The life, loves and lyrics of the original Elsa Mars, bringing back the golden age of cabaret.
It’s one of those awful rainy days where stepping outside for a second is enough to get you soaking wet, but the cosy Warwick Avenue flat I’m meeting Anke Landeau in is warm and inviting. The flat is owned by Zoe, Anke’s actress friend who agreed to let us shoot in the gorgeous, light-filled space, still bright and airy despite the weather.
We are there, Zoe is there, the equipment is there, but Anke is not, until suddenly she is – bursting through the door with the energy and wide smile of a young Hollywood ingénue. The difference though, is that Anke is nearing her 70th birthday, yet she shows no signs of slowing down. Although slowing down what exactly, is the question; her career as a cabaret artist, performing as Marlene Dietrich? As a singer/songwriter in her own right? Or as a published author? Check: all of the above.
In fact her 1993 novel Spiral Terra, written in memory of her late husband Cecil Landeau, was merely a side hobby for the Hamburg-born performer, who regularly takes the stage as herself and as Dietrich. She has a refreshing air of positivity and a gung-ho professionalism; rather than flit about with demands as many performers would, she quickly starts to change in the middle of the room, clearly eager to get the shoot going.
Every expression she pulls, every pose she poses, all of it is well-practised and refined in the dramatic style of the cabaret. I am continually struck by how up-for-it Anke is, changing costumes at a whim, singing for us, telling us her stories for hours on end. And, unsurprisingly, how full of stories she is! But this is to be expected of the woman who was married to the impresario that discovered Audrey Hepburn and has flown around the world to entertain the likes of Elton John, Jude Law, even the family of the Sultan of Oman.
From the beginning Anke was outgoing, coming to England as a young woman to learn English. She lived in Primrose Hill with a friend, and remembers hearing the lions from the zoo roar at night. Cecil, her late husband, was in fact one of the very first people she met. “In those early days my friend had a party and Cecil was there, you never forget these things do you? I went upstairs to go to the bathroom and he was standing with the most beautiful looking girl, who I later I found out liked him big time, but never mind! I had this nice outfit on that I’d bought from Jaeger at Liberty’s, which, coming out of Germany, I thought was the in thing at the time. He looked at me and I went ‘Oh!’”. She clasps her hand to her chest, her face in mock surprise as if to say “who, me?”.
This is the thing about talking to Anke, or anyone who wears their heart on their sleeve – you can tell when they’re being genuine. She speaks with a smile when talking about Cecil, her eyes looking slightly far off into the distance. “He liked me, or so I thought, maybe I’d had a drink. He and his friend thought I was Russian and I was very flattered because I didn’t want to be the typical typecast German! And then he asked me what I wanted to be and I said ‘an actress’ and he rolled his eyes and said ‘Oh, another one…’. Maybe it was to egg me on, I don’t know. He was witty, he had such a great sense of humour”.
As their romance blossomed, her burgeoning career took to the back burner. Despite attending acting classes, Anke’s dedication to drama wavered. “I’ve always wanted to be an actress, more or less since I can remember. Before Cecil, boyfriends and aversions came my way, you have to be completely dedicated and I never really had the belief in myself… But then I came here to this sophisticated world and married a man who was much older, we had that generation gap thing, and so I had to learn a hell of a lot. I went to drama school and learned Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, and before long Cecil had me at the Prince Charles Theatre doing Under Milk Wood, I could do a Welsh accent. At times when I wanted to give up I used to ask him, ‘do you think I’ve got something?’ and he would say ‘you have something very special to offer’.
It was actually Cecil who first suggested that Anke try her hand at singing, not that she wanted any part of it. More interested in serious theatre and drama, Anke didn’t take to cabaret in the beginning. “I didn’t like cabaret and that, I liked Greek dramas like Electra, I was good in school at drama and it was all I knew. He said to me ‘if you can do cabaret you can do anything’. Anyway, my goodness gracious, thank God for cabaret! Life… you don’t know what’s in store, sometimes your chips are up, sometimes your chips are down. So I went for singing lessons.”
In the beginning however, cabaret wasn’t the focus of Anke’s musical ambition; instead, she teamed up with a girl called Chloe, who Anke describes as “brilliant, she was very gifted. She looked a bit like Paul McCartney – very cute – and she wrote her own songs. Cecil was very good at finding all this talent. He had good faith in her so they went to a song festival and she backed Engelbert Humperdinck, and he won! I suddenly decided we should do a song together and we did, an Anita Harris song. We were just about to get a record deal but then she decided to go to University in Bristol, so she gave up her career. What can you do? I hope she’s happy, I don’t know what happened to her. The opportunities just came and went, came and went.”
Despite this career setback, Anke carried on. Just as Cecil had turned her on to singing, he too is the one she credits for planting the seed of inspiration that was Marlene Dietrich into her mind. “One day I was standing there with a red knitted dress on and I’ll never forget it, he said ‘I don’t know why someone like you doesn’t do Marlene Dietrich’. It was like a switch went off in my head, so I collected a lot of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich records. They were fantastic and they both had these deep voices, so I had to have vocal training because I had a very shrill and high voice, although now its all natural.”
“I was happily married, we were very loyal and we travelled a lot. He couldn’t get shows on like before, times were changing, talented as he was it was getting quite difficult. But we carried on, he continued creating and hoping for the best. When he was ill but still alive I had a lot of success, not with the record company, maybe because they didn’t like my style. But the live cabaret took us to many many places, too many to mention. I went to Israel twice, to Malta and to Damascus, Damascus is prominent in my memory because he died a year later. He was in hospital and I couldn’t bear to leave him, but we needed money and he said ‘do you want to be professional?’ so I went and came back a fortnight later. He was a businessman, a show-businessman, and the show must go on!”
As she recounts the period towards the end of Cecil’s life, Anke becomes increasingly dreamy, surely remembering things no one else knew about her beloved husband. It becomes clear when she tells us about her visit to Oman that she is still very much a woman in love. “By that time Cecil became ill and passed away, but he’s still with me. I even keep this photo of him, it’s very strong, it shows how powerful he was. It was very painful, he was a kind man and very gifted, a lovely person. He just was a man of the world – he took risks and he was wonderful. We had our ups and downs, like any relationship it wasn’t all a bed of roses. I think it was fate, If you believe in it. After he passed away I took a gig in Dubai and Abu Dhabi singing Barbara Streisand songs with my guitar, although I didn’t have her high voice.”
Thus began Anke’s life after Cecil, a period that has seen her grow into an author, an established cabaret powerhouse, and a favourite of the rich and famous. And whilst her love still runs deep, a new love sprung in the form of a talented musician, who Anke claims is still teaching her about music to this day. West London remained Anke’s home for a while, in particular Portobello; “Well, I’m always there! I do call Portobello home to be honest, I met Micky P in Portobello Road and I’ve worked with him ever since. I do hope it never gets destroyed by commercialism, it’s such a unique place. A friend of mine took me to this place, Ruby something it was called [despite fond memories, Anke has trouble remembering the places of anywhere she has performed] so I ended up doing some cabaret there. Over at Portobello House they’re lovely people and I sing there quite regularly, we do a cabaret show there as well as Mode in Acklam Village.”
After those early days of Anke’s Marlene era, greeting famous faces has slowly become a regular occurrence, especially during her more recent time at the Cabaret Club near Carnaby Street. “Whilst I was there we did cabaret in many places, estate houses in the country, many balls, I can’t remember them all! I think the Cabaret Club was great, it was a little place where everybody who had a name came to. Kate Moss was there from time to time, Sadie Frost when she was still with Jude Law, and once Puff Daddy was there – I went to sit up on his knee, but he just looked so smartly dressed! I couldn’t bring myself to do it, I was too starstruck.”
When I was conducting research for the interview I discovered that Anke has performed at one of Elton John’s Charity Gala’s, so I wasn’t hugely surprised when she named the greatest performance of her career as being at the Elton John Foundation. “It was in an outside club in Piccadilly, a beautiful place, oh it was amazing! There was gorgeous food everywhere and Kate Dimbleby and I were on stage performing. I met a lot of people, everyone was lovely, and it was an amazing experience.”
And despite this and all the wonderful places cabaret has taken her, Anke remains sentimental at heart; her favourite places in the world are still London and Germany, where her roots lie. “London is my home – I’ve lived in Mayfair, Knightsbridge near Harrods, Notting Hill Gate, and South London as well – but Germany has a lot of my friends and all my family, and I was born there. I was actually born near Hamburg but people always say Berlin, Marlene Dietrich was born in Berlin so maybe that’s why.”
As we begin to wrap up, its clear that our cover star is keen for a cigarette, so we help pack up her myriad of outfits and props, but not before I ask her to indulge us with the best story she has to tell. She laughs as she turns to me and says “Oh, I honestly don’t know my best story… the best story is yet to come!”
And for Anke, I truly believe that is true.
– Photos and text by Thomas Marrington