JUNE 10: Anita Berber (1899-1928)


Yesterday we covered the lesbian magazine Frauenlibe/Garçonne
and hinted at the LGBT scene of Weimar-era Germany and today we’re diving
right back into Berlin’s gay nightlife of yesteryear to cover a figure who was
at the heart of the scene – the cabaret dancer Anita Berber.

A topless Anita poses for the camera while sporting a short bob haircut, heavy dark makeup, and a collection of pearls which was the popular fashion of the day (x).

Anita Berber was born on June 10, 1899 in Leipzig to an
artistic German family; her father was First Violinist for the Municipal
Orchestra and her mother was a travelling actress and singer. Her parents
divorced when Anita was young and left her to be mostly raised by her
grandmother in Dresden, but despite their lack of physical presence in their
daughter’s life they still passed on a love of performing. At the age
of 16, Anita enrolled in acting classes and made her stage debut a year later
with Rita Sacchetto’s Avant-garde dance
troupe. This was the first step on a career path that would lead her into a
world of scandal, drugs, and historical infamy.

When Anita became involved with Susi Wanowski who was a popular lesbian photographer (pictured right with Anita), she also became involved with Berlin’s Weimar-era lesbian scene. Her performance in the film

Bitte Zahlen (pictured left) reflects her penchant for androgyny and cross-dressing (x), staples of the lesbian subculture. 

By 1918, Anita had a robust career. She had toured all over
Germany and Austria with Sacchetto’s dance troupe, had acted in her first
feature film, and had been featured in the popular women’s magazine Die Dame. She was famous for her androgynous appearance
and eye-catching heavy makeup; her trademark was the black lipstick which she
would not be seen in public without. She danced naked for the first time at an
after-show party in Vienna and this too would quickly become one of Anita’s trademarks. She
revolutionized the cabaret scene in Berlin by dancing naked publicly night
after night in various clubs, not wearing much more than a loincloth and two small corsages over
her breasts.

Anita’s career was at its peak when she became a double act with her then-husband Sebastian Droste. The photographer Atelier D’ora took many promotional photos that served as advertisements for the various shows Anita and Sebastian performed (x). 

Anita was openly bisexual and had multiple affairs
with men and women. It was even rumored in the streets of Berlin that she had
had an affair with the actress Marlene Dietrich, but there is little evidence
to back that up. Her two most notable partners were Susi Wanowski, who she made her manager and secretary. After meeting the
dancer and poet Sebastian Droste in a Berlin casino, Anita left Susi and
partnered up with him both personally and professionally. Together, Anita and
Sebastian’s careers reached heights they had never seen before, but so did their
drug use. In 1923, after hitting a particularly low point, Sebastian stole all
of Anita’s belongings from their shared apartment and fled to New York City.
The tumultuous break did not halt Anita’s debaucherous love life or dancing
career, but for the next five years she would become increasingly dependent on
cocaine and alcohol. On July 13, 1928, Anita collapsed on stage during a
performance in Beirut and was later diagnose with pulmonary tuberculosis. Her
dying wish was to return home to Berlin, which was fulfilled by the time of her
death on November 10, 1928. You can read more about Anita’s life in The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of
Anita Berber
by Mel Gordon.