if the rules were different.
The performing arts flourished in Berlin between the two world wars, and with her tough voice, tousled red hair, and frankly dirty songs, Waldhoff was one of the city’s most idiosyncratic personalities.
She was born Clara Wortmann in an industrial town, the 11th child of 16 of a tavern keeper. She had dreams of becoming a doctor, but after her parents divorced, she could no longer afford to go to school, and so, of all the paths to take, she decided to make a living as a performer. Why not?
She arrived in Berlin around 1906, and the small-town girl soon became the quintessential Berliner. Waldoff wrote:
“I saw the gigantic city Berlin for the first time and was overwhelmed. I immediately sensed the special qualities of this town, the incredible tempo, the temperament, the amazing brio.”
She started with small roles in plays, but a 1908 singing engagement at a nightclub, Roland von Berlin, made her a star. The club was owned by Rudolf Nelson, a Jewish songwriter, and composer of film music, operetta and vaudeville. His presentation, The Nelson Revue, was the toast of the 1930s Berlin nightlife scene. Waldoff sang just three silly songs, wearing a dress she bought on credit instead of her smart suit because the German government censors forbade women to appear in male clothing after 11pm. Her sassy, comical style, and her ironic approach to even to the most sentimental songs, made Waldoff a big hit.
Soon she was presenting three-song sets at several clubs each night, and by the 1920s she was the top cabaret star. She had a repertoire of 300 songs, and over time her material became less and less innocuous. She tossed aside the conventions of the other performers of using double-entendres and suggestion, preferring to get straight to the point leaving little to the imagination. This got her into a lot of trouble with the censors. But the audiences loved her and her songs, especially Ach Jott, Wat Sind Die Männer Dumm (Oh, God, How Stupid Men Are), and Es Gibt Nur Ein Berlin (There’s Only One Berlin).
She started to perform in a shirt and tie and she had a fashionable close-cropped hairstyle. Cursing and smoking cigarettes on stage, she performed at the top theatres, sang duets with young Marlene Dietrich, her songs played on the radio and she recorded and released records.
In her memoir Weeste Noch…! (1953), Waldoff coyly describes a club especially for women:
“You had to pass through three front doors before you got to the secret women’s Eldorado, 30 pfennigs entry fee, where four musicians with brass instruments played the banned club songs. A room decorated with garlands, populated by women painters and models. You saw well-known male painters from the Seine; beautiful elegant women who wanted to see the other side of Berlin, the disreputable Berlin; and infatuated secretaries; and there were jealous scenes and non-stop tears, and couples had to keep disappearing to settle their marital strife outside.”
Waldoff had a longtime romance with Olga “Olly” von Roeder, who hosted a popular salon in the Berlin home the two women shared. Waldoff was extremely open about her queerness, but not all of her friends were gay or lesbian. She socialized with lots of other entertainers, and she was friends with the prominent artists and thinkers of the time, but her gayness was not something that was ever hidden. Probably most people understood that she loved women and lived with a woman.
But after the Nazi Party took power in Germany in 1933, life was no longer a cabaret for Waldoff and her kind. Waldoff mocked Nazis. Many of her songs were too bold; many of her songs were written by Jews, and she and her circle openly criticized the Nazis. Her big number There’s Only One Berlin had political content, so it was banned quickly by the Nazis after 1933. The Nazis also closed most cabarets, and many artists left Germany. Waldoff reduced her appearances in Berlin. Her absence was noted and little Adolf Hitler‘s government spread a story that she had committed suicide, while she and Von Roeder took refuge in their country house in Bavaria.
Because she was Aryan, she was free to move around Germany, but Nazi Propaganda Minister
Kellyanne Conway, Joseph Goebbels, continued to regard her with suspicion because her masculine look and her cabaret act contradicted the official role model of women in Nazi Germany. In 1939, she was banned from performing, but during World War II she made a few appearances in German troop entertainment shows, despite her friendships with leaders of the resistance.
After the war, she lost her savings in the West German monetary reform of 1948 and went on public assistance. Waldoff gave a final concert in Berlin in 1950, and Von Roeder joined her in 1963. They are buried together.