~ Blues Diva ~
Crazy for Tin Pan Alley songs and Broadway musicals, blues were Bayla’s favorite, though she could never say where she’d first heard them. Maybe the wail and words penetrated thin walls in the tiny apartments of her tenement building on New York City’s Upper East Side. Or maybe during August’s stifling heat the sounds oozed out of an open window from a record player, or radio station. It didn’t matter where she first heard them. Blues got inside her, and stayed.
By the time she was nine years old, she’d 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. She set the records labeled Okeh, Decca, Black Swan, Paramount or Document onto the the wind-up Victrola, eased the silver, horn-shaped arm onto the spinning turntable, leaned back against the floor-to-ceiling shelves jammed with 78’s in dusty brown paper covers, closed her eyes, and let the sounds slip into her soul.
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 could imitate them all―their tone, their phrasing, their timing.
In the Yorkville Library she researched photographs of women blues singers. On empty boarded-up lots on 57th Street, she perused newsprint advertisements of female performers in the Apollo Theatre. Inside Woolworths’ Five and Dime she searched through racks of song sheets. And Saturdays, she walked up to 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem to study the billboards at the Cotton Club. Lena Horne, smooth and sultry; Adelaide Hall, seductive and lady-like; Ella Fitzgerald, chubby and charming, Dorothy Dandridge, cool, and enticing.
She was building her stairway to the stars, she told herself as she crouched over her machine at Goldmacher’s. She sewed until the soles of her feet burned each time her shoes touched the machine’s black iron pedal. She sewed when the flames grabbed her ankles, and rose to her thighs. 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, and Bessie Smith had bottom billing at the Apollo. 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, one evening on her way home after work, at the crossing of Eleventh Avenue and 47th Street, Bayla Szabo noticed what had never before appeared on one of the double doors of The Saloon. “Performer Wanted,” in large black letters. While most New Yorkers, shielding themselves from winds that blew off the river, missed the sign entirely, those words lit up for her 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. She devised a plan, allowing herself to linger across the street from The Saloon on some nights instead of going straight home. She would watch as customers walked beyond the double doors, imagining herself doing the same. One Saturday morning, like stacks of newspapers tied together at the newsstand on 86th and Lexington, she believed she had bundled enough courage inside herself to enter for real. 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 for the owner. He nodded toward 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, she thought. Irish. Shikers. 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 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 worn navy skirt down to her ankles and shabby blue coat.
“Of course. I have a beautiful costume.” She kept it hidden under a dresser draw at home.
“And on stage, you know what you gotta do? You have experience?
“I’ve known since I was a child.”
“I t’s good you’re young and attractive, your skin smooth and fresh.” She took a step back, thinking he was about to touch her. “And I like that you’re tall, 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.” The Saloon was a respectable drinking establishment, he said, not a dive like the other dirty, stinking, roach-and rat-infested Irish pubs on the East Side. He waved his arm in a grandiose manner for her to take in the mirrored wall that reflected a dark, highly polished wooden bar, and the romantic glow from white dome lamps that hung from the high ceiling, embracing every open space. “Come back next Friday and Saturday. Eight o’clock. Two twenty-minute sets each night. We’ll see how you do.”
Her first audition, a success.
Word spread fast. Having left the ranks of speakeasy, rugged longshoremen, recently-arrived immigrants, and foreign seamen jammed The Saloon, pushing their way inside along with cops on the take and union organizers. While the clink of glasses and screeching barstools and chairs set around an array of tables echoed off black and white floor tiles, men gulped beers and whiskies, signaled for more, and edged sideways into tight spaces around the stage, waiting, nervous, impatient. When the piano man in blue vest and rolled shirt sleeves sat at the upright piano and struck a few bluesy notes, the stomping, whistling and clapping began. Above the ruckus—“Are you ready, gentlemen? Here she is. The star of the Saloon. Our blues diva.” Mr. Grady called her that—Blues Diva.
“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 in the momentary hush, nothing moved. One foot on a chair, elbow resting on her thigh, body slightly forward, her expression aloof, tantalizing, provocative, their Blues Diva was dressed in a tight black satin skirt decked with rows of black fringe. A slit, open on one side, revealed lacy garters hooked to seamed stockings that exposed a fleshy thigh. A gold scoop-necked blouse held her copious breasts as a demitasse might hold an exuberant cappuccino, gold pumps cradled her broad, pudgy feet, and same as Bessie Smith, a gold lamé band circled her head, a matching feather to one side.
When she sensed the right moment, she set her foot down and sashayed towards the edge of the stage, a sway, a dip, a hike in her hips, attentive to when the applause and shouting which had started up again would peak and once again simmer. It was then that she paused, 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 their longings and 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 provoking the 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 clasped 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, she convinced her audience that life went beyond troubles and heartaches. Dreams and fantasies were within reach. This was her gift, and she gave it without knowing she did.
Lured by emotionally charged titles, though she had never been on a date with a man, much less had anyone offer himself as a suitor, she slithered and swayed and embodied the lyrics to I’ll Kill That Two Timing Man Before He Two Times Me, or 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, her face without expression as if Bayla didn’t know what she was thinking―prettying yourself as if you’re important. Leaving me in this wheelchair every weekend.
“I know what you do when you go,” her mother said.
“I sing, Mama, in a club frequented by gentlemen. It pays the rent. How many times do I tell you? I have a voice.”
“A voice,” her mother shouted. “You parade yourself. 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 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 an answer to her outburst. Wisps of grey hair dangled 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 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?” She kept her voice deep and low. “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’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 her 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 bring her family here from the Old Country. She had come to live like a mensch. 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, her 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. Her strong will had sent him away.
“I lived 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?” Her mother began to whimper, the sound that drew Bayla to her side.
“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. Come. Give me your hands.”
“My child. My dear one. Yes. Help me to bed, and go where you go. Maybe one day, by a miracle, a rich man will find you. A choshever mensch.”
“Yes, Mama. Someone to take care of us.”
“Oi gottenu. I shouldn’t say such things aloud. The fates—”
“Again, the fates? Always the fates?” If you were too happy, you would attract an einhoreh; if you tried to better yourself, the fates were watching. With so much that could never be spoken, there was little left of life to 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 makeup and hand 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. With a voice that had chosen her, like a habit, she was born to it.
“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.