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Culture

Popular 1920s entertainer returns to spotlight in new biography

As the 2010 Berlin Reading Marathon gets underway across the region, visitors to one of the festival’s launch events were introduced to a forgotten figure from German culture; jazz pianist and singer, Peggy Stone.

Peggy Sone

Peggy Stone was a popular performer in Europe in her day

Peggy Stone was a popular entertainer in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s but the passage of time has seen her star fade significantly. Now it barely glimmers in the history books. However, author and journalist Regine Beyer, who has just published a new biography of Stone entitled "Abendkleid und Filzstiefen" ("Evening Dress and Felt Boots"), hopes her book will see a resurgence in popularity for this vibrant but overlooked singer.

"She was a very optimistic person and I mean optimism in this case as a source of life power," said Beyer, "She was very intelligent, she kept changing with the times, she connected a lot of different kinds of people and that is something that I aspire to as well."

After more than a decade of weekly meetings gathering material for the book, Beyer and Stone became firm friends, although this developing affection between the two women didn't color the text which Beyer ultimately published.

"I think as a journalist, I know how to keep the balance between journalism and a certain kind of empathy," she pointed out, "I allowed her a lot of space to keep her spirit in the book."

The Stone Sisters: Peggy Stone (r) with best friend Laelia Rivlin

The Stone Sisters: Peggy Stone (r) with best friend Laelia Rivlin

Life upset by war

Stone was born Rosa Goldstein in Berlin in 1907 to German-Jewish parents and shortly after her birth the family moved to Bialystok in Poland and from there to Moscow where the young Rosa studied piano.

After the 1917 revolution, Mrs. Goldstein fled Russia with her three daughters and made her way back to Berlin via Bialystok, where the family was finally reunited with Mr. Goldstein in 1922.

At the age of 12, a love of singing and dance earned Rosa the nickname Peggy, partly due to her resemblance to the American child actress, Peggy Montgomery. It was in Weimar-era Germany in the 1920s that Peggy began her career as a performer. She cut her teeth singing in cinemas, working as a chorus girl and appearing as a film extra.

Her first flush of true success came in 1928 when, with her friend Laelia Rivilin, she founded the Stone Sisters. Two girls - each with a piano - performed a wild mix of jazz standards, ragtime, swing and popular German "Schlager" music. The duo's career was guided by theater impressario Kurt Robitschek who secured bookings for the girls at important cabarets such as the Tivoli, the Trocadero and the Moulin Rouge.

The rise of Nazism in Germany forced Peggy to flee the country in 1933. She settled in Sweden and then Russia where, with the Czernowitzer Jazz Orchestra, she toured military bases and field hospitals entertaining Russian servicemen. At the end of World War II, she was living in Bucharest.

Regine Beyer

Author Regine Beyer spent 10 years interviewing Peggy Stone in New York

New beginning in New York

By the early 50s, Peggy had re-located once again, this time to Israel, but with few opportunities to perform available in the fledgling state, she packed her bags and moved for what would be the last time. In 1953, New York would become her permanent home but, by now in her late 40s, her career as a performer was over and she moved instead into the fashion industry working as a successful copyist.

It was here in the late 90s that author Regine Beyer met Stone and began to record her life story, determined one day to turn it into a biography. Britta Juergs from the Aviva publishing house also fell for Stone's story and agreed to produce the book.

"Maybe she's not so famous, but she's such an interesting woman," she said, "In the book we have lots of original Peggy. There are parts of Regine and there are parts of Peggy Stone and I think that's really great to hear her because she had lots and lots of humor and it's great to read."

Despite her contribution to the entertainment world and widespread popularity in her day, Peggy Stone has faded into relative obscurity; partly because she wasn't political or ground-breaking and also because she was active at a time when women had fewer opportunities than men to be recorded and preserved for posterity.

In 10 years of researching her subject, Regine Beyer was unable to unearth a single professional audio recording of Peggy Stone performing.

A natural optimist

Book cover: Abendkleid und Filzstiefel by Regine Beyer

Beyer's new biography of Stone

Now, the public has an opportunity to rediscover the world of Peggy Stone and her biographer and friend Regine Beyer wants them to remember her "as a woman who lived through very difficult times, who complained very little, who stood up to the reality, who tried to live her life the best she could and who also had a real great knack for putting people in touch from very different backgrounds."

"She was a people's person and she was always believing in life and that's a great message," added Beyer.

Author: Gavin Blackburn

Editor: Kate Bowen

F or audio of Peggy Stone's story with music and readings from the book launch at the Berlin-Brandenburg Reading Marathon, click below for the report on this week's edition of DW-RADIO's Arts on the Air.

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