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The real Sally Bowles

Berlin’s most famous British expat is arguably Christopher Isherwood’s Sally Bowles. But the real-life woman behind the fictional character, Jean Ross, was so much more than a silly dilettante who sang badly...

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She’s inspired countless film and stage incarnations, but it was Liza Minnelli’s performance in Bob Fosse’s1972 film that catapulted Sally to stardom. EuroVideo Medien GmbH

“Her fingernails were painted an 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 … 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 … She had a surprisingly deep husky voice. She sang badly, without any expression, her hands hanging down at her sides – yet her performance was, in its own way, effective because of her startling appearance and her air of not caring a curse what people thought of her. ‘That’s the man I slept with last night,’ she announced. ‘He makes love marvellously. He’s an absolute genius at business and he’s terribly rich’”

From the moment her story opens in Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin, Sally, with her big brown eyes, brilliant cherry lips and husky voice drawling “divine decadence, darling”, steals the show. Ever since, she’s inspired countless film and stage incarnations, played by glamorous names to boot – Julie Harris, Judi Dench, Imogen Poots and Emma Stone counted among them. But it was Liza Minnelli’s performance in Bob Fosse’s 1972 film that catapulted Sally to stardom, and made her a permanent fixture in pop culture. Ironically, Isherwood objected to the casting of such a phenomenal singer (and an American) to play his Sally, the hapless untalented Brit he described in his books. But who was the real woman behind his beloved depiction?

Bohemian Berlin

Jean Ross, born in Alexandria in 1911 to a wealthy cotton industrialist, grew up in luxury before being shipped off to a boarding school in Surrey: a place she “loathed”, getting herself expelled at the age of 16 by feigning pregnancy. After a short stint at London’s prestigious drama academy RADA, and a bit part in the low-budget comedy film Why Sailors Leave Home (1930), 20-year-old Ross came to Berlin in 1931 to make it as an actress. But just like Isherwood’s Sally, her acting aspirations were short-lived, and she resorted to working as a fashion magazine model and cabaret singer. On the club circuit Ross met and befriended the young Isherwood, who’d been living in Berlin since 1929, and soon the pair were sharing lodgings at Nollendorfstraße 17 in Schöneberg. In his 1976 memoirs Isherwood describes the two as having been “truly intimate” like “brother and sister” – though at the point of writing he admits his memory of Ross had been obscured by the many actresses who’ve played her.

In Berlin they formed, along with writers W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender, a merry crew of rebellious British exiles. Ross recalled years later: “We were all utterly against the bourgeois standards of our parents’ generation. That’s what took us to Berlin. The climate was freer there. I suppose nowadays you’d call us ‘hippies’.” Sadly, the artists’ Berlin days were numbered. The political climate was turning, with Nazis in the Reichstag and bands of SS officers marching through the streets. After having an abortion that nearly killed her, Ross was on holiday in England when Hitler came to power in March 1933. She chose not to return, with Isherwood following suit a few months later.

Life after Sally Bowles

Despite these parallels, Jean Ross cut a very different figure from her ditsy fictive counterpart. As she herself mused: “Chris’ story was quite, quite different from what really happened.” Once back in London, she joined the Chelsea Communist Party, of which she remained a lifelong member. In 1934 she met her long-time partner and lover, the British journalist Claud Cockburn, who encouraged her to write about politics. Ross took up the recommendation with gusto, reporting for both the The Daily Express and left-wing British rag The Daily Worker (now The Morning Star) from Madrid during the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. The plucky, whip-smart journalist was so committed to her reporting that she would sometimes write Cockburn’s assignments, filing them under his name while he was fighting on the side of the Spanish Republican Party. Ross became a political activist, pursuing her anti-fascist writings throughout the 1930s, and campaigning for nuclear disarmament and against the Vietnam War in the 1950s and 1960s.

But her indefatigable politics did not mark the end of her interest in show business. Unlike Sally, whose German “was not merely incorrect; it was all her own”, Ross used her fluency to assist German and Austrian directors who’d fled the Third Reich – among them Austrian director Berthold Viertel, whom she assisted making 1934’s Little Friend – and got her old pal Isherwood a job as its screen-writer. Meanwhile, she worked as The Daily Express’s film critic under the pen name “Peter Porcupine”. Nor did she abandon her rakish Berlin style: Ross, much like Sally, was renowned for her fashion daring-do and was often seen carrying a black, silver-tipped cane.

Sally Bowles’ return(s)

Despite Ross’ very real achievements, her professional legacy has been somewhat overshadowed by her association with the character Sally Bowles. Her daughter, the late writer and barrister Sarah Caudwell, took particular umbrage with her mother’s portrayal: “She never liked Goodbye to Berlin,” Caudwell wrote in The New Statesman, “nor felt any sense of identity with the character of Sally Bowles.” Back when Goodbye to Berlin was written, Ross even tried to stall the novel’s publication, concerned about the illegal abortion storyline that Isherwood was determined to keep in. In a letter to his editor in 1937 he wrote that without it, Sally was just a “silly little capricious bitch”. After two months, however, Ross finally gave publication her blessing.

For Ross, Sally – in particular her naivety and indifference to the political climate in Germany – remained a source of embarrassment throughout her life. “It was such a huge departure from the real Jean Ross,” says Linda Mizejewski, author of Divine Decadence: Fascism, Female Spectacle and the Makings of Sally Bowles (1992). “She had some wild times in Berlin, sure, but then she went on to become a very serious journalist, and to really cover dangerous situations in a way Isherwood and his pals certainly didn’t!” When journalists came knocking at Ross’ London home, her daughter would invariably answer the door saying: “You want to talk to my mother about sex? She wants to talk to you about politics.” But despite Ross’ distaste for Sally, she and Isherwood remained friends until the very end. An entry in his journal, the year before her death in 1973, describes their affectionate final meeting at a restaurant in Chancery Lane: “Jean looks old but still rather beautiful and she is very lively and active and mentally on the spot – and as political as ever.”

Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin was originally published in 1939 as a compilation of six short stories, including “Sally Bowles”. It was republished in 1945 alongside Mr. Norris Changes Trains under the title The Berlin Stories – perhaps the most celebrated English-language literary portrayal of Weimar Berlin of all time.