If you’re a history geek as I am, don’t miss Pasadena author Kathleen Menzie Lesko reading and signing her new book “Jeanne Devereaux, Prima Ballerina of Vaudeville and Broadway: She Ran Between the Raindrops” at Vroman’s on Monday, Sept. 11. This biography spans the early 20th century, a period in American history that influenced many of us, yet most know little about. And bets are most of us have never even heard of Jeanne Deveraux Perkins, a woman who definitely had moxie.
What happens when the world goes from a form of art that is comfortable and familiar to a form that is new, bold and then ultimately destroys the “mother” it sprang from? The music hall and vaudeville forms of entertainment gave rise to, and provided the base for, silent films. Silent films morphed into “talkies,” and the movies as we know them have been in a “dance” with television ever since the late 1940s. And now both movies and TV are finding new platforms with streaming and other technologies that move faster than the creators themselves. Then, as now, life for anyone in show biz was really hard … especially for women.
Jeanne Devereaux Perkins, a toe-dancing vaudeville ballerina, adapted to different forms of entertainment spanning two centuries with grace, if not ease. The life of Ms. Devereaux Perkins, who died at age 98 in August 2011, is a chronicle of the hardships and sheer grit it took to put food on the table before and during the Great Depression and between world wars.
So many things about Devereaux Perkins are extraordinary. She was the sole breadwinner for herself and her mother from the time she started dancing in her pre-teens until retiring. Upon Devereaux Perkin’s passing, the Legacy.com obituary appearing on the Pasadena Star-News website read in part, “At age eleven she became an international ballerina on the public stages of variety entertainment in America and Europe during the 1920s through the 1940s. During her career she gave six thousand paid performances, as well as five hundred free benefit ones, for nearly fifty million people.”
Her father, Bill Helman, was likely bipolar; at the time his condition was still a mystery. Bill stayed in their hometown of St. Louis while Lillian Devereaux played the über “stage mother,” as manager, costumer and “wife” to their highly gifted daughter, Jeanne. Jeanne and Lillian traveled the world; New York, Paris, London, Rio de Janeiro, back and forth, all over the continental US, towns all over England, and then, in the twilight of her dancing career, into Japan for USO shows.
Devereaux was only a few years older than my late mother, and it’s hard not to compare my mom’s life with Jeanne’s. My mother was the first woman in her family to get a college degree; Jeanne had to drop out of eighth grade. My mother got married late for her age group, at a little north of 20. Jeanne did not marry until 40. My mother had three children; Jeanne had none. And from everything that I learned in this thorough and compelling book by Lesko, Jeanne was a heck of a lot happier than my mother. My mom suffered from what Betty Friedan later identified as “the problem with no name,” in her groundbreaking and revolutionary book for middle-class white housewives, “The Feminine Mystique.” My mother was close to a genius with math: ironing and counting linens were not fulfilling for her.
On the other hand, Jeanne Deveraux had ovaries of brass. A popular educational distinction right now is the idea of “grit” being the most important element for success; not IQ, not social skills but sheer “get it done; keep going.” (See this TED talk by Angela Lee Duckworth https://youtu.be/42-hh-iMJJI) For my mother’s generation, a woman’s ambitions were tamped down by an ideal that really was “anti-grit” — let the men handle it. This was not a personal flaw on anyone’s part; it was a cultural expectation of white women. Of course, women of color had to have grit to simply walk down a street, let alone make a living.
Jeanne Devereaux performed for royalty, and kept going, and going, and going despite setbacks, injury, and difficult living and working conditions. One of the things I most love about her is that when she hung up her professional toe-shoes and started a dance school in Pasadena, she refused to segregate, welcoming black students with open arms. She was accustomed to the more integrated stages she’d performed on and didn’t approve of the Jane and Jim Crow she’d witnessed. She wasn’t going to duplicate that with her own private school! Grit!
In a lovely epilogue to a long life, Devereaux became Devereaux Perkins when she met and married Tom Perkins. Jeanne was a perfect fit in Tom’s family lineage of females who also broke mainstream gender rules. Mr. Perkins came from the family that produced (among others) Harriet Beecher Stowe, anti-slavery advocate and author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a perennial women’s studies favorite, and Frances Perkins, the first female cabinet member who was appointed by FDR.
When you look to see what you can do to encourage grit or moxie in the artistic kids you’re raising, have them read “Jeanne Devereaux.” Come to think of it, any artist of any age will be inspired.
Kathleen Menzie Lesko will be reading and signing her new book “Jeanne Devereaux, Prima Ballerina of Vaudeville and Broadway: She Ran Between the Raindrops” at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 11, at Vroman’s Bookstore 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, For more information, call (626) (626) 449-5320, or visit vromansbookstore.com.