June is Pride Month.
As an adolescent, Anita Berber was enrolled in traditional ballet classes in her native Berlin. She also learned acrobatics and gymnastics at the behest of her grandmother, by whom she was raised.
Before the age of 20, Anita was performing regularly in Berlin’s burgeoning cabaret scene, often dancing nude. She favored the color red and displayed a particularly bright shade in her hair, which became her trademark. Through social circles, she met and married a wealthy screenwriter only to divorce him when she fell in love with Susi Wanowski, a bar owner who became Anita’s manager and lover. Around this time, Anita was cast in the film Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others). Starring Conrad Veidt, just one year before his star-making turn in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Anders als die Andern is acknowledged as the first pro-gay film in history. Though popular in its time, it was later banned by the Nazis.
Anita was a constant subject of controversy in the German press. Her openly defiant bisexuality and gender-bending performances were shocking to the post-World War I public. She had a brief affair with a young Marlene Dietrich and it is speculated that Dietrich’s androgynous look in the 1930 film Morocco was inspired by Anita.
In 1922, Anita married fellow dancer Sebastian Droste. The couple toured in a decidedly risqué revue called Dances of Vice, Horror and Ecstasy. Performed under the influence of drugs and alcohol, the show was a point of public outrage. Anita was jailed for several weeks after her nude dancing offended the visiting King of Yugoslavia. Anita took her incarceration in stride, continuing to go out in public in a sable coat — with nothing on underneath. Droste left Anita, stealing her furs and jewels when he did. Unfettered, Anita moved on, coming to the United States and marrying another dancer just two weeks after meeting him.
In 1928, Anita collapsed on stage during a performance in Beirut. Within a few months, she died from tuberculosis, most likely brought on by years of substance abuse. She was 29 years old. Looking back on her storied career, she may have invented the concept of “performance artist” before the term existed.