Roxy’s Friend

Maria GambarelliThis lovely lady is Maria Gambarelli, prima ballerina. Miss Gambarelli was well known to New York audiences in the 1930’s for her dazzling performances at the Roxy Theater. In addition, she regularly appeared on Roxy Rothafel’s popular radio program, “Roxy’s Friends.” In 1932 the dancer organized a troupe of New York ballerinas for a grand tour of European cities, to promote America’s cultural image. Helen auditioned for Miss Gambarelli and won a part in the production.

Arriving in Paris the company, christened the “American Beauties,” opened at the exclusive “Le Ambassadeurs” dinner theater to favorable reviews. However, in a contract dispute with the William Morris Agency in New York, in association with the Lartique Agency in Paris, Miss Gambarelli abruptly quit. The eleven American ballerinas were left abandoned, facing an uncertain future on the continent.

For more of the story read River of January, available at

Partly The Mob


The room was hot, and humid, but the old man would not turn on the air. He said that it cost too much money.  The fact that this was Miami and July made no difference,that ancient swamp cooler remained silent in the living room window. To emphasize his granite determination to deny Florida Power and Light an extra penny, Chum dressed each morning in long pants, a belt, and a long sleeve shirt, cuffs buttoned. Mont Chumbley did not project the South Beach image favored by the city’s Chamber of Commerce.

However his strict rules of economy were cast aside the summer I flew down to record his story. And I do mean record, as in tape recorded interviews which lasted, in all, five days. And when I needed quiet the most (for quality purposes,) he decided to switch on that neglected, thundering swamp cooler, providing a Phil Specter-esque ‘wall of sound’ which muffled his fascinating story.

We were both nervous. I hadn’t been married to his son long, and my husband hadn’t come along on this trip. It was just the two of us: new father-in-law talking with new daughter-in-law. But I couldn’t let the awkwardness get in the way, I had traveled three time zones to get the story, and we had to soldier on despite our mutual jitters.

I hit record on the tape player, and immediately he began anxiously whacking a nearby phone book with a pencil. We now had a beat to the swamp cooler’s roar. And he did that for my comfort. How courteous.

I tried to play back the sessions right away to transcribe the contents. It’s safe to say that deciphering his voice from the background clatter grew to be a problem. Imagine the musical “Stomp,” with people trying to converse over crashing trashcan lids.

After a couple of days of this fidgeting he settled down, and to be completely honest, I did too. Chum even forgot to turn on the air once or twice. And his story in aviation began to unfold, carrying us away from noisy appliances; to days before there were such things as air conditioners–to the skies of another era.


One story that made it into the book tells of his hair raising landing on the infield of a Maryland horse track. Later I had to hit the replay button a half dozen times to get the name right, listening hard to his phonetic pronunciation, buried beneath screeching layers of white noise. Shaped by his Virginia drawl, I deciphered, Har-Day-Graw.

I typed HardayGraw into a search engine. “Do you mean Havre de Grace?” quickly popped up . Hmm. Well, I guess I do. Maybe.

Lo and behold, Havre de Grace was a horse racing track between Washington DC and Philadelphia, tucked into the Maryland countryside. The web site indicated that this track evolved as a joint venture, owned partly by the town of the same name, and partly by the mob.

Partly by the Mob? Are you serious? And everybody knew? I had to look a little deeper.

Apparently in an agreement with the Governor of Maryland, and a former congressman, in a partnership with mobster, Arnold Rothstein, Havre de Grace came to life. And this was no small time nag fest, either. Among the thoroughbreds who graced, Havre de Grace were legends, Man ‘o War, his son, War Admiral, and the indomitable, Seabiscuit, You can’t make this stuff up.

That week in hot, sticky Miami has grown into one of the most pivotal of my life. I felt like Wendy clasping Peter’s hand for her flight to Neverland. But in my case Chum piloted the yoke to “Yesteryearland.”

This Havre de Grace anecdote, with Arnold Rothstein, and a hair raising unauthorized landing from the sky, merged with many, many other episodic rivulets that flowed into this fascinating river of narrative. This “River of January.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir, River of January


Spud Manning


Only six years had passed from Lindbergh’s Atlantic flight, when Chum won the cross-country Darkness Derby in October of 1933. Public wonder and oodles of press coverage followed aviators across the country, and around the world. Pilots were viewed as rustic pioneers risking the unforgiving rules of gravity. Hustling for every penny, Mont Chumbley used his rare talent for more than business, offering lessons during the week, and moonlighting weekends entertaining an aviation-crazy public.

County fairs proved a reliable source of pocket money, and he beat the bushes to find well attended events. In good weather he could charge $5 dollars for three passes over local fairgrounds; enough for gas, dinner and a little left over for his time.

It was on today, May 16, back in 1933 that Chum flew his Waco biplane to a fair in Binghamton, New York. He traveled north from New York looking for a little fun, and maybe a few extra bucks. He hit gold that day when he met up with famed parachute jumper, Spud Manning. Now Spud was a young guy, too, and much like Chum, had to make his luck to survive in Depression-era America. So what this enterprising gent challenged, was jumping from airplanes.

With Chum soaring at 15,000 feet, Manning, harnessed in his chute, clutched a bag of flour to his chest. In his fall Manning released the contents to trace his descent. The 25 year old’s shtick was to risk death by falling until the last possible moment, somewhere around 1000 feet, to pull his ripcord. He succeeded to scare the hell out of patrons and they paid him to do it again.

Presumably Spud carried out his jump the same way on that May 16th in Binghamton New York. Leaping for profits, Spuds and Chum performed the stunt as long as it paid. Spuds leaped into the sky, likely accumulating a dusty, white face as the flour plumed up from his arms. Rolling on the ground, grappling with his chute, he jumped to his feet delighting the dazzled crowds.

That May 16th must have left hundreds of Binghamton fair goers in awe. Clear blue weather, excited customers, viewing their landscape from the Waco in three memorable passes; all capped off by the heart stopping jumps of Spud Manning.

Sadly, Chum’s afternoon associate had less than four months to live. Spud was killed that September when, as a passenger on experimental aircraft, he crashed into Lake Michigan. His body and two others washed up on shore ending a massive search over the water.

Chum clearly understood death accompanied each flight, but he loved flying more than dwelling on his fears. Presumably Spud Manning too, resigned himself to the possible price of repeated defiance to the forces of gravity.

Somehow the miracle of the sky rendered the hazards irrelevant.

Gail Chumbley is author of memoir River of January

The Outside World

My mom took a job in the early sixties with the US Postal Service. At first it was part-time, mostly needed at Christmas, but by 1966 she hired on full time. 

There were four kids, a house, and a yard, and Mom probably was pretty overwhelmed—something today I fully understand. For help my parents decided to host a student each term who attended a secretarial school in Spokane, called Kinman Business University. Lord knows what kind of credential awaited these young ladies after completion, but students did acquire skills such as shorthand, typing, filing, and other tasks.

The first girl who who came to stay with us was named Corrine. I can’t remember exactly the year, most likely around 1965 or 1966. I was in fourth grade. 

Corrine came to us from Alaska, and I remember she told me she was part Filipino or Native American, or both. I thought that pretty cool, Corrine to me symbolized the wonder of the outside world. 

Our house was constantly in a state of chaos, with quarrels, messes, a blaring TV, with people coming and going—chaos. But to walk into Corrine’s small quarters felt like a completely different world. All of her things were neatly stowed away, her bed carefully made, and the space even smelled differently than the rest of the house. I loved visiting her room, as it felt like an oasis of tranquility in a sea of crazy disarray. And it was in her little sanctuary that serene Corrine shared her life with me just a little.

A picture sat on her dresser of a boy. When I asked who he was, she told me his name was Ty, and that they planned on getting married in a few years. Married! I never knew a girl who had plans to get married! The only people I knew who were married were parents, and they were boring. 

He was called Ty, short for Tyrone, and he was visiting Spokane soon. Ty had received his draft notice and following basic training in the Army, he would ship out to a country called Vietnam. Corrine clearly missed him very much, and was anxious to see Ty before he flew to Southeast Asia.

My memories of his first visit are a little vague. I do recall that they sat on the couch in our living room and held hands in front of my parents. That moment struck me as fascinatingly real. 

Looking back I am sure that there were much deeper emotions at play, but whatever vibes filled the room zoomed over my 10-year-old radar.

And then Ty was gone.

The school term ended, and Corrine packed up most of her things and returned to Cordova for the summer. I’m not sure of the details or decisions, but she did return to us the next fall. Once again her room became that wonderful respite from the anarchy of the rest of the house. Ty’s picture again graced her dresser. 

Letters began to arrive to our house written on onion-skin parchment, marked AIR MAIL, bearing Corrine’s name. I’d never seen stationary like that, and she explained that was the cheapest way she and Ty could exchange letters. The paper was light blue, and felt like stiff tissue, but held its shape without creasing. Corrine had stacks of it, both fresh and received—the only sign of clutter in her neat little world.

Finally Ty came back to our house, and this visit was very different from the first meeting. The couple did not sit on the couch and hold hands. Not this time. My pre-teen sensibilities were shocked to see a grown man lying across her lap on the couch sobbing like his heart had broken. 

Poor Corrine! She, too, was dissolved in tears; red, puffy eyes behind her glasses. Ty couldn’t seem to help himself,  or compose himself, and he wouldn’t let go of her. The whole situation felt very surreal. I didn’t understand. How could this orderly girl, and her once orderly fiancé come apart like this, and in front of all of us?

That chapter occurred a very long time ago. My mother still worked, and there were other girls we housed. Still sweet Corrine and Ty live on in my memory as if only yesterday.

I grew up, went away to college, earned a degree in American History, becoming a teacher. 

For years and years I taught a unit on the Vietnam War to high school juniors. I recited the facts surrounding America’s entrance into that long, long, conflict. But in all my experience with those lesson plans, the veterans who visited my class describing their personal war, the analysis by historians we studied, nothing affected me more than the tragic transformation of that broken young man from Alaska.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.”

Chumbley has also authored two stage plays, “Clay” on the life of Statesman Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears” an exploration of American racism and slavery.