What do Sergei Rachmaninoff, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Arthur Rubinstein, Sergei Prokofiev, Marlene Dietrich, Igor Stravinsky, and Tallulah Bankhead have in common?
Once a famous beauty, by the late 1950s Dagmar Godowsky found herself subsisting on caviar, cake, and tales of the past. Typecast as a vamp in the silent-screen era of the early 1920s, she had “hissed her way through a thousand scenes.” She had died by blade, bullet, poison, or strangulation. Yet the demise of silent cinema ended her own film career. Now she performed at the dinner tables of New York’s beau monde. Dagmar Godowsky knew how to busy herself. She always had.
Born in 1897 as the daughter of the pianist and composer Leopold Godowsky—known better for his paraphrases of Liszt’s or Schubert’s pieces than his own—Dagmar grew up in Berlin, Paris, Vienna, Los Angeles, and New York. Wherever they made their home, her father—a near-maniacal host—collected celebrities. On an ordinary day, Dagmar claimed, she might return home from school to encounter “Jakob Wassermann, Gerhart Hauptmann, Hermann Sudermann. Thomas Mann. Every Mann.” She inherited not only her father’s seductive charm—her conquests numbered, if not “every man,” plenty of men and women, too—but his wit and skill as a raconteur.
It was her storytelling that lured Sandford Dody. A struggling playwright, Dody became witness to Dagmar’s spiel one night at a party. In a remarkable error of judgment that launched an entire, regrettable career, Dody offered to ghostwrite Dagmar’s autobiography—an endeavor that, he was sure, would be both profitable and easy. It was neither. Read More