Read City of Girls Online

Authors: Elizabeth Gilbert

City of Girls (7 page)

“Good morning, Mr. Herbert!” I would say.

“The point is debatable,” he might respond.

Or, on another day: “Good
morning, Mr. Herbert!”

“I will half allow it.”

Or: “Good morning, Mr. Herbert!”

“I fail to see your argument.”

Or: “Good morning, Mr. Herbert!”

“I find myself unequal to the occasion.”

Or, my favorite ever: “Good morning, Mr. Herbert!”

“Oh, you’re a satirist now, are you?”

Another inhabitant of the third floor was a handsome young black man named Benjamin Wilson, who was the Lily’s songwriter,
composer, and piano player. Benjamin was quiet and refined, and he always dressed in the most beautiful suits. He was usually to be found sitting at the grand piano, either riffing on some jaunty tune for an upcoming show, or playing jazz for his own entertainment. Sometimes he would play hymns, but only when he thought nobody was listening.

Benjamin’s father was a respected minister up in Harlem,
and his mother was the principal of a girls’ academy on 132nd Street. He was Harlem royalty, in other words. He had been groomed for the church, but was lured away from that vocation by the world of show business. His family didn’t want him around anymore, as he was now tainted with sin. This was a standard theme, I would learn, for many of the people who worked at the Lily Playhouse. Peg took
in a lot of refugees, in that respect.

Not unlike Roland the dancer, Benjamin was far too talented to be
working for a cheap outlet like the Lily. But Peg gave him free room and board, and his duties were light, so he stuck around.

There was one more person living at the Lily when I moved in, and I’ve saved her for last, because she was the most important to me.

That person was Celia—the showgirl,
my goddess.

I had been told by Olive that Celia was lodging with us only temporarily—just until she got things “sorted out.” The reason Celia needed a place to stay was because she’d recently been evicted from the Rehearsal Club—a respectable and inexpensive hotel for women on West Fifty-third Street, where a good many Broadway dancers and actresses stayed back in the day. But Celia had lost
her place at the Rehearsal Club because she’d been caught with a man in her room. So Peg had offered Celia a room at the Lily as a stopgap measure.

I got the sense that Olive disapproved of this offering—but then again, Olive mostly disapproved of everything that Peg offered to people for free. This wasn’t a palatial offering in any case. Celia’s little room down the hall was far more humble
than my fancy setup over in Uncle Billy’s never-used pied-à-terre. Celia’s bolt-hole wasn’t much more than a utility closet with a cot and a tiny bit of floor upon which to strew her clothing. The room had a window, but it faced a hot, stinking alley. Celia’s room didn’t have a carpet, she didn’t have a sink, she didn’t have a mirror, she didn’t have a closet, and she certainly didn’t have a large,
handsome bed, like I had.

All of this probably explains why Celia moved in with me my second night at the Lily. She did so without asking. There was no discussion about it whatsoever; it just happened—and at the most unexpected time, too. Somewhere in the dark hours between midnight and dawn on Day Two of my sojourn in New York City, Celia stumbled into my
bedroom, woke me up with a hard bump
to the shoulder, and uttered one boozy word:

“Scoot.”

So I scooted. I moved over to the other side of the bed as she tumbled onto my mattress, commandeered my pillow, wrapped the entirety of my sheet around her beautiful form, and fell unconscious in a matter of moments.

Well,
this
was exciting!

This was so exciting, in fact, that I couldn’t fall back to sleep. I didn’t dare to move. For one
thing, I’d lost my pillow, and I was now pressed against the wall, so I was no longer comfortable. But the more serious issue here was this: what is protocol when a drunk and fully dressed showgirl has just collapsed onto your bed? Unclear. So I lay there in stillness and silence, listening to her thick breathing, smelling the cigarette smoke and perfume on her hair, and wondering how we would
manage the inevitable awkwardness when morning came.

Celia finally roused herself around seven o’clock, when the sunlight that was glaring into the bedroom became impossible to ignore. She gave a decadent yawn and stretched fully, taking up even
more
of the bed. She was still wearing all her makeup and was dressed in her reckless evening gown from the night before. She was stunning. She looked
like an angel who had fallen to earth, straight through a hole in the floor of some celestial nightclub.

“Hey, Vivvie,” she said, blinking away the sun. “Thanks for sharing your bed. That cot they gave me is torture. I couldn’t take it anymore.”

I hadn’t been fully confident at this point that Celia even knew my name, so to hear her use the affectionate diminutive “Vivvie” flooded me with joy.

“That’s all right,” I said. “You can sleep here anytime.”

“Really?” she said. “That’s terrific. I’ll move my things in here today.”

Well, then. I guess I had a roommate now. (That was fine with me, though. I was just honored that she’d chosen me.) I wanted this strange, exotic moment to last as long as possible, so I dared to make conversation. “Say,” I asked, “where’d you go out to last night?”

She seemed surprised that I cared.

“El Morocco,” she said. “I saw John Rockefeller there.”


Did
you?”

“He’s the pits. He wanted to dance, but I was out with some other fellows.”

“Who’d you go out with?”

“Nobody special. Just a couple of guys who aren’t about to take me home to meet their mothers.”

“What kind of guys?”

Celia settled back into the bed, lit a smoke, and told me all about her
night. She explained that she had gone out with some Jewish boys who were pretending to be gangsters, but then they ran into some
real
Jewish gangsters, so the pretenders had to scram, and she ended up with a fellow who took her to Brooklyn and then paid for a limousine to take her home. I was entranced by every detail. We stayed in bed for another hour as she narrated for me—in that unforgettably
gruff voice of hers—every detail of an evening in the life of one Celia Ray, New York City showgirl.

I drank it all down like spring water.

By the next day, all of Celia’s belongings had migrated into my apartment. Her tubes of greasepaint and pots of cold cream now cluttered up every surface. Her vials of Elizabeth Arden competed for space on Uncle Billy’s elegant desk against her compacts
of Helena Rubinstein. Her long hairs laced my sink. My floor was an instant tangle of brassieres and fishnets, garters and girdles. (She had such
prodigious quantities of undergarments! I swear, Celia Ray had a way of making negligees
reproduce
.) Her used, perspiration-soaked dress shields were hiding under my bed like little mice. Her tweezers bit into my feet when I stepped on them.

She was
outrageously entitled. She wiped her lipstick on my towels. She borrowed my sweaters without asking. My pillowcases became stained with black smudges from Celia’s mascara, and my sheets were dyed orange from her pancake makeup. And there wasn’t anything this girl wouldn’t use as an ashtray—including once, while I was in it, the bathtub.

Incredibly, I didn’t mind any of this. On the contrary,
I never wanted her to leave. If I’d had a roommate this interesting back at Vassar, I might’ve stayed in college. To my mind, Celia Ray was perfection. She was New York City’s very distillation—a glittering composite of sophistication and mystery. I would endure any filth or befouling, just to have access to her.

Anyhow, our living arrangement seemed to suit us both perfectly: I got to be near
her glamour, and she got to be near my sink.

I never asked my Aunt Peg if this was all right with her—that Celia had moved into Uncle Billy’s rooms with me, or that the showgirl seemed intent on staying at the Lily indefinitely. This seems awfully ill-mannered, when I think back on it now. It would have been the most basic act of politeness to at least clear this arrangement with my host. But
I was far too self-absorbed to be polite—and so was Celia, of course. So we just went ahead and did whatever we wanted to do, without giving it another thought.

What’s more, I never
really
worried about the mess that Celia left behind in that apartment, because I knew that Aunt Peg’s maid, Bernadette, would eventually take care of it. Bernadette was a quiet and
efficient soul who came to the
Lily six days a week to clean up after everyone. She tidied up our kitchen and our bathrooms, waxed our floors, cooked dinner for us (which we sometimes ate, sometimes ignored, and sometimes invited ten unannounced guests to). She also ordered the groceries, called in the plumber nearly every day, and probably did about ten thousand other thankless tasks, as well. In addition to all that, she now
had to clean up after me and Celia Ray, which hardly seems fair.

I once overheard Olive remark to a guest: “Bernadette is Irish, of course. But she is not
violently
Irish, so we keep her on.”

This is the kind of thing that people used to say back then, Angela.

Unfortunately, that’s all I can remember about Bernadette.

The reason I don’t remember any particular details about Bernadette is because
I didn’t pay much attention to maids back then. I was so very accustomed to them, you see. They were nearly invisible to me. I just expected to be served. And why was that? Why was I so presumptuous and callow?

Because I was rich
.

I haven’t said those words yet in these pages, so let’s just get it out of the way right now: I was rich, Angela. I was rich, and I was spoiled. I’d been raised during
the Great Depression, true, but the crisis never affected my family in any pressing manner. When the dollar failed, we went from having three maids, two cooks, a nanny, a gardener, and a full-time chauffeur to having just two maids, one cook, and a part-time chauffeur. So that didn’t
quite
qualify us for the breadline, to put it mildly.

And because my expensive boarding school had ensured that
I never met anybody who wasn’t like me, I thought everyone had grown up with a big Zenith radio in the living room. I thought everyone had a pony. I thought every man was a Republican, and that there were only two kinds of women in the world—those who had gone to Vassar,
and those who had gone to Smith. (My mother went to Vassar. Aunt Peg went to Smith for one year, before dropping out to join
the Red Cross. I didn’t know what the difference was between Vassar and Smith, but from the way my mother talked, I understood it to be crucial.)

I certainly thought everyone had maids. For my entire life, somebody like Bernadette had always taken care of me. When I left my dirty dishes sitting on the table, somebody always cleaned them up. My bed was beautifully made for me, every day. Dry towels
magically replaced damp ones. Shoes that I tossed carelessly upon the floor were straightened out when I wasn’t looking. Behind it all was some great cosmic force—constant and invisible as gravity, and just as boring to me as gravity—putting my life in order and making sure that my knickers were always clean.

It may not surprise you, then, to learn that I didn’t lift a finger to help out with
the housekeeping, once I moved into the Lily Playhouse—not even in the apartment that Peg had so generously bestowed upon me. It never occurred to me that I should help. Nor did it occur to me that I couldn’t keep a showgirl in my bedroom as a pet, just because I felt like it.

I cannot comprehend why nobody ever throttled me.

You will sometimes encounter people my age, Angela, who grew up experiencing
real hardship during the Depression. (Your father was one such person, of course.) But because everybody around them was also struggling, these people will often report that they were not aware as children that their deprivations were unusual.

You will often hear such people say: “I didn’t even know I was poor!”

I was the opposite, Angela: I didn’t know I was rich.

FIVE

Within a week, Celia and I had established our own little routine. Every night after the show was finished, she would throw on an evening gown (usually something that, in other circles, would’ve qualified as lingerie) and head out on the town for a night of debauchery and excitement. Meanwhile, I would eat a late dinner with Aunt Peg, listen to the radio, do some sewing, go to a movie,
or go to sleep—all the while wishing I were doing something more exciting.

Then at some ungodly hour in the middle of the night I’d feel the bump on my shoulder, and the familiar command to “scoot.” I’d scoot, and Celia would collapse onto the bed, devouring all my space, pillows, and sheets. Sometimes she would conk right out, but other nights she’d stay up chatting boozily until she dropped
off in midsentence. Sometimes I would wake up and find that she was holding my hand in her sleep.

In the mornings, we would linger in bed, and she would tell me about the men she’d been with. There were the men who took her up
to Harlem for dancing. The men who took her out to the midnight movies. The men who had gotten her to the front of the line to see Gene Krupa at the Paramount. The men
who had introduced her to Maurice Chevalier. The men who paid for her meals of lobster thermidor and baked Alaska. (There was nothing Celia would not do—nothing she had not done—for the sake of lobster thermidor and baked Alaska.) She spoke about these men as if they were meaningless to her, but only because they
were
meaningless to her. Once they paid the bill, she often had a tough time remembering
their names. She used them much the same way she used my hand lotions and my stockings—freely and carelessly.

“A girl must create her own opportunities,” she used to say.

As for her background, I soon learned her story:

Born in the Bronx, Celia had been christened Maria Theresa Beneventi. While you’d never guess it from the name, she was Italian. Or at least her father was Italian. From him,
she’d inherited the glossy black hair and those sublime dark eyes. From her Polish mother, she’d inherited the pale skin and the height.

She had exactly one year of high school education. She left school at age fourteen, after having a scandalous affair with a friend’s father. (“Affair” may not be the accurate word to describe what transpires sexually between a forty-year-old man and a fourteen-year-old
girl, but that’s the word Celia used.) Her “affair” had gotten her thrown out of her home, and had also gotten her pregnant. This situation, her gentleman suitor had graciously “took care of” by paying for an abortion. After her abortion, her paramour had no wish to further engage with her, so he returned his devotions to his wife and family, leaving Maria Theresa Beneventi all on her
own, to make do in the world as best she could.

She worked in an industrial bakery for a while, where the owner gave her a job and offered her a place to stay in exchange for frequent
“J.O.’s”—a term that I’d never heard before, but which Celia helpfully explained to me were “jerk offs.” (This is the image that I think of, Angela, whenever I hear people talk about how the past was a more innocent
time. I think of fourteen-year-old Maria Theresa Beneventi, fresh off her first abortion, with no roof over her head, masturbating the owner of an industrial bakery so that she could keep her job and have somewhere safe to sleep.
Yes, folks—those were the days
.)

Soon young Maria Theresa discovered she could earn more money as a dime-a-dance girl than by baking dinner rolls for a pervert. She
changed her name to Celia Ray, moved in with a few other dancers, and began her career—which consisted of putting forth her gorgeousness into the world, for the sake of personal advancement. She started working as a taxi dancer at the Honeymoon Lane Danceland on Seventh Avenue, where she let men grope her, perspire on her, and cry with loneliness in her arms for fifty dollars a week, plus “presents”
on the side.

She tried for the Miss New York beauty pageant when she was sixteen, but lost to a girl who played the vibraphone onstage in a bathing suit. She also worked as a photographer’s model—selling everything from dog food to antifungal creams. And she’d been an artist’s model—selling her naked body for hours at a time to art schools and painters. While still a teenager, she wedded a saxophone
player whom she’d met while briefly working as a hatcheck girl at the Russian Tea Room. Marriages to saxophone players never do work out, though, and Celia’s was no exception; she was divorced before you knew it.

Right after her divorce, she and a girlfriend moved to California with the intention of becoming movie stars. She managed to get herself some screen tests, but never landed a speaking
part. (“I got twenty-five dollars a day once to play a dead girl in a murder picture,” she said proudly—naming a movie I had never heard of.) Celia left Los Angeles a few years later, having realized that “there were four girls on every corner out there with better figures than me, and no Bronx accent.”

When she came back home from Hollywood, Celia got a job at the Stork Club as a showgirl. There,
she met Gladys, Peg’s dance captain, who recruited her for the Lily Playhouse. By 1940, when I arrived, Celia had been working for my Aunt Peg for almost two years—the longest period of stability in her life. The Lily was not a glamorous venue. It was certainly no Stork Club. But the way Celia saw it, the job was easy, her pay was regular, and the owner was a woman, which meant she didn’t have
to spend her workdays dodging “some greasy boss with Roman hands and Russian fingers.” Plus, her job duties were over by ten o’clock. This meant that once she was done dancing on the Lily stage, she could go out on the town and dance until dawn—often
at
the Stork Club, but now it was for fun.

How all that life experience adds up to someone who was claiming to be only nineteen years old, you tell
me.

To my joy and surprise, Celia and I became friends.

To a certain extent, of course, Celia liked me because I was her handmaiden. Even at the time, I knew that she regarded me as her handmaiden, but that was all right with me. (If you know anything about the friendships of young girls, you will know that there is always one person playing the part of the handmaiden, anyhow.) Celia demanded
a certain level of devoted service—expecting me to rub her calves for her when they were sore, or to give her hair a rousing brushing. Or she’d say, “Oh, Vivvie, I’m all out of ciggies again!”—knowing full well that I would run out and buy her another pack. (“That’s so
bliss
of you, Vivvie,” she’d say, as she pocketed the cigarettes, and didn’t pay me back.)

And yes, she was vain—so vain that
it made my own vanities look amateurish by comparison. Truly, I’ve never seen anyone who could get more deeply lost in a mirror than Celia Ray. She could stand for ages
in the glory of her own reflection, nearly deranged by her own beauty. I know it sounds like I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. I swear to you that she once spent
two hours
looking at herself in the mirror while debating whether she
should be massaging her neck cream
upward
or
downward
in order to prevent the appearance of a double chin.

But she had a childlike sweetness about her, too. In the mornings, Celia was especially dear. When she would wake up in my bed, hungover and tired, she was just a simple kid who wanted to snuggle and gossip. She would tell me of her dreams in life—her big, unfocused dreams. Her aspirations
never made sense to me because they didn’t have any plans behind them. Her mind skipped straight to fame and riches, with no apparent map for how to get there—other than to keep looking like
this,
and to assume that the world would eventually reward her for it.

It wasn’t much of a plan—although, to be fair, it was more of a plan than I had for my own life.

I was happy.

I guess you could say
that I had become the costume director of the Lily Playhouse—but only because nobody stopped me from calling myself that, and also because nobody else wanted the job.

Truth to tell, there was plenty of work for me. The showgirls and dancers were always in need of new costumes, and it wasn’t as if they could just pluck outfits out of the Lily Playhouse costume closet (a distressingly damp and
spider-infested place, filled with ensembles older and more crusty than the building itself). The girls were always broke, too, so I learned clever ways to improvise. I learned how to shop for cheap materials in the garment center, or (even cheaper) way down on Orchard Street. Better yet, I figured out how to hunt for remnants at the used clothing shops on Ninth Avenue and make costumes out of
those. It turned out I was exceptionally good at taking tatty old garments and turning them into something fabulous.

My favorite used clothing shop was a place called Lowtsky’s Used Emporium and Notions, on the corner of Ninth Avenue and Forty-third Street. The Lowtsky family were Eastern European Jews, who’d paused in France for a few years to work in the lace industry before emigrating to America.
Upon arrival in the United States, they’d settled on the Lower East Side, where they sold rags out of a pushcart. But then they moved up to Hell’s Kitchen to become costumers and purveyors of used clothing. Now they owned this entire three-story building in midtown, and the place was filled with treasures. Not only did they deal in used costumes from the theater, dance, and opera worlds, but
they also sold old wedding gowns and occasionally a really spectacular couture dress, picked up from some Upper East Side estate sale.

I couldn’t stay away from the place.

I once bought the most
vividly
violet-colored Edwardian dress for Celia at Lowtsky’s. It was the homeliest looking rag you ever saw, and Celia recoiled when I first showed it to her. But when I pulled off the sleeves, cut
a deep V in the back, lowered the neckline, and belted it with a thick, black satin sash, I transformed this ancient beast of a dress into an evening gown that made my friend look like a millionaire’s mistress. Every woman in the room would gasp with envy when Celia walked in wearing that gown—and all that for only two dollars!

When the other girls saw what I could make for Celia, they all wanted
me to create special dresses for them, as well. And so, just as at boarding school, I was soon given a portal to popularity through the auspices of my trusty old Singer 201. The girls at the Lily were always handing me bits of things that needed to be mended—dresses without zippers, or zippers without dresses—and asking me if I could do something to fix it. (I remember Gladys once saying to me,
“I need a whole new rig, Vivvie! I look like somebody’s uncle!”)

Maybe it sounds as if I was playing the role of the tragic stepsister in a fairy tale here—constantly working and spinning, while the more beautiful girls were all heading to the ball—but you must understand that I was so grateful just to be around these showgirls. If anything, this exchange was more beneficial for me than it was
for them. Listening to their gossip was an education—the only education I had ever really longed for. And because somebody always needed my sewing talents for
something,
inevitably the showgirls started to coalesce around me and my powerful Singer. Soon, my apartment had turned into the company gathering place—for females, anyhow. (It helped that my rooms were nicer than the moldy old dressing
rooms down in the basement, and also nearer to the kitchen.)

And so it came to pass that one day—less than two weeks into my stay at the Lily—a few of the girls were in my room, smoking cigarettes and watching me sew. I was making a simple capelet for a showgirl named Jennie—a vivacious, adorable, gap-toothed girl from Brooklyn whom everyone liked. She was going on a date that night, and had
complained that she didn’t have anything to throw over her dress in case the temperature dropped. I’d told her I would make her something nice, so that’s what I was doing. It was the kind of task that was nearly effortless, but would forever endear Jennie to me.

It was on this day—a day like any other, as the saying goes—that it came to the attention of the showgirls that I was still a virgin.

The subject came up that afternoon because the girls were talking about sex—which was the only thing they
ever
talked about, when they weren’t talking about clothing, money, where to eat, how to become a movie star, how to marry a movie star, or whether they should have their wisdom teeth removed (as they claimed Marlene Dietrich had done, in order to create more dramatic cheekbones).

Gladys
the dance captain—who was sitting next to Celia on the floor in a pile of Celia’s dirty laundry—asked me if I had a boyfriend.
Her exact words were, “You got anything permanent going with anybody?”

Now, it is worth noting that this was the first question of substance that any of the girls had ever asked about my life. (The fascination, needless to say, did not run in both directions.) I was only
sorry that I didn’t have something more exciting to report.

“I don’t have a boyfriend, no,” I said.

Gladys seemed alarmed.

“But you’re
pretty,
” she said. “You must have a guy back home. Guys must be giving you the pitch all the time!”

I explained that I’d been in girls’ schools my whole life, so I hadn’t had much opportunity to meet boys.

“But you’ve
done it,
right?” asked Jennie, cutting
to the chase. “You’ve gone the limit before?”

“Never,” I said.

“Not even
once,
you haven’t gone the limit?” Gladys asked me, wide-eyed in disbelief. “Not even by
accident
?”

“Not even by accident,” I said, wondering how it was that a person could ever have sex by accident.

(Don’t worry, Angela—I know now. Accidental sex is the easiest thing to do, once you get in the habit of it. I’ve had plenty
of accidental sex in my life since then, believe me, but at that moment I was not yet so cosmopolitan.)

“Do you go to
church
?” Jennie asked, as if that could be the only possible explanation for my still being a virgin at age nineteen. “Are you
saving
it?”

Other books

Restraint by Debra Glass
¡A los leones! by Lindsey Davis
Nobody's Angel by Patricia Rice
Them Bones by Carolyn Haines
A Promise of Fireflies by Susan Haught
Asylum by Patrick Mcgrath
The Bazaar and Other Stories by ELIZABETH BOWEN
2 The Patchwork Puzzler by Marjory Sorrell Rockwell