Authors: Elizabeth Gilbert
Peg turned her attention to me. “Now! Vivian Louise Morris! What do you want to do with yourself while you’re here in New York City?”
What did I want to do with myself? I
wanted to do
! I wanted to drink martinis with showgirls, and listen to Broadway business talk, and eavesdrop on the gossip of boys who looked like girls! I wanted to hear about people’s big sex lives!
But I couldn’t say any of that. So what I said, brilliantly, was: “I’d like to look around a bit! Take things in!”
Everyone was looking at me now. Waiting for something more, maybe? Waiting
“I don’t know my way around New York City, is my primary obstacle,” I said, sounding like an ass.
Aunt Peg responded to this inanity by grabbing a paper napkin off the table, and sketching upon it a quick map of Manhattan. I do wish I had managed to preserve that map, Angela. It was the most charming map of the city I would ever see: a big crooked carrot of an island, with a dark rectangle
in the middle representing Central Park; vague wavy lines representing the Hudson and East Rivers; a dollar sign down at the bottom of the island, representing Wall Street; a musical note up at the top of the island, representing Harlem, and a bright star right in the middle, representing right where we were: Times Square. Center of the world! Bingo!
“There,” she said. “Now you know your way
around. You can’t get lost here, kiddo. Just follow the street signs. It’s all numbered, couldn’t be easier. Just remember: Manhattan is an island. People forget that. Walk far enough in any direction, and you’ll run into water. If you hit a river, turn around and go in the other direction. You’ll learn your way around. Dumber people than you have figured out this city.”
“Even Gladys figured
it out,” said Roland.
“Watch it, sunshine,” said Gladys. “I was
“Thank you!” I said, pocketing the napkin. “And if you need anything done around the theater, I would be happy to help out.”
“You’d like to help?” Peg seemed surprised to hear it. Clearly, she had not expected much of me. Christ, what had my parents told her? “You can help Olive in the office, if you go for that sort
of thing. Office work, and such.”
Olive blanched at this suggestion, and I’m afraid I might have done the same. I didn’t want to work for Olive any more than she wanted me working for her.
“Or you can work in the box office,” Peg went on. “You can sell tickets. You’re not musical, are you? I’d be surprised if you were. Nobody in our family is musical.”
“I can sew,” I said.
I must’ve said it
quietly, because nobody seemed to register that I’d spoken.
Olive said, “Peg, why don’t you have Vivian enroll at the Katharine Gibbs School, where she can learn how to type?”
Peg, Gladys, and Celia all groaned as one.
“Olive is always trying to get us girls to enroll at Katharine Gibbs so we can learn how to type,” Gladys explained. She shuddered in dramatic horror, as though learning how
to type were something akin to busting up rocks in a prisoner-of-war camp.
“Katharine Gibbs turns out employable young women,” Olive said. “A young woman ought to be employable.”
“I can’t type, and I’m employable!” Gladys said. “Heck, I’m already
! I’m employed by
Olive said, “A showgirl is never quite
Gladys. A showgirl is a person who may—at
be in possession
of a job. It’s not the same thing. Yours is not a reliable field of work. A secretary, by contrast, can always find employment.”
“I’m not just a showgirl,” said Gladys, with miffed pride. “I’m a
. A dance captain can always find employment. Anyhow, if I run out of money, I’ll just get married.”
“Never learn to type, kiddo,” Peg said to me. “And if you
learn to type, never tell
anybody that you can type, or they’ll make you do it forever. Never learn shorthand, either. It’ll be the death of you. Once they put a steno pad in a woman’s hand, it never comes out.”
Suddenly the gorgeous creature on the other side of the room spoke, for the first time since we’d come upstairs. “You said you can sew?” Celia asked.
Once again, that low, throaty voice took me by surprise. Also,
she had her eyes on me now, which I found a bit intimidating. I don’t want to overuse the word “smoldering” when I talk about Celia, but there’s no way around it: she was the kind of woman who smoldered even when she wasn’t intentionally trying to smolder. Holding that smoldering gaze was uncomfortable for me, so I just nodded, and said in the safer direction of Peg, “Yes. I can sew. Grandmother
Morris taught me how.”
“What sort of stuff do you make?” Celia asked.
“Well, I made this dress.”
Gladys screamed, “
You made that dress?
Both Gladys and Roland rushed at me the way girls always rushed
at me when they found out that I’d made my own dress. In a flash, the two of them were picking at my outfit, like two gorgeous little monkeys.
?” Gladys said.
I wanted to say, “This is nothing!”—because truly, compared to what I could do, this little frock, cunning though it appeared,
nothing. But I didn’t want to sound cocky. So instead I said, “I make everything I wear.”
Celia spoke again, from across the room: “Can you make costumes?”
“I suppose so. It would depend on the costume, but I’m sure I could.”
The showgirl stood up
and asked, “Could you make something like this?” She let her robe drop to the floor, revealing the costume beneath it.
(I know that sounds dramatic, to say that she “let her robe drop,” but Celia was the kind of girl who didn’t just take her clothes off like any other mortal woman; she always
let them drop
Her figure was astonishing, but as for the costume, it was basic—a little two-piece
metallic number, something like a bathing suit. It was the sort of thing that was designed to look better from fifty feet away than up close. It had tight, high-waisted shorts decorated in splashy sequins, and a bra that was decked out in a gaudy arrangement of beads and feathers. It looked good on her, but that’s only because a hospital gown would have looked good on her. I thought it could have
fit her better, to be honest. The shoulder straps were all wrong.
“I could make that,” I said. “The beading would take me awhile, but that’s just busywork. The rest of it is straightforward.” Then I had a flash of inspiration, like a flare shot up in a night sky: “Say, if you have a costume director, maybe I could work with her? I could be her assistant!”
Laughter burst out across the room.
!” Gladys said. “What do you think this is, Paramount Pictures? You think we got Edith Head hiding down there in the basement?”
“The girls are responsible for their own costumes,” Peg explained. “If we don’t have anything that will work for them in our costume closet—and we never do—they have to provide their own outfits. It costs them, but that’s just how things have always
been done. Where’d you get yours, Celia?”
“I bought it off a girl. You remember Evelyn, at El Morocco? She got married, moved to Texas. She gave me a whole trunk of costumes. Lucky for me.”
“Sure, lucky for you,” sniffed Roland. “Lucky you didn’t get the clap.”
“Aw, give it a rest, Roland,” said Gladys. “Evelyn was a good kid. You’re just jealous because she married a
“If you’d like
to help the kids out with their costumes, Vivian, I’m sure everyone would appreciate it,” said Peg.
“Could you make me a South Seas outfit?” Gladys asked me. “Like a Hawaiian hula girl?”
That was like asking a master chef if he could make porridge.
“Sure,” I said. “I could make you one tomorrow.”
“Could you make
a hula outfit?” asked Roland.
“I don’t have a budget for new costumes,” Olive
warned. “We haven’t discussed this.”
“Oh, Olive,” Peg sighed. “You are every inch the vicar’s wife. Let the kids have their fun.”
I couldn’t help but observe that Celia had kept her gaze on me since we started talking about sewing. Being in her line of vision felt both terrifying and thrilling.
“You know something?” she said, after studying me more closely. “You’re pretty.”
Now, to be fair,
people usually noticed this fact about me sooner.
But who could blame Celia for having paid me so little attention up until this point, when she was in possession of
“Tell you the truth,” she said, smiling for the first time that night, “you kinda look like me.”
Let me be clear, Angela: I didn’t.
Celia Ray was a goddess; I was an adolescent. But in the sketchiest of
terms, I suppose I could see that she had a point: we were both tall brunettes with ivory skin and wide-set brown eyes. We could have passed for cousins, if not sisters—and decidedly not twins. Certainly our figures had nothing in common. She was a peach; I was a stick. Still, I was flattered. To this day, though, I believe that the only reason Celia Ray ever took notice of me at all was because
we looked a
bit alike, and that drew her attention. For Celia, vain as she was, looking at me must have been like looking in a (very foggy, very distant) mirror—and Celia never met a mirror she didn’t love.
“You and me should dress up alike sometime and go out on the town,” Celia said, in that low Bronx growl that was also a purr. “We could get ourselves into some real good trouble.”
I didn’t even know what to say to
. I just sat there, gaping like the Emma Willard schoolgirl I so recently had been.
As for my Aunt Peg—my
at this point, please remember—she heard this illicit-sounding invite and said, “Say, girls, that sounds fun.”
Peg was over at the bar again mixing up another batch of martinis, but at that point, Olive put a stop to things. The fearsome
secretary of the Lily Playhouse stood up, clapped her hands, and announced, “Enough! If Peg stays up any later, she will not be the better for it in the morning.”
“Darn it, Olive, I’ll give you a poke in the eye!” Peg said.
“To bed, Peg,” said the imperturbable Olive, tugging down her girdle for emphasis. “
The room scattered. We all said our good nights.
I made my way to my apartment (
) and unpacked a bit more. I couldn’t really focus on the task, though. I was in a buzz of nervous joy.
Peg came by to check on me as I was hanging up my dresses in the wardrobe.
“You’re comfortable here?” she asked, looking around at Billy’s immaculate apartment.
“I like it so much here. It’s lovely.”
“Yes. Billy would accept nothing less.”
“May I ask you something, Peg?”
“What about the fire?”
“Which fire, kiddo?”
“Olive said there was a small fire at the theater today. I wondered if everything is all right.”
“Oh, that! It was just some old sets that accidentally got ignited behind the building. I have friends in the fire department, so we were fine. Boy, was that
? By golly, I’d forgotten about it already.” Peg rubbed her eyes. “Oh, well, kiddo. You will
soon enough find out that life at the Lily Playhouse is nothing but a series of small fires. Now off to sleep or Olive will have you detained by the authorities.”
So off to sleep I went—the first time I would ever sleep in New York City, and the first (but decidedly not the last) time I would ever sleep in a man’s bed.
I do not recall who cleaned up the dinner mess.
It was probably Olive.
Within two weeks of moving to New York City, my life had changed completely. These changes included, but were not limited to, the loss of my virginity—which is an awfully amusing story that I shall tell you shortly, Angela, if you’ll just be patient with me for a moment longer.
Because for now, I just want to say that the Lily Playhouse was unlike any world I’d ever inhabited. It was a
living animation of glamour and grit and mayhem and fun
a world full of adults behaving like children, in other words. Gone was all the order and regimentation that my family and my schools had tried to drill into me thus far. Nobody at the Lily (with the exception of the long-suffering Olive) even attempted to keep the normal rhythms of respectable life. Drinking and reveling were the norm. Meals
were held at sporadic hours. People slept until noon. Nobody started work at a particular time of day—nor did they ever exactly stop working, for that matter. Plans changed by the moment, guests came and went with neither formal introductions nor organized farewells, and the designation of duties was always unclear.
I swiftly learned, to my head-spinning astonishment, that no figure of authority
was going to be monitoring my comings and goings anymore. I had nobody to report to and nothing was expected of me. If I wanted to help out with costumes, I could, but I was given no formal job. There was no curfew, no head count in the beds at night. There was no house warden; there was no mother.
Allegedly, of course, Aunt Peg was responsible for me. She was my actual family member,
and had been entrusted with my care in loco parentis
But she wasn’t overprotective, to say the least. In fact, Aunt Peg was the first freethinker I’d ever met. She was of the mind that people should make their own decisions about their own lives, if you can imagine such a preposterous thing!
Peg’s world ran on chaos, and yet somehow it worked. Despite all the disorder, she managed to put on
two shows a day at the Lily—an early show (which started at five, and attracted women and children) and a late show (which started at eight, and was a bit racier, for an older and more male audience). There were matinees on Sunday and Wednesday, too. On Saturdays at noon, there was always a magic show for free, for the local children. Olive was usually able to rent out the space for neighborhood usage
during the daytime, though I don’t think there was danger of anybody getting rich off dry swimming lessons.
Our audience was drawn from the neighborhood itself, and back then, it really
a neighborhood—mostly Irish and Italians, with a scattering of Catholic Eastern Europeans, and a good number of Jewish families. The four-story tenements surrounding the Lily were crammed full of recent immigrants—and
by “crammed,” I mean dozens of souls living in a single flat. That being the case, Peg tried to keep the language in our shows simple, to accommodate these new English speakers. Simpler language also made the memorizing of lines easier for our performers, who were not exactly classically trained thespians.
Our shows did not attract tourists, or critics, or what you might call “theatergoers.”
We provided working-class entertainment for working-class people, and that was it. Peg was adamant that we not kid ourselves that we did anything more. (“I’d rather put on a good leg show than bad Shakespeare,” she said.) Indeed, the Lily did not have any of the hallmarks that you would associate with a proper Broadway institution. We did not have out-of-town tryouts, or glamorous parties on opening
nights. We didn’t close down in August, like so many of the Broadway houses did. (Our patrons didn’t go on vacations, so neither did we.) We were not even dark on Mondays. We were more like what used to be called “a continuous house”—where entertainment just kept being served up, day after day, all the year round. As long as we kept our ticket prices comparable to those at the local movie houses
(which were, along with arcades and illegal gambling, our biggest competition for the neighborhood dollars) we could fill our seats fairly well.
The Lily was not a burlesque theater, but many of our showgirls and dancers had come from the world of burlesque (and they had the immodesty to prove it, bless them). We were not quite vaudeville, either—only because vaudeville was nearly dead by that
point in history. But we were almost vaudeville, considering our slapdash, comic plays. In fact, it would be a stretch to claim that our plays were
at all. It would be more accurate to say that they were revues
cobbled-together bits of stories that were not much more than excuses for lovers to reunite and for dancers to show off their legs. (There were limits to the scope of the stories
that we could tell, anyhow, given that the Lily Playhouse only had three backdrops. This meant that all the action in our shows had to take place on either a nineteenth-century city streetcorner, in an elegant upper-class parlor, or on an ocean liner.)
Peg changed the revues every few weeks, but they were all more or less the same, and they were all forgettable. (What’s that you say? You
heard of a play called
about two street urchins who fall in love? Why, of course you didn’t! It ran at the Lily for only two weeks, and it was swiftly replaced by a nearly identical play called
Catch That Boat!
—which, of course, took place on an ocean liner.)
“If I could improve on the formula, I would,” she once told me. “But the formula works.”
The formula, to be specific, was
Delight (or at least distract) your audience for a short while (never more than forty-five minutes!) with an approximation of a love story. Your love story should star a likable young couple who can tap-dance and sing, but who are kept apart from each other’s arms by a villain—often a banker, sometimes a gangster (same idea, different costume)—who gnashes his teeth and tries to destroy
our good couple. There should be a floozy with a notable bustline making eyes at our hero—but the hero must only have eyes for his one true girl. There should be a handsome swain who tries to woo the girl away from her fellow. There should be a drunken hobo character for comic relief—his stubble indicated by application of burnt cork. The show always had at least one dreamy ballad, usually rhyming
the word “moon” with the word “swoon.” And there was always a kick line at the end.
Applause, curtain, do it all over again for the late show.
Theater critics did an excellent job of not noticing our existence at all, which was probably best for everyone.
If it sounds like I’m denigrating the Lily’s productions, I’m not: I loved them. I would give anything to sit in the back of that rotting
old playhouse and see one of those shows again. To my mind, there was never anything better than those simple, enthusiastic revues. They made me happy. They were designed to make people happy without making the audience work too hard to understand what was going on. As Peg had learned back in the Great War—when she used to produce cheerful
song-and-dance skits for soldiers who’d just lost limbs,
or had their throats burned out with mustard gas—“Sometimes people just need to think about something else.”
Our job was to give them the something else.
As for the cast, our shows always needed eight dancers—four boys and four girls—and also always needed four showgirls, because that’s just what was expected. People came to the Lily for the showgirls. If you’re wondering what the difference
was between “dancer” and “showgirl,” it was height. Showgirls had to be at least five foot ten. That was
the heels and the feather headdresses. And showgirls were expected to be far more stunning than your average dancer.
Just to further confuse you, sometimes the showgirls danced (such as Gladys, who was also our dance captain), but the dancers never showgirled, because they weren’t
tall enough or beautiful enough, and never would be. No amount of makeup or creative padding could turn a moderately attractive and medium-sized dancer with a fairly decent figure into the spectacle of Amazonian gorgeousness that was a midcentury New York City showgirl.
The Lily Playhouse caught a lot of performers on their way up the ladder of success. Some of the girls who started out their
careers at the Lily later moved on to Radio City or to the Diamond Horseshoe. Some of them even became headliners. But more often, we caught dancers on their way down the ladder. (There is nothing more brave or touching than an aging Rockette auditioning to be in the chorus line of a cheap and lousy show called
Catch That Boat!
But we had a small group of regulars, too, who performed for the
Lily’s humble audiences in show after show. Gladys was a staple of the company. She had invented a dance called the “boggle-boggle,” which our audiences loved, and so we put it in every performance. And why
wouldn’t they love it? It was nothing but a free-for-all of girls
about the stage with the most jiggling of body parts imaginable.
“Boggle-boggle!” the audience would shout during
the encores, and the girls would accommodate them. Sometimes we would see neighborhood children on the sidewalks doing the boggle-boggle on their way to school.
Let’s just say it was our cultural legacy.
I would love to tell you exactly how Peg’s little theater company remained solvent, but the truth is that I do not know. (It could be a case of that old joke about how to make a small fortune
in show business: by starting with a large fortune.) Our shows never sold out, and our ticket prices were chicken feed. Moreover, although the Lily Playhouse was marvelous, she was a white elephant of the highest degree, and she was
. She leaked and creaked. Her electrical wiring was as old as Edison himself, her plumbing was occult, her paint was everywhere peeling, and her roof was
designed to withstand a sunny day with no rain, and not much more than that. My Aunt Peg poured money into that collapsing old theater the way an indulgent heiress might pour money into the drug habit of an opium-addicted lover—which is to say bottomlessly, desperately, and uselessly.
As for Olive, her job was to try to stem the flow of money. An equally bottomless, desperate, and hopeless task.
(I can still hear Olive crying out, “This is not a French hotel!” whenever she’d catch people running the hot water too long.)
Olive always looked tired, and for good reason: she had been the only responsible adult in this company since 1917, when she and Peg first met. I soon learned that Olive wasn’t joking when she said she’d been working for Peg “since Moses was in nappies.” Just like Peg,
Olive had been a Red Cross nurse in the Great War—although she’d been
trained in Britain, of course. The two women had met on the battlefields of France. When the war ended, Olive decided to abandon nursing and follow her new friend into the field of theater instead—playing the role of my aunt’s trusted and long-suffering secretary.
Olive could always be seen marching about the Lily Playhouse,
rapidly issuing commands, edicts, and corrections. She wore the strained and martyred expression of a good herding dog charged with bringing order to an undisciplined flock of sheep. She was full of rules. There was to be no eating in the theater (“We don’t want more rats than audience members!”). There was to be
at all rehearsals. No “guests of guests” were allowed to sleep overnight.
There were to be no refunds without receipts. And the taxman must always be paid first.
Peg respected the rules of her secretary, but only in the most abstract way. She respected those rules in the manner of someone who has lapsed from their faith but who still has a fundamental regard for church law. In other words: she respected Olive’s rules without actually obeying them.
The rest of us followed
Peg’s lead, which meant that nobody obeyed Olive’s rules, although we sometimes pretended to.
Thus Olive was constantly exhausted, and we were allowed to remain like children.
Peg and Olive lived on the fourth floor of the Lily, in apartments separated by a common living area. There were several other apartments up there on the fourth floor, too, that were not in active use when I first moved
in. (They’d been built by the original owner for his mistresses, but were now being saved, Peg explained to me, “for last-minute drifters and other sundry itinerants.”)
But the third floor, where I got to live, is where all the interesting
activity happened. That’s where the piano was—usually covered by half-empty cocktail glasses and half-full ashtrays. (Sometimes Peg would pass by the piano,
pick up someone’s leftover drink, and knock it back. She called it “taking a dividend.”) It was on the third floor where everyone ate, smoked, drank, fought, worked, and lived. This was the
office of the Lily Playhouse.
There was a man named Mr. Herbert who also lived on the third floor. Mr. Herbert was introduced to me as “our playwright.” He created the basic story lines for our shows,
and also came up with the jokes and gags. He was also the stage manager. He also served, I was told, as the Lily Playhouse’s press agent.
“What does a press agent do, exactly?” I once asked him.
“I wish I knew,” he responded.
More interestingly, he was a disbarred attorney, and one of Peg’s oldest friends. He’d been disbarred after embezzling a considerable amount of money from a client. Peg
didn’t hold the crime against him because he’d been off the wagon at the time. “You can’t blame a man for what he does when he’s drinking” was her philosophy. (“We all have our frailties” was another of her adages—she, who always gave second and third and fourth chances to the frail and the failing.) Sometimes in a pinch, when we didn’t have a better performer on hand, Mr. Herbert would play the
role of the drunken hobo character in our shows—bringing to that position a natural pathos that would just break your heart.
But Mr. Herbert was
. He was funny in a way that was dry and dark, but he was undeniably funny. In the mornings when I got up for breakfast, I would always find Mr. Herbert sitting at the kitchen table in his saggy suit trousers and an undershirt. He’d be drinking
from his mug of Sanka and picking at his one sad pancake. He would sigh and frown over his notepad, trying to think of new jokes and lines for the next show. Every morning, I would bait him with a sunny
greeting, just to hear his depressed response, which always changed by the day.