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Hildegarde, 99; Cabaret Singer, First of the Single-Name Stars

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Hildegarde, the “incomparable” cabaret singer whose career spanned almost seven decades, has died. She was 99.

The performer, who was credited with starting the single-name vogue among entertainers, died Friday at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital in New York City, said Don Dellair, her longtime friend and manager.

Although her full name was Hildegarde Loretta Sell, she was known for 70 years as “the Incomparable Hildegarde,” a title bestowed on her by columnist Walter Winchell.

During the peak of her popularity in the 1930s and ‘40s she was booked in cabarets and supper clubs at least 45 weeks a year, earning as much as $17,500 a week in 1946.

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She appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1939, and her recordings sold in the hundreds of thousands. Revlon produced a Hildegarde shade of lipstick and nail polish.

“Hildegarde was perhaps the most famous supper-club entertainer who ever lived,” pianist Liberace once said. “I used to absorb all the things she was doing, all the showmanship she created. It was marvelous to watch her, wearing elegant gowns, surrounded with roses and playing with white gloves on. They used to literally roll out the red carpet for her.”

Her gowns were designed by Fontana of Rome. Her long gloves, upswept hair and the roses she handed out to her audience added to the glamour.

Hildegarde’s admirers ranged from enlisted men and officers during World War II to King Gustaf of Sweden and the Duke of Windsor.

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From the 1950s through the ‘70s, in addition to her cabaret performances and record albums, she appeared in a number of television specials and toured with the national company of the Stephen Sondheim musical “Follies.”

Her autobiography, “Over 50 ... So What!” was published by Doubleday in 1961.

Born in Adell, Wis., Hildegarde grew up in a musical family. Her father, who made his living as a merchant, played drums and the fiddle, and her mother was a church organist and choir director. The family moved to Milwaukee when Hildegarde was 12, and she and her two sisters sang in the school choir and played in the school orchestra.

The future singer hoped to become a concert pianist and briefly studied music at Marquette University. But economic circumstances forced her to drop out and she turned to vaudeville.

Touring the country, and then settling in New York, Hildegarde developed her act, including a signature song, Sammy Fain’s “I’ll Be Seeing You.” She accompanied herself on piano and chatted between numbers, often poking fun at herself.

During a 1993 performance at Manhattan’s Algonquin Hotel, she said: “Wrinkle, wrinkle, leave me alone. Go and sliver Sharon Stone.”

At the time, Stone was starring in the movie “Sliver.”

Another cabaret legend, Bobby Short, who died this year at 80, once said of Hildegarde: “Hers was the slickest nightclub act of all time.”

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Although she was primarily associated with New York, Hildegarde also performed in London; Paris; Cannes, France; and Brussels.

She leaves no immediate survivors, Dellair said.


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