~ Blues Diva ~
Crazy for Tin Pan Alley songs, and Broadway musicals, blues were Bayla’s favorite, though she could never say where she first heard them. Maybe the wail and words penetrated thin walls in her tenement building. Or maybe during Augusts’ stifling heat, the sounds oozed out of an open window from a radio or record player. Where she heard them didn’t matter. Blues got inside her and stayed.
By the time she was nine years old, she memorized words to blues songs she found in books in the Yorkville branch of the New York Public Library on East 75th Street. From there it was a dimly-lit music store on East 115th Street tucked under the Second Avenue El where she eased the silver, horn-shaped arm from the wind-up Victrola onto the spinning turntable, leaned back against the floor-to-ceiling shelves jammed with dusty records, closed her eyes, and let the sounds slip into her soul.
Okeh, Columbia, Decca, Black Swan, Document, Paramount, the record labels spoke to her as profoundly as the singers who recorded under them—Victoria Spivey, Ma Rainey, Bertha “Chippie” Hill, and Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues. By the time she was twelve, without notes on a page or words of instruction, she taught herself to imitate them all, their tone, phrasing, and timing. She was building her stairway to the stars.
That’s what Bayla thought as she crouched over her machine at Goldmacher’s. When she pressed the black iron pedal beneath her shoes and the soles of her feet burned, she sewed. When the flames grabbed her ankles and the heat rose to her thighs, she sewed. She sewed when newspapers proclaimed “Unemployment Passes 4 Million.” She sewed when Mamie Smith and Ida Cox toured the South, when Alberta Hunter appeared in Show Boat, when Victoria Spivey was cast in the movie, Hallelujah, and Bessie Smith had bottom billing at the Apollo. She read everything she could about women blues singers. Like them, she too was starting out poor, young, and alone. Like them, her turn would come.
In December 1933, the end of Prohibition, when liquor flowed from every spigot and open bottle in New York City’s bars, restaurants, and cocktail lounges, on an ordinary day at the corner of Eleventh Avenue and 47th Street, the owner of The Saloon placed a sign on one of its double doors—“Performer Wanted.” While most New Yorkers, shielding themselves from the winds that blew off the river, missed the sign entirely, when Bayla Szabo walked past it one evening after work, those two words lit up like the lights on the Loews 96th Street marquee. She was the performer they wanted.
Where would she find the courage to walk through The Saloon’s doors into a world filled with men? A shandeh, her mother would say, to enter such a place, and at her age, only 18. Not that Bayla had any idea what consequences would await her. The little she knew about what men and women did together she learned from romance novels at the library—Tender is the Night, Lost Horizons, Grand Hotel, Miss Lonelhyearts—and at the Loews, when she had money for Garbo, Dietrich or Mae West movies.
The next few nights, she didn’t go straight home, but lingered across the street from The Saloon. As each man walked beyond the double doors, she imagined herself doing the same. A week later, Saturday morning, like stacks of newspapers tied together at the newsstand on 86th and Lexington, she had bundled enough courage inside herself to enter. Her steps firm, her breath in check, she approached the man behind the bar who had few to serve at that early hour.
“He’s a powerful gadabout, that Mr. Grady,” he told her when she asked to see the owner. He nodded toward a door at the far end, and made a clicking sound with his tongue. “There he is.”
He was stout and broad with a red face, his dark suit tight over his middle. Of course, Bayla thought, Irish, schikers, lovers of drink. Her mother had taught her about people—Italian and Jewish girls were zoftig. Polish and Hungarians were good cooks. German women had strong arms. Jewish men made good husbands.
“With me on stage, you’ll make money,” she pushed herself to tell him, her eyes burning into his. “They’ll come running,” and she broke into what she had practiced next: St. Louis woman, with her diamond rings, stole that man of mine, by her apron strings.
“You wear something besides this?” Mr. Grady asked, pointing a chubby finger toward her long navy skirt and shabby blue coat.
“Of course. I have a beautiful costume.”
“And on stage, you know what you gotta do? You have experience?
“I’ve known since I was a child.”
“It’s good you’re young and attractive, your skin smooth and fresh.” She took a step back, thinking he was going to touch her. “And I like that you’re a tall woman, not overblown, but meaty, a damn sight better than the handful of made-up, middle-aged floozies who’ve shown up. And I like your singing.” He said the Saloon was a respectable drinking establishment, not a dive like the other dirty, stinking, roach-and rat-infested Irish pubs on the West Side. He pointed out how the bar’s dark, beautifully polished wood was reflected in a mirrored wall behind it, how the four white dome lamps hanging from the ceiling cast an intoxicating glow.
“Come back next week at eight,” he said. “You’ll perform Friday, and Saturday nights, two twenty-minute sets. We’ll see how you do.”
Her first audition. A success.
She waded through photographs of women blues singers in the Yorkville Library. She searched through song sheets that hung from racks at Woolworths’ Five and Dime. She walked uptown on Saturdays to study photographs in glass cases outside Harlem’s Cotton Club. It was easy to imitate the stance of Bessie Smith, hands on hips, legs apart, and Ma Rainey, bending over the stage messing about with the audience, sultry Lena Horne, seductive, lady-like Adelaide Hall, chubby, charming Ella Fitzgerald, warm, expressive Ethel Waters.
That it didn’t take long for word to get out, surprised her. Rugged longshoremen, recently-arrived immigrants, and foreign seamen jammed into The Saloon, along with cops on the take and union organizers. The former speakeasy offered a new freedom, fresh and ungainly. Patrons gulped beers and whiskies signaling for more above the clink of glasses, the screech of barstools and chairs that echoed off the black and white tiled floor. With every seat and table occupied, men pushed sideways into tight spaces around the stage waiting, nervous, impatient.
When the piano man in blue vest and rolled shirt sleeves, sat facing the upright beneath the stage and struck a few bluesy notes, the place went wild, stomping, whistling, clapping. Above the ruckus—“Are you ready, gentlemen? Here she is. The star of The Saloon. Our Blues Diva.” She was pleased Mr. Grady called her that.
“Bring her out, for Christ’s sake.” “Where is she, ‘ya bum?” “Sing it for this!” one husky sailor shouted and grabbed his crotch.
Suddenly two spotlights snapped on and she was there—on stage, one foot on a wooden chair, her elbow resting on her thigh, her body slightly forward, her expression aloof, provocative. She wore an outfit kept hidden at home beneath a dresser—a tight black satin skirt decked with rows of black fringe slit open on one side betraying lacy garters hooked to seamed stockings that exposed her fleshy thigh. A gold scoop-necked blouse held her copious breasts as a demitasse might hold an exuberant cappuccino, gold pumps displayed her broad, pudgy feet, and a shimmery gold lamé head piece around her forehead, a matching feather angled to one side, same as Bessie Smith.
She waited in the hushed silence for the perfect moment to sashay towards the edge of the stage, a sway, a dip, a hike in her hips, attentive to when the applause and shouting would peak again, then simmer. When it did, she inhaled, expanded her bosom and at last allowed her thick, rich, soulful tones to drift across the room like cigarette smoke.
When I was young, nothing but a child, You men tried to drive me wild.
She soothed the crowd’s longings even as she caressed their desires.
My Mama says I’m reckless, my Daddy says I’m wild,
I ain’t good lookin’ but I’m somebody’s angel child.
She heated up the room and provoked her audience to let loose all sorts of things: spare coins, a sailor’s cap, carnal appetites.
Daaaaaaaaddy. Mamma wants some huggin’
Hi ‘ya, Pretty Papa, Mama wants some lovin’ right now.
During the day, sewing in a sweatshop, life’s burdens weighed Bayla down. Who did she have to share them with? But at night on stage, in front of a live audience, as she clenched her deep auburn hair, or swished it around her neck and shoulders, her heartaches and emotions ran rampant.
No matter how little they had, or where they were born, or how hard they worked, The Saloon’s Blues Diva opened her audience to the possibility that life went beyond troubles and heartaches. Dreams and fantasies were within reach. This was her gift, and she gave it without understanding she did. And though she had never been on a date with a man, much less anyone who offered himself as a suitor, she slithered and swayed and embodied the lyrics to Anybody Want To Buy My Cabbage?, Call Me When Your Drawers Are Down, or My Hard, Straight Handy Man. On stage, in the spotlight, Bayla the factory girl became what every man in the audience wanted her to be.
“Again you going out? Oi gotteniu. Again by myself? My daughter, the runaround.” From her rickety wooden wheelchair her mother spouted her usual lament.
They had finished supper—cabbage soup with caraway seeds, and a thick bean cholent. On the chipped, white metal table where they ate, the cigar box Bayla had long ago plucked from a street-side garbage pail was already in place. Filled with makeup paid for by pinching pennies, she withdrew from it a small, hand-held mirror, twirled an edge of tissue, and dabbed green powder on her lids to enhance her blue eyes. With her index finger she spread Princess Pat rouge on her high cheekbones, and at the almost straight lines of her lips, she reworked Tangee’s Theatrical Strawberry lipstick, securing a delicate pout.
Her mother watched every move. And because this daughter of hers, who prettied herself as if she were important, would leave tonight as she did every weekend while she, in her wheelchair, was left behind, her thoughts grew dark. Darker than usual.
“I know what you do when you leave me.”
“I sing, Mama, in a club frequented by gentlemen. I have a voice. It pays the rent and food. How many times do I tell you?”
“A voice,” her mother said disdainfully. “You parade yourself,” she shouted. “In the streets. It’s a shandeh.”
The nonsense her mother dreamed up about her daughter’s nighttime excursions, Bayla had long ago taught herself to ignore. “It’s good I have ambition,” she said, as she smoothed a powder puff saturated with Max Factor’s Creamy Ivory, across her face. “I’ll get us out of here. You’ll see. First chance I get, I’ll get us out.”
Without warning, at a speed Bayla never would have imagined, the old woman swept her arms across the table, scattering bottles, creams and compacts of applied beauty across the cracked linoleum floor.
“Where you go these nights, someone could kill you, and I would be left here to rot. And you talk of ambition! Te, a gyerekeid, az unokaid, es minden leszarmazottad legyetek karhozottak az orokkevalosagig. You and your children and your children’s children will be doomed. Dest liggin in bluter. You’ll lay in the mud. And I have said it!”
Bayla rose from the kitchen table, her body trembling as she searched her mother’s face for such an outburst. Wisps of gray hair fell loosely from the bun her arthritic fingers still managed to arrange at the back of her head. Her blue-flowered housecoat, faded and stained, was one of two Bayla dressed her in each morning. Her few pleasant memories—the blue Danube, the Statue of Liberty, the Travelers’ Aid lady who helped her through Ellis Island—had become threadbare.
“I left school at fourteen to support us by working on a factory floor and you curse me in two languages? You think a mother’s curses are easy to forget? They ring in my ears, wake me at night. Even when I’m not listening, I hear them. You think I won’t end up with more than this? I will. I’ll get out despite your curses.”
“Do you know why they sent me from my home in Budapest to travel at 15 alone, two weeks in steerage, sick to my stomach, to come to America?”
Bayla knew. She knew about the watered-down milk that made their bones weak, the “not ever an orange” that left her teeth rotten. She knew about the poverty, and nothing to eat, and no work, and the terrible treatment of Jews. She knew her mother had come to America to find a husband whose money would provide tickets to transport her family from the Old Country. She had come to live like a mensch, a good person, to raise children. Bayla had heard her mother’s coming-to-America story so often she could repeat it verbatim, imitating precisely her mother’s accent and intonations.
“I came to marry a man who left us,” her mother said softly. “Who ran off to who knows where?”
Not even one with money, and no chance to beg him to stay, Bayla thought. His leaving was her fault, childish disobedience, refusing to give in to his wishes, to let him dress her, put her to bed, the two of them alone in the room. Without meaning to, her strong will had sent him away.
“I lived in a room in a boarding house, slept in the same bed used by night workers after I woke up. For that I came? And for a wheelchair? To be a burden to myself and to you?” She began to whimper, the sound that drew Bayla to her side, her arms around her mother’s fragile body.
“No need to cry. Who’s here for you? Your daughter, Bayeleh. Your only child. Let me put you to bed. Look how tired you are.” After one of her mother’s fits, Bayla was soft and loving, the same way her father would act towards her so she wouldn’t refuse him.
“My child. My dear one. Yes. Put me to bed, and you go where you go. Maybe one day, by a miracle, a rich man will find you. A choshever mentsh.”
“Yes, Mama. Someone to take care of us.”
“Oi gottenu. I shouldn’t say such things aloud. The fates—”
“Again, the fates?” Being raised by her mother concerned what could never be spoken. If you were too happy, you would attract an einhoreh; if you tried to better yourself, the fates were watching and that would be the end of that. With so much forbidden, there was little left of life to discover or enjoy. Even thoughts had to be censored. The fates could divine those as well.
With her mother settled for the night, Bayla got on her hands and knees and gathered from the kitchen floor her make up and hand-held mirror. A final glimpse convinced her she was more striking than beautiful—less a Harlow, more a Mae West. She smiled back at herself, satisfied she had done everything to prepare. Like Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues, one day she too would preside over a kingdom where people would pay money to hear her sing. She was born to it, this voice that had chosen her without thought, like a habit.
“One day my mother will know what her daughter is made of,” Bayla said inside the dank-smelling stairwell on her way out over the sound of an infant’s cry.