Papers of The Incomparable HILDEGARDE! (Loretta Sell), a singer, pianist, entertainer, and comedienne, known to the public as "The Incomparable HILDEGARDE!" The collections includes diaries, correspondence, photographs, recordings, memorabilia, an autograph book, and 49 scrapbooks.

Presented by Hildegarde Loretta Sell in 1979, 1981-1982. Additional materials donated by Don Dellair (Hildegarde's former agent and executor) in 2008. Processed by Charles B. Elston after 1982, and Matt Blessing in 2008-2009. Series 2 microfilmed in 2008.

Biographical Note

HILDEGARDE Loretta Sell (1906-2005) was an internationally renowned singer, pianist, night club entertainer, and comedienne, known to the public as "The Incomparable HILDEGARDE!" She was born on February 1, 1906 in Adell, Wisconsin, the daughter of Charles and Ida Jermain Sell. Her father, a merchant, played the drums and violin and her mother was an organist who directed the church choir. The family lived in New Holstein until Hildegarde reached the age of 12, then moved to Milwaukee. Hildegarde and her two sisters (Germaine Harting and Beatrice Zummach) sang in their school choir and played in the school orchestra. In 1924-1925 Hildegarde studied the piano at the School of Music at Marquette University, hoping to become a concert pianist.

Hildegarde joined a twelve-piece all-male orchestra that played for silent movies at the Merrill Theater in downtown Milwaukee. Later she toured for two seasons with a piano act called "Jerry and her Baby Grands.” For several years Hildegarde accompanied vaudeville performers, touring for a year as a featured act in the Gus Edwards Stars on Parade. In 1933 she successfully auditioned for London's Café de Paris, where she sang for one month. She appeared again in London in a 1934 hit show called "Seeing Stars," which co-starred Britain's foremost comedian, Leslie Hensen. She and her manager, Anna Sosenko, moved to Paris, where Hildegarde sang for three years and developed her distinctive cabaret technique. Guided by Soskenko, Hildegarde refined both her act and her persona, acquiring a continental flavor by learning to sing in French, Russian, Italian, Swedish, and German. Her first command performance was in the Casanova, a Parisian boite, where she sang "Did You Ever See A Dream Walking" for King Gustav of Sweden. When King Gustav returned several months later and inquired about Hildegarde, the venue's owner, who had discharged her, agreed to hire her back at many times her former salary to appease the monarch.

Hildegarde went on to major engagements in London, including King George V's Jubilee, and the coronation of King George VI. Anna Sosenko negotiated a long term contract for Hildegarde with the BBC, the first American singer to earn such an arrangement. The 1930s she performed in many famous clubs and hotels, including the Ritz, Berkeley, and Carlton in London; the Dolphin in Cannes; the Boeuf sur le Toit, Scheherazade, and the Casanova in Paris.

Hildegard's first major club success in New York was at the Versailles. This was followed by an engagement at the Savoy-Plaza, which was repeated twice yearly for five years. She then began a six-year engagement at the Persian Room at the Plaza. Hildegarde was familiar to club patrons outside New York, routinely playing at the Blackstone, Drake, and Palmer House in Chicago; the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco; and the Copley Plaza in Boston. In the early 1940s she starred as a radio singer and pianist on "99 Men and a Girl," "Beat the Band," "Supper Club of the Air: The Raleigh Room." In 1948 Hildegarde returned to Milwaukee following an extensive European tour, which included a private audience with Pope Pius XII at his summer home, Castel Gandolfo. She played the starring role in Cole Porter's "Can-Can" in both Dallas and Kansas City in 1956 and 1957.

Hildegarde's portrait appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1939, presenting the singer to 15 million American readers. She was also one of the first entertainers to appear on television, prior to the Second World War. Over her long career she made. numerous television appearances, on programs hosted by Edward R. Murrow, Jack Paar, Steve Allen, Dinah Shore, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett, and Tom Snyder. She also performed at the White House during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. Her autobiography, Over 50...So What!, was published by Doubleday in 1961. She performed regularly until the mid-1980s. In her mid 70s, Hildegarde sang with the Harry James Orchestra and an all-star cast in a production called "The Big Broadcast of 1944." In 1997 she was photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair magazine.

From a devout German Catholic family, Hildegarde was an active member of the Roman Catholic Church. She regularly performed for charitable events for hospitals, schools and churches. She died in 2005 at the age of 99 in a hospital in New York of natural causes.

Scope and Content

Series 1, Diaries, Correspondence, and Ephemera (Letter-Size): Correspondence consists largely of incoming letters, arranged chronologically, from the directors of charitable organizations thanking Hildegarde for her performances on behalf of churches, hospitals, schools, relief agencies, medical organizations, and the like. Also included are tributes from hotel managers, friends, and other admirers on the quality of her public performances and an autograph book of notes and poems by classmates at St. John's Cathedral High School, Milwaukee (1922-1924). A collection of more substantive letters were extracted from Hildegarde's diaries, acquired in 2008. The ephemera is divided into letter-size and oversize (Series 3) items with the former including programs, handbills, and brochures concerning performances and publicity activities; awards; and color sketches of Hildegarde (1928, 1938). Hildegarde's diaries span 1922-1991, with a several gaps, and form the largest part of series 1.

Series 2, Scrapbooks (Originals) and Scrapbooks (Microfilm): The scrapbooks contain newspaper and magazine articles, reviews, and photographs concerning Hildegarde's vaudeville, theatre, supper club, and benefit performances; radio and television shows; personal appearances at social events, political gatherings, and retail stores throughout the United States and western Europe; charitable activities and memberships; wardrobe and apparel; and fashion, health, and beauty recommendations. Also included are newspaper and handbill advertisements for upcoming performances, commercial engagements, and phonograph records; supper club and café menus, table decorations, advertisements, and brochures involving night club appearances in major U.S. hotels; publicity photographs appearing on magazine covers, as well as snapshots taken by Hildegarde and friends \ (1922-1929); "gossip" columns in major U.S. daily newspapers containing references to Hildegarde; sheet music; feature articles on her career in general and show business magazines; and copies of commercial endorsements by Hildegarde appearing in magazines and newspapers for products such as Mack Trucks, General Electric appliances, Revlon cosmetics, Nucoa margarine, bagels, champagne, and ocean cruises. Early scrapbooks relate to student life and musical and theatrical performances at St. John's Cathedral High School (1924-1925), and other Milwaukee schools and theatres (1922-1927). The scrapbooks are arranged chronologically.

Series 3, Memorabilia and Ephemera (Oversize): The memorabilia includes a box lace handkerchief. The ephemera is divided into letter-size (Series 1) and oversize items with the latter including a Life Magazine cover (1939); an award and program; and a color sketch of Hildegarde (1963).

Series 4, Recordings: Consists of video and audio recordings of live performances, interviews, professionally recorded albums, and a variety of radio appearances made throughout her career. Includes audio recordings of Hildegarde's 80th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall, and several performances that were part of her "Hildegarde . . . Live at 85!" concert tour. The series also contains recordings of her radio show, "The Raleigh Room," which aired on NBC Radio during the mid-1940s. The series is arranged according to format, thereunder chronologically.

Series 5, Photographs: Consists of studio and publicity prints of Hildegarde, as well as images of Hildegarde with a variety of celebrities, including Milton Berle, Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, and Harry S Truman. Also included are candid personal images of Hildegarde with family and friends. The series includes several albums and portfolios, including an album documenting performances in Milwaukee and Marquette University (1953-1954). The photographs span circa 1910-1997. The images are arranged topically, thereunder chronologically.

Series 6, Sheet Music: Purchased in 2014, this series is comprised of the files of Harry Sosnik, Paul Baron, Bill Wirges, and Bob Warren, among others.  Many scores identify Hildegarde as the artist, and some include Hildegarde's own notations.