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.
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?”
Questions or comments? Contact Gail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
My husband got a tattoo. I don’t like tattoos. He’s too old for a tattoo. And I didn’t approve until he showed me the result.
This sweetheart chose the Sopwith Camel from my book cover, River of January.
I can’t be too annoyed, dammit.
This letter, one of hundreds of documents used in River of January, marks Chum’s first discharge from the Navy in 1933. This letter speaks highly of the young man who five months later would prevail in the “Darkness Derby,” continental air race.
Thursday, May 12th River of January meets the Boise Public Library.
Join Gail for a lively, multimedia look at the archive that became the memoir,
The program begins at 7pm in the third floor’s Marion Bingham Room.
“This history could be lost” had she not known the story. Janet Juroch~The Idaho World
This is part of a snapshot taken in Rome in 1932. Helen, the subject of my book, River of January stands above wearing the white fur-collared coat. Posing next to her, in the white cap is dancer, Carmen Morales, another member of the “American Beauties,” an American ballet company. The two girls met when both were cast in this troupe booked to dance across the cities of Europe. They remained the closest of friends until Helen’s death in 1993.
I have perused countless pictures of Helen’s European tour, closely, (close as with a magnifying glass) the faces of her fellow dancers. And I have decided that of all the girls in the show Carmen, next to Helen of course, was a classic American Beauty.
From the little I could find on the internet Carmen was born in the Spanish Canary Islands around 1914, and came to the US where her father had business interests. She trained in ballet, and after an audition was booked to tour with dance mistress, Maria Gambarelli. On the ship’s crossing to Le Havre the girls fused together into a solid little unit, and to trouble one meant facing the wrath of all.
During their travels, Carmen met a fellow American dancer, Earl Leslie and the two fell in love. Earl and Carmen soon married in Marseilles, and left the show when Earl received a better offer. A German businessman wanted him to manage a string of nightclubs out of Berlin. They took the job to give their new life together a chance. But history was conspiring against Carmen and her new husband when Nazi authorities harassed the two and pressured them out of the country. That was in 1934.
The couple again joined their old dance company, but by that point Helen had returned to New York. Meanwhile Earl, Carmen and the rest of their company signed contracts to play in Argentina into 1935-36. It was in Buenos Aires that Earl Leslie began an open love affair with another dancer and broke Carmen’s heart.
Carmen returned to New York, divorced Leslie and moved to Los Angeles to resume her show business career. Her big break came in 1940 when she was cast by director John Ford to play in “The Long Voyage Home,” starring John Wayne. I’m not sure how many films Carmen made, but she quickly fell into a type-cast, that of the femme fatale–a far cry from her sweet, sensitive nature.
Making her home in Sherman Oaks, California by the 1950’s, Carmen began the transition to television. Well into the 1960’s she appeared in minor roles on a number of prime time dramas, still taking the time to step on local stages for live productions.
Through all those decades, Carmen and Helen remained great friends. If Helen didn’t travel to Los Angeles for a visit,Carmen flew to Miami. My husband recalls the fun his mother had entertaining her good friend, sitting around the little kitchen table, drinking bourbon on the rocks, jangling charm bracelets emphasizing the light spirits, and smoking cigarettes.
I am not sure when Carmen died. I don’t know if it was before or after Helen. But Carmen truly deserves to be remembered for her own journey through the twentieth century. She lived an epic life and had stories to tell. Sadly we will never hear them. Except for those few with an encyclopedic knowledge of film, Carmen Morales has been left to disappear into the past.
So, when you hoist one tonight, make the toast in the memory of a real American Beauty, the lovely Carmen Morales.
Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, available now.
My husband and I have talked a lot about how his mother and aunt supported their own mother when they were girls. By the time Helen’s father died in 1925, Helen was forced by circumstances to become a professional dancer. She would have followed that path anyway, but had to make the decision sooner than any of them expected. The fatherless little family desperately needed the income and the mother didn’t work outside the home.
The City of New York enforced what were called the “Gerry Laws,” age restrictions for children in show business. The minimum age for child performers was set at 16, though Helen danced plenty before legally permissable. With the right application of make-up and her mother along at auditions, confirming the girl was of age, she landed two contracts still closer to 14 years-old than 16. Helen did a little modeling for romance magazines, too, costumed in lingerie more suitable for a 20 year old.
It felt easy to judge her mother for exploiting Helen’s talent for her own financial benefit. But after more research for the book, River of January, I found the practice of pushing children on to the stage was more common and egregious than anything concocted by Helen’s mother.
Many small children acts crossed the vaudeville stage. These precocious kids forfeited an ordinary childhood to support their ambitious parents. Some of the more famous child acts included Sammy Davis Jr, “Baby” June Havoc from Gypsy fame, Bobby Short, and “Baby” Rose Marie. These children were no more than preschoolers and unable to say no, or make any of their own decisions. And the laws were on the books in most cities to protect children from these exploitative adults.
For the parents of these children violations meant jail time, if they were caught. And mothers or fathers spent as much effort dodging law enforcement as they did in promoting their little ones’ careers.
I started out this piece to honor those champions of child welfare. I believed these reformers battled for vulnerable children, who had no one looking out for their best interests. Then it hit me that other small children at the exact same time were more brutalized in other sectors of the economy. These same “Gerry Laws” did nothing to spare those little kids from the hazardous mines and mills of America.
I’ve decided that these “do-gooders” chose to target theaters because the stage was so visible. While these so-called reformers made names for themselves crusading in the theater district, other children faced greater threats laboring as virtual slaves. Young children suffered perilous dangers, becoming victims of accidents, crushed below ground in coal mines, or mangled in the machinery of filthy factories. Those abuses were committed out of the public eye.
The city fathers looked quite virtuous to the public, as did the police in ferreting out vaudeville’s exploitation of young children. Bad, self-serving parents either paid big fines, or served time, satisfying the community’s outrage.
It may appear at first glance that Helen was misused by her widowed mother by going to work so young. But in comparison to say, 4-year-old Baby Rose Marie, or the multitudes of tiny children facing 60-hour weeks in textile mills, Helen’s experience was more a joy than a sacrifice for her family.
One of the toughest obstacles I faced writing River of January, was assuming I knew the family story best. These people were real and left a rich paper trail of their dramatic lives. I was lucky enough have recorded interviews, stories graciously shared by family members, and volumes of letters, mementos, and photographs. The internet, too, has been helpful.
Still, I struggled with the presumptuous notion of interpreting Helen and Chum’s lives through my understanding. After agonizing for a good year over the arrogance of committing their lives to paper, I experienced a moment of clarity.
These two deserve to be remembered. If that task was placed in my novice hands, so be it.
I have since spent the last three years learning how to write, because this story must be told, their adventures pieced together into a more coherent picture.
I hope to share more regarding the events that led to this book in future blogs.