I understand that one of the US Olympic swimmers got his passport back from Brazilian authorities for $11,000. Reminded me of Helen Thompson’s arrival to Rio de Janeiro in 1936. Read on my friends.
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, a memoir. Also available on Kindle.
Look for River of January: The Figure Eight coming this Fall.