London Life

London Life | 1940

Amazing Account Of A Limbless Beauty Show

by Wallace Stort

Dear Sir, - I am sorry that pressure of other business has prevented me from writing to you for something like a year, and I am afraid that this state of things is likely to continue. But, as you know, I am always very glad to report anything out of the ordinary resulting from my travels, and I am snatching a few minutes here and there to record an unusual recent experience that may interest readers.

I was on one of my periodic visits to the States a month or so before the outbreak of the present war, and, as usual, was on the look-out of anything out of the ordinary in the side-show line.

By pure luck, I happened to be in Seattle when the "Mighty Haag" Shows pitched their acres of canvas on the outskirts, and amongst the hundred and one attractions there was probably as unique a show as has ever been got together by an enterprising impresario of "kid-shows" - i.e. "side-shows": nothing at all to do with children, by the way.

This particular show had its own, big, important-looking marquee, with a line of fine, well painted banners, and altogether was reckoned one of the star items of the outfit. The long streamer running the whole length of the big tent announced:

"UNIQUE AND STUPENDOUS ATTRACTION. AMAZING GALAXY OF STARS NEVER BEFORE ASSEMBLED UNDER ONE ROOF. WONDERFUL AGGRESSION OF INTERNATIONAL LIMBLESS BEAUTY."

All of which was, of course, "slightly exaggerated," but at the same time the show was unique of its kind, and even I had never come across anything quite like it before. The interior was attractively got up, a series of small, ornately decorated stages being set side by side in a shallow semicircle, with a platform running the whole front of the series. Two "lecturers" in full evening dress were in attendance.

The curtains of all the stages were kept permanently up, so that the crowd throning the tent had a general view of the respective occupants all the time, though one of the lecturers dealt with each exhibit in turn.

The "stars" were all really international, two of which I had seen before, but as single exhibits and not in combination with other attractions as in the present unusual instance. And as I was very pleased to note, the ladies adorning the stages were all undeniably attractive. It is so often disappointing to discover that extensively advertised "armless beauties" and "legless lovelies" are in the flesh not so alluring as they are painted on the banners outside! Also as I stood taking a general view of the show, I made an odd calculation. There were altogether seven ladies included in the show, and they had between them exactly thirteen limbs!

Above the first stage on the left of the semicircle was the name "Christina" in many coloured Neon lighting. And lounging nonchalantly on a couch, so far taking no interest in the curious crowds, was Christina herself - a dark, alluring Italian beauty who, rumour had it, was in private life the wife of an Italian nobleman.

As she was not yet presenting her turn, Christina's charms were at the moment shrouded in a stunning negligee of clinging, shimmering gold-coloured silk. But she happened to be smoking a cigarette, and the open-mouthed spectators nearby saw that she removed the cigarette from her scarlet lips with the heavily beringed toes of a little brown bare foot, from which, and from the shapely limb above it, the thin silk wrap fell revealingly away.

Eventually the lecturer came to her stage and Christina skilfully stubbed out her cigarette and rose with a sort of insolent grace and eyed the crowd with a slow, sleepy-eyed smile.

Then she wriggled her shoulders daintily, her wrap slid to the floor behind her, and she stepped forward with a feline, undulating movement.

The usual little "ooh" came from the closely pressing crowd. Christina's slim and shapely brown body was attractively bare except for the briefest of diamante trunks, a narrow diamante brassiere, and tiny little heelless slippers trimmed with the same material. She was, of course, as one had guessed entirely without arms, only the rounded, perfectly symmetrical shoulder ends protruding somewhat prominently from the shapely bust.

Still smiling her dreamy sleepy-eyed smile and while the lecturer rattled off the usual would-be humorous patter about her, she kicked off her right slipper and, keeping a perfect balance on her left foot, raised her right leg with an extraordinary ease and grace, and began calmly to adjust with her long, jewelled, scarlet-nailed toes, the heavy, jet black coils of elaborately waved hair at the back of her head. She did it exactly as any normal girl manages the job with her hands, patting her hair into place and curling up the loose ends, with slender toes as skilful as fingers. You can imagine the laughter and cries of admiration the came from the girls in the audience.

After that she went through the usual "armless beauty" routine lighting and smoking cigarettes, pouring out wine and drinking from the glass, playing dance music excellently on a miniature piano, etc., etc. - all with her clever toes; finally "shaking hands" with the many admirers who crowded round the stage.

Meanwhile, the occupants of the other stages were also "doing their stuff," but for the purposes of this record I propose taking the exhibits in turn.

The name in Neon lights above the next stage was "Sally." As I had seen her before, I knew that she was Sally Bauer, an American girl, a comparative new-comer to the fairs and the carnivals. And I also recognised the buxom, attractive woman by the side of the little stage, as her mother, who always travels with her.

Sally, billed as the "Beautiful American Half-Girl," is a very pretty blonde of little more than school age, probably about 17. As her attractive costume of all white and silver, skin-fitting silk tights revealed, she is entirely without legs. Sally was born without legs.

Sally is an amazingly clever acrobat, trapeze artist and contortionist, and went through a routine that would be impossible to a normally formed acrobat. She is much at home on her hands as other people are on their feet, and her normal method of getting about at home is to turn about on her hands, sometimes with her body between her hands, sometimes with her body between her arms, and at others swinging her limbless trunk in a flexible arch above her head. The latter as her usual method of "running" up and down stairs, which she does as easily and swiftly as a normal person on legs and feet. She is perfectly happy and enjoys the show life immensely. And already she has her admirers and has received heaps of proposals!

The next stage was the central one of the five that formed the semicircle. I stood out from and was rather more ornate than the others, and obviously its occupant was the star attraction of the show.

The name of it above in brilliant Neon lights was "Violetta," and the lady was no stranger to me, as I had seen her and chatted with her two or three times before. Older readers of "London Life" may remember that I have referred to her more than once in my articles.

Violetta is probably the most outstanding of all the limbless ladies on exhibition, and is, I think, at the moment the only example of her particular type now before, at any rate, the American public. While the lecturers were busy with the other attractions, she remained perfectly calm and detached, neatly poised on her slender-stemmed, heavily brocade-topped pedestal, set in the centre of the stage. Now and then she would glance aloofly at the staring crowds, apparently undisturbed by their curiosity.

I remember her as a rather plain schoolgirl of 17 or 18, just over from Germany with her fair hair worn in a straight, flat fashion that did not add to her attraction. But that was ten or more years ago. Nowadays she has blossomed out into a real beauty, her blonde hair beautifully marcelled, her piquant face attractively made up, still grave and aloof, but undeniably charming.

Violetta possess a perfect figure, firm, beautifully curving bust, small neat waist and slim, rounded hips. But those are the beginning and end of her charms. She is merely a beautiful torso, completely without either arms or legs, even to the rudiments of limbs. Except that the usual limbs are absent, there is no suggestion of deformity about the neat trunk, which would not suffer comparison with that of any beauty queen or national Venus. In fact her usual billing, in her case no exaggeration, is as the "Beautiful Armless and Legless Venus."

According to her medical history, the torso is not only faultlessly modelled, but is without blemish of scar of any kind. Doctors and artists who have examined her have actually stated that, in her case, the absence of limbs constitutes no deformity. The doctors' verdict is that "the formation of the body is perfect within its own limits, and no provision has been made by Nature for the presence or functioning of limbs". And artists have described the wonderful torso as "a perfect, if unfinished, piece of natural sculpture."

When I first saw Violetta on her arrival in the States from Germany, years ago, she was very modestly clad in a costume of unrelieved black velvet, moulded to her figure, certainly, but quite opaque and clothing her from neck to hips. She still remains faithful to that type of costume, but it has subtly altered and has become much more alluring and revealing. The costumes of hers, by the way, can only be described as a specially designed figure-moulding pocket into which the torso is neatly fitted by her maid. The particular one she was wearing at this moment - with, by the way, a profusion of glittering necklaces - was of sheer black silk of a cobwebby fineness and transparency and clinging with the unwrinkled perfection of a skin-tight silk stocking. In fact it was obviously drawn on and smoothed into position exactly like a silk stocking.

I should say that the whole costume, when stripped from her, could easily be crushed into a loose, flimsy ball within one's closed fist. I could certainly be said to cover Violetta's charms from armless shoulders to shapely hips, but every curve and rounded contour of the beautiful torso was as fully revealed, and much more alluringly, as if she had been nude. AS she rested, gracefully poised on the cushioned top of her pedestal, one could easily note the faultless perfection of the limbless body.

At length the lecturer came round to Violetta's stage. She at once became the professional artist, aware of her public, bowing to right and left, with a charming, unaffected smile, as the man orated about her wonderful and unique charms in the usual highly eulogistic manner. He hoped that nobody would be so foolish to be sorry for her, as Violetta would be most hurt and would not regard it as a compliment.

She was perfectly happy and contented. In fact he could let the audience into a little secret and tell them that Violetta did not think a great deal of limbs in general. She did not think them particularly attractive and, for her own part, thought she was better without them. (In which, by the way, though the audience thought it a good joke, there is more than a little truth, and Violetta is not the only one of her kind to have the same strange, but compensating outlook. And on this occasion Violetta, while the audience was laughing, nodded and smiled vigorously, obviously in full agreement with the lecturer).

He suggested that she would make an excellent and economic wife for any enterprising young man, as she could never run away from home, and would save him a fortune in shoes, stockings, gloves, etc. But he did not tell his laughing audience that Violetta, as I knew, had been happily married for some years, and that round her neck, along with the gleaming rows of necklaces, she always wore a thin, gold chain on which hung her engagement and wedding rings, which she could wear in no other way.

After the lecturer's introductory remarks, Violetta presented her act; and a very remarkable act it is, revealing to the astonished spectators who see her for the first time the surprising fact that a totally limbless girl may not necessarily be absolutely helpless.

She is attended to during the performance by a very pretty nurse (who is, in fact, her maid) clad in a stunning uniform of brief, little more than hip-length skirts and silk tights, that no ordinary nurse could possibly wear. The nurse comes forward and first of all places on the floor below Violetta's pedestal (which, by the way, is about two and a half feet high, bringing its occupant up to about normal height) a thick mat of brightcoloured, cushioned rubber, and round it the materials for the act.

She then releases a catch in the top of the pedestal on which Violetta rests, and allows it to tilt forward slightly. Violetta drops to the mat in a graceful, flexible swing, and manages miraculously to remain upright in a perfect balance. After that she looks after herself, though the nurse hovers round solicitously all the time to offer help if necessary.

The extraordinary thing is that she is able to move about the mat quite easily, jumping or hopping - however you would describe the action - rather like a man in a sack race, only much more gracefully and effortlessly, and keeping her balance most of the time. Sometimes, in fun, she rolls right over, head first, she is coming at the end of the roll to an easy upright position again.

Meanwhile, using only her lips and teeth, she places in position a small easel, and upon that a pad of drawing papers. Then, with a charcoal pencil in a long holder, held between her teeth, she sketches in rapid succession, cartoons of well-known people, the nurse tearing off each finished drawing in turn and tossing it into the audience, to be grabbed by eager hands. In the same way, using only her wonderfully flexible lips, teeth and tongue, she opens a cigarette box which stands on a low table, selects a cigarette, and shifts it expertly to the corner of her mouth. Then, with her tongue she pushes open a matchbox - which, of course, is a fixture in a small chromium stand - and picks out in some miraculous manner a match. The cigarette is now between her lips in one corner, and the match between her teeth in another. She strikes the match, brings the end of the cigarette and the lighted end of the match together, lights the cigarette, and blows out and spits out the match. The trick is one that you'd think impossible until you see it, and then it looks almost easy!

She also demonstrates, in pantomime, how she can, if necessary wash herself practically all over. Again she uses her teeth, holding a sponge between them; and by contorting her amazingly flexible limbless torso into every conceivable position, she keeps the sponge moving lightly over her body. At one time she had rolled herself into a compact ball, "showing," as the lecturer humorously remarks, "how easily Violetta manages to make both ends meet!"

You would imagine that the feat of threading a needle and sewing, using only the tongue, teeth and lips, would be an impossible one. But this Violetta demonstrates is also comparatively simple to an ingenious mind. She picks the needle up with her tongue and lips, and sticks it point downward into the wood of her table, using her closed teeth to drive it home. Then she uses her tongue to pick up the thread, and manipulates it easily and swiftly into position with her lips and, bending down, threads the needle expertly. The sewing seems a more difficult business, but the fact is that Violetta's lips have become almost as flexible as fingers, and she seems to find no trouble in the task.

At the end of the remarkable little show she hops easily to the end of her mat and bows and smiles to the tremendous applause Then, turning to the nurser who stoops towards her, she crouches lightly and hops upwards into the nurse's arms. The nurse, with the beautiful limbless body in her arms, now steps down from the stage and carries her mistress among the audience, with which she chats in a smiling, friendly manner. She answers all sorts of questions about herself, even the most impertinent, with a laugh, and allows anybody who wishes to touch and smooth her body, in order to prove to themselves that she is "real and not an illusion."

The only thing she bars is kissing - which, believe it or not, many young men, as well as some women, attempt at nearly everyone of her performances. She has a way of using a shoulder, as she rests in her nurse's arms, that a boxer might, and the unexpected jab to the chin of a too ardent admirer is sometimes calculated to bring tears to his eyes!

Finally, Violetta is borne back to her pedestal, where the nurse settles her comfortably, and she returns to her grave and aloof contemplation of whatever is she thinks about, until the time comes round again for her turn.

Above the next stage was the name "Rose" - and Rose, I must confess, gave me the surprise of my life. In the first place she was exhibited as British - her professional name is "Rose English" - and in the second she is a type I had never expected to see again on exhibition. I was surprised that I had never heard of her before nor seen her. But eventually I discovered that, though she had been born in England, she was really a Canadian and had come to the States some months before from Canada.

Rose was described as "The Beautiful British monolimb" - the latter word an Americanism which doesn't appear to me particularly attractive. But Rose herself is very attractive, and, as I have said, a type I had never expected to see in the flesh again. She is a genuine, though not congenital "monolimb." All she possess is her right leg, her arms being completely absent from the shoulders, and her left leg from the hip joint. She, too, has a beautifully rounded figure, which seems even taller and more slender than the normal because of the lack of arms and the presence of the single shapely leg.

Another curious point is that she seems more noticeable limbless than even her neighbour Violetta. I suppose it is because Violetta's torso, with its perfectly smooth line, is more compact and complete than Rose's equally shaped torso, with the long, slim, only limb emerging from it on the right side.

I have said that Rose is not congenitally armless and one-legged. It is a legend of the side-shows that all the limbless wonders on exhibition are born so. That is calculated to make them more interesting to the spectator. After all, anybody may lose a limb, but only the infinitesimal few are born without one or more of their limbs. But it is not always the case that the exhibit has born as he or she is now.

Of the ladies appearing in the present show, Christina, Sally Bauer and Violetta were all certainly and obviously born as they were. But Rose was not - though for show purposes she is announced as having been born with but a single limb. Actually she was a victim of a famous Canadian railway smash in which her mother and another sister were also badly hurt. She was then about seventeen - she is close to thirty now. Both arms were amputated at the shoulder joints immediately, and though efforts were made to save the shattered left leg, it was amputated well above the knee. Several operations followed the next few years, and eventually the stump was removed completely from the left hip joint.

Naturally, she has the unhappiest memories of all that dreadful time, but she has become a very happy and gay person since then. She has acquired an adoring husband and a little girl of five, both of whom think she is perfect. And she has come to adopt the prevailing side-show philosophy, that her unique one-limbed body stated to be the only one of its kind now on show in the world is something to be proud of than the contrary.

Rose's act is simple, but effective. She does not do the usual stunts, but relies for her effects upon charm and gradual revelation. The tiny stage is set as an attractive little drawing room, and Rose is revealed reclining gracefully on a couch. She is brilliantly made up, with elaborately waved hair and clad in a fluffy robe de chambre of clinging, pale peach silk, and frills and laces, girdled round the waste with a broad scarlet sash. A bell rings outside, and there enters a boy friend got up according to the American notion of an English "dude," in immaculate morning coat, striped trousers etc., with a monocle, cane and tall hat, which he carries in his hand.

Rose sits up with the languorous grace of a grande dame, and here come the first little surprise. The young admirer bows with exaggerated courtesy, and from the opening of Rose's robe there merge a slender, shapely limb in a skin-tight, flesh-coloured silk stocking, the little food clad in a dainty fur trimmed, velvet, heelless mule. Rose slips off the mule, revealing the fact that the long slender toes, fastidiously pedicured and with gleaming scarlet nails, are left attractively bare by the mittened stocking. With easy, flexible grace, she raises the leg, and the boy friend takes the little foot in his hand, bows over it and touches the bare toes with his lips.

There now enters, carrying a tea tray, a smart maid in the briefest of outspread skirts and long, slim limbs in transparent black silk stockings, and perilously high, stilt-heeled slippers. She deposits the tray on a low table by the couch, and the boy draws up a chair. Rose then proceeds to dispense tea, "handing" a cup to the boy and taking one for herself and conveying it with perfect ease to her lips - all with her clever, flexible toes.

She follows this by opening with her toes a silver cigarette box lying on the table and "handing" it to the boy, who takes a cigarette. Rose takes on herself and places it between her lips and, striking a match, lights both cigarettes, raising the match to her lips to blow it out.

Meanwhile, as if by accident, the flimsy clinging robe has gradually slipped from her shoulders and eventually reveals the intriguing fact that beneath she is clad only in the daintiest of wispy, diaphanous undies. The little "accident" also makes apparent for the first time that she is completely armless as the white shoulders, with their neatly rounded-off ends, are left alluringly bare. The boy comes gallantly to her rescue, jumps up and, after implanting a chaste kiss on each armless shoulder, replaces the robe.

Tea over, the boy is now ready to take his leave. He picks up his hat and cane and bows again. The little foot is presented again to him for his farewell caress. Then Rose slips her foot into her mule, rises easily to a perfect balance, and sees him to the door, hopping effortlessly at his side. The two kiss, and he goes out. Rose hops back agilely to her couch, flexions her leg gracefully and unfastens with her toes the sash about her waist. Then she raises again and stands facing the audience.

She yawns delicately, flutters her eyelids in sleepy fashion and, with a flexible movement of her shoulders lets the robe slip in a soft heap to the floor. She stands perfectly poised, clad only in a fluttering, diaphanous slip, brief, skin-tight panties, and a long, hip-length stocking, garter with frilled, jewelled satin circlet round the middle of the thigh. She is thus revealed for the first time in all the strange allure of her monolimbed beauty - an unfinished goddess, armless and one-legged. One could feel the thrill that passed through the pressing crowd, a thrill mixed with a kind of incredulous wonder.

The attractive maid enters again and, with her help, Rose goes through the pantomime of preparing to retire. The maid picks up the discarded robe, and sets out a tiny dressing table and stool. Meanwhile Rose is hopping blithely about here and there, humming a little song, ostensibly to see that everything is really, but really to demonstrate to the audience her perfect control and balance on her single leg.

She seats herself on the stool, the maid strips the long stocking from the white, shapely limb, and goes through the pretence of massaging the foot and pedicuring the toe-nails. Incidentally, as Rose is now seated facing the audience, one is able to note how complete is the absence of the missing left limb. The rounded armless shoulders, too, are perfectly symmetrical, with only a gentle protrusion of the neat shoulder ends. I know that there are slight indentations as a result of now practically faded scar tissue, but these have the effect only of largish dimples and do not mar the general smoothness of the contour.

However, Rose turns to the table and prepares her toilette, brushing her hair, making herself up, touching her lips with lipstick, etc., and powdering herself all over, including, with a little roguish smile at the audience, the rounded curve at the left hip joint where the leg is absent. This latter trick, by the way, is not meant as a "daring" or saucy touch, but actually to show how amazingly flexible her leg is, and how clever her toes.

Finally the maid wraps her in her robe, picks her up in her arms, and carries her out. Rose raising her leg and waving her bare little foot in farewell as she goes. This routine, by the way, is something entirely new and very much more fascinating and alluring than the usual "armless wonder" act. It was thought out by her clever husband, who has produced a number of plays and movies.

So we come to the last stage at the right end of the semicircle. Above this is the name "Lotus," and she proved to be something new and fascinating. She is a tiny little Chinese, very pretty in her slant-eyed Oriental way. She is billed, I am sure with perfect truth, as "The Only Living Tattooed Legless Beauty."

Lotus has no act. She is just a delightful picture gallery and poses calmly and inscrutably on her pedestal, which differs from Violetta's support only in that it is of highly ornate, Chinese design. Her slim little boyish figure is completely tattooed with an inter-linked, intricate design of beautifully coloured Chinese scroll work, writhing with dragons and snakes. Not an inch of flesh from the base of her throat to the curves of her legless hips remains uncovered. She wears only the absolute minimum of clothing, but quite without offence, as she is completely clothed in her own "coat of many colours" - her sole adornment being two tiny twin breastplates of some glittering metallic material, cupping the small breasts and tiny, triangular trunks of the same material.

The beauty of the little figure and the amazing intricacy of the tattooed design are therefore fully apparent, the latter even extending, as one is able to note, to the twin slight undulations at the hips, which are the only suggestions of lower limbs she possess. In many ways she proves to be one of the most fascinating little persons in the whole wonderful exhibition.

Finally, providing a sort of inter-note, there were the "Munro Sisters", one-legged acrobats, contortionists and dancers. They were a couple of attractive blondes, who were, of course not sisters. They had both been circus trapeze artistes, but with different circuses, and each had lost a leg as the result of a fall from the high trapeze. They had come together quite by accident, and decided to team up and build an act. One had lost the right leg, and the other the left, which helped the balance of the act.

In their very revealing, flesh-coloured silk tights they appeared in turn, outside the show, assisting the "barker" the man with the stentorian voice who invites you to "Walk up! Walk up!" And at intervals they presented their own act on the main platform inside, giving a really wonderful display of contortion and amazingly clever one-legged dancing. One of their "stunts" was to invite boys from the audience to dance ordinary ballroom fox-trots with them, and it was fascinating to see how ingeniously they fitted in their one-legged steps with their partners.

I was very interested to note - and, as you may guess, I saw this show several times - that neither of the girls used a crutch, nor was there ever a crutch of any kind ever in evidence. They just hopped about, when necessary, with astonishing nimbleness on their single legs, between their acts, wearing thin, absurdly inadequate silk wraps over their tights. They had a little side platform near the entrance to themselves when resting, and there they sat and talked and smoked interminable cigarettes. And they seemed to get an amused kick out of allowing their wraps to lay open in such a manner that their little silk-clad stumps were frankly displayed, and winking at each other when the boys halted and stood staring with open and absorbed interest - as is the way with American youth - at the intriguing display.

"Unique and stupendous attraction" was, perhaps, after all, a not too exaggerated description of this wonderful show. At any rate, I found it one of the biggest thrills I have encountered in many years of looking for such things in the interesting world of side-show.

yours very sincerely

Wallace Stort


London Life January 27, 1940 pp. 27,28,29,30,47
London Life | 1940