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

Beloved #392

 

“So buddy, I was wondering if you have any plans tonight,” Fred Murphy said as the Mariner throttled to the Alameda dock. “It’s nice to head over to San Francisco when the opportunity presents.”

“What did you have in mind, Murph?” asked Chum.

“Is that a yes? Because there is this place pilots really like—but it’s a kind of a surprise, and you’re gonna have to trust me.”

“You, Fred? Trust you? Should I pack my service revolver?”

“Just trust me, Chum.” Murphy smiled.

That evening, a yellow taxi crawled up the steep incline of Telegraph Hill in the drizzling rain—Coit Tower front and center in the foreground. From his vantage point in the cab, Chum studied the illuminated monument—the raindrops and the wipers making it an abstract, streaky blur one moment, a defined structure the next. Their cabbie downshifted, doubling horsepower for the uphill climb to a line of apartment buildings stacked along Montgomery Street. The taxi stopped at a plain stucco building, the simple design a contrast from the adjoining buildings with ornate wrought iron balconies. Murphy paid the cab fare.

“This doesn’t look like much of a nightclub, Fred,” Chum remarked.

“Trust, remember? Besides, this is the best place in the Bay Area for fellas like us, pal. You just wait—she’s gonna love you.”

“You know I’m married, Fred.”

“Ha! Funny, Chum. So am I.”

The men ducked under the stoop and Fred gave a quick knock on the door. After a moment, a small Asian woman opened the door. She’s smaller than Bertha, Chum thought. The maid maybe?

“Lieutenant Murphy! Welcome back, welcome back,” The woman’s smile transformed in warm recognition. “You have escorted someone new to meet me, I see. Is he as skilled as you, my dear lieutenant?” Chum felt his jaw drop. Murphy laughed.

“Hello, Mother.” Murphy stooped and pecked the woman’s cheek.

Under her wire-framed spectacles, “Mother” shifted her appraising eyes back to Chum. “Welcome to my home, Lieutenant. And you are . . . ?”

Still unsure about why he was there, Chum stumbled over his answer. “Chumbley, ma’am. Lieu . . . Lieutenant Montgomery Chumbley. But please call me Chum.”

“Delighted to meet you, Lieutenant Chum. I can see that Fred did not prepare you for this visit.” Mother’s eyes returned to Murphy, conveying a light reprimand. To Chum she said, “I am Doctor Margaret Chung, but as you have already witnessed, all my sons refer to me as ‘Mother.’ Lieutenant Murphy has brought you here tonight to not simply meet a nice Chinese lady, but—I would guess—for your formal adoption into my family. Please come in, come in.” Dr. Chung gestured down a long, cluttered hall, and the two pilots complied.

Presented with such a confusion of artifacts, it was hard to know where to look first. Framed glossies of smiling aircrews, salvaged pieces from Nakajimas and Zeros—propellers, pieces of fuselages, wings—graffiti-strewn flags bearing the distinctive rising sun, spent torpedo casings, Hellcat and Corsair unit insignias, and hundreds of news clippings and snapshots of smiling pilots . . . her walls a chaotic collage of air war memorabilia. Dr. Chung studied Chum’s incredulous face as he absorbed the massive collection, visibly pleased with his reaction.

“Please find a seat, gentlemen, and allow me to explain my haphazard museum to our guest,” Dr. Chung said. Chum slumped into a stuffed wingback chair, his eyes still sweeping the memorabilia. “As you already know, Lieutenant Chum, China is presently suffering under the cruel occupation of the Japanese Empire. You need look no further than the barbarism that took place in the city of Nanking to understand my natural revulsion.”

Chum nodded. He had seen newsreels of the butchery in that city.

Dr. Chung’s eyes reflected both tragedy and determination. “I have made it my mission to raise not only awareness but also funds for the suffering people of China. It is men like you, our skilled pilots, who are striking most directly against the foe, and that kind of bravery has made you one of my dearest sons.”

Dr. Chung dropped her gaze and reached over to an end table, picking up a leather-bound ledger. She shuffled through the pages, passing inscribed signatures, finally chancing on a blank space. Holding her fountain pen, Mother began scribbling into the register. “There—done.” She glanced at Chum. “You, Lieutenant Chum, are now officially a member of the Fair Haired Bastards. Ah, let me see”—Dr. Chung silently calculated—“you are son number three hundred and ninety-two.”

She extracted a small card from a drawer in the end table and carefully filled in the blank lines. Finished, the surgeon rose and, with a handshake, presented the card to her new visitor. Chum read:

This is to certify that

Montgomery Chumbley

Is a member of Dr. Margaret Chung’s Fair Haired Bastard’s Club, San Francisco

                                                                                         Margaret J. Chung MD

Her intense eyes softened, her smile gentled. “Remain safe in those dangerous skies, Lieutenant Chum. I don’t want to lose any more of my sons.”

Chum glimpsed over to his co-pilot, then back to his exceptional hostess, grappling for something to say. “Thank you, ma’am. This is an unexpected honor, and I will do my best to defeat our enemy.”

At that, Dr. Chung beamed, offering the boys a beer. More relaxed, the doctor inquired about their aircraft, their primary duties, and what they had seen of the fighting.

“Doctor Chung, ma’am,” Chum said, still inspecting the cluttered walls. “I just have to ask. Who is Fair Haired Number One?

“Ah.” She nodded, producing a wry smile. “An excellent pilot, and he’s from this area—from San Francisco. You may know him, Lieutenant Chum. His name is Lieutenant Bancroft, Stevens Bancroft.”

Of course he is. Chum threw his head back and laughed. “Oh yes, I know him, ma’am.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January” and River of January: Figure Eight.” Books are available at www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle. 

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Saddle Shoes, Florida, & Rosalie Sorrels

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I never imagined a living legend would grace my home.

The weather had finally turned at the cabin; brief, chilly showers shifting into warm sunny intervals–golden debris blowing across the deck. I had given up clearing away leaves and pine needles, settling instead for mopping rainwater off of plastic chairs. In our cabin for less than a year, my husband and I had volunteered our small place to host a fund raiser for two local candidates running for county offices.

Guests began arriving in late afternoon, carting in plates of finger food and bags of chips. Visitors commandeered my little kitchen, quickly producing cheese & meat trays, while toasting garlic bread in the oven. Shuffling knives and serving spoons, I glanced up to an opening door to greet one of the arriving candidates. Her husband followed her bearing a big smile and carrying an old fashioned squeeze box—a melodeon. I sensed a forthcoming singalong.

I vaguely recognized the third visitor passing through the threshold. After introductions were made, the mystery cleared; the lady was legendary folk singer, Rosalie Sorrels. She had driven over with the candidate and her husband, as they were friends from the other side of the county. I had seen Sorrels before in concert, and honestly grew tongue-tied meeting her in person.

The room filled and the evening warmed–mellowed by good wine and friendly camaraderie. Ms Sorrels drifted around the room, chatting here and there, while perusing our limited artwork. She admired, in particular, a panel of over-sized Florida scenes, soon sharing tales of chauffeuring her children through the Sunshine State many years earlier. At one point, she and I shared a moment out on that leaf-strewn deck, agreeing that cutting down a tree, even as a safety measure, was still a shame. But the big conversation that memorable night centered on my footwear, a pair of vintage saddle shoes.

One woman told us that at her California high school everyone called these shoes Oxfords, and were acceptable only in white. Ms. Sorrels happily joined in with a story of her trusty black and white pair. Mine were coffee and cream, the same as I wore when I attended grade school. Odd, but in that moment we all seemed to channel our long ago girlhoods; guarded adult caution melting away in the banter. Animated with a gentle, expressive smile, Rosalie, too, swapped memories, chuckling along with the rest of us.

As dusk fell, and lamp light filled the house, our company began to depart. There were long drives ahead, and people needed to get going. My husband and I waved goodbye, pleased we had opened up our home for the event. And in the following days we shared with anyone who would listen that Rosalie Sorrels visited our cabin. If they didn’t recognize the name, they did after we were through singing her praises.

That was nearly ten years ago.

When it came across the news last week that Sorrels had passed away in Reno, my mind traveled back to that singular Fall evening. I recognized then, and I still believe, that the cosmos handed us a mighty gift in that visit, of a luminary who had once driven to Florida with her kids and, like the rest of us wore saddle shoes.

Gail Chumbley is a nationally recognized history instructor, and the author of the two-part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Also on Amazon.

We All Do

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Sitting in on a writing seminar a while back, the keynote speaker, finishing his remarks on the business of publishing, opened the floor for questions. A young lady, seated at the end of my row grew visibly nervous and asked, “But, I don’t want to have to market my books, I just want to write them.”

In a gentle voice, the guest speaker replied, “We all do, but that’s no longer how the book business works.”

And, readers, that no longer is how the book business works.

Agents and publishers today are far more concerned with a writers social media platform, then any content wedged between a book’s jacket. Even traditionally published authors must carry the heaviest burden of getting their works into the public arena. For example, I’ve been watching a news commentator on one of the cable networks handling the publication of his new book. He still does his broadcast every night, but goes on air from the various venues where he is presenting–like the parking lot of Barnes & Noble the other night. At the end of each program, this correspondent plugs his title and where his next appearance is scheduled. He has quite the platform, and his publisher loves it.

Now some everyday folks are pretty savvy at this platform game, too. Utilizing electronic media, many writers successfully finesse Facebook analytics, embed advertisements on search engines, as well as on Nook Press, Kobo, Amazon, and a multitude of other outlets.  And I must add that I am in awe of this style of enterprise and business outreach. Many of these electronic resources are way out of my skill set–cultivating an online following one of my most daunting challenges.

Plainly history education and story telling is my forte; Selling–shilling my name and image about, leaves me a bit overwhelmed and self conscious. Like the young lady at the seminar, I just want to write my books, too.

Sometimes I wonder if I would have written anything, knowing what I know now about the media game. But then I remember some particular episode, his heart-pounding night flight in 1933, or her dance tour of Europe during the rise of Hitler, and I realize writing River of January, and Figure Eight was never a choice: life handed the task to me, and I am responsible.

So I switched on my laptop and wrote this blog.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January and River of January: Figure Eight

Also available on Amazon. River of January is on sale this weekend on Kindle.

 

Reading Aloud

There were a lot of short stories that worked well for my history students. “The Fog on Pemble Green,” by Shirley Barker “Sowing the Wind,” by Bruce Catton, and “A Spy for Washington,” by Leonard Falkner are just three that quickly come to mind when I think about reading to my classes. Students appeared to like listening, too. Their usual frenetic teenage energy melted away, and the kids seemed to remember their first grade sense of wonder.

Over thirty years I read those pieces, changing the dramatic rise and fall of each story; a girl falsely accused of witchcraft to hide a real murder plot, bitter ante-bellum violence foreshadowing  the Civil War, and a brave nondescript man who made General Washington’s attack on Trenton possible with his secrecy.

And reading aloud worked, providing literary backdrops to historical events. Evidently, despite one’s age, everybody loves a good story.

Tomorrow I have the opportunity to record my first book, River of January, at the Commission for the Blind. I earnestly hope to revive that voice that once held kids still, captivated and comforted. However, an extended reading session is both exciting and a bit terrifying–I’m not sure the old pipes are still as flexible. But, hopefully the flow of the story will compensate for any vocal deficiencies I’ve acquired.

 

 

Perhaps you might enjoy a preview of tomorrow’s narrative

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January and River of January: Figure Eight.

For the remainder of March, 2017, all purchases of book two, Figure Eight includes a complimentary ebook of book one, River of January.

 

“River” Nabs A Nod

Rediscovered Bookshop has named “River of January” a winner in it’s recent book trailer contest.

Click the link, and enjoy the clips.

 

Rediscovered Bookshop

 

Gail Chumbley is the author of the River of January series. Both books are available at Rediscovered Books, Amazon.com and on our website.

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You Know You Should Be Glad

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It was the night of February 9, 1964, a Sunday, when my older brother and I had to make a crucial decision.  We were both over stimulated, frantic, not one of our four feet remaining long on the floor. The house vibrated with our excitement and the weight of our impossible dilemma. For starters our birthday was the following day–the 10th, (though we’re not twins–he’s a year older). Still, that pre-birthday fuse had already ignited and by the 9th the two of us were banking off the walls.

The quandary we faced that Sunday night was whether to watch “Davy Crockett at the Alamo,” starring Fess Parker on Disney (The Alamo!), or the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. This was that first historic Beatles broadcast, live on American television, and we agonized between the two choices.

In 1964 there were no video players, no DVD players, no home computers, or dvr’s, in fact televisions were the size of Volkswagen’s and transmitted in glorious, flickering black and white. This difficult decision counted because there was no rewind, there were no do-overs. One gain meant one loss.

We liked Davy Crockett an awful lot.  We had watched all the previous episodes, and Davy biting the dust in San Antonio was the much anticipated grand finale. But, oh, the Beatles! And the adoration was real, palpable, an injection of adrenaline without the needle. We worshiped at the warmth of our bedroom radios, perpetually tuned in to our local AM radio station. Reverent silence accompanied replays of “She Loves You,” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”

What could two grade schoolers, sick with anticipation do with such a weighty conundrum?  It was 1964 and we had to choose.

Before the proliferation of electronic media, this little girl of the 1960’s viewed momentous events as they beamed across the screen. MLK’s elocution at the Lincoln Memorial, President Kennedy’s inaugural address, his assassination, and the escalating war in Southeast Asia–all experienced as reported at that moment.

In an earlier era, when Chum flew in his air race, and Helen danced in Rio at the Copacabana, there were no camcorders or Iphones. His signature landing and Helen’s near disastrous opening night grew silent as the applause subsided, then faded in time. Much like my brother and myself in 1964, they lived life forward, one opportunity at a time.

Silent photos and written records are all that remain verifying Chum’s aerial dash through darkened skies, and Helen’s energetic dance routines. They lived life forward, embracing events as they unfolded–experienced once, then gone. I would love to see footage of Chum’s Waco airplane lifting off at dusk, or watch Helen spring across the stage. But those wishes are pipe dreams, never to happen. No vintage film or recording, (except one I found by accident) exist in the historic record. The best I can do for myself, and for readers, is try to recreate the magic of the first time around in the pages of my River of January.

Oh, by the way, I’ve never seen “Davy Crockett at the Alamo.”

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

From The Top Balcony

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A gentleman called the house last week asking to speak to me. Since I was out, my husband began chatting with the caller, and once again, as has so many times before, something magic happened related to my books.

This man had discovered “River of January: Figure Eight,” through a series of clicks on social media, and found enough information to phone our home. He had hoped to gather more about the professional Ice Shows at Center Theater during the war in New York. The reason he asked was that his aunt had skated in the productions, (created by Sonja Henie, and choreographed by ballet mistress, Catherine Littlefield) and that his aunt was still living!

On Sunday night, following my own conversation with the nephew, I had the honor of speaking to Gertrude, “Trudy” Schneider, now a young 93 years old. This grand lady, residing in Canada, apologized that she had only known Helen Thompson, my central character in the memoir, from the theater dressing room. Though Trudy skated evenings with Helen, she attended school during the day, as she was only sixteen years old. That made sense since Helen was close to thirty when she began the show, and a mother by that time.

Trudy further detailed her life story, adding that she and her family, with relatives already in America, came to the country from Vienna in 1939. Under Nazi occupation, Austria was not a safe place for Jews any longer, and so she, her parents, and one brother made their way to the US. A skater since childhood, she had been ‘discovered’ skating at Madison Square Garden, and promptly signed by the Center Theater front office. Her parents weren’t thrilled about their daughter working, but according to her nephew, Trudy earned $45.00 a week, making her income vital.

I also found out that one of my favorite character’s in “Figure Eight,” Vera Hruba, a Czech skater,  advised Trudy to always remember her false eyelashes. According to Hruba that was all a girl needed.

As our conversation progressed she seemed to recall more details about her experience at the theater, including how a typical rehearsal transpired. Catherine Littlefield, the  choreographer mentioned above, would climb to the top tier of the fourth balcony and critique the final run-through from her lofty perch. Trudy implied an aura of imperial omnipotence in Miss Littlefield’s seating choice, judging the performance from on high.

Conversing with Trudy felt like time travel; that I had reached back and touched 1943 New York. When I find this book business overwhelming–when I wonder why I bothered to take on the project, a “Trudy” moment presents itself.

Then I remember.

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Helen Thompson (Chumbley) first girl on right, Trudy Schneider, second girl from right.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight, a memoir in two volumes.

 

 

 

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

Music and Story

Happy Dr. King Day. For your viewing pleasure here is the official book trailer for River of January. Kudos to Robert Frazier of Solid Media–he did the magic.

 

River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight is available at www.river-of-january or at amazon.com/author/gailchumbley