Life Is a ‘Cabaret’: A Visual History of Sally Bowles

Cabaret is widely recognized as one of the most important and influential American musicals of the 20th century. The musical, written by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Joe Masteroff, introduced to a wide audience the characters of a fiendish Master of Ceremonies and the lovely yet tortured nightclub singer Sally Bowles, both performers at the Kit Kat Klub in Weimer-era Berlin, just before the rise of the Nazi party. Based on the stories of Christopher Isherwood, Cabaret is a much-loved and often-staged musical, which is currently seeing its fourth Broadway revival at Studio 54. To celebrate its newest iteration, take a look at the history of the complicated character Sally Bowles, who has turned up in literature, on stage, and in film since her first appearance in 1937.

jean ross

Jean Ross

Sally Bowles first appeared in Christopher Isherwood’s novella, Sally Bowles, later republished within the longer Goodbye to Berlin (which was, in turn, published alongside Mr Norris Changes Trains in The Berlin Stories). It wasn’t revealed until after Isherwood’s death in 1973 that Sally was, in fact, based on a real person: Jean Ross, whom Isherwood met while he was living in Berlin in the ’30s. Many elements of Sally’s story were based on actual events from Ross’ life, including the climactic abortion. Once it was revealed that Ross was the real-life Sally Bowles, she did not seek any publicity for herself — she even turned down invitations to see Cabaret on stage.