~ 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 Victorian mansion looked down upon the valley where the town of Pittsmill grew along the Monongahela River after the Shenandoah Steel Mill was founded. It was built for the company’s owner, vulnerable as the rest to the gray spongy soot that imposed itself on their lives. At its completion, mill workers and their families were invited to make their way by foot, horse, and carriage up the steep incline of mud and crags newly-laid with cobblestone. They strolled the grounds and in the back garden took high tea: miniature sandwiches and Earl Grey poured from exquisite porcelain teapots. Exposure to such finery left them with a curious yearning about the lives of those who lived there as if knowing would distract them from their own want and drudgery. 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.
Early 1880’s Pittsmill Historical Society
Escaping the Tenements
~ Heir ~
Bayla Rothschild maneuvered herself to standing, aimed her pregnant body beyond the bedroom door, and waddled on bare swollen feet when a burst of warm liquid gushed down her legs, causing an embarrassing flood on the finely-designed tree-of-life Persian runner that covered the second floor hallway. The past months had left her without a shred of control, grotesque, misshapen, exposed, and stuffed. What consequences would her body inflict on her next? A silent house, family asleep behind closed doors, and water drained out of her, left her nothing to do but stand cemented in place. When her husband found her missing from their bed, she had already turned to stone.
With profound ignorance and a ferocious dread of childbirth, Bayla had begun labor. She would never remember how he managed to dress her, coax her to down the grand circular staircase, along the back hallway, through the garage and into the roomy back seat of their blue Ford sedan.
Beyond the cobblestones of Beleaguered Hill’s steep incline, past prestigious homes lined up like picture postcards, their lawns silver-gray in dawn’s winter frost, she steadied herself with one hand, and dug her nails into the upholstery with the other. “I don’t know what to do,” she shouted because no one had ever told her, and who could she ask when such things were rarely talked about?
“Hang on to me,” her husband said reaching back, but the car swerved on to Main Street and she was thrown from his grasp. In wide-eyed panic, 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.
They bounded across the railroad tracks, sped past the steel workers’ row houses, and skidded past the Ohio and Chesapeake railcars loaded with newly-milled girders. Bad sleepers, up at dawn, had no doubt spotted the car, plunged the town’s sleeping households into a flurry, rendering phone lines as pregnant with the news as she was.
“We saw them.” “In the sedan.” “They raced down the hill.” “Our baby is about to be born.” “At last.” “An heir for Amory Lane.”
By the time they raced up the hospital’s circular driveway and screeched to a halt, the scene was helter-skelter. Nurses, orderlies, and admitting personnel scurried around in the icy mist, anxiously awaiting their patient. As the sky began to lighten, the Head of the Ladies Auxiliary, a squarely-built matron, elbowed her way through the crowd 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 unlikelihood 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. An orderly snapped to with a waiting hospital bed and breathlessly cranked it upwards to meet her buttocks. The moment she was settled, an excruciating pain seared through her middle and she erupted with a three-octave roar. Like infantry on the run, a single file along each side of the bed, 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 and tore at the sheets. She clutched the pillow and pounded the wall behind her.
“Make believe you’re a dive bomber like in the war,” the nurse ordered. “Get those Germans. Push hard. Push for France. For England. Again.”
“I can’t.” She gasped for air. “I can’t.”
“You must. You’re having a baby.”
“I’ve had enough.”
“Push. Bear down. Again. Come on.”
Bayla drew in a deep, slow inhalation then released a long rasping, “You bastard. I’ll get you for this.”
The nurse laughed. “Once the baby’s in your arms, you’ll forget all this.”
At one minute past midnight, January 25, 1941, after some thirty-six hours, Bayla’s doctor entered his patient’s uterus with cranial forceps to deliver a nine-pound, five ounce baby girl.
Unaware if it was night or morning or how many dawns, like the one that brought her here, had passed, Bayla opened her eyes. She was lying on a steel-hard gurney in a cold, dark, cavernous place that echoed its own silence. Her body felt 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 be asleep in the waiting room, anxious to praise her strength and courage and do 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.
“What am I going to do with a child?” she had asked him. Love and care for it, he 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? Where were the guarantees for such things never happening? A slab of light shot through the dark.
“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’d had one. She could still picture men selling apples on New York City’s street corners to earn pennies during the Depression, and hear her mother telling her to quit school, the one place she felt like somebody. For her mother to demand such a thing of a child, only 14 years old, with two more years left to graduate from the Hebrew Technical School for Girls. 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?
By then inflamed fingers, a stiff neck and painful knees from arthritis forced her mother to give up her job sewing hats for fancy ladies in a milinary shop on the Lower East Side. Now she sewed now at home in a wheelchair, donated by the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society. Piecework, barely enough to put food on the table. Who else could help support them on the third floor of their tenement walk-up on New York City’s 236 East 89th Street where they lived in two rooms—a kitchen with a window, a table and two chairs, a bedroom with a bed, a cot, a dresser, and down the hall a toilet, shared with four families? Her father, who held her as no father ever held or loved a child, had kissed her good night, and walked out. They never knew where. She was seven years old.
Words dictated by her mother, written in Bayla’s childish hand on a scrap of paper, sat for weeks back then 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, her mother said. She meant to The Jewish Daily Forward,” the column that reported runaway men. She cursed the fates instead, adding hours to her work pinning, cutting, and sewing under a 25-watt bulb.
For weeks, everyday after school, Bayla knocked on doors in search of a job. Then she headed home to take in her dolls from the fire escape outside the kitchen window, where she had placed them each morning for fresh air and sunshine, 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 where she slept in the room with her mother and sang them the Hungarian song of girls’ names 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 walked with slow and begrudging steps along the school’s blue-gray corridors and stopped at the large double doors that welcomed her every morning. She leaned 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 Willa Cather 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, 1929. The start 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, or not enough fingers and toes. There was a girl in elementary school who wore a normal shoe on one foot and a monstrous, heavy black one on the other. Perhaps her daughter would end up with the same or worse.
“Nurse,” Bayla shouted. “Nurse. Nurse.” She jolted upright but everything whirled around her. She eased back onto the gurney, her body giving way, surrendering to what? Years of hopes and expectations slipped from her grasp. She had a voice, not measly and high-pitched, but a deep, soulful sound is what she always imagined for herself. And she had grown into a tall, decent-sized young woman whose square jaw and wide cheekbones perfectly fit her expectations. Months of rehearsing, perfecting her songs, her debut—forsaken. And in its place—motherhood. As if she were destined to be as colorless and ordinary as Pittsmill’s forever-cloudy skies. As if that were the best she could do. As if being a mother would help her forget everything that motherhood had caused her to give up.
“There’s a hole in your head? Go inside, already!” she heard her mother say. Goldmacher’s Uniforms, the sign said. On Tenth Avenue and 33rd Street her life would end.The place was hot and close and reeking of sweat. Girls like herself, maybe a hundred, each hunched over a sewing machine, dipping and flexing their feet on the broad, black iron pedal that raised earpiercing, sporadic monotones displacing the air, and any chance to breathe.
A plump middle-aged woman, dark hair pulled tight behind her head, beckoned Bayla into a tiny office. “I’m Mrs. Harmenschtein. Forelady,” she shouted above the whirring drone. “Arrive eight a.m. sharp. Lunch twenty minutes. No gum chewing. If you’re late, your pay is deducted.” Bayla signed her name to a paper and then followed the lady onto the factory floor up two long rows, trying to avoid jutting elbows. When a new girl came to school, the teacher would introduce her. But here, not a single curious eye turned in her direction. The discipline, the control made her shiver. Was no one allowed to move? Would she be locked in?
At the last seat in the last row, “Your place,” Mrs. Harmenschtein shouted, her finger tapping a sewing machine, the word “Singer” in peeling gold letters, like all the others. The next morning, clutching a meager lunch wrested from meager means, two pieces of bread with jelly, or toast and hard cheese, Bayla entered a world where at any moment the floor beneath her could collapse from the buzz and shimmy of the work required upon it. Each day she approached her machine, trying not to count every step, but eventually the monotony engulfed her. Fifteen or twenty, forty-nine or one hundred 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 Goldmacher’s door—but an operator who sewed outfits that turned people into what they did: assembly-line workers, prisoners, zookeepers, garbage men.
To take herself beyond the twelve cement steps that led to the 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, a brucha fon himmel, I said. “A gift from heaven. We’ll call you Bayaleh.” She pictured how he would hug and caress her, his hands covering her body.
Bayla opened her eyes to a white cotton quilt, framed pictures, fresh white towels, her own bathroom. “I prefer the ward,” she had told her husband’s family, but of course they insisted on a suite. “Remember who you are, living in this town.” The problem was, she couldn’t forget. The first day she arrived, instead of the right words lining up in her mouth to be spoken at her good fortune―from the place inside her head that spoke to her when she didn’t want it to―she heard the townsfolk whispering. They described her as clumsy and awkward as she glanced with suspicion, or was it disdain, at her new surroundings. They mistook her inexperience for shyness, her unworldliness for stupidity, equated her lack of education with her not wanting to learn. “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 more so now, when they would expect her to be a perfect parent.
Sounds of women in the ward kvetching and puking echoed from down the hall. Since she was a child, no one had to tell her the difference between, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” and “I’m Sitting On Top Of The World.” But wasn’t she still one of them? Needy. Wanting. Battling the circumstances of her impoverished childhood.
Two nurses in starched white uniforms bounded into her room. “Here she is, dearie. Hold her head up. Tight to your body. Nice and steady. How precious.” They giggled and tiptoed out.
Bayla looked down at the pink package they placed ever so delicately into her arms. A tiny hand 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 the nurses left on the nightstand and gently eased the nipple between the child’s tiny lips, hoping not to douse or suffocate the creature. The automatic sucking, tightly-closed eyes, fierce determination for nourishment showed such trust, and she so ashamedly ignorant.
When the milk disappeared, she withdrew the bottle with quiet concentration, and caressed the soft, blond fuzz on the infant’s head. Hush-a-bye, hush-a-bye, go to sleepy little baby. When you wake, you will have cake and all the pretty little horses, she sang.
Drawn by a bond she never knew existed, Bayla inhaled the child’s sweet scent, allowing the warmth of her little body to enter her own. “My daughter,” she whispered. 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 pushed her child aside to follow selfish pursuits? Why not? Why not? Bayla bent her body toward the newborn as if it were a refuge from the shame of her thoughts.
“Bring ‘dem melons ova’ here!” “Give it to me, hot mama!” Such raves she received when she performed. To hear them now, in her hospital bed. Back then men lined the streets on Manhattan’s West Side, packed the place to standing room only, and when she walked into the spotlight, the ruckus and shouts, yearning for her that night, and each one after that, confirmed with the regularity of a downbeat in a four-beat bar, how much she was loved and desired.