Illustrious life


By McKay McFadden

In ‘Century Girl,’ Lauren Redniss draws upon the life of the last Follie

For graphic artist Lauren Redniss, an Op-Art contributor to the New York Times since 2001, illustrating her unique take on the news has been a dream job — with a catch. While working for the Times, she’s been given fascinating assignments like eavesdropping on street conversations in Crown Heights ten years after the riots. But opinion illustrations are limited by quick deadlines, black and white print, and a finite amount of space. All posed problems for Redniss when she began illustrating centenarians in 2005. She regretted cutting the small details, which she values as the juiciest parts, to fit into the Times.

“I wanted the opportunity to keep those bits — the story behind the story — in the picture,” she said over coffee at Marquet Patisserie in the East Village last month.

Of all the eras that today’s 100-year-olds have lived through, Redniss was most attracted to the 1920s because of its elaborate art, like Busby Berkeley films of abstract dance sequences with mirrored pianos and synchronized swimmers. And for her, the most compelling contemporaries of gangsters, flappers, and F. Scot Fitzgerald were the Ziegfeld Follies girls, Broadway dancers whose image and lifestyle reflected the extravagance and glamour of that period. There was just one problem: by the time Redniss had the idea to write an illustrated book about a Follies girl, there were only five still living.

Redniss decided to track down the closest living Follie first, hopping a bus to New Jersey to meet Barbara Hunter, who performed under the stage name Billie Blanchard.

She knocked on the door expecting to find a shrunken old woman, but was greeted instead with a veritable knock out and a glass of brandy. Standing face to face with her first Follie, Redniss suspected she was on the right track. But as vivacious as Mrs. Hunter was, her time in the Ziegfeld Follies had been the highlight of her professional career, and Redniss was looking for a dancer more active in the cultural movements of the entire twentieth century.

Two months later Redniss attended the 100th Anniversary of the New Amsterdam Theatre in 2003, and there she met Doris Eaton Travis, who had returned as a guest of honor to celebrate Disney’s renovation of the theater back to the “razzle-dazzle, gold-laced” glory Mrs. Travis remembered. Much like Hunter, the 99-year-old former Follie seemed to defy her age, kicking her legs up in conga lines and retracing the jazz routines of her youth in Times Square.

Mrs. Travis returned home to Norman, Oklahoma, where she lived and managed her horse ranch alone. Within weeks, Redniss started calling her with a string of endless questions, like what costume Mrs. Travis had worn ninety years prior to perform for Woodrow Wilson. (Not only could she describe the costume, she could hum the music and perform the dance.) Impressed by Mrs. Travis’s excellent memory for the minutiae of Follies life, Redniss told her she was the perfect subject for her book, “Century Girl” (HarperCollins) — to which Mrs. Travis replied, “That’s very ambitious of you, honey.”

Redniss then embarked on her first of several weeklong visits to Mrs. Travis’s ranch, sleeping in the guest room and waking up to the brisk raptaptap of Mrs. Travis’s shoes in the morning. Travis welcomed Redniss right in, exuding “the graciousness of a queen and the calm of the Dalai Lama” — and the economy of someone who had survived the Depression. Mrs. Travis recycled coffee beans from the day before, just as she had since the ’30s, and the pair spent the quiet hours of each morning at the breakfast table, reliving the love affairs, dance steps and travels of Mrs. Travis’s past.

It all began in 1917, when Doris Eaton Travis followed her older sister to join the Follies. “I was just a 14-year-old girl coming out of summer school with a short dress on,” she’s quoted in Redniss’s book. She would go on to “perform for presidents and princesses, banter with Babe Ruth, offend Henry Ford, write a newspaper column, host a television show, and earn a Phi Beta Kappa degree in history (at age 88).” Before they became legends themselves, Alfred Hitchcock designed the title cards for a silent film starring Mrs. Travis; George Gershwin played the piano while she practiced her dance steps; and John Wayne was the prop boy on the set of one of her brother’s movies.

While Mrs. Travis tended her duties as head of a horse ranch — her husband Paul had passed away a few years prior — Redniss would spend the rest of the day in the Eaton family archive room, a tinderbox of memories piled high with clippings, jewels, hatboxes, and letters. The room represented 500 years in the lives of Doris and her siblings, encompassing their press, diaries, letters, and poetry. It was here that Redniss could see the book taking shape.

“Doris didn’t measure the events of her life by politics; that’s where I took license,” Redniss said. Through her research and blooming friendship with Mrs. Travis, Redniss charted many of the turning points in Mrs. Travis’s life. The illustrated timeline, which opens the book, reads like an American cultural history of the twentieth century. Mrs. Travis bobbed her hair in 1918, for instance, choosing a hairstyle that symbolized freedom and a new notion of femininity. Later, the advent of Prohibition found Mrs. Travis performing in skimpier costumes, designed to intoxicate newly-sober audiences. Redniss provides a context for these trivial-seeming details by including a headline from Ladies Home Journal that asks, “Does jazz put the sin in syncopation?” and citing the Chicago court case against the shimmy, which was introduced by Mrs. Travis’s colleague Gilda Gray.

The Eatons shared the fate of the nation after the Stock Market crash of 1929. Mrs. Travis’s career on the decadent Broadway stage abruptly ended, shifting the family’s fortunes from stardom to desperate unemployment, which many of her siblings did not survive. As she recovered and entered the second half of the twentieth century, leading WWII relief efforts and hosting a television show, Mrs. Travis rarely missed a beat in the two-step of American culture.

Redniss’s exquisite artistry is combined with a writer’s command of metaphor and symbolism. For example, Redniss includes what seems like a quirky side detail about the discovery of King Tut’s tomb the same year Mrs. Travis was shooting a silent film about adultery in Egypt.

“King Tut had been buried with all his relics, from flyswatters to gold jewels. He’d been marinating in the ephemera of his life,” Redniss said. On her ranch in Oklahoma, Mrs. Travis was similarly immersed in the artifacts of her life, from enamel lipstick cases to diamond necklaces, each relic infused with meaning and memory. Redniss ties Mrs. Travis into an expansive web of history with symbolic illustrations such as one that shows a black and white Mrs. Travis smiling sweetly on a camel with the orange dessert and bewitching Sphinx glowing behind her.

How to capture all this glamour, breadth of experience, and humanity in a book? If there was one twenty-first century artist to capture the twinkle of a twentieth century star, it’s Redniss. With a work ethic to match Mrs. Travis’s longevity, Redniss made each page by hand through a tedious process of collaging her own drawings with other elements to combine layers of images and backdrops, much like an elaborate set for Mrs. Travis to dance across. Through her playful drawings — sketched backstage at the Metropolitan Opera, in jazz clubs, and a clock repair shop, among other places — as well as images sourced from Mrs. Travis’s archive room, eBay, the National Ziegfeld Club, and the New York Public Library, Redniss has created a unique illustrated history of the last century through the life of the only living Follie.

As Redniss said of her approach to Mrs. Travis’s exceptional story, “Sometimes conventional storytelling methods fall short, and you need to invent a new one.”