The Wickedest Girls Ever in Greenpoint ! The Five Bad Barrison Sisters!

Screen shot 2015-02-09 at 9.18.20 PMScreen shot 2015-02-09 at 9.19.12 PMScreen shot 2015-02-09 at 9.39.13 PM I am a historian of sorts, not an expert on brazen hussies, but If you had asked me who the wickedest girls who ever lived on India Street were, I might have told you the fictional characters from the HBO Series “Girls.” ( Full disclosure I have never watched the show, but my students told me the girls get up to some raunchy stuff.) Hah! They would not even be the sleaze queens of their own block!  The winners? The five bawdy Barrison sisters who in the eighteen nineties deeply  offended puritanical  morals and developed an international reputation as brazen hussies, while getting rich and famous at the same time. Perhaps at some point I will do more historical research on lewd women in Greenpoint, but, as of now, these five saucy sisters dethroned Mae West as the Risque queens of Greenpoint. ( By the way if you have any other candidates send me their names and qualifications and I will duly consider them.) but back to the story of the wicked hussies of India Street. They Barrison Sisters – Lona, Sophia, Inger, Olga and Gertrude were  plump and uninhibited Greenpoint scandalistas.  When Lona, the oldest, turned sixteen, their mother took them to audition for the parts of fairies in some innocent bit of nonsense at a local theatre. The five were cute, cheeky and fluffy, and Iona was “an outstanding beauty, well-developed and temperamental. In 1890 she married William Fleron, from Greenpoint,  a Broadway press agent, who engineered a haze of publicity – posters, souvenirs, newspaper interviews, magazine articles, guest appearances – which took them triumphantly all over the world. They played Berlin for eight months, and they monopolised the Folies-Bergere (to cries of “Vives les americaines!”), with their innocent fares, their schoolgirl costumes, and their suggestive songs.  They achieved notoriety, however, by ingenious use of double entendres on stage- something that Mae West would also use in her act. Did Mae West know of them and copy this part of her act from the daring Danes? It is entirely likely. Berlin was particularly impressed with the number Mein Kleine Katz. ( I could offer a shocking German translation, but wont)  The curtain rose a few feet, to show five frilly petticoats. “Would you like to see my pussy?” warbled the girl. The audience would, so the curtain continued to rise, as did the petticoats, until a fluffy black kitten was revealed peering our of each girl’s knickers. They concluded their act by turning their hacks on the audience, bending over, and raising their petticoats again. The Germans took this act  very seriously (As they do with almost everything) and in 1897 Anton Lindner wrote an analysis of the Barrison Girls Phenomenon – Die Barrisons, Ein Kunstraum, Zeitsatire. Despite their voices (which he described as high-pitched and squeaky) and their dancing (he described their legs as rubbery which may or may not have been a good thing), Lindner writes of the sense of joy that they communicated to their audiences. Philip Kaplan, in an article on the Barrison girls, says: “Neither acrobatic nor aesthetic, their dancing was direct and clear and modern.” A French nobleman even  committed suicide for love of Lona and  they were so shocking that they were eventually  barred from re-entering Germany. They returned to the United States where their act was viciously panned in the October 6, 1896 edition of the uptight and sanctimonious  New York TImes, which said of Lola Barrison,” Vulgar is a word that may be applied to her performance. Perhaps some of those in last night’s performance have found a stronger word.” The article quoted a veteran New York Theater goer as saying,” It is the most audacious piece of deviltry and abandonment I ever saw offered to a New York public.”  The Times reviewer was deeply shocked by their lack of clothes and the risque songs that the sisters sang and noted that none of the females in the audience applauded. In its October 4, 1896 edition, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle dispatched a reporter to India Street to inquire from the locals what they knew of the wicked sisters.  It seems that in the eighteen-eighties the five sisters appeared on 40 India Street as immigrants from Denmark. The father was quite poor with his only employment being fixing broken umbrellas. Even though the family was poor, evidently none of the sisters showed the least interest in Greenpoint boys, much to their chagrin.  They were according to the Eagle,”Poor, but proud and spurned the admiring Greenpoint youths. Some of the sour grapes locals observed that the sisters ” Never had any use for the other people on the block and had a “My mammy won’t let me play with you,” attitude. The girls were drawn more to Vaudeville and the stage than to the local boys. The oldest, and by all accounts, the most provocative, was named Lola. She quickly made a name for herself and married her agent. They quickly left Greenpoint for bigger and better places. The Barrison Sisters broke up around the turn of the 20th century, but both Gertrude and Lona went on to have successful solo careers on the stage. Gertrude  the youngest and perhaps most talented of them all, became a groundbreaking modern dancer in Vienna where she lived for two decades, married to Carl Hollitzer, a renowned Austrian painter. She was the last to die —in 1946 in Copenhagen.

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