Elsa Béreny: 1930s German Dancer Living Her Best Life

Posted on 21st February 2019 by simonbeattie

As I write this the sun is streaming in the window of our Chesham office. Spring, it seems, is finally upon us, which means something even more exciting is just around the corner: the 2019 New York Antiquarian Book Fair.

This year we’re bringing some great material, including the first book on figure skating, published c.1773; some beautiful decorated papers; two fabulously designed Russian type specimens from the 1930s; and an impossibly delicate and intricate straw marquetry box from the early 1800s. My favourite among them all is a little more modest, but brings me pure joy nonetheless: Elsa Béreny’s Reise-Erinnerungen einer Tänzerin.

The camera clearly loves her.

Privately printed for her in 1933, the book recounts her experiences of being a dancer on tour in the interwar period. Her stops include Bosnia, Italy, Belgium, England, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, and Poland. Though she clearly wasn’t famous, and none of the cities she visits seem very glamorous (she visits Hull, Newcastle, Durham, Darlington, and Sunderland in the UK, for example), one can’t help but get the impression that she had one hell of a time.

The photographs are a mix of Elsa in costume (the range of her performance styles is extraordinary), and posing in front of various sights. A curious inclusion is a shot of Chief White Horse Eagle, of the Osage tribe, ‘the oldest man in the world’, standing next to William Penn’s grave in Buckinghamshire, just around the corner from our office. Postcards with photos of her in costume occasionally pop up on the internet, and I would dearly love to get a hold of one. It’s not everyday you get to see someone just going for it, and living their best life.

We will be selling Elsa’s book this year at the fair, along with a host of other fantastic materials. For more, check out our fair list, or swing by stand C33 at the fair itself.

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