Brooklyn Public Library

Mobile AppDownload our Mobile App

eNewsletterSubscribe to BPL eNews


Introducing Gertrude Hoffman

Apr 14, 2011 2:05 PM | 3 comments

Ladies and gentleman, we are pleased to present to you, appearing for the first time on this stage, with athletic abilities that will amaze you and natural grace that will charm you, the internationally famous, world renowned and much beloved...

...Gertrude Hoffman!

Here at the Brooklyn Collection, we are fortunate to house the personal papers, photographs and scrapbooks of the early 20th-century dancer, Gertrude Hoffman.  Her name may not roll as readily off the tongue as that of Ruth St. Denis or Isadora Duncan in a discussion of modern dance pioneers, but she was nonetheless famous in her time for her efforts to raise dance to the level of high art.  Hoffman was, after all, the first dancer to introduce American audiences to the much lauded Ballet Russes in 1911 (never mind that she did it by copying the famed troupe's routine after seeing them perform in Paris and then hiring U.S.-based dancers to tour with the act, essentially pirating the choreography).  Her sometimes controversial career spanned four decades, from the turn of the century through the 1930s.

The busy dancer in a moment of studied repose.

Her career also spanned genres.  In her early years, Hoffman was a comedic impressionist and jack-of-all entertainments on Broadway before moving on to high-art hoofing, and even songwriting, with the help of her husband, composer Max Hoffman. 

Mixing what seems to be genuine artistic enthusiasm with a heavy dose of calculated opportunism, Hoffman's ever-evolving act was often at the leading edge of show business trends while toeing the line of public morality.  It's a classic formula that's still employed by publicists and tabloids to thrust performers into the public eye. 

Hoffman, left, impersonating... something.





Here's an image of Hoffman impersonating show biz king Flo Ziegfeld's paramour and muse, Anna Held.  According to Ethan Mordden's "Ziegfeld: the Man Who Invented Show Business", Held and Hoffman performed the Maxixe dance together in 1906.  Hoffman dressed in drag to play the man and, in turn, shocked audiences.

Taking on ever more artistic control while launching ever larger stage spectacles, she eventually created the Gertrude Hoffman Girls troupe, which ranged from 16 to 25 dancers.  Hoffman choreographed their massive ensemble pieces with dozens of costumes, lavish sets, and athletic dancing timed with the machinelike precision popularized by Busby Berkeley.

Severely bobbed Gertrude Hoffman Girls form an intimidating dance line.

I am still processing the collection, which fills three large boxes and includes dozens of fragile photographs, newspaper clippings and promotional posters.  While these materials richly illustrate the story of Hoffman's life, they do not tell the whole story.  Many of these materials are undated, out of any chronological order, and in very fragile condition.  It takes a bit of effort and patience to connect the visually captivating scraps of ephemera into a broader, cohesive narrative of Hoffman's professional career


Full-page ad from Hoffman's vaudeville days, a bit crumbly and undated.

Piecing together Hoffman's personal biography comes with challenges as well -- she seems to have disappeared from the stage and the public eye in the late 1930s and is often confused with at least one other Gertrude Hoffman, a German-born actress who appeared in Hitchcock films and the 1950s sitcom My Little Margie.  We do not even know, yet, how long our Hoffman lived in Brooklyn, although an Eagle clipping attests that she was building a oceanfront cottage in the Sea Gate community on Coney Island in 1911. 


Hoffman frolicks as a sea-nymph in a risque photo shoot, circa 1914.


All I have discovered thus far about Hoffman is, while fascinating, too much to cover in one humble blog post.  Tune in next time, when I will turn to the pages of our own Brooklyn Daily Eagle -- which regularly covered the triumphs, scandals, and foibles of the dancer -- to delve a little deeper into the glamorous life of this Brooklyn resident and world-famous entertainer.  Until then, enjoy "The Gertrude Hoffman Glide", a song Hoffman's husband penned just for her and which appeared in the review that aptly sums up Hoffman's own career trajectory, From Broadway to Paris.

From the annals of Brooklyn's musical history: The Tollefsens.

Apr 12, 2011 9:44 AM | 4 comments

Carl Tollefsen and his wife, Augusta Schnabel-Tollefsen residing at 946 President Street, stood at the center of Brooklyn's musical life for upwards of four decades in the first half of the 20th century.

Tollefsen was born--to my utmost surprise-- in my home town of Hull, UK, in 1882, immigrating to the U.S. at the age of 6. Founder of the Brooklyn Chamber Music Society, an active music school and the Tollefsen Trio, Carl Tollefsen was also a storied collector of musical instruments and manuscripts. His manuscript finds included early versions of one of Schumann's best-known songs from the Dichterliebe Song Cycle (Ich Grolle Nicht), a page from one of Schubert's sketchbooks, and a letter of Rossini asking his banker for a loan.  The collection began when Mrs Tollefsen, then Augusta Schnabel and herself an accomplished pianist, was scheduled to play the Saint-Saens piano concerto with the New York Symphony orchestra. Tollefsen, then a member of the orchestra, invited the French master to the concert, but the composer had a prior engagement and sent a letter full of expressions of good will, thanking "the young debutante for the honor she confers upon him by playing his concerto." 

Some time later a dealer showed Tollefsen a letter from Mendelssohn, and then another by Brahms, and he was hooked.  Other items of note included  pages from a diary of Haydn,  a page from an orchestral score by Schubert, and a manuscript page by Beethoven in which he cautions his publisher to be "careful about the small notes." The collection was considered by the Library of Congress to be one of the finest private collections in the world in the 1940s.


Augusta Schnabel-Tollefsen, pianist.

The Tollefsen instrument collection was equally impressive. Many of these were left to Tollefsen by his friend the cellist Youry Bilstin, whose will left $1 to his daughter, who had "failed to show him the regard a parent should expect from a child," while bestowing considerable property on several friends and associates.  The collection included bows owned by Corelli and Paganini; a viola da gamba dating from 1697; a three-stringed Italian bassetto of 1650; and an extraordinary harpsichord, painted inside and out, made for Marie Antoinette in Pisano in 1756, the year of Mozart's birth. Tollefsen contributed to the early music revival of the mid 20th century by lending out instruments from his collection for early music performances notably at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (and probably playing them too.)

 The Tollefsen's collections were purchased by the Lovejoy Library of the University of Southern Illinois in 1969.  

Mr and Mrs Carl Tollefsen taken in their home, 946 President St, in 1952. Harpsichord shown was made in 1756 in Pisano Italy for Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, and brought to this county by Irene Bordoni, actress, about 1932.

Carl Tollefsen, well-known violinist and founder of the Brooklyn Chamber Music Society , will lecture at the Brooklyn Academy of Music tomorrow on penned mementoes of the musical great...

 Carl Tollefsen and some of his ancient instruments in his home at 946 President St, Bklyn, Jan. 1952.

The Tollefsen Trio, consisting of Carl Tollefsen (violin), Augusta Tollefsen (piano) and Paul Kefer ('cello) (later Michael Penha and Youri Bilstin) had a contract with Columbia Records and were managed by National Concerts Inc. Among the programs offered by the trio was  an all-Scandinavian evening including works by Lange-Muller, Sjogren and Grieg. One review mentions works by Arensky and Rubin Goldmark (a teacher of Aaron Copland).  The Tollefsens also helped bring to light works by American composer Amy Beach.

Carl Tollefsen, if you'll forgive the terrible pun, had another string to his bow.  He also signed with an advertising agency who classed him as a "Doctor type" and used his image in advertisements for Scotch and other high end products.

Few recordings of the trio's work are available online. One is of the soundtrack to the George Melies Movie, "Le Monstre." The piece is "Extase," by Louis Ganne, recorded in 1911.

Another, transferred from cylinder by the University of Calilfornia Santa Barbara, is a 1913 recording of  a rather funereal account of a Beethoven minuet. In fact UCSB has transferred several of their recordings from Edison cylinders. Here are some of them, opening a window into pre-World War I playing styles. (Click on the "play" button in the linked catalog records.)

 Brahms, Hungarian Dances  

Tchaikovsky Chant Sans Paroles.

H. Paradis, Pastel

C-M. Widor, Serenade

 In the Gloaming (U. of Iowa Library).

Summers of Fear

Apr 5, 2011 10:50 AM | 0 comments

Summertime--the name alone conjures up images of days filled with fun and freedom.  Warm lazy days spent at the beach, or by the pool eating ice cream, going to the amusement park, or catching fireflies.  The daily pace slows down just a little and childhood takes on a more carefree feeling.  But as a new decade began, summertime in the 1950's was anything but carefree for Brooklyn families.  Something had stolen the "joie de vivre." It was the continuing threat of infantile paralysis, or polio.

Polio slowly began its insidous march in the U.S. at the turn of the century, affecting the future President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1921.  The 1930's and 40's saw a steady increase in cases, but by 1952 the infection rate skyrocketed to 58,000 people.                 


The Brooklyn Daily Eagle covered all aspects of the dreaded disease, from the search for a medical breakthrough, the galvanizing community efforts to raise money, and the stories of courageous individuals who showed Brooklyn their indomitable spirit.  

The March of Dimes was the most prominent but there were many groups, large and small that helped in raising money and awareness        






This Brooklyn Daily Eagle caption from November 7, 1952 reads, STRAIGHT FROM THE HEART - Blond and pretty 3-year old Joan Brickfield of 2522 E. 19th St., named Poster Girl of the Greater New York Mothers' March on Polio, asks you to pitch in and help.  Winning her own battle against the crippling disease, she is out to enlist assistance for other victims.  Some 200,000 volunteers are needed for the drive, which will be climaxed on Jan. 28, when canvassers will call on their neighbors for donations to the March of Dimes.  

 The indiviual stories of people who had contracted polio were especially compelling. 

Graduate with Honors - Roberta M. Ickman more than two years a polio victim, holds diploma and Gold Medal for Scholarship and Courage, on graduation from Samuel J. Tilden High School







                            For Learning and for courage. Raymond Saxton, 19, of 806 13th Street, stricken by polio in September 1951 during his senior year at Midwood High School, receives diploma in his home today from Principal Jacob I. Bernstein. Women, left to right, Hazel Kopf of Board of Education, Helen Crimmons, home instruction teacher, and Mrs. Saxton, Raymond's mother. Youth wears respirator contributed by March of Dimes.                                                                                                                   

 Leading up to the the Salk and Sabin vaccines Dr. William Hammond conducted experiments with a gamma globulin serum that would prevent the infection of polio.  Parents from East New York desperate for protection for their families protested at the Health Department Offices in Manhattan for access to the serum. Their children had been in contact with several polio victims from the Boulevard Houses.  They were requesting the serum be used to inoculate 180 children from that project.  Although gamma globulin was deemed impractical for mass use, its discovery was an important step in the development of the Salk vaccine.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Years of research culminated in the the Salk and Sabin vaccines introduced in the mid 50's, and The Brooklyn Daily Eagle kept their readers abreast of every medical development


The Brooklyn Daily Eagle did its own part in the fight against polio.  It ran a series of beautiful photographs by Al Lambert in January of 1955 with an appeal for reader donations.   




Do your eyes rattle loosely and look like roadmaps?  The furnace needs fixing, there's a dent in the car's fender and the mortgage payment is due.  Those Christmas charge account bills will be coming in soon and it's only three months till April, when the Uncle comes around.  Trouble, trouble, trouble--that's what New York looks like, doesn't it?  Now take another look at these engaging kids in the picures above...what does the New York hold for them?  A promise of health ? A chance to run and play? A reunited home?  No one can say for sure,  but see the strength and steadfastness, the gaiety and faith in their faces.  Big-eyed, merry little Ismail, a 1/2 os a [post-polio patient at Jewish Chronc Disease Hospital]; Nurse Dolores Villaini smiles while five-year-old Shelly, another post-polio case, gazes steadily into the future.  Cute and alert despite polio, Arlene, 2 1/2, faces the New Year with a rounded, undaunted chin while at right five-year-old Gloria gives a protected, charming smile in the arms of Sister Isabel of the Daughters of Wisdom at St. Charles Hospital.  These pictures are symbols of needy, worthy people and organizations in Brooklyn who must face the New Year wtih courage and strength and need your help to do it.  Resolve today to remember their problems and to count your own blessings in the coming year. Happy New Year!  


Apr 1, 2011 1:56 PM | 5 comments

Very few photos exist of the little-known anarchist, vegetarian, and amateur photographer Heinrich Bollinger. Unlike his more celebrated comrades -- Johann Most, Alexander Berkman, and Emma Goldman, who all lived in Manhattan and with whom he consorted -- Bollinger spent his entire Brooklyn life living in an old stone house near Coney Island. His life, oddly enough for a self-professed anarchist, was a quiet one: he earned his daily bread selling sand worms and renting boats.

Bollinger collected the stones for his house just off the shores of Coney Island, enlisting the help of local oystermen to tow ashore the heavier foundation stones.

An image of Bollinger's sand worm shack. The identity of the man in the boat is unknown.

The paradoxical life of this retiring and, as the Eagle noted above, shy anarchist may very well have gone unnoticed by history if it weren't for the remarkable, though scant images, which he recorded with his homemade camera and which we now have in our collection. As a boy, Bollinger apprenticed with the photographer George Brainerd, from whom he not only received instruction in shooting and developing photos, but also in becoming a more compassionate observer of the plight of urban workers.

A photo by Brainerd of laborers repaving Clinton Street; notice the well-groomed boss looking on.

Almost simultaneously, two events conspired to alter Bollinger's life forever. In 1886 the Haymarket massacre in Chicago occurred, galvanizing America's labor movement and setting the tone of class conflict for decades. The other event, and a more personal one for Bollinger, was the death of his mentor George Brainerd in 1887 from chemical poisoning associated with the photographic process.

Despondent over Brainerd's death at the hands of the medium he so loved -- and blaming it in part on the chemical-producing industrialists -- Bollinger made a break from the traditional methods of photography, instead building a camera from an old valise, an oar lock, horse hair, and bits of varnished sea glass. Eschewing the silver bromides and nitrates necessary for bringing images to life, Bollinger instead used a mysterious mixture -- almost organic in nature some might now say -- of tobacco juice, sea water, and lemon pith to accomplish his task. These sorts of folk methods resulted in images of poor, but no less arresting, quality.

The view from the front door of Bollinger's sand worm shack.


On the back of this photograph a nearly illegible note is written: the rich[?] [cavort]ing [?]

Note on the back reads: Poor children [leav]ing tar[?] factory

Though no clear record of Bollinger's activities exists beyond the photos in our collection, we can piece together some of his intentions and intimate thoughts through the notes accompanying each photo. Judging by these, it appears as though Bollinger had a sort of half-conceived plan to committ some anarchistic attentat, much after the fashion of Alexander Berkman who, in 1892, shot the Carnegie Steel Manager, Henry Clay Frick.

On the back of this photo of troops at Fort Hamilton, Bollinger has scrawled: Must [?] blow up -- maybe [?]

And on the back of this stereograph of the Kings County Penitentiary, Bollinger has reminded himself to: Blow[?] it up with dynamite -- perhaps

If anything, the notes on the backs of these photographs tell us that Bollinger was a gentle soul conflicted by his desire both to change the unjust social order and to appreciate the beauty of the world around him.

The note on the back of this photo of an elderly junk picker seems to sum it up perfectly: Intolerable![?] but beautiful -- the light upon this visage[?] of suffering

Bollinger's fate is unknown, but the man himself can be glimpsed in two photos from our collection. Having rigged up a homemade timer for his camera out of "driftwod[sic] and spent fishing tackle," Bollinger presents himself as we must believe he wanted to be remembered -- a would be revolutionary and philosopher -- one hand on a rifle butt but with his eyes out to sea.