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Deste, Stephanie (1901–1996)

by Fay Woodhouse

This article was published online in 2022

Stephanie Deste (1928) by Jack Cato

Stephanie Deste (1928) by Jack Cato

National Gallery of Australia

Stephanie Deste (1901–1996), actor, dancer, and beautician, was born Fanny Rosine Manheim on 22 January 1901 at Liège, Belgium, daughter of Christine Manheim, a Dutch musician, and Isidore Aaron Deitz, a locally born linen manufacturer from a Sephardic Jewish family. Her father died when she was young and by 1911 she had moved with her mother and younger sister to Eastbourne, Sussex, England. They lived with Christine’s sister Flora von Leer and her husband Simon, both professional musicians, and singing, dancing, and acting became Fanny’s lifeblood. She learned to speak English and studied acting and dance at the (Royal) Academy of Dramatic Art, London.

Having adopted the stage name Stephanie Deste, in September 1921 she went to Canada to perform in John Galsworthy’s play The Skin Game. She spent time in Chicago, United States of America, before joining a circus which took her to New York. After ‘some starvation and several misadventures’ (Pratt 1976, 17), she appeared in a number of stage productions—including a production of Hamlet on Broadway in 1922, with John Barrymore and Tyrone Power senior—and in silent films with Douglas Fairbanks senior. She made her name in Chicago and New York for her ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ in Oscar Wilde’s Salome. An extraordinary contortionist, she also performed a snake dance in an American club.

During the original Broadway production of the operetta Rose-Marie in 1925, Deste was recruited by Oscar Hammerstein as a replacement in the role of ‘Wanda,’ a Native American character who leads the show-stopping ‘Totem Tom Tom’ dance. Nevin Tait of J. C. Williamson Ltd then engaged her for the Australian production which opened in Sydney in May 1926. A Sydney theatre critic praised ‘her acting and dancing prowess’ (Sunday Times 1926, 27). The musical moved to Melbourne for six months in 1927 and a tour of Australia and New Zealand followed. With her ‘exotic looks and sensuous dancing, Stephanie was a sensation’ (Van Straten 1996, A14). She also attracted praise for her dramatic and literary recitations and Bible readings on radio stations 3LO and 3AR.

In 1928 Deste took up the role of the sultry ‘Azuri’ for the Australian production of Romberg and Hammerstein’s The Desert Song, which premiered at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, in September. That year she met Remigio Budica, a Jewish-Italian restaurateur and former baritone, who had arrived in Australia in 1922 and was naturalised in 1928. Although she left Australia in June 1929, the pair were reunited a year later and married on 23 November 1931 at the register office, St Martin, London. A daughter was born in Paris in 1932. Meanwhile, Deste performed in Rose-Marie and The Desert Song in Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. One performance at The Hague was interrupted when an Australian audience member called out ‘coo-ee’ across the auditorium.

While in Paris, Deste studied at the Antoine School for a diploma in beauty culture. Returning to Melbourne in 1936, the next year she established the Stephanie Deste Beauty Clinic, specialising in electrolysis treatments for hair removal. She starred in J. C. Williamson’s revival of Rose-Marie in Melbourne and Sydney in 1938, and featured on various radio stations during World War II, dispensing beauty tips and promoting her salon. In 1944 her husband died of tuberculosis; she did not remarry, later recalling that she was ‘always too busy’ (Pratt 1976, 17). Another theatrical comeback in a revival of The Desert Song in April 1945 proved she had lost none of the grace ‘which has contributed so much to her dancing success’ (Argus 1945, 4).

After World War II Deste introduced the revolutionary Marigny cold-wave perm process in her clinic. In 1949 she offered the ‘Joan of Arc’ haircut—a short bob cut into page-boy style—following the release of the film of the same name starring Ingrid Bergman. For more than two decades from the late 1940s she was a regular guest on the 3DB morning program. She also interviewed show business personalities as host of 3DB’s Sunday Night with Stephanie Deste from 1954 to 1971 and made regular television appearances on HSV7.

A woman of medium height and striking features well into old age, Deste was one of Melbourne’s ‘great personalities, an elegantly dressed, immaculately coiffed figure’ (Van Straten 1996, A14), whose lively personal style earned her a reputation as a Melbourne eccentric. She is reputed to have taught a young (Sir) Robert Helpmann to do the circular splits, and was admired by the satirist Barry Humphries, who adopted her trademark diamanté winged glasses for his popular housewife character, Edna Everage.

In 1973 Deste returned to the stage in a production of William Walton and Edith Sitwell’s Façade by the fledgling Victorian Opera Company at the Comedy Theatre. Admitting in 1976 that she had retired ‘seven or eight times,’ she remained ready to perform ‘should the right part present itself’ and fully intended to ‘die in harness’ (Pratt 1976, 29). Survived by her daughter, she died at Malvern on 14 April 1996 and was buried in Springvale cemetery. Jack Cato’s 1928 photograph of Deste, held by the National Gallery of Australia, captures evocatively her lively character.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Argus (Melbourne). ‘Stephanie Deste Returns.’ 9 April 1945, 4

  • Bulletin (Sydney). ‘Stephanie Deste.’ 1 January 1972, 13

  • Herald (Melbourne). ‘The Beautiful Life of Stephanie Deste.’ 11 May 1972, 23

  • Herald Sun (Melbourne). ‘Stephanie Deste: An Abundance of Zest.’ 30 April 1996, 54

  • National Archives of Australia. B741, V/4585

  • Pratt, Jean. ‘The Legend Was no Tenor.’ Australian Jewish News (Melbourne), 23 April 1976, 17, 29

  • Van Straten, Frank. ‘Actor and Beautician Gave a City the Full Treatment.’ Age (Melbourne), 28 May 1996, A14

  • Sunday Times (Sydney). ‘Stephanie Deste Heads Wonderful Dance in “Rose Marie.”’ 6 June 1926, 27

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Fay Woodhouse, 'Deste, Stephanie (1901–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/deste-stephanie-31895/text39352, published online 2022, accessed online 8 December 2022.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2022

Stephanie Deste (1928) by Jack Cato

Stephanie Deste (1928) by Jack Cato

National Gallery of Australia

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Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Deitz, Fanny Rosine
  • Budica, Stephanie Rosine
  • Manheim, Fanny Rosine
Birth

22 January, 1901
Liège, Belgium

Death

14 April, 1996 (aged 95)
Malvern, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (lymphoma)

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
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