Above: Saharet in about 1898, as she appeared on numerous postcards.
The celebrated dancer Saharet was born Paulina Clarissa Molony, on 23 March 1878, to Benjamin Robert Molony, an illiterate Irish tailor and Elizabeth (nee Foon), a 19-year-old of part Chinese ancestry from Ballarat. She was delivered at home in Rowena Parade, in the heart of the working class Melbourne suburb of Richmond. A sister, Martha Lily, was born in 1879 and another, Julia Millicent, in 1881.
Above: Part of Paulina Clarissa Molony’s Australian birth certificate, dated 23 March, 1878. Via Births, Deaths & Marriages, Victoria
Transcription of Birth Certificate;
2 – 23 March 1878. Rowena Parade. Town of Richmond, County of Bourke
3 – Paulina Clarissa. Not present
4 – Female
5 – Benjamin Molony. Tailor. 25. Limerick Ireland [Father’s name, age, place of birth]
6 – March 17, 1877, Melbourne Victoria [Date of marriage]
7 – Elizabeth Molony formerly Foon, 19. Ballarat Victoria. [Mother’s name, maiden name, age, place of birth]
Paulina Clarissa (or Clarice as she preferred) made her way from the humblest of backgrounds in Richmond, to fame and fortune in Europe and the US in the early twentieth century. As Saharet, she was painted by leading European artists of the day and appeared on countless postcards, a clever and audacious dancer, and a vibrant young woman. Yet much of her life remains an enduring mystery and the few contemporary accounts of her life tend only to amplify errors made by others, such as the oft- repeated but incorrect claim she died in Melbourne in 1942. But when she lived at her home in the Michigan town of Battle Creek in the early 1960s, she left behind the key to her story. She had told friends her parents’ names; Benjamin Malony (note the variation of surname Molony) and Eveline “nee De Vere” which was at least, partly true.
Rowena Parade in 2018, looking West towards central Melbourne. The shop on the left was, coincidentally, built in the same year as Saharet’s birth – 1878. Author’s collection.
Left: In November 1881, Saharet’s mother gave birth to another daughter – Julia Mallicino (Millicent), at 168 Nicholson St, Fitzroy – almost certainly a boarding house. Author’s Collection.
Right: On the birth certificate of Julia Mallicino (see Note 2 below), Saharet’s mother listed her residence as 4 McCormac Place Melbourne, then a part of the notorious“Little Lon” district, a “slum” neighbourhood now entirely demolished. The house would have been in the right middle distance. This then, was home for little Clarice.
This photo was taken about 1950 before the demolition by a Public Works photographer.Click on the image to go to the State Library of Victoria record.
As an adult, she was an attractive looking woman with a powerful stage presence. Standing about medium height -168 cms tall (five foot five inches), with grey eyes and a mass of dark brown hair, she was a highly skilled and flexible dancer. “What Saharet can’t do with her legs is not worth the average mortal’s worth while trying to learn” wrote one journalist. Another journalist described her as “really an expert gymnast and contortionist. What she does is to give a wild whirling dance, in the course of which she introduces somersault splits, fabulous high kicking, cart wheels and other difficult feats … It is a marvellous exhibition of gymnastic skill, but, at the same time, the dancer is mirthful and beautiful, and the dance a delight to the eye.”
Unfortunately, a critical part of Clarice’s early story in Australia currently remains unknown. Who taught her to dance and particularly, what were the circumstances surrounding the obvious change in fortune that occurred between her birth in Melbourne in 1878 and her appearance as a dancer in the United States in 1891. We do not know how she paid her way from Melbourne to California or exactly when this occurred. Her parents had been so poor they could not afford a memorial for her sister Martha Lily when she died in early 1881, after suffering “convulsions”, probably the result of typhoid fever, then so prevalent in Melbourne.
A later British account claimed she studied under US actress Minnie Palmer, who was in Melbourne in 1886-1887. Still another account claimed she worked for three years for well-known theatrical entrepreneur Harry Rickards. The most plausible accounts suggested she appeared on stage in Melbourne, performing in the corps de ballet at the Theatre Royal, under the direction of English choreographer Marie Reddall (who worked in Australia with her husband, Actor- Director E. W. Royce between 1886 and 1892). There could be truth in all these claims.
Left: Saharet appears in print in The San Francisco Examiner, California, March 4, 1894
Centre: Saharet, also known as Clarice Campbell, described as a “wonderfully lithe and graceful” high kicker in the Los Angeles Times, California, April 5, 1894.
Right: This November 13 1896 report in the Garnett Journal (Kansas) appears to be amongst the most accurate accounts of her early life. Via Newspapers.com (Thanks to Martin Goebel)
Researcher Martin Goebel has found that as Clarice Campbell, she joined the “Liliputians,” a company performing at San Francisco’s Baldwin Theater in May 1891, indicating a likely arrival in the US earlier that year. Over time, newspaper reports of dubious reliability appeared, recounting her early efforts to establish herself. She was only 13 and perhaps she really did appear as a dime museum fortune teller and then a mermaid, as the Detroit Free Press was to recount. However, it is well documented that by early 1894 she was using the stage name Saharet and in April she had joined M.B. Leavitt’s “Spider and Fly” vaudeville company – touring US cities. Through 1895 she was most closely associated with another popular touring vaudeville show – “The Night Owls”.
Left:Saharet’s “fabulous high kicking” can be seen here in this postcard by Reutlinger of Paris. From the Author’s collection. Right: Saharet and Ike Rose, with daughter Carrie. From an unidentified German paper.c 1902. Rather than squandering her fortune as Rose was to claim, Saharet appears to have spent it caring for her daughter and her niece. Author’s collection.
In May 1896 18-year-old Saharet married New York entrepreneur Isaac Rosenstamm (later known as Ike Rose), while she was also three months pregnant to him. Over time, it was Rose who managed her career and passed around stories about her identity – that she was born in Melbourne – or perhaps it was Ballarat, the daughter of a well-known pastoralist (rancher). This constant narration about her all appears to be part of a concerted effort to advance her career and later, to create interest in Rose’s other professional activities, even after the couple separated. Rose appears to have written much of the commentary that was attributed to her and this, combined with the freewheeling use of different surnames by Saharet’s mother, only added to the confusion. Rose himself was creative with his own history, acknowledging his birth in Hanover, Germany in 1865 in his first US passport application, but in later documents not only anglicising his name, but also claiming to have been born in New York.
Not surprisingly, not everyone believed that the beautiful young dancer who could throw her leg over her head, do the splits, and winked cheekily to her audiences was an Australian, just because she said she was. At least some Australian journalists were suspicious, particularly as there appeared to be no family or friends back home to claim her. When renowned German singer Otto Reutter happily posed with one arm around her and the other around a bottle of Champagne in 1908, the sense of “foreignness” about her was only reinforced. Saharet had little to say herself, yet the story persisted everywhere that she was Australian – and when a British journalist writing for the London Daily Mail newspaper managed to meet her in 1898, he was left with no doubt she was an Australian, born in Melbourne. Others, including Anglo-German Count Harry Graf Kessler, who met her in about 1900, believed this too. Surviving samples of her handwriting display the confident hand of a well-educated, native English-speaker.
Above: Part of Saharet’s signature. Author’s collection.
Below: Saharet appears doubled on this postcard – a not uncommon device of the time. c1905. Author’s collection.
Her stage turn, often part of a varied program, appears to have lasted for less than 15 minutes, and yet she seemed to speak to audiences of a coming era of freedom and joyfulness. Like Isadora Duncan, Saharet’s style can be seen as a fore-runner in the development of the modern dance movement. This was characterised by the rejection of traditional forms of classical ballet and the embracing of new concepts in dance – to express human emotions and realism. The Austrian writer Hermynia Zur Mühlen saw Saharet perform whilst still a child. In her 1929 autobiography, she recalled “I have never again seen such natural grace and charm, the expression simultaneously, of a little wild animal and a beautifully refined woman.” The German artist Emil Nolde also recalled watching her dance, like some “primeval being.” Rose fed the story that she had been given a fortune in diamonds by European admirers, and was earning another fortune by performing. It was probably true. He also encouraged her to sit for numerous accomplished and emerging French and German artists, including Maurice Biais in about 1902, by Franz Von Stuck in 1906 and by Leo Rauth in 1911. Saharet’s relationship with Rose had drifted by 1907 and the couple separated, although Rose remained her manager for another five years and his influence on her career continued to be significant.
Above: Saharet as she appears in the Jean Reutlinger (1891-1914) Album of various portraits. Source – Bibliothèque Nationale de France – National Library of France, Gallica -Digital collection. via Wikipedia Commons
In fact, Saharet’s great notoriety was gained in Europe, not the US. She first appeared in theatres in the UK in 1897 and in France and Germany after 1898 where she was to become phenomenally popular. Rose also arranged for the couple to travel to Russia at least several times in the early twentieth century, where she developed a significant following. After much European travel and numerous trips to and from Europe and the US and England, she finally left Germany for the last time in late 1914, possibly as late as the outbreak of war in August. This seems to have marked the end of her European presence. Her adventures in German silent film, a career direction cut short by the war, were typical of the forays well-known stage performers made in first few decades of the twentieth century – these two reel films were something of a novelty, and the sort of publicity generating activity that stage performers might dabble in. At the time no one could guess the power narrative film would come to have a few decades later. Saharet made at least four films in Germany between 1912 and 1914 – although at the time of writing it is unknown whether any of these survive. One very early film of Saharet has miraculously survived – a hand tinted rarity made in France by pioneering director Alice Guy-Blaché in 1905. In it, Saharet dances the Bolero for just a few minutes. The film would have been shown as part of a mixed vaudeville review show, one that consisted of live acts interspersed with short films.
When Rose visited Australia in early 1913, promoting his other acts, Saharet’s birthplace had become Ballarat. In an oft-repeated interview about her life, Rose claimed that she had left Australia as a youngster, after some work in theatre in Melbourne. He had discovered her performing in New York in “The Night Owls”, earning a mere £7 per week. Through his influence he quickly got her £30 per week and from September 1897, an engagement in New York with Edward Rice’s “French Maid,” which played at the Herald Square Theater.
Rose told reporters that Saharet received £750 for acting in her first German film, “In a Golden Cage,” and £1,000 for her second. But Rose had apparently advised against appearing on the screen as he felt the new medium did not suit her as a dancer. Rose claimed that her 1913 salary “was now £300 to £400 a week.” By this time he had also arranged for her to receive a percentage of the takings for her live performances.
By the time Rose was saying this in Australia, the couple were professionally and personally separated. Citing desertion and his infidelity, Saharet began proceedings against Rose in October 1912, and the divorce was finalised in 1913. Soon after, she married German-born US millionaire Fritz von Frantzius. Von Frantzius had long been an ardent admirer of hers, but their marriage was a disaster, as she abandoned him after only a few days for a new partner on stage and off – Jose Florido. She performed with Florido in the US and Britain for several years and clearly intended to marry him, but never did. Variety magazine’s 1914 review of their new act was positive and outlined exactly what her program looked like;
“Saharet has lost none of her charm, nor indeed her stage looks…Her dancing partner, Senor J. Florido, is a lithe, slender, virile Spanish youth… Saharet alone does her first number, programed as a minuette. It consists of pirouettes and posing of the old- style ballet school. It is a trifle disappointing… Florido follows with a solo dance, The Sabaje, which is strident and of toreador inception. It consists of some twists and a series of rapid stamping and taps, all on the heels. Third is a Spanish castanet dance by both, with Carmen and Toreador entrance, well done but on old style lines. Nothing sensational until the fourth and final number, Tango Argentine. Saharet and Florido’s is the genuine South American, sensuous thing… It is a violent, living, palpitant affair that earns for them the applause it richly deserves.”
But by 1916, reviews of her New York performances in “Sesame of Love” were less enthusiastic. Perhaps, in the midst of war, the public appetite for performance was already changing.
In 1917 Saharet married again, to a third German-born New Yorker and her latest theatrical agent – Maxim P (Phideus) Lowe. Soon after, she retired from the stage for good.
Ike and Saharet’s only child, Caroline Madelon Rose was born in New York in November 1896. Known to all as Carrie, she accompanied her parents throughout their first European tours. In time, young Carrie experienced a life as tumultuous as her mother’s. In 1906, she was placed in a convent school in Belgium and later, another convent in Essex, England. Carrie then had a go at following her mother onto the stage and performed in England under the unbelievably mundane stage name of Dorothy Siddons. She closely resembled her mother in appearance and her choice of dancing and acting as a career seems understandable, although she only met with mixed success. In the early 1920s, Carrie rebooted her acting career, this time as Madeline (also Madelon) La Varre. With this exotic name she appeared with greater success, in fleshy roles on Broadway and in two films. In 1927, Carrie changed course again, leaving the stage and entering a Carmelite Convent in the USA. She finally found her calling in 1944, when she joined the US Naval Reserve, becoming one of the first women to achieve the rank of Lieutenant Commander during World War Two. An amazing transformation.
A Saharet Family Album
From left: Third husband Maxim P. Lowe c.1920, Daughter Caroline “Carrie” Rose c.1920, Half brother Archibald McKenzie c.1920, Saharet’s niece Clarice Roberts. c 1920.
All passport photos shown above are via Ancestry, from the US National Archives
Saharet, now calling herself Clarice Saharet Lowe, was 85 years old in 1964. When alert neighbours near 41 Ivanhoe Street, Battle Creek, realised they hadn’t seen her for some time, the local Police were called to break into her house. They found her body in the bath. It was 24th of July and she died alone, because sadly, daughter Carrie had taken her life after a catastrophic car accident, 14 years before. Her half-brother Archibald McKenzie was by then her closest living relative.
Text of Saharet’s obituary in The Battle Creek Enquirer, July 24, 1964. Via Newspapers.com
What sense can we make of this Australian girl who really could dance so spectacularly she developed an international reputation in just a few years? Why did she retire to Battle Creek in Michigan? Somewhere, hopefully, someone still has the photos and scrap books that she must have kept, detailing her extraordinary life, one that must have been rich in experiences.
- A heavily tattooed French dancer called herself “Saharet” in the 1920s. She is unrelated to the subject of this account.
Saharet’s mother was born Elizabeth Ah Foon in Ballarat in 1858. She lived a tumultuous life and is probably worth an entire biography of her own. Elizabeth, later to call herself Eveline, was the oldest of a large family born in Ballarat to 19 year-old Caroline Ramsay and her first husband, 24 year-old gold miner William Moy Ah Foon. She appears in the Ballarat Benevolent Asylum’s register as “pregnant and destitute” in September 1873 and reappears in the historical record in an authorised (but underage) marriage in 1874 followed by the birth of another child in 1875. Thus, she had already given birth to two children before she had Paulina Clarissa.
Throughout her life, Elizabeth / Eveline went to great efforts to remain anonymous, consistently obscuring her identity by repeated changes of surname – Molony, Martella, Campbell, McKenzie, De Vere and claims that she was “born at sea”, or of Scottish or French-Canadian ancestry. It was remarkably easy to do this because until the First World War, people could travel internationally without formal documents. Eveline’s motivation for the endless and confusing changes of identity can only be guessed now, but its most likely this was a means to control her own destiny and maintain her independence. Perhaps it also explains why she preferred the great cultural melting pot of Brooklyn New York, as her home. It is highly likely that Saharet’s part-Chinese ethnicity, combined with the fact her parents Eveline and Benjamin Molony were probably not married, explains Saharet’s reluctance to discuss her origins very comprehensively. In the deeply race conscious societies Saharet was having such success in, to be of mixed race background could have meant the end of her career.
She is almost certainly the same Eveline/Evelyn Campbell, “the Australian Sporting Lady,” who appeared in a rowing competition with a US woman in San Francisco in April 1893. In a lengthy interview with The San Francisco Call on March 28, 1893, this Eveline revealed her daughter was on the stage, and by her comments clearly had experience of living in Melbourne. But lacking the rowing experience she claimed, she lost the competition and missed the $250 prize. Intriguingly however, it seems she received $14,000 for a patented “child’s carriage” at about the same time.
(see Stanley P.331. Also see US patent No. 495,301 Patented Apr. 11, 1893)
Above: Part of the birth certificate of Saharet’s younger sister Julia Mallicino Moloney, born November 11, 1881. Eveline gives her name as Elizabeth Eveline Ah Pack and no father is listed. Julia took to calling herself Millicent and died in New York in January 1906. Saharet took over the care of Millicent’s daughter Clarice Roberts after she died. Via Births, Deaths & Marriages, Victoria
Above: An edited manifest for the SS Rotterdam, arriving in New York in 1919, reflecting the changes in travel requirements after the First World War. Eveline McKenzie’s age and birthplace – “Ballard” Australia are revealed, as she must have travelled on a British passport. Note that her trip was paid for by her daughter, Mrs C.S. Lowe of New York (right hand section enlarged below) Via Ancestry, from the US National Archives
Even in death Elizabeth/Eveline managed to maintain fiction. When she died in Brooklyn, New York in 1936, Caroline Ramsay was acknowledged as her mother on the death certificate. However, her father was listed as “Walter Besant”, here she had chosen the name of a well known C19th novelist and historian. Her real father, William Moy Ah Foon was never acknowledged on any documents (nor Caroline’s second husband – traditional Chinese doctor, Lo Kwoi Sang.)
Elizabeth/Eveline did not maintain any connection with her extended family in Ballarat. According to Mark Lepp, a descendant of Caroline Ramsay, the family knew she had gone to America, but nothing more. Caroline waited patiently of news of her oldest daughter, which never came. But its interesting that in far away New York, Saharet chose her grandmother’s name – Caroline – for her only child.
Nick Murphy, Updated and links repaired July 2019
For further reading:
- Autumn Stanley (1995) Mothers and Daughters of Invention: Notes for a Revised History of Technology. P. 331, Rutgers University Press.
- Edward Ross Dickinson (2017) Dancing in the Blood: Modern Dance and European Culture on the Eve of the First World War. Cambridge University Press.
- Wilhelm Benignus (1913) Woman’s Soul. Sonnets, Odes and Songs, p.70. Max Schmetterling, New York.(In a footnote in this book Saharet’s father is claimed to be a John Campbell.)
- Hermynia Zur Mühlen (1929) The End and the Beginning: The Book of My Life.
- Averil King (2013) Emil Nolde: Artist of the Elements. I.B.Taurus
- Wikipedia Commons – Images of Saharet, including paintings
- Leann Richards : HAT-History of Australian Theatre
- The Argus, 19 Nov 1898. A report of a Daily Mail interview with Saharet.
- The Daily Herald, Feb 3, 1913.
- The Catholic Press, July 14, 1927.
- Sunday Times, Feb 14, 1909
- Numerous Australian papers covered Ike Rose’s 1913 visit. See for example, The Mail, 1 Feb, 1913
- Battle Creek Enquirer July 24, 1964 reports Mrs Clarice S Lowe’s death.
- Battle Creek Enquirer March 12, 1947 reports on Carrie M Rose
- Variety Feb 1, 1914