A woman who sang on television in 1937 can be said to have had a long career. A priest at St. John’s Cathedral High School in Milwaukee had told Hildegarde Sell (1906-2005) to give up thoughts of the convent and, when lack of funds thwarted the Marquette University student’s classical music studies, she played the piano in silent film theaters and then barged into vaudeville. After some lean years plugging songs for Irving Berlin, she found fame in Europe with an inflated report of King Gustav’s infatuation with her. Overcoming a slight German accent bred from her family that owned a Bavarian delicatessen in New Holstein, Wisconsin, she soon was able to sing in the language of any army that happened to be invading whatever country she was touring. Her manager, Anna Sosenko, wrote her Franglaise signature song, “Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup,” and for the rest of her life she was doused in blue stage lights, tossing red roses from her opera-gloved hands. Much later this image would inspire the Muppet Miss Piggy, and performers like Liberace copied her style of using just one name. George and Ira Gershwin hymned her in “My Cousin from Milwaukee,” and Walter Winchell dubbed her “the Incomparable Hildegarde.” She was called “the First Lady of the Supper Clubs” by Eleanor Roosevelt.
At the Waldorf, the Duchess of Windsor thought Hildegarde was too familiar with the Duke, but she traveled on with her own orchestra, earning startling salaries and astonishing women in the 1940s with an annual budget of $10,000 for clothes. Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, the best silk evening gowns were tailored into chasubles for missionary priests. Hildegarde was an evangelist, too, in her own circle: The novelist Jacqueline Susann was not the only convert she sponsored in baptism. A century-long lifespan vindicates her book of health and cosmetic advice, Over 50—So What!, which can seem theologically diaphanous: “I pray to St. Jude while having my skin treatment that he’ll make the preparation work.” In Manhattan at the Church of St. Agnes, where she was a daily communicant, she once interrupted my thanksgiving prayers after Mass to ask of me: “What kind of facial soap do you use?” When I replied that I had not the slightest idea, she could not have looked more surprised if I had told her I was an Albigensian.
It was her devout but ill-advised custom to sing “The Old Rugged Cross” on Good Friday. When it devolved upon me to preach the Three Hours, I stopped that as delicately as I could. On a previous Good Friday, she had poured her heart into that song as Archbishop Fulton Sheen preached and Clare Boothe Luce read the Lamentations of Jeremiah. At 3 P.M., the archbishop announced the death of Christ and then joined hands with Hildegarde and Mrs. Luce for a full stage bow to applause. That vignette, along with others like Hildegarde touring hospital wards on the arm of the preening Dr. Tom Dooley, was a warning that something was not altogether well in Zion. The neuralgic confusion of glitter and grace was too out of synch with the true drama of man to dismiss it as mere kitsch, but neither was it humbug, for it was not cynical. Our Hildegarde was a third-order Carmelite and was praying the rosary in the Carmelite nursing home when I last visited her. The only image on the wall was the Sacred Heart in the old kind of bad Sulpician style that moved people to pray before some churches became plush cabarets in the 1950s. The Incomparable Hildegarde was named for the Blessed Hildegarde of Bingen, a singer who wrote reams of health and beauty advice. Hildegarde said cryptically that, unlike the saint of Bingen, “I won’t die wondering.” I think she meant it as an act of faith.