Harry Gordon Selfridge, the wealthy American businessman and owner of the high-class London department store had a voracious passion for gambling, although rather like Andre Citroen he gambled because it was a highly glamorous pastime for the rich and successful in society at that time.
Selfridge has returned to prominence since 2013 thanks to the ITV show Mr Selfridge. The show is based on Selfridge’s time in England as he goes about setting up the famous store.
If you’re a fan of the show then read on to see how well the dramatization compares to the truth.
Selfridge loved to mix with the glitterati and usually gambled with his two attractive protégées, the Dolly Sisters who accompanied Selfridge wherever he went and very much enjoyed spending his money at the baccarat table for him! The Dolly Sisters real names were Janzieska and Roszieska Deutsch. They were vaudeville and cabaret artists who had been discovered by the American impresario Flo Ziegfeld in 1911 and were on stage for a spell at his Follies club. They later came to England where they were spotted by Selfridge who invited them to be his gaming companions. The girls were kept in the lap of luxury at Selfridge’s villa at Deauville in return for their scintillating company. Selfridge felt that the sisters kept a twinkle in his eye!
The sisters were Selfridge’s platonic companions for over a quarter of a century and in that time, they managed to gamble away £5,000,000 of Selfridge’s fortune. They did of course often win too and spent the winnings on jewellery, villas and a boutique on the Champs Elysees. In the end however nearly all of these luxuries had to be sold to cover gambling debts. However the girls always managed to be lucky enough at the tables (with Selfridge’s money of course) to live in the lap of luxury.
Of the Dolly sisters, Selfridge’s particular devotion went to Jenny; but when he bought sizeable interests in the casinos at Le Touquet and Deauville he allowed both of them unlimited credit. And not only that: When they had lost the equivalent of $10,000 or $15,000 at a single sitting of baccarat (they often lost that much in the first few minutes’ play), he would send them diamonds “to compensate for your losses, my darlings.”
The party had to end eventually and at the age of 83, he declared himself bankrupt. Jenny, Selfridges favorite sister, came to a much more unpleasant end. After becoming bankrupt at the same time as Selfridge, she was finally ruined. Her biggest single win was a colossal £300,000 in a single session of baccarat. However, her biggest loss was physical rather than financial. She was in a car accident that left her disfigured; and later she was the victim of an attack by a violent burglar who blinded her with pepper when she discovered him robbing her Chicago home. She was brought to such a state of despair by all tragedies that she killed herself.