Vintage reading: Sally Bowles

As she dialled the number, I noticed that her fingernails were painted emerald green, a colour unfortunately chosen, for it called attention to her hands, which were much stained by cigarette-smoking and as dirty as a little girl’s. She was dark enough to be Fritz’s sister. Her face was long and thin, powdered dead white. She had very large brown eyes which should have been darker, to match her hair and the pencil she used for her eyebrows.

I like to read books written in my favourite eras. This is about the temporal goggles again; I like all the small things that tell you something about the author’s time and place. Historical fiction isn’t the same, it’s always coloured by the writer’s own time and place. So I read a lot of older fiction, especially from the first half of the 20th century, and I gravitate towards writers who are women or queer. We are all familiar with the dominant perspective already, that of straight, cis and white men. It’s unavoidable.

Jean Ross, early 1930's.
Jean Ross, early 1930’s.

I have just finished re-reading my favourite Christopher Isherwood novel, Mr Norris Changes Trains. It was published in 1935 and set in early 1930’s Berlin, where Christopher Isherwood, then 25 years old, went in 1929 to visit friend and occasional lover W. H. Auden. He stayed on and lived in Berlin until 1933, writing and working as an English tutor. The volume also contains Goodbye to Berlin, a collection of short stories about people he met in Weimar-era Berlin and the basis for Cabaret, not least the novel these quotes come from, Sally Bowles. The character Sally Bowles is based on a woman Isherwood met in Berlin, Jean Ross, who was British, a politically engaged Communist and worked as a cabaret singer. She herself felt that Sally Bowles was more reflective of some of Isherwood’s flamboyant male friends.

‘Hilloo,’ she cooed, pursing her brilliant cherry lips as though she were going to kiss the mouthpiece: ‘Ist dass Du, mein Liebling?’

As someone who thinks a lot about clothes, style and how people present themselves, I’m always interested in passages about how people look, how they dress and groom themselves, how the author chooses to portray that and what it says about the character, the author, the story and the time and place they are wearing it in. It’s fascinating. I thought I’d share quotes with you when I come across them, and Isherwood was a sharp observer who wrote these wonderful, very visual character studies.

Sally laughed. She was dressed in black silk, with a small cape over her shoulders and a little cap like a page-boy’s stuck jauntily on one side of her head: ‘Do you mind if I use your telephone, sweet?’

A few days later, Isherwood goes to tea in Sally Bowles’ lodgings.

She was wearing the same black dress today, but without the cape. Instead, she had a little white collar and white cuffs. They produced a kind of theatrically chaste effect, like a nun in grand opera. ‘What are you laughing at, Chris?’ she asked.

Sally Bowles is a 19-year-old cabaret singer in Weimar-era Berlin, and not a highly paid one; Christopher Isherwood is a young novelist who makes ends meet by working as an English tutor, as close to openly gay as you could be in those days. It makes perfect sense that Sally has one good day dress that she wears frequently and changes up with different accessories like this, lots of women did, perhaps especially during the Depression. There’s a great article about that over at Witness 2 Fashion. But they both came from solid British middle-class backgrounds; there’s a sense that they are slumming it in Berlin, there’s always a certain assurance that they have someplace to go if things go really wrong. Later in life, Christopher Isherwood was well aware of that distinction between him and the many working-class Germans he met in Berlin. He could leave when the Nazis made Berlin too unsafe to stay in. They couldn’t.

 

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