Authors: Ed Ifkovic
An Edna Ferber Mystery
Poisoned Pen Press
Copyright © 2013 by Ed Ifkovic
First E-book Edition 2013
ISBN: 9781615954667 ebook
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.
The historical characters and events portrayed in this book are inventions of the author or used fictitiously.
Poisoned Pen Press
6962 E. First Ave., Ste. 103
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
and in memory of Al DeRuccio
I’ll be down to get you in a taxi honey
Better be ready ’bout half past eight
I mean don’t be late
Be there when the band starts playin’
Remember when you get there honey
Dance all over the floor
Dance all over my shoes
When the band plays the Jelly Roll Blues
Set ’em all alight
At the downtown strutters’ ball.
—Shelton Brooks (1917)
“Downtown Strutters’ Ball”
(Originally titled “Darktown Strutters’ Ball”)
As I stepped into my own living room, drawn by the excited hum of strange, eager voices, my eyes immediately caught those of a dark young man who stared back, his eyes wide and unblinking, a sloppy grin plastered on his face. I knew I’d met him before, and recently, though I had no idea where. So young—what? twenty-one, twenty-two?—with skin the color of rich mahogany, glistening and smooth. He wanted to say something to me because the carnival grin disappeared as he cleared his throat, but at that moment my housekeeper Rebecca nudged me from behind.
“Miss Edna, quite the motley bunch, no?” She laughed and nodded toward a skinny young boy who was now standing, a nervous smile on his lips.
“Mom,” he began.
“Waters,” Rebecca said in the same buttery chuckle, “where are your manners? You weren’t raised in a barn.”
I shifted my gaze from the young man with the sloppy grin to Rebecca’s son, who started to stammer, “Miss Edna, I…”
“Waters,” I roared like a hectoring schoolmarm, “when I’m out of town you resettle the young population of Harlem in my apartment?” But my smile gave me away. Waters, like every other gangly seventeen-year-old boy in the world, stood all raw-boned elbow and jerky wrist, bending and twisting, one foot tapping the floor.
I wasn’t expected back in town for two more days, of course, but the arduous, though heady, tryouts for
had exhausted me. I’d checked out of my hotel early. Though the show was already headed back to New York, I’d originally planned on two days of idle shopping and lunches with friends in Philly. But I’d changed my mind.
Too many cities, each becoming a noisy blur.
I was thrilled that cosmopolitan Washington adored the new Hammerstein-Kern musical. My Lord, that first night it ran for over four hours, ending at 12:40 a.m., the audience on its feet, stomping, cheering, huzzahing. Not a soul left the theater. The excitement shook the rafters. I actually blushed, felt faint as I staggered up the aisles of the National Theater. The next morning the line for tickets circled the block. That was mid-November. We knew we had a hit on our hands.
From there the energized troupe moved to Pittsburgh’s Nixon Theater, the musical now drastically and painfully cut, then on to Cleveland, and now ending a rip-roaring tryout at the Erlanger in Philadelphia.
would open on Broadway—a gigantic hit, everyone whispered to me—just two days after Christmas.
Foolishly, drunk on the show’s evident success and awash in its riveting music and splendor, I’d become a camp follower, a schoolgirl with her first crush. It couldn’t last. At one point I’d also rushed to Newark, New Jersey, and then to Atlantic City, where I watched the tryouts of
The Royal Family
, my comedy written with George S. Kaufman, scheduled to open in New York the day after
. It was dizzying, if wonderful.
Hidden in my hotel room, I’d become homesick, desperate for Manhattan and the quiet of my bedroom. So I boarded the train at Philly, bone weary and yet exhilarated, echoes of “Ol’ Man River” reverberating in my head as the train clang-clanged into Penn Station. I wanted to be home, my door shut against the outside world. I’d lost my energy. All the pumped-up euphoria of two new shows, completed now and ready for the world to judge, left me enervated, down. It was like the morning after a successful party as you stare into your empty coffee cup and face the hollow day ahead.
When the doorman Joseph deferentially placed my suitcases inside my front door and I stepped into the living room, I didn’t expect that gathering of startled, upturned Negro faces.
Waters walked toward me, half-bowed, and smiled. How much the slender, jittery little boy he seemed, with those thin shoulders and that long, stringy neck, the bony oval face with the narrow nutbrown eyes that blinked too much. A year away from college, he was a serious prep-school lad with Joe College crew-neck sweaters and starched Arrow shirts. And, he hoped, the life of a writer. “Miss Edna, you told my mother…”
I held up my hand. “Waters, please. It’s no matter.” My smile tried to take them all in.
But the group shuffled in their seats, nervous, ready to leave, which seemed right.
“You look tired, Miss Edna.” Rebecca leaned in, shaking her head. “I’ll brew you a cup of tea and then settle you in.” She smiled back at the young folks sitting there. “I think these poets have rhymed enough verse for one day.”
Only Waters laughed out loud, but I noticed that the lanky lad with the infectious grin widened his eyes. It bothered me. How did I know him? Something about him seemed familiar, but that made no sense: my social circle of young Negroes in their early twenties was nonexistent, really. Tall, angular, yet with a slightly pudgy, bloated face, as though he’d never fully shaken off the last of his baby fat, he was not handsome but incredibly attractive. That deep mahogany hue, yet with a sprinkle of reddish freckles around his nose and eyes that gave him a mischievous look. The eyes, yes, they looked familiar. Slatted, almost Asian perhaps, the edges lined with darker ebony, so much so that it could be stage makeup, a chorus girl’s kohl-rimmed look. An amalgam of hard and soft, that face: the rigidity of his jawline at war with the puffiness of his cheeks. A gentle boy, I thought, yet when he stared at me, the eyes looked steely and fierce. I was startled.
Waters was still apologizing.
Last summer, when Waters was visiting his mother and staying with relatives in New Jersey, he scooted in and out of my apartment, the soon-to-be high-school senior always in a hurry, stacks of library books clutched to his chest—or spilling out of the overstuffed briefcase he often carried, an old-timer’s briefcase with buckles and clasps and weathered leather. One afternoon he confessed a desire to be a novelist, and though I had a professional writer’s dread of the amateur short story cavalierly thrust at me, I asked to read something he’d written. The short narrative he’d given me described his dead grandfather, Rebecca’s father, a colorful if eccentric man everyone called Captain Tom, a towering, gaunt patriarch with straightened black hair and a thick, whiskey voice. A good man, and beloved by Waters. The piece was crude and overblown, yet it had spark, energy, verve. So I encouraged the quiet boy to spend hours reading in my personal library. There were days he never seemed to look up from a book.
Then, wandering the city streets, especially up to Harlem in search of the young writers of the new Harlem Renaissance that everyone was talking about—capitalized now, so dubbed by the
—he’d become friendly with a small coterie of neophyte writers and actors, young men and women who hung out at the public library on Lenox Avenue, in the lobbies of the Lafayette and Lincoln Theaters, at St. Mark’s A.M.E. Church on 138th and St. Nicholas Avenue, starry-eyed young folks who hungered to be a part of the throbbing, jazz-infused world of this Negro flowering—followers of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, and Wallace Thurman, writers not much older than they, in fact, but already established, celebrated.
Intrigued, caught by Waters’ infectious excitement, I agreed to meet them one afternoon in my apartment—the first of two casual lunches I hosted. I found them refreshing and eager, brimming with enthusiasm, though a tad leery of me. Then the summer ended, and Waters returned to school and I headed to Europe for a brief sojourn.
When I left for the
tryouts, I’d told Rebecca that Waters, on Christmas break from his prep school in Maryland and staying across the Hudson River in New Jersey, could meet his friends in my living room one afternoon, with Rebecca serving them lunch. Waters had insisted there was no place where they could gather for a long, talkative afternoon. I had a few qualms, to be sure, because I guard my privacy and I’m covetous about my expensive rooms, but I trusted Waters. They’d be under the watchful eye of Rebecca. Frantic with concern about
The Royal Family
, I’d forgotten all about it…until I walked back into my living room.
Now, stunned into silence, they stared back at me. Waters cleared his throat. “You remember my friends…” His outstretched arm swept the room.
I remembered three of them, of course. “Sort of,” I grinned.
“You remember Lawson Hicks.” Waters pointed at a good-looking young man. In his early twenties, Lawson was tall and slender, very light complected, sporting richly pomaded straightened hair and a slice of manicured moustache over his full upper lip. A matinee idol, this one, I had thought the two times we’d met before, with his deep-set black eyes, his Leyendecker chin, and his baby-boy dimples. He had the habit of throwing back his head so that the overhead light accentuated the high cheekbones. Dressed in billowing creased trousers and a robin’s-egg blue dress shirt, his feet shod in spiffy two-toned black-and-white shoes, he slouched on the sofa, a man comfortable with his God-given beauty. He nodded at me, smiled, then stood up and seemed ready to bow. I remembered him as the author of exquisite little poems, rhapsodic and lyrical, one of which had been published in
. I did remember something else—he wore his unabashed ambition so arrogantly that I imagined he could startle other souls into uncomfortable silence. A budding actor, Waters had told me. I remembered that I liked this cagey man who aimed to please, who flattered me when he didn’t need to. I liked him, I supposed, because he was so good looking, fresh scrubbed, intense. A cocky lad with fire in his belly. But I suspected his talent was a narrow kingdom, genuine though limited.
“And, of course, Bella Davenport.” Waters grinned foolishly and stumbled over the name. I squinted. Of course? Why? I wondered. The young woman didn’t stand, but she inclined her body toward me, a soft, rumbling laugh coming from the back of her throat. Bella, an actress and playwright, statuesque and lithe, her movements self-consciously sensual, deliberate—so light-skinned she could pass for white. The one-act play I read of hers dealt with a jazz songstress dying of a cocaine overdose in the dressing room of Barron’s Exclusive Club up on 134th Street and Seventh Avenue, a play titled
, which I’d learned—how could I know this?—was street lingo for the lethal drug. Dressed in a plum-colored chemise, her slender feet shod in buckled high-heeled shoes, her hair straightened and bobbed, she was a speakeasy flapper out of the pages of
The Smart Set
, albeit Negro. Bella, if I remembered, was Lawson’s on-and-off lover. Like him, she was ambitious, though I sensed he was more the dreamer. She was more at home with hard-bitten reality. Bella, with the slow, calculated turn and tilt of her perfumed neck, could make men whisper inanities when their wives were conveniently out of the room. A beautiful woman, but chiseled, sleek, the ebony diamond.
“And you probably don’t remember Ellie.” I cast a quick glance at Waters because this last introduction seemed so dismissive. Yet Ellie took no offencs; in fact, rolling her tongue into her cheek, she appeared amused by the young boy’s tactless words. Ellie, small and wrenlike, with reddish-black hair pulled back from her high forehead, had a little-girl beauty, a sharecropper Pollyanna, the girl in the room you didn’t notice until she spoke…and then you found yourself wrapped around her melodic, almost falsetto timbre. She was dressed in a simple chiffon smock, though a shrill blood red in color, and, unlike Bella with her crimson lipstick, Ellie wore absolutely no make-up.
“Of course I remember Ellie,” I remarked. “You wrote a poem I liked…”
Ellie was nodding her head up and down.
They all looked a little in awe of me, which is the way I wanted the whole world to be, truth be told. In my world interlopers tended to keep their distance, though they might scowl or whine. Bores ran for cover. Fools were never suffered…
Waters paused, an awkward silence filling the room, and the young man with the grin cleared his throat again.
“And then these…people,” Waters ploughed on. “You
.” Everyone laughed nervously. “Roddy Parsons.” He pointed to the young man I believed I’d met elsewhere, a man who stared at me now, a twinkle in his eyes, on the verge of telling me something. But Waters quickly moved on, pointing. “This is Harriet Porter. And this is Freddy Holder.” Both of them looked ready to bolt the room, each glancing at the other. Neither smiled. Not that I expected an obsequious response whenever I entered a room, even if it was
room, but both of them struck me as vagabond souls who’d found themselves on the wrong subway platform. They sat together, bodies touching, though I got the impression of strangers brushing against each other in an elevator. They appeared younger than the other three, though it might have been their clothing: well-worn bulky sweaters, stretched out a bit. Harriet’s dark blue one over a rag-tag skirt, Freddy’s dark brown crew neck worn over wrinkled work pants, frayed at the knee. They formed a contrast to the polished look of the others, almost deliberately so, I thought. Freddy and Harriet seemed habitués of street corners. I’d seen such young souls when taxis delivered me up Broadway or Seventh Avenue toward Riverdale: high-school boys and girls who gathered in packs outside the be-bop jazz clubs and the dim-lit and poorly disguised speakeasies, their nodding heads inclined toward the jazz wailing from inside or the street corner hum of illicit boozers. Poor boys and girls, they were, mostly, and hungry to be grownup.
They glanced at each other, nervous, and the silence in the room was palpable. Waters felt a need to flesh out the history. “I heard Harriet read at a poetry reading at the Y uptown. I
her poems a lot. Then Roddy heard her read somewhere—and talked about her. And then I met her friend Freddy who…”
Freddy broke in. “Sometimes doesn’t write at all.”
His voice alarmed me: raspy, phlegmatic, a slow drawl, yet laced with quiet anger.