Jessie O’Neal is touring again. The Tribune printed another clever Jessie story. I’m sure she called the reporter. She knows them all by now. Maybe she needed to sell more tickets.
The lady knows how to create interest. Everybody wants to know about the real Jessie, and just like in her shows, she reveals little pieces of herself, barely lifting the hem on her life, and always with a wink. She makes good copy, is how she puts it. But if anyone knows the real Jessie, it’s me. I knew her “back when.” Hell, I knew her back before when.
I met her back in 1930, when she joined our troupe. We were a rag tag bunch who criss-crossed the country doing comic routines, acrobatics, songs, anything that worked. We started and ended every show with a chorus line of us girls showing as much of our bodies as we could get away with, which wasn’t as much as in the clubs, because this was vaudeville, or what was left of it.
She was very young and pretty, with big, beautiful eyes. Benny, our manager, saw something in her the first time he put her in the line. He said she was a natural and that her long, shapely legs were too good to be true. Best of all, she was a fast learner.
She had a way of connecting with the audience like nobody else I knew, like they were her friends, the men and the women. Even though our audiences were mostly men, she liked it when women were there. “They help keep the men in line,” she said.
Of course, the men loved her. She seemed to know what made them tick. She could read their mood and control them during our show. And believe me, there were places we worked where the men hadn’t seen a live troupe of dancing girls maybe ever, so we could have run into trouble. We hit towns and holes in the wall the big shows wouldn’t play. Lumber and mining camps deep in the back woods where there was nothing but men, tiny prairie burgs where the farmers showed up once a week, and dirty factory towns all across the country.
At first Jessie just tried to keep up with the rest of us girls, doing our tap dances and kicks. See, back then, that was considered plenty, because we wore skimpy costumes and fishnet stockings, and nobody was looking for ballet moves.
Before long, Jessie figured out a way to stand out. With her funny, sometimes risqué bits of business, she built herself an act and turned herself into this character who became famous. Barely a year went by before she was a full-fledged star. She was the one pulling in the customers. We girls and even Benny were practically working for her, depending on her for our bread and butter.
Jessie would come on, all dolled up in a tight, shimmering dress. She’d be coy about everything. She’d take off her little jacket or her long gloves ever so slowly, enjoying herself, delighted with the bit of flesh she revealed. She flirted with the audience and pick out one guy each performance and play to him. She timed every move, every flicker perfectly and audiences held their breath. Hell, we people backstage held our breath. It took everyone a while to register what she did. Which was a good thing, because it kept the cops at bay. She took things to the edge of decency and the crowds loved it. The bigger our show got, the better she got, adding little pieces of business until she got the act just right. Once she made it work, she stuck to it.
She knew all the behind-the-scenes stuff. I learned she grew up in vaudeville, traveling with her father, who was a comic. He put her to work as stagehand, seamstress, and cook, and sometimes second banana, she told me. She never knew any other life.
Then, bang, vaudeville dried up. Her father gave up. They were broke like the rest of the world. She was lucky to hook up with our show. “You all took pity on me,” she’d say.
She’s right. She was someone you wanted to help. She was vulnerable. Or so you thought. The young, breathless type. And, by God, she seemed so innocent you couldn’t believe the same young woman could get up there in the lights and slink around like a vamp. That was why the audience loved her. She was a sashaying surprise. Innocent but knowing. Smart, too. Knew every trick. Learned some new ones. How can you compete with that, I used to think, until I gave up trying.
At last we landed a big booking at a club in Chicago. Finally we could stay in one place and not traipse across the country. Benny kept getting more interested in Jessie and bugged her on her few off days. She tolerated him, but I could tell she wished he’d leave her alone.
There were certain men who showed up, too, on a regular basis. Not the best kind of men, either, and for some reason, it was the bad ones she liked. She was uncanny that way, like she had an inner compass that pointed in the direction of the worst possible man in a room. What can I say? Magnetism works both ways, doesn’t it? Some of these characters made me cringe. She was still the youngest member of our troupe and although she looked and held herself like a queen, I think she was scared underneath it all. Maybe that’s the part I’ll never know for sure. But if she was scared, she knew how to hide it.
I got to the point I couldn’t stand the way she had to fend off certain men, and I suggested we room together to save money. To my surprise, she happily agreed. That’s when it started. Me and Jessie. Mind you, I can’t tell the whole story. I don’t want to rock the boat.
We worked our tails off all the while. We did five shows a night, more on weekends. And then there was all the preparation, rehearsals, fittings, and everything that goes with putting on shows. We were in the middle of our own tornado, trying to hold onto something.
She worked hard and played hard. She wasn’t like the others who bellyached about everything. She made a joke of the bad things until you found yourself laughing in spite of how mad or tired or fed up you were. When the rest of us drooped, she blossomed like a rose. And, dammit, if I didn’t start to fall a little in love with her without even knowing what I was doing.
It wasn’t my first time. Not by a long shot. Heck, I got into show biz because I fell in love. When I first landed in Chicago to look for a job, I met a dazzling, blond girl. I’ll call her Rita. She’d been around, I could tell. She lured me to the club where she worked. Show business and falling in love got all mashed together in my head and heart. The music and lights, the costumes, the flashy men, the seductive women, they were all one and the same, wrapped together with a bright bow. I fell hard.
At first Rita treated me like I was special. Me, the small-town girl who didn’t know a thing about show business or the big city and certainly not about platinum blondes, partying, or drinking or, God forbid, sex. Rita caught me up, taught me everything. It must have been easy for her, like a game. I didn’t know she was always on the hunt. Then one day, she told me she was getting married, and it was over, like it never existed. I wondered if I dreamt it all, her and me, being in love, the whole damn thing.
Afterwards, I grew myself a thick shell. No, sir, I wouldn’t let that happen again, I swore to myself. I also got the heck away when I joined the troupe of performers.
It was fun and exciting and a grind. I got used to it. I knew it was the life for me when we laid off for a month and I started craving it. Even the smell of it—the make-up, nervous sweat, and cigar smoke—was like the smell of liquor to a drunk. I couldn’t wait to go back on the road.
That was my story when Jessie joined our troupe. Her story I heard in bits and pieces. Who knows what she left out?
We got to be friends, which was easy because she was chatty and easy-going. It started when we helped each other with our costumes. Turned out she knew how to sew like a pro. She made me some beauties. The girl knew how to sew a dress so it fit just right no matter your size or shape. She knew how to add something extra so you stood out in the lights. She made me look beautiful for the first time in my life.
From then on, it was Jessie and me. Everybody knew we were best pals. That’s all they knew. We made sure.
Here’s the deal. We were show people and did things other people don’t dare to do or don’t have time for. We played. Our job was to play, to act like our work was play. It’s a way of life. And silly as it seems to the rest of the world, when we play, it’s serious. It’s our livelihood.
Half the night Jessie and I stayed up trying out new routines. We practiced and planned to show them to Benny. Ways to improve the act. Sometimes we made so much noise the others down the hotel hall would knock on our walls. The madder they got, the more we giggled. We tried to hold it in and gasped for air. Jessie had a great laugh. It was always a surprise when she laughed because she usually looked very serious, like she was thinking hard about something important.
Other times, she looked mysterious. She did herself up in black lace, smoky eye shadow, and crimson lipstick on her lush mouth and she’d be Mata Hari. Men liked that. Shoot, I liked it.
The lipstick was how it started. I used to love watching her put on her makeup. She was an artist with rouge, eye shadow, and especially her lipstick. She’d pucker her lips slightly—they were full, generous lips—and expertly roll on her deep crimson lipstick, never messing it like I did. She painted her lips carefully, slowly, and studied her mouth to see if she liked the look. Sometimes she licked her lips lightly and smile at me as I watched and then at herself in the mirror. She knew she was an expert. “Like it, darling?” she’d ask, fluttering her eyelids, imitating an actress we saw on stage once. And we’d laugh. She’d take one last appraising look at the mirror, and she was ready. I’ll never forget her solemn look. What was it she appraised? Her makeup? Herself? Me?
I started to fall for her. Not in love, no. It was different, I told myself. The more time I spent with her, the more I wanted to be with her.
She’s a kid, I told myself. We had fun like kids do when we were together. We shopped for stockings and shoes and dared each other to shoplift something we didn’t need. We’d go on the hunt for ice cream all hours of the night. We’d sneak into legit theaters to catch big names. We got drunk more than I care to remember and nursed our hangovers with booze in our coffee next day. We drank a lot, now I think of it. Everyone did.
Once, we visited a circus and talked to some of the performers. We spent time watching the equestrians rehearse. Jessie asked them if she could ride one of their white horses and they let her. She got onto the horse and shocked me and the others when she lifted herself to stand on its back. She balanced herself, stretching her arms out and up from her sides. Round and round she went and finally dismounted like she’d done it her whole life.
Something she learned years ago, she told me afterward. Her dad worked as a circus clown for a season and the equestrians showed her how to ride.
“Always look up and forward, they told me.” Her flushed face was one big grin and her eyes danced. I’d never seen her so thrilled or happy.
I marveled she had the nerve to do such a thing. “That was crazy!” I said.
“I knew I could do it. Animals have never failed me. They know I love them.” She wrapped her arm around me and pulled me close as we walked away. “Come on. Let’s go get something to eat. I’m famished!”
We worked and played, played and worked, caroused, walked the city and the parks, checked out the competition, and snuggled when or if we ever went to bed, because it was always cold inside and out that winter. She got under my skin and I loved her like a mother at first, then a sister, then a lover.
Then things started to change. Max Brody showed up from New York and he had to go and make her a star. He came on the scene like gangbusters. He’d heard about how Jessie stole the show every time she appeared and he showed up one night to ogle her like the rest of the crowd. He came back to the dressing room and insisted on seeing her. “You were incandescent!” he said.
“Is that a compliment?” she joked.
“I mean it. You’re like fireworks out there.”
He started in right away with the numbers. Big numbers, money like we’d never seen before. And Jessie was hooked. Now, before anyone gets the wrong idea, it wasn’t just the fact he could buy any club or theater he wanted to showcase her. There was something deeper going on between them. Even I could see it the first time they met. Everything about her changed when he came into the room. I’d never seen her run her eyes up and down and back up a person that way before. She read him like a dime novel. He was handsome in his way, I’ll grant him that. And he soaked her up, too. After all, she was still in her skimpy costume, barely holding together her pink kimono.
It didn’t take long. Max came around more and more and I saw Jessie less and less.
Max didn’t like our apartment. He found a bigger one, where he could come. A grand place that didn’t compare to our old hole in the wall. This one had two bedrooms. Jessie insisted I stay with her in the new place. But now we didn’t stay in the same bedroom, except now and then, if I was lucky.
Then one day, Jessie told me Max was planning a new show starring her. He bought a place, big as a barn, that he hoped to turn into a club to showcase Jessie. He auditioned circus acts, including a group of dancing horses. I went with Jessie to see it come together. It seemed there were dozens of people involved in this big show. And in the mix were a couple of goons, I called them, who looked like movie gangsters. They gave me the creeps. They didn’t do any work on the show, just stood around staring at everyone.
Max was so sure this circus-themed show would be a success, he planned to take the whole shebang to New York. Meanwhile, though, he needed the backing of someone with some serious money, as Jessie put it. I told her it made me worry. Where would I fit into this picture? Would I even have a job anymore?
“We’ll find you something,” she said.
Before long, Jessie told me I should come with her to a fancy yacht party out on the lake. “Wait until you see it,” she said. “This guy giving the party could back us. He has more money than God. He could help you move up, get a better job. You could get out of the chorus and do lines. You’ve got the talent. You just gotta show yourself off more. Get their attention. Get to know people.”
She gave me a gorgeous low-cut dress I’d never wear on my own and took me to a yacht docked near the Yacht Club. I can’t lie—I was impressed. Strands of lights laced around the yacht, but they just provided atmosphere and very little light. I could barely see anything. The guys at the entrance had to use flash lights to see our tickets and guide us up the stairs to the top deck.
There were more people then I expected to see. The men were spiffed up, their hair well oiled, fancy cufflinks, the works. The women wore gowns, with furs here and there against the night air. There were lots of jewels. I felt almost naked because of my low dress and my lack of jewelry. “Don’t worry, baby,” Jessie said. “You look fabulous. They can’t take their eyes off your breast. You’re beautiful.” I looked hard into her face to see if she was serious but it was too dark to see her eyes.
I could see she had a glass in her hand and was drinking greedily. They all were. I didn’t dare. I was afraid of the dark.
Suddenly there was a hush spreading out from the center of the people on the deck. A drummer banged on his drum like a machine gun and crashed his cymbals. It almost made me jump. When I turned to see Jessie, I realized she wasn’t beside me anymore. A spotlight switched on to make a circle in the middle of the deck. A girl was sitting there, almost naked, hugging herself. Now the drum played softly like a heart beating. A saxophone started to sing. The young girl started to dance, gyrating, twisting and turning slowly and smoothly like a snake. She stretched into contortions, ran her hands up and down herself. Then a man in a white robe appeared from out of nowhere. He approached the girl slowly, loosening his robe with each step and showing his naked self.
I panicked. Where was Jessie? I had to get off this ship.
I spun around to look for her. She was off to the side and across from me. I signaled to her. She didn’t respond. I couldn’t see her face until she lit a cigarette. Her face was like a mask. Everyone around her was grinning or whispering, excited, giddy. But she seemed detached, still, almost bored. She seemed miles away.
I was angry, hurt. Why would she ignore me and what was happening in front of us? The man in the robe was naked now, ready to mount the girl. I’m not exactly innocent, but this was too much for me.
I needed to escape. I backtracked to the stairs going down from the deck. I saw one of the crew who had helped us on. “Please, I need to leave. I’m going to be sick.” I didn’t know what else to say to convince him to help me. Thank goodness, he must have taken pity on me. He took my arm and guided me down the steps and helped me into a rowboat strung alongside.
“We’re not far out. I’ll take you back to the dock.”
It seemed to take forever to get back to the dock. But we made it and this young man, bless him, managed to find a taxi driver who didn’t look like a murderer to take me back to the hotel. He helped me into the back seat. When I thanked him, he said, “Hey, thank my kid sister. She looks like you—or I wouldn’t a been so nice, maybe. Know what I mean?” He tapped the taxi’s roof and I made it back to the hotel in one piece, except for my emotions, which were left scattered back there on that ship.
I never looked at Jessie the same way after that. I never quite forgave her either.
Max was always around and she let him be. It didn’t take long. I stood by and watched it happen. She hooked up with him like I didn’t exist. Was she pretending with me?
He booked her in New York and made her a bona fide star and the rest is history.
Now Jessie is back in Chicago on a tour. She’s not working for Max anymore. That’s all over. From what I can tell, there isn’t a man in her life. Too busy, she claims. But she learned and earned enough from Max to put together her own show and a successful tour.
Everything had changed, true. For one thing, I got married after she left. He was a fine man who promised to take care of me and I left everything behind. Soon I was ready to leave him behind. And here she was in the big time, busy as hell, running the show, “staying in warm hotel rooms,” as she puts it.
When she brought her show back to Chicago, she let me know. I couldn’t help but reach out to her. I let her know I wanted to see her again. We met at her hotel. She welcomed me with her usual open arms and warm embrace early one evening before her show. The look in her eyes hadn’t changed. It was like we’d never been apart. She was so beautiful and exciting, she took my breath away. How could I have forgotten?
“You must come and see the show,” she said. “I want to hear every single thing you find wrong with it. Will you do that for me, darling?”
When she called me darling, I swear my heart stopped, even though I knew she called everybody darling. I couldn’t wait to see her show, up front and center. So much of it felt familiar. The routines were dressed up more, with extra pieces of business. Funnier than our show. And at the center, Jessie, of course, elevated ever so slightly, surrounded by a chorus line of stunning young women.
“Oh, dear,” I whispered to myself. She worked it like the big names do. She ran the show, she was a hit, everything clicked. And, it was clear to me if to no one else, she had all the women she could want at her beck and call. She was fooling everybody with her act, even herself.
Or maybe not. I realized she knew exactly what she was doing—up there on the stage anyway—which was all that counted in her life from the start.
After the show, we spent the night together. That night turned into days and more nights together. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like we were alone. Her girls and the crew were in and out of her dressing room and even her hotel rooms at all hours. She ran not only the show, but chunks of their lives. And me, I couldn’t make myself stay away.
I was hooked. The golden lure. Funny how that works. You’d think you’d learn after the first time or the second or the third. I don’t have time to think. I’m packing. We’re heading out soon, to points west. And I want to be ready.
Elaine Fiedler has been published in Avalon Literary Review, Harrington Lesbian Fiction Quarterly (Haworth Press), Hawaii Pacific Review, and Nonconformist Magazine. She is revising her second novel, The Debra Way, a satire.
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