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Remembering ‘The Incomparable Hildegarde,’ Born This Week In 1906

Vintage Wisconsin: International Singer First To Be Known By 1 Name

Marquette University

The “Incomparable Hildegarde” was born this week in 1906. The Wisconsin-born singer, pianist and all-around entertainer was so famous in her lifetime that she was known only by one name.

Hildegarde Loretta Sell was born in Adell on Feb. 1, 1906, into a musical family. Her father played the drums and violin, and her mother played organ and directed the church choir. Hildegarde and her sisters sang in the school choir and played in the orchestra. The family moved to Milwaukee when Hildegarde was 12 years old, and in 1924, Hildegarde enrolled at Marquette University to study piano.

Her career in music began at age 16 when she played piano for silent movies at the Merrill Theater. She later joined a vaudeville troupe and accompanied various performers both at home and abroad.

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It was Hildegarde’s friendship with Anna Sosenko that launched her career. Sosenko became Hildegarde’s manager and the two developed Hildegarde’s distinctive cabaret style as well as the persona for which she became widely known.

Hildegarde learned to sing in French, Russian, Italian and Swedish. She dressed in couture gowns and played piano in long white gloves. Her recordings of songs such as “Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup” and “The Last Time I Saw Paris” became worldwide hits. She had a top radio show in the 1930s and 40s, and in 1939, her face graced the cover of Life magazine. For her fame and style, columnist Walter Winchell gave her the title “The Incomparable Hildegarde.”

Hildegarde’s career spanned nearly seven decades. At age 88, still singing, Hildegarde was asked if her age was affecting her performance. She replied, “I look pretty good for 88, pushing 90. I take care of myself. I sing well.”

She died in 2005 at the age of 99.