Research projects sometimes take unexpected, but fascinating, twists and turns. I had reason a few years ago to look into the case of a woman called Madame Sherri. She is mostly known for an unusual castle-like house built for her in a rural area of New Hampshire–its ruins are now popular with hikers and lovers of the odd and mysterious.
My investigation dragged me far from New Hampshire–to the world of cabaret reviews in New York City, the vaudeville circuit, and “soldier shows” (popular during World War I, with Irving Berlin’s “Yip Yip Yaphank” being the most well-known). And, for good measure, toss in a scandal involving sex and blackmail.
It had previously been known that Madame Sherri had worked in New York as a costume designer before she moved to the Granite State in the 1930s. She did costumes and gowns for the Ziegfeld Follies (and as it turns out, various vaudeville acts like female impersonator Francis Renault and the Glorias, a brother and sister dancing team). But, as it happens, there was much more to be told.
In December 1911, New York newspapers related a quaint story about a young couple who had just arrived on the Oceanic. The woman, Antonia DeLilas, was French; the man, Andre Riela, was the son of an Italian diplomat stationed in the U.S. Riela had brought his wife from Europe so she could meet his parents. The young bride was shunned at first, but then welcomed into the family. But much of this touching little human interest story was a hoax.
The man calling himself Riela needed a way to quietly re-enter the country. As discovered by a police detective months later, he was actually a wanted man. When the couple reported the theft of some jewelry, Riela’s identity was revealed: he was actually Anthony Macaluso, who had fled prosecution for bribery several years earlier. He had been charged with that crime after taking money to alter his testimony in an extortion case against a shady lawyer named Carl Fischer-Hansen. Fischer-Hansen had been blackmailing an interior designer who had used young Macaluso as his sex toy.
Riela, that is Macaluso, was locked up briefly in the Tombs, but this did not seem to impact his fledgling show business career. He and his wife, who began calling herself Antoinette Sherri, were dancers on the vaudeville circuit, performing tangos and a popular, dizzying dance of the day called the Apache.
Over time, the Sherris gave up dancing and–mainly in New York City–worked off the stage but not far from it. Andre Sherri (as Macaluso/Riela now called himself) staged musical reviews that were presented at places like Rector’s Restaurant, the Pabst Harlem, and the Brighton Beach Hotel. Madame Sherri created costumes for her husband’s shows, as well as those of others. She taught the trade to a young failed actor named Charles LeMaire, who later on became an Oscar-winning Hollywood costumer.
In the rough-and-tumble environment of show business in the 1910s and 1920s, Andre Sherri engaged in his share of spats; he had run-ins with Flo Ziegfeld and Gus Edwards, as well as dancers seeking back-pay. Though Sherri’s cabaret shows enjoyed some popularity, they did not attract a lot of attention beyond New York. He did collaborate with renowned composer A. Baldwin Sloane, but his biggest success was his “soldier show,” Atta Boy! It played at the Lexinngton Theater, and toured several major cities in the last year of the first World War. Audiences were amused by its novelty of having enlisted men perform all the parts, including the female ones.
Not long after the 1924 death of Andre (as a result of syphilis), Madame decided to make a big change. She began buying property in the small town of Chesterfield, New Hampshire, where a unique house was built pursuant to her instructions. The house was the scene of many lavish parties attended by her show business acquaintances. Between these and being driven around in a Packard that had once been used as a parade vehicle, she kept the locals bemused.
Sadly, Madame’s finances (mostly funds sent her by LeMaire) wore thin, and her health declined. She became a ward of the state, and her beloved “castle” fell victim to vandalism and fire. Madame, a shadow of her flamboyant past self, died penniless in 1965 in Brattleboro, Vermont, a few miles from her castle, but an immeasurable distance from her days of glory in the Big Apple.