Posts Tagged ‘A Couple of Nuts’

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.

28 November

A Couple of Nuts – Part 2

Today Patricia finishes telling about her encounter with Muriel called A Couple of Nuts.




A Couple of Nuts

Part 2

I ignored Muriel’s frosty stare and repeated my question.  “Zelda’s Nuts story is about far more than wild parties.  Did you know about this?”

“I knew she was planning on writing our story,” Muriel finally said.  “She and Scott both made notes about us and had a big fight about which one would write it.  In fact, Bob gave Scott one of my diaries to read and I was furious.  Zelda and I were having lunch one afternoon in Antibes, so it must have been during the summer of 1926.  I was telling her about some crazy stunt Bob and I pulled in our act at the Bouef. She wanted to know every detail, and then laughed in that odd, funny way she had, and said, “You two are really a couple of nuts!  I’m going to put you in one of my stories.”

“I didn’t pay much attention to her remark at the time.  She and Scott were always putting their friends in stories, and some of these friends got mad as hell at them.  Scott could be very personal and rude with his constant probing.”

“Do you mind that Zelda isn’t always complimentary to you in the story?”

“Not at all. I wasn’t as well behaved back then as I am now.”  Muriel raised her eyebrows at my snort of laughter, then continued.  “Zelda didn’t have all the facts, but much of it is basically true.  And even when it isn’t, she makes a hell of a story out of it, doesn’t she?”

“She seems concerned about your fate, though.”

“Zelda wasn’t as concerned about us, as she was curious.  We were all about the same age then and living high. The love, success, and beauty upon which she and Scott both dwell in their stories, those were still ours.  And we couldn’t imagine that it wouldn’t always be that way.” Muriel grimaced and smiled ruefully.

“Remember, no one was really that well known yet, although Scott was on his way to becoming famous.  Later, Scott and Zelda had their troubles and our life had changed, too.  When Bob and I made such sensational headlines in 1930, Zelda read about us and remembered the story she had started.  Now she had an ending…just not the whole story.”  Muriel’s soft sigh spoke volumes.

“Yet, much of it seems to portray certain events in your life so well.”

Muriel picked up the magazine again, underlining sentences with her finger as she read.  “But, good heavens, her words wander about almost as much as her mind sometimes did.  Listen to this: ‘ Lola was a protruding Irish beauty, full and carnivorous.  Her husky voice sang in a detached manner as if she had a secret she would never share.’  Now, what in the hell is that supposed to mean?” she asked, her eyes flashing with indignation. “And about Larry, she says:  ‘He shares intellectual yearnings and was a little ashamed of his métier.’  What utter nonsense!  Bob and I both loved performing.  Let’s get my scrapbooks out, dear, and I’ll show you what I mean.”

I did as she asked, and although I had seen them before, I now examined with renewed interest the snapshots, newspaper clippings, scandal sheets and studio portraits.  One of these portraits, dated 1926, shows Muriel standing at the curve of a grand piano, arms outstretched to an unseen audience.  A silky black dress with thin straps clings to her shapely figure.  Her black hair is cut very short, her sleek head thrown back in a familiar posture, laughing eyes flirting with the world.

Seated at the piano is Bob, a handsome blue eyed blond, facing the audience with a warm smile and confident charm.  My gaze lingered a long time on him…too long, I guess, because Muriel caustically commented that I’d stared at Bob long enough, and to flip the damn page over.  I smiled at her (although she called it a smirk) and did as she asked.

I turned the pages of the 1920’s photo album slowly, studying the pictures as Muriel commented on each.  There were portraits of Muriel in many moods; little girl innocence, the clown, the sophisticate and one that was breathtaking in its stark simplicity.  A portrait by Man Ray, the famous 1920’s celebrity photographer, it is a partial profile with her short black hair slicked back above her ears, framing a face that is far more than just beautiful.  Her eyelids are lowered, gaze pensive, her full mouth is slightly pouting but soft.  Bare shoulders emphasize a slender neck and a small pearl earring is her only adornment.

“This picture is stunning,” I said.

“Of course it’s stunning,” Muriel agreed, never a believer in false modesty. “It is, after all, a Man Ray photo.  A work of art!”

I nodded and turned the page, focusing on a snapshot of a young couple standing on a dock.  The man, blond and laughing, is in a striped bathing suit.  The woman is in street clothes, her unsmiling face partially shadowed by her hat.  The scribbled notation under the picture said simply, Scott and Zelda.  It’s easy to understand why the story of Muriel and Bob appealed so much to Zelda.  They lived in a world that was all too familiar to her, among people who sang and philosophized about love, success and beauty; two young people totally absorbed in life, a happy confidence in themselves and each other, eventually seduced by the wealthy—a theme often used by Scott.

I tried to reconcile Zelda’s Nuts story with what Muriel was telling me. Her diaries are full of descriptions of places, parties, nightclubs, performing and exciting people, but rarely say anything about her innermost feelings. I’d read the diaries from 1925 through 1929, the years she and Bob were performing in Paris, London and New York.  There are no diaries for the next couple of years, but they start again in 1932 and continue every year until 1982 when she could no longer write. That’s well over half a century of keeping diaries, except for those two years. It was obvious that whatever happened in 1930 and 1931 was not something Muriel wanted to record…or even remember.

When I challenged her with this, Muriel retorted, “I’ve never liked parading my deepest emotions in front of people.  I talk about the funny things that happened back then because the stories are amusing, not because I want to dwell in the past.”

“Did you ever go back to Paris?”

“No, dear,” she sighed.  “One can never go back.  Friends called a few years ago and wanted me to go to Paris and London with them.  They wanted to see where the dear old Boeuf was, visit the clubs and little cafes we knew, find the Night Light Club in London.  But no, I could never recapture the gaiety, the youthful excitement and joy that once was.  My Paris and London…they are gone now.  I’d rather keep them alive in my memory, they way they were.”

“Have you ever thought about recapturing those days in a book of your own?”

“Well, Walter Winchell used to tell me I should write a book about our madcap adventures.“  Muriel paused.  “He said I should write it just like I tell it.”

I joined in her teasing laughter, as I visualized a book written with dots and dashes, technicolor adjectives and lots of body English…a book that never came to the end of a sentence!

“The trouble was,” Muriel said, “I could never sit still long enough to write a book about my life.  I was far too busy living it!”

There was a long silence, during which she stared at me with her famous Look.  Heaven help us!  I knew that Look…the one that meant she was plotting something.  “But I’m not too busy now, am I?”

With a satisfied nod in my direction, she said, “You’re right, my dear, it’s time to tell my story.  And you will write it for me!”

She gave me an amused smile as I squirmed and glanced around for an escape route, already knowing it was too late.

Many months later, Muriel and I finished her book.  She was mostly bedfast by then, so I sat in a chair at the foot of her bed with my old Royal portable typewriter on my lap, typing furiously to keep up with her, always searching for a glimpse into her heart and the truth, which she finally shared. During this time, I wrote hundreds of pages, threw out almost that many, researched hundreds more and fell in love with 1920’s Paris.  I discovered, through Muriel’s eyes, the mystique and essence of the Jazz Age, which Scott Fitzgerald had called, “The greatest, gaudiest spree in history!”

I became totally immersed in Bob and Muriel’s life, listened to poignant  new stories, fought dozens of literary battles with Muriel and lost most of them.  I was also chastised for succumbing to Bob’s ghostly charms, “just like all the other women.”   But that’s another story for another time.

All this happened in 1985, twenty six years ago.  Now it’s 2011 and time to keep our promise to tell her story in a way that neither Muriel nor I could have imagined back then.  The words blog, Internet and Facebook weren’t even part of our vocabulary.

But Muriel would have loved her launch into cyberspace, just as she loved every new adventure she ever encountered.  So, hang onto your seats, here we go!

27 November

A Couple of Nuts – Part 1

Patricia provides our first “Making of Jazz Age Diva” story she calls A Couple of Nuts, after a short story Zelda Fitzgerald wrote about Muriel and her husband, Bob. We will post part 2 of this story this tomorrow.

A Couple of Nuts

Part 1

In 1972, Pageant Magazine featured Zelda Fitzgerald’s 1932 short story, A Couple of Nuts, as their Valentine love story. In her story, Zelda paints a vivid picture of this talented, beautiful young American couple, Larry and Lola, who arrive in Paris in 1924…innocent, charismatic and eager for adventure. They rise to fame as cabaret stars and are soon enmeshed in the night life of Paris, both as entertainers and as enthusiastic participants in all the excitement, laughter and temptation the glittering city has to offer. They ride confidently and gaily atop the shiny Jazz Age bubble, and try to slide safely off before it bursts.

After reading Zelda’s version of this story, I was curious to learn the truth about these two talented, young kids who charmed and sang their way into the best night clubs in Paris. I knew the story was based on the exploits of two brash young Americans that Zelda and Scott had met and partied with in Paris and Antibes in the mid 1920’s.  I found the plot so familiar, I knew I had to explore further.  And I knew just where to start!

I had heard parts of the glamorous, exciting, often tumultuous stories of the early life from my dear friend, Muriel, whom I’d known for many years as my children’s piano teacher.  We became great friends and she was an entertaining dinner guest, sparkling conversationalist, gracious, courageous, outspoken, uninhibited and passionate about her causes.  Of course, she could also be demanding, a bit of a snob, and sometimes bitchy and intimidating (if you let her get away with it), but always lovable.  She was quite unlike anyone I have ever known and a superb teller of tales, especially Jazz Age tales. I knew if I asked Muriel about Zelda’s A Couple of Nuts, she could tell me what really happened to Larry and Lola.  Because Muriel was Lola!

Muriel lived a few miles from me at the Tropicana Trailer Court, just a few blocks from the famous Las Vegas Strip. She was eighty-two, feisty as always and damned if she was going let the arthritis get the best of her.  I often dropped by to see if she was behaving herself.  Fat chance, I thought, as I tucked the old, dog-eared copy of the Pageant Magazine under my arm and knocked on her trailer door.  It was 1985 then and several years had passed since I had first questioned her about Zelda’s Couple of Nuts story.  While Muriel’s ensuing tales were always entertaining, it was obvious she was cleverly sidestepping certain events from the past. And the more she sidestepped, but more intrigued I became.

I knocked again, louder this time.  Still no answer, but I could hear the commotion inside- shouts and curses, followed by unholy, discordant chords from her beautiful piano.

Uh, oh!  I knew what that meant!  Pushing open the door, I stood at the threshold for a moment and watched the angry, pitched battle once again taking place between Muriel and her beloved, but much abused piano.  She pounded her swollen, knarled arthritic fingers down on the keys again, and the terrible sounds from the fumbled notes made even me squeeze my eyes shut and cringe!

“Play, damn you, play!” she shouted through her pain, tears streaming down her cheeks, as she tried again.  But her crippled, bent fingers could no longer perform, and the ensuing notes sounded as tortured and angry as she was.  It broke my heart as I watched her drop her hands onto her lap, silently admitting defeat.  Not an action with which she was overly familiar.  Finally, she slowly pulled the piano lid down over the keys.  She turned to me and swiped at the tears, a resigned look on her face. “It’s over, dear girl,” she said. “It’s over.”

I nodded, swallowed the huge lump in my throat.  Those beautiful hands with their long, graceful fingers had performed on grand pianos in the most elegant solons and night clubs in Paris, London and New York. Now, her crippled fingers couldn’t even hold a cigarette.  And the final insult, she could barely hang on to a glass of good scotch.

“Help me back to my bedroom, Pat dear.  I’m completely wrung out.”

I held onto her arm as we walked slowly to the back bedroom.  The trailer was small but elegantly furnished and accented with lovely antiques. We dodged a footstool, and Muriel swore as she tripped over the hem of her crimson, velvet robe. Her white, waist length hair was braided and wound in a slightly askew, but still regal coronet on top of her head.  Diamond earrings glittered at her ears, which was the only place she could still wear diamonds, since she could no longer fit her rings over her swollen fingers.

With more colorful curses and groans, we made it into her bedroom and she crawled painfully into bed. “Fetch me my pain medicine, darling.  My hands are throbbing.”

I had to smile as I made my way back to the tiny kitchen to fetch her pain meds…plump, juicy raisins that had been soaking for days in gin, thus the plump and juicy!   She swears her doctor recommended this remedy.

After a few tasty spoonfuls of her pain meds, Muriel began to relax. I opened the Pageant Magazine to the Couple of Nuts story.  I didn’t intend to take advantage of her relaxed state, but I wasn’t beyond nudging her memory a bit.   “Muriel, help me understand what happened here.  You pulled me into this Jazz Age craziness, and I became completely immersed in your stories, captivated by your diaries and scrapbooks.  But I feel like I’ve been seduced and left hanging, without ever knowing the real climax of your story!”

When she stopped laughing, she said, “But, darling, I’ve already told you   so many of these stories about the mad, exciting life we led, the wild stunts and the crazy, wonderful people we met.”

Yes, Muriel always had delightfully humorous anecdotes to share.    Being outgoing and gregarious herself, she is naturally drawn to those of the same inclination; especially if they perform well in the fine old art of conversation.  Her still beautiful face lights up, the expressive mouth laughs, pouts, teases, curses, and cajoles all within the telling of one story.  Piercing blue eyes can soften with affection, spit fire in anger, flirt, sadden and flatter. Or can just as suddenly become distant and cold with displeasure

Right now, her expression was a curious blend of warning and challenge, which I ignored. “But Zelda hints at much more than just wild parties and fun.”

My implied question brought forth another frosty, blue eyed glare meant to intimidate. But this wasn’t my first verbal rodeo with Muriel. I had played this game before.  So I hung on and waited for her to respond.

Finally, she said, “You’re not going to let this go, are you?”

“Not a chance.” I grinned, more than a little pleased with myself.

I should have known better than to relax my guard.  My world was getting ready to tilt, hoisted on my own petard.

I’ll share the rest of the story tomorrow…..