Posts Tagged ‘1920s’

11 March

Le Boeuf sur le Toit – Part Two

le Boeuf sur le Toit

Part 2

June, 1925, Paris, France

Louis Moyses said he wanted to introduce us to the heart and soul of le Boeuf sur Toit.  What could that possibly mean? And did this man just offer us a job at one of Paris’s most exclusive nightclubs, or not? I did my best to appear calm, but I’m sure I was failing terribly as I could feel excitement spread over my face.

Louis took my arm and escorted us across the room, out a side door and into an alley.  My excitement was instantly overcome by confusion.  Instead of offering us a job, it seems he was kicking us out the back door of le Boeuf sur le Toit.

We paused for a moment while Louis greeted two men who were standing in the alley, chatting.  It seemed to be a popular alley, but I still had no idea why we were here.  I looked up at a decorative archway that stretched across the alley to a building next door, and then up and down the narrow, cobblestone passage, unsuccessfully trying to find a clue.

It was then that I heard it.  Coming through the red door of the building next door was the faint sound of a piano, no wait – two pianos. Intrigued, I moved closer to the door. Even though the sound was muffled, I could tell the lovely melody and unique blending of the notes was unlike anything I had ever heard.

I was so intent at grasping every nuance of the music that I hadn’t noticed Louis had said goodbye to his friends and was at my side.

“Who are they?”

Louis smiled, “The heart and soul of le Boeuf sur le Toit.”

Louis opened the red door and guided us into what I now realized was the rest of the nightclub. With its white, linen tablecloths and fancy, crystal chandeliers, the room was more formal than the bar, yet retained its warm and inviting ambiance. It was early, so there were only twenty or so customers.  Some were sitting by themselves reading, while others were having serious conversations in hushed tones. Many were just quietly sipping their drinks, enjoying the beautiful music.

I turned to the source and marveled at the two men sitting behind elegant, white, grand pianos.  The notes melded so perfectly, it seemed their twenty fingers came from but one hand. There was no doubt both men were masters and among the best pianist in the world. Only then did I notice that one of the men was looking out the window, as if in the middle of a lovely daydream, and the other was reading a book.

“The one on the left,” Louis said, “is Jean Weiner, the heart.  On the right is Clement Doucet, the soul.”

As Louis guided us to a table near the stage, I suddenly recognized the tune they were playing and laughed.  It was a jazzed-up version of a Chopin work, one of the same tunes I use to drive Professor Boooring crazy with at Berkeley so many years ago.  I also realized that I wish I had paid more attention to some of the fingering techniques the Professor had tried to teach me, as I now wanted to create these magnificent sounds too.

“They are good. No?”  Louis said, as he pulled out my chair, the twinkle still in his eye.

“Magnifique. Oui!” I replied, using two of the pathetically few French words I had learned so far.

As we settled into our seats, Weiner and Doucet began playing another captivating melody.  I could easily do nothing but listen to them till dawn, but curiosity got the better of me.

“Louis, tell us more about your wonderful club.”

“The club is not mine.  I own it, most of it anyway, but the club belongs to them,” he said, waving his arm towards the customers, “to all of Paris. I am just their bartender.”

He paused for a moment as if reflecting on his words.  “After the war, I had no money and went to work as a manager at the club Gaya. The owner hired the son of a friend of his as the piano player, Jean Weiner.  Many of the customers preferred classical music and were not happy with the jazz he played.  One day I told Jean Cocteau that I might have to fire the piano player.  He said, ‘Keep him, fire the customers.’”

“I did what he said and, taking Jean with me, opened a small club. His music started drawing so many customers that I had to find a bigger space.  It was Jean Cocteau who advised me that if the bar was designed in such a way that it inspired creativity, it would always be full of the world’s best artists, writers, composers and musicians.  He was right.  Over time they have adopted the Boeuf as their own, and allow me to act like I belong.”

Louis’s humility seemed sincere and was quite charming, but his business side finally surfaced, “The problem is getting them to pay their bill.  Most of them are very poor, so I am forced seek out rich tourists who don’t mind parting with their money.”

Now understanding Louis’s interest in us, Bob and I exchanged a brief, excited glance. Rich American tourists had been pouring into the Cabaret Caucasian to catch our act and Louis knew it.  Was I in the middle of a wonderful dream, or was this really happening?

I was disappointed when the two pianos suddenly stopped creating the enchanting melodies. Weiner and Doucet were going on break and Louis immediately waved them over.  I tried hard not to act like a flustered schoolgirl as we were introduced, but I still couldn’t seem to control my mouth and ended up complimenting them multiple times.  Probably having heard it all a thousand times before, they politely smiled and chatted with us in surprisingly good English.  I felt so inadequate.  Most of these people spoke three or four languages and I only one. Bob doesn’t know it yet, but tomorrow we’re both signing up for French lessons.

My mind was racing with so many questions and possibilities, I barely recall us walking back to the bar side of the Boeuf and Louis being on stage introducing us. With my husband sitting next to me on the piano bench holding a guitar Louis had found, my butterflies started to subside a bit, until I looked up and saw Cocteau, Gide and Milhaud, their eyes glued to us.  A few tables away, Weiner and Doucet were also intently staring, as was everyone else in the room who were probably equally gifted and accomplished.

These were not easily entertained Americans or Russians looking for a reason to forget their problems and have a good time.  This was the “cream de Paris,” the elite of the elite and world leaders in their fields, who had politely conspired to set themselves up as our judge and jury. This is not a casual invitation to perform – this is a damn audition!

I stared at the piano keys feeling completely inadequate and afraid to touch one in the presence of true masters. A horrific vision flashed through my mind. Halfway through the number, Weiner and Doucet rushed the stage, each one grabbing a hand. As they dragged me off the piano bench and across the bar, I could see Gide had his arm wrapped around Bob’s neck and was pulling him off the stage too. As the men roughly tossed us out the side door of le Boeuf sur le Toit into the alley, Cocteau stood there shaking his head in disgust.

“You don’t belong here!” Louis proclaimed, disapprovingly. “Go back to America where you belong and never return.”

Somehow, I managed to strike the first chord of a jazzy tune we had chosen to play. The butterflies instantly morphed into buzzards. It was all I could do to keep from throwing up all over the back of Bob’s expensive, wool suit. What were we thinking?  We’re just a couple crazy kids out to see the world, not highly talented, seasoned performers.  At least not talented or seasoned enough to impress this refined audience. We were through the first chorus before I dared look up from the piano keys long enough to sneak a look at Bob, who was happily singing like he didn’t have a care in the world.  What is wrong with him?  Doesn’t he know what the hell is happening here?

As I launched into my solo, I did my best to replace the terror etched on my face with my best smile and glanced at the audience.  Where some of them actually smiling back?  It was probably them being amused at the thought of torturing us for a while before throwing us out.

As Bob and I harmonized the last note, I thought about jumping up and running out the door hoping to avoid capture and the inevitable humiliation, but froze when I saw Weiner and Doucet stand up and head towards me.  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Cocteau and Louis doing the same.  I grabbed and squeezed Bob’s arm hard enough enough to make him jump.

“Magnifique!”  I heard someone yell.

My God, it was Weiner, and he’s applauding.  So is everyone else!

The group of men surrounded the piano, their hands stretched out not to grab us, but to offer congratulations.  I was in a daze and just sit there smiling, unable to speak.

Louis stood behind the rest with a satisfied smile and that silly twinkle still in his eye.  I get it now. He wants us, but thought it best to get the blessing of the le Boeuf sur le Toit’s unofficial curators and guardians first.

After a couple minutes of compliments, Weiner and Doucet said their goodbyes and returned across the alley to begin another set, followed by Cocteau, Milhaud and Gide who returned to their table.

Louis came closer and leaned over, “Shall we go to my office and have a chat?”

Bob and I both quickly nodded yes. As we made the short walk, my legs were so weak I was afraid I would fall on my butt at any moment, completely destroying the illusion that I belonged here.  This will take some getting use to.


Editor’s note – Weiner & Doucet played all kinds of music, including classical, jazz, broadway and popular tunes – all with their own special twist. To listen to how beautifully Weiner’s & Doucet’s pianos blended, click here to listen to a Bach arrangement.  Also, here is a jazzed up version of a Chopin composition by Doucet called Chopinata.


















10 March

The Jazz Age In America

The Jazz Age In America




It’s almost impossible to look back on the Jazz age and see it for what it was. One had to experience it, be a part of cultural, political and emotional upheaval of the times. Even for the participants of that era, it would be years before even they understood the events and ramifications of what F. Scott Fitzgerald described as “…the most expensive orgy in history.”

Until I met Muriel, my impressions of the Jazz Age centered on music, the Charleston, flappers, bobbed hair, bathtub gin, and flaming youth gone wild.  While all of these elements were present during the 1920’s, there was also a sense of frustration, anger and cynicism sweeping the country because of the Victorian, heavy handed political and cultural structure which many felt were stifling and oppressive.

While writing Muriel’s bio, I delved more deeply into the background and events of the era that gave birth to that crazy, frenetic decade that Scott Fitzgerald coined “The Jazz Age.”  As a result of Muriel’s stories and hundreds of hours of research in libraries (oh, what I would have given for computer back then), I began to understand how the amazing Roaring 20’s blazed upon the cultural scene with all of the dignity and finesse of a lightning strike on a munitions dump—everything went up in flames, and it took ten years for the ashes to sift back down to earth!

It was the perfect storm. Several historic and far-reaching events in America overlapped and led up to the unrest and disillusionment that fueled the Jazz Age rebellion.  I have space for just a few of the major political and cultural challenges citizens were facing at the time.

World War I had just ended and left America still reeling from not only the tragic loss of thousands of lives, but with the thousands of wounded, especially those who had been gassed and would never fully recover.  What had they gained that compensated for the terrible loss?

During the war, the controversial 18th Amendment was passed. This law banned the sale, transportation and manufacture of alcohol, giving birth to speakeasies and gangsters who managed the market for booze throughout the 1920’s until the law was repealed in 1933.  It is said that Al Capone’s earnings stood at $60 million a year, plus millions more made by other gangsters and speakeasy owners.  People continued to drink liquor, they just had to pay more for it and risk getting caught.

Speaking of getting caught, I can’t help grinning as I remember Uncle Charlie’s story of my Grandma Russell taking an axe to Grandpa’s stash of blackberry wine in the smokehouse.  The pigs and chickens lapped it up and staggered out the door to sleep it off. Satisfied with her mission, Grandma relaxed in her rocker with her afternoon tonic…Lydia Pinkham’s Lady’s Tonic, which she ordered from Sears and was about 80% alcohol!  Unbowed, Grandpa hid his next batch in the loft of the barn!

The next big event was the 19th Amendment in 1920—finally giving women the right to vote after 72 years of struggle!  It is hard to imagine women not being able to vote, isn’t it?  I’ve voted in every election since I came of age—never missed a one. I can imagine how anxious those women were to cast their first vote. And what domestic discord it must have caused if they voted differently than their husbands. Hot on the heels of gaining a voice, female voters all over the country began to unite to clean up politics, improve society and end discrimination, surely a powerful force to be reckoned with. H. L. Mencken penned thousands of words about well meaning, but naïve “lady do-gooders.”

The younger generation was fighting to escape the Victorian Age mentality still prevalent in America with its harsh, judgmental edicts about social morals and artistic freedom.  Writers, artists, dancers and musicians were especially angered and outspoken, with many of them leaving the United States and becoming expatriates in Paris, where artistic freedom was nourished. American authors wrote scathing indictments on what they saw as the shallowness and narrow-mindedness in American life.

T.S.Elliott wrote that we were a nation awash in materialism and devoid of spiritual vitality. Sinclair Lewis added fuel to the fire when he became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930 for his “Main Street” (1920) and “Babbitt” (1922), both satires on smugness and narrow minded complacency in small town America, causing a firestorm of angry protest from small towns throughout America!

Then there was H. L. Mencken, the acerbic editor of “Mercury Magazine” who wrote hundreds of essays mocking many aspects of American life.  He pounded away at reformers, whom he blamed for the bloodshed of WW I and the gangsters of the 1920’s prohibition era.  He insisted that, “Doing good is in bad taste!”  And when asked why he was such a keen observer of people when he complained about them so much, he replied, “Why do people go to zoos?”  Not surprisingly, his Mercury Magazine was quite popular with the younger generation. Their elders? Not so much!

To add to these monumental events, there was great political unrest especially in the south where the African Americans were becoming restless and vocal about mistreatment and discrimination.  They were also threatened by the growth and brutality of the Ku Klux Klan, but continued demanding their rightful place in society. The situation was becoming volatile and the government was slow to respond.

Something else was coming out of the south—a very different sound, especially to white Americans, that would forever change our musical history. We didn’t know what to call it at first—it was a unique sound, a mixture of blues, ragtime, gospel and a joyful syncopation of style and improvisation. Early on, it was sometimes referred to as “Jas music,” then “Razz,” and finally “Jazz”, a musical style that originated in the early 1900’s in southern African American communities. The popular Jazz bands made recordings that were played on radios across the country. They performed in Chicago, New York and San Francisco clubs and speakeasies.

Jazz music quickly became the rage, especially among the young people.  The Black Bottom, Charleston and Foxtrot followed hot on its heels.  It was as if the younger generation had been desperately seeking an outlet to release the tension, anger and discontent that had been building up and found it in Jazz and wild, uninhibited dances.  It’s not surprising that many of their Victorian parents were scandalized and strongly objected to Jazz and the dances. They condemned the unfamiliar saxophone (the sultry sax sounded too much like sex) that promoted close, intimate dancing as well as wild, hysterical gyrations that looked like the dancers were possessed.

A 1921 edition of “Ladies’ Home Journal” published an article called, “Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation?”  The author claims that the outrageous dances were destroying the morals of today’s youth.  Jazz was blamed for everything from drunkenness, to deafness, to madness and a huge increase of unwed mothers! Despite such opinions (or because of them) Jazz remains to this day immensely popular. It gave birth to Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll, Reggae, bebop, vocal jazz and scat, Bluegrass and today’s popular music played all over the world.

Musician, J. J. Johnson, put it best when he said, “Jazz is restless.  It won’t stay put and it never will!” I think this also defines every new, restless generation. They won’t stay put either, and never will!

My parents didn’t do the Charleston (or did they?) but they were the best foxtrotters in the county.  However, they strongly disapproved of the “jitterbug” the new dance craze when I was in high school.  I loved dancing the “bug” to the swing music of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. But I remember being appalled the first time I saw the dances kids are doing today, which seems to consist mostly of pelvic thrusts. God knows what the next generation of dances will be!  Anyway, I can understand the 1920’s parents shock at the music and dances.

In addition to all the above events, the turmoil in the United States was heightened by the contentious, long Scopes Trial, which pitted friend against friend, and the disturbingly large exodus of writers, musicians, and artists who fled to Paris, along with numerous African American musicians and entertainers who found the longed for freedom and acceptance they couldn’t find here. They all became part of the large, growing American expatriate community in Paris.

Among them was F. Scott Fitzgerald who coined so many words and phrases defining the 1920’s through his books and essays.  In 1922, he described the 1920’s as “The Jazz Age.” The phrase became the iconic title of an era so difficult to define. Gertrude Stein called it “The Lost Generation,” and Ernest Hemingway insisted that “…they were battered, but were not lost.”

So, the younger generation had made their statement through fashion, style, music, dance and thought. Gradually, their freedom of dress (no more corsets, hooray!) and life style entered mainstream America. They embraced the philosophy of the popular Broadway musical, “Anything Goes.”

The Jazz Age bubble burst and plummeted to earth with a resounding crash when Wall Street collapsed in 1929. Scott Fitzgerald recalled events in his famous 1931 essay, “Echoes of the Jazz Age.”  He said the era was an age of miracles, art, excess and satire. The Jazz age had had a wild youth and a heady middle age, but it was only borrowed time. Eventually, “Somebody blundered, and the most expensive orgy in history was over.”

He ended the essay with, “It all seems rosy and romantic to us who were young then, because we will never feel quite so intensely about our surroundings again.”

I don’t perceive the Jazz Age in the same way I did before I wrote Muriel’s story. It’s easier to see why Paris became a beacon of artistic freedom that drew her, Bob and hundreds of other artists to its promising light.  Next week, we’ll explore the Jazz Age in Paris, which was a much different story from what Muriel experienced in her own country. We’ll talk about the Dada movement, famous artists, the opulent life style and…All That Jazz!

8 March

le Boeuf sur le Toit – Part 1

le Boeuf sur le Toit

Part 1


June, 1925, Paris, France

“That’s Jean Cocteau sitting over there,” Mania said, excitedly pointing to a booth at the back of the room.  “And that’s Darius Milhaud sitting with him.  I’m not sure who the other man is.”

I tried not to be obvious as I turned my head to get a peek at the three men who seemed to be in a very intense discussion, oblivious to their surroundings.

“My God, I think that’s Andre Gide,” Bob said with reverence in his voice.

“Who’s he?”  I asked, having never heard the name before.

“A brilliant writer.  I just finished reading a book he wrote about Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I hear he just published another book about homosexuality that is causing quite a stir, but it hasn’t been translated into English yet.  I can’t wait to get my hands on it.”

“Something you want to tell us, Bob?” Mania asked.

Mania, Prince Nadir and I looked at each other and started laughing. Bob blushed.

“I can assure you my man prefers a female’s touch and is quite adapt at pleasing a woman.” My attempt to rescue Bob from his faux pas only made him blush more, which made him even more adorable.

“Really?” Prince Nadir said with his strong, mixed accent. “I didn’t know you were such an accomplished lover.  Maybe you will give me a lesson. Yes?”

“No!” Bob said quickly, which only made us laugh harder.

The past month we have been having such a good time with Mania and her varied assortment of friends.  Most nights, after work she would take us out on the town to the best restaurants and cabarets. She has also showered us with expensive gifts and has a very generous heart.  Mania calls us her “babies”, which irritates Bob to no end.  She also can be a bit demanding occasionally, but mostly we just laugh and have a good time with her.

Mania’s major vice seems to be very handsome, significantly younger men. Mania looks like someone’s favorite, middle-aged aunt, but finding a man who looks like someone’s favorite uncle to love holds no interest for her.  I understand her attraction and admire her zest but, from what she tells me, her relationships with these young men always turn out badly.  I think she has the illusion that they care about her more than her money.

Prince Nadir seems no different and I fear for Mania, because I think she is falling madly in love with him.  An aspiring actor, he is quite handsome, dashing, charming and was born at least twenty years after she. I enjoy his company, but it is obvious to everyone but Mania that he is a bit of a scoundrel.  One moment he will tell you that he is Russian royalty, yet he doesn’t speak Russian very well.  Then he will claim that his family once ruled all of Persia, yet he is always broke and never picks up a check.  But again, when we are with Mania, neither do we.

My thoughts of Mania are interrupted by a waiter arriving with a tray full of drinks. Bob, Mania and Prince Nadir are still busy trying to spot the rich, famous and infamous that frequent the club. I sit back and take the opportunity to closely examine the beautiful room.  I have been hearing about this club since arriving in Paris and was excited to finally experience it. It was off the beaten path, and not a place tourists normally find, so maybe that’s why the locals prize it.

On the surface, it looks much the same as many of the other cabarets we visited, but there is something about it that makes it special in some way.  Something I can’t quite put my finger on.  It’s warm and quaint, yet the artwork and decor has an exquisite, futuristic craziness that sparks the imagination.  There’s a small stage at one end, a beautiful bar made from handcrafted oak and the tables and booths are organized in a very intimate way that makes the ambiance exclusive, yet inviting.

I was still trying to figure out what it was about this club that attracted so many artistic types, when I spot a very distinguished looking man standing by the bar smiling at me. He is tall, has lovely, blond hair and is quite good looking so, naturally, I smile back.

As if that was his cue, he started walking in our direction.

“Bienvenue au le Boeuf sur le Toit,” he said in a friendly tone as he reached our table. “Je suis votre hote, Louis Moyses.”

Mania attempted to respond in what was barely recognizable French when the man interrupted her, “Pardon, forgive me for being rude by not speaking English. Welcome to le Boeuf sur le Toit.  I am your host, Louis Moyses.”

“Thank you,” Mania said.  “I am Mania, this is Prince Nadir and these lovely people are the Johnstons.”

“Who in Paris does not know of the great entertainers, Muriel and Bob? I am honored to have you in my establishment.”

Bob and I looked at each other in disbelief.  Occasionally we would get recognized by someone who had seen our act at the Chateau Caucasian, but normally they were Russians or Americans, never the French.

“May I join you for a moment?”

“Please do,” Mania said, quite happy to be seen with the owner. “So what does le Boeuf sur le Toit mean?”

Louis smiled, “This is difficult to say exactly.  The correct English translation is Ox on the Roof, but somehow it always ends up being Bull on the Roof.  It was named by that man sitting over there, Darius Milhaud. The name comes from one of his best works.”

We all looked over at the famous composer with awe.  He was still in deep conversation with Gide and Cocteau.

“Would you like to meet him?”

Bob’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. “Yes, very much.”

“Excellent.  Afterwards, I will give you a tour of my little bar.”

My heart was racing as we approached the trio’s table. Jean Cocteau was one of the most famous painters in the world and I had studied Milhaud’s music compositions at Berkeley. I could tell Bob was about to bust a button at meeting Gide.

A first, the trio seemed irritated at being interrupted, but after Moyses introduced us, and said something else to Cocteau in French, they seemed willing to tolerate us for a moment.  Moyses translated back and forth. Bob told Gide he admired his work, which brought a look of surprise from the writer.  Gide said something in French that drew a chuckle from the three of them.

“What did he say?” Bob asked.

Louis seemed embarrassed. “He said he was not aware that Americans read books.”  He quickly added,  “He did not mean that as an insult to you, it was just an observation and a poor attempt at humor.”

Bob laughed.  “It okay. Please tell him I couldn’t agree with him more. Most Americans are still catching up to Europe’s dedication to all that is artistic.”

Louis did as instructed.  Gide smiled and nodded in Bob’s direction.

Cocteau said something else in French. “Jean has asked if you would be so kind as to honor us with a number later.  He has never seen you perform.”

A flutter of butterflies immediately started coming to life, not so much at being asked to perform, but from not knowing exactly what was going on. There was an agenda here that I didn’t understand, and the language barrier was making it even more difficult.

“And you have?” I asked.

“Twice,” Louis said, the humor in his demeanor obvious and a little more frustrating, yet exciting. “At the Chateau Caucasian. I think all of Paris would love your style of Jazz and humor. No?”

Had Louis Moyses just offered us a job at one of the most famous and exclusive nightclubs in Paris? I glanced over at Bob and could tell from the excitement in his eyes that he was wondering the same thing.

“Come,” Louis said warmly, “allow me to introduce you to the heart and soul of le Boeuf sur le Toit.”

7 March

Exiled In Paris

Exiled In Paris

May, 1925, Paris, France

As the spotlight followed Bob around the stage, he looked truly happy.  His dancing, singing and funny lyrics were making the men laugh and the women swoon. In the two months we had been appearing at the Chateau Caucasian, he seemed to be warming to the idea of us being professional performers.  He still complained about not having time to work on his writing, but every week his objections seemed less intense.

The room was packed almost every night, many of the customers coming just to see us. Much to the delight of Mr. Varounis, rich Americans, who seemed to enjoy throwing around their money, started frequenting the club.  Even Admiral had become almost civil to us, as more business in the club meant more tips for him.  The very particular Parisian press, who tended to snub the Russian clubs, even began to publish an occasional, positive review about us, although it was usually in small print and hidden on a back page.

Mr. Varounis increased our salary to almost $300 a week, a fortune to us. But even with this huge salary, we always seemed to be broke.  Wearing beautiful clothes, devouring fine food and drinking the finest champange at the very best places always seemed like more fun than figuring out our finances.

What had taken us both by surprise was the number of avid fans we had. Between shows, we were invited to a dozen tables where strangers would buy us drinks, food or anything else we wanted, while they told us how wonderful we were.  This would often lead them to inviting us to join them after work at some of the finest cabarets in town.

As I played the last few notes, Bob danced his way back to me and slid onto the piano bench to give me a kiss, which is all part of the act. He tripped a bit, slid harder than normal and proceeded to knock me off the slick bench.  I landed on the stage floor with a loud thud and a very surprised look on my face.  The audience thought it was part of the act and went wild.  That was the last number of our first show, so Bob helped me up and we took a few bows.

“They loved it! We should keep that in as part of the act,” Bob said, as the spotlight turned off and we walked across the dark stage.

“My throbbing rear end disagrees,” I responded.

“How about we get you a pillow to land on?”

“How about I knock you off the bench?”

We both started laughing when the Admiral came over and pointed to a woman who was looking in our direction.  “Mrs. Barnwell would like the two of you to join her for a drink.”

She must have tipped him handsomely as the Admiral didn’t usually deliver messages, thinking it was below his station.  There were several people with her who looked interesting. A very nice looking man, much younger that she, was sitting at her side holding her hand.

“Who is she?”

“She comes in here from time to time, always with a large party and usually with a different man and always pays for everyone. The rumor is that her multi-millionaire husband hated the idea of a divorce almost as much as he hated her. He offered her a million dollars if she would leave the United States and never return.  She came to Paris a few years ago and owns a three-story mansion on the Champs Elysees.”

 “You seem to know a lot about her.”

“Everyone knows about fou Mania.

“Fou Mania?” I asked, not knowing the French term.

“Crazy Mary”

This sounded like just the kind of woman I wanted to meet. “Tell her we’ll join her in a few minutes.”

Bob and I headed to our dressing room to freshen up before returning to the restaurant fifteen minutes later.  As usual, there was a polite round of applause when we entered.  We were still ten feet from her table when Mary Barnwell leaped from her seat and came bounding towards us.

“My darlings, I simply adore the two of you. I just had to meet you!” she said, kissing both sides of our cheeks in the Parisian way.  “Come, there are people you just have to meet.”

After introductions, Mania, as she called herself, talked for a solid half hour never pausing.  She occasionally asked us a question but, before we could answer, she would jump to a new subject while giggling like a schoolgirl.  As we listened, we sipped on the Chateau Caucasian’s best champagne.  If Mania was suffering in any way from her exile in Paris, she was hiding it well.

Mania was a short, matronly woman whom I concluded was in love with the sound of her own voice and liked being in control of her surroundings, yet there was something about her I liked.  Maybe it was her zest for life, so when she invited us to be her guest at the Moulin Rouge after our last performance, I quickly accepted.

On our way back to the stage, Bob inquired, “You did hear that they call her Crazy Mary, probably for good reason – are you sure about this?”

“What’s wrong with a little crazy?” I asked with a straight face.

“A little crazy is great fun, but there is a reason her husband exiled her to another continent thousands of miles away.”

“Is that what you are going to do when you tire of me, darling?  Send me far, far away?”  I asked, trying to sound distressed.

“Minkling, your brand of crazy is something I’ll never tire of.”

4 March

A Quickly Forgotten Lesson

A Quickly Forgotten Lesson

March 19, 1925, Paris, France

Carrying a suitcase containing our evening clothes, Bob and I made the long trek to the Chateau Caucasian, arriving just after noon and hoping someone would be there.  We were going to tell them that we wanted to rehearse, but the real reason we arrived early was we hoped to get a cash advance from Mr. Varounis, so we could get Bob’s banjo out of hock and have some money for food and other essentials.  We brought our evening clothes along in case we were unsuccessful and couldn’t afford cab fare, as I refused to walk between the club and our hotel twice in one day.

After banging on the front door several times with no answer, we headed around the block to the back of the club.  Delivery trucks were lined up offloading cases of food and booze. In the kitchen, a small army of chefs were busy cutting, dicing, frying and stirring.  The delicious smells reminded me that I hadn’t eaten today.  After getting lost a couple times, we finally found the stairs leading up to the Cabaret.

“You’re early,”  the Admiral said, as he walked up to us wearing a frown.  “If you’re looking for food, dinner service doesn’t start for another five hours.”

“Oh, I couldn’t possibly eat a thing,” I lied.  “We had a huge, late breakfast and I’m so stuffed I might not eat again all day.”

“We came to rehearse,” Bob interjected, not wanting me to say any more.  “We would also like to have a quick word with Mr. Varounis.”

“Mr. Varounis is a very busy man and normally doesn’t deal with employees.  That’s my job.”

Employees! I hated the sound of the word and was becoming irate at the Admiral’s rudeness.  Maybe everyone else around here jumped at his commands, but I refused to be one of them.   

“Still,” Bob said quickly, seeing I was angry and might lose it at any moment, “If you would be so kind as to let him know we would like to see him.”

“He’s not here, but when he arrives I will tell him.  Until then, rehearse all you want.”

I uttered a sarcastic response under my breath as we walked past him onto the stage, when I spotted a beautiful, black grand piano waiting for me. My hunger and anger were quickly forgotten as rushed over and began caressing the keys. It was perfectly tuned. The room had surprisingly good acoustics and, in a short time, Bob and I were once again happily playing and singing our hearts out.  Some of the kitchen staff and workmen had gathered to listen and even applauded after one of our numbers, until Admiral jackass came by and told them to get back to work.

“I understand you would like to see me.”  We were so wrapped up in our music we hadn’t seen Mr. Varounis walk up on the stage.

Bob explained we needed to buy some new music, clothes we could perform in and other items for the show, carefully avoiding letting him know how broke we really were.  “So, if you would be so kind as to give us an advance on our salary …”

“I see.  How much of an advance are you requesting?” he asked without showing any emotion.

We had already decided that one night’s salary would get us everything we needed till payday, and then some.

“We were thinking 100 francs.”

“Hmmm.”  Mr. Varounis went deep into thought again, looking down at the stage.  “A long time ago, I decided it was best to never give people money for work they have not done.  It is bad business and can only cause problems.” 

He paused and my heart sank.

“But in your case, I will make an exception this one time.  I don’t have any francs on me.  Will American dollars do?”

We nodded as we hadn’t converted any dollars to francs yet and American dollars were easier for us.  My mind started racing, wondering if I had time to get my hair done and do some shopping before the first show.

He reached in his pocket and brought out a large roll of bills.  He stripped four of them off and laid them on the baby grand.  Returning the wad of bills to his pocket, he reached in his other pocket and carefully counted out several coins putting them on top of the two bills.

“Will there be anything else?” he asked.

Bob and I starred at the $4.54 laying on the piano – our mouths hanging open in disbelief. 

“What is this?” I asked.

“Based on the exchange rate today, exactly one hundred francs.

“Let this be a lesson to you both,” Mr. Varounis said more like a father than an employer.  “Now, I suggest we go back to my office and discuss a salary that is fair to everyone.”

For the next hour he lectured us on the value of money and how critical it was to save every penny we could.  He had written a book on money called Dollars that he had penned for the youth of America and gave us an autographed copy.  I didn’t listen too much of what he said, as I was angry at myself for not knowing that 100 francs was only $4.54.  He offered a salary, which was lower than I thought we were worth, but enough that we could get an small apartment, eat and have some left over for shopping.  He also gave us a week’s advance that he would take out of our salary over the next month. 

When the meeting was over, we had no interest in rehearsing any more.  While Bob took a cab to get his banjo out of hock, I rushed down the street to a beauty salon to see if they could do my hair fast enough so I still had time to drop by the boutique next door.  They had this white dress in the window that would look fabulous on me.