Among the Daughters/Chapter 15
"HELEN OF TROY"
A desolate eight weeks and three days after Lucy left, Vida, resigned to never hearing from her friend, discovered after school an opened envelope addressed to her in Lucy's stiff handwriting on the Battenberg lace cover of the golden oak dining-room table. Shaking with rage and fear at this invasion of her privacy she took the letter to her room and read:
September 21, 1921
I'll bet you are surprised to get a letter from me in New Haven, Conn. I am in a show called Melodames—Mellow Dames, get it? We are here trying out before opening on Broadway in two weeks. The reason I have time to write is I sprained a tendon clowning with one of the chorus boys and am resting before the show opening tonight. I have a specialty spot. I am Helen of Troy—remember you told me about her—but all I have to do is pose and do some port de bras—arm movements—with a long white piece of chiffon in front of you know where. I was very lucky to get into this Samuel Bros. show. It happened like this. When we arrived in New York we went to the Derby Hotel near Broadway where Ilona Klemper wrote she would be. We found out though she wasn't coming yet for some reason so went for an open-top bus ride up Fifth Avenue which isn't at all what you imagine. The houses are narrow and close together, like on Brick Street. Of course they are more elegant and face Central Park but have no lawns or gardens. The front doors have fancy iron bars. Since Miss Klemper wasn't coming we decided I should begin studying with Fokine but he was closed for the summer so I went to Gellati's. This was lucky because that is where professionals study and I met a very nice girl who is also studying with Master. Everyone calls Gellati Master, even his wife. She is a real première ballerina and danced before the Czar before those Bolsheviki killed him. Peggy has been with Master four years. She is from Arkansas and knows all about Broadway although she can't get a job. She is too tall and thin for a dancer and not pretty enough for a showgirl. She could do acrobatics but hasn't gone into it because she wants to be an art dancer. She is good technically but is the type who dances boy parts in school plays. We are good friends and play mah-jongg a lot. Mother loves it. Well one morning Peggy told me there was a call for girls for a Samuel Bros, show and she was going to try out. I went along never dreaming I'd get a job because there are very good experienced dancers at Master's who can't get jobs. I was just standing there and Joe Samuels called "Hey you, Blondie with the blue dress, what do you do?" I said I was a dancer and he said "O.K., dance." I did a few steps and he stopped me and said disgusted-like "That'll do, thanks." Believe me, I felt foolish. Imagine my surprise when the stage manager took my name and address and told me to come back next day and bring a letter from my mother that I was sixteen. I almost fell over when I brought the letter and found out I was a specialty and only had to stand and pose. Anyway it's lucky I don't have to do fouettés because to be a success on Broadway you have to end your dance with more fouettés than anyone else. You whip yourself around the stage on one toe. During each turn one leg should be at quarter to six. You snap your head around first and keep your eye on a certain point for balance. All the girls at Master's said I had beginner's luck because I couldn't even do a good tour jeté which is only one turn in the air. Master was pleased but became more strict and made me work twice as hard as the rest of the class. After we open in New York I am going to study with Karasof too. All première ballerinas must know Russian and Italian technique. Acrobatic dancing is getting popular but I don't think it is pretty, do you? Everyone up here thinks this show will be a hit except Joe Samuels. He just walks around round-shouldered saying "I don't know!" This is where Yale is and there are a lot of cute boys but I don't go out much because I'm too tired. I practice a lot because there is so much to learn to be a great dancer. This is the longest letter I ever wrote so you write me a nice long one too. Address it to c/o Samuel Bros. Theatre, 46th St. West of Broadway, New York City. Say hello to your mother and Aunt Mabel.
A brooding jealousy of Peggy Watson, the girl who had usurped her relationship as Lucy's best friend, and surging hatred of Ma, engulfed Vida. It was no surprise that Lucy already had a special place on Broadway. That was natural. Lucy was a storybook heroine, a story she longed to continue by participation. From their first meeting Lucy had been a connecting link with the poets and romance writers because with Lucy as with poets you felt mysteriously close to life and happiness. Without Lucy, she felt condemned to Edgar Lee Masters' graveyards or to be one of Maupassant's disappointed people who seemed to be dying as they lived, a feeling that increasingly overcame her, especially when she pushed through the prickly weeds and buzzing locusts in the endless hot fields where the car line stopped to the grey cottage of Pa's second cousin. There, heavy bellied, thirsty, and wilted as the wash-line rags flapping for breath in the dry prairie wind, she would deliver some message and, looking at another Ma, wonder drearily whether she must become like Ma while Lucy was being kissed by the whole world and finding out about men and love.
"Why can't I open my own mail?" she demanded hysterically.
"A mother has a right to see what kind of friends her daughter has," Mrs. Bertrand said virtuously.
A few weeks later Lucy's photograph was in the Husker-Sun; she was naked, except for the strategically draped chiffon scarf "you know where."
This scandalous photograph was clinching proof to Mrs. Bertrand of Lucy Claudel's immorality. Simultaneously it fed her jealousy of Mae Claudel for being the mother of a beautiful girl so unlike her moody Vida.
"Don't you ever try having your picture taken like that or no matter how old you are, Pa'll whale the daylights out of you. Anyway, you'll never amount to anything running around not caring how you look and your nose into books."
Following publication of the photograph Twelfth Street and Congress itched with curiosity about this girl who had been one of them. Aunt Mabel, first ashamed, was astonished to find herself a neighborhood celebrity. Irma Stumpf, the kindergarten teacher who taught the kids folk dances for the State Fair, was asked by some high school girls to start a dancing class which Irma was glad to do. Maybe doing that she could save enough to go to New York and study dancing and become a star too.
The photograph had arrived at the Husker-Sun syndicate-captioned Denver Girl Makes Good. But, informed by Semy of Lucy's year in Congress, Pop said, "Nuts to Denver, make it Congress."
Using Lucy's Broadway photograph to further cosmopolitanize his page, Semy reproduced one of Clem's paintings of her alongside it under the caption fact and fancy. Then the urge to express himself too overpowered him and, under his byline heading the page, he printed:
I could believe I am here alone,
And all the world my dream;
The passion of the scene is all my own,
And things that seem but seem—
When complimented he shyly changed the subject, taking a chance Congress didn't read Santayana. And, offhandedly, he admitted to bug-eyed Herold Lauter that sure it was the same Lucy he had brought to the Bohemian Cellar.
Clem, too, discovered himself reflected in secondary glory. Wally Junkins, the Junior Bison who knew all about Paris France, clapped him on the back and invited him to a Smoker. His first impulse was to decline but, observing the admiration in Wally's eyes as he hospitably shoved over a tankard of near beer, Clem reprimanded himself for slipping from his resolution to be part of the Congress in which he was evolving his new manner of painting, symbolical of America.
At the Smoker he found himself made much of by Councilman Lauter. Mr. Lauter had read of public men presenting their portraits to institutions. Before the evening ended, Semy, adding his aesthetic persuasions to the "Senator's" offer of a "fair price for the order," Clem let himself be talked into painting the Councilman's portrait because in a way it was a recognition of art by the leading Congress citizen and in another was a public service because Mr. Lauter was going to spend money to donate the portrait to be hung in the lobby of the Congress Hospital, of which he was principal trustee.
Clem had considered his paintings of Lucy only experiments in what Clive Bell defined as "significant form." Now Lauter, paunchy at fifty with bulldog jowls and sunken stony black eyes, became as good a subject as some Van Gogh guy in an Arles café.
To his dismay however he discovered likeness more elusive than fancy. After several weeks of sweating to satisfy his sitter he achieved a stiff but passable likeness in which the tenseness of his uncertainties gave the portrait the aspect of a semi-stylized fresco.
The painting caused considerable comment for and against. Lauter's opponents said the portrait was one hundred per cent correct because it brought out the mean cast in his eyes and mouth. His party members said on the contrary it showed the Councilman's sense of humor. But the most interesting reaction was that all the hubbub resulted in a demand for portraits by other prominent citizens who decided that anything which produced so much good advertising cheap was good business.
Persuading himself that he had hit naturally on a peculiarly American style of painting, Clem worked out a formula of portraiture. As his literal drawing improved, his portraiture was seen by him as a 20th century American avant-garde continuation of 15th century simplicity, an effect heightened by many coats of golden varnish, the style with which he would invade and conquer New York. And be with Lucy.
When Lucy had left he could think only of following, and became so irritable his mother was sure he had "summer complaint" and nagged about his elimination. For several weeks he had accused himself of being a child despoiler, simultaneously languishing in a lovesick state as the jilted one. The lovemaking didn't seem to mean anything to her but she had invited it. Had he been too rough? Or was she too young? One thing seemed certain. She wasn't pregnant, judging by her photograph. Paradoxically this displeased him.
Leaning negligently against a stage Ionic column, her eyes mocking him from the petal oval of her face, she was a remote Aphrodite, uncapturable as the perfection of the world's art which had caused his retreat home to Congress.
The little devil to let him suffer so!
The thought of writing to Clem never occurred to Lucy. There was nothing she now wanted to know from him.
When the train had pulled out and she could stop nodding and grinning like a jack-in-the box to Vida, Aunt Mabel, Semy and Clem waving on the platform, she had leaned back and closed her eyes to avoid having to talk to Mother.
A tear of regret at having to leave etched crookedly down the caked powder and vanishing cream on Mae's cheek, for she was frightened at having to begin their struggle all over again. She sniffed and Lucy opened her eyes. She had the feeling Mother really didn't want to leave Congress and discovered herself thinking for the first time that it was up to her to see that Mother was protected.
The August sun beat mercilessly through the glass, flies buzzed and pestered, and soot sifted through the window sill. This wasn't at all how she had pictured leaving for New York City.
In the upper berth from Chicago she slept alone for the first time. A fine way to go to New York City, wondering how and when you will know if you are pregnant. Riding along the Hudson she poked her fist into her side to see whether anything felt unusual but, if anything, she seemed thinner and softer. I'm scared about nothing, I'm just going to forget about it and not spoil my first night in New York City.
But fear haunted her the first week. Especially worrying was dread of having to tell Mother and scaring her, so one afternoon at Master's, imagining herself swelling after a lunch of watermelon and strawberry ice cream soda, she told her fears to Peggy Watson who turned out to be a goldmine of information. However, everything Peggy told her, and gave her, wasn't necessary.
"I'm a fountain!" she happily informed Peggy at Master's the following day.
"Boy—are you lucky!"