Gilda Gray (October 24, 1901 – December 22, 1959) was an American actress and dancer who popularizing a dance called the “shimmy” which became fashionable in 1920s films and theater productions.
When Marianna was 14 or 15 years old she married John Gorecki, a concert violinist (son of Socialist and union leader Martin Gorecki. The couple, who divorced in 1923, had one son, Martin Gorecki, who became a bandleader under the name Martin Gray. An obituary published in Time magazine reported that Gilda Gray was reportedly married at 11 and became a mother at 12.
Although the shimmy is said to have been introduced to American audiences by Gray in New York in 1919, the term was widely used before. Some stories said that her shimmy was born one night when she was singing the Star Spangled Banner and forgot some of the lyrics. She covered up her embarrassment by shaking her shoulders and hips. Although the shimmy was already a well-known dance move, Marianna appropriated it as her own: when she was asked about her dancing style, she replied in a heavy Polish accent; “I’m shaking my chemise,” which sounded to the English-speaking audience like shimmy.
Her desire to continue her burgeoning career (she used the professional name Mary Gray for a while) and her faltering relationship with her husband prompted her to relocate to Chicago where she was noticed by a talent agent, Frank Westphal, who took her to New York and introduced her to his wife, singer Sophie Tucker. It was Tucker who prompted her to change her first name to Gilda, a reference to her golden hair. By 1919, she was appearing in a J.J. Shubert show, The Gaieties of 1919. By 1920, Gilda had found a new manager, Gaillard T. “Gil” Boag (d. 1959). After being seen by Florenz Ziegfeld, she appeared in the 1922 Ziegfeld Follies where she was enormously popular with the public.
After her divorce from her first husband, in 1923 she married Gil Boag and took her successful vaudeville to Hollywood, California; they divorced four years later. She quickly abandoned vaudeville to become a film star, and between 1919 and 1936 Gray made several movies, in all of which she performed her famous shimmy. Her second role was a small part in Girl with the Jazz Heart.
Jesse Lasky signed her to a contract with Famous Players-Lasky, which released films through Paramount Pictures. With him she made Aloma of the South Seas (1926), which grossed $3,000,000 in its first three months. The success of this Paramount film was enhanced by Gilda’s personal appearances doing the shimmy as a promotion. In 1927, she made two more films, The Devil Dancer and Cabaret.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, Gilda Gray lost most of her financial assets, but she managed to get a job dancing at the Palace Theater in New York. She also appeared on stage in Cleveland, and became the subject for two very popular ceramic sculptures by Waylande Gregory, “The Nautch Dancer,” and “The Burlesque Dancer”.
In future years she attempted comebacks but was hindered by poor health from regaining her status as a star. By now her second marriage had failed due to the stresses of financial problems complicated by her affair with her stage manager, Krepps.