Mistinguett

Sun Valley Idaho is especially beautiful in the fall. We had driven to the resort through steep, intimidating mountain passes, to finally descend among groves of whispering Aspen trees. We had traveled over for a book presentation on “River of January,” the first volume of my two-part memoir at the local Library. We had arrived with hours to spare.

With tons of time to kill we walked the boarded walkways of Blaine County’s most famous community. My eyes were peeled for a glance of the the rich and famous; perhaps Arnold, maybe Bruce, or Demi, or even Tom and Rita. They pop up once in a while to relax in the natural beauty, away from the rat race.

Wandering, we chanced across a dress shop, and I slipped inside the glass door, leaving my husband sitting on a bench outside. The clothes were beautiful; plaids in silky fabric, and fashionable shoes among displays of accessories. The owner was on her phone, behind the counter, speaking to what sounded like a potential customer.

And she was clearly French.

I continued to browse the merchandise, but was more taken with the French lady. I had a good reason.

She soon closed her call, then addressed me. “May I help you?,” the lovely woman trilled.

“Well, maybe.” I replied. “I’m a writer. In fact, I’m here to discuss my new memoir at the library. By any chance have you heard of Mistinguett?”

The shop owner stopped, and looked into my eyes. “Oo La La!” she gasped. “She is a legend.” I smiled, my day made.

Mistinguett was a French music hall entertainer, born late in the 19th Century. At one time this singer-dancer was the highest paid entertainer in Europe, best remembered for her torch song, Mon Homme. Americans might recognize the tune better as My Man, a hit, first for Ziegfeld headliner, Fannie Brice, and later Barbra Streisand.

A fun fact about Mistinguett is she had her legs insured for 50 Francs during her prime. Another fun fact is she discovered Maurice Chevalier, pulling him from the chorus, and making him a star.

The best news about Mistinguett concerns Helen Thompson. Just a girl, this American dancer who’s life story appears in “River of January,” toured with the “Oo la la” French legend from 1932-33.

Enjoy this film clip of the iconic entertainer, dated 1936, and look for Helen in the cast photos of Viola Paris, the Mistinguett variety show from three years earlier.

 

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Mistinguett sits in front holding flowers. Helen Thompson is in the top row center right–the blonde wearing the fur-collared coat.

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Here Mistinguett is wearing a giant head dress, and Helen is second girl to the right.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Also available on Amazon.com

Our Mutual Bounty

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“For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.”

I’m finishing up the last of a series of Presidential talks, closing with an examination of the life of Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th President. TR’s formative years involved a great deal of outdoor activity, pursuing what he called the Strenuous Life. And that life dramatically shaped his later terms of office. Next to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, subjects of previous presentations, TR might be one of most thoroughly decent chief executives in the series.

Theodore Roosevelt liked to hunt, a lot. As a boy, while on holiday, floating the Nile, young “Teedie” bagged literally hundred of birds, picking them off along the riverbank. Toting a new shot gun, a gift from his father, and a new pair of glasses, he combed the grasses along the ancient river searching for winged prey. Back on board the family’s rented houseboat, he promptly performed amateur taxidermy on his take, as bewildered Egyptian servants and crewman stood silently by, watching. The finished collection eventually went on display in young Roosevelt’s own natural history museum, located on the top floor of the family’s elegant Manhattan home.

As a young adult, Roosevelt tracked countless paths through forested mountains, the prairies, and even the Great Plains, shooting and crating home countless pelts and game trophies. TR climbed the Matterhorn on his honeymoon, returning to Long Island rowing and sailing near his home at Sagamore Hill. The Roosevelt fortune made for comfortable, and convenient travels.

However, TR, through his innate sense of fair play came to a more enlightened conclusion, scrutinizing the inequity of his privileged lifestyle. In 1903, after a two-week trek into Yellowstone National Park, America’s first park, President Roosevelt was requested to make remarks to a small crowd of local Montanans. He agreed and took the opportunity to extoll his new democratic philosophy of America’s natural wonders. TR told listeners that day:

“The only way that the people as a whole can secure to themselves and their children the enjoyment in perpetuity of what the Yellowstone Park has to give is by assuming the ownership in the name of the nation and by jealously safeguarding and preserving the scenery, the forests, and the wild creatures . . . the Park is simply being kept in the interest of all of us, so that every one may have the chance to see its wonders
with ease and comfort at the minimum of expense. This pleasure, moreover, can under such conditions be kept for all who have the love of adventure and the hardihood
to take advantage of it . . .”

This world-traveling aristocrat spoke of the essential equality of America’s public lands–open places tourists can all savor equally, rich or poor. Grasping the finite dimensions of land and wildlife, TR changed his earlier approach to hunting and camping. He came to embrace a classless ideology to accessing our mutual bounty. In spite of his famous name, wealth, and public prominence, President Roosevelt realized that natural wonders were meant to inspire us all.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Available at http://www.river-of-january.com and at Amazon.com

Mixed Emotions

This is a reprint of an earlier post.

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It’s been uncomfortable to watch the media coverage from Louisiana about the removal of General Robert E Lee’s statue in New Orleans. As a life-long student of the Civil War the idea of removing reminders of our nation’s past somehow feels misguided. At the same time, with a strong background in African American history, I fully grasp the righteous indignation of having to see that relic where I live and work. Robert E. Lee’s prominence as the Confederate commander, and the South’s aim to make war rather than risk Yankee abolitionism places the General right in the crosshairs of modern sensibilities. Still, appropriating the past to wage modern political warfare feels equally amiss.

Robert Edward Lee was a consummate gentlemen, a Virginia Cavalier of the highest order. So reserved and deliberate in his career was Lee, that he is one of the few cadets who graduated West Point without a single demerit. Married to a descendent of George and Martha Washington, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, Lee added stature to his already esteemed pedigree. (The Lee-Custis Mansion, “Arlington House” is situated at the top of Arlington National Cemetery. And yes, this General was a slave holder, however he appears to have found the institution distasteful).

When hostilities opened in April of 1861, the War Department tapped Lee first to lead Union forces, so prized were his leadership qualities. But the General declined, stating he could never fire a gun in anger against his fellow countryman, meaning Virginians.

On the battlefield Lee was tough to whip, but he also wasn’t perfect, despite his army’s thinking him so. Eventually, after four years of bloody fighting, low on fighting men and supplies–facing insurmountable odds against General Grant, the Confederate Commander surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.

Meeting Lee face-to-face for the first time to negotiate surrender terms, Ulysses Grant became a little star-struck himself in the presence of the General, blurting out something about seeing Lee once during the Mexican War.

After speaking with General Grant, in a letter addressed to his surrendering troops Lee instructed, By the terms of the agreement Officers and men can return to their homes. . .

But Robert E. Lee’s story doesn’t end there.

Despite outraged Northern cries to arrest and jail all Confederate leaders, no one had the nerve to apprehend Lee. And that’s saying a lot considering the hysteria following Lincoln’s assassination, and assassin John Wilkes Booth’s Southern roots. The former general remained a free man, taking an administrative position at Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia. It was in Lexington that exhausted Lee died in 1870, and was  buried.

Robert E. Lee led by example, consciously moving on with his life after the surrender at Appomattox. He had performed his duty, as he saw it, and when it was no longer feasible, acquiesced. He was a man of honor. And from what I have learned regarding General Lee, he would have no problem with the removal of a statue he never wanted. Moreover, I don’t believe he would have any patience with the vulgar extremists usurping his name and reputation for their hateful agenda.

This current controversy isn’t about Robert E Lee at all. It’s about America in 2017.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Also available on Amazon.

I Want My GOP

This post originally appeared in early 2016. Cassandra award?

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A divided national party . . . voices of extreme rhetoric . . . an ugly, contentious primary season. Does this spell doom for two-party system?

Sounds modern, doesn’t it? But the year was 1860, and the party in question was founded by Thomas Jefferson, and shaped in the image of Andrew Jackson: The antebellum Democratic Party.

On the eve of Civil War, the future of the Union appeared in fatal doubt. Political leaders in the Deep South: South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida had all but washed their hands of the centrally powerful United States. Adding to the precarious atmosphere, a faction of Democrats in the North promoted a policy to permit slavery into the western territories under the principle of Popular Sovereignty, or direct vote. Others voices in the northern branch of the Democratic Party believed the Southern States should depart the Union in peace. And these pro-secession advocates became the most worrisome threat for Senate leader, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the leading Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1860.

Douglas found himself in a hell of a spot. He fervently burned to lead his party to the White House and save his nation, dangerously poised on the verge of civil war. As the principal heir to Senate leadership, Douglas had spent over twenty years in Congress working to stave off Southern secession, taking over when Kentucky Senator, Henry Clay, the “Great Compromiser” died. Clay had also spent most of his earlier career drawing up one concession after another in a noble attempt to preserve the nation. Eventually the effort wore him out, and Senator Douglas pick up the cause.

As far as Douglas was concerned, slavery wasn’t a moral issue, but a bump in the road. The issue could easily be decided by the good folks migrating west. Douglas believed if settlers didn’t want slavery, they would decline to establish laws necessary for supporting the “peculiar institution.” He was wrong—dead wrong. Slavery had, by 1860 become an issue impossible to solve. And it was here, underestimating the power of the slave issue, that the Illinois Senator imploded his party and his career.

The new Republican Party had formed six years earlier in Wisconsin, established on one central principle—slavery would not extend into the western territories, period. And this new party grew fast. Composed of splinter groups, this now fully unified party maintained that free labor was an integral component of free market capitalism. The presence of slavery in growing regions of the West would devalue free labor, and undermine future economic growth.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these Republicans did not sing Kumbaya or braid their hair. These men did not believe in equality between the races—they were not abolitionists. Economic principles drove their political platform, (Emancipation came later with the transformation of President Lincoln in the fire of war).

For Stephen Douglas the approaching 1860 election meant vindication for his support of popular sovereignty, and reward for his faithful political service. And Douglas was no political hack. He fully understood the solvency of the Union lay in the delicate art of sectional balance, and his ascendancy to the White House as a Democrat would go a long way to placate the Southern hotheads. But this Illinois Senator failed, once again, to fully comprehend the temper of the nation, or of his own party. The era of seeking middle ground had passed—America’s course had been set toward industrial modernity with no place for an antiquated, barbaric labor system.

Charleston, South Carolina, was selected as the site of the 1860 Democratic convention. Chaos immediately broke loose on the convention floor. While Southern Democrats demanded strict, exact language guaranteeing the extension of slavery in the territories, Northern Democrats and those from California and Oregon pushed for Douglas’ popular sovereignty. This tense deadlock forced the latter faction to walk out and reconvene in Baltimore where party business could move forward.

Southern Democrats moved on as well. In a separate Richmond, Virginia convention Southern Democrats nominated Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge.

In Baltimore, Douglas indeed gained the Democratic nomination, preserving his precious principle of local elections determining the western expansion of slavery. Bolting Democrats in Richmond went further adding an absolute protection of slavery to their platform. Middle ground vanished.

Though a long shot, a third faction of the Democratic Party broke ranks calling themselves the “Constitutional Union Party.” I’m not sure what they stood for, but clearly it wasn’t support for Douglas or Breckinridge. Convening in Baltimore as well, in May of 1860, this coalition nominated John Bell of Tennessee.

So what can we make of this 1860 fiasco today, in 2016? If I could attempt a bit of divination I would suggest that the political party that can present the most united front will prevail in the general election. If current Republican candidates continue to employ such wide-ranging, and scorching tones to their rhetoric, and stubbornly defend the innocence of their loose talk, the party may run head long into oblivion, as did the Democrats of 1860. If the roaring factions, so loudly represented by each GOP aspirant goes too far, the fabric of unity will shred, crippling the Republican’s ability to field serious candidates in the future.

Looking at the past as prelude much is at stake for the unity of the GOP. In 1860 party divisions nearly destroyed the Democratic Party, and launched the nation into a bloody civil war. And though Republicans at that time elected our greatest Chief Executive, Abraham Lincoln, the Democrats suffered for decades, marginalized as the party of rebellion. And even the best lessons left by the past are still forgotten in the heat of passion by those who know better. The Democrats shattered their party unity once again a hundred years later, splintered by the Vietnam War, social unrest, and racial strife. This is truly a cautionary tale for today’s splintering Republican Party.

Zealots do not compromise, and leading GOP candidates are spouting some pretty divisive vitriol. Southern Democrats self righteously rejected the national party certain it no longer represented them, and ultimately silenced the party of Jefferson and Jackson for decades. The lesson is clear for today’s Republicans. By tolerating demagoguery, extremism, and reckless fear-mongering in their field of contenders, the RNC may indeed face a similar demise. Now its true that no party can be all things to all citizens, nor should hardened splinter groups run away with the party.

The American public demands measured and thoughtful candidates—and both parties are expected to provide candidates of merit and substance.

We deserve leaders worth following.

As Senator Stephen Douglas refused to recognize that the political skies were falling around him, and his party, the modern Republican Party must not.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight a two-part memoir. Available on Kindle

Mont Chumbley: Night Flyer

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Sure he was far behind, Mont Chumbley pushed his Waco Cabin C through the night sky. Fresh from the Navy, the young aviator found himself wondering why in the world he’d agreed to enter this “Darkness Derby” competition in the first place.

Called “Chum” by his friends at Roosevelt Field, the pilot had begun a civilian career out of a Western Aircraft Company (Waco) hangar near Mineola, Long Island. Transporting press photographers and reporters to breaking news locations, plus teaching flight to the rich and famous, including Jaqueline Cochrane and Kathryn Hepburn, he found his niche. A 1933 flight to a horse track in Maryland set Chum’s course for the night race he now anxiously questioned.

 

Richard Ross, a financier who held a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, was the horse fancier who hired Chum. Ross needed a quick hop to Harve De Grace Track outside Baltimore, Maryland for a horse he had going on the afternoon card. Extremely impressed by the young pilot’s skill, (Chum landed his Waco in the track’s infield) Ross soon offered to pay for modifications to Chum’s Waco if the flyer would agree to enter the transcontinental Darkness Derby. Considering $1,500 in prize money that could really help him out, the young aviator agreed to enter.

Chum set off on September 29th, heading west, flying cross-country to his final destination—Glendale California’s Grand Central Terminal, the starting point for the air race.

Seeded second in a slate of seven planes, positions rated by horsepower and speed, Chum lifted into the growing dusk on October 1, 1933. Guided by a compass and tracking a full moon, the determined young pilot found conditions perfect, the clear night air permitting his Waco a smooth passage.

Before takeoff, Chum studied his competitors, becoming familiar with the pilots and aircraft he had to beat. Merle Nelson of Los Angeles flew a Stinson Cabin powered by a 200 hp Lycoming engine, and looked tough. Frank Bowman of El Paso, Texas in his 90 hp Lycoming engine Monocoupe appeared to be a contender as well. His own Waco Cabin purred with a 210 hp Continental engine, and Chum knew he could open it up to over 130 miles an hour, if necessary.

The moon as his guide, the Mojave Desert illuminated below, the little Waco pushed onward. Setting the aircraft down in Albuquerque, the pilot dutifully checked in with the ground judges, and then hurried to re-fuel. Making small talk with the teenager servicing his plane, Chum was told someone else had already landed and gone. Panic stricken, he cut the conversation short, and returned to the air as fast as he could. It was now that he pushed that plane full bore, resolved to catch up and beat any opponent.

At 9:37am, Mont Chumbley taxied onto the ground in Wichita, completing the first leg of the race in 12 hours and 17 minutes. There had been no other plane, at least not in this race. The kid in Albuquerque had been wrong. Four hours later Nelson arrived, and three other planes still in contention lagged far behind. Following a bit of rest at the field, then carefully inspecting the soundness of his equipment, the derby leader once again rolled down the runway, lifting off into the eastern sky.

Following another quick stop in Indianapolis to check in and fuel his Waco, the pilot learned he still held on to the lead. Satisfied, he returned to the darkness, fairly certain of a pending victory. However, that assurance evaporated when layers of cloud-cover compounded with darkness convinced the pilot that he had become utterly lost. Pushing on, buffeted about by worsening conditions, Chum began to worry he was squandering valuable time. Wracking his brains for deliverance, his aviator eyes suddenly spotted a break in the thick swirling mist. Not hesitating a moment, the Waco slipped through the hole that fortune had sent his way.

Underneath, clearly defined in the infinite blackness beamed a tiny, dim light. One. Chum decided to take his chances and try to figure out where he was. The landing didn’t go well. In swells of bumps, the Virginia farm boy realized his wheels were pounding on furrows of newly cleared fields. Drawing closer to that isolated light, Chum made out the side of a house, with an extended porch. Someone had to be inside.

 

He rapped on the weathered door, and waited. Sounds of scraping and thumping grew louder until the door opened revealing an equally weathered farmer, and his disheveled wife holding a candle. Chum smiled through the entryway, and in a friendly voice explained his dilemma. The farmer stared a moment, measuring the stranger’s sincerity, then decided to let him in.

As the wife poked the coals in the wood stove, and reached for the coffee pot, the farmer spread out maps on the table. Chum soon learned he had landed in western Pennsylvania, and wasn’t too far off course. Profoundly relieved, the young man stuffed cake in his mouth, downed a cup of coffee, and in a rush of heart-felt thanks again bumped over the dark fields back into the sky.

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The darkness soon transformed to early morning, and Chum wondered again where his fellow competitors were located. He knew he hadn’t lost too much time with his unexpected stop, but still fretted, uncertain about the status of the other flyers. Worried about the constant cloud cover that didn’t want to clear, he decided, as a last resort, he’d head out over the Atlantic, look for another break, and duck through. But once again luck smiled, and in the perfect light of morning, a providential clearing appeared and Chum took advantage.

On October 4, 1933 Montgomery Chumbley landed on Roosevelt Field #2, seeming the winner of the 2006 miles long Darkness Derby. However, judges and spectators rushed the plane, arms waving, and clipboards flashing to warn him he’d landed on the wrong strip! Shutting down his plane would have meant disqualification. Without a pause, Chum quickly taxied to Field #1, then turned off his engine, and in 24 hours, 12 minutes (two added for the last minute taxi) won the transcontinental air race.

 

The competition had been set as a preliminary event leading to Roosevelt Field’s National Air Pageant. The widely lauded landing launched the festivities planned for the rest of the week, including an exhibition by German stunt pilot, Ernst Udet. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the pageant, with proceeds earmarked for her charities, and Warner Brothers shared by premiering their newest film “Night Flight,” starring Helen Hayes and Clark Gable. On the evening of October 5, in a theater filled with flyers, Miss Hayes presented Chum with a trophy and his winnings, before screening the film. (Merle Nelson received $750 for second place, and Bowman $500 for coming in third.)

 

As for Chum in the days and weeks after the race? He became a minor New York celebrity, with aspiring students and eager press lining up for his flying services. In 1934 Waco hired him sending him to Rio de Janeiro to sell equipment to the Brazilian, and Argentine air ministries. By the time the Night Flight winner returned to the States in 1936, Mont Chumbley was the most prolific overseas salesman Waco employed.

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Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” a memoir. Look for “River of January: Figure Eight” out in November, 2016. Visit “River’s: home page at http://www.river-of-january.com.   

 

Crossing The Atlantic

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Dear Mother,
I hope that you aren’t too cross with me. We won’t be
gone long, and I will be home very soon. The three of us are
back in the lineup. Jans and Whalen play toreadors in the
opening number, and I am in a black and white feather
costume complete with white boots. The outfits are very snazzy.
We sing the show’s theme song, “Come Round London with
Me,” then “God Save the King.” We had to rehearse them
both, and the audience stands up and sings along when “God
Save the King” begins. Can you believe it?
Jans and I finally are doing our own skit. I wear my tap
shoes, a short flared skirt with suspenders and a huge pink bow
in my hair. On cue I timidly step to center stage (everyone can
hear each tap). Under the spotlight Jans, says “Did you come
out to sing a song for the nice people?”
I point to my throat and croak out “l-a- r-y- n-g- i-t- i-s.”
Jans answers, “Oh, that’s a shame we all were looking
forward to your number.”
I lean over and whisper into Jans’ ear. Jans then says
loudly “You want to whisper the words to me, and I sing the
song? Yes, yes, a grand idea! I would love to!” He announces
“This song is called “Where on Earth could all the Fairies
Be?”
I whisper in his ear, he sings a line, next whisper, he sings,
and then Jans finishes, arms opened wide belting the out the
refrain, “Where on Earth could all the Fairies Be?”
A spotlight quickly hits Jimmy Naughton, (he’s a Brit)
planted up in the balcony who calls out in an effeminate voice,

“Oh, my, where aren’t they?” The lights cut to black and the
crowd roars with laughter. Cute, huh?

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

Available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Amazon.com

Dancing To Faust

The visuals seemed odd.

While researching my first book, River of January, I discovered that Helen, a professionally trained dancer, and central figure in the memoir, performed with a professional troupe in the opera, Faust. The 1932 engagement, in Erba, Italy had been booked back in New York through the William Morris Agency before the girls set sail.

What hung me up was Satan needing backup dancers, and I wrote the episode in that spirit. Grand jetes’ and Beelzebub made strange stage partners.

Then, out of nowhere, I heard the opera played on NPR–specifically the ballet piece, composed by Charles Gounod. Listening to the music piqued my interest in finding video footage of the ballet. And I got lucky thanks to YouTube. Below is a clip of the ballet with a central character, Marguerite, Faust’s love, who has taken vows in a convent. And the dancing is beautiful.

It is lovely.

 

Helen (lower left) and her mementos from the performance in Erba, September, 1932

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight, available at www.river-of-january, and also available on Amazon.com