Dancers and the Lady Pilot

 

Their names were Carmen Morales, Maria Gambarelli, Mistinguett, and Frances Harrell Marsalis. These four women carved out professional careers, achieving various levels of fame, in an early 20th century largely dominated by men. All four figures also weave into my first book, River of January, as friends and employers of my main characters. It has been an interesting journey, filled with pleasant surprises, plus an honor to revive their names, and present these women to 21st Century readers.

All four women lived life on their own terms.

Frances Harrell Marsalis, an ambitious, Texas-born wife, left her husband and children, relocating to New York’s Roosevelt Field. Obsessed with aviation, Frances dutifully put in her time, honing the specialized skills necessary to aviation until she, too, finally strapped into the cockpit.

Allying with other women pilots at the famed airfield, Frances joined in forging The Ninety Nines, a sorority of women flyers, electing Amelia Earhart the organizations first president. These women formed a tight-knit association, attracting endorsements from advertisers, (usually for products like cosmetics) to earn enough money to stay in the air.

In a 1934 Dayton, Ohio air race, Frances met her demise while rounding a pylon, trapped in wing-to-wing congestion. Another plane bumped hers, and flying low Frances launched into a fiery cartwheel. She survived in the wreckage, but died shortly after.

Frances Harrell Marsalis entered the pages of River of January as Mont Chumbley’s first serious love.

Rich in Old World sensibilities, Carmen Morales and Maria Gambarelli embodied excellence in the performing arts.

Gambarelli, American-born, of Italian descent, rose to fame as a celebrated New York ballerina. Renowned for her devotion to dance, Gambarelli promoted American ballet with a missionary’s zeal. In 1932 the prima ballerina agreed to headline a European tour featuring talented American ballerinas. Twenty-year-old Helen auditioned, made the cut, and joined this company of ingenue dancers, soon crossing the Atlantic aboard the SS Ille de France. Once in Paris, an unexpected dispute erupted between Gambarelli and the tour producers over creative authority. The prima ballerina either quit or was fired—Helen’s letters indicate the girls weren’t sure. Gambarelli returned to America embroiled in a lawsuit with the promoters.

Born in Spain’s Canary Islands, lovely Carmen Morales found her way to culturally vibrant New York City by 1930. Like Helen, Carmen earned a spot in Gambarelli’s 1932 European tour. An accomplished dancer, she and Helen developed a warm friendship underscored with daily rehearsals, nightly performances, cheap hotel rooms, cheaper food, and endless hours on rail cars.

The bond between the two lasted a lifetime.

In Monte Carlo, Carmen met and fell in love with an American hoofer, Earl Leslie. The couple quickly married in Marseilles, and Carmen, with her new husband, left the show in 1933. The newlyweds accepted a position managing a string of German nightclubs from a central office in Berlin. Unfortunately, visits from Adolf Hitler’s paramilitary Brownshirts quickly convinced Carmen and her husband, to resign and escape the country.

The marriage with Leslie didn’t last much longer either, and Carmen left Earl while performing in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Making her way to Los Angeles in the late 1930’s, Carmen settled in Sherman Oaks, and pursued a career in motion pictures. Director John Ford signed Morales to star in Warner Brothers, The Long Journey Home with John Wayne in 1940. Following that release, Carmen appeared in other features, and later took roles on television. She died in Sherman Oaks in 2000.

The most famous of the four was French entertainer, Mistinguett. Though not well known in America, this music hall icon is still revered by generations of French devotees of the stage. By the time Helen became acquainted with “Miss,” as she referred to the celebrity, the songstress was well into middle age; her beauty beginning to fade. Nonetheless, when Miss signed the American ballerinas to her variety show, following the Gambarelli fiasco, Helen and her fellow dancers were fascinated by their new boss.

Rumors abounded in the dressing room regarding the grand lady’s legendary love affairs, especially with French heart-throb, Maurice Chevalier. Though significantly older than Chevalier, Mistinguett had engaged in a torrid affair years earlier, when Chevalier had been a mere chorus boy.

But all gossip fell silent when the grand lady took the stage—no one spoke, nor laughed. They instead watched and listened in rapt awe and admiration. “Miss’s” signature song, Mon Homme, reliably brought the house down, with teary-eyed audiences clamoring for more. By the way, Mon Homme translates to My Man, first made popular in America by Ziegfeld girl, Fanny Brice, then again by Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.

River of January, for me, lived up to its promise of adventure. My journey of discovery led back to an inspiring, adventurous era, where women dared fortune equal to their male counterparts.

For more about these fascinating ladies read River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight, by Gail Chumbley. Visit www.river-of-january.com. Also available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

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