Sally Rand stepped into the speedboat bumping the dock outside the World’s Fair of 1933 in Chicago. The Century of Progress had ended for the year. The five-foot, 125-pound blond had single-handedly made the fair profitable and now she had to get up to the North side of Chicago, and the fastest way to do it was by boat. Lake Michigan was calm, but it was dark, and fall was in the air. She stepped down into the back of the boat, and it roared into the September night. The country was in the fourth year of the Great Depression, and some said it was the worst yet. A third of the banks in Chicago had failed. People were starving and living in tents outside the city. The city was broke. Al Capone had been hustled off to jail in 1931, but his soup kitchens had fed many all over Chicago when the city didn’t have a dime to help people.
But there had been the fair, and it had been a shining light in a coal mine of darkness. It was the second fair after the Columbian Exposition of 1893 and could not have been more different. As I wrote in Al Capone and the 1933 World’s Fair, “Forty years after the Columbian Exposition and Dr. H. H. Holmes’s macabre, psychopathic murders of many young women in 1893, Chicago decided it was time to have another world’s fair. The times and the reasons differed, though. Orville and Wilber Wright had left the earth for twelve seconds in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. The Titanic had met black ice in the Atlantic and already been resting on the bottom of the ocean for two decades. The beau arts tradition of 1893 had been left in the dust for a modernist vision of the world promoted by industry, architecture, and advertising.”
Sally Rand sat in the boat with the wind smoothing back her hair. She looked toward the city glittering in the third decade of the American Century and felt her pulse rise. The boat veered suddenly, and Sally was catapulted out of the back into the depths of Lake Michigan. She bobbed up and saw the boat still barreling toward the North Shore. And now. Now the famous starlet of Cecil B. DeMille films, the trapeze artist, the David Sennett stunt woman, the nationally famous fan dancer of the Chicago World’s Fair found herself alone in the dark lake that was still warm from a hot summer. She stared at Chicago glittering along the lakefront. She could hear the bell from the lighthouse station but that was all. She was simply alone now, and for a girl who had come from nothing, a hillbilly from the Ozarks who had conquered the world and become famous, this was nothing short of amazing. And what a perfect metaphor. Tossed out of a speeding boat after her triumphant run at the Chicago World’s Fair, she could stare at the city that she had triumphed over.
One cannot consider the life of Sally Rand without considering that other character of equal importance in her life, the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933. It is the perfect storm of Sally Rand’s intersection with this singular event that produced the synthesis of time, circumstance, place, and personality that created the iconic symbol of hope handed down to us as Sally Rand. It is the combustion of her interaction with the phenomenon that was the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933 that made her a star and set the course of her life. The World’s Fair years gave her a platform that would run for forty years, and one could make a case that the glimmer of the fair, the fairy dust sprinkled upon her began to slowly erode after she left Chicago, until eventually, it was all gone. The Chicago Daily News on August 16, 1933, would later cover her rescue from the lake with an explanation of why she was leaving the fair. “Her descent into the waves came dramatically a few moments after Sally had left A Century of Progress Exposition following a farewell performance, having, it was reported, demanded a considerable raise in monetary emoluments for the dance. . . . having definitely concluded her appearances in the Streets of Paris, Sally dressed and boarded a speedboat for a hurried run to a north side night club.”
The accompanying photo would show a waterlogged Sally wrapped in a blanket, looking like a wet teenager though she was touching thirty. The Columbian Exposition of 1893 had really set her up. As Cheryl Ganz wrote in The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, “The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition had served as one of Chicago’s springboards for this transformation of public entertainment. Novelty ruled the day and the public loved it. Throngs packed the fair’s beer gardens, thrilled to the Ferris Wheel, and gaped at the belly dancer Fahreda Mahzar—also known as Little Egypt, who gyrated in ways never witnessed by middle-class Americans.”3 And so, the cooch dance was added to burlesque shows, and promoters learned from the 1893 fair that a good burlesque added to the coffers of any fair. Farm towns were deserted as old and young all over the Midwest went to see the “hoochie coohie,” which often involved the dancer going topless. “The dancers appeared as part of the freak show attractions and in burlesque, providing an exhibition of direct, wordless, female eroticism and exoticism.”4 But really, we have to go back further.
To the evolving urban, commercial-driven consumer culture that would make a section of the fair known as the Midway phenomenally successful. Charles Dawes, who would finance the fair, reminded his brother Rufus, who was the president of the World’s Fair Association, “What is going to draw your crowds is not museums or scientific charts or similar museum exhibits . . . people come to see a show, the great surviving memory of the Chicago World’s Fair being the Midway.” People came to see the oddities, breathe the caramel popcorn–scented air, and duck into darkened tents to watch nude women dance or to watch a young blond dance behind two seven-foot ostrich feathers. America was in transition. “The commercialization of popular amusements earlier in the century had signaled the rise of a new expressive urban culture . . . A Century of Progress opened during the peak of the Great Depression, and though expendable resources were few to none, many fairgoers still sought ways to satisfy their new taste for thrills.”
The World’s Fair of 1933 was a creature born in the worst times with many different purposes. It was to be a fair of science, of the future, a fair to jump-start the economy. “Not unlike Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, a fair would, the planners predicted, counter the Depression’s insidious economic and psychological impact by giving Chicago and its labor force a shot in the arm . . . the fair would be a privately organized New Deal.” When twenty-eight-year-old Sally Rand is finally fished out of Lake Michigan, she is sitting in a Coast Guard station in a Chicago Tribune photo and we see the girl next door with stringy wet hair. Where did all that sex go? If you watch her comeback film, The Sunset Murder Case, you see the same daughter of America. There is a Judy Garland quality about her. She has that vulnerability. She is a bad actress in a very bad film. Her delivery is all wrong. The actors around her are B actors at best. The story is hackneyed, but there is something there that makes you root for Sally Rand if not fall in love with her. There is a determination, a sprit, a hope, an optimism, that transcends sex, that transcends the feather dance.
Sally Rand is nothing short of the hope of the early twentieth century in the worst of times wrapped up in a five-foot bundle of energy that will not stop until she draws her last chain-smoking breath in 1979. The sixty-one boxes at the Chicago History Museum of Sally Rand’s papers are crumbling letters, yellowed newspaper articles, fragile Western Union telegrams, onionskin letters, faded cursive letters, long judgments, tax liens, car titles, brochures, baby manuals. One goes through these tan boxes looking for clues, and it can be frustrating for there is no hard answer as to why Sally Rand become famous when others did not. The dancer Faith Bacon had performed the fan dance years before Sally did. Others were better dancers, better strippers, actresses, more beautiful, more intelligent. But we don’t know their names. Who then is Sally Rand? She is like the changing, silky Lake Michigan water that she was floating around in, wondering if anyone would rescue her. This is where she marveled at her rise as she stared at those glittering buildings in the night. Maybe she could hear the traffic. Maybe an approaching boat, a seagull. She had been literally sleeping in alleys just a few years before, and now she was a star who could write her own ticket.
Like Sally Rand, the World’s Fair of 1933 was a bet against logic. “When the Great Depression came crashing down, many thought people would never spend money on a fair in the bleakest times America had ever known. In 1933, when the fair opened, 15 million people were unemployed, and one-third of the banks had failed.”8 It was really based on hope. Hope that times will get better. Hope that the country will get through the Great Depression. Hope that a dream can become a reality. Hope that a hillbilly from the Ozarks could become rich and famous. And like any cultural force, we really can only define a person by their life. Anything else will be false. So, the young girl in the water will wait to be rescued while we look for a life that began almost thirty years before. Helen Beck was all of three years old when Teddy Roosevelt held her in his lap and she looked up at the man who had charged up San Juan Hill. She remembered he smelled like a cigar. Like the audacious young country that would eventually rule the twentieth century, Sally Rand changed her life by sheer will, using the only assets she had: her body, a white horse, a boat, and sheer guts.