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Chapter 16

ARBITER ELEGANTIARUM

On a muggy December afternoon Lucy sat crosslegged on the double bed of their hotel room. The latest issue of Mode lay across her knees open at a full-page photograph of herself. She ate the last of a chocolate bar and stared pensively at the gold-lettered window across the street. Mme Sophie Corsets. Franklin Co.—wigs & transformations. Shapiro Sons & Bro.—novelties & magic for all occasions.

Well, Lucy told herself, here I am in Mode but I don't feel famous like I thought anyone would when we were in Denver. No parties, only Master's, the show, and sandwiches after the show with Mother and Peggy and the boys. Chorus boys don't count, they're cute but you don't think of them as men, they're more like other girls, but girls who're fun and aren't catty; they're really sweet and I'm kind of sorry for them because they can't be all men. Since Clem I don't seem to want a man to touch me, but I don't feel sick any more when I think of him. Guess I'm just a regular old maid. Peggy says love is fun but doesn't last long and then you have to begin all over again. Peggy is very one-sided, all she talks about is men and gossip. Vida is smarter. Writes me nice letters about books and so on. I ought to write her. What do I like most in New York? Let me see, what do I think of? How sparkly the air is. How grand the stage feels under the ground cloth. How exciting it looks when only the stage pilot light is on and you're all alone in the big dark empty theatre. Sort of how you want to feel about love. A man ought to be mysterious. Nothing mysterious about that comic, Kel Moyle, always trying to waylay me, any girl.

"I don't see," she said aloud, "why a comic should be called a great artist of theatre because he makes people laugh—mostly at jokes about going to the toilet or double meanings about sex."

"Well, darling," said Mae, "men like his sort of thing."

"Women laugh too. You ought to hear people just screaming at his story about some man wetting his pants. Kel is sure mad at me because I said 'You may be a big star on Broadway but I never heard of you in Denver.'"

Backstage, she thought, almost anything one says is taken to have a sex meaning. And calling some of the chorus boys girl nicknames, like Freda for Freddie. Stars were called by their first names and the chorus by their last or where they were from. Hey Texas, or you there Penatchee, or tell Chattanooga Joe wants her. Almost everyone had a made-up name, showgirls the flossiest. Adorada Mans. Nel Cambridge. Noreen del Haven. Lilianne Westminster. Joceylyn Primrose.

"Oh come now, Claudel," Joceylyn Primrose had said, "tell the truth, I'll bet your real name is Lizzy Schmuk."

"Don't pay any attention to her, Lucy darling, she's jealous because her name's Sadie," said Edmond D'Arcy, that cute chorus boy everybody called Edna.

Edmond and Max Windsor were fun after the show when they came to the hotel and ate sandwiches with her and Mother. Wonderful enormous New York sandwiches on caraway seed rye bread cut slantingly in three parts because they were so big and thick. Turkey, Swiss cheese, coleslaw and Russian dressing. Or shrimp salad with lettuce and tomato. Tomatoes even in December! Edmond and Max were sweet, like two girl friends. Then Peggy said why. Lucy had watched fascinated for clues between them of Edmond's and Max's relationship. All she could notice though was that they acted and talked more like girls, expecially Max when he acted very masculine and smoked a big cigar, and they seemed devoted to each other.

"But they are very fickle with each other," Peggy contradicted. "Haven't you noticed backstage how they change off into different pairs, or society stage-door Johnnies go off with one of the boys? And you can always tell when they want to pick up a boy on the street because they say 'Got a match, Jack?'"

For a few weeks Lucy had suspected every man in search of a cigarette or match before concluding that this approach was not an infallible symbol, and that Peggy was not omniscient.

Mother was too innocent to be told of these fascinating discoveries. So was Vida in a letter.

Having one's picture in Mode didn't mean you were a star. You could fouetté yourself dippy and not be a star unless your name drew at the box office. Even Marilyn Miller had to sing and speak lines. At Master's a thirteen-year-old kid can do thirty-six fouettés and the most I can manage is twenty-four so far and I'll be fifteen soon.

"My goodness," she said to Mae, "here we've been in New York four months, my picture is outside the theatre and in Mode, and we haven't been anywhere except for that first bus ride. I always thought a mansion was a great big place with lawns, like a park, not just narrow houses smack against each other. One of these days I'm going to walk right up and ring a doorbell on Fifth Avenue just to see what's inside."

Startled, Mae looked up from sewing a blue satin garter. "Oh no, Pussy, that's not ladylike." She saw a brown smudge at the corner of Lucy's mouth and frowned. "You're eaten another chocolate bar and that's 375 calories. You know you shouldn't. My goodness, December in New York is like spring in Congress. I don't know as I care for such a warm winter."

Lucy, licking off the chocolate, looked at her mother in dismay. "Don't you like New York?"

"Of course—but I guess I got used to living in a house. I think we ought to get an apartment anyway so I can weigh your food and keep you on a balanced diet."

"Let's," Lucy agreed enthusiastically, "it will be more like we're here to stay if we have our own place."


The week after Easter, during Intermission, Joe Samuels brought to her dressing room a tall youngish man with a heavy-chinned long face, cold narrow-set eyes, thin blond hair and full too-smooth lips, so shiningly groomed he seemed to have been polished with a nail buffer. There always was an assortment of men who came backstage but this was the first time Joe Samuels had escorted one to her dressing room. She could tell from Joe's voice that Lyle Bigelow was rich and important. What impressed her more was that the man asked Mother's permission to take "Miss Claudel" to a party at the home of a friend. Mae had blushed, not quite knowing how to answer a gentleman who looked and acted as she had pictured a Prince Charming come for darling. Lucy, reluctant to break the comfortable routine of going home to their rooms off Eighth Avenue where Peggy would be waiting with sandwiches and the day's gossip, replied she would let him know after the show if she could break a date. Standard brush-off.

"I think you should go, you haven't been out at all," Mae urged.

"I guess I will, you know I've been dying to see the inside of one of those rich houses. Besides, it seems a shame not to wear my white chiffon after all those nights you sat here sewing on beads. My first formal evening dress. I think I'll open this Mitsuoko. Twenty-five dollars! Aunt Mabel would have a fit. But I haven't an evening wrap."

"Oh dear!" Mae pursed her lips, distressed. "Of course, it's mild out. I know what—I'll make you one from your third scene drape. I'll double it and tie two loops for your arms. Then you can tie the ends around your waist in a big bow on your hip. It will look real chic."

Lucy giggled. "I'll sneak out so Mrs. O'Flaherty doesn't see me. One of the girls got fired last week for borrowing an evening dress from wardrobe."

Word had spread backstage that Lyle Bigelow was back from Palm Beach and showgirls found reasons for passing where he waited.

"Mother's Pussy is a sly one," Nel Cambridge said to Lilianne Westminster, as Lucy left with the biggest catch in New York.

In the black limousine Bigelow sat carefully apart from Lucy. Broadway never had sported a beauty like this in his time. Could she actually be as young as she looked and still have those eyes? Hard to resist pulling her right over, yet he wanted to laugh because of the overpowering Mitsuoko. Best go slow. Shame though he couldn't take her to supper alone instead of wasting time in a mob.

"Sure you're not too tired for a big crowd tonight?" he asked tentatively.

"Oh no." She shook her head positively and pulled at the folds of chiffon crossed over her breasts. "This thing is hot but I don't know how I'll ever get it on right again if I take it off because it's just my drape from the show."

He laughed at her frankness. Was it naivete, or a hint for an evening wrap?

"You call me Lyle so I can call you Lucy," he said.

They drove not up Fifth Avenue but almost to Washington Square, stopping at a large house with a red door and brass knocker. A Negro in a white nightgown, wide red sash and red flowerpot hat let them into a hall with gold walls. Shedding hat, stick, and chiffon scarf, they mounted lilac-velour stairs to where a twin of the door-opener opened shiny black doors and they were engulfed in a spangled choppy yellow and black sea of people shrugging, winding, and laughing to the latest jazz rhythm of "Margie-e-e"!

Oh boy! What a party this is, I can't wait to dance. I guess I'm just a jazz baby at heart, Lucy thought, excitedly wiggling her toes. But Lyle's firm hand turned her to face a little yellow lam£ butterball with a lace jabot and ruffled lace under wide cuffs who took her hand in his tiny fat ones as Lyle said, "Figente, this is Helen of Troy."

A thin short upturned nose had nostril slits, a thread line pulled down a baby mouth, and slowly heavy eyelids rose and two dark marbles bulged at her. She parted her lips to take in surplus wonders her eyes could not absorb. Butterball's skull was plastered with gold-dusted curls, a good idea for the stage. Rouge on those tallow cheeks and lips, irridescent purple on the lashless lids.

Figente? For heaven's sake, the man Clem told her about and gave her a letter to! Imagine Clem in a place like this. Men in evening dress wore yellow flowers, sashes, or turbans. Women in gold or yellow beaded and spangled dresses, yellow flowers. Golden lighted fountain, sallow faces. The Negro band looked good. Only Negroes can wear yellow. A nightgowned Negro triplet was putting something gold on her.

"No, no," Figente said in a voice that wobbled high, "not you, my dear, you are the goddess we worship, Aphrodite, since, regrettably, you cannot be Adonis."

He led her to a kind of double throne, sitting on a chair next to hers on the dais. The yellow satin cushions felt smooth through Mother's beaded dress. Men stumbled up and drank to her, and she had some champagne too. It was bubbly and good and she didn't mind the old women of at least twenty-five and even thirty who looked daggers at her and turned to say something mean. Poor things, didn't they know they were too old for so much makeup? She thought dizzily she was being the Toast of the Town, except everyone was drunk. She recognized two people. Tessie Soler the star, to impress Lyle Bigelow, held her orange head high like all leading ladies and turned profile when she took a stagey puff from her long jade cigarette holder. There was her lover, Beman, the high-class producer. His face was red and his neck bulged over his tight high collar. He must eat too much. Figente looked bored. Maybe she ought to be nice to him and say something.

"I've heard of you but I'll bet you can't guess where."

He glanced at her warily, saying with marked disinterest, "I don't think I shall try."

He wasn't polite, and the snatches of conversation between the milling dancers who all seemed to know each other made her feel an outsider too.

"In Nebraska, from a friend of yours, an artist, Clem Brush."

Relieved, he pretended not to know him. Inoffensive fellow but dull.

"He said you were an artist too—is that some of your work?"

Figente looked at his new Picasso in honor of which he had had repapered this drawing-room gallery in nigger brown and sofas re-upholstered in black moire, and engaged Negro footmen for the evening. It was a pity not to be able to insist as he could have before the war that his guests wear Moroccan dress to blend with the décor. But you couldn't insist in New York today, especially with young people who had no sense of the past, tradition, were without manners, style, knew knothing about food, wine. It was as though the war to end war had killed civilization and made savages of this Younger Generation. Nowadays a party was a shindig at which one served, as he was serving, the Racketeer Piselli's acid New Jersey champagne, concocted from cider and God only knew what, and which even those who knew better swilled for its quick results. You couldn't give a party unless you guaranteed a hangover to every guest, especially the women. In Paris, Rome, Venice, costume balls had style because Europeans had a sense of period, manners, and went to some pains to help a host so as to amuse themselves. Not here, even when they try at a Beaux Arts ball. The women make the difference. Made up as tarts and wiggling around under their clinging gowns, their faces feverish and eyes darting everywhere to catch any man including the band-leader Chigger Cane who was singing at them "Aggravating Papa Don't You Two-Time Me!" The women from the theatre were the best, outladying the ladies. At least they knew how to be tarts without being offensively vulgar. He preferred them to the daughters of his own class who thought it unnoticed when they slipped away using his home as a house of assignation.

Raymond San Figente prided himself on being an authority, not only on social behavior but of all the arts old and new, and in the refinements of debauchery. He had no objection whatever to women being tarts, Lesbians, or virgins. In fact, considering himself fastidious, he found distasteful even the thought of women in their natural role. Debauchery, he thought, should be practiced by an artist, with the delicate nuances one found in a great painting, a Mantegna for example. The artist in debauchery had to possess a sense of what was unfitting at a fitting moment. He believed he had inherited this talent from his noble Italian father who had had the grace to die young enough to halt total dissipation of his American wife's considerable fortune. To spite her deceased husband and his family for indifference to her virtues save the one of having money, Figente's mother, the Princess San Figente, had abandoned Rome, temporal and spiritual, removing with her Raymond aged ten and baby Alice home to New York. Feeling justified in breaking her promise that the two would be brought up Catholics, because her husband had violated his marital vows, she engaged a high-minded Protestant theological student to tutor Raymond in the virtues of a non-decadent Protestant America. She had felt confirmed in her decision to remove Raymond from the temptations of Rome when she noted his indifference to Assembly and then prom dances, obviously preferring to spend his time with boys from prep school and Princeton. It was apparent that Raymond, unlike his father, was not to be a lady's man but a man's man. What interested her less, if at all, was that Raymond wanted to be an artist. He had early discovered a minor talent in modeling and had been persisting in this talent whilst playing with boys, boy and man, in New York and Europe for the ensuing forty years when Lucy encountered him. The boy he presently was playing with was his latest protégé Hal who, a harpist of talent, was also revealing a talent for disloyalty, disturbing his peace of mind when he was making his refined modelings in terra cotta of neo-Greek forms.

Inexplicably, this Hellenistic Tanagra Lyle had brought seemed to him except for her Western accent a new stimulus. He would enjoy modeling her, perhaps as Leda, paint the figure and inset lapis lazuli for her extraordinary slanting eyes which were not missing anything. Pity she was not a boy. What a pleasure then it would be to teach her about the world. Not that those one taught were grateful. "I am delighted you approve of my new Picasso."

He seemed more friendly, Lucy thought. "I've seen pictures like that in Mode, but to tell you the truth they don't mean a thing to me."

"Artists have their own way of looking at things."

"Like poets, I suppose."

This was most unexpected and he turned his chair toward hers. "Exactly. If you will come to tea someday I will show you what some other artists have done. I am afraid the rooms are too occupied at the moment to get a good view."

"I'd love to. I have matinees Wednesday and Saturday."

"Thursday then."

"Have you seen my show?"

"I rarely go out any more. I find the theatre repetitious."

On this note Beman came up. "Figente, have you heard from Simone? I've written her but there's been no answer. Neil just returned from Paris and says she's in Brussels with some boy. It's damned annoying as I want her for my show."

"Yes," replied Figente blandly, "she's with Vermillion—a young painter—and I doubt whether you'll get her. I think you ought to have Helen of Troy here."

"Oh!" said Beman, flustered by Figente's mad notion. "I'll think about it." Retreating, he had to admit that Claudel of the Samuels Revue was a stunner, but could she sing?

Lucy laughed. "You scared him off asking for a part for me all of a sudden. I'll bet he takes forever to make up his mind. He's too important to take a chance on a beginner."

"That is too sage a remark from such youthful—and beautiful—lips," Figente admonished, playfully wiggling a beringed fat forefinger.

Then Lyle took her away to dance, saying as he held her close, "It's about time!" He was a good dancer but too tall. A perfect dancing partner should be only a little taller. Then a sunburned face with white teeth and wavy brown hair cut in. The perfect size! His compact body moved like a young tree in a slow wind as they wound among the others. She had not felt like this except when alone on the stage dark with dancing shadows, like mysterious lovers waiting to dance with her. But Lyle, frowning, took her away saying curtly, "My turn, Carly."

Carly Ransom cut in again and again.

Figente, having lost his refreshing guest, no longer was entertained by his party. Disliking Carly Ransom, heir to a new tobacco fortune, and no longer able to bear the band's unrelenting cowbells, he decided to thwart Carly and come to the aid of Lyle, his second cousin twice removed, and primarily himself. He thwacked a bronze Maillol torso with the red heel of his slipper. Delighted by the effect its echoing clangor had of stopping the dancers and band into poses of arrested movement, he shrilled in the imperious tone he affected at his costume parties as befitting the royal personages he impersonated, "We would be pleased if Aphrodite will now honor us with a dance."

Lucy was astonished to see he meant her. It was like when she slipped at the Bison Ball and had to do something because everyone was looking at her. Conscious of her body moving under the heavy beaded dress, she walked over to Chigger Cane. The room looked sort of Scheherazade so she asked Chigger to play "Hindustan" and, encouraged by a wink from Carly, she picked up the beat from her willing collaborators, Chigger and his boys, improvising what she believed was a jazzed Oriental dance. She saw Lyle, his arms folded, leaning against the mantelpiece watching her, his sensual mouth tight in a disapproving frown, and looked away defiantly, feeling her body a lizard jerking under the beaded chiffon. A silly dance, she thought, but everyone said she was wonderful, especially the men too drunk to know the difference.

A fat, untidy woman in a gold turban and no brassiere waved a long cigarette holder. "You are a true meeting of East and West. What Picasso has done in his African period."

"You mean I got a little nigger in me?" Lucy asked, laughing. "Guess I have because I love jazz. But I'm actually a ballet dancer. And I take it seriously," she explained, so as not to give the queer woman and others standing around the wrong impression.

"Oh, a ballerina! Isadora Duncan is an intimate friend of mine. I'm Mary Doyle. You must come to dinner sometime soon and meet Kevin. My husband, you know, the critic."

"I've never done barefoot dancing," Lucy said lamely, awed at proximity to such fame. This was how she thought New York would be, except that the women didn't look as beautiful as the photographs in Mode, but then that probably was because they were drunk.

Lyle was sulky in the limousine. Lucy looked at him out of the corner of her eyes. Me didn't have a good time so I'll give him a nice kiss to make him feel better when I get home, that's if he behaves. I wish I were with Carly.


"Brush your teeth, dear, and drink this hot milk. I'm glad you had such a nice time," Mae said.

In bed, a silk stocking bandaging her eyes to help her sleep, she re-created the evening for Mae.

"Those men certainly know how to make you feel important. I guess the women thought I didn't belong there. Only one talked to me, a sloppy fatty who wore a gold turban and a lot of junk that looked like stage jewelry. She invited me to come and see her and her husband, a critic. I think she's someone important. All the women wore a lot of jewelry, but to tell you the truth I can't tell it from rhinestones and colored glass. I never heard any last names. Everyone had nicknames. 'Quirky'—'Coucou'—'Pet'—you never heard so many Pets!"

She thought of Carly, but he was her secret to think of alone. After the dance she had been the center of a huddle of men who said she was the cat's pajamas and where had she been keeping herself, but they had to give way to a Senator from Washington, D.C., and that was when the blowsy Doyle woman had come up and Carly had had to leave. He had said as he pressed her, "See you soon" and she could hardly wait until it was daylight and he would telephone. He was so easy to be with, and he had thought the same people and Figente's pictures as funny as she did. The kind of a man she always had thought she'd meet in New York and fall in love with. A man who would protect her when she felt unsure about herself, like the way he'd smiled when she had to begin that awful dance because everyone was looking at her. A man who'd be fun to be with, a friend, and playmate—playmate but more. Love was a wonderful thing to give yourself to, like the feeling you had when hearing the theatre orchestra playing the love duets and you felt happy and like crying at the same time.

"Are you asleep, dearest?"

"No. That Figente invited me to come and see him. After I danced he went to bed and left the party go by itself. Maybe I was a showoff to dance."

"Oh no, darling, I think that was very nice. Especially for all those important people and Beman."