"The Queen of Shimmy", In Memory of a Girl from Kraków

Czytaj ten artykuł:  po polsku

What do we know about the influence of Poles on American culture? We mention a few names: Pola Negri, Helena Modrzejewska, and it ends there, but if you look closely, there are more Poles in the multinational mosaic of American culture than we would expect. In this article, I would like to introduce you to another great American actress of Polish origin - Gilda Gray, or Marianna Michalska from Krakow.

Gilda Gray

Gilda Gray (Photo: public domain)

Marianna was born in Kraków on October 24, 1901. Marianna's parents Maksymilian and Wanda (née Kuraś) Michalscy immigrated to the United States in 1909, settling in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and their graves are also located there in Arlington Cemetery in Greenfield (one of the suburbs of Milwaukee). At the age of 15, Marianna was married to Jan Górecki, a concert violinist, who was the son of a union leader, Marcin Górecki. The marriage, however, did not last long and in 1923 they divorced, and their son Martin Gray later became a jazz band conductor and showman. Marianna was very fond of singing and began her career at the Cudahy Saloon (Cudahy suburb of Milwaukee) owned by her father-in-law.

In "Cudahy Saloon" she sang and danced "shimmy" and she is credited with inventing this American dance. It was just that when she sang, she moved in a very characteristic way and quickly the dance turned into a dance. Soon he spotted the young Marianna Frank Westphal, husband of the popular actress Sophie Tucker, another Polish woman with a familiar surname, Sonia Kalisz from Chicago. It was Mrs. Tucker who persuaded Marianna to abandon the unpronounceable surname by the Americans, and together they invented Gilda Gray. And then America was in a shimmy frenzy. The New York Times reported that at John Letzka's New York Saloon, she caught the attention of one of the top agents of the extravagant Broadway impresario, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. It was he who shouted to her during her performance: What's the name of this dance? She shouted back to him, "" I'm shaking my chemise, that's what I am doing. " (I'm just shaking my petticoat and that's all I do.)

Gilda Gray

The "Shimmy" Queen (domena publiczna)

The madness of shimmy engulfed all of America. Gilda Gray became the most fashionable symbol of America in the 1920s, about which F. Scott Fitzgelald himself wrote in The Great Gatsby.

However, the real dream of Marianna was Hollywood. She married Gaillard Boag, her new agent in 1923-1927, then she married Hector Briceno De Saa (1934-1938) and was briefly married to Jan Górecki with whom she had a son, Martin Gray.

Hollywood often recruited Broadway artists, and so it did Marianna. She was a beautiful blonde, with an expressive beautiful voice, and an excellent dancer. The road to the top after the successes in New York was open. Jesse L. Lasky, the creator of Famous Players Lasky, signed with her and it all started. Revue performances: Music Box Revue (1921), Ziegfeld Follies (1922), Devil Dancer Play (1927). Films: A Virtuous Vamp1919, Girl with the Jazz Heart 1921, Lawful Larceny 1923, Aloma of the South Seas1926, Cabaret 1927, Piccadilly1929, He Was Her Man 1931, The Great Ziegfeld 1936, Rose-Marie1936.

Gilda Gray

(Photo: public domain)

In 1929, the crash on the New York Stock Exchange causes Marianna to lose all her fortune, then estimated at $ 4 million. She would make a living as a dancer at a local club. She recovers from this fall but suffers a heart attack in 1931.

Marianna not only exerted a huge influence on American culture, but was always connected with Polish affairs, she participated in many pro-Polish actions with Kuryer Polski in Milwaukee, with whom she always kept in touch by visiting her parents in Milwaukee. Kuryer, in turn, was reporting about her successes. During World War II, she participated in charity fundraising, which financed the Polish army and Polish orphans. In 1953, Ralph Edwards then the most popular journalist in the United States made a special program with Marianna in his series "This Is Your Life." During the Cold War, Marianna brought 6 Polish citizens to the United States and paid for their education.

Gilda Gray Hollywood Star

Gilda Gray's Hollywood Star (Photo: public domain)

On December 22, 1959 Marianna suffered a second heart attack, but she did not win. She died at the age of 58 in her residence in California. She is interred at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, Los Angeles County. On the sidewalk at 6620 Hollywood Blvd. is what many artists around the world dream about, at this address there is the star of Gilda Gray - Marianna Michalska from Kraków.

This May (2022) was the 120th anniversary of the birth of the great world-class Polish opera singer and actor Jan W. Kiepura. His road to the top of his artistic career is not a Cinderella's dream, but the result of persistent work and wise life choices. His singing won the hearts of music lovers in Europe and the world, but he always loved Poland the most and was ready to sacrifice a lot for her.


In the 1930s, the Warner Brothers film studio produced films in the spirit of social realism, covering less appealing themes in modern America, such as crime, poverty, and a clumsy legal system. In these films, Poles were presented as criminals and negative characters. In one of those films, The Life of Jimmy Dolan, the evil character was called Pulaski. In another film, How Many More Knights, a gangster and murderer was a man named Kościuszko.