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.

This video doesn’t exist


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


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

Crossing The Atlantic


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
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?


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

Guanabara Bay at Sunrise


South Atlantic


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


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 Tattoo?

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.


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


Lucky Thirteen


In River of January and the sequel, The Figure Eight, (in progress) Mont Chumbley repeatedly insists the number 13 is lucky for him. In that spirit “Chum” left the US Navy on June 13, 1933, his 24th birthday, to pursue a career in civilian aviation. Today would be the pilot’s 107th birthday. For more of his fascinating story read River of January, available in hard copy and on Kindle.

La marchande de frites

la marchande de fritesThe time was August, 1932. The place was Monte Carlo. This little gem is a menu from an eatery patronized by Helen and her fellow ballerinas, the “American Beauties.” Though the cover is a print, the interior meal selections were meticulously   penned in an ultraviolet flourish.

Helen collected a dozen or so such menus on her year-long excursion; pocketed from bistro’s, pubs, and cafe’s across Europe.  It is hard to say if management frowned upon this custom, or offered menus willingly for advertising purposes. Regardless, the simple beauty of the artwork and flowing cursive recalls a commitment to elegance and style long since abandoned.


la marchand menu

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, a non-fiction memoir.


Brussels, November, 1932


From the new memoir, River of January . . .

Booked at the Palace Hotel in Brussels, the show’s new variety lineup fused seamlessly. First the star, Mistinguett, with the ballet troupe opened the evening program. Helen, unable to dance both with her friends and in her solo, chose the latter. Happily, it became a crowd favorite. Though she would have liked to dance with the company, Helen knew the ovations she garnered were well worth watching the opening from the wings. Next on the bill was synchronized dancing from American Earl Leslie and his line of hoofers, followed by the other company entertainers and their specialties.
The program closed with the full cast in a colorful, peacock-inspired, extravaganza. It featured Mistinguett center-stage, supporting a headdress of colossal feathered plumes of blue, turquoise, and purple, shimmering above her blonde hair. Her “Beauties” were costumed in silvery tutus, sequined halters, and tight, sparkling caps, each sprouting over sized silver feathers, flanking their star from both sides.
The male dancers, in black tuxedos, peeked out between each feathered girl. Under the dazzling lights, the symmetrical tableau moved patrons to their feet, applauding and shouting for more.
For a second night more flowers appeared, and this time a note accompanied the gift on Lillian’s dressing room table. As she again picked up the vase and turned toward the trash bin, Carmen stopped her, “At least read the note first, Lillian.”
“Yeah Lil, c’mon!” the other dancers chanted.
“Who wrote it?” asked Grace.
“Is it signed?” wondered Carmen.
Rolling her eyes, the dancer huffed dramatically, then slit open the note with a nail file and read in a flat, monotone:

You were really wonderful in your solo specialty and all through the review and I do want once again to ask you if you will let me pilot you through town in my car when and for as long as you may care. Should you not care to see or know me, please allow these flowers to tell you of my admiration, and remember that you have a person who cares for you in the little city of Brussels.

“But I didn’t have a solo,” Lillian exclaimed. “The only one who had a solo was…”
The girls stood silently, and then all eyes shifted to Helen. Lillian laughed once—a bit annoyed, and handed the vase to her friend, saying, “I believe these belong to you.”
Banter erupted again, now aimed at Helen.
“Jeepers girl, he admires you!” and “Wonder who it is that cares for you in this little city, kid?”
Helen took their teasing in stride, curtsying and blowing kisses. But when the dancers began chatting about the imminent cast party, Helen lowered herself onto a rickety stool and read on. “I feel I must say that I am not an ‘old butter and egg man’ … I am just twenty-eight and not too ugly … My only fault is that I think you are my ideal.”
Her eyes lingered on the words “my ideal.” Unexpectedly charmed, Helen appraised this communiqué with new eyes, and decided to follow the mysterious sender’s written instructions on how and where to meet him.
She dressed quickly and quietly to avoid any friendly needling. Helen hurried out the dressing room, heaving open the steel stage door into the quiet alley behind the theater.
Stepping to the corner of the building, she peeked around to the snow-lined, busy street. Helen carefully studied the faces of the bundled up after-theatre crowd crunching by, and scrutinized moving and parked automobiles. From her vantage point, She soon spied a grey Packard, emitting white-blue exhaust from a quietly idling engine. Scanning the note again, Helen felt certain that the young man would be waiting in that car. Her stomach faintly roiling, she stepped forward, trying to distinguish the driver through his frosty door window.
Helen realized, “Oh, he looks nice,” and shyly continued to approach his vehicle. The driver stepped out of his door, all smiles.
“You must be Lillian,” he beamed, “I am Elie. Elie Gelaki,” he added, bowing to kiss Helen’s gloved hand. She noticed that the young man’s voice formally articulated his clear English.
She bashfully smiled and felt her face grow warm. “Actually, I’m Helen,” she clarified. “I do hope that I am the one the message was meant for…”
Elie Gelaki unexpectedly gazed at her forcefully. “I meant you.”
The two stood self-consciously beside the running automobile.
“Why don’t I take you inside this café? It is quite cold tonight.”
“That would be lovely, Mr. Gelaki,” Helen smiled, more relaxed.
The young man gently took hold of her arm, explaining, “I’m Elie, and this street is quite icy.” He courteously escorted the dancer into a nearby coffee house.
“So you are the Helen Thompson on the bill, not Lillian Ward,” he said after they were seated. “I am sorry about the confusion. I hope it was of no embarrassment to you.”
“No more than usual,” the dancer laughed. “My friends spend more time teasing each other than dancing.” She paused, changing the subject. “Tell me about yourself, Elie.”
“I am a native of Palestine. But now I live here, in Brussels, with my mother and two sisters. My dear father has been for dead for some time.” He noticed Helen suddenly frown. “Did I say something offensive?”
“No. I’m sorry. My father died some years ago, too.” Helen’s own grief abruptly gripped her heart. After Floyd Thompson died, after his funeral, she knew something truly good had vanished forever from her world.
Her frown turned into a sympathetic smile. His face glowed in reply
Elie changed the subject. “I have recently founded a new photo company. I call it Polyfoto International,” he stated proudly. “At this time I am expanding my interests in Europe, across North America, and on into Asia.
“What type of photography do you specialize in?” Helen politely asked.
“ I will accompany you into my studio and photograph your lovely face. Then you will know,” Elie responded.
While he chatted about his life and work, Helen studied the Belgian. He wasn’t terribly tall, and had a clear complexion, subtly suggesting a childhood of freckles. His thick hair ranged from light brown to dark blonde and he combed it back off of his forehead. Elie gazed at her from olive green eyes speckled with glints of brown and gold. Though he seemed a serious man, he smiled broadly as he spoke in his appealing English, and his laughter was deep and friendly.
“Would you consider joining me for lunch tomorrow?” he asked. “I would be happy to guide you on a personal sightseeing tour of the city afterward.”
“Love to,” she answered promptly, drawn toward this young man. Elie thanked her with a happy grin.
The troublesome doubt dawned on her later, as she tiptoed into her dark hotel room.
“He’s Jewish,” she whispered to herself. “My mother would just die if she knew I was seeing a Jew.”
Yet, despite all the prejudice against Jewish people, she liked Elie and decided to give the young man a chance. He seemed nice, and she wanted to see the sights around Brussels.

River of January is available on Amazon and at www.river-of-january.com

Then There was This One

Standing outside, rain or shine, hot or cold, fire drills were a pain. They interrupted the flow of the lesson, the morning, the afternoon, the day. I especially hated that obnoxious buzz alerting all to evacuate when testing was underway.

But, there was this game we played while getting soaked, or freezing, or scrumming together to shoot the breeze. I called it the ABC Game, and here is how it played out. Someone would pick a category, say World War Two, or Harry Potter and we would take turns filling in the next word.  A is for Azkaban, for example. And it was not only fun, but kept the kids together and occupied till the all-clear bell back to class.

So for your reading enjoyment, and to hopefully sell some books, I shall play the ABC’s of River of January.  Ahem, here goes.


B-Buenos Aires


D-Don Dean Club

E-Mr. Evans


G-Grant Garrett

H-Helen or Hollywood

I-Ile de France

J-Jans & Whalen

K-Mr. Koserin

L-Lartique Agency


N-“Night Flight”


P-Pan American or Palladium

Q-Queen Mary

R-Rio de Janeiro



U-ungent pots

V-“Voila Paris”

W-Harold Whalen

X-who knows, xylophone



Order River of January today.