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Bottle Blonde

June 2024
3min read

One evening in November 1950 my mother asked me to pick up a bottle of sherry on the way back from work in my hometown of Green Bay, Wisconsin. She needed the wine to pour over the several fruitcakes that she had baked for Christmas and which were now lying on a shelf in our fruit cellar awaiting that little touch of alcoholic aroma to bring their flavor to a peak. She wanted the least expensive sherry I could find.

I went into a drugstore near where I worked, picked out a bottle (I remember it cost sixty-nine cents), and brought it up front to pay. The clerk, the brother of the proprietor, knew me and also knew that I was twenty—a year below the legal age for purchasing alcohol. He refused to sell me the wine:

“But it’s only for my mother’s fruitcake,” I said.

“Can’t help it. You’re too young. The feds are in town checking up, and we could lose our license.”

I began to lose my temper. I demanded the bottle of wine, citing a long (nodding) acquaintance with the proprietor, my father’s (nonexistent) influence with the proprietor, and my mother’s fruitcake’s (dubious) utter need for that sherry.

During this heated argument neither of us noticed a small, middle-aged lady with what we then called bottle blonde hair who was picking out some small items and listening to our conversation with some amusement. She approached the checkout counter with her purchases and interrupted the yelling match.

“Look,” she said, “would it be all right if I bought the bottle of wine and gave it to this young man? I’m late, and 1 want to get out of here.”

“No way, lady,” said the clerk. “That would be contributing to the delinquency of a minor.”

The lady muttered something under her breath and then turned to me. As she did, I began to realize that I had seen her somewhere before.

“Why don’t you wait for me outside?” she said.

And so I went out and waited on the sidewalk while she paid for her purchases, including my bottle of wine. And then, as she came out the door in the gathering twilight, I suddenly knew who she was. She was Sally Rand. I had seen her photo in an ad in the local paper the previous day. She was appearing in Green Bay for a few nights. My father had commented on it. It was Sally Rand all right. It had to be. She certainly looked older than her picture, but there was no doubt in my mind. And boy, was I excited!

For the benefit of those readers below the age of fifty or thereabouts, Sally Rand was an exotic dancer who had first achieved fame at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair by riding a horse from the downtown Loop to the fairgrounds, dressed as Lady Godiva. She had been trained in ballet, but hard times make for hard choices, and she made her living as an exotic dancer. She appeared onstage clad in nothing but two fans of ostrich feathers, fore and aft, from behind which she would let the audience see bare portions of her anatomy—a leg here, a shoulder there, perhaps a glimpse of derrière or the shadow of a breast. No one knew if she was really naked, and her appeal lay largely in the eternal hope that by chance or design she would drop one of her fans. After the fair was over, she organized a dance troupe and toured the country. She became something of a byword for the 1930s definition of naughty and was the subject of dozens of off-color stories and snickering jokes told by ten-year-olds of all ages (sample: “Calling all cars, calling all cars, be on the lookout for Sally Rand with a hat on. That is all!”).

So when she came out of that drugstore, I was more than a little impressed. She handed me my bottle of sherry and waved away the money I offered her.

“You’re Sally Rand, the bubble dancer, aren’t you?” I blurted out.

“Fan dancer.”

“I meant to say fan dancer, but it came out wrong.” I could feel my ears getting warm.

She smiled. “That guy in there sure was a big jerk, wasn’t he?” Then: “Have you seen my show?”

I confessed that I hadn’t.

“Well, it’s a pretty good show, if I must say so myself. And you don’t have to be twenty-one to get in.”

I said I would think about it, and thanked her for buying me the wine.

“It was nothing. Like I said, that guy was a real jerk.” And then her face lost all its animation, and she looked tired and old, and I noticed that she wore heavy makeup. I thought, “Being in show business must be one hell of a way to make a living.”

“Well, so long, young fella. If you get the chance, see the show.” She turned on her heel and headed in the direction of a hotel just down the block.

I never went to see Sally Rand; I was afraid of what my parents might think. I don’t know what motivated her to come to my aid. Maybe it was boredom, or the desire to put an officious clerk in his place. All I know is that she was to me a warm and kind person. And she got me my bottle of wine.

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