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, not to forget 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, a Texas-born girl, left a husband and children, relocating to New York’s Roosevelt Field. Obsessed with flight, Frances patiently put in her time, learning the specialized, mechanical skills of aviation until she, too, finally buckled into the cockpit. Allying with other women pilots at the famed field, Frances founded The Ninety Nines, a sorority of women flyers, electing Amelia Earhart their first president. Together these women formed a tight-knit association, attracting endorsements from advertisers, (usually for products like cosmetics) to earn enough money 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 the excellence of 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, and made the cut, joining 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 her creative authority. The prima ballerina either quit or was fired—Helen’s letters indicate the girls weren’t told. Gambarelli returned to America embroiled in a lawsuit with the promoters.
Born in Spain’s Canary Islands, lovely Carmen Morales, found her way to New York City. Along with Helen, Carmen also earned a spot in Gambarelli’s 1932 ballet company. An accomplished dancer, she and Helen developed a warm, life-long friendship during their months of extended travel. With daily rehearsals, nightly performances, and endless hours on rail cars, bonds formed between the two that lasted forever.
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 couple had accepted a position managing a string of German nightclubs from a central office in Berlin. However, menacing visits from Hitler’s Brownshirts quickly convinced Carmen and her worried 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 Huck Finn-esque title. This journey of discovery led back to an adventurous era, where women dared alongside their male counter parts.