It all started with The Dress. Visiting the Oakland Museum’s delightful exhibit on the history of California, I spotted a glorious concoction of pale green silk and tiers of ecru lace. The low-cut, ruched bodice dipped into a tea-length skirt trimmed with tiny red silk flowers. The text next to it read, “’La Estrellita’ capitalized on the Californian craze for the ‘Spanish Fantasy Past’ in the 1910s. Born Stella Hurting [sic] in Cincinnati, Ohio, to a Jewish theater family, Estrellita began as a racy dancer in the U.S. vaudeville circuits, moving on to more sophisticated shows on theater stages and in pageants.” There was a black-and-white vintage photo of Stella (nee Hurtig) in the dress, her huge dark eyes framed with impressive black brows and lashes. She has a strong nose and wears scandalously dark lipstick. Her hair is black, wavy, parted in the middle.
Funny, she doesn’t look Jewish.
And yet she was. Consulting the Global Performing Arts Database, I learned that La Estrellita (“the little star”) was a flamenco and tango dancer, active from 1886 to 1921, one of the highest-paid performers of her era. La Estrellita “danced for the heads of state of nine countries.” Duels were fought over her, and Jack London immortalized her in his work.
She started out performing with her sister Edna Davenport (who had her own vaudeville and silent film career) before hitting the boards as a solo act. According to intercultural expert and researcher Yvonne Lefort, Stella performed for Queen Victoria in 1900; appeared on the cover of Variety in 1910; and partied atop the Pyramid of Cheops with her lover Lord Kitchener, the British governor of Egypt. At the height of her dance career, she made $50,000 a year—more than a million dollars today.
At 42, Stella retired from the stage, married a non-Jewish entomologist and citrus-orchard-spraying expert named Paul Jones, started a perfume company, moved from Hollywood to a 23-room mansion in the Bay Area. She died in 1973 at the age of 94.
And then there was her youthful fling with Jack London. She’s mentioned in his short story “The Kanaka Surf,” among other works. In the story, a shapely woman in a black bathing suit triggers the jealousy of every other woman on a Hawaiian beach. “They thought it was the suit, and said so to one another, ignoring the twenty women more daringly clad but less perilously beautiful,” London writes. “Could one have winnowed out of the souls of these disapproving ones what lay at the bottom of their condemnation of her suit, it would have been found to be the sex-jealous thought: THAT NO WOMAN, SO BEAUTIFUL AS THIS ONE, SHOULD BE PERMITTED TO SHOW HER BEAUTY. It was not fair to them. What chance had they in the conquering of males with so dangerous a rival in the foreground?” A non-jealous elderly woman observes about the mysterious stranger, “She carries her body like a Spanish dancer,” and her husband replies, “By George, she does. Reminds me of Estrellita. Torso just well enough forward, slender waist, not too lean in the stomach, and with muscles like some lad boxer’s armouring that stomach to fearlessness. She has to have them to carry herself that way and to balance the back muscles. See that muscled curve of the back! It’s Estrellita’s.” OK!
Searching for more Estrellita information, I found the Maine-based writer Amy Selwyn, who published a lovely essay, “What I Stole from a Dancer,” about writing and flamenco. La Estrellita was her great-great-aunt. “My mother’s family are Sephardic Jews,” she told me in an interview. “They were wealthy and came to America in the mid-19th century—earlier than most American Jews. They were artsy people who sang and danced and went to the theater and dressed in tuxedos for dinner. My grandmother, Stella’s niece, was a woman named Victoria Tinney. Her father—Edna’s husband—was Frank Tinney, a Ziegfeld Follies blackface comedian. He got kicked out of the Follies for having an affair with a young chorus girl and beating her; he allegedly bit off her nipple. Not a nice guy. He died a drunk and a derelict in a flophouse somewhere. Victoria died in her 30s, on my mother’s 11th birthday. That’s when my mom’s association with that family ended. I’m always interested in learning about them.
“They were early twentieth century bohemians,” she went on. “Wealthy ones, at a time when it wasn’t unusual to say, ‘I want a life on stage.’ By my mother’s generation, that was a shondeh! You needed to become a lawyer! Now we’re all solidly middle class.” But back then, Stella and Edna danced across the country; Stella designed her own costumes (“there’s every reason to believe she made that dress in the museum,” Amy said) and slept with writers and governors; Edna married five times. “They were both very dramatic,” Amy said. “My mother called them forces of nature. Edna called herself Mama Edna, and my mother swore was the model for Mama Rose in Gypsy. She wasn’t.” Amy hypothesized that the family was eager to exploit their tenuous but exotic connection to Spain, particularly at a time in California history that glamorized and fetishized all things Spanish colonial. “It’s a bit odd that they ended up in Cincinnati, with an Ashkenazi name,” she reflected. “You could say they were the Jewish version of Gatsby, if you spelled Gatsby with a Z.”
“My mother used to talk about how they loved everything glamorous—the photo shoots they did were just amazing,” she said. “They loved the notion of the Levant and the Ottoman Empire…but they never tried to hide their Jewishness. They were a fairly religious family, not Orthodox, but observant. Stella didn’t look Ashkenazi, with her dark skin and eyes, and she passed as Spanish, but I think – and this is just me – that they liked the notion of being Spanish Jews who’d been kicked out of Spain at the end of the 15th century. They probably came from the Pale of Settlement, but they really liked this image.”
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.