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City of Girls / (by Elizabeth Gilbert, 2019) -

City of Girls /   (by Elizabeth Gilbert, 2019) -

City of Girls / (by Elizabeth Gilbert, 2019) -

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City of Girls / (by Elizabeth Gilbert, 2019) -
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2019
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Elizabeth Gilbert
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Blair Brown
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upper-intermediate
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15:09:08
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127 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

City of Girls / :

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: City of Girls

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For Margaret Cordi my eyes, my ears, my beloved friend You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm. COLETTE NEW YORK CITY, APRIL 2010 I received a letter from his daughter the other day. Angela. Id thought about Angela many times over the years, but this was only our third interaction. The first was when Id made her wedding dress, back in 1971. The second was when shed written to tell me that her father had died. That was in 1977. Now she was writing to let me know that her mother had just passed away. Im not sure how Angela expected me to receive this news. She might have guessed it would throw me for a loop. That said, I dont suspect malice on her part. Angela is not constructed that way. Shes a good person. More important, an interesting one. I was awfully surprised, though, to hear that Angelas mother had lasted this long. Id assumed the woman had died ages ago. God knows everyone else has. (But why should anyones longevity surprise me, when I myself have clung to existence like a barnacle to a boat bottom? I cant be the only ancient woman still tottering around New York City, absolutely refusing to abandon either her life or her real estate.) It was the last line of Angelas letter, though, that impacted me the most. Vivian, Angela wrote, given that my mother has passed away, I wonder if you might now feel comfortable telling me what you were to my father? Well, then. What was I to her father? Only he could have answered that question. And since he never chose to discuss me with his daughter, its not my place to tell Angela what I was to him. I can, however, tell her what he was to me. ONE In the summer of 1940, when I was nineteen years old and an idiot, my parents sent me to live with my Aunt Peg, who owned a theater company in New York City. I had recently been excused from Vassar College, on account of never having attended classes and thereby failing every single one of my freshman exams. I was not quite as dumb as my grades made me look, but apparently it really doesnt help if you dont study. Looking back on it now, I cannot fully recall what Id been doing with my time during those many hours that I ought to have spent in class, butknowing meI suppose I was terribly preoccupied with my appearance. (I do remember that I was trying to master a reverse roll that yeara hairstyling technique that, while infinitely important to me and also quite challenging, was not very Vassar.) Id never found my place at Vassar, although there were places to be found there. All different types of girls and cliques existed at the school, but none of them stirred my curiosity, nor did I see myself reflected in any of them. There were political revolutionaries at Vassar that year wearing their serious black trousers and discussing their opinions on international foment, but I wasnt interested in international foment. (Im still not. Although I did take notice of the black trousers, which I found intriguingly chicbut only if the pockets didnt bulge.) And there were girls at Vassar who were bold academic explorers, destined to become doctors and lawyers long before many women did that sort of thing. I should have been interested in them, but I wasnt. (I couldnt tell any of them apart, for one thing. They all wore the same shapeless wool skirts that looked as though theyd been constructed out of old sweaters, and that just made my spirits low.) Its not like Vassar was completely devoid of glamour. There were some sentimental, doe-eyed medievalists who were quite pretty, and some artistic girls with long and self-important hair, and some highbred socialite types with profiles like Italian greyhoundsbut I didnt befriend any of them. Maybe its because I sensed that everybody at this school was smarter than me. (This was not entirely youthful paranoia; I uphold to this day that everybody there was smarter than me.) To be honest, I didnt understand what I was doing at college, aside from fulfilling a destiny whose purpose nobody had bothered explaining to me. From earliest childhood, Id been told that I would attend Vassar, but nobody had told me why. What was it all for? What was I meant to get out of it, exactly? And why was I living in this cabbagey little dormitory room with an earnest future social reformer? I was so fed up with learning by that time, anyhow. Id already studied for years at the Emma Willard School for Girls in Troy, New York, with its brilliant, all-female faculty of Seven Sisters graduatesand wasnt that enough? Id been at boarding school since I was twelve years old, and maybe I felt that I had done my time. How many more books does a person need to read in order to prove that she can read a book? I already knew who Charlemagne was, so leave me alone, is how I saw it. Also, not long into my doomed freshman year at Vassar, I had discovered a bar in Poughkeepsie that offered cheap beer and live jazz deep into the night. Id figured out a way to sneak off campus to patronize this bar (my cunning escape plan involving an unlocked lavatory window and a hidden bicyclebelieve me, I was the bane of the house warden), thereby making it difficult for me to absorb Latin conjugations first thing in the morning because I was usually hungover. There were other obstacles, as well. I had all those cigarettes to smoke, for instance. In short: I was busy. Therefore, out of a class of 362 bright young Vassar women, I ended up ranked at 361a fact that caused my father to remark in horror, Dear God, what was that other girl doing? (Contracting polio as it turned out, the poor thing.) So Vassar sent me homefair enoughand kindly requested that I not return. My mother had no idea what to do with me. We didnt have the closest relationship even under the best of circumstances. She was a keen horsewoman, and given that I was neither a horse nor fascinated by horses, wed never had much to talk about. Now Id embarrassed her so severely with my failure that she could scarcely stand the sight of me. In contrast to me, my mother had performed quite well at Vassar College, thank you very much. (Class of 1915. History and French.) Her legacyas well as her generous yearly donationshad secured my admission to that hallowed institution, and now look at me. Whenever she passed me in the hallways of our house, she would nod at me like a career diplomat. Polite, but chilly. My father didnt know what to do with me, either, though he was busy running his hematite mine and didnt overly concern himself with the problem of his daughter. I had disappointed him, true, but he had bigger worries. He was an industrialist and an isolationist, and the escalating war in Europe was spooking him about the future of his business. So I suppose he was distracted with all that. As for my older brother, Walter, he was off doing great things at Princeton, and giving no thought to me, other than to disapprove of my irresponsible behavior. Walter had never done an irresponsible thing in his life. Hed been so respected by his peers back in boarding school that his nickname had beenand I am not making this upthe Ambassador. He was now studying engineering because he wanted to build infrastructure that would help people around the world. (Add it to my catalogue of sins that I, by contrast, was not quite sure I even knew what the word infrastructure meant.) Although Walter and I were close in ageseparated by a mere two yearswe had not been playmates since we were quite little. My brother had put away his childish things when he was about nine years old, and among those childish things was me. I wasnt part of his life, and I knew it. My own friends were moving forward with their lives, too. They were heading off to college, work, marriage, and adulthoodall subjects that I had no interest in or understanding of. So there was nobody around to care about me or entertain me. I was bored and listless. My boredom felt like hunger pains. I spent the first two weeks of June hitting a tennis ball against the side of our garage while whistling Little Brown Jug again and again, until finally my parents got sick of me and shipped me off to live with my aunt in the city, and honestly, who could blame them? Sure, they might have worried that New York would turn me into a communist or a dope fiend, but anything had to be better than listening to your daughter bounce a tennis ball against a wall for the rest of eternity. So thats how I came to the city, Angela, and thats where it all began. They sent me to New York on the trainand what a terrific train it was, too. The Empire State Express, straight out of Utica. A gleaming, chrome, delinquent-daughter delivery device. I said my polite farewells to Mother and Dad, and handed my baggage over to a Red Cap, which made me feel important. I sat in the diner car for the whole ride, sipping malted milk, eating pears in syrup, smoking cigarettes, and paging through magazines. I knew I was being banished, but still . . . in style! Trains were so much better back then, Angela. I promise that I will try my best in these pages not to go on and on about how much better everything was back in my day. I always hated hearing old people yammering on like this when I was young. (Nobody cares! Nobody cares about your Golden Age, you blathering goat!) And I do want to assure you: Im aware that many things were not better in the 1940s. Underarm deodorants and air-conditioning were woefully inadequate, for instance, so everybody stank like crazy, especially in the summer, and also we had Hitler. But trains were unquestionably better back then. When was the last time you got to enjoy a malted milk and a cigarette on a train? I boarded the train wearing a chipper little blue rayon dress with a skylark print, yellow traceries around the neckline, a moderately slim skirt, and deep pockets set in at the hips. I remember this dress so vividly because, first of all, I never forget what anyone is wearing, ever, and also Id sewn the thing myself. A fine job Id done with it, too. The swing of ithitting just at midcalfwas flirty and effective. I remember having stitched extra shoulder pads into that dress, in the desperate hope of resembling Joan Crawfordthough Im not sure the effect worked. With my modest cloche hat and my borrowed-from-Mother plain blue handbag (filled with cosmetics, cigarettes, and not much else), I looked less like a screen siren and mostly like what I actually was: a nineteen-year-old virgin, on her way to visit a relative. Accompanying this nineteen-year-old virgin to New York City were two large suitcasesone filled with my clothes, all folded neatly in tissue, and the other packed with fabrics, trimmings, and sewing supplies, so that I could make more clothes. Also joining me was a sturdy crate containing my sewing machinea heavy and unwieldy beast, awkward to transport. But it was my demented, beautiful soul-twin, without which I could not live. So along with me it came. That sewing machineand everything that it subsequently brought to my lifewas all thanks to Grandmother Morris, so lets talk about her for just a moment. You may read the word grandmother, Angela, and perhaps your mind summons up some image of a sweet little old lady with white hair. That wasnt my grandmother. My grandmother was a tall, passionate, aging coquette with dyed mahogany hair who moved through life in a plume of perfume and gossip, and who dressed like a circus show. She was the most colorful woman in the worldand I mean that in all definitions of the word colorful. Grandmother wore crushed velvet gowns in elaborate colorscolors that she did not call pink, or burgundy, or blue, like the rest of the imagination-impoverished public, but instead referred to as ashes of rose or cordovan or della Robbia. She had pierced ears, which most respectable ladies did not have back then, and she owned several plush jewelry boxes filled with an endless tumble of cheap and expensive chains and earrings and bracelets. She had a motoring costume for her afternoon drives in the country, and her hats were so big they required their own seats at the theater. She enjoyed kittens and mail-order cosmetics; she thrilled over tabloid accounts of sensational murders; and she was known to write romantic verse. But more than anything else, my grandmother loved drama. She went to see every play and performance that came through town, and also adored the moving pictures. I was often her date, as she and I possessed exactly the same taste. (Grandmother Morris and I both gravitated toward stories where innocent girls in airy gowns were abducted by dangerous men with sinister hats, and then rescued by other men with proud chins.) Obviously, I loved her. The rest of the family, though, didnt. My grandmother embarrassed everyone but me. She especially embarrassed her daughter-in-law (my mother), who was not a frivolous person, and who never stopped wincing at Grandmother Morris, whom she once referred to as that swoony perpetual adolescent. Mother, needless to say, was not known to write romantic verse. But it was Grandmother Morris who taught me how to sew. My grandmother was a master seamstress. (Shed been taught by her grandmother, who had managed to rise from Welsh immigrant maidservant to affluent American lady of means in just one generation, thanks in no small part to her cleverness with a needle.) My grandmother wanted me to be a master at sewing, too. So when we werent eating taffy together at the picture shows, or reading magazine articles aloud to each other about the white slave trade, we were sewing. And that was serious business. Grandmother Morris wasnt afraid to demand excellence from me. She would sew ten stitches on a garment, and then make me sew the next tenand if mine werent as perfect as hers, she would rip mine out and make me do it again. She steered me through the handling of such impossible materials as netting and lace, until I wasnt intimidated by any fabric anymore, no matter how temperamental. And structure! And padding! And tailoring! By the time I was twelve, I could sew a corset for you (whalebones and all) just as handily as you pleaseeven though nobody but Grandmother Morris had needed a whalebone corset since about 1910. Stern as she could be at the sewing machine, I did not chafe under her rule. Her criticisms stung but did not ache. I was fascinated enough by clothing to want to learn, and I knew that she only wished to foster my aptitude. Her praise was rare, but it fed my fingers. I grew deft. When I was thirteen, Grandmother Morris bought me the sewing machine that would someday accompany me to New York City by train. It was a sleek, black Singer 201 and it was murderously powerful (you could sew leather with it; I could have upholstered a Bugatti with that thing!). To this day, Ive never been given a better gift. I took the Singer with me to boarding school, where it gave me enormous power within that community of privileged girls who all wanted to dress well, but who did not necessarily have the skills to do so. Once word got out around school that I could sew anythingand truly, I couldthe other girls at Emma Willard were always knocking at my door, begging me to let out their waists for them, or to fix a seam, or to take their older sisters formal dress from last season and make it fit them right now. I spent those years bent over that Singer like a machine gunner, and it was worth it. I became popularwhich is the only thing that matters, really, at boarding school. Or anywhere. I should say that the other reason my grandmother taught me to sew was because I had an oddly shaped body. From earliest childhood, Id always been too tall, too lanky. Adolescence came and went, and I only got taller. For years, I grew no bosom to speak of, and I had a torso that went on for days. My arms and legs were saplings. Nothing purchased at a store was ever going to fit right, so it would always be better for me to make my own clothes. And Grandmother Morrisbless her soultaught me how to dress myself in a way that flattered my height instead of making me look like a stilt walker. If it sounds like Im being self-deprecating about my appearance, Im not. Im just relaying the facts of my figure: I was long and tall, thats all there was to it. And if it sounds like Im about to tell you the story of an ugly duckling who goes to the city and finds out that shes pretty, after alldont worry, this is not that story. I was always pretty, Angela. Whats more, I always knew it. My prettiness, to be sure, is why a handsome man in the diner car of the Empire State Express was staring at me as I sipped my malted milk and ate my pears in syrup. Finally he came over and asked if he could light my cigarette for me. I agreed, and he sat down and commenced with flirting. I was thrilled by the attention but didnt know how to flirt back. So I responded to his advances by staring out the window and pretending to be deep in thought. I frowned slightly, hoping to look serious and dramatic, although I probably just looked nearsighted and confused. This scene would have been even more awkward than it sounds, except that eventually I got distracted by my own reflection in the train window, and that kept me busy for a good long while. (Forgive me, Angela, but being captivated by your own appearance is part of what it means to be a young and pretty girl.) It turns out that even this handsome stranger was not nearly as interesting to me as the shape of my own eyebrows. Its not only that I was interested in how well Id groomed themthough I was absolutely riveted by that subjectbut it just so happens that I was trying that summer to learn how to raise one eyebrow at a time, like Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind. Practicing this effect took focus, as Im sure you can imagine. So you can see how the time just flew by, as I lost track of myself in my reflection. The next time I looked up, we had pulled into Grand Central Station already, and my new life was about to begin, and the handsome man was long gone. But not to worry, Angelathere would be plenty more handsome men to come. Oh! I should also tell youin case you were wondering whatever became of herthat my Grandmother Morris had died about a year before that train deposited me into New York City. Shed passed away in August of 1939, just a few weeks before I was meant to start school at Vassar. Her death had not been a surpriseshed been in decline for yearsbut still, the loss of her (my best friend, my mentor, my confidante) devastated me to the core. Do you know what, Angela? That devastation mightve had something to do with why I performed so poorly at college my freshman year. Perhaps I had not been such a terrible student, after all. Perhaps I had merely been sad. I am only realizing this possibility at this moment, as I write to you. Oh, dear. Sometimes it takes a very long while to figure things out. TWO Anyway, I arrived in New York City safelya girl so freshly hatched that there was practically yolk in my hair. Aunt Peg was supposed to meet me at Grand Central. My parents had informed me of this fact as Id gotten on the train in Utica that morning, but nobody had mentioned any particular plan. Id not been told exactly where I was supposed to wait for her. Also, Id been given no phone number to call in case of an emergency, and no address to go to should I find myself alone. I was just supposed to meet Aunt Peg at Grand Central, and that was that. Well, Grand Central Station was grand, just as advertised, but it was also a great place for not finding someone, so its no surprise that I couldnt locate Aunt Peg when I arrived. I stood there on the platform for the longest time with my piles of luggage, watching the station teeming with souls, but nobody resembled Peg. Its not that I didnt know what Peg looked like. Id met my aunt a few times before then, even though she and my father werent close. (This may be an understatement. My father didnt approve of his sister Peg any more than hed approved of their mother. Whenever Pegs name came up at the dinner table, my father would snort through his nose and say, Must be nicegallivanting about the world, living in the land of make-believe, and spending it by the hundreds! And I would think: That does sound nice. . . .) Peg had come to a few family Christmases when I was youngbut not many, because she was always on the road with her theatrical touring company. My strongest memory of Peg was from when Id come to New York City for a day trip at age eleven, accompanying my father on a business venture. Peg had taken me to skate in Central Park. Shed brought me to visit Santa Claus. (Although we both agreed I was far too old for Santa Claus, I would not have missed it for the world, and was secretly thrilled to meet him.) She and I had also eaten a smorgasbord lunch together. It was one of the more delightful days of my life. My father and I hadnt stayed overnight in the city because Dad hated and distrusted New York, but it had been one glorious day, I can assure you. I thought my aunt was terrific. She had paid attention to me as a person, not a child, and that means everything to an eleven-year-old child who does not want to be seen as a child. More recently, Aunt Peg had come back home to my hometown of Clinton in order to attend the funeral of Grandmother Morris, her mother. Shed sat next to me during the service and held my hand in her big, capable paw. This gesture had both comforted and surprised me (my family were not predisposed toward hand-holding, you may be shocked to learn). After the funeral, Peg had embraced me with the strength of a lumberman, and Id dissolved into her arms, spewing out a Niagara of tears. Shed smelled of lavender soap, cigarettes, and gin. Id clung to her like a tragic little koala. But I hadnt been able to spend much time with her after the funeral. She needed to leave town right away, because she had a show to produce back in the city. I felt that Id embarrassed myself by falling to bits in her arms, comforting though she had been. I barely knew her, after all. In fact, what follows is the sum total of everything I knew about my Aunt Peg, upon my arrival in New York City at the age of nineteen: I knew that Peg owned a theater called the Lily Playhouse, located somewhere in midtown Manhattan. I knew that she had not set out for a career in the theater, but had come by her work in a rather random way. I knew that Peg had trained as a Red Cross nurse, curiously enough, and had been stationed in France during World War I. I knew that, somewhere along the way, Peg had discovered that she was more talented at organizing entertainments for the injured soldiers than she was at tending to their wounds. She had a knack, she found, for turning out shows in field hospitals and barracks that were cheap, quick, gaudy, and comic. War is a dreadful business, but it teaches everyone something; this particular war taught my Aunt Peg how to put on a show. I knew that Peg had stayed in London for a good long while after the war, working in the theater there. She was producing a revue in the West End when she met her future husband, Billy Buella handsome and dashing American military officer who had also decided to stay in London after the war to pursue a career in the theater. Like Peg, Billy came from people. Grandmother Morris used to describe the Buell family as sickeningly wealthy. (For years, I wondered what that term meant, exactly. My grandmother revered wealth; how much more of it would qualify as sickening? One day I finally asked her this question, and she answered, as if it explained everything: Theyre Newport, darling.) But Billy Buell, Newport though he may have been, was similar to Peg in that he shunned the cultured class into which he had been born. He preferred the grit and glitter of the theater world to the polish and repression of caf? society. Also, he was a playboy. He liked to make fun, Grandmother Morris said, which was her polite code for drinking, spending money, and chasing women. Upon their marriage, Billy and Peg Buell returned to America. Together, they created a theatrical touring company. They spent the better part of the 1920s on the road with a small cadre of troupers, barnstorming towns all across the country. Billy wrote and starred in the revues; Peg produced and directed them. The couple never had any highfalutin ambitions. They were just having a good time and avoiding more typical adult responsibilities. But despite all the effort they made not to be successful, success accidentally hunted them down and captured them anyhow. In 1930with the Depression deepening and the nation tremulous and afraidmy aunt and her husband accidentally created a hit. Billy wrote a play called Her Jolly Affair, which was so joyful and fun that people just ate it up. Her Jolly Affair was a musical farce about an aristocratic British heiress who falls in love with an American playboy (portrayed by Billy Buell, naturally). It was a light bit of fluff, like everything else theyd ever plunked down on the boards, but it was a riotous success. All across America, pleasure-starved mine workers and farmers shook out the last bits of loose change from their pockets in order to see Her Jolly Affair, making this simple, brainless play into a profitable triumph. The play picked up so much steam, in fact, and garnered such bountiful praise in the local papers, that in 1931, Billy and Peg brought it to New York City, where it ran for a year in a prominent Broadway theater. In 1932, MGM made a movie version of Her Jolly Affairwhich Billy wrote but did not star in. (William Powell did the acting job instead. Billy had decided by this point that a writers life was easier than an actors life. Writers get to set their own hours, they arent at the mercy of an audience, and theres no director telling them what to do.) The success of Her Jolly Affair spawned a series of lucrative motion picture sequels (Her Jolly Divorce, Her Jolly Baby, Her Jolly Safari), which Hollywood churned out for a few years like sausages from a hopper. The whole Jolly enterprise made quite a pile of money for Billy and Peg, but it also signaled the end of their marriage. Having fallen in love with Hollywood, Billy never came back. As for Peg, she decided to close the touring company and use her half of the Jolly royalties to buy herself a big, old, run-down New York City theater of her very own: the Lily Playhouse. All this happened around 1935. Billy and Peg never officially divorced. And while there didnt seem to be any bad blood between them, after 1935 you couldnt exactly call them married, either. They didnt share a home or a work life, and at Pegs insistence, they no longer shared a financial lifewhich meant that all that shimmering Newport money was now out of reach for my aunt. (Grandmother Morris didnt know why Peg was willing to walk away from Billys fortune, other than to say about her daughter, with open disappointment, Peg never cared about money, Im afraid.) My grandmother speculated that Peg and Billy never legally divorced because they were too bohemian to concern themselves with such matters. Or maybe they still loved each other. Except theirs was the sort of love that best thrives when a husband and wife are separated by the distance of an entire continent. (Dont laugh, my grandmother said. A lot of marriages would work better that way.) All I know is that Uncle Billy was out of the picture for the entirety of my young lifeat first because he was touring, and later because he had settled in California. He was so much out of the picture, in fact, that Id never even met him. To me, Billy Buell was a myth, composed of stories and photos. And what glamorous stories and photos they were! Grandmother Morris and I frequently saw Billys picture in the Hollywood tabloid magazines, or read about him in Walter Winchells and Louella Parsonss gossip columns. We were ecstatic, for instance, when we found out hed been a guest at Jeanette MacDonald and Gene Raymonds wedding! There was a picture of him at the wedding reception right there in Variety, standing just behind luminous Jeanette MacDonald in her blush-pink wedding gown. In the photo, Billy was talking to Ginger Rogers and her then husband, Lew Ayres. My grandmother had pointed out Billy to me and said, There he is, conquesting his way across the country, as usual. And look at the way Ginger is grinning at him! If I were Lew Ayres, Id keep an eye on that wife of mine. Id peered closely at the photo, using my grandmothers jeweled magnifying lens. Id seen a handsome blond man in a tuxedo jacket, whose hand was resting on Ginger Rogerss forearm, while she, indeed, sparkled up at him with delight. He looked more like a movie star than the actual movie stars who were flanking him. It was amazing to me that this person was married to my Aunt Peg. Peg was wonderful, to be sure, but she was so homely. What on earth had he ever seen in her? I couldnt find Peg anywhere. Enough time had passed that I now officially gave up the hope of being met on the train platform. I stashed away my baggage with a Red Cap and wandered through the rushing crush of humanity that was Grand Central, trying to find my aunt amid the confluence. You might think I wouldve been more disquieted at finding myself all alone in New York City with no plan and no chaperone, but for some reason I wasnt. I was sure it would all end up all right. (Maybe this is a hallmark of privilege: certain well-bred young ladies simply cannot conceive of the possibility that somebody will not be along shortly to rescue them.) Finally I gave up my wandering and sat down on a prominently placed bench near the main lobby of the station, to await my salvation. And, lo, eventually I was found. My rescuer turned out to be a short, silver-haired woman in a modest gray suit, who approached me the way a Saint Bernard approaches a stranded skierwith dedicated focus and serious intent to save a life. Modest is actually not a strong enough word to describe the suit that this woman was wearing. It was a double-breasted and square little cinderblock of an itemthe kind of garment that is intentionally made to fool the world into thinking that women do not possess breasts, waists, or hips. It looked to me like a British import. It was a fright. The woman also wore chunky, low-heeled black oxfords and an old-fashioned boiled-wool green hat, of the type favored by women who run orphanages. I knew her sort from boarding school: she looked like a spinster who drank Ovaltine for dinner and gargled with salt water for vitality. She was plain from end to end, and furthermore she was plain on purpose. This brick of a matron approached me with much clarity of mission, frowning, holding in her hands a disconcertingly large picture in an ornate silver frame. She peered at the picture in her hands, and then at me. Are you Vivian Morris? she asked. Her crisp accent betrayed the truth that the double-breasted suit was not the only severe British import in town. I allowed that I was. Youve grown, she said. I was puzzled: Did I know this woman? Had I met her when I was younger? Seeing my confusion, the stranger showed me the framed picture in her hands. Bafflingly, this item turned out to be a portrait of my own family, from about four years prior. It was a photo wed taken in a proper studio, when my mother had decided that we needed to be, in her words, officially documented, for once. There were my parents, enduring the indignity of being photographed by a tradesman. There was my thoughtful-looking brother, Walter, with his hand on my mothers shoulder. There was a ganglier and younger version of myself, wearing a sailor dress that was far too girlish for my age. Im Olive Thompson, announced the woman, in a voice that indicated she was accustomed to making announcements. Im your aunts secretary. She was unable to come. There was an emergency today at the theater. A small fire. She sent me to find you. My apologies for making you wait. I was here several hours ago, but as my only means of identifying you was this photo, it took me some time to locate you. As you can see. I wanted to laugh then and I want to laugh now, just remembering it. The idea of this flinty middle-aged woman wandering around Grand Central Station with a giant photograph in a silver framea frame that looked as though it had been ripped in haste off a rich persons wall (which it had been)and staring at every face, trying to match the person before her to a portrait of a girl taken four years earlier, was wickedly funny to me. How had I missed her? Olive Thompson did not seem to think this was funny, though. I would soon discover that this was typical. Your bags, she said. Collect them. Then well taxi over to the Lily. The late show has already begun. Hurry up now. Make no flimflam about it. I walked behind her obedientlya baby duck following a mama duck. I made no flimflam about it. I thought to myself, A small fire?but I did not have the courage to ask. THREE A person only gets to move to New York City for the first time in her life once, Angela, and its a pretty big deal. Perhaps this idea doesnt hold any romance for you, since you are a born New Yorker. Maybe you take this splendid city of ours for granted. Or maybe you love it more than I do, in your own unimaginably intimate way. Without a doubt, you were lucky to be raised here. But you never got to move hereand for that, I am sorry for you. You missed one of lifes great experiences. New York City in 1940! There will never be another New York like that one. Im not defaming all the New Yorks that came before 1940, or all the New Yorks that came after 1940. They all have their importance. But this is a city that gets born anew in the fresh eyes of every young person who arrives here for the first time. So that city, that placenewly created for my eyes onlywill never exist again. It is preserved forever in my memory like an orchid trapped in a paperweight. That city will always be my perfect New York. You can have your perfect New York, and other people can have theirsbut that one will always be mine. It wasnt a long ride from Grand Central to the Lily Playhousewe just cut straight across townbut our taxi took us through the heart of Manhattan, and thats always the best way for a newcomer to feel the muscle of New York. I was all atingle to be in the city and I wanted to look at everything at once. But then I remembered my manners and tried for a spell to make conversation with Olive. Olive, however, wasnt the sort of person who seemed to feel that the air needed to be constantly filled up with words, and her peculiar answers only brought me more questionsquestions that I sensed she would be unwilling to further discuss. How long have you worked for my aunt? I asked her. Since Moses was in nappies. I pondered that for a bit. And what are your duties at the theater? To catch things that are falling through midair, right before they hit the ground and shatter. We drove on for a while in silence, and I let that sink in. I tried one more time: What sort of show is playing at the theater tonight? Its a musical. Its called Life with Mother. Oh! Ive heard of it. No, you havent. Youre thinking of Life with Father. That was a play on Broadway last year. Ours is called Life with Mother. And ours is a musical. I wondered: Is that legal? Can you just take a title of a major Broadway hit like that, change a single word, and make it your own? (The answer to that questionat least in 1940, at the Lily Playhousewas: sure.) I asked, But what if people buy tickets to your show by mistake, thinking that theyre going to see Life with Father? Olive, flatly: Yes. Wouldnt that be unfortunate. I was starting to feel young and stupid and annoying, so I stopped talking. For the rest of the taxi ride, I got to just look out the window. It was plenty entertaining to watch the city go by. There were glories to see in all directions. It was late in the evening in midtown Manhattan on a fine summer night, so nothing can be better than that. It had just rained. The sky was purple and dramatic. I saw glimpses of mirrored skyscrapers, neon signs, and shining wet streets. People sprinted, bolted, strolled, and stumbled down the sidewalks. As we passed through Times Square, mountains of artificial lights spewed out their lava of white-hot news and instant advertising. Arcades and taxi-dance halls and movie palaces and cafeterias and theaters flashed by, bewitching my eyes. We turned onto Forty-first Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. This was not a beautiful street back then, and it still isnt beautiful today. At that time, it was mostly a tangle of fire escapes for the more important buildings that faced Fortieth and Forty-second Streets. But there in the middle of that unlovely block was the Lily Playhouse, my Aunt Pegs theaterall lit up with a billboard that read Life with Mother. I can still see it in my mind today. The Lily was a great big lump of a thing, crafted in a style that I know now is Art Nouveau, but which I recognized then only as heavy duty. And boy howdy, did that lobby go out of its way to prove to you that youd arrived somewhere important. It was all gravity and darknessrich woodwork, carved ceiling panels, bloodred ceramic tiles, and serious old Tiffany light fixtures. All over the walls were tobacco-stained paintings of bare-breasted nymphs cavorting with gangs of satyrsand it sure looked like one of those nymphs was about to get herself in trouble in the family way, if she wasnt careful. Other murals showed muscular men with heroic calves wrestling with sea monsters in a manner that looked more erotic than violent. (You got the sense that the muscular men didnt want to win the battle, if you see my point.) Still other murals showed dryads struggling their way out of trees, tits first, while naiads splashed about in a river nearby, throwing water on each others naked torsos in a spirit that was very much whoopee! Thickly carved vines of grapes and wisteria (and lilies, of course!) climbed up every column. The effect was quite bordello. I loved it. Ill take you straight to the show, Olive said, checking her watch, which is nearly over, thank God. She pushed open the big doors that led into the playhouse itself. Im sorry to report that Olive Thompson entered her place of work with the demeanor of one who might rather not touch anything within it, but I myself was dazzled. The interior of the theater was really something quite stunninga huge, golden-lit, fading old jewel box of a place. I took it all inthe sagging stage, the bad sight lines, the hefty crimson curtains, the cramped orchestra pit, the overgilded ceiling, the menacingly glittery chandelier that you could not look at without thinking, Now, what if that thing should fall down . . . ? It was all grandiose, it was all crumbling. The Lily reminded me of Grandmother Morrisnot only because my grandmother had loved gawdy old playhouses like this, but also because my grandmother had looked like this: old, overdone, and proud, and decked to the nines in out-of-date velvet. We stood against the back wall, although there were plenty of seats to be had. In fact, there were not many more people in the audience than onstage, it appeared. I was not the only one who noticed this fact. Olive took a quick head count, wrote the number in a small notebook which she had pulled out of her pocket, and sighed. As for what was going on up there on the stage, it was dizzying. This, indeed, had to be the end of the show, because there was a lot happening at once. At the back of the stage there was a kick line of about a dozen dancersgirls and boysgrinning madly as they flung their limbs up toward the dusty heavens. At center stage, a good-looking young man and a spirited young woman were tap-dancing as though to save their lives, while singing at full bellow about how everything was going to be just fine from now on, my baby, because you and me are in love! On the left side of the stage was to be found a phalanx of showgirls, whose costumes and movements kept them just on the correct side of moral permissibility, but whose contribution to the storywhatever that story may have beenwas unclear. Their task seemed to be to stand with their arms outstretched, slowly turning, so that you could take in the full Amazonian qualities of their figures from every angle, at your leisure. On the other side of the stage, a man dressed as a hobo was juggling bowling pins. Even for a finale, it went on for an awfully long time. The orchestra banged forth, the kick line pounded away, the happy and breathless couple couldnt believe how terrific their lives were about to get, the showgirls slowly displayed their figures, the juggler sweated and hurleduntil suddenly, with a crash of every instrument at once, and a swirl of spotlights, and wild flinging up of everyones arms in the air at the same time, it ended! Applause. Not thunderous applause. More like a light drizzle of applause. Olive didnt clap. I clapped politely, though my clapping sounded lonely there at the back of the hall. The applause didnt last long. The performers had to exit the stage in semisilence, which is never good. The audience filed past us dutifully, like workers heading home for the daywhich is exactly what they were. Do you think they liked it? I asked Olive. Who? The audience. The audience? Olive blinked, as though it had never occurred to her to wonder what an audience thought of a show. After a bit of consideration, she said, You must understand, Vivian, that our audiences are neither full of excitement when they arrive at the Lily, nor overwhelmed with elation when they leave. From the way she said this, it sounded as though she approved of the arrangement, or at least had accepted it. Come, she said. Your aunt will be backstage. So backstage we wentstraight into the busy, wanton clamor that always erupts in the wings at the end of a show. Everyone moving, everyone yelling, everyone smoking, everyone undressing. The dancers were lighting cigarettes for each other, and the showgirls were removing their headdresses. A few men in overalls were shuffling props around, but not in any way that would cause them to break a sweat. There was a lot of loud, overripe laughter, but thats not because anything was particularly funny; its just because these were show-business people, and thats how they always are. And there was my Aunt Peg, so tall and sturdy, clipboard in hand. Her chestnut-and-gray hair was cut in an ill-considered short style that made her look somewhat like Eleanor Roosevelt, but with a better chin. Peg was wearing a long, salmon-colored twill skirt and what could have been a mans oxford shirt. She also wore tall blue knee socks and beige moccasins. If that sounds like an unfashionable combination, it was. It was unfashionable then, it would be unfashionable today, and it will remain unfashionable until the sun explodes. Nobody has ever looked good in a salmon-colored twill skirt, a blue oxford shirt, knee socks, and moccasins. Her frumpy look was only thrown into starker relief by the fact that she was talking to two of the ravishingly beautiful showgirls from the play. Their stage makeup gave them a look of otherworldly glamour, and their hair was piled in glossy coils on the tops of their heads. They were wearing pink silk dressing gowns over their costumes, and they were the most overtly sexual visions of womanhood I had ever seen. One of the showgirls was a blondea platinum, actuallywith a figure that wouldve made Jean Harlow gnash her teeth in jealous despair. The other was a sultry brunette whose exceptional beauty Id noticed earlier, from the back of the theater. (Though I should not get any special credit for noticing how stunning this particular woman was; a Martian could have noticed it . . . from Mars.) Vivvie! Peg shouted, and her grin lit up my world. You made it, kiddo! Kiddo! Nobody had ever called me kiddo, and for some reason it made me want to run into her arms and cry. It was also so encouraging to be told that I had made itas though Id accomplished something! In truth, Id accomplished nothing more impressive than first getting kicked out of school, and then getting kicked out of my parents house, and finally getting lost in Grand Central Station. But her delight in seeing me was a balm. I felt so welcome. Not only welcome, but wanted. Youve already met Olive, our resident zookeeper, Peg said. And this is Gladys, our dance captain The platinum-haired girl grinned, snapped her gum at me, and said, Howyadoin? and this is Celia Ray, one of our showgirls. Celia extended her sylphlike arm and said in a low voice, A pleasure. Charmed to meet you. Celias voice was incredible. It wasnt just the thick New York accent; it was the deep gravelly tone. She was a showgirl with the voice of Lucky Luciano. Have you eaten? Peg asked me. Are you starved? No, I said. Not starved, I wouldnt say. But I havent had proper dinner. Well go out, then. Lets go have a few gallons of drinks and catch up. Olive interjected, Vivians luggage hasnt been brought upstairs yet, Peg. Her suitcases are still in the lobby. Shes had a long day, and shell want to freshen up. Whats more, we should give notes to the cast. The boys can bring her things upstairs, Peg said. She looks fresh enough to me. And the cast doesnt need notes. The cast always needs notes. Tomorrow we can fix it was Pegs vague answer, which seemed to satisfy Olive not at all. I dont want to talk about business just now. I could murder a meal, and whats worse I have a powerful thirst. Lets just go out, cant we? By now, it sounded like Peg was begging for Olives permission. Not tonight, Peg, said Olive firmly. Its been too long a day. The girl needs to rest and settle in. Bernadette left a meat loaf upstairs. I can make sandwiches. Peg looked a little deflated, but cheered up again within the next minute. Upstairs, then! she said. Come, Vivvie! Lets go! Heres something I learned over time about my aunt: whenever she said Lets go! she meant that whoever was in earshot was also invited. Peg always moved in a crowd, and she wasnt picky about who was in the crowd, either. So thats why our gathering that nightheld upstairs, in the living quarters of the Lily Playhouseincluded not only me and Aunt Peg and her secretary, Olive, but also Gladys and Celia, the showgirls. A last-minute addition was a fey young man whom Peg collared as he was heading toward the stage door. I recognized him as a dancer in the show. Once I got up close to him, I could see that he looked about fourteen years old, and he also looked as if he could use a meal. Roland, join us upstairs for dinner, Peg said. He hesitated. Aw, thats all right, Peg. Dont worry, hon, weve got plenty of food. Bernadette made a big pile of meat loaf. Theres enough for everyone. When Olive looked as though she were going to protest something, Peg shushed her: Oh, Olive, dont play the governess. I can share my dinner with Roland here. He needs to put on some weight, and I need to lose some, so it works out. Anyway, were semisolvent right now. We can afford to feed a few more mouths. We headed to the back of the theater, where a wide staircase led to the upstairs of the Lily. As we climbed the stairs, I could not stop staring at those two showgirls. Celia and Gladys. Id never seen such beauties. Id been around theater girls back at boarding school, but this was different. The theater girls at Emma Willard tended to be the sort of females who never washed their hair, and always wore thick black leotards, and every single one of them thought she was Medea, at all times. I simply couldnt bear them. But Gladys and Celiathis was a different category. This was a different species. I was mesmerized by their glamour, their accents, their makeup, the swing of their silk-wrapped rear ends. And as for Roland, he moved his body just the same way. He, too, was a fluid, swinging creature. How fast they all talked! And how alluringly they threw out abbreviated hints of gossip, like bits of bright confetti. She just gets by on her looks! Gladys was saying, about some girl or another. Not even on her looks! Roland added. Just on her legs! Well, that aint enough! said Gladys. For one more season it is, said Celia. Maybe. That boyfriend of hers dont help matters. That lamebrain! He keeps lapping up that champagne, though. She should up and tell him! Hes not exactly panting for it! How long can a girl make a living as a movie usher? Walking around with that nice-looking diamond, though. She should try to think more reasonable. She should get herself a butter-and-egg man. Who were these people that were being talked about? What was this life that was being suggested? And who was this poor girl being discussed in the stairwell? How was she ever going to advance past being a mere movie usher, if she didnt start thinking more reasonable? Whod given her the diamond? Who was paying for all the champagne that was being lapped up? I cared about all these things! These things mattered! And what in the world was a butter-and-egg man? Id never been more desperate to know how a story ended, and this story didnt even have a plotit just had unnamed characters, hints of wild action, and a sense of looming crisis. My heart was racing with excitementand yours would have been, too, if you were a frivolous nineteen-year-old girl like me, whod never had a serious thought in her life. We reached a dimly lit landing, and Peg unlocked a door and let us all in. Welcome home, kiddo, Peg said. Home in my Aunt Pegs world consisted of the third and fourth floors of the Lily Playhouse. These were the living quarters. The second floor of the buildingas I would find out laterwas office space. The ground floor, of course, was the theater itself, which Ive already described for you. But the third and fourth floors were home, and now we had arrived. Peg did not have a talent for interior design, I could instantly see. Her taste (if you could call it that) ran toward heavy, outdated antiques, and mismatched chairs, and a lot of apparent confusion about what belonged where. I could see that Peg had the same sort of dark, unhappy paintings on her walls as my parents had (inherited from the same relatives, no doubt). It was all faded prints of horses and portraits of crusty old Quakers. There was a fair amount of familiar-looking old silver and china spread around the place as wellcandlesticks and tea sets, and suchand some of it looked valuable, but who knew? None of it look used or loved. (There were ashtrays on every surface, though, and those certainly looked used and loved.) I dont want to say that the place was a hovel. It wasnt dirty; it just wasnt arranged. I caught a glance of a formal dining roomor, rather, what might have been a formal dining room in anyone elses home, except that a Ping-Pong table had been placed right in the middle of the room. Even more curiously, the Ping-Pong table was directly situated beneath a low-hanging chandelier, which must have made it difficult to play a game. We landed in a generously sized living rooma big enough space that it could be overstuffed with furniture while also containing a grand piano, which was jammed unceremoniously against the wall. Who needs something from the bottle and jug department? asked Peg, heading to a bar in the corner. Martinis? Anyone? Everyone? The resounding answer seemed to be: Yes! Everyone! Well, almost everyone. Olive declined a drink and frowned as Peg poured the martinis. It looked as though Olive were calculating the price of each cocktail down to the halfpennywhich she probably was doing. My aunt handed me my martini as casually as if she and I had been drinking together for ages. This was a delight. I felt quite adult. My parents drank (of course they drank; they were WASPs) but they never drank with me. Id always had to execute my drinking on the sly. Not anymore, it seemed. Cheers! Let me show you to your rooms, Olive said. Pegs secretary led me down a rabbit warren and opened one of the doors. She told me, This is your Uncle Billys apartment. Peg would like you to stay here for now. I was surprised. Uncle Billy has an apartment here? Olive sighed. It is a sign of your aunts enduring affection for her husband that she keeps these rooms for him, should he need a place to stay while passing through. I dont think it was my imagination that Olive said the words enduring affection much the same way someone else might say stubborn rash. Well, thank you, Aunt Peg, because Billys apartment was wonderful. It didnt have the clutter of the other rooms Id seennot at all. No, this place had style. There was a small sitting room with a fireplace and a fine, black-lacquered desk, upon which sat a typewriter. Then there was the bedroom, with its windows facing Forty-first Street, and its handsome double bed made of chrome and dark wood. On the floor was an immaculate white rug. I had never before stood on a white rug. Just off the bedroom was a good-sized dressing room with a large chrome mirror on the wall, and a glossy wardrobe containing not one item of clothing whatsoever. In the corner of the dressing room was a small sink. The place was spotless. You dont have your own bath, unfortunately, said Olive, as the men in overalls were depositing my trunks and sewing machine in the dressing room. There is a common bath across the hall. Youll be sharing that with Celia, as she is staying at the Lily, just for now. Mr. Herbert and Benjamin live in the other wing. They share their own bath. I didnt know who Mr. Herbert and Benjamin were, but I figured Id soon enough be finding out. Billy wont be needing his apartment, Olive? I sincerely doubt it. Are you very sure? If he should ever need these rooms, of course, I can go somewhere else. What Im saying is that I dont need anything so nice as all this. . . . I was lying. I needed and wanted this little apartment with all my heart, and had already laid claim to it in my imagination. This is where I would become a person of significance, I decided. Your uncle hasnt been to New York City in over four years, Vivian, Olive said, eyeballing me in that way she hadthat unsettling way of making you feel as though she were watching your thoughts like a newsreel. I trust that you can bunk down here with a certain sense of security. Oh, bliss! I unpacked a few essentials, splashed some water on my face, powdered my nose, and combed my hair. Then it was back to the clutter and chatter of the big, overstuffed living room. Back to Pegs world, with all its novelty and noise. Olive went to the kitchen and brought out a small meat loaf, served on a plate of dismal lettuce. Just as she had intuited earlier, this was not going to be enough of a meal for everyone in the room. Shortly, however, she reappeared with some cold cuts and bread. She also scared up half a chicken carcass, a plate of pickles, and some containers of cold Chinese food. I noticed that somebody had opened a window and turned on a small fan, which helped to eliminate the stuffy summer heat not in the least. You kids eat, Peg said. Take all you need. Gladys and Roland lit into the meat loaf like a couple of farmhands. I helped myself to some of the chop suey. Celia didnt eat anything, but sat quietly on one of the couches, handling her martini glass and cigarette with more panache than anything Id ever seen. How was the beginning of the show tonight? Olive asked. I only caught the end. Well, it fell short of King Lear, said Peg. But only just. Olives frown deepened. Why? What happened? Nothing happened per se, said Peg. Its just a lackluster show, but its nothing to lose sleep over. Its always been lackluster. Nobody in the audience seemed unduly harmed by it. They all left the theater with the use of their legs. Anyway, were changing the show next week, so it doesnt matter. And the box office receipts? For the early show? The less we speak of such matters the better, said Peg. But what was the take, Peg? Dont ask questions that you dont want to know the answers to, Olive. Well, I will need to know. We cant keep having crowds like tonight. Oh, how I love that you call it a crowd! By actual count, there were forty-seven people at the early show this evening. Peg! Thats not enough! Dont grieve, Olive. Things always get slower in the summer, remember. Anyway, we get the audiences we get. If we wanted to draw larger crowds, we would put on baseball games instead of plays. Or we would invest in air-conditioning. Lets just turn our attention now toward getting the South Seas act ready for next week. We can get the dancers rehearsing tomorrow morning, and they can be up and running by Tuesday. Not tomorrow morning, said Olive. Ive rented the stage out to a childrens dance class. Good for you. Resourceful as ever, old girl. Tomorrow afternoon, then. Not tomorrow afternoon. Ive rented the stage out for a swimming class. This caught Peg up short. A swimming class? Come again? Its a program that the city is offering. Theyll be teaching children from the neighborhood how to swim. To swim? Will they be flooding our stage, Olive? Of course not. Its called dry swimming. They teach the classes without water. Do you mean to tell me that they will teach swimming as a theoretical concept? More or less so. Just the basics. They use chairs. The city is paying for it. How about this, Olive. How about you tell Gladys when you havent rented our stage out to a childrens dance class, or to a dry swimming school, and then she can call a rehearsal to begin working on the dances for the South Seas act? Monday afternoon, said Olive. Monday afternoon, Gladys! Peg called over to the showgirl. Did you hear that? Can you gather everyone together for Monday afternoon? I dont like rehearsing in the mornings, anyhow, said Gladys, although I wasnt sure this constituted a firm reply. It shouldnt be hard, Gladdie, said Peg. Its just a scratch revue. Throw something together, the way you do. I want to be in the South Seas show! said Roland. Everyone wants to be in the South Seas show, said Peg. The kids love performing in these exotic international dramas, Vivvie. They love the costumes. This year alone, weve had an Indian show, a Chinese maiden story, and a Spanish dancer story. We tried an Eskimo romance last year, but it was no good. The costumes werent very becoming, to say the least. Fur, you know. Heavy. And the songs were not our best. We ended up rhyming nice with ice so many times, it made your head ache. You can play one of the hula girls in the South Seas show, Roland! Gladys said, and laughed. I sure am pretty enough for it! he said, and struck a pose. You sure are, agreed Gladys. And youre so tiny, one of these days youre just gonna float away. I always gotta be careful not to put you right next to me on the stage. Standing next to you, I look like a great big cow. That could be because youve gained weight lately, Gladys, observed Olive. You need to monitor what you eat, or soon you wont fit into your costumes at all. What a person eats doesnt have anything to do with her figure! Gladys protested, as she reached for another piece of meat loaf. I read it in a magazine. What matters is how much coffee you drink. You drink too much booze, Roland cried out. You cant hold your liquor! I surely cannot hold my liquor! Gladys agreed. Everybody knows that about me. But Ill tell you another thingI wouldnt have as big a sex life as I have, if I could hold my liquor! Boot me your lipstick, Celia, said Gladys to the other showgirl, who silently pulled out a tube from the pocket of her silk robe and handed it over. Gladys painted her lips with the most violent shade of red Id ever seen, and then kissed Roland hard on both his cheeks, leaving big, bright imprints. There, Roland. Now you are the prettiest girl in the room! Roland didnt appear to mind the teasing. He had a face just like a porcelain doll, and to my expert eye, it looked as though he tweezed his brows. I was shocked that he didnt even try to act male. When he spoke, he waved his hands around like a debutante. He didnt even wipe off the lipstick from his cheeks! Its almost as though he wanted to look like a female! (Forgive my na?vet?, Angela, but I hadnt been around a lot of homosexuals at that point in my life. Not male ones, anyhow. Now lesbians, on the other handthose Id seen. I did spend a year at Vassar, after all. Even I wasnt that oblivious.) Peg turned her attention to me. Now! Vivian Louise Morris! What do you want to do with yourself while youre here in New York City? What did I want to do with myself? I wanted to do this! I wanted to drink martinis with showgirls, and listen to Broadway business talk, and eavesdrop on the gossip of boys who looked like girls! I wanted to hear about peoples big sex lives! But I couldnt say any of that. So what I said, brilliantly, was: Id like to look around a bit! Take things in! Everyone was looking at me now. Waiting for something more, maybe? Waiting for what? I dont know my way around New York City, is my primary obstacle, I said, sounding like an ass. Aunt Peg responded to this inanity by grabbing a paper napkin off the table, and sketching upon it a quick map of Manhattan. I do wish I had managed to preserve that map, Angela. It was the most charming map of the city I would ever see: a big crooked carrot of an island, with a dark rectangle in the middle representing Central Park; vague wavy lines representing the Hudson and East Rivers; a dollar sign down at the bottom of the island, representing Wall Street; a musical note up at the top of the island, representing Harlem, and a bright star right in the middle, representing right where we were: Times Square. Center of the world! Bingo! There, she said. Now you know your way around. You cant get lost here, kiddo. Just follow the street signs. Its all numbered, couldnt be easier. Just remember: Manhattan is an island. People forget that. Walk far enough in any direction, and youll run into water. If you hit a river, turn around and go in the other direction. Youll learn your way around. Dumber people than you have figured out this city. Even Gladys figured it out, said Roland. Watch it, sunshine, said Gladys. I was born here. Thank you! I said, pocketing the napkin. And if you need anything done around the theater, I would be happy to help out. Youd like to help? Peg seemed surprised to hear it. Clearly, she had not expected much of me. Christ, what had my parents told her? You can help Olive in the office, if you go for that sort of thing. Office work, and such. Olive blanched at this suggestion, and Im afraid I might have done the same. I didnt want to work for Olive any more than she wanted me working for her. Or you can work in the box office, Peg went on. You can sell tickets. Youre not musical, are you? Id be surprised if you were. Nobody in our family is musical. I can sew, I said. I mustve said it quietly, because nobody seemed to register that Id spoken. Olive said, Peg, why dont you have Vivian enroll at the Katharine Gibbs School, where she can learn how to type? Peg, Gladys, and Celia all groaned as one. Olive is always trying to get us girls to enroll at Katharine Gibbs so we can learn how to type, Gladys explained. She shuddered in dramatic horror, as though learning how to type were something akin to busting up rocks in a prisoner-of-war camp. Katharine Gibbs turns out employable young women, Olive said. A young woman ought to be employable. I cant type, and Im employable! Gladys said. Heck, Im already employed! Im employed by you! Olive said, A showgirl is never quite employed, Gladys. A showgirl is a person who mayat timesbe in possession of a job. Its not the same thing. Yours is not a reliable field of work. A secretary, by contrast, can always find employment. Im not just a showgirl, said Gladys, with miffed pride. Im a dance captain. A dance captain can always find employment. Anyhow, if I run out of money, Ill just get married. Never learn to type, kiddo, Peg said to me. And if you do learn to type, never tell anybody that you can type, or theyll make you do it forever. Never learn shorthand, either. Itll be the death of you. Once they put a steno pad in a womans hand, it never comes out. Suddenly the gorgeous creature on the other side of the room spoke, for the first time since wed come upstairs. You said you can sew? Celia asked. Once again, that low, throaty voice took me by surprise. Also, she had her eyes on me now, which I found a bit intimidating. I dont want to overuse the word smoldering when I talk about Celia, but theres no way around it: she was the kind of woman who smoldered even when she wasnt intentionally trying to smolder. Holding that smoldering gaze was uncomfortable for me, so I just nodded, and said in the safer direction of Peg, Yes. I can sew. Grandmother Morris taught me how. What sort of stuff do you make? Celia asked. Well, I made this dress. Gladys screamed, You made that dress? Both Gladys and Roland rushed at me the way girls always rushed at me when they found out that Id made my own dress. In a flash, the two of them were picking at my outfit, like two gorgeous little monkeys. You did this? Gladys said. Even the trim? Roland asked. I wanted to say, This is nothing!because truly, compared to what I could do, this little frock, cunning though it appeared, was nothing. But I didnt want to sound cocky. So instead I said, I make everything I wear. Celia spoke again, from across the room: Can you make costumes? I suppose so. It would depend on the costume, but Im sure I could. The showgirl stood up and asked, Could you make something like this? She let her robe drop to the floor, revealing the costume beneath it. (I know that sounds dramatic, to say that she let her robe drop, but Celia was the kind of girl who didnt just take her clothes off like any other mortal woman; she always let them drop.) Her figure was astonishing, but as for the costume, it was basica little two-piece metallic number, something like a bathing suit. It was the sort of thing that was designed to look better from fifty feet away than up close. It had tight, high-waisted shorts decorated in splashy sequins, and a bra that was decked out in a gaudy arrangement of beads and feathers. It looked good on her, but thats only because a hospital gown would have looked good on her. I thought it could have fit her better, to be honest. The shoulder straps were all wrong. I could make that, I said. The beading would take me awhile, but thats just busywork. The rest of it is straightforward. Then I had a flash of inspiration, like a flare shot up in a night sky: Say, if you have a costume director, maybe I could work with her? I could be her assistant! Laughter burst out across the room. A costume director! Gladys said. What do you think this is, Paramount Pictures? You think we got Edith Head hiding down there in the basement? The girls are responsible for their own costumes, Peg explained. If we dont have anything that will work for them in our costume closetand we never dothey have to provide their own outfits. It costs them, but thats just how things have always been done. Whered you get yours, Celia? I bought it off a girl. You remember Evelyn, at El Morocco? She got married, moved to Texas. She gave me a whole trunk of costumes. Lucky for me. Sure, lucky for you, sniffed Roland. Lucky you didnt get the clap. Aw, give it a rest, Roland, said Gladys. Evelyn was a good kid. Youre just jealous because she married a cowboy. If youd like to help the kids out with their costumes, Vivian, Im sure everyone would appreciate it, said Peg. Could you make me a South Seas outfit? Gladys asked me. Like a Hawaiian hula girl? That was like asking a master chef if he could make porridge. Sure, I said. I could make you one tomorrow. Could you make me a hula outfit? asked Roland. I dont have a budget for new costumes, Olive warned. We havent discussed this. Oh, Olive, Peg sighed. You are every inch the vicars wife. Let the kids have their fun. I couldnt help but observe that Celia had kept her gaze on me since we started talking about sewing. Being in her line of vision felt both terrifying and thrilling. You know something? she said, after studying me more closely. Youre pretty. Now, to be fair, people usually noticed this fact about me sooner. But who could blame Celia for having paid me so little attention up until this point, when she was in possession of that face and that body? Tell you the truth, she said, smiling for the first time that night, you kinda look like me. Let me be clear, Angela: I didnt. Celia Ray was a goddess; I was an adolescent. But in the sketchiest of terms, I suppose I could see that she had a point: we were both tall brunettes with ivory skin and wide-set brown eyes. We could have passed for cousins, if not sistersand decidedly not twins. Certainly our figures had nothing in common. She was a peach; I was a stick. Still, I was flattered. To this day, though, I believe that the only reason Celia Ray ever took notice of me at all was because we looked a tiny bit alike, and that drew her attention. For Celia, vain as she was, looking at me must have been like looking in a (very foggy, very distant) mirrorand Celia never met a mirror she didnt love. You and me should dress up alike sometime and go out on the town, Celia said, in that low Bronx growl that was also a purr. We could get ourselves into some real good trouble. Well, I didnt even know what to say to that. I just sat there, gaping like the Emma Willard schoolgirl I so recently had been. As for my Aunt Pegmy legal guardian, at this point, please remembershe heard this illicit-sounding invite and said, Say, girls, that sounds fun. Peg was over at the bar again mixing up another batch of martinis, but at that point, Olive put a stop to things. The fearsome secretary of the Lily Playhouse stood up, clapped her hands, and announced, Enough! If Peg stays up any later, she will not be the better for it in the morning. Darn it, Olive, Ill give you a poke in the eye! Peg said. To bed, Peg, said the imperturbable Olive, tugging down her girdle for emphasis. Now. The room scattered. We all said our good nights. I made my way to my apartment (my apartment!) and unpacked a bit more. I couldnt really focus on the task, though. I was in a buzz of nervous joy. Peg came by to check on me as I was hanging up my dresses in the wardrobe. Youre comfortable here? she asked, looking around at Billys immaculate apartment. I like it so much here. Its lovely. Yes. Billy would accept nothing less. May I ask you something, Peg? Certainly. What about the fire? Which fire, kiddo? Olive said there was a small fire at the theater today. I wondered if everything is all right. Oh, that! It was just some old sets that accidentally got ignited behind the building. I have friends in the fire department, so we were fine. Boy, was that today? By golly, Id forgotten about it already. Peg rubbed her eyes. Oh, well, kiddo. You will soon enough find out that life at the Lily Playhouse is nothing but a series of small fires. Now off to sleep or Olive will have you detained by the authorities. So off to sleep I wentthe first time I would ever sleep in New York City, and the first (but decidedly not the last) time I would ever sleep in a mans bed. I do not recall who cleaned up the dinner mess. It was probably Olive. FOUR Within two weeks of moving to New York City, my life had changed completely. These changes included, but were not limited to, the loss of my virginitywhich is an awfully amusing story that I shall tell you shortly, Angela, if youll just be patient with me for a moment longer. Because for now, I just want to say that the Lily Playhouse was unlike any world Id ever inhabited. It was a living animation of glamour and grit and mayhem and funa world full of adults behaving like children, in other words. Gone was all the order and regimentation that my family and my schools had tried to drill into me thus far. Nobody at the Lily (with the exception of the long-suffering Olive) even attempted to keep the normal rhythms of respectable life. Drinking and reveling were the norm. Meals were held at sporadic hours. People slept until noon. Nobody started work at a particular time of daynor did they ever exactly stop working, for that matter. Plans changed by the moment, guests came and went with neither formal introductions nor organized farewells, and the designation of duties was always unclear. I swiftly learned, to my head-spinning astonishment, that no figure of authority was going to be monitoring my comings and goings anymore. I had nobody to report to and nothing was expected of me. If I wanted to help out with costumes, I could, but I was given no formal job. There was no curfew, no head count in the beds at night. There was no house warden; there was no mother. I was free. Allegedly, of course, Aunt Peg was responsible for me. She was my actual family member, and had been entrusted with my care in loco parentis. But she wasnt overprotective, to say the least. In fact, Aunt Peg was the first freethinker Id ever met. She was of the mind that people should make their own decisions about their own lives, if you can imagine such a preposterous thing! Pegs world ran on chaos, and yet somehow it worked. Despite all the disorder, she managed to put on two shows a day at the Lilyan early show (which started at five, and attracted women and children) and a late show (which started at eight, and was a bit racier, for an older and more male audience). There were matinees on Sunday and Wednesday, too. On Saturdays at noon, there was always a magic show for free, for the local children. Olive was usually able to rent out the space for neighborhood usage during the daytime, though I dont think there was danger of anybody getting rich off dry swimming lessons. Our audience was drawn from the neighborhood itself, and back then, it really was a neighborhoodmostly Irish and Italians, with a scattering of Catholic Eastern Europeans, and a good number of Jewish families. The four-story tenements surrounding the Lily were crammed full of recent immigrantsand by crammed, I mean dozens of souls living in a single flat. That being the case, Peg tried to keep the language in our shows simple, to accommodate these new English speakers. Simpler language also made the memorizing of lines easier for our performers, who were not exactly classically trained thespians. Our shows did not attract tourists, or critics, or what you might call theatergoers. We provided working-class entertainment for working-class people, and that was it. Peg was adamant that we not kid ourselves that we did anything more. (Id rather put on a good leg show than bad Shakespeare, she said.) Indeed, the Lily did not have any of the hallmarks that you would associate with a proper Broadway institution. We did not have out-of-town tryouts, or glamorous parties on opening nights. We didnt close down in August, like so many of the Broadway houses did. (Our patrons didnt go on vacations, so neither did we.) We were not even dark on Mondays. We were more like what used to be called a continuous housewhere entertainment just kept being served up, day after day, all the year round. As long as we kept our ticket prices comparable to those at the local movie houses (which were, along with arcades and illegal gambling, our biggest competition for the neighborhood dollars) we could fill our seats fairly well. The Lily was not a burlesque theater, but many of our showgirls and dancers had come from the world of burlesque (and they had the immodesty to prove it, bless them). We were not quite vaudeville, eitheronly because vaudeville was nearly dead by that point in history. But we were almost vaudeville, considering our slapdash, comic plays. In fact, it would be a stretch to claim that our plays were plays at all. It would be more accurate to say that they were revuescobbled-together bits of stories that were not much more than excuses for lovers to reunite and for dancers to show off their legs. (There were limits to the scope of the stories that we could tell, anyhow, given that the Lily Playhouse only had three backdrops. This meant that all the action in our shows had to take place on either a nineteenth-century city streetcorner, in an elegant upper-class parlor, or on an ocean liner.) Peg changed the revues every few weeks, but they were all more or less the same, and they were all forgettable. (Whats that you say? You never heard of a play called Hopping Mad, about two street urchins who fall in love? Why, of course you didnt! It ran at the Lily for only two weeks, and it was swiftly replaced by a nearly identical play called Catch That Boat!which, of course, took place on an ocean liner.) If I could improve on the formula, I would, she once told me. But the formula works. The formula, to be specific, was this: Delight (or at least distract) your audience for a short while (never more than forty-five minutes!) with an approximation of a love story. Your love story should star a likable young couple who can tap-dance and sing, but who are kept apart from each others arms by a villainoften a banker, sometimes a gangster (same idea, different costume)who gnashes his teeth and tries to destroy our good couple. There should be a floozy with a notable bustline making eyes at our herobut the hero must only have eyes for his one true girl. There should be a handsome swain who tries to woo the girl away from her fellow. There should be a drunken hobo character for comic reliefhis stubble indicated by application of burnt cork. The show always had at least one dreamy ballad, usually rhyming the word moon with the word swoon. And there was always a kick line at the end. Applause, curtain, do it all over again for the late show. Theater critics did an excellent job of not noticing our existence at all, which was probably best for everyone. If it sounds like Im denigrating the Lilys productions, Im not: I loved them. I would give anything to sit in the back of that rotting old playhouse and see one of those shows again. To my mind, there was never anything better than those simple, enthusiastic revues. They made me happy. They were designed to make people happy without making the audience work too hard to understand what was going on. As Peg had learned back in the Great Warwhen she used to produce cheerful song-and-dance skits for soldiers whod just lost limbs, or had their throats burned out with mustard gasSometimes people just need to think about something else. Our job was to give them the something else. As for the cast, our shows always needed eight dancersfour boys and four girlsand also always needed four showgirls, because thats just what was expected. People came to the Lily for the showgirls. If youre wondering what the difference was between dancer and showgirl, it was height. Showgirls had to be at least five foot ten. That was without the heels and the feather headdresses. And showgirls were expected to be far more stunning than your average dancer. Just to further confuse you, sometimes the showgirls danced (such as Gladys, who was also our dance captain), but the dancers never showgirled, because they werent tall enough or beautiful enough, and never would be. No amount of makeup or creative padding could turn a moderately attractive and medium-sized dancer with a fairly decent figure into the spectacle of Amazonian gorgeousness that was a midcentury New York City showgirl. The Lily Playhouse caught a lot of performers on their way up the ladder of success. Some of the girls who started out their careers at the Lily later moved on to Radio City or to the Diamond Horseshoe. Some of them even became headliners. But more often, we caught dancers on their way down the ladder. (There is nothing more brave or touching than an aging Rockette auditioning to be in the chorus line of a cheap and lousy show called Catch That Boat!) But we had a small group of regulars, too, who performed for the Lilys humble audiences in show after show. Gladys was a staple of the company. She had invented a dance called the boggle-boggle, which our audiences loved, and so we put it in every performance. And why wouldnt they love it? It was nothing but a free-for-all of girls boggling about the stage with the most jiggling of body parts imaginable. Boggle-boggle! the audience would shout during the encores, and the girls would accommodate them. Sometimes we would see neighborhood children on the sidewalks doing the boggle-boggle on their way to school. Lets just say it was our cultural legacy. I would love to tell you exactly how Pegs little theater company remained solvent, but the truth is that I do not know. (It could be a case of that old joke about how to make a small fortune in show business: by starting with a large fortune.) Our shows never sold out, and our ticket prices were chicken feed. Moreover, although the Lily Playhouse was marvelous, she was a white elephant of the highest degree, and she was expensive. She leaked and creaked. Her electrical wiring was as old as Edison himself, her plumbing was occult, her paint was everywhere peeling, and her roof was designed to withstand a sunny day with no rain, and not much more than that. My Aunt Peg poured money into that collapsing old theater the way an indulgent heiress might pour money into the drug habit of an opium-addicted loverwhich is to say bottomlessly, desperately, and uselessly. As for Olive, her job was to try to stem the flow of money. An equally bottomless, desperate, and hopeless task. (I can still hear Olive crying out, This is not a French hotel! whenever shed catch people running the hot water too long.) Olive always looked tired, and for good reason: she had been the only responsible adult in this company since 1917, when she and Peg first met. I soon learned that Olive wasnt joking when she said shed been working for Peg since Moses was in nappies. Just like Peg, Olive had been a Red Cross nurse in the Great Waralthough shed been trained in Britain, of course. The two women had met on the battlefields of France. When the war ended, Olive decided to abandon nursing and follow her new friend into the field of theater insteadplaying the role of my aunts trusted and long-suffering secretary. Olive could always be seen marching about the Lily Playhouse, rapidly issuing commands, edicts, and corrections. She wore the strained and martyred expression of a good herding dog charged with bringing order to an undisciplined flock of sheep. She was full of rules. There was to be no eating in the theater (We dont want more rats than audience members!). There was to be promptitude at all rehearsals. No guests of guests were allowed to sleep overnight. There were to be no refunds without receipts. And the taxman must always be paid first. Peg respected the rules of her secretary, but only in the most abstract way. She respected those rules in the manner of someone who has lapsed from their faith but who still has a fundamental regard for church law. In other words: she respected Olives rules without actually obeying them. The rest of us followed Pegs lead, which meant that nobody obeyed Olives rules, although we sometimes pretended to. Thus Olive was constantly exhausted, and we were allowed to remain like children. Peg and Olive lived on the fourth floor of the Lily, in apartments separated by a common living area. There were several other apartments up there on the fourth floor, too, that were not in active use when I first moved in. (Theyd been built by the original owner for his mistresses, but were now being saved, Peg explained to me, for last-minute drifters and other sundry itinerants.) But the third floor, where I got to live, is where all the interesting activity happened. Thats where the piano wasusually covered by half-empty cocktail glasses and half-full ashtrays. (Sometimes Peg would pass by the piano, pick up someones leftover drink, and knock it back. She called it taking a dividend.) It was on the third floor where everyone ate, smoked, drank, fought, worked, and lived. This was the real office of the Lily Playhouse. There was a man named Mr. Herbert who also lived on the third floor. Mr. Herbert was introduced to me as our playwright. He created the basic story lines for our shows, and also came up with the jokes and gags. He was also the stage manager. He also served, I was told, as the Lily Playhouses press agent. What does a press agent do, exactly? I once asked him. I wish I knew, he responded. More interestingly, he was a disbarred attorney, and one of Pegs oldest friends. Hed been disbarred after embezzling a considerable amount of money from a client. Peg didnt hold the crime against him because hed been off the wagon at the time. You cant blame a man for what he does when hes drinking was her philosophy. (We all have our frailties was another of her adagesshe, who always gave second and third and fourth chances to the frail and the failing.) Sometimes in a pinch, when we didnt have a better performer on hand, Mr. Herbert would play the role of the drunken hobo character in our showsbringing to that position a natural pathos that would just break your heart. But Mr. Herbert was funny. He was funny in a way that was dry and dark, but he was undeniably funny. In the mornings when I got up for breakfast, I would always find Mr. Herbert sitting at the kitchen table in his saggy suit trousers and an undershirt. Hed be drinking from his mug of Sanka and picking at his one sad pancake. He would sigh and frown over his notepad, trying to think of new jokes and lines for the next show. Every morning, I would bait him with a sunny greeting, just to hear his depressed response, which always changed by the day. Good morning, Mr. Herbert! I would say. The point is debatable, he might respond. Or, on another day: Good morning, Mr. Herbert! I will half allow it. Or: Good morning, Mr. Herbert! I fail to see your argument. Or: Good morning, Mr. Herbert! I find myself unequal to the occasion. Or, my favorite ever: Good morning, Mr. Herbert! Oh, youre a satirist now, are you? Another inhabitant of the third floor was a handsome young black man named Benjamin Wilson, who was the Lilys songwriter, composer, and piano player. Benjamin was quiet and refined, and he always dressed in the most beautiful suits. He was usually to be found sitting at the grand piano, either riffing on some jaunty tune for an upcoming show, or playing jazz for his own entertainment. Sometimes he would play hymns, but only when he thought nobody was listening. Benjamins father was a respected minister up in Harlem, and his mother was the principal of a girls academy on 132nd Street. He was Harlem royalty, in other words. He had been groomed for the church, but was lured away from that vocation by the world of show business. His family didnt want him around anymore, as he was now tainted with sin. This was a standard theme, I would learn, for many of the people who worked at the Lily Playhouse. Peg took in a lot of refugees, in that respect. Not unlike Roland the dancer, Benjamin was far too talented to be working for a cheap outlet like the Lily. But Peg gave him free room and board, and his duties were light, so he stuck around. There was one more person living at the Lily when I moved in, and Ive saved her for last, because she was the most important to me. That person was Celiathe showgirl, my goddess. I had been told by Olive that Celia was lodging with us only temporarilyjust until she got things sorted out. The reason Celia needed a place to stay was because shed recently been evicted from the Rehearsal Cluba respectable and inexpensive hotel for women on West Fifty-third Street, where a good many Broadway dancers and actresses stayed back in the day. But Celia had lost her place at the Rehearsal Club because shed been caught with a man in her room. So Peg had offered Celia a room at the Lily as a stopgap measure. I got the sense that Olive disapproved of this offeringbut then again, Olive mostly disapproved of everything that Peg offered to people for free. This wasnt a palatial offering in any case. Celias little room down the hall was far more humble than my fancy setup over in Uncle Billys never-used pied-?-terre. Celias bolt-hole wasnt much more than a utility closet with a cot and a tiny bit of floor upon which to strew her clothing. The room had a window, but it faced a hot, stinking alley. Celias room didnt have a carpet, she didnt have a sink, she didnt have a mirror, she didnt have a closet, and she certainly didnt have a large, handsome bed, like I had. All of this probably explains why Celia moved in with me my second night at the Lily. She did so without asking. There was no discussion about it whatsoever; it just happenedand at the most unexpected time, too. Somewhere in the dark hours between midnight and dawn on Day Two of my sojourn in New York City, Celia stumbled into my bedroom, woke me up with a hard bump to the shoulder, and uttered one boozy word: Scoot. So I scooted. I moved over to the other side of the bed as she tumbled onto my mattress, commandeered my pillow, wrapped the entirety of my sheet around her beautiful form, and fell unconscious in a matter of moments. Well, this was exciting! This was so exciting, in fact, that I couldnt fall back to sleep. I didnt dare to move. For one thing, Id lost my pillow, and I was now pressed against the wall, so I was no longer comfortable. But the more serious issue here was this: what is protocol when a drunk and fully dressed showgirl has just collapsed onto your bed? Unclear. So I lay there in stillness and silence, listening to her thick breathing, smelling the cigarette smoke and perfume on her hair, and wondering how we would manage the inevitable awkwardness when morning came. Celia finally roused herself around seven oclock, when the sunlight that was glaring into the bedroom became impossible to ignore. She gave a decadent yawn and stretched fully, taking up even more of the bed. She was still wearing all her makeup and was dressed in her reckless evening gown from the night before. She was stunning. She looked like an angel who had fallen to earth, straight through a hole in the floor of some celestial nightclub. Hey, Vivvie, she said, blinking away the sun. Thanks for sharing your bed. That cot they gave me is torture. I couldnt take it anymore. I hadnt been fully confident at this point that Celia even knew my name, so to hear her use the affectionate diminutive Vivvie flooded me with joy. Thats all right, I said. You can sleep here anytime. Really? she said. Thats terrific. Ill move my things in here today. Well, then. I guess I had a roommate now. (That was fine with me, though. I was just honored that shed chosen me.) I wanted this strange, exotic moment to last as long as possible, so I dared to make conversation. Say, I asked, whered you go out to last night? She seemed surprised that I cared. El Morocco, she said. I saw John Rockefeller there. Did you? Hes the pits. He wanted to dance, but I was out with some other fellows. Whod you go out with? Nobody special. Just a couple of guys who arent about to take me home to meet their mothers. What kind of guys? Celia settled back into the bed, lit a smoke, and told me all about her night. She explained that she had gone out with some Jewish boys who were pretending to be gangsters, but then they ran into some real Jewish gangsters, so the pretenders had to scram, and she ended up with a fellow who took her to Brooklyn and then paid for a limousine to take her home. I was entranced by every detail. We stayed in bed for another hour as she narrated for mein that unforgettably gruff voice of hersevery detail of an evening in the life of one Celia Ray, New York City showgirl. I drank it all down like spring water. By the next day, all of Celias belongings had migrated into my apartment. Her tubes of greasepaint and pots of cold cream now cluttered up every surface. Her vials of Elizabeth Arden competed for space on Uncle Billys elegant desk against her compacts of Helena Rubinstein. Her long hairs laced my sink. My floor was an instant tangle of brassieres and fishnets, garters and girdles. (She had such prodigious quantities of undergarments! I swear, Celia Ray had a way of making negligees reproduce.) Her used, perspiration-soaked dress shields were hiding under my bed like little mice. Her tweezers bit into my feet when I stepped on them. She was outrageously entitled. She wiped her lipstick on my towels. She borrowed my sweaters without asking. My pillowcases became stained with black smudges from Celias mascara, and my sheets were dyed orange from her pancake makeup. And there wasnt anything this girl wouldnt use as an ashtrayincluding once, while I was in it, the bathtub. Incredibly, I didnt mind any of this. On the contrary, I never wanted her to leave. If Id had a roommate this interesting back at Vassar, I mightve stayed in college. To my mind, Celia Ray was perfection. She was New York Citys very distillationa glittering composite of sophistication and mystery. I would endure any filth or befouling, just to have access to her. Anyhow, our living arrangement seemed to suit us both perfectly: I got to be near her glamour, and she got to be near my sink. I never asked my Aunt Peg if this was all right with herthat Celia had moved into Uncle Billys rooms with me, or that the showgirl seemed intent on staying at the Lily indefinitely. This seems awfully ill-mannered, when I think back on it now. It would have been the most basic act of politeness to at least clear this arrangement with my host. But I was far too self-absorbed to be politeand so was Celia, of course. So we just went ahead and did whatever we wanted to do, without giving it another thought. Whats more, I never really worried about the mess that Celia left behind in that apartment, because I knew that Aunt Pegs maid, Bernadette, would eventually take care of it. Bernadette was a quiet and efficient soul who came to the Lily six days a week to clean up after everyone. She tidied up our kitchen and our bathrooms, waxed our floors, cooked dinner for us (which we sometimes ate, sometimes ignored, and sometimes invited ten unannounced guests to). She also ordered the groceries, called in the plumber nearly every day, and probably did about ten thousand other thankless tasks, as well. In addition to all that, she now had to clean up after me and Celia Ray, which hardly seems fair. I once overheard Olive remark to a guest: Bernadette is Irish, of course. But she is not violently Irish, so we keep her on. This is the kind of thing that people used to say back then, Angela. Unfortunately, thats all I can remember about Bernadette. The reason I dont remember any particular details about Bernadette is because I didnt pay much attention to maids back then. I was so very accustomed to them, you see. They were nearly invisible to me. I just expected to be served. And why was that? Why was I so presumptuous and callow? Because I was rich. I havent said those words yet in these pages, so lets just get it out of the way right now: I was rich, Angela. I was rich, and I was spoiled. Id been raised during the Great Depression, true, but the crisis never affected my family in any pressing manner. When the dollar failed, we went from having three maids, two cooks, a nanny, a gardener, and a full-time chauffeur to having just two maids, one cook, and a part-time chauffeur. So that didnt quite qualify us for the breadline, to put it mildly. And because my expensive boarding school had ensured that I never met anybody who wasnt like me, I thought everyone had grown up with a big Zenith radio in the living room. I thought everyone had a pony. I thought every man was a Republican, and that there were only two kinds of women in the worldthose who had gone to Vassar, and those who had gone to Smith. (My mother went to Vassar. Aunt Peg went to Smith for one year, before dropping out to join the Red Cross. I didnt know what the difference was between Vassar and Smith, but from the way my mother talked, I understood it to be crucial.) I certainly thought everyone had maids. For my entire life, somebody like Bernadette had always taken care of me. When I left my dirty dishes sitting on the table, somebody always cleaned them up. My bed was beautifully made for me, every day. Dry towels magically replaced damp ones. Shoes that I tossed carelessly upon the floor were straightened out when I wasnt looking. Behind it all was some great cosmic forceconstant and invisible as gravity, and just as boring to me as gravityputting my life in order and making sure that my knickers were always clean. It may not surprise you, then, to learn that I didnt lift a finger to help out with the housekeeping, once I moved into the Lily Playhousenot even in the apartment that Peg had so generously bestowed upon me. It never occurred to me that I should help. Nor did it occur to me that I couldnt keep a showgirl in my bedroom as a pet, just because I felt like it. I cannot comprehend why nobody ever throttled me. You will sometimes encounter people my age, Angela, who grew up experiencing real hardship during the Depression. (Your father was one such person, of course.) But because everybody around them was also struggling, these people will often report that they were not aware as children that their deprivations were unusual. You will often hear such people say: I didnt even know I was poor! I was the opposite, Angela: I didnt know I was rich. FIVE Within a week, Celia and I had established our own little routine. Every night after the show was finished, she would throw on an evening gown (usually something that, in other circles, wouldve qualified as lingerie) and head out on the town for a night of debauchery and excitement. Meanwhile, I would eat a late dinner with Aunt Peg, listen to the radio, do some sewing, go to a movie, or go to sleepall the while wishing I were doing something more exciting. Then at some ungodly hour in the middle of the night Id feel the bump on my shoulder, and the familiar command to scoot. Id scoot, and Celia would collapse onto the bed, devouring all my space, pillows, and sheets. Sometimes she would conk right out, but other nights shed stay up chatting boozily until she dropped off in midsentence. Sometimes I would wake up and find that she was holding my hand in her sleep. In the mornings, we would linger in bed, and she would tell me about the men shed been with. There were the men who took her up to Harlem for dancing. The men who took her out to the midnight movies. The men who had gotten her to the front of the line to see Gene Krupa at the Paramount. The men who had introduced her to Maurice Chevalier. The men who paid for her meals of lobster thermidor and baked Alaska. (There was nothing Celia would not donothing she had not donefor the sake of lobster thermidor and baked Alaska.) She spoke about these men as if they were meaningless to her, but only because they were meaningless to her. Once they paid the bill, she often had a tough time remembering their names. She used them much the same way she used my hand lotions and my stockingsfreely and carelessly. A girl must create her own opportunities, she used to say. As for her background, I soon learned her story: Born in the Bronx, Celia had been christened Maria Theresa Beneventi. While youd never guess it from the name, she was Italian. Or at least her father was Italian. From him, shed inherited the glossy black hair and those sublime dark eyes. From her Polish mother, shed inherited the pale skin and the height. She had exactly one year of high school education. She left school at age fourteen, after having a scandalous affair with a friends father. (Affair may not be the accurate word to describe what transpires sexually between a forty-year-old man and a fourteen-year-old girl, but thats the word Celia used.) Her affair had gotten her thrown out of her home, and had also gotten her pregnant. This situation, her gentleman suitor had graciously took care of by paying for an abortion. After her abortion, her paramour had no wish to further engage with her, so he returned his devotions to his wife and family, leaving Maria Theresa Beneventi all on her own, to make do in the world as best she could. She worked in an industrial bakery for a while, where the owner gave her a job and offered her a place to stay in exchange for frequent J.O.sa term that Id never heard before, but which Celia helpfully explained to me were jerk offs. (This is the image that I think of, Angela, whenever I hear people talk about how the past was a more innocent time. I think of fourteen-year-old Maria Theresa Beneventi, fresh off her first abortion, with no roof over her head, masturbating the owner of an industrial bakery so that she could keep her job and have somewhere safe to sleep. Yes, folksthose were the days.) Soon young Maria Theresa discovered she could earn more money as a dime-a-dance girl than by baking dinner rolls for a pervert. She changed her name to Celia Ray, moved in with a few other dancers, and began her careerwhich consisted of putting forth her gorgeousness into the world, for the sake of personal advancement. She started working as a taxi dancer at the Honeymoon Lane Danceland on Seventh Avenue, where she let men grope her, perspire on her, and cry with loneliness in her arms for fifty dollars a week, plus presents on the side. She tried for the Miss New York beauty pageant when she was sixteen, but lost to a girl who played the vibraphone onstage in a bathing suit. She also worked as a photographers modelselling everything from dog food to antifungal creams. And shed been an artists modelselling her naked body for hours at a time to art schools and painters. While still a teenager, she wedded a saxophone player whom shed met while briefly working as a hatcheck girl at the Russian Tea Room. Marriages to saxophone players never do work out, though, and Celias was no exception; she was divorced before you knew it. Right after her divorce, she and a girlfriend moved to California with the intention of becoming movie stars. She managed to get herself some screen tests, but never landed a speaking part. (I got twenty-five dollars a day once to play a dead girl in a murder picture, she said proudlynaming a movie I had never heard of.) Celia left Los Angeles a few years later, having realized that there were four girls on every corner out there with better figures than me, and no Bronx accent. When she came back home from Hollywood, Celia got a job at the Stork Club as a showgirl. There, she met Gladys, Pegs dance captain, who recruited her for the Lily Playhouse. By 1940, when I arrived, Celia had been working for my Aunt Peg for almost two yearsthe longest period of stability in her life. The Lily was not a glamorous venue. It was certainly no Stork Club. But the way Celia saw it, the job was easy, her pay was regular, and the owner was a woman, which meant she didnt have to spend her workdays dodging some greasy boss with Roman hands and Russian fingers. Plus, her job duties were over by ten oclock. This meant that once she was done dancing on the Lily stage, she could go out on the town and dance until dawnoften at the Stork Club, but now it was for fun. How all that life experience adds up to someone who was claiming to be only nineteen years old, you tell me. To my joy and surprise, Celia and I became friends. To a certain extent, of course, Celia liked me because I was her handmaiden. Even at the time, I knew that she regarded me as her handmaiden, but that was all right with me. (If you know anything about the friendships of young girls, you will know that there is always one person playing the part of the handmaiden, anyhow.) Celia demanded a certain level of devoted serviceexpecting me to rub her calves for her when they were sore, or to give her hair a rousing brushing. Or shed say, Oh, Vivvie, Im all out of ciggies again!knowing full well that I would run out and buy her another pack. (Thats so bliss of you, Vivvie, shed say, as she pocketed the cigarettes, and didnt pay me back.) And yes, she was vainso vain that it made my own vanities look amateurish by comparison. Truly, Ive never seen anyone who could get more deeply lost in a mirror than Celia Ray. She could stand for ages in the glory of her own reflection, nearly deranged by her own beauty. I know it sounds like Im exaggerating, but Im not. I swear to you that she once spent two hours looking at herself in the mirror while debating whether she should be massaging her neck cream upward or downward in order to prevent the appearance of a double chin. But she had a childlike sweetness about her, too. In the mornings, Celia was especially dear. When she would wake up in my bed, hungover and tired, she was just a simple kid who wanted to snuggle and gossip. She would tell me of her dreams in lifeher big, unfocused dreams. Her aspirations never made sense to me because they didnt have any plans behind them. Her mind skipped straight to fame and riches, with no apparent map for how to get thereother than to keep looking like this, and to assume that the world would eventually reward her for it. It wasnt much of a planalthough, to be fair, it was more of a plan than I had for my own life. I was happy. I guess you could say that I had become the costume director of the Lily Playhousebut only because nobody stopped me from calling myself that, and also because nobody else wanted the job. Truth to tell, there was plenty of work for me. The showgirls and dancers were always in need of new costumes, and it wasnt as if they could just pluck outfits out of the Lily Playhouse costume closet (a distressingly damp and spider-infested place, filled with ensembles older and more crusty than the building itself). The girls were always broke, too, so I learned clever ways to improvise. I learned how to shop for cheap materials in the garment center, or (even cheaper) way down on Orchard Street. Better yet, I figured out how to hunt for remnants at the used clothing shops on Ninth Avenue and make costumes out of those. It turned out I was exceptionally good at taking tatty old garments and turning them into something fabulous. My favorite used clothing shop was a place called Lowtskys Used Emporium and Notions, on the corner of Ninth Avenue and Forty-third Street. The Lowtsky family were Eastern European Jews, whod paused in France for a few years to work in the lace industry before emigrating to America. Upon arrival in the United States, theyd settled on the Lower East Side, where they sold rags out of a pushcart. But then they moved up to Hells Kitchen to become costumers and purveyors of used clothing. Now they owned this entire three-story building in midtown, and the place was filled with treasures. Not only did they deal in used costumes from the theater, dance, and opera worlds, but they also sold old wedding gowns and occasionally a really spectacular couture dress, picked up from some Upper East Side estate sale. I couldnt stay away from the place. I once bought the most vividly violet-colored Edwardian dress for Celia at Lowtskys. It was the homeliest looking rag you ever saw, and Celia recoiled when I first showed it to her. But when I pulled off the sleeves, cut a deep V in the back, lowered the neckline, and belted it with a thick, black satin sash, I transformed this ancient beast of a dress into an evening gown that made my friend look like a millionaires mistress. Every woman in the room would gasp with envy when Celia walked in wearing that gownand all that for only two dollars! When the other girls saw what I could make for Celia, they all wanted me to create special dresses for them, as well. And so, just as at boarding school, I was soon given a portal to popularity through the auspices of my trusty old Singer 201. The girls at the Lily were always handing me bits of things that needed to be mendeddresses without zippers, or zippers without dressesand asking me if I could do something to fix it. (I remember Gladys once saying to me, I need a whole new rig, Vivvie! I look like somebodys uncle!) Maybe it sounds as if I was playing the role of the tragic stepsister in a fairy tale hereconstantly working and spinning, while the more beautiful girls were all heading to the ballbut you must understand that I was so grateful just to be around these showgirls. If anything, this exchange was more beneficial for me than it was for them. Listening to their gossip was an educationthe only education I had ever really longed for. And because somebody always needed my sewing talents for something, inevitably the showgirls started to coalesce around me and my powerful Singer. Soon, my apartment had turned into the company gathering placefor females, anyhow. (It helped that my rooms were nicer than the moldy old dressing rooms down in the basement, and also nearer to the kitchen.) And so it came to pass that one dayless than two weeks into my stay at the Lilya few of the girls were in my room, smoking cigarettes and watching me sew. I was making a simple capelet for a showgirl named Jenniea vivacious, adorable, gap-toothed girl from Brooklyn whom everyone liked. She was going on a date that night, and had complained that she didnt have anything to throw over her dress in case the temperature dropped. Id told her I would make her something nice, so thats what I was doing. It was the kind of task that was nearly effortless, but would forever endear Jennie to me. It was on this daya day like any other, as the saying goesthat it came to the attention of the showgirls that I was still a virgin. The subject came up that afternoon because the girls were talking about sexwhich was the only thing they ever talked about, when they werent talking about clothing, money, where to eat, how to become a movie star, how to marry a movie star, or whether they should have their wisdom teeth removed (as they claimed Marlene Dietrich had done, in order to create more dramatic cheekbones). Gladys the dance captainwho was sitting next to Celia on the floor in a pile of Celias dirty laundryasked me if I had a boyfriend. Her exact words were, You got anything permanent going with anybody? Now, it is worth noting that this was the first question of substance that any of the girls had ever asked about my life. (The fascination, needless to say, did not run in both directions.) I was only sorry that I didnt have something more exciting to report. I dont have a boyfriend, no, I said. Gladys seemed alarmed. But youre pretty, she said. You must have a guy back home. Guys must be giving you the pitch all the time! I explained that Id been in girls schools my whole life, so I hadnt had much opportunity to meet boys. But youve done it, right? asked Jennie, cutting to the chase. Youve gone the limit before? Never, I said. Not even once, you havent gone the limit? Gladys asked me, wide-eyed in disbelief. Not even by accident? Not even by accident, I said, wondering how it was that a person could ever have sex by accident. (Dont worry, AngelaI know now. Accidental sex is the easiest thing to do, once you get in the habit of it. Ive had plenty of accidental sex in my life since then, believe me, but at that moment I was not yet so cosmopolitan.) Do you go to church? Jennie asked, as if that could be the only possible explanation for my still being a virgin at age nineteen. Are you saving it? No! Im not saving it. I just havent had the chance. They all seemed concerned now. They were all looking at me as if Id just said that Id never learned how to cross a street by myself. But youve fooled around, Celia said. Youve necked, right? asked Jennie. Youve got to have necked! A little, I said. This was an honest answer; my sexual experience up until that point was very little. At a school dance back at Emma Willardwhere theyd bused in for the occasion the sorts of boys whom we were expected to someday marryId let a boy from the Hotchkiss School feel my breasts while we were dancing. (As best as he could find my breasts, anyway, which took some problem solving on his part.) Or maybe its too generous to say that I let him feel my breasts. It would be more accurate to say that he just went ahead and handled them, and I didnt stop him. I didnt want to be rude, for one thing. For another thing, I found the experience to be interesting. I would have liked for it to continue, but the dance ended and then the boy was on a bus back to Hotchkiss before we could take it any further. Id also been kissed by a man in a bar in Poughkeepsie, on one of those nights when Id escaped the Vassar hall wardens and ridden my bike into town. He and I had been talking about jazz (which is to say that he had been talking about jazz, and I had been listening to him talk about jazz, because that is how you talk to a man about jazz) and suddenly the next momentwow! He had pressed me up against a wall and was rubbing his erection against my hip. He kissed me until my thighs shook with desire. But when hed reached his hand between my legs I had balked, and slipped from his grasp. Id ridden my bicycle back to campus that night with a sense of wobbly uneaseboth fearing and hoping that he was following me. I had wanted more, and I had not wanted more. A familiar old tale, from the lives of girls. What else did I have on my sexual r?sum?? My childhood best friend, Betty, and I had practiced with each other some inexpert renditions of what we called romantic kissesbut then again we had also practiced having babies by stuffing pillows under our shirts so that we looked pregnant, and the latter experiment was just about as biologically convincing as the former. Id once had my vagina examined by my mothers gynecologist, when my mother grew concerned that I had not yet begun menstruating by the age of fourteen. The man had poked around down there for a bitwhile my mother watchedand then he told me I needed to be eating more liver. It had not been an erotic experience for anyone involved. Also, between the ages of ten and eighteen, Id fallen in love about twenty dozen times with some of my brother Walters friends. The choice benefit of having a popular and handsome brother was that he was always surrounded by his popular and handsome friends. But Walters friends were always too hypnotized by himtheir ringleader, the captain of every team, the most admired boy in townto pay much attention to anyone else in the room. I was not totally ignorant. I touched myself now and again, which made me feel both electrified and guilty, but I knew that wasnt the same thing as sex. (Lets just say this: my attempts at self-pleasure were something akin to dry swimming lessons.) And I understood the basics of human sexual function, having taken a required seminar at Vassar called Hygienea class that taught us about everything without telling us about anything. (In addition to presenting diagrams of ovaries and testicles, the teacher gave us a rather concerning admonition that douching with Lysol was neither a modern nor a safe means of contraceptionthus planting in my head a vision that disturbed me then and still disturbs me now.) Well, when will you go the limit, then? Jennie asked. Youre not getting any younger! What you dont want to have happen, said Gladys, is that you meet a fellow now, and you really like him, and then youve got to break the bad news to him that youre a virgin. Yeah, a lot of guys dont care for that, Celia said. Thats right, they dont want the responsibility, said Gladys. And you dont want your first time to be with somebody you like. Yeah, what if it goes all wrong? said Jennie. What could go wrong? I asked. Everything! said Gladys. You wont know what youre doing, and you could look like a dummy! And if it hurts, you dont want to find yourself blubbering in the arms of some guy you like! Now, this was the direct opposite of everything Id been taught about sex thus far in life. My school friends and I had always been given to understand that a man would prefer it if we were virgins. We had also been instructed to save the flower of our girlhood for somebody whom we not only liked, but loved. The ideal scenariothe aspiration which wed all been raised to embracewas that you were supposed to have sex with only one person in your entire life, and that person should be your husband, whom you met at an Emma Willard school prom. But I had been misinformed! These girls thought otherwise, and they knew things. Moreover, I now felt a sudden sting of anxiety about how old I was! For heavens sake, I was nineteen already; what had I been doing with my time? And Id been in New York already for two entire weeks. What was I waiting for? Is that hard to do? I asked. I mean, for the first time? Oh, God no, Vivvie, dont be dense, said Gladys. Its the easiest thing there ever was. In fact, you dont have to do anything. The man will do it for you. But you must get started, at least. Yes, she must get started, said Jennie definitively. But Celia was looking at me with an expression of concern. Do you want to stay a virgin, Vivvie? she asked, fixing me with that unsettlingly beautiful gaze of hers. And while she might as well have been asking, Do you want to stay an ignorant child, seen as pitiable by this gathering of mature and worldly women? the intention behind the question was sweet. I think she was looking out for memaking sure I wasnt being pushed. But the truth was, quite suddenly I did not want to be a virgin anymore. Not even for another day. No, I said. I want to get started. Wed be only too glad to help, dear, said Jennie. Are you on your monthlies right now? Gladys asked. No, I said. Then we can get started right away. Who do we know . . . ? Gladys pondered. It needs to be someone nice, said Jennie. Someone considerate. A real gentleman, said Gladys. Not some lunkhead, said Jennie. Someone wholl take precautions, Gladys said. Not someone wholl get rough with her, said Jennie. Celia said, I know who. And thats how their plan took shape. Dr. Harold Kellogg lived in an elegant town house just off Gramercy Park. His wife was out of town, because it was a Saturday. (Mrs. Kellogg took the train to Danbury every Saturday, to visit her mother in the country.) And so the appointment for my deflowering was set at the exceedingly unromantic hour of ten oclock on a Saturday morning. Dr. and Mrs. Kellogg were respected members of the community. They were the sorts of people my parents knew. This is part of the reason Celia thought he might be good for mebecause we came from the same social class. The Kelloggs had two sons at Columbia University who were both studying medicine. Dr. Kellogg was a member of the Metropolitan Club. In his free time, he enjoyed bird-watching, collecting stamps, and having sex with showgirls. But Dr. Kellogg was discreet about his liaisons. A man of his reputation could not afford to be seen about town with a young woman whose physical composition made her look like the figurehead of a sailing ship (it would be noticed), so the showgirls visited him at his town houseand always on Saturday mornings, when his wife was gone. He would let them in through the service entrance, offer them champagne, and entertain them in the privacy of his guest room. Dr. Kellogg gave the girls money for their time and trouble, and then sent them on their way. It all had to be over by lunchtime, because he saw patients in the afternoon. All the showgirls at the Lily knew Dr. Kellogg. They rotated visits to him, depending on who was least hungover on a Saturday morning, or who was down to buttons and needed a bit of pocket money for the week. When the girls told me the financial details of this arrangement, I said in shock, Do you mean to tell me that Dr. Kellogg pays you for sex? Gladys looked at me with disbelief: Well, whatd you think, Vivvie? That we pay him? Now, Angela, listen: I understand that there is a word for women who offer sexual favors to gentlemen in exchange for money. In fact, there are many words for this. But none of the showgirls with whom I associated in New York City in 1940 described themselves in that mannernot even as they were actively taking money from gentlemen in exchange for sexual favors. They couldnt possibly be prostitutes; they were showgirls. They had quite a lot of pride in that designation, having worked hard to achieve it, and its the only title they would answer to. But the situation was simply this: showgirls did not earn a great deal of money, you see, and everyone has to get by in this world somehow (shoes are expensive!), and so these girls had developed a system of alternative arrangements for earning a bit of extra cash on the side. The Dr. Kelloggs of the world were part of that system. Now that I think about it, Im not even sure that Dr. Kellogg himself regarded these young women as prostitutes. He more likely called them his girlfriendsan aspirational, if somewhat delusional, designation which surely would have made him feel better about himself, too. In other words, despite all evidence that sex was being exchanged for money (and sex was being exchanged for money, make no mistake about it) nobody here was engaging in prostitution. This was merely an alternative arrangement that suited everyone involved. You know: from each according to their abilities; to each according to their needs. Im so glad we were able to clear that up, Angela. I certainly wouldnt want there to be any misunderstandings. Now, Vivvie, what you have to understand is that hes boring, said Jennie. If you get bored, dont go thinking this is always how it feels to fool around. But hes a doctor, said Celia. Hell do right for our Vivvie. Thats what matters this time. (Our Vivvie! Were there ever more heartwarming words? I was their Vivvie!) It was now Saturday morning, and the four of us were sitting at a cheap diner on Third Avenue and Eighteenth Street, beneath the shadow of the el, waiting for it to be ten oclock. The girls had already showed me Dr. Kelloggs town house and the back entrance I was to use, which was just around the corner. Now we were drinking coffee and eating pancakes while the girls gave me excited last-minute instructions. It was awfully early in the dayon a weekend, no lessfor three showgirls to be wide awake and lively, but none of them had wanted to miss this. Hes going to use a safety, Vivvie, Gladys said. He always does, so you dont need to worry. It doesnt feel as good with a safety, Jennie said, but youll need it. Id never heard the term safety before, but I guessed from context that it was probably a sheath, or a rubbera device Id learned about in my Hygiene seminar at Vassar. (Id even handled one, which had been passed from girl to girl like a limp, dissected toad.) If it meant something else, I supposed I would find out soon enough, but I wasnt about to ask. Well get you a pessary later, said Gladys. All us girls have pessaries. (I didnt know what that was, either, till I figured out later its what my Hygiene professor called a diaphragm.) I dont have a pessary anymore! said Jennie. My grandmother found mine! When she asked me what it was, I told her it was for cleaning fine jewelry. She took it. For cleaning fine jewelry? Gladys shrieked. Well, I had to say something, Gladys! But I dont understand how you could even use a pessary for cleaning fine jewelry, Gladys pushed. I dunno! Ask my grandma, thats what shes using it for now! Well, then what are you using now? said Gladys. For precaution? Well, gee, nothing right now . . . because my grandmother has my pessary in her jewelry box. Jennie! cried Celia and Gladys at the same time. I know, I know. But Im careful. No, youre not! said Gladys. Youre never careful! Vivian, dont be a dumb kid like Jennie. Youve got to think about these things! Celia reached into her purse and handed me something wrapped in brown paper. I opened it up and found a small, white terry-cloth hand towel, folded neatly, never used. It still had a store price tag on it. I got you this, said Celia. Its a towel. Its for in case you bleed. Thank you, Celia. She shrugged, looked away, andto my shockblushed. Sometimes people bleed. Youll want to be able to clean yourself up. Yeah, and you dont want to use Mrs. Kelloggs good towels, said Gladys. Yeah, dont touch anything that belongs to Mrs. Kellogg! said Jennie. Except her husband! shrieked Gladys, and all the girls laughed again. Ooh! Its after ten, Vivvie, said Celia. You should get moving. I made an effort to stand up, but suddenly felt dizzy. I sat back down in the dinette booth again, hard. My legs had almost gone out from under me. I hadnt thought I was nervous, but my body seemed to have a different opinion. You okay, Vivvie? Celia asked. You sure you want to do this? I want to do it, I said. Im sure I want to do it. My suggestion, said Gladys, is that you dont think about it too much. I never do. This seemed wise. So I took a few deep breathsas my mother had taught me to do before you jump a horsestood up, and headed for the exit. See you girls later! I said, with a bright and slightly surreal sense of cheer. Well be waiting for you right here! said Gladys. Shouldnt take too long! said Jennie. SIX Dr. Kellogg was waiting for me just inside the servants entrance to his town house. Id barely knocked before the door flew open and he hustled me in. Welcome, welcome, he said, glancing about him, to make sure no neighbors were spying. Lets get that door shut behind you, my dear. He was a medium-sized man with an average-looking face whose hair was one of the regular colors of hair, and who was dressed in the sort of suit that one might expect a respectable middle-aged gentleman of his class to be wearing. (If it sounds like I have completely forgotten what he looked like, its because I have completely forgotten what he looked like. He was the kind of man whose face you forget even when you are standing right in front of him, looking directly at his face.) Vivian, he said, and extended a handshake. Thank you for coming in today. Lets head upstairs and get ourselves situated. He sounded every bit like the doctor he was. He sounded just like my pediatrician back home in Clinton. I might as well have been there to have an ear infection looked at. There was something both reassuring and immensely silly about this to me. I felt a giggle rising in my chest, but kept it suppressed. We walked through his home, which was proper and elegant, but unmemorable. There were probably a hundred homes within a few blocks of us decorated exactly the same way. All I can remember were some silk-upholstered couches with doilies. I have always hated doilies. He led me straight to the guest room, where he had two glasses of champagne waiting on a small table. The curtains were drawnso that we could pretend it wasnt ten oclock in the morning, I supposeand he closed the door behind him. Make yourself comfortable on the bed, Vivian, he said, handing me one of the champagne flutes. I sat primly on the edge of the bed. I was half expecting him to wash his hands and come at me with a stethoscope, but instead he pulled over a wooden chair from a corner of the room, and sat directly across from me. He put his elbows on his knees and leaned forward, in the manner of one whose job it is to diagnose. So, Vivian. Our friend Gladys tells me that youre a virgin. Thats correct, Doctor, I said. Theres no need to call me Doctor. We are friends. You may call me Harold. Why, thank you, Harold, I said. And from that moment on, Angela, the situation became hilarious to me. Whatever nervousness Id felt up until that point was gone now, replaced by a sense of pure comedy. It was something about the sound of my voice saying, Why, thank you, Harold, in that small guest room with its stupid mint-green acetate quilted bedspread (I cant remember Dr. Kelloggs face, but I cannot forget that hideous goddamn bedspread) that struck me as the pinnacle of absurdity. There he was in his suit, and there I was in my buttercup-yellow rayon day dressand if Dr. Kellogg didnt believe that I was a virgin before we met, the little yellow frock alone should have convinced him. The whole scene was absurd. He was accustomed to showgirls, and he was getting me. Now, Gladys informs me that you wish to have your virginityhe was searching for a delicate wordremoved? Thats correct, Harold, I said. I wish to have it expunged. (To this day, I believe that this line was the first intentionally funny thing Id ever said in my lifeand the fact that I said it with a straight face gave me no end of satisfaction. Expunged! Brilliant.) He nodded; a good clinician with a bad sense of humor. Why dont you get undressed, he said, and I will also get undressed, and well start. I wasnt sure if I should take off everything. Usually at the doctors office, I kept on my step-insas my mother always called my underwear. (But why was I thinking about my mother right now?) Then again, usually at the doctors office I wasnt about to have sex with the doctor. I made a hasty decision to strip down completely. I didnt want to look like a modest little dolt. I lay down on my back on that nauseating acetate bedspread, naked as can be. Arms straight down at my side and legs stiff. You know: like a proper temptress. Dr. Kellogg stripped to his shorts and undershirt. This hardly seemed fair. Why was he allowed to remain partially dressed, when I had to be naked? Now if youll just kindly move over an inch or so, and make a bit of room for me . . . he said. There we go. . . . Thats it. . . . Lets have a look at you. He lay beside me, head propped by his elbow, and had a look at me. I didnt hate this moment as much as you might think. I was a vain young woman, and something within me thought it quite right that I should be looked at. Appearancewise, my chief concern was my bosomor, rather, my near absence of a bosom. It didnt seem to be an issue with Dr. Kellogg, though, despite the fact that he was used to a different class of figure altogether. In fact he seemed delighted with all that was offered up before him. Virgin breasts! he marveled. Never before touched by man! (Well, I thought, I wouldnt say that. Never before touched by an adult man, maybe.) Forgive me if my hands are cold, Vivian, he said, but Im going to begin touching you now. Dutifully, he began to touch me. First the left breast, then the right, then the left again, then the right again. His hands indeed were cold, but they warmed up soon enough. At first I was mildly panicked, and I kept my eyes closed, but after a bit of time, it was more like: Well, this is interesting! Off we go! At some point, it began to actually feel good. Thats when I decided to open my eyes, because I didnt want to miss anything. I suppose I wanted to watch my own body being ravaged. (Ah, the narcissism of youth!) I gazed down at myself, admiring my slim waist and the curve of my hip. I had borrowed Celias razor to shave my legs, and my thighs were looking beautifully smooth in the low light. My breasts looked quite pretty under his hands, too. A mans hands! On my naked breasts! Would you look at that? I stole a glance at his face and was pleased with what I saw therethe reddened cheeks and the slight frown of concentration. He was breathing heavily through his nose, and I took that as a good sign that I was successfully arousing him. And it did feel very nice to be stroked. I liked the effect his touch had on my breaststhe way the skin got all rosy and toasty. Im going to put your breast in my mouth now, he said. This is standard. I wished he hadnt said that. He made it sound like a procedure. Id been thinking a lot about sex over the years, and in none of my fantasies did my lover sound like he was making a house call. He leaned over to take my breast in his mouth, as promised, which I also found that I likedonce he stopped talking about it, I mean. In fact, I had never felt anything quite so delicious. I closed my eyes again. I wanted to keep still and quiet, with hopes that he would just continue offering this delightful experience. But then the delightful experience ended suddenly, because now he had started talking again. Were going to take this in careful stages, Vivian, he said. God help me, but it sounded like he was about to insert a rectal thermometer inside mean experience Id once had as a child, and which I didnt want to be thinking about just now. Or do you want this over with swiftly, Vivian? he asked. Excuse me? I said. Well, I would imagine that its alarming to you, to lie with a man for the first time. Perhaps you wish for the deed to be done swiftly, so that your discomfort will be fast over? Or would you like me to linger and teach you some things? Some of the things that Mrs. Kellogg enjoys, for instance? Oh, dear God, the last thing I wanted was to be taught the things that Mrs. Kellogg enjoyed! But I truly did not know what to say. So I just stared at him dumbly. I need to begin seeing patients at noon, he said, not at all seductively. He seemed irritated with my silence. But we do have enough time for a bit of creative dallying, if that interests you? We will need to make a decision soon, though. How is one supposed to answer that? How was I supposed to know what I wanted him to do? Creative dallying could mean anything. I just blinked at him. The tiny duckling is frightened, he said, his manner softening. I only slightly wanted to kill him for the patronizing tone. Im not frightened, I replied, which was true. I wasnt frightenedjust baffled. My expectation had been that I was going be ravaged here todaybut this was all so labored. Were we meant to negotiate and discuss every point? Its all right, my tiny duckling, he said. Ive done this before. Youre awfully bashful, arent you? Why dont you let me chart the course? He slid his hand down over my pubic hair. He palmed my vulva. He kept his hand flat, the way you keep your palm flat when youre feeding a sugar cube to a horse, because you dont want the horse to bite you. He began to rub his palm over my little mound. It didnt feel that bad. It didnt feel that bad at all, actually. I shut my eyes once more and marveled at this slight but magical uprush of lovely sensation. Mrs. Kellogg likes it when I do this, he saidand again, I had to stop experiencing pleasure in order to think about Mrs. Kellogg and her doilies. She likes when I go round and round in this direction . . . and then round and round in this direction . . . The problem, I could clearly see now, was going to be the talking. I debated how to get Dr. Kellogg to stop speaking. I couldnt very well ask him to be quiet in his own homeand especially not when he was doing me this tremendous favor of puncturing my hymen for me. I was a well-bred young lady who was accustomed to treating men of authority with a certain deference: it would have been highly out of character for me to have said, Could you kindly shut up? It occurred to me that perhaps if I asked him to kiss me, that might silence him. It could work. It would keep his mouth busy, without a doubt. But then I would be required to kiss him, and I wasnt sure that I wanted to kiss him. It was difficult to know which scenario would be worse in this casesilence and kissing? Or no kissing, and this bothersome voice? Does your little kitty cat like to be petted? he asked, as he increased his hands pressure on my mound. Is your little kitty cat purring? Harold, I said, I wonder if I might ask you to kiss me. Perhaps Im not being fair to Dr. Kellogg. He was a nice enough man, and he was only trying to help me out, without alarming me too much. I do believe he did not want to hurt me. Maybe he was applying the Hippocratic oath to this situation: First, do no harm and all that. Or maybe he wasnt such a nice man. I really have no way of knowing, as I never saw him again. Lets not paint him as the hero here! Maybe he wasnt trying to help me out at all, but was only enjoying the thrill of deflowering an uncomfortable and nubile young virgin in his guest room while his wife was off visiting her mother. He certainly had no trouble becoming aroused by this situation, as I found out soon enough when he pulled away from me to apply a safety to his erection. Now, this would be the first erect penis I had ever seenand therefore a banner momentalthough I didnt get to see much of it. Partially, this is because the penis in question was covered by a condom and blocked by the mans hand. But mostly its because he was on top of me in no time. Vivian, he said, Ive decided that the more quickly I enter, the better it will be for you. In this case, I believe it is better not to move by degrees. Hold tight, for now I shall penetrate you. Thus he said it, and thus he did it. Well, then. There we were. It hurt far less than Id feared. That was the good news. The bad news was that it also felt far less pleasant than Id hoped. Id hoped that intercourse would be a magnification of the sensations Id experienced when hed kissed my breasts or rubbed my mound, but it wasnt. In fact, whatever pleasure Id been experiencing thus far, faint as it had been, vanished quite suddenly upon his enteringreplaced by something very forceful and very interrupting. Having him inside me was just an unmistakable presence that I could not identify as being either bad or good. It reminded me a bit of menstrual cramps. It was just tremendously odd. He moaned and he thrust, and through his clenched teeth he said, Mrs. Kellogg, I find, prefers it when I But I never did find out how Mrs. Kellogg preferred her copulation, because I started kissing Dr. Kellogg again, as soon as he began talking. The kissing did help to keep him quiet, I had found. Moreover, it gave me something to do, as I was being taken. As weve established, I hadnt done much kissing in my life, but I guessed pretty well at how it was done. Its the kind of skill that you have to learn on the job, really, but I did the best that I could with it. It was a bit of a challenge to keep our mouths linked as he was pounding away at me, but my incentive was great: I really didnt want to hear his voice again. At the last moment, however, he got one more word in. He pulled his face away from mine, shouted Exquisite! Then he arched his back, gave one more powerful shudder, and that was the end of it. Afterward, he got up and went to another room, presumably to wash up. Then he came back and lay next to me for a spell. He held me tight, saying, Little duckling, little duckling, what a good little duckling. Dont cry, little duckling. I wasnt cryingI wasnt anywhere near cryingbut he didnt notice. Soon enough, he got up again and asked if he could please check the coverlet for blood, as he had forgotten to put down a sheet. We wouldnt want Mrs. Kellogg seeing a stain, he said. I forgot myself, Im afraid. Im generally more careful. That suggests a certain lack of foresight on my part, which is not typically my way. Oh, I said, reaching for my handbag, grateful to have something to do. Ive brought a towel! But there was no stain. There was no blood at all. (All those horseback rides in childhood, I suppose, had already done the puncturing job for me. Thanks, Mother!) To my great relief, I didnt even feel much pain. Now, Vivian, he instructed, you will want to avoid taking a bath for the next two days, as it could create infection. Its quite all right for you to clean yourself, but just splash aboutdo not soak. If you find that you have any discharge or discomfort, Gladys or Celia can recommend a vinegar douche for you. But youre a big strong healthy girl, and I dont expect you to run into any difficulties. You did well here today. Im proud of you. I half expected him to give me a lollipop. As we dressed, Dr. Kellogg chatted away about the fine weather. Had I taken notice last month of the peonies in bloom in Gramercy Park? No, I told him, I hadnt even been living in New York City as of last month. Well, he instructed, I must take notice of the peonies next year, for they are in bloom such a short while, you know, and then they are gone. (Maybe this seems like too obvious a commentary on my own short-lasting bloombut lets not give Dr. Kellogg that much credit for poetry or pathos. I think he just really liked peonies.) Let me show you out, my little duckling, he said, walking me back down the stairs, and through the doily-strewn living room, toward the servants entrance. As we passed by the kitchen, he took an envelope off the table and handed it to me. A token of my appreciation, he said. I knew it was money, and I couldnt bear it. Oh, no, I couldnt, Harold, I said. Oh, but you must. No, I couldnt, I said. I couldnt possibly. Oh, but I insist. Oh, but I mustnt. My objection, I have to tell you, was not that I didnt want to be regarded as a prostitute. (Dont think so highly of me as all that!) It was more a matter of deeply ingrained social politeness. My parents provided an allowance for me every week, you see, which Aunt Peg gave to me on Wednesdays, so I truly did not need Dr. Kelloggs money. Also, some puritanical voice within me told me that I had not quite earned this money. I didnt know much about sex, but I couldnt imagine that Id shown this man much of a good time. A girl who lies down on her back with her arms straight at her sides, not moving whatsoever other than to attack you with her mouth every time you speakshe cant be much fun in the sack, right? If I were going to be paid for sex, Id want to have done something worth paying for. Vivian, I demand that you take this, he said. Harold, I refuse. Vivian, I really must insist that you do not make a scene, he said, frowning slightly, and pushing the envelope toward me with forcethis moment constituting the closest Id come to danger or excitement at the hands of Dr. Harold Kellogg. Very well, I said, and I took the money. (And how do you like that, my fancy ancestors? Cash for sex, and on the first run out of the gate, no less!) You are a lovely young girl, he said. And please dont be concerned: there is still plenty of time for your breasts to fill out. Thank you, Harold, I said. If you drink eight ounces of buttermilk a day, it should help them to grow. Thank you, I will do that, I said, with no intention whatsoever of drinking eight ounces of buttermilk a day. I was about to step out the door, but then I suddenly had to know. Harold, I said, may I ask what kind of doctor you are? It was my supposition that he was either a gynecologist or a pediatrician. I was leaning toward pediatrician. I just wanted to settle the bet in my own head. Im a veterinarian, my dear girl, he said. Now, please send my warmest regards to Gladys and Celia, and do not forget to observe the peonies next spring! I flew down the street, absolutely howling with laughter. I ran back into the diner where the girls were all waiting for me, and before they could even speak, I shrieked, A veterinarian? You sent me to a veterinarian? How was it? asked Gladys. Did it hurt? Hes a veterinarian? You said he was a doctor! Dr. Kellogg is a doctor! said Jennie. It says so right in his name. I feel as though you sent me to get spayed! I dove into the booth next to Celia, crashing against her warm body with relief. My own body was in a storm of hilarity. I was all trembling now, from head to toe. I felt wild and unhinged. I felt that my life had just exploded. I was overcome with excitement and arousal and revulsion and embarrassment and pride, and it was all so disorienting, but also fantastic. The aftereffect was so much more striking than the act itself had been. I could not believe what I had just done. My boldness that morningsex with a strange man!seemed to have sprung from someone else, but I also felt more authentic to myself than ever. Moreover, looking around the table at the showgirls, I felt a sense of gratitude so rich that tears almost overtook me. It was so marvelous to have the girls there. My friends! My oldest friends in the world! My oldest friends in the world whom Id met only two weeks agoexcept for Jennie, whom Id just met two days before! I loved them all so much! They had waited for me! They cared! But how was it? said Gladys. It was fine. It was fine. There was a stack of cold and half-eaten pancakes in front of me from earlier that morning, and now I tore into those pancakes with a hunger that was close to violence. My hands were shaking. Dear God, I had never been so famished. My hunger had no bottom to it. I drenched the pancakes in even more syrup and shoveled more of them into my mouth. He never stops croaking on about his wife, though! I said, between forkfuls. And how! said Jennie. Hes the worst for that! Hes a drip, said Gladys. But hes not a mean man, and thats what matters. But did it hurt? asked Celia. You know something, it didnt, I said. And I didnt even need the towel! Youre lucky, said Celia. Youre so lucky. I cant say it was fun, I said. But I cant say it wasnt fun, either. Im just glad its over. I suppose there are worse ways to lose your virginity. All the other ways are worse, Jennie said. Believe me. Ive tried them all. Im so proud of you, Vivvie, said Gladys. Today youre a woman. She raised her coffee cup to me in a toast, and I clinked it with my water glass. Never did an initiation ceremony feel so complete and satisfying as that moment when I was toasted by Gladys the dance captain. How much did he give you? asked Jennie. Oh! I said. Id almost forgotten! I reached into my purse and pulled out the envelope. You open it, I said, handing it with shaky hands to Celia, who tore it right open, thumbed through the cash expertly, and announced: Fifty dollars! Fifty dollars! shrieked Jennie. Hes usually twenty! What should we spend it on? Gladys asked. Weve got to do something special with it, said Jennieand I felt a rush of relief that the girls considered the money ours, not mine. It spread around the taint of misdoing, if that makes sense. It also added to the feeling of camaraderie. I want to go to Coney Island, said Celia. We dont have time, said Gladys. We need to be back at the Lily by four. Weve got time, Celia said. Well be quick. Well get hot dogs and look at the beach and come straight home. Well hire a taxi. We have money now, dont we? So we drove out to Coney Island with the windows down, smoking and laughing and gossiping. It was the warmest day of summer so far. The sky was thrillingly bright. I was wedged in the backseat between Celia and Gladys, while Jennie chatted away with the driver up fronta driver who could not believe his luck at the assemblage of beauty that had just tumbled into his cab. What a bunch of figures on you gals! he said, and Jennie said, Now, dont you get fresh, mister, but I could tell that she liked it. Do you ever feel bad about Mrs. Kellogg? I asked Gladys, feeling a small pang of concern about my deed that day. I mean, for sleeping with her husband? Should I feel bad about it? Well, you cant have too much conscience about things! said Gladys. Or else youll never stop worrying! And that, Im afraid, was the extent of our moral agonies. Subject closed. Next time I want it to be with someone else, I said. Do you think I could find somebody else? Piece of cake, said Celia. Coney Island was all shiny and gaudy and fun. The boardwalk was overrun with loud families, and young couples, and sticky children who acted just as delirious as I felt. We looked at the signs for the freak shows. We ran down to the shore and put our feet in the water. We ate candied apples and lemon ices. We got our picture taken with a strongman. We bought stuffed animals and picture postcards and souvenir cosmetic mirrors. I bought Celia a cute little rattan handbag with seashells sewn on it, and I got sunglasses for the other girls, and I paid for a taxi ride all the way back to midtownand there was still nine dollars left of Dr. Kelloggs money. You got enough left over to buy yourself a steak dinner! said Jennie. We got back to the Lily Playhouse with barely enough time to make the early show. Olive was frantic with concern that the showgirls would miss the curtain, and she clucked about in circles, scolding everyone for their lack of promptitude. But the girls dove into their dressing rooms and came out only moments later, it seemed, simply secreting sequins and ostrich plumes and glamour. My Aunt Peg was there, too, of course, and she asked me, somewhat distractedly, if Id had a fun day. I sure did! I said. Good, she said. You should have fun, youre young. Celia gave my hand a squeeze just as she was about to go onstage. I grabbed her by the arm and leaned in closer toward her beauty. Celia! I whispered, I still cant believe I lost my virginity today! Youll never miss it, she said. And do you know something? She was absolutely right. SEVEN And so it began. Now that Id been initiated, I wanted to be around sex constantlyand everything about New York felt like sex to me. I had a lot of time to make up for, was how I saw it. Id wasted all those years being bored and boring, and now I refused to be bored or boring ever again, not even for an hour! And I had so much to learn! I wanted Celia to teach me everything she knewabout men, about sex, about New York, about lifeand she happily obliged. From that point forward, I was no longer the handmaiden of Celia (or at least not merely her handmaiden); I was her accomplice. It was no longer Celia coming home drunk in the middle of the night after a wild spree on the town; it was both of us coming home drunk in the middle of the night after a wild spree on the town. The two of us went digging for trouble with a shovel and a pickax that summer, and we never had the slightest trouble finding it. If you are a pretty young woman looking for trouble in a big city, its not difficult to find. But if you are two pretty young women looking for trouble, then trouble will tackle you on every cornerwhich is just how we wanted it. Celia and I cultivated an almost hysterical commitment to having a good time. Our appetites were gluttonousnot only for boys and men, but also for food, and cocktails, and anarchic dancing, and the kind of live music that makes you want to smoke too many cigarettes and laugh with your head thrown back. Sometimes the other dancers or showgirls started off the night with us, but they could rarely keep up with me and Celia. If one of us lagged, the other would pick up the pace. Sometimes I got the feeling we were watching each other to see what we would do next, because we usually had no idea what we were going to do next, except that we always wanted another thrill. More than anything, I believe, we were motivated by our mutual fear of boredom. Every day had a hundred hours in it, and we needed to fill them all, or we would perish of tedium. Essentially, our chosen line of work that summer was romping and rampagingand we did it with a tirelessness that staggers my imagination even to this day. When I think about the summer of 1940, Angela, I picture Celia Ray and I as two inky, dark points of lust sailing through the neon and shadows of New York City, in a nonstop search for action. And when I try to recall it in detail now, it all seems to run into one long, hot, sweaty night. The moment the show was over, Celia and I would change into the thinnest little stalks of evening gowns, and we would absolutely fling ourselves at the cityrunning full tilt into the impatient streets, already certain that we were missing something vital and lively: How could they start without us? Wed always begin our evening at Toots Shors, or El Morocco, or the Stork Clubbut there was no telling where we would end up by the wee hours. If midtown got too dull and familiar, Celia and I might head up to Harlem on the A train to hear Count Basie play, or to drink at the Red Rooster. Or we could just as easily find ourselves clowning around with a bunch of Yale boys at the Ritz, or dancing with some socialists downtown at Webster Hall. The rule seemed to be: dance until you collapse, and then keep dancing for a little bit longer after that. We moved with such speed! Sometimes it felt like I was being dragged behind the city itselfsucked into this wild urban river of music and lights and revelry. Other times, it felt like we were the ones dragging the city behind usbecause everywhere we went, we were followed. In the course of these heady evenings, we would either meet up with some men whom Celia already knew, or we would pick up some new men along the way. Or both. I would either kiss three handsome men in a row, or the same handsome man three timessometimes it was hard to keep track. Never was it difficult to find men. It helped that Celia Ray could walk into a joint like nobody Ive ever seen. She would throw her resplendence into a room ahead of her, the way a soldier might toss a grenade into a machine gunners nest, and then shed follow her beauty right on in and assess the carnage. All she had to do was show up, and every bit of sexual energy in the place would magnetize around her. Then shed stroll around looking bored as can besopping up everyones boyfriends and husbands in the processwithout exerting the slightest bit of effort in her conquests. Men looked at Celia Ray like she was a box of Cracker Jack and they couldnt wait to start digging for the toy. In return, she looked at them like they were the wooden paneling on the wall. Which only made them crazier for her. Show me you can smile, baby, a brave man once called out to her across the dance floor. Show me you got a yacht, Celia said under her breath, and turned away to be bored in another direction. Since I was by her side, and since I looked enough like her now (in low light, anyhowsince I was not only the same height and coloring as Celia, but now wore tight dresses like hers, and styled my hair like hers, and modeled my walk after hers, and padded my bosom to slightly resemble hers), it only doubled the effect. I dont like to boast, Angela, but we were a pretty unstoppable duo. Actually, I do like to boast, so let an old woman have her glory: we were stunning. We could give whole tables of men a pretty decent case of whiplash, just by walking past. Fetch us a refresher, Celia would say at the bar, to nobody in particular, and in the next moment, five men would be handing us cocktailsthree for her, and two for me. And in the next ten minutes, those drinks would be gone. Where did we get all that energy from? Oh, yes, I remember: we got it from youth itself. We were turbines of energy. Mornings were always difficult, of course. The hangovers could be quite unsparingly cruel. But if I needed a nap later in the day, I could always do it in the back of the theater, during a rehearsal or a show, collapsed on a pile of old curtains. A ten-minute doze, and Id be restored, ready to take on the city once more, as soon as the applause died down. You can live this way when youre nineteen (or pretending to be nineteen, in Celias case). Those girls are on the road to trouble, I heard an older woman say about us one night, as we were staggering down the street drunkand that woman was absolutely right. What she didnt understand, though, is that trouble is what we wanted. Oh, our youthful needs! Oh, the deliciously blinding yearnings of the youngwhich inevitably take us right to the edges of cliffs, or trap us in cul-de-sacs of our design. I cant say that I got good at sex during the summer of 1940, although I will say that I grew awfully familiar with it. But, no, I didnt get good at it. To get good at sexwhich, for a woman, means learning how to enjoy and even orchestrate the act, to the point of her own climaxone needs time, patience, and an attentive lover. It would be awhile before I had access to anything as sophisticated as all that. For now, it was just a game of wild numbers, executed with a considerable amount of speed. (Celia and I didnt like to hover too long in one location, or with one man, in case we were missing something better that might be happening on the other side of town.) My longing for excitement and my curiosity about sex made me not only insatiable that summer, but also susceptible. Thats how I see myself, when I look back on it now. I was susceptible to everything that had even the vaguest suggestion of the erotic or the illicit. I was susceptible to neon lights in the darkness of a midtown side street. I was susceptible to drinking cocktails out of coconut shells in the Hawaiian Room of the Hotel Lexington. I was susceptible to being offered ringside tickets, or backstage entrances to nightclubs that did not have names. I was susceptible to anybody who could play a musical instrument, or dance with a fair amount of panache. I was susceptible to getting into cars with just about anyone who owned a car. I was susceptible to men who would approach me at the bar with two highballs, saying, I seem to have found myself with an extra drink. Perhaps you could help me out with this, miss? Why, yes, I would be delighted to help you out with that, sir. I was so good at being helpful in that regard! In our defense, Celia and I didnt have sex with all the men we met that summer. But we did have sex with most of them. The question with me and Celia was never so much Who should we have sex with?it didnt really seem to matterbut only Where shall we have sex? The answer was: Wherever we could find a spot. We had sex in fancy hotel suites, paid for by out-of-town businessmen. But also in the kitchen (closed for the evening) of a small East Side nightclub. Or on a ferry boat where wed somehow ended up late at nightthe lights on the water all runny and blurry around us. In the backs of taxicabs. (I know it sounds uncomfortable, and believe me it was uncomfortable, but it could be accomplished.) In a movie theater. In a dressing room in the basement of the Lily Playhouse. In a dressing room in the basement of the Diamond Horseshoe. In a dressing room in the basement of Madison Square Garden. In Bryant Park, with the threat of rats at our feet. In dark and sweltering alleyways just off the taxi-haunted corners of midtown. On the rooftop of the Puck Building. In an office suite on Wall Street, where only the nighttime janitors might hear us. Drunk, pinwheel-eyed, briny-blooded, brainless, weightlessCelia and I spun through New York City that summer on currents of pure electricity. Instead of walking, we rocketed. There was no focus; there was just a constant search for the vivid. We missed nothing, but we also missed everything. We watched Joe Louis train with his sparring partner, for instance, and we heard Billie Holiday singbut I cant remember the details of either occasion. We were too distracted by our own story to pay much attention to all the wonders that were laid before us. (For instance: the night that I saw Billie Holiday sing, I had my period and I was in a sulky mood because a boy I liked had just left with another girl. Theres my review of Billie Holidays performance.) Celia and I would have too much to drink, and then we would run into crowds of young men whod also had too much to drinkand the whole lot of us would crash together and behave exactly the way you might expect us to behave. We would go into bars with boys whom wed met in other bars, but then flirt with the boys we discovered in the new bar. We caused fights to break out, and somebody would take a wicked shellacking, but then Celia would choose among the survivors for who would take us to the next bar, where the uproar would begin all over again. We would bounce from one stag party to the nextfrom one mans arms to another mans arms. We even traded dates once, right in the middle of dinner. You take him, Celia said to me that night, right in front of the man who was already boring her. Im going to the ladies room. You keep this guy warm. But hes your guy! I said, as the man reached for me, most obligingly. And youre my friend! Oh, Vivvie, she said to me, in a fond and pitying tone. You cant lose a friend like me just by taking her guy! I had precious little contact with my family back home that summer. The last thing I wanted was for them to know anything about what I was doing. My mother sent me a note every week, along with my allowance, filling me in on the most basic news. My father had hurt his shoulder playing golf. My brother was threatening to quit Princeton next semester and join the Navy, because he wanted to serve his country. My mother had defeated this-or-that woman in this-or-that tennis tournament. In return, I sent my parents a card every week telling them the same stale and uninformative sort of newsthat I was well, that I was working hard at the theater, that New York City was very nice, and thank you for the allowance. Every once in a while Id toss in a bit of innocuous detail, such as, Just the other day I had a charming lunch at the Knickerbocker with Aunt Peg. Naturally, I did not mention to my parents that Id recently gone to a doctor with my friend Celia the showgirl, in order to get myself illegally fitted for a pessary. (Illegal, because it was not permitted back then for a doctor to outfit an unmarried woman with a birth control devicebut this is why its so good to have friends who know people! Celias doctor was a laconic Russian woman who didnt ask questions. She suited me right up without batting an eye.) Nor did I mention to my parents that Id had a gonorrhea scare (which had turned out to be nothing more than a mild pelvic infection, thank goodnessthough it had been a painful and frightening week until it all cleared up). Nor did I mention that Id had a pregnancy scare (which had also cleared up on its own accord, thank God). Nor did I mention that I was now fairly regularly sleeping with a man named Kevin Ribsy OSullivan, who ran numbers around the corner in Hells Kitchen. (I was dallying about with some other men, too, of courseall equally unsavory, but none with such a good name as Ribsy.) Nor did I mention that I now always carried prophylactics in my pocketbookon account of the fact that I didnt want any further gonorrhea scares, and a girl cant be too careful. I also didnt tell my parents that my boyfriends regularly secured these prophylactics for me as a kind favor. (Because you see, Mother, only men are allowed to purchase prophylactics in New York City!) No, I didnt tell her any of this. I did, however, pass along the news that the lemon sole at the Knickerbocker was excellent. Which is true. It really was. Meanwhile, Celia and I just went right on spinningnight after nightgetting ourselves into all manner of trouble, big and small. Our drinks made us crazy and lazy. We forgot how to keep track of the hours or the cocktails or the names of our dates. We drank gin fizzes till we forgot how to walk. We forgot how to look after our security once we were good and tight, and other peopleoften strangerswould have to look after us. (It aint for you to tell a girl how to live! I remember Celia yelling one night at a nice gentleman who was politely trying to do nothing more than escort us back home safely to the Lily.) There was always an element of peril in the way that Celia and I thrust ourselves into the world. We made ourselves available for anything that might happen, so anything could happen. Often, anything did happen. You see, it was like this: Celias effect on men was to make them so obedient and subservient to heruntil the instant they were no longer obedient and subservient. She would have them all lined up before us, ready to take our orders and serve our every wish. They were such good boys, and sometimes they stayed good boysbut sometimes, quite suddenly, those boys were not so good anymore. Some line of male desire or anger would be crossed, and then there was no coming back from it. After that line had been crossed, Celias effect on men was to make them into savages. There would be a moment when everyone was having fun and flirting and playing taunting games and laughing, but then suddenly the energy of the room would shift, and now there was a threat of not only sex, but violence. Once that shift came, there was no stopping it. After that, it was all smash and grab. The first time this happened, Celia saw it coming moments before it occurred, and she sent me out of the room. We were in the Presidential Suite of the Biltmore Hotel, being entertained by three men whom wed met earlier in the ballroom of the Waldorf. These men had a great deal of loose cash, and they were clearly in a dubious line of work. (If I had to guess, I would wager that their line of employment was: racketeers.) At first they were all in service to Celiaso deferential, so grateful for her attentions, sweating with nervousness about making the beautiful girl and her friend happy. Would the ladies like another bottle of champagne? Would the ladies like some crab legs ordered up to the room? Would the ladies like to see the Presidential Suite at the Biltmore? Would the ladies like the radio on or off? I was still new at this game, and I found it amusing that these thugs were so servile to us. Cowed by our powers, and all that. It made me want to laugh at them, in all their weakness: Men are so easy to control! But thennot long into our visit to the Presidential Suitethe shift came, and Celia was suddenly crammed between two of those men on the couch, and they were no longer looking servile or weak. It wasnt anything they were doing per se; it was just a change of tone, and it frightened me. Something had shifted in their faces, and I didnt like it. The third man was now eyeing me, and he didnt appear as though he were interested in joking around anymore, either. The only way I can describe the change in the room was: Youre having a delightful picnic, and then suddenly theres a tornado. The barometric pressure drops. The sky goes black. The birds go silent. This thing is coming straight for you. Vivvie, said Celia in that exact moment, run downstairs and buy me cigarettes. Right now? I asked. Go, she said. And dont come back. I made for the door, just before the third man reached meand to my shame, I closed the door on my friend and left her in there. I left her because shed told me to, but stillit felt rotten. Whatever those men were about to do in there, Celia was on her own. Shed sent me from the room either because she didnt want me seeing what was about to be done to her, or she didnt want it done to me, too. Either way, I felt like a child, being banished like that. I also felt afraid of those men, and afraid for Celia, and I felt left out. I hated it. I paced the lobby of the hotel for an hour, wondering if I should alert the hotel manager. But alert him to what? Celia eventually came down by herselfunescorted by any of the men who had so solicitously led us to the elevator earlier that evening. She spotted me in the lobby, walked over, and said, Well, I call that a lousy way to end a night. Are you all right? I asked. Yeah, Im terrific, she said. She tugged at her dress. Do I look all right? She looked just as beautiful as everexcept for the shiner over her left eye. Like loves young dream itself, I said. She saw me looking at her swollen eye, and said, Dont squawk about this, Vivvie. Gladysll fix it. Shes the best at covering up black eyes. Is there a cab? If a cab would be kind enough to appear, Ill take it. I found her a cab, and we made our way home without another word. Did the events of that evening leave Celia traumatized? You would think so, wouldnt you? But Im ashamed to say, Angela: I dont know. I never talked to her about it. I certainly never saw any sign of trauma in my friend. But then again, I probably wasnt looking for signs of trauma. Nor would I have known what to look for. Maybe I was hoping that this ugly incident would just disappear (like the black eye itself) if we never mentioned it. Or maybe I thought Celia was accustomed to being assaulted, given her rough origins. (God help us, maybe she was.) There were so many questions I could have asked Celia that evening in the taxi (starting with Are you really all right?), but I didnt. Nor did I thank her for having saved me from certain attack. I was embarrassed that Id needed savingembarrassed that she saw me as being more innocent and fragile than herself. Until that night, Id been able to kid myself that Celia Ray and I were exactly the samejust two equally worldly and gutsy women, conquering the city and having fun. But clearly that wasnt true. I had been recreationally dabbling in danger, but Celia knew danger. She knew thingsdark thingsthat I didnt know. She knew things that she didnt want me to know. When I think back on it all now, Angela, its appalling to realize that this kind of violence seemed so commonplace back thenand not just to Celia, but also to me. (For instance: why did it never occur to me at the time to wonder how Gladys had come to be so good at covering up black eyes?) I suppose our attitude was: Oh, wellmen will be men! You must understand, though, that this was long before there was any sort of public conversation about such dark subjectsand thus we had no private conversations about them, either. So I said nothing more to Celia that evening about her experience, and Celia said nothing more about it, either. We just put it all behind us. And the next night, unbelievably, we were out there in the city again, looking for action againexcept with one change: From this point forward, I was committed to never leaving the scene, no matter what. I would not allow myself to be sent from a room again. Whatever Celia was doing, I would be doing it, too. Whatever happened to Celia, it would happen to me, too. Because I am not a child, I told myselfthe way children always do. EIGHT There was a war coming, by the way. There was a war happening already, in factand quite seriously so. It was all the way over there in Europe, of course, but there was a great raging debate within the United States as to whether or not we should join it. I was not part of this debate, needless to say. But it was happening all around me. Perhaps you think I should have noticed earlier that there was a war coming, but truly the subject had not yet landed in my consciousness. Here, you must give me credit for being exceedingly unobservant. It was not easy in the summer of 1940 to ignore the fact that the world was on the brink of full-out war, but Id managed to do exactly that. (In my defense, my colleagues and associates were also ignoring it. I dont recall Celia or Gladys or Jennie ever discussing Americas military preparedness, or the growing need for a Two-Ocean Navy.) I was not a politically minded person, to say the least. I didnt know the name of a single individual in Roosevelts cabinet, for instance. I did, however, know the full name of Clark Gables second wife, a much-divorced Texas socialite named Ria Franklin Prentiss Lucas Langham Gablea jawbreaker of a moniker that I will apparently remember till my dying day. The Germans had invaded Holland and Belgium in May of 1940but that was right around the time I was failing all my exams at Vassar, so I was terribly preoccupied. (I do remember my father saying that all the fuss would be over by the end of summer because the French army would soon push the Germans right back home. Id figured he was probably correct about that because he seemed to read a lot of newspapers.) Right around the time that I moved to New Yorkthis would be the middle of June 1940the Germans had marched into Paris. (So much for Dads theory.) But there was too much excitement going on in my life for me to follow the story closely. I was far more curious about what was happening in Harlem and the Village than what had happened to the Maginot Line. And by August, when the Luftwaffe started bombing British targets, I was going through my pregnancy and gonorrhea scares, so I didnt quite register that information, either. History has a pulse, they saybut mostly I have never been able to hear it, not even when it is drumming right in my goddamn ears. If Id been more wise and attentive, I might have realized that America was eventually going to get pulled into this conflagration. I might have taken more notice of the news that my brother was thinking about joining the Navy. I might have worried about what that decision would mean for Walters futureand for all of us. And I might have realized that some of the fun young men with whom I was cavorting every night in New York City were just the right age to be put on the front lines when America inevitably did enter this war. If Id known then what I know nownamely: that so many of those beautiful young boys would soon be lost to the battlefields of Europe or to the infernos of the South PacificI would have had sex with even more of them. If it sounds like Im being facetious, Im not. I wish Id done more of everything with those boys. (Im not sure when I would have found the time, of course, but I wouldve made every effort to squeeze into my busy schedule every last one of those kidsso many of whom were soon to be shattered, burned, wounded, doomed.) I only wish I had known what was coming, Angela. I truly do. Other people were paying attention, though. Olive followed the news coming out of her home country of England with particular concern. She was anxious about it, but then again, she was anxious about everything, so her worries didnt make much of an impression. Olive sat there every morning over her breakfast of kidney and eggs, reading every bit of coverage she could get. She read The New York Times, and Barrons, and the Herald Tribune (even though it leaned Republican), and she read the British papers when she could find them. Even my Aunt Peg (who usually read only the Post, for the baseball coverage) had started following the news with more concern. Shed already seen one world war, and she didnt want to see another. Pegs loyalties to Europe would forever run deep. Over the course of that summer, both Peg and Olive became increasingly passionate in their belief that the Americans must join the war effort. Somebody had to help out the British and rescue the French! Peg and Olive were in full support of the president as he tried to garner backing from Congress to take action. Pega traitor to her classhad always loved Roosevelt. This had been shocking to me when Id first heard about it; my father hated Roosevelt and was a vehement isolationist. A real pro-Lindbergh sort of fellow, was old Dad. I assumed that all my relatives hated Roosevelt, too. But this was New York City, I guess, where people thought differently about things. Ive reached my limit with the Nazis! I remember Peg shouting one morning over breakfast and the newspapers. She slammed her fist on the table in a burst of rage. Thats enough of them! They must be stopped! What are we waiting for? Id never heard Peg get so upset about anything, which is why it stuck in my memory. Her reaction pierced my self-absorption for a moment and made me take notice: Gee whiz, if Peg was this angry, things really must be getting bad! That said, I wasnt sure what she wanted me to do about the Nazis, personally. The truth was, I didnt have any inkling that this warthis distant, irritating warmight have any real consequences until September of 1940. Thats when Edna and Arthur Watson moved into the Lily Playhouse. NINE Im going to assume, Angela, that youve never heard of Edna Parker Watson. Youre probably a bit too young to know of her great theatrical career. She was always better known in London than New York, in any case. As it happens, I had heard of Edna before I met herbut thats only because she was married to a handsome English screen actor named Arthur Watson, who had recently played the heartthrob in a cheesy British war movie called Gates of Noon. Id seen their photos in the magazines, so Edna was familiar to me. Now, this was a bit of a crimeto have known Edna only through her husband. She was by far the superior performer of the two, and the superior human being, besides. But thats just how it goes. His was the prettier face, and in this shallow world a pretty face means everything. It might have helped if Edna made movies. Maybe then she wouldve achieved greater fame in her day, and maybe shed even be remembered nowlike Bette Davis or Vivien Leigh, who were every bit her peers. But she refused to act for the camera. It wasnt for lack of opportunity; Hollywood came knocking on her door many times, but somehow she never lost the stamina to keep turning down those big-shot film producers. Edna wouldnt even do radio plays, believing that the human voice loses something vital and sacred when it is recorded. No, Edna Parker Watson was purely a stage actress, and the problem with stage actresses is that once they are gone, they are forgotten. If you never saw her perform onstage, then you would not be able to understand her power and appeal. She was George Bernard Shaws favorite actress, thoughdoes that help? He famously said that her portrayal of Saint Joan was the definitive one. He wrote of her: That luminous face, peeking out from its armorwho would not follow her into battle, if only to stare at her? No, even that doesnt really get her across. With apologies to Mr. Shaw, Ill do my best to describe Edna in my own words. I met Edna and Arthur Watson during the third week of September 1940. Their visit to the Lily Playhouse, as with so many of the guests who came and went from that institution, was not exactly planned. There was a real element of chaos and emergency to it. Even beyond the scale of our normal chaos. Edna was an old acquaintance of Pegs. Theyd met in France during the Great War and had become fast friends, though they hadnt seen each other in years. Then, in the late summer of 1940, the Watsons came to New York City so that Edna could rehearse a new play with Alfred Lunt. However, the financing for this production vanished before anyone could memorize a single line, and so the play never came into being. But before the Watsons could sail back home to England, the Germans began the bombing of Britain. Within just a few weeks of the German attacks, the Watsons town house in London had been obliterated by a Luftwaffe bomb. Destroyed. Everything gone. Splintered to matchsticks, apparently is how Peg described it. So now Edna and Arthur Watson were trapped in New York City. They were stuck at the Sherry-Netherland hotel, which is not such a bad place to be a refugee, but they couldnt afford to go on living there, as neither of them was employed. They were artists trapped in America without jobs, without a home to return to, and without safe transit back to their besieged country. Peg heard about their plight through the theater grapevine, andof courseshe told the Watsons to come live at the Lily Playhouse. She promised that they could remain there just as long as they needed. She told them shed even put them into some of her shows, if they needed income and didnt mind slumming it. How could the Watsons have refused? Where else were they going to go? So they moved inand thats how the war made its first direct appearance in my life. The Watsons arrived on one of the first crisp afternoons of autumn. It happened that I was standing outside the theater talking to Peg when their car pulled up. Id just returned from shopping at Lowtskys, and I was carrying a bag of crinolines which I needed to fix some of the ballet costumes of our dancers. (We were putting on a show called Dance Away, Jackie!about a street urchin who is rescued from a life of crime by the love of a beautiful young ballerina. I had been tasked with the job of trying to make the Lilys muscular hoofers look like a company of premier ballet dancers. Id done my best with the costumes, but the dancers kept ripping their skirts. Too much boggle-boggle, I suppose. Now it was time for repairs.) When the Watsons arrived, there was a small flurry of commotion, as they had a great deal of luggage. Two other cars followed their taxi, with the remaining trunks and parcels. I was standing right there on the sidewalk, and I saw Edna Parker Watson exit the taxi as though she were stepping out of a limousine. Petite, trim, narrow-hipped and small-breasted, she was dressed in the single most stylish outfit Id ever seen on a woman. She was wearing a peacock-blue serge jacketdouble-breasted, with two lines of gold buttons marching up the frontwith a high collar trimmed in gold braid. She had on tailored dark gray trousers with a bit of flare at the bottom, and glossy black wingtip shoes, which almost looked like mens shoesexcept for the small, elegant, and very feminine heel. She was wearing tortoiseshell sunglasses, and her short, dark hair was set with glossy waves. She had on red lipstickthe perfect shade of redbut no other makeup. A simple black beret sat angled on her head with jaunty ease. She looked like a teeny-tiny military officer in the chicest little army in the worldand from that day forward, my sense of style would never be the same. Until the moment I first glimpsed Edna, Id thought that New York City showgirls and their spangled radiance were the pinnacles of glamour. But suddenly everything (and everyone) Id been admiring all summer looked gaudy and glitzy compared to this petite woman in her sharp little jacket, and her perfectly tailored slacks, and her mens-shoes-that-were-not-quite-mens-shoes. I had just encountered true glamour for the first time. And I can say without hyperbole that every day of my life since that moment, I have tried to model my style after Edna Parker Watsons. Peg rushed at Edna and pulled her into a tight embrace. Edna! she cried, giving her old friend a spin. The Dewdrop of Drury Lane makes an appearance on our humble shores! Dear Peg! cried Edna. You look exactly the same! Edna released herself from Pegs arms, stepped back, and took a look up at the Lily. But is all this yours, Peg? The entire building? All of it, yes, unfortunately, said Peg. Would you like to buy it? I havent a farthing to my name, darling, or I absolutely would. Its charming. But look at youyouve become an impresario! Youre a theater magnate! The fa?ade reminds me of the old Hackney. Its lovely. I do see why you had to buy it. Yes, of course I had to buy it, said Peg, because otherwise I might have ended up wealthy and comfortable in my old age, and that wouldve been no good for anybody. But enough about my dumb playhouse, Edna. Im just sick about whats happened to your homeand whats happening to poor England! Darling Peg, said Edna, and she placed her palm gently on my aunts cheek. Its wretched. But Arthur and I are alive. And now, thanks to you, we have a roof to sleep under, and thats a good deal more than some other people can say. Where is Arthur? asked Peg. Cant wait to meet him. But I myself had already spotted him. Arthur Watson was the handsome, dark-haired, movie-star-looking fellow with the lantern jaw who was, at that instant, grinning at the cab driver and pumping the mans hand with altogether too much enthusiasm. He was a well-built man with a good pair of shoulders, and he was much taller than he looked on the movie screenwhich is highly abnormal for actors. He had a cigar clamped in his mouth, which somehow looked like a prop. He was the best-looking man Id ever seen at close quarters, but there was something artificial about his good looks. He had a rakish curl that fell over one eye, for instance, which would have been a lot more attractive if it hadnt looked so deliberately cultivated. (The thing about rakishness, Angela, is that it should never seem intentional.) He looked like an actor, is the best way I can describe it. He looked as if he were an actor hired to play the part of a handsome, well-built man, shaking the hand of a cabdriver. Arthur marched over to us in great, athletic strides and shook Pegs hand just as forcibly as hed done to the poor cabbie. Mrs. Buell, he said. Awfully good of you to give us a place to stay! A delight, Arthur, said Peg. I simply adore your wife. I adore her, too! boomed Arthur, and he caught Edna in a tight squeeze that looked like it might hurt, but which only made her beam with pleasure. And this is my niece, Vivian, said Peg. Shes been staying with me all summer, learning how to run a theater company into the ground. The niece! Edna said, as though shed been hearing fabulous things about me for years. She gave me a kiss on each cheek, wafting a scent of gardenia. But look at you, Vivianyoure simply stunning! Please tell me that youre not an aspiring actress and that you wont ruin your life in the theateralthough youre certainly pretty enough for it. Hers was a smile far too warm and genuine for show business. She was paying me the compliment of her undivided attention, and thus I was instantly smitten. No, I said. Im not an actress. But I do love living at the Lily with my aunt. But of course you do, darling. Shes marvelous. Arthur interrupted, to reach in and crush my hand in his. Awfully nice to meet you, Vivian! he said. And how long did you say youve been an actress? I was less smitten with him. Oh, Im not an actress I started to say, but Edna put her hand on my arm and whispered in my ear, as if we were dearest friends, Its quite all right, Vivian. Arthur sometimes doesnt pay the closest attention, but hell get it all sorted out eventually. Lets go have drinks on my verandah! said Peg. Except that I forgot to buy a home with a verandah, so lets go have drinks in the filthy living room above my theater, and we can pretend that were having drinks on my verandah! Brilliant Peg, said Edna. How violently Ive missed you! A few trays of martinis later, it was as if Id known Edna Parker Watson forever. She was the most charming presence Id ever watched light up a room. She was a sort of elfin queen, what with her bright little face, and her dancing gray eyes. Nothing about her was quite what it seemed. She was pale, but she didnt seem weak or delicate. And she was awfully daintywith the tiniest shoulders and a slender framebut she didnt look fragile. She had a hearty laugh and a robust bounce to her step that belied her size and her pallid coloring. I suppose you could call her a non-frail waif. The exact source of her beauty was difficult to place, for her features were not perfectnot like the girls Id been romping about with all summer. Her face was quite round, and she didnt have the dramatic cheekbones that were so much in vogue back then. And she wasnt young. She had to be at least fifty, and she wasnt trying to hide it. You couldnt tell her age from a distance (she had been able to play Juliet well into her forties, I would later learnand had easily gotten away with it, too), but once you looked closely, you could see that the skin around her eyes was crumbling with fine lines, and her jawline was getting soft. There were strands of silver in that chic, short hair of hers, as well. But her spirit was youthful. She was utterly unconvincing as a fifty-year-old womanlets just put it that way. Or maybe her age didnt matter to her, so she didnt project any concern about it. The trouble with so many aging actresses is that they dont want to let nature do as it wishesbut nature seemed to have no particular vengeance against Edna, nor did she have a gripe against it. Her greatest natural gift, though, was warmth. She delighted in all that she beheld, and it made you want to stay near her, in order to bask in her delight. Even Olives normally stern face relaxed into a rare expression of joy at the sight of Edna. They embraced as old friendsfor that is exactly what they were. As I discovered that night, Edna and Peg and Olive had all met on the battlefields of France, when Edna was part of a British touring company, putting on shows for wounded soldiersshows that my Aunt Peg and Olive helped to produce. Somewhere on this planet, said Edna, theres a photograph of the three of us in a field ambulance together, and I would give anything to see it again. We were so young! And we were wearing those terribly practical frocks, with no waistlines. I remember that picture, said Olive. We were muddy. We were always muddy, Olive, said Edna. It was a battlefield. I will never forget the cold and damp. Do you remember how I had to make my own stage makeup out of brick dust and lard? I was so nervous about acting in front of the soldiers. They were all so horribly wounded. Do you remember what you told me, Peg? When I asked, How can I sing and dance for these poor broken boys? Mercifully, my dear Edna, said Peg, I do not remember anything I have ever said in my entire life. Well, then, I shall remind you. You said, Sing louder, Edna. Dance harder. Look em straight in the eyes. You told me: Dont you dare degrade these brave boys with your pity. So thats what I did. I sang loud and danced hard, and looked em straight in the eyes. I did not degrade those brave boys with my pity. My God, but it was painful. You worked very hard, said Olive, approvingly. It was you nurses who worked hard, Olive, said Edna. I remember the whole lot of you having dysentery and chilblainsbut then youd say, At least we dont have infected bayonet wounds, girls! Chins up! What heroes you were. Especially you, Olive. Equal to any emergency, you were. Ive never forgotten it. Receiving this compliment, Olives face was suddenly lit up by the most unusual expression. By my stars, I do believe it was happiness. Edna was performing bits of Shakespeare for the men, Peg said to me. I remember thinking it was a terrible idea. I thought Shakespeare would bore them to tears, but they loved it. They loved it because they hadnt seen a pretty little English lass in months, said Edna. I remember one man shouting, Better than a trip to the whorehouse! after I gave them my piece of Ophelia, and I still think its the best review Ive ever received. You were in that show, Peg. You played my Hamlet. Those tights really suited you. I didnt play Hamlet; I just read from the script, said Peg. I never could act, Edna. And I detest Hamlet. Have you ever seen a production of Hamlet that didnt make you want to go home and put your head in the oven? I havent. Oh, I thought our Hamlet was quite nice, said Edna. Because it was abridged, said Peg. Which is the only thing Shakespeare should ever be. Although you did make an awfully cheery Hamlet, as I recall, said Edna. Perhaps the most cheerful Hamlet in history. But Hamlet isnt meant to be cheerful! chimed in Arthur Watson, looking puzzled. The room paused. It was quite awkward. I would soon discover that this was often the effect that Arthur Watson had when he spoke. He could bring the most sparkling of conversations to the most grinding halt, just by opening his mouth. We all looked to see how Edna would react to her husbands stupid comment. But she was beaming at him fondly. Thats right, Arthur. Hamlet is not generally known for being a cheerful play, but Peg brought her natural buoyancy to the role and quite brightened up the whole story. Oh! he said. Well, jolly good for her, then! Though I dont know what Mr. Shakespeare wouldve thought of that. Peg saved the day by changing the subject: Mr. Shakespeare wouldve rolled in his grave, Edna, if he knew that Id been allowed to share a stage with the likes of you, she said. Then she turned to me again: What you have to understand, kiddo, is that Edna is one of the greatest actresses of her age. Edna grinned. Oh, Peg, stop talking about my age! I believe what she meant, Edna, corrected Arthur, is that you are one of the greatest actresses of your generation. Shes not talking about your age. Thank you for the clarification, darling, replied Edna to her husband, with no trace of irony or annoyance. And thank you for the kindness, Peg. Peg went on: Edna is the best Shakespearean actress youll ever meet, Vivian. Shes always had a knack for it. Started as a baby in the cradle. Could recite the sonnets backwards, they say, before she learned them forwards. Arthur muttered, Youd think it wouldve been easier to learn them forwards first. Many thanks, Peg, said Edna, ignoring Arthur, thank God. Youve always been so good to me. We shall have to find something for you to do while youre here, announced Peg, slapping her leg for emphasis. Id be happy to put you in one of our terrible shows, but its all so beneath you. Nothing is beneath me, dear Peg. Ive played Ophelia in knee-deep mud. Oh, but Edna, you havent seen our shows! Itll make you miss the mud. And I dont have much to pay youcertainly not what youre worth. Anythings better than what we could earn in Englandif we could even get to England. I just wish you could get a role in one of the more reputable theaters around town, said Peg. There are many of them in New York, rumor has it. Ive never stepped foot in one myself, of course, but I understand that they exist. I know, but its too late in the season, said Edna. Middle of Septemberall the productions have been cast. And rememberIm not as well known here, darling. As long as Lynn Fontanne and Ethel Barrymore are alive, Ill never get the best roles in New York. But Id still love to work while Im hereand I know Arthur would, too. Im versatile, Pegyou know that. I can still play a youngish woman, if you put me at the back of the stage, in the correct lighting. I can play a Jewess, or a gypsy, or a Frenchwoman. At a pinch, I can play a little boy. Hell, Arthur and I will sell peanuts in the lobby, if need be. Well clean out ashtrays. We only wish to earn our keep. Now see here, Edna, declared Arthur Watson sternly. I dont think Id much like to clean out ashtrays. That evening, Edna watched both the early and the late performances of Dance Away, Jackie! She could not have been more delighted with our awful little show if shed been a twelve-year-old peasant child seeing theater for the first time. Oh, but its fun! she exclaimed to me, when the performers had left the stage after their final bows. You know, Vivian, this sort of theater is where I got my start. My parents were players and I grew up around productions just like this. Born in the wings, five minutes before my first performance. Edna insisted on going backstage and meeting all the actors and dancers, to congratulate them. Some had heard of her, but most hadnt. To most of them, she was just a nice woman giving them praiseand that was good enough for them. The players bubbled up around her, soaking in her generous ministrations. I cornered Celia and said, Thats Edna Parker Watson. Yeah? said Celia, unimpressed. Shes a famous British actress. Shes married to Arthur Watson. Arthur Watson, from Gates of Noon? Yes! Theyre staying here now. Their house in London got bombed. But Arthur Watson is young, Celia said, staring at Edna. How can he be married to her? I dont know, I said. Shes quite something, though. Yeah. Celia didnt seem so sure. Where we going out tonight? For the first time since meeting Celia, I wasnt so sure I wanted to go out. I thought I might prefer to spend more time around Edna. Just for one night. I want you to meet her, I said. Shes famous and Im mad about the way she dresses. So I brought Celia over and proudly introduced her to Edna. You can never anticipate how a woman is going to react to meeting a showgirl. A showgirl in full costume is intentionally designed to make all other females look and feel insignificant by comparison. You need to have a considerable amount of self-confidence, as a woman, to stand in the lavish radiance of a showgirl without flinching, resenting, or melting away. But Ednatiny as she washad just that kind of self-confidence. Youre magnificent! she cried to Celia, when I introduced them. Look at the height on you! And that face. You, my dear, could headline at the Folies Berg?re. Thats in Paris, I said to Celia, who thankfully did not take note of my patronizing tone, distracted as she was by the compliments. And where are you from, Celia? Edna askedtilting her head with curiosity and shining the spotlight of her fullest attention upon my friend. Im from right here. From New York City, said Celia. (As though that accent couldve been born anywhere else.) I noticed tonight that you dance exceptionally well for a girl of your height. Did you study ballet? Your carriage would suggest youd been properly trained. No, replied Celia, whose face was now aglow with pleasure. And do you act? The camera must adore you. You look just like a film star. I act a bit. Then she added (quite archly for someone who had only ever played a corpse in a B movie): I am not yet widely known. Well, you shall be known soon enough, if theres any justice. Stay at it, my dear. Youre in the right field. You have a face that was made for your times. Its not difficult to compliment people in order to try to win their affections. What is difficult is to do it in the right way. Everyone told Celia she was beautiful, but nobody had ever told her she had the carriage of a trained ballerina. Nobody had ever told her she had a face made for her times. You know, Ive just realized something, said Edna. In all the excitement, I have not yet unpacked. I wonder if you girls might be free to help me? Sure! said Celia eagerly, looking like she was about thirteen years old. And to my wonderment, in that instant the goddess became a handmaiden. When we arrived upstairs in the fourth-floor apartment that Edna would be sharing with her husband, we found a pile of trunks and parcels and hatboxes on the sitting-room flooran avalanche of luggage. Oh, dear, said Edna. It gives quite the impression of density, doesnt it? I do hate to trouble you girls, but shall we begin? As for me, I couldnt wait. I was dying to get my hands on her clothes. I had a feeling theyd be splendidand indeed they were. Unpacking Ednas trunks was a lesson in sartorial genius. I soon noticed that there was nothing haphazard about her clothing; it was all in keeping with a particular style that I might call Little Lord Fauntleroy meets French salon hostess. She certainly had a lot of jacketsthat seemed to be the elementary unit of her aesthetic. The jackets were all variations on a themefitted, jaunty, slightly martial in tone. Some were trimmed in Persian lamb, others had satin details. Some looked like formal riding jackets, but some were more playful. All of them had gold buttons of different design, and all were lined with jewel-toned silks. I have them specially made, she told me, when she caught me searching the labels for information. Theres an Indian tailor in London who has come to know my taste over the years. He never gets bored of creating them for me, and I never get bored of buying them. And then there were the trousersso many pairs of trousers. Some were long and loose, but others were narrow and looked like they would hit above the ankle. (I got used to wearing these when I studied dance, she said of the cropped variety. All the dancers in Paris wore trousers like that, and heavens, did they make it look chic. I used to call those girls the slim ankle brigade.) The trousers were a real revelation for me. Id never been a firm believer in trousers on women until I saw how good they looked on Edna. Not even Garbo and Hepburn had yet convinced me that a woman could be both feminine and glamorous in pants, but looking at Ednas clothes suddenly made me think that it was the only way a woman could be both feminine and glamorous. I prefer trousers for daily wear, she explained. Im small, but I have a long stride. I need to be able to move about freely. Years ago, a newspaperman wrote that I had a titillating boyishness to me, and thats my favorite thing a mans ever said about me. What could be better than having a bit of the titillating boy about you? Celia gave a puzzled look, but I understood Ednas point exactly and loved this idea. Then we came to the trunk filled with Ednas blouses. So many of them had quaint jabots, or ornamental ruffles. This attention to detail, I grasped, is how a woman could wear a suit and still look like a woman. There was one high-necked crepe de chine chemise in the softest pink you could imagine, and it made my heart ache with longing when I touched it. Then I pulled out an elegant little ivory number of finest silk, with tiny pearl buttons at the neck, and the most infinitesimal sleeves. What an impeccable blouse! I said. Thank you for noticing, Vivian. Youve got a good eye. That little blouse came from Coco Chanel herself. She gave it to meif you can imagine Coco ever giving somebody something for free! It must have been a weak moment for her. Perhaps she had food poisoning that day. Celia and I both gasped, and I cried out, You know Coco Chanel? Nobody knows Coco, my dear. She would never allow for that. But I can say that we are acquainted. I met her years ago when I was acting in Paris and living on the Quai Voltaire. That was back when I was learning Frenchwhich is a good language to learn as an actress, because it teaches you how to use your mouth. Well, that was the most sophisticated combination of words Id ever heard. But whats she like? Whats Coco like? Edna paused, closed her eyes, and seemed to be searching for the right words. She opened her eyes and smiled. Coco Chanel is a gifted, ambitious, cunning, unloved, and hardworking eel of a woman. Im more afraid of her taking dominion over the world than I am of Mussolini or Hitler. No, Im teasingshes a fine enough specimen of a person. One is only ever in danger from Coco when she starts calling you her friend. But shes far more interesting than Im making her sound. Girls, what do you think of this hat? She had pulled from a box a homburglike something a man would wear, but not at all. Soft and plum colored, and dressed with a single red feather. She modeled it for us with a bright smile. Its wonderful on you, I said. But it doesnt look like anything Im seeing people wearing right now. Thank you, said Edna. I cant bear the hats that are in style just now. I cant endure a hat that substitutes a pile of miscellany on the top of your head for the pleasing simplicity of a line. A homburg will always give you a perfect line, if its specially made for you. The wrong hat makes me feel cross and oppressed. And there are so many wrong hats. But alasmilliners need to eat, too, I suppose. I love this, said Celia, pulling out a long, yellow silk scarf, and wrapping it around her head. Well done, Celia! said Edna. You are the infrequent sort of girl who looks good with a scarf wrapped around her head. How fortunate for you! If I wore that scarf in that manner, I would look like a dead saint. Do you like it? You may keep it. Gee, thanks! said Celia, parading around Ednas room, searching for a mirror. I cant think why I ever bought that scarf in the first place, girls. I suppose I bought it during a year when yellow scarves were in fashion. And let that be a lesson to you! The thing about fashion, my dears, is that you dont need to follow it, no matter what they say. No fashion trend is compulsory, rememberand if you dress too much in the style of the moment, it makes you look like a nervous person. Paris is all well and good, but we cant just follow Paris for the sake of Paris, now can we? We cant just follow Paris for the sake of Paris! As long as I live, I shall never forget those words. That speech was certainly more stirring to me than anything Churchill had ever said. Celia and I were now busy unpacking a trunk filled with the most delicious items of bath and beautyarticles of toilette that made us swoon with joy. There were carnation-scented bath oils, lavender alcohol rubs, pomander balls to spice up the drawers and closets, and so many alluring glass vials of lotions with French instructions. It was positively intoxicating. I would have been embarrassed by our overenthusiasm, but Edna seemed to be genuinely enjoying our squeaks and squeals of delight. In fact, she seemed to be having just as much fun as we were. I had the craziest sensation that Edna might actually like us. This was interesting to me then, and it is still interesting now. Older women dont always relish the company of beautiful young girls, for obvious reasons. But not Edna. Girls, she said, I could watch the two of you effervesce for hours! And boy, did we effervesce. Id never seen such a wardrobe. Edna even had a valise filled with nothing but gloveseach pair wrapped lovingly in its own silk. Never buy inexpensive or poorly made gloves, Edna instructed us. Thats not the place to save your money. Whenever you are faced with the prospect of purchasing gloves, you must ask yourself if you would be bereft to lose one of them in the back of a taxicab. If not, then dont buy them. You should only buy gloves so beautiful that to lose one of them would break your heart. At some point, Ednas husband walked in, but he was inconsequential (handsome as he was) compared to this exotic wardrobe. She kissed his cheek and sent him on his way, saying, Theres no room in here yet for a man, Arthur. Go have a drink somewhere and entertain yourself until these dear girls are done, and then I promise Ill find space for you and your one sorry little duffel bag. He sulked a bit, but did her bidding. After he left, Celia said, Say, but hes a looker, aint he! I thought Edna might be offended, but she only laughed. He is indeed, as you say, a looker. Ive never before seen his like, to be candid with you. Weve been married nearly a decade, and I havent grown tired of looking at him yet. But hes young. I couldve kicked Celia for her rudeness, but Edna, again, didnt seem to mind. Yes, dear Celia. He is youngfar younger than me, in fact. One of my greatest achievements, I daresay. You dont get worried? Celia pressed on. Theres gotta be a lot of young dishes out there who want to put the moves on him. I dont worry about dishes, my dear. Dishes break. Ooh! said Celia, and her face lit up with something like awe. When you have found your own success as a woman, explained Edna, you may do such a fun thing as marry a handsome man who is very much your junior. Consider it a reward for all your hard work. When first I met Arthur, he was just a boya set carpenter for an Ibsen play I was doing. An Enemy of the People. I was Mrs. Stockmann, and oh, its a dull role. But meeting Arthur livened things up for me during the run of that playand he has kept things lively for me since. Im awfully fond of him, girls. Hes my third husband, of course. Nobodys first husband looks like Arthur. My first husband was a civil servant, and I dont mind saying that he made love like a civil servant, too. My second husband was a theater director. I wont make that mistake again. And now there is dear Arthur, so handsome and yet so cozy. My gift, till the end of my days. Im so fond of him that I even took his namethough my theater friends warned me not to, since my own name was already well known. Id never taken the names of any of my other husbands before, you see. But Edna Parker Watson has a nice ring to it, dont you agree? And what about you, Celia? Have you ever had any husbands? I wanted to say: Shes had many husbands, Ednabut only one of them was her own. Yeah, said Celia. I had a husband once. He played the saxophone. Oh, dear. So we may assume that didnt last? Yeah, you guessed it, lady. Celia drew a line across her own throat, to indicate, I guess, the death of love. And what about you, Vivian? Married? Engaged? No, I said. Anybody special? Nobody special, I said, and something about the way I uttered the word special made Edna burst out laughing. Ah, but you have a somebody, I can see. She has a few somebodies, Celia said, and I couldnt help but smile. Good work, Vivian! Edna gave me an appraising second look. Youre growing more interesting to me by the moment! Later on in the eveningit must have been well after midnight by thenPeg came in to check on us. She settled into a deep chair with a nightcap in her hand and watched with pleasure as Celia and I finished unpacking Ednas trunks. Gadzooks, Edna, Peg said. You have a lot of clothes. This is a mere fraction of the collection, Peg. You should see my wardrobe back home. She paused. Oh, dear. Ive just now remembered again that Ive lost everything back home. My contribution to the war effort, I suppose. Evidently Mr. Goering needed to destroy my more-than-three-decades-in-the-making costume collection as part of his plan for making the world safe for the Aryan race. I dont quite see how it served him, but the sad deed is done. I marveled at how lightly she seemed to take the destruction of her home. So, apparently, did Peg, who said, I must admit, Edna, I was expecting to find you a bit more shaken up by all this. Oh, Peg, you know me better than that! Or have you forgotten how good I am at adjusting to circumstances? You cant lead the sort of patched-together life that Ive lived and get too sentimental about things. Peg grinned. Show people, she said to me, shaking her head with an insiders appreciation. Celia had just now pulled out an elegant floor-length, high-necked, black crepe gown with long sleeves, and a small pearl brooch set deliberately off center. Now thats something, said Celia. You would think so, wouldnt you? said Edna, holding the dress up to herself. But Ive had a difficult relationship with this dress. Black can be the smartest of colors, or it can be the dowdiest, depending on the line. I wore this gown only once, and I felt like a Greek widow in it. But Ive kept it because I like the pearl detail. I approached the dress, respectfully. May I? I asked. Edna handed me the dress and I laid it out on the couch, touching it here and there, and getting a better sense of it. The problem isnt the color, I diagnosed. The problem is the sleeves. The material of the sleeves is heavier than the material of the bodicecan you see that? This dress should have chiffon sleevesor none at all, which would be better for you, petite as you are. Edna studied the gown and then looked at me with surprise. I believe youre on to something there, Vivian. I could fix it for you, if youll trust me with it. Our Vivvie can sew like the devil! Celia said, proudly. Its true, put in Peg. Vivian is our resident dress professor. She makes all the costumes for the shows, said Celia. She made the ballet tutus everyone was wearing tonight. Did you? said Edna, more impressed than she shouldve been. (Your cat could sew a tutu, Angela.) So youre not only beautiful, but gifted as well? Imagine that! And they say the Lord never gives with both hands! I shrugged. All I know is that I can fix this. I would shorten it, as well. It would be better for you if it landed at mid-ankle. Well, it appears as if you know a good deal more about clothes than I do, said Edna, because I was ready to relegate this poor old gown to the ash heap. And here Ive been, filling your ears all night with my noise and opinions about fashion and style. I should be the one listening to you. So tell me, my dearwhere did you learn how to understand a dress so well? I cant imagine that it was fascinating for a woman of Edna Parker Watsons stature to listen to a nineteen-year-old girl blather on about her grandmother for the next several hours, but thats exactly what happened, and she bore it nobly. More than noblyshe hung on every word. Somewhere during the course of my monologue, Celia wandered out of the room. I wouldnt see her again until just before dawn, when she would come tumbling into our bed at the usual hour, in her usual state of drunken disarray. Peg ended up excusing herself, as wellonce she got a sharp knock on the door and a reminder from Olive that it was past her bedtime. So it ended up being just me and Ednacurled up on the couch of her new apartment at the Lilytalking into the wee hours. The well-raised girl within me did not want to monopolize her time, but I could not resist her attentions. Edna wanted to know everything about my grandmother and delighted in the details of her frivolities and eccentricities. (What a character! She should be put in a play!) Every time I tried to turn the subject of the conversation away from myself, Edna would turn it back to me. She expressed sincere curiosity about my love of sewing and was astonished when I told her that I could make a whalebone corset if I had to. Then youre born to be a costume designer! she said. The difference between making a dress and making a costume, of course, is that dresses are sewn, but costumes are built. Many people these days can sew, but not many know how to build. A costume is a prop for the stage, Vivvie, as much as any piece of furniture, and it needs to be strong. You never know whats going to happen in a performance, and so the costume must be ready for anything. I told Edna about how my grandmother used to find the tiniest hidden flaws in my outfits and demand that I fix the offending article on the spot. I used to protest that Nobody will notice! but Grandmother Morris would say, That is not true, Vivian. People will notice, but they wont know what theyre noticing. They will just notice that something is wrong. Dont give them that opportunity. She was correct! said Edna. This is why I take such care with my costumes. I hate it when an impatient director says, Nobody will notice! Oh, the arguments Ive had about that! As I always tell the director: If you put me in a spotlight with three hundred audience members staring at me for two hours, they will notice a flaw. They will notice flaws in my hair, flaws in my complexion, flaws in my voice, and they will absolutely notice flaws in my dress. Its not that the audience members are masters of style, Vivian: its merely that they have nothing else to do with their time, once they are held captive in their seats, except to notice your flaws. I thought Id been having adult conversations all summer, because Id been spending my time around such a worldly group of showgirls, but this was truly an adult conversation. This was a conversation about craftsmanship, and about expertise, and about aesthetics. Nobody Id ever met (except Grandmother Morris, of course) had ever known more about dressmaking than me. Nobody had ever cared this much. Nobody understood or respected the art of it. I could have stayed there talking to Edna about clothing and costumes for another century or two, but Arthur Watson finally burst in and demanded that he be allowed to go to ruddy bed with his ruddy wife, and that put an end to it. The next day marked the first morning in two months that I did not wake up with a hangover. TEN By the next week, my Aunt Peg had already begun creating a show for Edna to star in. She was determined to give her friend a job, and it had to be a better job than what the Lily Playhouse currently had to offerbecause you cant very well put one of the greatest actresses of her age in Dance Away, Jackie! As for Olive, she was not convinced this was a good idea in the least. As much as she loved Edna, it didnt make sense to her from a business standpoint to attempt to put on a decent (or even halfway decent) show at the Lily: it would break formula. We have a small audience, Peg, she said. And they are humble. But they are the only audience we have, and they are loyal to us. We must be loyal to them in return. We cant leave them behind for one playcertainly not for one playeror they may never come back. Our task is to serve the neighborhood. And the neighborhood doesnt want Ibsen. I dont want Ibsen, either, said Peg. But I hate seeing Edna sitting about idle, and I hate even more the idea of putting her in any of our draggy little shows. However draggy our shows may be, they keep the electricity on, Peg. And just barely, at that. Dont chance it, by changing anything. We could make a comedy, Peg said. Something that our audiences would like. But it would have to be smart enough to be worthy of Edna. She turned to Mr. Herbert, who had been sitting there at the breakfast table in his usual attire of baggy trousers and shirtsleeves, staring sorrowfully at nothing. Mr. Herbert, Peg asked, do you think you could write a play that is both funny and smart? No, he said, without even looking up. Well, what are you working on now? Whats the next show on deck? Its called City of Girls, he said. I told you about it last month. The speakeasy one, said Peg. I remember. Flappers and gangsters, and that sort of fluff. Whats it about, again, exactly? Mr. Herbert looked both wounded and confused. Whats it about? he asked. It seemed that this was the first time hed considered that one of the Lily Playhouse shows should be about something. Never mind, said Peg. Does it have a role that Edna could play? Again, he looked wounded and confused. I dont see how it could, he said. We have an ing?nue, and a hero. We have a villain. We dont have an older woman. Could the ing?nue have a mother? Peg, shes an orphan, said Mr. Herbert. You cant change that. I saw his point: the ing?nue always had to be an orphan. The story wouldnt make sense if the ing?nue wasnt an orphan. The audience would revolt. The audience would start throwing shoes and bricks at the players if the ing?nue wasnt an orphan. Whos the owner of the speakeasy, in your show? The speakeasy doesnt have an owner. Well, could it? And could it be a woman? Mr. Herbert rubbed his forehead and looked overwhelmed. He looked as though Peg had just asked him to repaint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This causes problems in all aspects, he said. Olive chimed in: Nobody will believe Edna Parker Watson as the owner of a speakeasy, Peg. Why would the owner of a New York speakeasy be from England? Pegs face fell. Blast it, youre right, Olive. You have such a bad habit of being right all the time. I wish you wouldnt do that. Peg sat in silence for a long moment, thinking hard. Then suddenly she said, Goddamn it, but I wish I had Billy here. He could write something smashing for Edna. Well, that caught my attention. This was the first time Id ever heard my aunt curse, for one thing. But this was also the first time Id ever heard her mention her estranged husbands name. And I wasnt the only one who snapped to fullest attention at the mere mention of Billy Buells name, either. Both Olive and Mr. Herbert looked as though theyd just had buckets of ice poured down their backs. Oh, Peg, no, said Olive. Dont call Billy. Please, be sensible. I can add whoever you want me to add to the cast, said Mr. Herbert, suddenly cooperative. Just tell me what you need me to do, and Ill do it. The speakeasy can have an owner, sure. She can be from England, too. Billy was so fond of Edna. Peg seemed to be talking to herself now. And hes seen her perform. Hell understand how best to use her. You dont want Billy involved in anything we do, Peg, warned Olive. Ill call him. Just to get some ideas from him. The man is made of ideas. Its five A.M. on the West Coast, said Mr. Herbert. You cant call him! This was fascinating to watch. The level of anxiety in the room had risen to an undeniably hot pitch, merely with the introduction of Billys name. Ill call him this afternoon, then, said Peg. Though we cant be sure hell be awake by then, either. Oh, Peg, no, said Olive again, sinking into what looked like leaden despair. Just to get some ideas from him, Olive, said Peg. Theres no harm done with a phone call. I need him, Olive. Like I say: the man is made of ideas. That night after the show, Peg took a whole lot of us to dinner at Dinty Moores on Forty-sixth Street. She was triumphant. She had spoken to Billy that afternoon and wanted to tell everyone about his ideas for the play. I was there at that dinner, the Watsons were there, Mr. Herbert was there, Benjamin the piano player was there (first time Id ever seen him out of the house), and Celia was there, too, because Celia and I were always together. Peg said, Now, listen, everyone. Billys got it all figured out. Were going to put on City of Girls after all, and were setting it during Prohibition. It will be a comedy, of course. Ednayou will play the owner of the speakeasy. But in order for the story to make sense and be funny, Billy says were going to have to make you into an aristocrat, so that your natural refinement will make sense onstage. Your character will be a woman of means who ended up in the bootlegging business somewhat accidentally. Billy suggests that your husband died, and then you lost all your money in the stock market crash. Then you start distilling gin and running a casino in your fancy home, as a way of getting by. That way, Edna, you can keep the gentility for which you are known and loved, while at the same time being part of a comic revue with showgirls and dancerswhich is the kind of thing our audience likes. I think its brilliant. Billy thinks it would be funny if the nightclub was a bordello, too. Olive frowned. I dont like the idea of our play being set in a bordello. I do! said Edna, shining with glee. I love all of it! Ill be the madam of a bordello and the owner of a speakeasy. How pleasing! You cant imagine what a balm it will be for me to do a comedy, after so long. The last four plays Ive been in, I was either a fallen woman who murdered her lover, or a long-suffering wife whose husband was murdered by a fallen woman. It wears on one, the drama. Peg was beaming. Say what you want about Billy, but the man is a genius. Olive looked as though there was a lot she wanted to say about Billy, but she kept it to herself. Peg turned her attention to our piano player. Benjamin, I need you to make the music exceptionally good for this show. Ednas got a fine alto, and I would like to hear that voice filling up the Lily properly. Give her songs that are snappier than those mushy ballads I normally make you write. Or steal something from Cole Porter, the way you do sometimes. But make it good. I want this show to swing. I dont steal from Cole Porter, said Benjamin. I dont steal from anyone. Dont you? I always thought you did, because your music sounds so much like Cole Porters music. Well, Im not quite sure how to take that, said Benjamin. Peg shrugged. Maybe Cole Porters been stealing from you, Benjaminwho knows? Just write some terrific tunes, is what Im saying. And be sure to give Edna a showstopper. Then she turned to Celia and said, Celia, Id like you to play the ing?nue. Mr. Herbert looked like he was about to interrupt, but Peg impatiently waved him into silence. No, everyone, listen to me. This is a different sort of ing?nue. I dont want our heroine this time to be some little saucer-eyed orphan girl in a white dress. Im imagining our girl as being extremely provocative in the way she walks and talksthat would be you, Celiabut still untarnished by the world, in a way. Sexy, but with an air of innocence about her. A whore with a heart of gold, said Celia, who was smarter than she looked. Exactly, said Peg. Edna touched Celias arm gently. Lets just call your character a soiled dove. Sure, I can play that. Celia reached for another pork chop. Mr. Herbert, how many lines do I get? I dont know! said Mr. Herbert, looking more and more unhappy. I dont know how to write a . . . soiled dove. I can make up some stuff for you, offered Celiaa true dramatist, that one. Peg turned to Edna. Do you know what Billy said when I told him that you were here, Edna? He said, Oh, how I envy New York City right now. Did he? He did, that flirt. He also said: Watch out, because you never know what youll get with Edna onstage: some nights shes excellent, other nights shes perfect. Edna beamed. Thats so sweet of him. Nobody could ever make a woman feel more attractive than Billy couldsometimes for upwards of ten consecutive minutes. But, Peg, I must ask: Do you have a role for Arthur? Of course I do, said Pegand I knew in that moment that she did not have a role for Arthur. In fact, it was pretty clear to me that shed forgotten about Arthurs existence entirely. But there was Arthur, sitting there in all his simpleminded handsomeness, waiting for his role like a Labrador retriever waits for a ball. Of course I have a role for Arthur, Peg said. I want him to playshe hesitated, but only for the briefest moment (you might not have even noticed the hesitation, if you didnt know Peg)the policeman. Yes, Arthur, I plan for you to play the policeman whos always trying to shut down the speakeasy, and whos in love with Ednas character. Do you think you could manage an American accent? I can manage any accent, said Arthur, miffedand I instantly knew that he absolutely could not manage an American accent. A policeman! Edna clapped her hands. And youll be in love with me, dear! What larks. I didnt hear anything before about a policeman character, said Mr. Herbert. Oh, no, Mr. Herbert, said Peg. The policeman has always been in the script. What script? The script youll commence writing tomorrow morning, at break of day. Mr. Herbert looked like he was about to be afflicted with a nervous disorder. Do I get a song of my own to sing? asked Arthur. Oh, said Peg. There was that pause again. Yes. Benjamin, do be sure to write that song for Arthur, which we discussed. The policemans song, please. Benjamin held Pegs gaze and repeated with only the slightest sarcasm: The policemans song. Thats correct, Benjamin. As weve already discussed. Shall I just steal a policemans song from Gershwin, perhaps? But Peg was already turning her attention to me. Costumes! she said brightly, and scarcely had the word left her mouth before Olive declared, There will be virtually no budget for costumes. Pegs face dropped. Drat. Id forgotten about that. Thats all right, I said. Ill buy everything at Lowtskys. Flapper dresses are simple. Brilliant, Vivian, said Peg. I know youll take care of it. On a strict budget, Olive added. On a strict budget, I agreed. Ill even throw in my own allowance if I have to. As the conversation continued, with everyone except Mr. Herbert getting more excited and making suggestions for the show, I excused myself to the powder room. When I came out, I almost ran into a good-looking young man with a wide tie and a rather wolfish expression, whod been waiting for me in the corridor. Say, there, your friends a knockout, he said, nodding in the direction of Celia. And so are you. Thats what weve been told, I replied, holding his gaze. You girls wanna come home with me? he asked, dispensing with the preliminaries. I gotta friend with a car. I studied him more closely. He looked like a piece of very bad business. A wolf with an agenda. This was not somebody a nice girl should tangle with. We might, I said, which was true. But first we have a meeting to conclude, with our associates. Your associates? he scoffed, taking in our table with its odd and animated assortment of humanity: a coronary-inducingly gorgeous showgirl, a slovenly white-haired man in his shirtsleeves, a tall and dowdy middle-aged woman, a short and stodgy middle-aged woman, a stylishly dressed lady of means, a strikingly handsome man with a dramatic profile, and an elegant young black man in a perfectly tailored pinstripe suit. What line of business yous in, doll? Were theater people, I said. As if we could have been anything else. The following morning I woke up early as usual, suffering from my typical summer-of-1940 hangover. My hair stank of sweat and cigarettes, and my limbs were all tangled up in Celias limbs. (We had gone out with the wolf and his friend, after allas Im sure youll be flabbergasted beyond all reason to hearand it had been a strenuous night. I felt like Id just been fished out of the Gowanus Canal.) I made my way to the kitchen where I found Mr. Herbert sitting with his forehead on the table and his hands folded politely in his lap. This was a new posture for hima new low in dejectedness, I would say. Good morning, Mr. Herbert, I said. I stand ready to review any evidence of it, he replied, without lifting his forehead from the table. How are you feeling today? I asked. Blithesome. Glorious. Exalted. Im a sultan in his palace. He still hadnt lifted his head. Hows the script coming along? Be a humanitarian, Vivian, and stop asking questions. The next morning, I found Mr. Hebert in the same positionand several of the following mornings, too. I didnt know how somebody could sit for so long with their forehead on a table without suffering an aneurysm. His mood never lifted, and neitherat least not that I sawdid his skull. Meanwhile, his notebook sat untouched beside him. Is he going to be all right? I asked Peg. Its not easy to write a play, Vivian, she said. The problem is, Im asking him to write something good, and Ive never asked that of him before. Its got his head all screwy. But I think of it this way. During the war, the British army engineers always used to say: We can do it, whether it can be done or not. Thats how the theater works, too, Vivian. Just like a war! I often ask people to do more than they are capable ofor I used to do, anyway, before I got old and soft. So, yes, I have full confidence in Mr. Herbert. I didnt. Celia and I came in late one night, drunk as usual, and we tripped over a body that was lying on the living room floor. Celia shrieked. I switched on a light and identified Mr. Herbert, lying there in the middle of the carpet on his back, staring up at the ceiling, with his hands folded over his chest. For an awful moment, I thought he was dead. Then he blinked. Mr. Herbert! I exclaimed. What are you doing? Prophesizing, he said, without moving. Prophesizing what? I slurred. Doom, he said. Well, then. Have a good night. I turned off the light. Splendid, he said quietly, as Celia and I stumbled to our room. I will be certain to do just that. Meanwhile, as Mr. Herbert suffered, the rest of us went about the business of creating a play that did not yet have a script. Peg and Benjamin had already gotten to work on the songs, sitting at the grand piano all afternoon, running through melodies and ideas for lyrics. I want Ednas character to be called Mrs. Alabaster, said Peg. It sounds ostentatious, and a lot of words can rhyme with it. Plaster, caster, master, bastard, Alabaster, said Benjamin. I can work with that. Olive wont let you say bastard. But go bigger. In the first number, when Mrs. Alabaster has lost all her money, make the song feel overly wordy, to show how fancy she is. Use longer words, to rhyme. Taskmaster. Toastmaster. Oleaster. Or we can have the chorus run through a series of questions about her, Benjamin suggested. Like: Who asked her? Who passed her? Who grasped her? Disaster! It attacked her! The Depression, it smacked herthat poor Alabaster. It gassed her. It smashed her. Shes poor as a pastor. Hey there, Peg, Benjamin suddenly stopping what he was playing. My fathers a pastor and hes not poor. I dont pay you to lift your hands off those piano keys, Benjamin. Keep noodling about. We were just getting somewhere. You dont pay me at all, he said, folding his hands in his lap. You havent paid me in three weeks! You havent paid anyone, I heard. Is that true? Peg asked. What are you living on? Prayers. And your leftover dinner. Sorry, kiddo! Ill talk to Olive about it. But not right now. Go back and start over, but add that thing you were doing that time when I walked in on you playing the piano, and I liked what I heard. You remember? That Sunday, when the Giants game was playing on the radio? I cant begin to know what youre talking about, Peg. Play, Benjamin. Just keep playing. Thats how well find it. After this, I want you to write a song for Celia called Ill Be a Good Girl Later. Do you think you could write a song like that? I can write anything, if you feed me and pay me. As for me, I was designing costumes for the castbut mostly for Edna. Edna was concerned about being swallowed by the waistless 1920s dresses that she saw me sketching. That style didnt look good on me back then when I was young and pretty, she said, and I cant see it looking good on me now that Im old and stale. You have to give me a waistline of some sort. I know it wasnt the fashion back then, but youll have to fake it. Also, my waist is more stoutish right now than I would like it to be. Work around it, please. I dont think youre stoutish at all, I said, and I meant it. Oh, but I am. Dont worry, thoughin the week before the show, Ill live on a diet of rice water, toast, mineral oil, and laxatives, like always. Ill slim down. But for now, use gussets, so you can tighten my waistline later. If theres to be a lot of dancing, Ill need you to create purposeful seamsyou understand, dont you, darling? Nothing can fly loose when Im in the spotlight. My legs are still good, thank heavens, so dont be afraid to show them. What else? Oh, yesmy shoulders are narrower than they seem. And my neck is awfully short, so proceed with caution, especially if youre going to put me in some sort of a large hat. If you make me look like a stubby little French bulldog, Vivian, Ill never forgive you. I had such respect for how well this woman knew the vagaries of her own figure. Most women have no idea what works for them and what doesnt. But Edna was precision incarnate. Sewing for her, I could see, was going to be its own apprenticeship in costuming. You are designing for the stage, Vivian, she instructed. Rely upon shape more than detail. Remember that the nearest viewer to me will be ten strides away. You have to think on a large scale. Big colors, clean lines. A costume is a landscape, not a portrait. And I want brilliant dresses, my dear, but I dont want the dress to be the star of the show. Dont outshine me, darling. You understand? I did. And oh, how I loved the shape of this conversation. I loved being with Edna. I was becoming quite infatuated with her, if Im being honest. She had nearly replaced Celia as the central object of my devoted awe. Celia was still exciting, of course, and we still went out on the town, but I didnt need her so much anymore. Edna had depths of glamour and sophistication that excited me far more than anything Celia could offer. I would say that Edna was somebody who spoke my own language but thats not quite it, because I was not yet as fluent in fashion as she was. It would be closer to the truth to say that Edna Parker Watson was the first native speaker Id ever encountered of the language that I wanted to masterthe language of outstanding apparel. A few days later, I took Edna to Lowtskys Used Emporium and Notions to look for fabrics and ideas. I was a bit nervous about bringing someone of such refined taste to this overwhelming bazaar of noise, material, and color (to be honest, the smell alone would turn off most high-end shoppers), but Edna was instantly thrilled by Lowtskysas only somebody who genuinely understood clothing and materials could be. She was also delighted by young Marjorie Lowtsky, who greeted us at the door with her standard demand: Whaddaya need? Marjorie was the daughter of the owners, and I had come to know her well over my past few months of shopping excursions. She was a bright, energetic, pie-faced fourteen-year-old, who always dressed in the most outlandish costumes. On this day, for instance, she was wearing the craziest getup Id ever seenbig buckled shoes (like a Pilgrim in a childs Thanksgiving drawing), a gold brocade cape with a ten-foot train, and a French chefs hat with a giant fake ruby brooch pinned to it. Underneath all that, her school uniform. She looked patently ridiculous, as always, but Marjorie Lowtsky was not one to be taken lightly. Mr. and Mrs. Lowtsky didnt speak the best English, so Marjorie had been doing the talking for them since toddlerhood. At her young age, she already knew the rag trade as well as anyone, and could take orders and deliver threats in four languagesRussian, French, Yiddish, and English. She was an odd kid, but I had come to find Marjories help essential. We need dresses from the 1920s, Marjorie, I said. Really good ones. Rich lady dresses. You wanna start by looking upstairs? In the Collection? The archly named Collection was a small area on the third floor where the Lowtskys sold their rarest and most precious finds. We dont have the budget just now to even be glancing at the Collection. So you want rich lady dresses but at poor lady prices? Edna laughed: Youve identified our needs perfectly, my dear. Thats right, Marjorie, I said. Were here to dig, not to spend. Start over there, Marjorie said, pointing to the back of the building. The stuff by the loading dock just came in over the last few days. Mama hasnt even had a chance to look through it yet. You could get lucky. The bins at Lowtskys were not for the faint of heart. These were large industrial laundry bins, crammed with textiles that the Lowtskys bought and sold by the poundeverything from workers battered old overalls to tragically stained undergarments, to upholstery remnants, to parachute material, to faded blouses of pongee silk, to French lace serviettes, to heavy old drapes, to your great-grandfathers precious satin christening gown. Digging through the bins was hard and sweaty work, an act of faith. You had to believe that there was treasure to be found in all this garbage, and you had to hunt for it with conviction. Edna, much to my admiration, dove right in. I got the sense shed done this sort of thing before. Side by side, bin by bin, the two of us dug in silence, searching for what we did not know. About an hour in, I suddenly heard Edna shout a-ha! and looked over to see her waving something triumphantly above her head. And triumphant she should have been, for her find turned out to be a 1920s crimson silk-chiffon and velvet-trimmed robe de style evening dress, embellished with glass beading and gold thread. Oh, my! I exclaimed. Its perfect for Mrs. Alabaster! Indeed, said Edna. And feast your eyes upon this. She turned over the back collar of the garment to reveal the original label: Lanvin, Paris. Somebody tr?s riche bought this dress in France twenty years ago, Ill wager, and barely wore it, by the looks of it. Delicious. How it will glint on stage! In a flash, Marjorie Lowtsky was at our side. Say, whatd you kids find in there? asked the only actual kid in the room. Dont you start with me, Marjorie, I warned. I was only half teasingsuddenly afraid she was going to snatch the dress away from us to sell in the Collection upstairs. Play by the rules. Edna found this dress in the bins, fair and square. Marjorie shrugged. Alls fair in love and war, she said. But its a good one. Just make sure you bury it under a heap of trash when mama rings it up. Shed murder me if she knew I let that one get away from us. Lemme get you a sack and some rags, to hide it. Aw, Marjorie, thanks, I said. Youre my top-notch girl. You and me, were always in cahoots, she said, rewarding me with a crooked grin. Just keep your mouth shut. You wouldnt want me getting fired. As Marjorie wandered off, Edna stared at her in wonder. Did that child just say, Alls fair in love and war? I told you that youd like Lowtskys, I said. Well, I do like Lowtskys! And I adore this dress. And what have you found, my dear? I handed her a flimsy negligee, in a vivid, eye-injuring shade of fuchsia. She took it, held it up against her body, and winced. Oh, no, darling. You cannot put me in that. The audience will suffer from it even more than I will. No, Edna, its not for you. Its for Celia, I said. For the seduction scene. Dear me. Oh, yes. That makes more sense. Edna took a more careful look at the negligee and shook her head. Goodness, Vivian, if you parade that girl around stage in this tiny getup, we are going to have a hit. Men will be lined up for miles. Id best get started on my rice-water diet soon, or else nobody will be paying attention to my poor little figure at all!

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