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Cabaret singer Hildegarde is dead at 99
NEW YORK — Hildegarde, the "incomparable" cabaret singer whose career spanned almost seven decades and who was credited with starting the single-name vogue among entertainers, has died. She was 99.
She died Friday at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Hospital, said Don Dellair, her longtime friend and manager.
Born Hildegarde Loretta Sell in Adell, Wis., she was known for 70 years simply 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. She appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1939, and her recordings sold in the hundreds of thousands. Revlon even introduced a Hildegarde shade of lipstick and nail polish.
"Hildegarde was perhaps the most famous supper-club entertainer who ever lived," 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."
Few were flashier and more conspicuous about clothing than Hildegarde, although she noted a fondness for $6 shoes because "nobody can see them anyway." A Catholic, she gave her old gowns to poor priests to make vestments.
A noted flirt, Hildegarde wore long, white gloves — "Miss Piggy stole the gloves idea from me," she once said — and told risque anecdotes while parceling out long-stemmed roses to men in her audience.
During a performance in Washington, D.C., she nestled up to a dour-looking Sen. John McClellan, D-Ark., and waltzed with him while she whispered for all to hear, "Oh, Senator, you're entrancing. ... You dance so beautifully. ... Why go back to the Senate? ... And where's your wife?"
Hildegarde's admirers ranged from enlisted men and officers during World War II to King Gustaf of Sweden and the Duke of Windsor.
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."
Wise investments and work as a pitchwoman for a bottled-water company, barley vitamins and bathtub device called the PercussOwhirl provided her with a comfortable income through the rock era.
Another cabaret legend, Bobby Short, who died this year at 80, once said, "Hers was the slickest nightclub act of all time."
She once described herself as "an incurable romantic. ... I traveled all my life, met a lot of men, had a lot of romances, but it never worked out. It was always 'hello and goodbye.' "
She leaves no immediate survivors, Dellair said.
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company