Gilda Gray

Gilda Gray (born Marianna Michalska; October 24, 1901 – December 22, 1959) was an American actress and dancer who popularized a dance called the "shimmy" which became fashionable in 1920s films and theater productions.

Gilda Gray
Marianna Michalska

(1901-10-24)October 24, 1901
DiedDecember 22, 1959(1959-12-22) (aged 58)

Early life and 'The Shimmy'

Gilda Gray was born in 1901 to Max and Wanda Michalski in Kraków (then part of Galicia-Lodomeria, Austria-Hungary, and now part of Poland).[1][2] After being orphaned, she emigrated with her foster parents to the United States in 1909 and settled in Milwaukee.[1] At the age of only 14 or 15, Gray entered into an arranged marriage with John Gorecki, a concert violinist, who was also the son of Socialist and union leader Martin Gorecki. The couple had one child before divorcing in 1923. Their son would later become a bandleader, performing under the name Martin Gray.[1][3][4]

Although the shimmy is said to have been introduced to American audiences by Gray in New York in 1919, the term was widely used before, and the shimmy was already a well-known dance move. Gray appropriated it as her own, saying that she had accidentally invented the shimmy while dancing at her father-in-law's saloon and "shaking her chemise"[3] (or her "shimee", as her Polish accent rendered it).[5]

Gray attributed the origin of the Shimmy to the American Indian in an interview published in the July 8, 1919, issue of Variety. The article notes she was working at the time at Reisenweber's with her partner Mildred Vernon. Gray had just been signed to perform in the "Gaieties of 1919" when she described the dance saying, "The original Shimmy dance has never been properly introduced in New York. I know for I studied the dancing characteristics of the Indians for a long time and they are really responsible for the shimmy which they labeled the 'Shima Shiwa'. There have been continual efforts on the part of this dancer and that one, with each declaring that his or her version is the 'original.' There is no doubt but that the shimmy dance as it was constructed by the American Indians ... would have a greater popularity were it done right."[6]


Her desire to continue her burgeoning career (she used the professional name Mary Gray for a while) and her faltering relationship with her husband prompted her to relocate to Chicago, where she was noticed by a talent agent, Frank Westphal, who took her to New York and introduced her to his wife, singer Sophie Tucker. It was Tucker who prompted her to change her first name to Gilda.[5] By 1919, she was appearing in a J.J. Shubert show, The Gaieties of 1919. By 1920, Gray found a new manager, Gaillard T. "Gil" Boag. She was subsequently hired by Florenz Ziegfeld to perform in the 1922 Ziegfeld Follies, and her shimmy became a national craze.[1]

After her divorce from her first husband, in 1923 she married Gil Boag and took her successful vaudeville to Hollywood, California; they divorced four years later. She quickly abandoned vaudeville to become a film star, and between 1919 and 1936 Gray made several movies, in all of which she performed her famous shimmy. Her second role was a small part in Girl with the Jazz Heart.

Jesse Lasky signed her to a contract with Famous Players-Lasky, which released films through Paramount Pictures. With him she made Aloma of the South Seas (1926), which grossed $3,000,000 in its first three months. The success of this Paramount film was enhanced by Gray's personal appearances doing the shimmy as a promotion. In 1927, she made two more films, The Devil Dancer and Cabaret.

By January 1929, she had sued Gil Boag for divorce on grounds of cruel treatment. He, in turn, accused her of an affair with her tour manager, C. D. Krepps.[7]

1929 stock market crash

When the stock market crashed in 1929, Gray lost most of her financial assets, but she managed to get a job dancing at the Palace Theater in New York. She also appeared on stage in Cleveland, and became the subject for two very popular ceramic sculptures by Waylande Gregory, "The Nautch Dancer", and "The Burlesque Dancer".[8]

She attempted comebacks but was hindered by poor health from regaining her status as a star. In 1931 she suffered a heart attack. In 1932, Gray announced her engagement to singer Art Jarrett, but abandoned their marriage plans when it became clear that the five-day waiting period between filing a marriage license and the actual ceremony could not be waived. On May 23, 1933, she married a Venezuelan diplomat, Hector Briceño de Saa. The couple separated two years later and divorced in 1938.

Polish patriot

During World War II, Gray worked for Poland including raising money.[9] In 1953, Ralph Edwards did her life story on his television show, This Is Your Life. He portrayed her courage in bringing six Polish citizens to America during the Cold War era. Gray also subsidized their education. She was decorated by Poland "for her interest and help to her countrymen and her country".


By the time of her death on December 22, 1959, at age 58 from a second heart attack, Gray was again in financial trouble. According to an obituary published in The New York Times, she had lived with Antonio Raio, a fire captain for Warner Brothers, and his wife for the past six years. Gray had suffered an attack of food poisoning five days before her death and was under the treatment of a physician. The Motion Picture Relief Fund paid for her funeral.



References and notes

  1. Giordano, Ralph G. (2008). Satan in the Dance Hall: Rev. John Roach Straton, Social Dancing, and Morality in 1920s New York City. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press. p. 119. ISBN 9780810861466.
  2. Sources indicate that Gray had one sister, Josephine, but it is not clear whether she was Gray's blood relative or simply another member of her adopted family.
  3. Cullen, Frank, Florence Hackman, and Donald McNeilly (2007). Vaudeville, Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America. New York: Routledge. p. 452. ISBN 0415938538.
  4. Gilda Gray's obituary published in Time magazine said that she was reportedly married at 11 and became a mother at 12. Time magazine obituary
  5. Slide, Anthony (2010). Silent Players: A Biographical and Autobiographical Study of 100 Silent Film Actors and Actresses. University Press of Kentucky. p. 153. ISBN 0813137454.
  6. "Vaudeville Volleys", Variety, July 8, 1919, page 1055.
  7. "Trial of Gilda Gray's Divorce Suit Due at Waukesha Tomorrow", Chicago Tribune, January 13, 1929.
  8. Folk, Thomas. Waylande Gregory: Art Deco Ceramics and the Atomic Impulse. Richmond, Virginia: University of Richmond Museums, 2013
  9. Biskupski, M.B.B. (2010) Hollywood's War With Poland 1939-1945 University Press of Kentucky ISBN 978-0-8131-2559-6 Page 12


  • The Los Angeles Times, Shimmy Dancer Gilda Gray Dies, December 23, 1959, page 2.
  • The New York Times, "Gilda Gray Dead on Coast at 58; Creator of Shimmy Was Singer", December 23, 1959, page 27.
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