March is Women's History Month, and with Donald Trump and his administration in power, there's never been a better time to honor all women. Throughout the month The Advocate will feature queer pioneers whose strength, resilience, and ingenuity paved the way for others. Today's woman to know is Claire Waldoff.
Who she was: A popular cabaret artist in Berlin in the early 20th century, who saw her career decline because of her lesbian identity and her opposition to the Nazi regime.
What she accomplished: The performing arts flourished in Berlin between the world wars, and with her rough but appealing voice, tousled red hair, and frankly sexual songs, Waldoff (1884-1957) was one of the city’s most distinctive personalities. She was born Clara Wortmann in the industrial town of Gelsenkirchen, the daughter of a coal miner, and for a time she had an ambition to become a doctor. But after her parents divorced, she could no longer afford to go to school, so she decided to make a living as an actress and singer. She arrived in Berlin around 1906, and the young woman from the provinces soon became a Berliner through and through. “I saw the gigantic city Berlin for the first time and was overwhelmed,” she wrote in her memoir. “I immediately sensed the special qualities of this town, the incredible tempo, the temperament, the amazing brio.”
She initially played small roles in plays, but a 1908 singing engagement at a nightclub called Roland von Berlin quickly made her a star. “She had sung only three innocuous little songs (in a dress bought on credit instead of her smart suit, since the official censors forbade women to appear in male clothing after 11 p.m.), but her sassy, comical style, her ‘winking,’ ironic approach even to the most sentimental texts made Claire Waldoff an instant hit and unmistakable star of cabaret,” Brigitte Warkus wrote in a biographical sketch for the website FemBio. Soon she was presenting three-song sets at several clubs each night, and by the 1920s she was known as the queen of cabaret. She amassed a repertoire of 300 songs, and over time her material became less and less innocuous. “She eschewed the conventions of other performers of using double-entendres and suggestion, preferring to get straight to the point leaving little to the imagination,” according to an essay on a site called Cabaret Berlin. “This often caused her problems with the censors.” But audiences loved her and her songs, such as “Ach Jott, Wat Sind Die Männer Dumm” (“Oh, God, How Stupid Men Are”), and “Es Gibt Nur Ein Berlin” (“There’s Only One Berlin”).
Waldoff and her longtime partner, Olga “Olly” von Roeder, also hosted a popular salon in their Berlin home. “She was extremely open,” Robert Beachy, author of the book Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity, told Terry Gross in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air. “She had a gay-lesbian salon. Not all of her friends were gay or lesbian, so she socialized with lots of other entertainers, but her sexuality was also something that was never hidden. And probably most people understood that she actually loved women and was with a woman. So, and that was, I think, very much a part of her identity.” Her friends included many prominent artists and thinkers as well as an up-and-coming young singer-actress named Marlene Dietrich.
But after the Nazi Party took power in Germany in 1933, life was no longer a cabaret for Waldoff and her friends. “Waldoff was a thorn in the side of the Nazis,” Warkus wrote. “Many of her songs were too bold; many of her composers and lyricists were Jewish, many of her friends rejected National Socialism, as she did. And it was no secret that she lived with a woman.” Beachy noted that “There’s Only One Berlin” “has some very minor political content, so it was banned pretty quickly by the Nazis after 1933.” The Nazis also closed many cabarets, and many artists left Germany. Waldoff reduced her appearances in Berlin — the government even prevented one in 1935 by spreading a story that she had committed suicide — and she and Von Roeder often took refuge in their country house in Bavaria. Ailing with heart disease, Waldoff gave a final concert in Berlin in 1950, five years after the end of World War II. She died in Stuttgart in 1957, and Von Roeder followed her in 1963. They are buried together. Waldoff is remembered today not only for her music and her political stances, and also for cultivating an urban garden plot in Berlin. A path in the garden area is named for her.
Choice quotes: “We both hit the jackpot with each other. … Olly is a truly rare, honorable character, a wonderful person.” — Waldoff on her partner, in her memoir
“Clear the house of all the men / It’s time for the women to get on in!” — a lyric from Waldoff’s “Raus Mit Den Männern Aus Dem Reichstag” (“Throw the Men Out of the Reichstag”)
For more information: Waldoff’s memoir, “Weeste Noch…?” Aus Meinen Erinnerungen (“Do You Remember…?” From My Memories), is available only in German, and there are some German-language biographies of her, but an English-language book with much information on her is Claudia Schoppmann’s Days of Masquerade: Life Stories of Lesbians During the Third Reich, published in 1996. Read Warkus’s article here and the Cabaret Berlin entry here. At NPR’s website, you can listen to the interview with Beachy or read a transcript; find out more about his book here. And below, check out Waldoff singing “Ach Jott, Wat Sind Die Männer Dumm.” YouTube has several other Waldoff performances.