Friday, May 6, 2011

Looking for Love, Chicago 1890s

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 Excerpt from Looking for Love

Rudy's next stop was the alley at the stage door.  He had never tried to enter.  But she would not be there now in the afternoon, no one would, and what harm could there be in looking inside her dressing room?  He wanted to be able to imagine her there in his daydreams.
 After leaning his bike against the brick wall, he crossed the alley, put his hand on the doorknob, looked up and down the alley, saw no one, and opened the door.  An old man pushed a broom in the corridor.
 Rudy almost backed out.
 "Looking for somebody?" the old man asked.
 Rudy fell back on his smile, though he knew it didn't always work on men.  "Yes, I have a letter to deliver."  He pulled Mrs. Bergstel's note to his aunt from his inside coat pocket to show, then tucked it quickly back before the janitor could reach for it.
 "Yeah?  To who?"
 "Mrs. Carter.  I was told to leave it in her dressing room."
 "I'll see she gets it."
 "No.  The gentleman said I was to deliver it myself, to slip it under the door.  If you'd tell me which door?"
 The janitor shrugged.  "That way, turn right, second door on your left."
 Rudy thanked him and walked slowly down the hall, noticing everything, the outdated posters still pasted to the walls, the chalkboard with names and times scribbled in columns, the row of mailboxes, the mingled smells of wax and ammonia and paint and sweat.
 When he reached her door, he glanced back to see if the janitor was watching.  There was no one in sight.  Quickly he turned the handle, praying the door wasn't locked.  It wasn't.  He slipped into the room, then stopped, his heart racing.  A mirror reflected back his flushed face.  The dressing table beneath the mirror was covered with small silver lidded jars, mirrors, combs, brushes, ribbons, and black lace gloves.  A hair ornament of feathers hung from an upper corner of the mirror, its clasp gleaming with stage jewels.  He tried to memorize it all.  Then he turned slowly, taking in the dresses on the rack one at a time, gowns of shimmering silk and heavy beadwork.  Her trunk stood open, the drawers pulled partway out, scarves and lace collars tossed carelessly about in them.  Beyond that was a standing screen, its wooden frame badly chipped, its woven cloth panels torn loose at the edges.  Over it hung layers of petticoats, heavy with embroidery and ruffles.  He considered filling his arms with them, burying his face in the frills, but was unable to move.
 A voice said softly, "What do you want, boy?"
 Rudy swung around, his mouth open in a silent scream of shock, and saw her, Mrs. Leslie Carter, sitting on a small divan in the shadow of the open door.  Her hair flamed around her, red-gold curls tumbling over her shoulders and nearly to her waist.  Her face was like a wax doll's, pale and perfectly formed.  He could see nothing more of her beneath the white silk dressing gown except her hands.  She held a sheaf of pages in one and reached out to him with the other.
 "I'm sorry," he stammered.  "I'm in the wrong room."
 "Are you?  Whose room are you looking for?"
 "I - I -"  He tried to remember any name of the rest of the play's cast.  He'd read the billboards completely, knew every name, and now they all deserted him.
 "I think you were looking for my room," she said.
 So she had seen him, night after night, standing in the alley, watching her leave.  He had not been vain enough to think she would remember and now he realized he'd been wrong.
 From habit he smiled at her, the over-bright smile he used on older women because they always responded with admiration.  "Yes, but I didn't think you'd be in it."
 "Didn't you?  Then you wanted to see my empty room.  Why?"
 He bit his lip and didn't answer.
 "You don't look like a thief."
 "Oh no!"
 She tilted her head back and laughed up at him.  "Then it must be that you wanted to imagine me in my dressing room, is that it?"
 Embarrassed at the accuracy of her guess, he could not answer.
 "Tell me your name," she demanded.
 "Rudy.  Rudy Schillmann, ma'am."
 She leaned forward in a rustling of lace to hand him the sheaf of papers she had been reading.
 "As long as you're here, you may as well be useful.  Go ahead, read the other parts for me."
 Her white fingertips brushed his hands as he grasped the papers.  His hands shook, his face flamed.  The scent of her perfume, rising from her warm skin, left him so heady that when he looked at the papers, the print ran together.  He would never be able to make out the words of the script.
 "Pull up the bench from my dressing table."
 In a trance, he did what she said, settling himself on the bench, then spreading the script on his knee to steady it.  He smoothed it with his palms while trying to unruffle his mind.
 "Now, you read all the other parts and I will recite mine."
 "Yes, ma'am," he said.
 For the next hour he read with mechanical precision, as he might have read aloud a history lesson in school, pausing for her to say her lines.  She listened only to his words, did not comment on his delivery, but responded with passion.
 " 'Will you not forgive me my transgressions one more time, my own, my beloved?' " Rudy read in flat tones.
 " 'Never!' " she cried, flinging her arms up so that her wide dressing gown sleeves cascaded in ruffled layers, exposing her white skin all the way up her arms to her armpits.  Rudy felt pulses pounding throughout his body.  He thought he might pass out and fall off the bench.
" 'Never! You have demeaned my dreams, destroyed my hopes, crushed whatever feelings I may once have had for you!'  All right, go on, boy, it's your line next."
 He stared down at the script and felt the sweat from his fingertips seep into the paper. " 'I beg you on bended knee.  I fling my heart before you, that you may step on it.' "
 "Did you ever hear such a stupid line?" Mrs. Leslie Carter complained.  "Whenever we get to it, I have to bite my lips to keep from laughing.  Ah, never mind.  Say it again."
 " 'I fling my heart before you, that you may step on it.' "  What was stupid about that?  Rudy would gladly have thrown himself face up on the floor and allowed her to march back and forth across his chest, trampling his heart.
 "Yes.  'Have I not made it clear?  Can you not believe me?  You cannot buy back my respect.  I feel tarnished by your presence.' " she exclaimed, and clasped her hands together.
 Solemnly he read, " 'Then I have no choice, no alternative.  If I cannot regain your devotion, I must at least regain my reputation.  And I fear I can do that only with an exchange for my life.' "
 Rudy waited, seeing in his imagination the theatre stage bathed in artificial light, with Mrs. Leslie Carter standing in its center, her hair gleaming above her pale face and long white gown, shining like the sun.  To her side, and of no interest to him, was the actor whose lines Rudy had heard many times and now read, a heavy-set man dressed in black.
 "Exchange for my life, yes, and then I say, I say, oh I never can remember what I say!"
 Rudy looked up in surprise.  He had been avoiding looking into that face, and the brilliance of her eyes almost stopped his breathing.  He had heard her say the lines so often, he could not believe that she had forgotten them.
 She laughed at his expression.  "I have a terrible memory and besides, I do a half dozen plays that have almost identical scenes in them, my dear.  I muddled it all up last night which is why I stole away to study my lines in privacy today.  I never can at my hotel, you see, because there is always someone interrupting me."
 Rudy nodded.
 "Now give me a hint of my next line," she said.
 "Oh!  Yes, ma'am.  The man says, 'Exchange for my life,' and you say, 'You pretend to great bravery but you do not --' "
 "Yes," she interrupted.  Her face went hard and haughty, her chin rose, the bright eyes narrowed, the full lips tightened.  " 'You pretend to great bravery but you do not impress me.  No more!  No more!  No more shall I fall victim to your ploys!  Leave me, wretched man, that I may never again be brought to tears by my misguided heart!  I am not defeated!  I shall prevail!' "
 She gave her speech with so much spirit, Rudy wanted to throw down the script, applaud and shout, "Bravo, Caroline!" as he had done from the shadowed balcony.
 Instead, he continued reading.  Above the recitation, he imagined her reaching out a hand, touching his face, brushing back his hair, moving toward him.  Her dressing gown parted like theatre curtains, exposing a throat and bosom as luxurious as that of Lillian Russell, and her fiery hair fell across his face, and her long white arms wrapped around him, pressing him closer, closer, and he felt his body responding, swelling, pulsating.
 From some distance her calm voice said, "That's all to that speech, isn't it?  I think you have the next line, or did I forget something again?"


These stories were passed down in my family, and then I added fiction. Some are true as they stand, some are exaggerated, and some are pure fiction.

Here is how I heard the stories:

When I was very small, and the great-uncles smelled of whiskey and cigars, and the great-aunts gossiped about each other, I heard snippets of stories that were way too fascinating for the ears of children and so my sisters and cousins and I did a lot of pretending to be busy reading in a corner after Sunday dinner at my grandparents' house. The house  is in Chicago, a three story house built by an ancestor for his young immigrant bride. They were married in the 1870s, and I have a photo of their children sitting on the porch with their 4th of July decorations, 1885. The house is in walking distance from Lincoln Park Zoo. The street's name has been changed but the house is still there, converted into offices for a non-profit.

Over the years I played with the stories, did mountains of research, starting with snippets of memories. For instance, my grandfather remembered seeing Evelyn Nesbit as the closing act at the vaudeville, swinging out over the audience on a swing with red velvet ropes. Oh yeah, of course she was fully clothed, this was vaudeville, not burlesque. She sat motionless in the swing, and never smiled. “Saddest face I've ever seen,” he told me. But Evelyn, once a favorite model of Gibson, later married to a millionaire, became the center of a scandal that rocked Chicago and left her with no other means of earning a living. All the audience wanted was a chance to see her. They didn't expect talent. (The 1950s movie titled Girl in the Red Velvet Swing starred a very young and gorgeous Joan Collins as Evelyn.)

And there was the cherry bomb story, and stories of the stage door Johnnies and the broken marriages and the screaming fights, all tales to clutter up our young minds.

So that's how my Chicago 1890s novel started. If you watch Coronation Street, well, drag the theme back to Chicago 1890s when the Columbia Exposition opened and all the little boys in the neighborhood first saw and fell madly in love with Lillian Russell, including my great-uncles.

- Phoebe

About the Mucha poster of Mrs. Leslie Carter in the sidebar: it was displayed at an art museum in Seattle. When the curator learned of my interest in the actress, she kindly sent me the museum's photo of the poster.


July 4, 1885, a photo of the house and some of the family. Note the bicycle.