Mount Mary University Digital Collections


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Undated, autographed publicity photo of Hildegarde
Source: Mount Mary University Archives
Hildegarde (1906-2005)
Hildegarde Loretta Sell was born in Adell, Wisconsin in 1906, into a German immigrant family. Both of Hildegarde’s parents were enthusiastic amateur musicians. In 1918, the Sell family moved to Milwaukee. Hildegarde began her own music career at the age of 16, while still a student at Marquette University, when she began playing piano accompaniment for silent movies at the Lyric Theatre. In the late 1920s Hildegarde joined a touring vaudeville troupe before settling in New York City. Hildegarde eventually landed a job working for Irving Berlin, who encouraged her to perform and nurtured her career. Soon Hildegarde was being billed only by her first name, pioneering a venerable tradition among popular performing artists. A publicist later dubbed her “The Incomparable Hildegarde.”  
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Cover of LP, "The Incomparable Hildegarde On The Air 1936-1944"
Source: Mount Mary University Archives
While still a young woman, Hildegarde moved to Paris to learn the art of cabaret performance. Despite early struggles, she lived in France for several years, learning to sing in French, Russian, Italian, and Swedish. By the early 1930s Hildegarde had become synonymous with stylish nightclubs in both the U.S. and Europe. In 1934, Hildegarde performed in London for the Duke of Kent’s wedding. She returned to London three years later to celebrate King George VI’s coronation. In the late 1930s Hildegarde starred in a show created for the new medium of television and appeared on the cover of Life Magazine. In the 1940s Hildegarde hosted her own radio show while continuing to tour up to forty-five weeks per year. She also sold hundreds of thousands of records to a devoted fan base. Her most popular hits included I’ll Be Seeing You; Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup; and The Last Time I Saw Paris.

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Collage of images of Hildegarde from the program for her appearance at Hotel Schroeder in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1950
Source: Mount Mary University Archives

During the mid-twentieth century Hildegarde was reportedly the highest paid cabaret performer in the world, earning $17,500 per week. Both onstage and off, Hildegarde was known for her bold and stylish outfits. Firmly situated among the best-dressed of the best-dressed, Hildegarde was known for wearing opera gloves and stunning full-length gowns when she performed. While traveling for performances her clothing required twenty-three pieces of luggage. During the 1940s she claimed to spend $10,000 per year on clothes; by the 1960s that sum had increased to more than $30,000.
In 1986, at the age of 80, Hildegarde played a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall. She continued to perform until the late 1990s, when she officially retired at the age of 89.
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L to R: Sister Aloyse Hessburg, Hildegarde, Charles Kleibacker, 1982. The ensemble worn by Hildegarde is featured in the Digital Fashion Archive, Object ID #2002.84.25.AB.
Source: Mount Mary University Archives
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Letter from Hildegarde to Sister Aloyse Hessburg, April 26, 1982
Source: Mount Mary University Archives
Hildegarde’s connection to Mount Mary was direct and personal. She performed on campus at least three times between 1974 and 1993, when she was awarded an honorary degree. A 1982 appearance served as a fundraiser to help maintain the Mount Mary campus. Charles Kleibacker, patron and supporter of the Mount Mary Fashion program, was a personal friend of and designer for Hildegarde.
Through Mr. Kleibacker, Hildegarde also became close friends with Sister Aloyse Hessburg, founder and head of the Mount Mary fashion department. By 1973 Hildegarde had begun donating items from her personal and professional wardrobe, including elegant and colorful show-gowns, to the Mount Mary Historic Costume Collection (now the Fashion Archive). Other garments and accessories owned by Hildegarde were later donated to Mount Mary by Charles Kleibacker. Designers featured in the Hildegarde collection include George Stavropoulos, Halston, and Bruyère.
To listen to Hildegarde, explore these free Hildegarde recordings from the Internet Archive.
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Cover of program for Hildegarde's performance at Mount Mary to raise funds for maintenance of campus buildings
Source: Mount Mary University Archives

The Hildegarde Collection