She was feted atop the Great Pyramid in Egypt. She danced for the heads of state of nine countries. Duels were fought over her. Songs composed. A besotted Jack London immortalized her in literature. At the height of her career, she was one of the highest-paid entertainers of her day, introducing Spanish dance to audiences from North America to South Africa.
What nobody knew was that the Spanish vixen who called herself La Estrellita was actually a Jewish girl from the Midwest.
Born Stella Hurtig in Cincinnati, Ohio, she danced her way up from modest vaudeville stages. No sooner did she land in San Francisco in the 1910s than she became a sensation. The City, the decade, and the woman were positively made for each other.
After retiring from the stage in 1920, Estrellita started a perfume company, eventually turning her 25-room house in Piedmont, California into a perfume factory.
I first encountered Estrellita through a 1919 portrait of her by Dorothea Lange, who’d just arrived in San Francisco and was making portraits of the crème de la crème of The City. What the young Miss Lange and the Spanish dancer made of each other, I can’t say, but you can search for clues in the portrait, which resides at the Oakland Museum of California.
In The Bohemians, Estrellita is Caroline’s friend and Dorrie’s dance instructor at the Majestic.
“That was another thing about San Francisco: Every time you met someone, it was like stepping into a story just as they were making it up.”
That’s a line from The Bohemians, and boy was it true of Estrellita! By coming to The City, she found her chance to write herself a new story, one better suited to her wild and vivid soul.
Phenomenal to the end, Estrellita died in her Piedmont residence in 1973, at the age of 94.