~ Synopsis ~
From a harrowing journey out of Eastern Europe in the early 1900’s to the tenements of Depression-era New York City. From a Victorian mansion in a Pennsylvania steel town to Tin Pan Alley. From singing the blues in a speakeasy to a lead role on Broadway. The Artfulness of Women explores the talent, sexuality, and long-held family secrets passed down to three generations of women determined to follow their true passions as their lives are touched by World War II, civil rights, the heyday of the women’s movement, and sexual liberation.
Bayla Szabo, born of Jewish Hungarian immigrants, lives with her invalid mother yearning to escape her New York City tenement life to become a blues singer. By day, she sews in a sweatshop, but at night, sexy and seductive, she performs to crowds of rowdy men in a speakeasy. Marriage bring her into the Victorian mansion of a prominent family who reigns over a gritty Pennsylvania steel town, where temptation, sacrifice and demons from her childhood separate her from her dreams, and eventually reality. Leena, her daughter, shamed by her attraction to women, succumbs to her mother’s Machiavellian wiles and marries into an Orthodox Jewish family waiting to live true to herself. Her precocious daughter, Jackie, who inherits her grandmother’s talent, manipulates anyone who threatens her obsessive rush to stardom. As their lives unfold throughout 20th Century America, these women mine from deep within themselves what is required to live the lives they want as their stories play out amidst Old World superstition and Jewish humor in this lively family saga.
Amid virgin mountains in the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, an elegant Queen Anne-style Victorian mansion looked down upon the broad, flat valley where the town of Pittsmill grew after the Shenandoah Steel Mill was founded along the Monongahela River. It was built for the company’s owner, vulnerable as the rest to the gray spongy soot that imposed itself on their lives. Perhaps it was his Welsh background or poetry in his bones that prompted him to give the house a name. Beneath the broad ancient limbs of a large maple tree that stretched across the front lawn, a bronze plaque, set into the earth, was etched with the words Amory Lane
With the placement of the last cornerstone, marked 1882, mill workers and their families—Irish, Germans, Russians and Welsh—made their way by horse, carriage or on foot up the steep incline of Beleaguered Hill, its mud and crags newly-laid with cobblestones. They strolled the grounds and in the back garden took high tea, miniature sandwiches and Earl Grey poured from exquisite porcelain teapots. Hours later, embraced by adoration and loyalty, the townsfolk returned home feeling as if some part of themselves belonged to Amory Lane and it, in turn, belonged to them.
Gossip, so lush and enlivening about the lives of Amory Lane’s inhabitants now distracted them from want and drudgery in their own. A valued commodity for those who supplied it, a guilty pleasure for those who listened, the smallest tidbit was offered with the delight of revealing long-cherished secrets. Such gossip became vital to the townsfolk’s identity, their source of pride, as important as the steel manufactured in the mill and carried across country. And though it proved habitually gratifying, so much eluded or altogether escaped their reach. An often-told story spread across seasons or dinner tables could no more uncover forbidden love than it could delve into secrets unspoken for generations. Helplessness in the face of adversity would be guarded, and word-of-mouth could never fathom the will of women who refused to be beaten down by forces greater than themselves.
Escaping the Tenements
~ Heir ~
Bayla Rothschild maneuvered herself to standing, aimed her pregnant body towards the bedroom door, and waddled on bare, swollen feet when a burst of warm water gushed down her legs, causing an embarrassing flood on the finely-designed tree-of-life Persian runner that covered the second floor hallway. In full-blown hysteria, having collided with her husband, who had discovered her missing in bed, she knew it was time.
“Call the hospital,” he shouted. “Motherrrrrrrrr ……” he yelled towards closed bedroom doors where family were asleep. “Call the hospital.”
What had presided for the past months had left her grotesque, misshapen, exposed and stuffed. Her body―what consequences would it inflict on her next? There was nothing for her to do but stand cemented in place. With the water drained out of her, she had turned to stone.
She had no idea how he managed to get her dressed, to the bottom of the grand circular staircase, along the back hallway, through the garage and into the roomy back seat of their blue Ford sedan.
In morning’s half-light, down the steep incline of cobblestones, past prestigious homes lined up like picture postcards, their broad fallow lawns silver-gray in winter’s frost, she tried to steady herself with one hand. With the other, she dug her nails into the upholstery shouting all the while, “I don’t know what to do,” because no one had ever told her, and who could she ask when such things were rarely talked about?
“Take my hand,” he said, reaching back, but the car swerved onto Main Street and she was thrown from his grasp, leaving her in wide-eyed panic as everyday places flew by—Greeley’s Grocery, Murphy’s Five and Dime, Waters’ Hardware, Fletcher’s Soda Parlour, Holiday’s Music and Records, and on the last block, the Odeon Cinema.
As they bounded across the railroad tracks, sped past the steel workers’ row houses, accelerated along the river, and skidded alongside the Ohio and Chesapeake railcars loaded with girders, she knew the town’s phone lines were as pregnant with the news of the birth as she was.
“We saw them.” “In the sedan.” “They raced down the hill.” “An heir for Amory Lane.” “How exciting.” “How wonderful.” “At last.”
By the time the car raced up the hospital’s circular driveway and screeched to a halt, the scene was helter-skelter. Female nurses, male orderlies, and admitting personnel scurried in the freezing morning mist, anxiously awaiting their patient.
As the sky began to brighten, the President of the Ladies Auxiliary, a squarely-built matron in her Sunday best, elbowed her way through the crowd, straightened her black, feathered fedora, and opened the sedan’s back door with a composed, “Greetings, and welcome.”
Sprawled across the backseat, her coat thrown open, her navy blue maternity dress low on one side, above her thigh on the other, her hat nowhere to be seen, Bayla Rothschild extended one leg in a futile search for solid ground beneath her navy blue oxford. The possibility that such a ridiculous notion would meet with success, spurred two nurses to reach into the car and pull, a third to rush around the other side and push. Together they extricated her to standing, while a fourth brought over a wheelchair.
“Not that!” Bayla gasped, thrusting her arm in front of her.
“Those are the rules.” The nurse edged the wheelchair closer.
“Take it away,” she pleaded, averting her head. Her mother had sewn hats by hand for fancy ladies from a wheelchair donated by the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society. Piecework, barely enough to put food on the table.
“Perhaps over there.” Bayla’s husband spoke knowingly and pointed.
An orderly wheeled over a waiting hospital bed, and breathlessly cranked it upwards to meet Bayla’s buttocks. Suddenly an exquisite pain seared through her middle, forcing her to erupt with a three-octave roar. Like infantry on the run, a single file on each side, they whooshed her beyond the doors, down a long corridor into a harshly-lit room where she labored long and intensely.
“Grab the bed posts,” a nurse commanded. “Push. Push.”
Bayla moaned, tore at the sheets, clutched the pillow, and pounded the wall behind her.
“Make believe you’re a dive bomber. Get those Germans. That’s it. Push hard. Push for France. Again.”
“I can’t. I can’t.” She gasped, her heart pounding.
“You must. You’re having a baby.”
“What am I going to do with a child?” Bayla screamed. Love and care for it, her husband had said. But maternal love, how and where would she find it? She was frightened to be a mother, frightened she might treat the child the way she had been treated. And what if in the future—who could predict it—this infant might one day do to her what she had done, what she had to do given her mother’s rages, her mind here, then gone?
“Now, again,” the nurse said. “Push.”
Bayla drew in a deep, slow inhalation followed by a long rasping, “You bastard. I’ll get you for this.”
“I’ve heard that before,” the nurse laughed. “Once the baby’s in your arms, you’ll forget.”
One minute past midnight, January 25, 1941, after some thirty-six hours, the doctor entered her uterus with cranial forceps to deliver a nine-pound, five ounce baby girl. The first child born to Amory Lane in over thirty years, they told her, since Bethlehem Steel had been founded to compete with Shenandoah Steel, and Henry Ford had engineered his first car.
When Bayla opened her eyes, unaware if it was night or morning or how many dawns, like the one that brought her here, had passed, she was lying on a steel-hard gurney in a cold, dark, cavernous place that echoed its own silence. Her body was limp, her muscles alternately pinched then tightened, her insides so stretched she thought she might have squeezed out the town’s public library from between her legs. Her husband would sleep in the waiting room, praise her strength and courage and try his best to overlook how she ignored him. He of all people knew the birth of their child had little to do with what she wanted most in the world. She had a voice, not measly and high-pitched, but a deep, soulful sound is what she had always imagined for herself. And luckily she had grown into a tall, heavyset young woman whose square jaw and wide cheekbones perfectly fit her expectations. From the moment they met four years earlier, they had talked about her career. To sing. To perform. And in its place—motherhood—as if that were the best she could do. As if she were destined to be as colorless and ordinary as Pittsmill’s forever cloudy skies. No matter how much he would love and adore her, she would always blame him for her dreams gone astray.
Suddenly a slab of light shot through the darkness.
“You’re in recovery, dear. Time to tinkle.” The nurse pushed an icy metal bed pan under her bottom. “Be a good girl now. Go on,” she said, and disappeared, taking the light with her.
Certain nothing would ever again go in or out of anyplace down there, Bayla tried to inch herself off the thing, but the shrill clang, when it struck the floor startled her, like a fitful awakening.
“Childhood,” she said aloud as if she had one. She could still picture men selling apples on street corners to earn pennies during the Depression, and hear her mother telling her to quit school, the one place she felt like somebody. And when she objected, “They should take a meshugeneh from the asylum and put you in his place,” her mother yelled, called her a dumbkopf because didn’t she realize an einhoreh, an evil eye, was pestering their lives, jeering at what little they had. She was fourteen years old, her second year at the Hebrew Technical School for Girls. Arthritis had already slowed her mother’s fingers and stiffened her legs, confining her to a wheelchair. Who else could help support them in the two rooms, one toilet down the hall shared with four families on the floor of their third-story tenement walk-up on New York City’s East 89th Street? When she was seven, her father, who held her as no father ever held or loved a child, kissed her good night, tucked the edges of the blanket around her in the cot where she slept, and walked out. They never knew where.
Words dictated by her mother, written in Bayla’s childish hand on a scrap of paper, sat for weeks on the kitchen counter. I am looking for my husband, Yosef Yosefa Szabo, ironworker, 36 years old, small, dark mole on right brow. He left me with my little daughter. Whoever sees or knows of him take mercy on us and . . . .But it was so shameful to admit, “You can’t send it,” she said. She meant to The Jewish Daily Forward, the column to report runaway men. She cursed the fates instead, adding hours to her work pinning, cutting, and sewing under a 25-watt bulb, envying her sleeping child.
For weeks after school, Bayla knocked on doors searching for a job. Then she headed home to take in from the fire escape outside the kitchen window, where she placed them each morning for fresh air and sunshine, the dolls she fabricated from old socks, embroidered their faces, sewed their outfits from her mother’s remnants. At bedtime she laid them in the cot in the room where she slept with her mother and sang to them the Hungarian song her father had taught: “Arish, Bidi, Shari, Marishki, Rosalli, Ella, Bella, Utzi, Carolina . . .” names she gave her dolls.
When the day came to tell the principal she had found work, she headed down the school’s long, blue-gray corridors. Her steps slow and begrudging stopped at the large double doors that welcomed her every morning. She leaned momentarily upon them, inhaled the scent of peeling paint and closed her eyes. The slightest push would not lead to her future, as her mother had said, but to the end of her life. Never again would a teacher commend her smocking and embroidery, her grasp of a Thomas Hardy novel or an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem. Never again would she jump Double Dutch with friends at recess, or relish her music teacher’s praise for her singing. Like someone stuffing a suitcase before a long journey, she tried to pack inside herself everything she could about her two years there. Et va zoh. This is how it must be, she heard her father say in Hungarian. Not wanting to disappoint him, even then, she brushed away tears with her forearm, bit her lip, pushed her body sideways and walked into the harsh glare of the city’s streets. The time reserved for her growing up had fizzled like chicken fat in a heated fry pan. It was spring, 1930. The worst of the Depression.
Bayla longed for her past to leave her in peace. Instead it bullied and tormented her as if her life wasn’t made up of new events, but only old ones lining up for another turn. How could she care for and nourish a newborn when her own childhood was as alive as the baby she had not yet held in her arms?
Where was her child? She had heard, “one more push,” barely a squeak, a loud bawl, then, “I’ll give her something to sleep.” What had the doctor pulled out of her? Maybe she had delivered a baby with too many arms and legs, and not enough fingers and toes. There was a girl in elementary school who wore a normal shoe on one foot and a monstrous black one on the other. Perhaps her daughter suffered the same or worse.
“Nurse,” Bayla shouted. “Nurse. Nurse.” She had to find her baby, but when she jolted upright everything whirled around her. As she eased back onto the gurney, years of hopes and expectations slipped from her grasp. Months of rehearsing, perfecting her songs, the date set for her debut, all forsaken. Would being a mother help her forget everything that motherhood had caused her to give up?
“Goldmacher’s Uniforms.” Bayla stood on the sidewalk at Tenth Avenue and 33rd Street reading the words above the door. A loch in kop, she heard her mother say. “There’s a hole in your head? Go inside, already!” The place was hot and close and reeking of sweat, the sweat of girls like herself, maybe a hundred across the factory floor, each hunched over a sewing machine, dipping and flexing their feet on the broad, black iron pedal that filled the place with ear-piercing, sporadic monotones displacing the air, and any chance to breathe.
A plump middle aged woman, dark hair tied tightly behind her head, beckoned Bayla into a tiny corner office. “I’m Mrs. Harmenschtein. Forelady,” she said above the whirring drone. “Arrive eight a.m. sharp. Lunch twenty minutes. No chewing gum. If you’re late, your pay will be deducted.” Bayla signed her name to a paper and then followed the forelady up an aisle between two rows of machines, trying to avoid jutting elbows, uncertain, in the factory’s racket, if she were moving at all. In school when a new girl arrived, despite knowing they would be scolded, everyone in class looked up, curious. But here, not a single pair of eyes turned in her direction. Bayla shivered at the discipline, the control.
At the last seat in the last row, Mrs. Harmenschtein pointed to a machine, the word, “Singer” in peeling gold letters, like all the others. “Your place,” she shouted.
The next morning Bayla entered a world where at any moment the floor beneath her could collapse from the wrenching buzz and shimmy of the work required upon it. Clutching a meager lunch wrested from meager means, two pieces of bread with jelly, or toast and hard cheese, she walked to her place trying not to count the steps, but eventually the monotony engulfed her. Fifteen or twenty, forty-nine or one hundred she counted until she reached the end, or the beginning of her row, her seat, her destiny, her doom. What did it matter? She became not a seamstress—the fancy word on the “wanted” sign outside the door—but an operator who sewed outfits that turned people into what they did: assembly-line workers, prisoners, zookeepers, garbage men. Was it less than a month when thoughts of school faded then disappeared entirely?
To lessen her unfulfilled longings beyond the twelve cement steps that led to Goldmacher’s factory floor, she would relive memories of her father. Yosef Yosefa was a stocky man with enormous hands, an ironworker, who fashioned shiny brass mailboxes for fancy apartment houses. “When the wet nurse handed you to me,” he would begin, “A brucha fon himmel, I said. We will call you Bayaleh.” How he used to hug and caress her, his hands covering her body.
Bayla opened her eyes to a white cotton quilt, framed pictures, fresh white towels, a robe, her own bathroom. Those who ministered to the ordeals of birthing women had moved her at some mysterious hour. “I prefer the ward,” she told her husband’s family, but they insisted on a suite. “Remember who you are, living in this town, in Amory Lane.” The problem was, she couldn’t forget. Didn’t she precisely remember the first day she arrived, twenty-two years old, a newlywed, her husband by her side? All she could do was stand there gaping, and because he had warned her about the townsfolk, she already heard them: How clumsy and awkward she was as she glanced with suspicion, or was it disdain, at her new surroundings. They mistook her inexperience for shyness, her unworldliness for stupidity. They described her—the person who had captured Amory Lane’s most prized bachelor—as if she were a greenhorn, straight off the boat.
“Now you will become part of Amory Lane, and Amory Lane will become part of you,” her husband had said, and lovingly took her hand. The thought was as magical as it was damning then, but especially now when they would expect her to be a perfect parent.
A group of nurses in starched white uniforms, all smiles, suddenly descended upon her. “Here she is, dearie. Hold her head up. Tight to your body. How precious.” They giggled and tiptoed out.
Bayla looked down at the pink package they had placed so delicately in her arms. A tiny arm freed itself and flailed fiercely. Legs, bound tightly, began to thump erratically. Crooked, open-mouthed yawns, high-pitched squeaks, and tight squints melded into broad, wide-eyed stares, frightening and strangely foreign. She reached for the bottle they left on the nightstand and gently eased the nipple between the child’s tiny pink lips, hoping not to douse or suffocate the creature, while she observed the automatic sucking, the tightly-closed eyes, the fierce determination for nourishment. When the milk disappeared, she withdrew the bottle with quiet concentration, and caressed the soft, blond fuzz on her head. “My daughter,” she whispered, and sang: Hush-a-bye, hush-a-bye, go to sleepy little baby. When you wake, you will have cake and all the pretty little horses. Black and bay, dapple and gray, coach and six-a little horses.
Drawn by a bond she never knew existed, Bayla inhaled the child’s sweet scent, allowing the warmth of her little body, her delicate vulnerability to enter her own. Seconds later she was on stage, in front of an audience, the promise of a spotlight. Dare she consider performing and motherhood? Dare she endure the shame, fingers pointing, mouths whispering that she had no respect for her husband and his family? That she had a child only to neglect it? Why not? Why not? Bayla bent her body toward the newborn as if it were a refuge from the shame of her reckless thoughts.
Nurses on the maternity floor intensified their vigil. They had no idea that inside her long silences and blank stares Bayla was weighing her destiny. All the talk was about her, and why shouldn’t it be? In her Saloon days, when she knew what she was about and what she was after, she was paid to be the center of attention.
“Bring ‘dem melons ova’ here!” “Give it to me, hot mama!” “Put your sweaty body next to mine!” Such raves she received when she performed. Back then men lined the blocks on Manhattan’s West Side, packed the place to standing room only, and when she walked into the spotlight, the ruckus and shouts, the yearning for her that night, and the next night, and every night after that, confirmed with the regularity of a downbeat in a four-beat bar how much she was loved and desired.