They were probably the first people in the world who were famous merely for being famous. Their story also perfectly epitomizes the evanescence of that state of being. In the 1920s, the Dolly Sisters were celebrities on a scale that dwarfed most movie stars, plutocrats and princes. Cecil Beaton, writing from Le Touquet in 1927, said: "The greatest thrill in this sensational playground is the vision of Jenny Dolly... Here is a sight which will go down in history, for in years to come doddering old bores will weary their grandchildren saying, 'I am old enough to remember Jenny Dolly looking rather like a guttersnipe as well as a regal queen, my dears, literally harnessed with colossal jewels of incalculable worth, sitting sphinx-like[at the baccarat table] as she won or lost the most vast of fortunes.'"
Yet today, not one person in 1,000 could tell you who the Dolly Sisters were. Like the Gabor sisters, Eva and Zsa Zsa, the Dolly Sisters emerged from the obscurity of Eastern Europe with undistinguished talents as entertainers, but with looks, allure and other sexual endowments that made men destroy themselves without a care for the consequences. The Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII and his close friend, Edward 'Fruity' Metcalfe, both reportedly had a dalliance with the Dollys. William Randolph Hearst was a devotee. Diamond Jim Brady was entranced and Harry Selfridge – founder of the Oxford Street store and soon to be the subject of a 10-part television drama – was once said to "bat the Dolly Sisters back and forth like ping-pong balls" between himself and Max Beaverbrook, owner of the Daily Express. Harry Selfridge made many expensive mistakes in his business career but no single indulgence did more to propel him towards his embittered and impecunious end in a Putney flat than the millions he squandered on the Dollies.

The identical twins who would later become known to the world as the tootsie-wootsies (also the oooomph girls and les grandes amoureuses) were born Yansci and Roszika Deutsch in Budapest on 25 October 1892. Their father, Julius, was a successful photographer. Their mother Margarethe had been a dancer and she helped to open the way to a dancing career for her daughters after the family emigrated in stages to America in the early 1900s. Their first performance – unconvincingly fashioned after the style of Isadora Duncan – was in Boston in 1906 when they were just 13 years old. Somebody thought they looked cute – "just like little dolls" – and the sobriquet stuck. For the rest of their lives, they would be known as Jenny and Rosie Dolly. By the next year, they were in a Broadway show and in 1911 they were hired at $350 a week to perform in the Ziegfeld Follies. "You can't do much but you're cute," observed the ever-shrewd Ziegfeld.

"Cute" hardly covers it. The Dollies were stunningly good looking. Their straight but delicate noses, wide-set eyes and rosebud mouths gave them a seductive air of innocence while their dark eyes and skin suggested depths of gypsy wildness. Slight and trim but full-breasted, they were obviously a terrific turn-on for men when they danced together. After they cut off their long tresses around 1920, following Louise Brooks in acquiring a bob, they outshone even the renowned beauties of the age such as Clara Bow and Joan Crawford.

Touring European dance halls and appearing in a string of minor movies made them plenty of money, but it didn't take the Dollies long to grasp that engaging the interests of extremely wealthy men was an easier and more rewarding way to earn a crust than hoofing it on the stage. They both married and divorced early in their twenties after which a river of expensive presents and excursions to exclusive restaurants and clubs began to flow their way from a fathomless supply of besotted men. In New York, they took a sumptuous penthouse with – despite Prohibition – a portable cocktail bar imported from London. In England, Rosie toyed with a proposal of marriage from the Honorable Percy Brook while Jenny danced the night away in the New York Bar in Paris with the world heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey (asked to choose between the Dollies, Dempsey had replied that the decision would take the wisdom of Solomon: "And I ain't no Solomon."). When Rosie first got divorced in the 1920s, her settlement of $2m was worth almost as much as Heather Mills's from Paul McCartney. In the same decade, Jenny's collection of jewels was estimated to have been worth more than $1m – which would be at least $15m now.

In the summer of 1922, they signed a six-week contract to appear at the Hotel Royal in Deauville – thus began their long association with 'the city of spectacular sin'. Here the Dolly Sisters became known as "the most inveterate and nonchalant gamblers and most lavish money spenders in Europe". Dressed by Patou and festooned with jewels, they reduced other women to "silence in awe of envy", as Beaton wrote. Lady Thelma Furness, later to be mistress of the Prince of Wales, said of Jenny at the tables, "I have never seen so many jewels on any one person in my life. Her bracelets reached almost to her elbows. The necklace she wore must have cost a king's ransom and the ring on her right hand was the size of an ice cube."

Did the Dollies take to baccarat and chemin de fer because they were naturally inclined that way? Or because gambling at the tables brought them into direct touch with the most loaded and elevated marks who could possibly come the way of a girl on the make? Gary Chapman, author of The Delectable Dollies, speculates openly that the Dollies laid on double entertainments for the men they met in Deauville and even that they might have entered into two-way adventures with the Alfonso, King of Spain and his son Prince Fausto.
The richest men in the world queued up to be their bankers at the tables. Diamond Jim Brady was followed by a Belgian steel magnate named Jacques Wittouck; but the Dollies' most successful pitch was for the affections and the wallet of Harry Selfridge, who abased himself pitifully to pay their gambling debts and shower them with gifts. With the Dolly Sisters, Harry's own gambling "crossed the line between habit and addiction" – as his biographer Lindy Woodhead has written.

Selfridge's understanding with the Dollies was that they could keep the money they won at the tables but he would make up their losses. Never was gambling more accurately described as "win-win". One evening in Cannes, Jenny won four million francs, which she kept. Another evening in Deauville, while they were at dinner after incurring losses of hundreds of thousands, the sisters were presented with diamonds and pearls from Harry along with a note that read: "I hope these will make up for your losses, darling girls." The losses were his own.

The Dollies amply aided Harry Selfridge in his mission to destroy himself but they, themselves, suffered as the Jazz Age turned into the Slump and the Great Depression. Lovers and husbands abandoned them while their own business ventures and investments failed. In 1933, Jenny's face was mutilated in a ghastly car accident, after which she sold her jewels and futilely spent her remaining fortune on medical operations to try to restore her looks. For the rest of her life, she wished that she had been left to die. On 1 June 1941, she took the task into her own hands, fashioning a noose from the sash of her dressing gown and hanging herself from an iron curtain rod in the living room of a dismal apartment in Hollywood.

In 1943, Rosie made $52,500 by selling the rights for a movie about their lives but, even though it starred Betty Grable and June Haver, The Dolly Sisters was a wash-out at the box office. The Dollies' day was done. In 1962, Rosie herself attempted suicide with pills but her life trickled on at a low ebb until 1970 when it ended with heart failure. By then, as she observed, she was a nobody even in America. "Here is very selfish people," she said bitterly. "They forget very easily."

A journalist and writer for 40 years, Neil Lyndon has published three books.

Watch Mark Oliver introduce The Dolly Sisters online at:

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