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

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

An American Girl Abroad, 1932

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Read River of January for the story behind the pictures.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, a memoir, also available on Kindle. Watch for the sequel, “River of January: Figure Eight” out in November.

Saturday Market

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“River of January” is flying into the Eagle Saturday Market. Come by and say hello. Join the many who have read and loved this exciting, true adventure. Gail Chumbley, the author will be on hand to sign books from 9:30 to 2:00pm.

River of January is available online at www.river-of-january.com, at Amazon.com, and on Kindle. Look for  the sequel, “River of January: The Figure Eight,” this Fall.

Guanabara Bay at Sunrise

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South Atlantic

 1936

Aside from the never-ending Elie issue, the voyage itself passed pleasantly. Helen and Lila scrambled out of their beds each morning ready for fun. They hurried to breakfast in the dining room, joining the other young people on the ship. And depending on their moods, Helen and her cohorts played shuffleboard, ping-pong, or other games on deck. After meals she strolled with Lila around the upper level, and the girls always found time to take in the afternoon sun.

Helen enjoyed the scenic two-week voyage, which included additional ports of call along the way, for passengers and mail. Helen noticed that each time they docked, The Southern Cross steered into harbors increasingly clogged with more ocean-going traffic. Recife, in particular was congested enough the ship had to sit off shore until its scheduled arrival time. Anxious for Rio, Helen asked a crew member why the ship had to sit and wait.

“Must keep to the timetable, Miss. The cost of coming into port early can be as high as $500 a day.”

After another stop in Vitorio, the ship downshifted to a veritable crawl. She could feel the air thicken, heavy and muggy, in the motionless heat. Sweltering, the two American girls grew impatient with the slower pace and filled their time packing then repacking their trunks.

The last night on board, Helen took her time washing and setting her hair. She had painted her nails and toes a bright red, and had gone to bed early; 8:00 PM. Lila did the same. The day before, during lunch, an elderly lady from Connecticut had described the beauty of approaching Rio by sea.

“There is no panorama more exquisite than entering Guanabara Bay at sunrise,” the matron declared, her eyes bright with enthusiasm.

Their curiosity piqued, the girls thanked their luncheon partner, and agreed to greet the dawn as it lighted their nearly mythical destination.

The deck appeared empty, dark, and still just before 4:30 AM.  The girls had stumbled out of their beds, pulled on their robes, and stepped out into the cool air. As Helen’s eyes adjusted, she could identify other early risers, also clad in their robes. Clustering at the railing, the onlookers were absolutely overwhelmed with the panorama that gradually unveiled before them.

Helen gazed as the sun, rising from behind her, shadowed an elongated silhouette of the ship on the quiet water. Sugar Loaf Mountain presented slowly, from the summit down, exposed by the rising light, cobalt and gold reflecting on the calm, glassy bay. The relatively dry morning air and growing excitement over their imminent departure from the ship left both girls exhilarated.

“Lila, this was a keen idea!”

“Sure was. Glad I thought of it,” Lila replied, laughing.

*

Helen’s intuition alerted her that something wasn’t quite right. Standing behind Lila, in the customs queue, she watched as a short, balding official approached them from the head of the line. He tapped both girls on the shoulder, gesturing for them to step off to the side.

Innocently, she and her friend complied, dragging their trunks and pulling smaller bags with them. The official then returned to the front of the passageway without a word. The two girls looked at each other, puzzled at the strange request. There seemed to be no special reason they were targeted, and no one who bothered to provide them with an explanation.

The Club Copacabana manager, Mr. Max Koserin arrived to the docks to personally pick up his American dancers around 10:00 AM. He smiled at his new employees, whom he noticed at once. His expression shifted dramatically, however, when he realized they were standing alone, outside of the customs queue, with their baggage at their feet.

“Good Morning, ladies. I presume that you are Miss Thompson and Miss Hart?” Koserin asked.

Helen spoke first. “Yes. I’m Helen, and this is Lila. Thank goodness you’re here, Mr. Koserin. That man at the front pulled us out of line without telling us why. We don’t understand what’s going on.”

“Please try not to worry,” their new boss assured, looking them both in the eye. “I will get to the bottom of this unfortunate misunderstanding.”

Koserin walked to the customs officer and began what quickly escalated into a heated exchange. Helen felt her hope for a quick resolution fade.

“This gentleman has informed me that the city of Rio has recently passed an ordinance requiring all foreign acts coming into the city to deposit a bond with the police,” the club manager explained when he returned.

“We have to…?” Lila began to cry out.

“No, no, my dear, that is my job,” Koserin soothed the frightened dancer.

Mr. Koserin explained that the sum required for their bond totaled the entire eight-week salary for both girls, paid in advance. Strangely, Helen again became calm when the manager didn’t blink at the so-called “news.” In fact he showed no surprise at all. She guessed he expected the snag.

Still, he turned to the girls and cautioned, “Please do not worry, I will be back.”

Lila opened her mouth to speak, but Koserin raised his hand, continuing, “It will take most of the day to generate that sum of money. Stay together and please don’t be alarmed.”

Koserin smiled serenely and then departed.

Again watching the little bald bureaucrat, she noticed that he barely glanced at the passports of travelers he was processing. She quickly understood that the two of them were victims of petty corruption. No actual protocols existed for performers or any other workers to enter the country. She recalled her trips to the police station and consulate in New York, now wondering why she had bothered.

As the day dragged on, Helen grew more certain that their new boss’ presence wasn’t just limited to a warm welcome and a lift to their hotel. She believed that Koserin had rescued other new acts delayed the same way. And though she trusted that he would return with their affidavits, it didn’t help that both girls were stranded in the heat and humidity. No one offered them a chair, a drink of water, shade, or any help. The two Americans just stood miserably under the Rio sun.

When Lila meekly asked, the chief steward refused to permit them to go to their compartment to wait out of the heat.

Wiping her forehead with a handkerchief from her purse, Helen sighed.  It had been hours, and there was no sign of Mr. Koserin with their ransom. Her eyes, automatically raked the docks searching for their boss, then toward the departing passengers. It was at that moment Helen locked eyes with the bullish little customs agent.

“That official over there, do you see him? Helen whispered to Lila.

“The man who pulled us out of line?” Lila asked.

“Yes, him.”  He keeps leering at me. It’s been getting worse the last hour or so.”

“Disgusting!” Lila scoffed.

“I wonder how often that little twit gets away with his scheme,” Helen quipped. Both girls shuddered, glancing again toward the toad-like bureaucrat.

Time ground on and they watched as a queue of new passengers began boarding from the dock below.

Observing the foot traffic Helen realized, “Lila, I think we have another problem. This ship is scheduled to leave for Buenos Aires at five o’clock.”  Swallowing her panic she added, “And we’re going too, if this problem isn’t resolved.”

Out of the corner of her eye she caught the official again, grinning suggestively. Tears traced down Lila’s pink, burning cheeks.

Turning away, glancing automatically toward the dock, Helen gasped as a throng of newspapermen and photographers swarmed up the passageway. “Someone’s tipped a Rio newspaper. We’re news, now.”

Reporters crowded around their trunks, shouting in Portuguese, vying for a story or photo of the two trapped American starlets.

Lila, wet-eyed, stared ahead, not acknowledging the cameras or chaos. Helen, feeling protective of her new friend, held up one hand, blocking the mob, while placing her other arm around her distressed friend. Beginning to lose her own composure, she glanced again from her wristwatch to the dock, as Mr. Koserin suddenly appeared. He had finally returned. Striding with authority up the passageway, carrying papers above his head, Koserin presented two affidavits of money placed with the local magistrates.

“I have never been so happy to see someone in my life!” Helen laughed, now equally as teary eyed. Truly, for both girls, Koserin was a sight for sore eyes. The manager glared coldly as the disappointed official shrugged, accepting the documents—releasing the Americans to enter the city.

After the all-day ordeal the two demoralized girls descended the passageway with their benefactor. Helen asked Koserin for only one kindness, “Could we please have a drink of water?”

Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” a memoir. Hard copies are available at http://www.river-of-january.com, and also on Kindle

Questions or comments? Contact Gail at gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Last Flight

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Chum returned to uniform by August 1941. Luckily he had worked for Eastern Air Lines exactly one year, vesting his employment, ensuring a job when he returned from the war. But that raises an interesting question, what war? There was no American war. Six more months transpired until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The answer to this intriguing question reads something like this; President Roosevelt instituted the preparations he could–Cash and Carry,The Destroyer Deal, quickly followed by the Lend Lease Act in 1941. America’s first peacetime draft had already been activated the year before, in 1940. Everybody knew what was coming, except for the bulk of the American population. They found out the hard way, later, across the Pacific, on a mild Hawaiian Sabbath.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir, River of January, and the forthcoming sequel, River of January: The Figure Eight.

River of January is also available on Kindle.

A Chesterfield Christmas

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Found this gem on the back cover of a 1948 playbill. The program was “Hats Off to Ice,” a Sonja Henie icetravaganza at Rockefeller Center’s Center Theatre. Time to consider new Christmas tree decorations.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, a memoir. Also available on Kindle.

Look for the sequel, “River of January: The Figure Eight,” coming soon.