Sally Bowles

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Sally Bowles
Julie Harris as Sally Bowles.jpg
Julie Harris as Sally Bowles
in the 1951 play I Am a Camera
First appearanceSally Bowles (1937 novella)
Created byChristopher Isherwood
In-universe information
OccupationCabaret singer

Sally Bowles (/blz/) is a fictional character created by English-American novelist Christopher Isherwood and based upon cabaret singer Jean Ross.[1] The character originally debuted in Isherwood's 1937 novella Sally Bowles published by Hogarth Press. The story was later republished in the 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin.

Sally is a central character in the 1951 John Van Druten stage play I Am a Camera, the 1955 film of the same name, the 1966 musical stage adaptation Cabaret and the 1972 film adaptation of the musical. In 1979, critic Howard Moss of The New Yorker noted the peculiar resiliency of the character: "It is almost fifty years since Sally Bowles shared the recipe for a Prairie oyster with Herr Issyvoo in a vain attempt to cure a hangover" and yet the character in "subsequent transformations" lives on "from story to play to movie to musical to movie-musical."[2]

Creation and description[edit]


Jean Ross, a cabaret singer in the Weimar Republic, served as the primary basis for Isherwood's character.[3]
Jean Ross, a cabaret singer in the Weimar Republic, served as the primary basis for Isherwood's character.[3]

Sally Bowles is based on Jean Ross,[3][1] a British actress and staunch Marxist,[4][5] whom Isherwood knew during the years he lived in Weimar Berlin between the World Wars (1929—1933).[1] Belying her humble circumstances in Berlin, Ross was the offspring of a wealthy Scottish cotton merchant and came from a privileged background.[4] She had "a long, thin handsome face, aristocratic nose, glossy dark hair" with large brown eyes.[6][4] Isherwood noted that Ross was "more essentially British than Sally; she grumbled like a true Englishwoman, with her grin-and-bear-it grin. And she was tougher. She never struck Christopher as being sentimental or the least bit sorry for herself. Like Sally, she boasted continually about her lovers."[6][4] According to Isherwood, Ross was a sexually liberated young woman who once claimed[a] to have had sex with another performer in view of the audience during Max Reinhardt's production of Tales of Hoffman circa Winter 1931:

"In the course of the ball scene at the Venetian palace of the courtesan Giulietta, several pairs of lovers were carried onto the stage. Each pair reclined on a litter, locked in each other's arms. These lovers were merely extras and few members of the audience can have paid any attention to their embraces, once they had made their entrance, for a dazzling corps de ballet was performing in the middle of the stage. But Christopher watched one pair of lovers intently, through opera glasses, until the end of the scene. Even so, he couldn't be sure if what Jean had told him was true — that she had sex with her partner in full view of the audience."[7]

When crafting the "divinely decadent" Sally Bowles as a literary character, Isherwood purloined the surname "Bowles" from American writer Paul Bowles whom he had likewise met in Berlin in 1931 and to whom he was sexually attracted.[6] Explaining his choice, he wrote, "[I] liked the sound of it and also the looks of its owner."[6] Isherwood famously introduces Sally in his 1937 novella by writing:

"A few minutes later, Sally herself arrived. 'Am I terribly late, Fritz darling?'.... Sally laughed. She was dressed in black silk, with a small cape over her shoulders and a little cap like a page-boy's stuck jauntily on one side of her head.... I noticed that her finger-nails were painted emerald green, a colour unfortunately chosen, for it called attention to her hands, which were much stained by cigarette smoking and as dirty as a little girl's. She was dark.... Her face was long and thin, powdered dead white. She had very large brown eyes which should have been darker, to match her hair and the pencil she used for her eyebrows."[8]

In the novella Sally is British, purporting to be the daughter of a Lancashire mill-owner and an heiress.[9] She is a "self-indulgent upper-middle-class British tourist who could escape Berlin whenever she chose."[10] By day, she is an aspiring film actress hoping to work for the UFA GmbH, the German film production company.[11] By night, she is a chanteuse at an underground club called The Lady Windermere located near the Tauentzienstraße.[12][13] Isherwood describes her singing as mediocre but surprisingly effective "because of her startling appearance and her air of not caring a curse what people thought of her".[14] She aspires to be an actress[15] or, as an alternative, to ensnare a wealthy man to keep her.[16] Unsuccessful at both, Sally departs Berlin and is last heard from in the form of a postcard sent from Rome with no return address.[17]


Isherwood in 1939.
Isherwood in 1939.

Isherwood ostensibly began drafting the story that would become Sally Bowles in 1933, writing to Ross' friend (and later companion) Olive Mangeot in July of that year that he had written it.[18] He continued to revise the manuscript over the next three years, completing his final draft on June 21, 1936.[10][19] In a letter to poet and editor John Lehmann dated January 16, 1936, Isherwood briefly outlined the piece, envisioning it as part of his novel The Lost (which became Mr Norris Changes Trains). He describes it as akin to the work of Anthony Hope and as "an attempt to satirize the romance-of-prostitution racket".[20]

Later in 1936 Isherwood submitted the piece to Lehmann for possible publication in his literary magazine, New Writing. Lehmann liked the piece but felt that it was too lengthy for his magazine. He was also concerned about the inclusion in the manuscript of Sally's abortion, fearing both that his printers might refuse to typeset it and that Jean Ross might file a libel action.[21] In a January 1937 letter, Isherwood explained his belief that, without the abortion incident, Sally would be reduced to "a silly little capricious bitch" and that the omission would leave the story without a climax.[21]

"[Ross] never liked Goodbye to Berlin, nor felt any sense of identity with the character of Sally Bowles, which in many respects she thought more closely modeled on one of Isherwood's male friends.... She never cared enough, however, to be moved to any public rebuttal. She did from time to time settle down conscientiously to write a letter, intending to explain to Isherwood the ways in which she thought he had misunderstood her; but it seldom progressed beyond 'Dear Christopher.'"

Sarah Caudwell, Jean Ross' daughter, The New Statesman, October 1986.[5]

Nevertheless, Isherwood likewise feared a libel suit by Jean Ross and sought her permission to publish the story. Ross hesitated in giving her consent as she feared the story's abortion episode — which was factual and a painful memory[10] — would strain her relations with her powerful family.[10] Ross ultimately relented and gave her permission, and Hogarth published the volume later that year.[21]

Following the tremendous success of the story and the character, Ross ostensibly regretted this decision.[5] For the remainder of her life, Ross believed her popular association with the naïve character of Bowles occluded her lifelong work as a professional journalist, political writer, and social activist.[22]

Although Isherwood never publicly revealed that Ross was the inspiration for Sally until after her death in 1973, those individuals who knew Ross had little difficulty in identifying her as the character's genesis. Ross did not seek any benefit or publicity from her association with the character.[23] When Cabaret was first mounted on stage, she was badgered by reporters and declined all invitations to see the show.[23] Ross was particularly vexed by the lack of political awareness demonstrated by the tabloid reporters who stalked her and hounded her with questions about her past.[5] She declared: "They say they want to know about Berlin in the Thirties, but they don't want to know about the unemployment or the poverty or the Nazis marching through the streets. All they want to know is how many men I went to bed with."[5]


I Am a Camera[edit]

"John van Druten's Sally wasn't quite Christopher's Sally; John made her humor cuter and naughtier. And Julie [Harris] contributed much of herself to the character. She seemed vulnerable but untouchable... stubbornly obedient to the voices of her fantasies; a bohemian Joan of Arc."

Christopher Isherwood, Christopher and His Kind, 1976.[24]

American actress Julie Harris originated the role of Sally Bowles in John Van Druten's 1951 play I Am a Camera, for which she received the 1952 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play.[25]

In his memoirs, Isherwood recounts how "when Julie Harris was rehearsing for the part of Sally in the American production of I Am a Camera, [director] John van Druten and Christopher discussed with her the possibility that nearly all of Sally's sex life is imaginary; and they agreed that the part should be played so that the audience wouldn't be able to make up its mind, either."[26] Following the play's critical acclaim, Isherwood ascribed the success entirely to Harris' performance as the insouciant Sally Bowles.[24]

Isherwood later described Harris' performance as "more essentially Sally Bowles than the Sally of my book, and much more like Sally than the real girl [Ross] who long ago gave me the idea for my character".[27] Barbara Baxley took over the role when Harris departed.[28] Harris recreated the role in 1955 for the film adaptation, also called I Am a Camera. Later, Dorothy Tutin starred as Sally in a successful 1954 British stage production.[29]

Cabaret musical[edit]

Kelly Hunter as Sally Bowles.

In his diary from October 1958, Isherwood records that a composer named Don Parks had expressed interest in writing a musical based on Sally but that Isherwood planned to deny him permission.[30] When I Am a Camera was finally adapted into the musical Cabaret in 1966, Jill Haworth originated the role of Sally. As the run continued, Penny Fuller, Anita Gillette and Melissa Hart also played the part. Cabaret was revived on Broadway in 1987 with Alyson Reed playing Sally.

The musical was revived again in 1998 with Natasha Richardson as Sally. Richardson won the 1998 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.[28] As the run continued, actresses including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Susan Egan, Joely Fisher, Gina Gershon, Deborah Gibson, Teri Hatcher, Melina Kanakaredes, Jane Leeves, Molly Ringwald, Brooke Shields and Lea Thompson appeared in the role. The 2014 Broadway revival starred Michelle Williams as Sally, with Emma Stone and Sienna Miller as subsequent replacements.[31]

Cabaret debuted on the West End in 1968 with Judi Dench in the role of Sally. A West End revival at The Strand Theatre in October 1986 featured Kelly Hunter as Sally Bowles and was the subject of printed criticism by both Jean Ross and her daughter Sarah Caudwell.[5] Later West End revivals starred Toyah Willcox (1987), Jane Horrocks (1993) and Anna Maxwell Martin (2006) playing the part. Samantha Barks portrayed the role in the 2008—2009 UK National Tour.

Cabaret film[edit]

Louise Brooks was the visual model for the 1972 film
Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles (left) in the 1972 film. Louise Brooks (right) served as the visual model for the 1972 film's depiction of Sally Bowles.[32]

In 1972, the stage musical adaptation was in turn adapted as a film directed by Bob Fosse. The 1972 film's depiction of Sally significantly differs from earlier incarnations in that she is not British but American. According to unaccredited screenwriter Hugh Wheeler, he was tasked by ABC Pictures with bowdlerizing the source material and was forced to change Sally's nationality as well as to transform her into "a noble, suffering heroine" in order to increase the film's appeal.[33] Key dialogue was likewise altered to make Sally appear more bisexual.[33]

For her performance as Sally in the film, Liza Minnelli reinterpreted the character and — at the explicit suggestion of her father stage director Vincente Minnelli[34] — she deliberately imitated film actress Louise Brooks, a flapper icon and sex symbol of the Jazz Age.[32][34] Minnelli later recalled:

"I went to my father and asked him, 'What can you tell me about Thirties' glamour? Should I be emulating Marlene Dietrich or something?' And he said 'No, study everything you can about Louise Brooks.'"[34]

In particular, Minnelli drew upon Brooks' "Lulu makeup and helmet-like coiffure."[32] Brooks, much like the character of Sally in the 1972 film, was an aspiring actress and American expat who temporarily moved to Weimar Berlin in search of stardom.[33] Ultimately, Minnelli won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Sally.[35]

In a 1986 newspaper article published long after Jean Ross' death, her daughter Sarah Caudwell indicated that Ross disapproved of Minnelli's depiction of Sally Bowles in the 1972 film: "In the transformations of the novel for stage and cinema the characterisation of Sally has become progressively cruder" and, consequently, the literary character originally based on Ross had been transmogrified into a freakish vamp.[5]

Isherwood himself was critical of the 1972 film adaptation due to its negative portrayal of homosexuality: "In the film of Cabaret, the male lead is called Brian Roberts. He is a bisexual Englishman; he has an affair with Sally and, later, with one of Sally's lovers, a German baron.... Brian's homosexual tendency is treated as an indecent but comic weakness to be snickered at, like bed-wetting."[36]

Use by other authors[edit]

Sally Bowles' life after the events of Goodbye to Berlin was imagined in After the Cabaret (1998) by British writer Hilary Bailey. The plot follows a young American academic Greg Peters who seeks to piece together the missing details of Sally's life for a new biography.[37]



  1. ^ Many years after Ross' death, her daughter Sarah Caudwell criticized Isherwood's reports of Ross' sexual exhibitionism in Max Reinhardt's The Tales of Hoffmann production, and she dismissed his claims as puerile fantasy.[5]


  1. ^ a b c Isherwood 1976, pp. 60-64.
  2. ^ Moss 1979.
  3. ^ a b Garebian 2011, p. 4.
  4. ^ a b c d Garebian 2011, p. 6.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Caudwell 1986, pp. 28–29.
  6. ^ a b c d Isherwood 1976, pp. 60-61.
  7. ^ Isherwood 1976, pp. 88-89.
  8. ^ Isherwood 2012, p. 23.
  9. ^ Isherwood 2012, p. 34.
  10. ^ a b c d Isherwood 1976, pp. 244-245.
  11. ^ Isherwood 2012, p. 29.
  12. ^ Isherwood 2012, pp. 27, 38.
  13. ^ Garebian 2011, p. 5.
  14. ^ Isherwood 2012, p. 27.
  15. ^ Isherwood 2012, p. 44.
  16. ^ Isherwood 2012, p. 45.
  17. ^ Isherwood 2012, pp. 75-76.
  18. ^ Fryer 1977, p. 160.
  19. ^ Fryer 1977, p. 162.
  20. ^ Lehmann 1987, p. 27.
  21. ^ a b c Lehmann 1987, pp. 28—9.
  22. ^ Firchow 2008, p. 120.
  23. ^ a b Fryer 1977, p. 164.
  24. ^ a b Isherwood 1976, p. 62.
  25. ^ Wilmeth 2007, p. 315.
  26. ^ Isherwood 1976, p. 61.
  27. ^ Isherwood 2008, p. vii.
  28. ^ a b Talkin' Broadway.
  29. ^ Lehmann 1987, p. 79.
  30. ^ Isherwood 1996, p. 785.
  31. ^ Dziemianowicz 2014.
  32. ^ a b c Garebian 2011, p. 142.
  33. ^ a b c Garebian 2011, p. 139.
  34. ^ a b c Minnelli interview 2006.
  35. ^ Buck 1973.
  36. ^ Isherwood 1976, p. 63.
  37. ^ Bailey 2012.


Online sources

  • Buck, Jerry (28 March 1973). "Lizi Minnelli Is Named Best Actress — Brando Won't Accept Oscar". Youngstown Vindicator. Associated Press. pp. 1–2. Retrieved 16 April 2011.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Caudwell, Sarah (3 October 1986). "Reply to Berlin". New Statesman. London, UK. pp. 28–29.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Dziemianowicz, Joe (20 August 2014). "Emma Stone to join Broadway's 'Cabaret' in November, replacing Michelle Williams". New York Daily News. New York City: Tronc. Retrieved 14 June 2018.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • "Liza Minnelli". Inside the Actors Studio. Season 12. Episode 6. 5 February 2006.
  • Moss, Howard (3 June 1979). "Christopher Isherwood: Man and Work". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 June 2018.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • "Sally Bowles". Talkin' Broadway. Retrieved 15 August 2019.

Book sources

External links[edit]