~ Synopsis ~
From one woman’s epic journey out of Eastern Europe in 1904, to New York City’s tenement life in the 30’s, to a Victorian mansion in a Pennsylvania steel town and stardom in the 70’s, The Artfulness of Women explores how each of her descendants refuses to compromise her childhood dream as their talent, sexuality and long-held family secrets are challenged by political, racial and social upheaval through the generations from World War II, racial prejudice, the heyday of the women’s movement, and sexual liberation.
Bayla Szabo, born of Jewish Hungarian immigrants, yearns to be a blues singer like her heroines, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. Abandoned by her father, forced to support her invalid mother, she sews by day in a sweatshop, but at night, sexy and seductive, her heartaches and longings run rampant as she performs to rowdy male audiences in a former speakeasy.
Marriage takes her into a world of wealth and a disapproving family. Naive and vulnerable, she risks danger and scandal as she struggles to prove herself and keep her singing career alive, but sacrifice, loss and demons from her impoverished childhood take her far from her dreams, and eventually from reality.
Leena, her daughter, shamed from childhood by her attraction to girls, hides her “weird self” tests her sexual preferences, determined to fit in, then defaulting to normal in married life, waiting to live true to herself.
Her precocious daughter, Jackie, who inherits her grandmother’s talent, manipulates whoever threatens her non-stop rush to stardom.
As life pulls them in unforgiving directions, their stories unfold in their own voices. Survival requires reinventing themselves to meet choices and lifestyles not yet imagined by their generation. Against a background of Jewish humor and Old Country superstition, their legacy of courage, determination and resilience enable these mothers and daughters to mine from within what’s most required to achieve the lives they’ve always longed for in this lively family saga.
If you will it, it is no dream.
I’m blue, yes I’m blue
But I won’t be blue always
‘Cause the sun’s gonna’ shine
In my back door someday.
Trouble in Mind Blues
Escaping the Tenements
Bayla Rothschild maneuvered herself to standing, aimed her pregnant body beyond the bedroom door, and waddled on bare swollen feet when a burst of warm liquid gushed down her legs, causing an embarrassing flood on the finely-designed tree-of-life Persian runner that covered the second floor hallway. What consequences would her body inflict on her next? The past months had left her grotesque, misshapen, exposed, and stuffed. With the water drained out of her she stood cemented in place. When her husband realized she was missing from their bed, she had already turned to stone.
With profound ignorance and a ferocious dread of childbirth, Bayla had begun labor. She would never remember how he managed to get her dressed, coax her down the circular staircase, through the marble hallway, into the garage and the roomy back seat of their blue Ford sedan.
Down the cobblestones of Beleaguered Hill’s steep incline, past prestigious homes lined up like picture postcards, their lawns silver-gray in dawn’s winter frost, she tried to steady herself with one hand, and dug her nails into the upholstery with the other. “I don’t know what to do,” she said because no one had ever told her, and who could she ask when such things were rarely talked about?
“Grab hold,” he shouted, reaching back with one arm, but the car swerved onto Main Street and she was thrown from his grasp. Panicked and wide-eyed, everyday places flew by ─ Greeley’s Grocery, Murphy’s Five and Dime, Waters’ Hardware, Fletcher’s Soda Parlour, Holiday’s Music and Records, and on the last block, the Odeon Cinema.
They bounded across the railroad tracks, sped past the steel workers’ row houses, and skidded beyond the Ohio and Chesapeake railcars loaded with newly-milled girders. Bad sleepers up before dawn had plunged the town’s sleeping households into a fury. Phone lines, were as pregnant with the news as she was.
“We saw them.” “In the sedan.” “Flew down the hill.” “The baby is about to be born.” “At last!” “An heir for Amory Lane!” “How wonderful.”
By the time the car raced up the hospital’s circular driveway and screeched to a halt, the scene was already helter-skelter. Nurses, orderlies, and admitting personnel scurried around in the icy mist, anxiously awaiting their patient.
As the sky began to lighten, the Head of the Ladies Auxiliary, a squarely-built matron in her Sunday best, elbowed her way through the crowd, straightened her black, feathered fedora, and opened the sedan’s back door with a composed, “Greetings, and welcome.”
Sprawled across the backseat, her coat thrown open, her navy blue maternity dress above one thigh, her hat nowhere to be seen, Bayla Rothschild extended one leg in a futile search for solid ground beneath her navy blue oxford. The likelihood that she would meet with success spurred two nurses to reach into the car and pull. A third rushed around the other side and pushed. An orderly appeared with a hospital bed and breathlessly cranked it upwards to meet her buttocks. The moment she settled, an excruciating pain seared through her middle and she erupted with a three-octave roar. Like infantry on the run, they whooshed her beyond the doors, down a long corridor into a harshly-lit room where she labored long and intensely.
“Grab the bed posts,” a nurse commanded. “Push. Push.”
Bayla moaned and screamed. She tore at the sheets, clutched the pillow and pounded the wall behind her.
“Make believe you’re a dive bomber in the war. In Europe,” the nurse ordered. “Get those Germans. Push for France. For England. Push again.”
“I can’t.” Bayla gasped for air. ” I can’t.”
“You must. You’re having a baby.”
” I’ve had enough.”
“Push hard. Again.”
Bayla inhaled, and in one long rasping breath she eaked out, “I’ll get you for this, you bastard.”
The nurse laughed. “Once the baby’s in your arms, you’ll forget.”
After some thirty-six hours, on January 25, 1941, the doctor entered his patient’s uterus with cranial forceps to deliver an eight-pound, five-ounce baby girl.
Unaware if it was night or morning or how many dawns had passed, Bayla opened her eyes. She was lying on a steel hard gurney in a cold, dark cavernous place that echoed its own silence. Her body was limp. Her insides felt so stretched, she might have squeezed the town’s public library from between her legs.
Her husband would be asleep in the waiting room, anxious to praise her strength and courage and to do his best to overlook how she would ignore him. He of all people knew the birth of their child had little to do with what she wanted most in the world.
“What am I going to do with a child?” Love and care for it, he had said. But maternal love, how and where would she find it? She was frightened to be a mother, frightened she might treat the child the way she had been treated. And what if in the future ─ who could predict it ─ this infant might one day do to her what she had to do given her mother’s rages, her mind here, then gone? Where were the guarantees for such things never happening?
A slab of light shot through the dark.
“You’re in recovery, dear. Time to tinkle.” The nurse pushed an icy metal bed pan under her bottom. “Be a good girl now,” she said, and turned on a faucet. “Go on.” She waited, turned it off and disappeared, taking the light with her.
Certain nothing would ever again go in or out of anyplace down there, Bayla tried to inch herself off the thing, but the shrill clang, when it struck the floor startled her, like a fitful awakening. Sounds of women kvetching and puking echoed from down the hall. Since she was a child, no one had to tell her the difference between, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” and “I’m Sitting on Top of The World.” But she was still one of them. Needy. Wanting. Battling the circumstances of her impoverished childhood.
“Childhood,” she said aloud, as if she’d had one. From her tenement window on New York City’s Upper East Side, she could still picture men selling apples for pennies during the Depression. She could still hear her mother telling her to quit school, the one place she felt like somebody. She was only 14, with two years left to graduate. And when she objected, “They should take a meshugeneh from the asylum and put you in his place,” her mother yelled, called her a dumbkopf because didn’t she realize an einhoreh, an evil eye, was pestering their lives, jeering at what little they had.
Who else could support them in their two-room apartment on the third floor of their walk-up on 236 East 89th Street: a kitchen with a window, a table, two chairs, a coal stove, a sink like a trough, where she washed herself and her mother, a bedroom where she slept on a cot, a toilet down the hall, shared with four other families on the floor? Arthritis had slowed her mother’s fingers and stiffened her knees forcing her to give up sewing hats full-time for fancy ladies in a millinery shop on Rivington Street. She sewed instead at home from a wheelchair, donated by the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society. Piecework, barely enough to put food on the table. Her father, who held her as no father ever held or loved a child, had kissed her good night and walked out. She was seven years old.
Words dictated by her mother, written in Bayla’s childish hand on a scrap of paper, sat for weeks back then on the kitchen counter. I am looking for my husband, Yosef Yosefa Szabo, ironworker, 36 years old, small, dark mole on right brow. He left me with my young daughter. Whoever sees or knows of him take mercy on us and . . . .But it was so shameful to admit, “You can’t send it,” her mother said. She meant to The Jewish Daily Forward, the column that reported runaway men. She cursed the fates instead, adding hours to her work pinning, cutting, and sewing under a 25-watt bulb.
For weeks, after school, Bayla knocked on doors in search of work: “I see you are looking for …. Hello, I am experienced in…”
Back home, she’d gather her dolls from the fire escape outside the kitchen window, where she had placed them each morning for fresh air and sunshine, dolls she’d fabricated from old socks, embroidered their faces, sewed their outfits from her mother’s remnants. At bedtime, she laid them in the cot where she slept in the room too close to her mother and sang them the song of Hungarian girls’ names her father had taught: “Arish, Bidi, Shari, Marishki, Rosalli, Ella, Bella, Utzi, Carolina . . .” Names she gave her dolls.
When the day came to tell the principal that she’d found a job, she walked slow and begrudging along the gray corridors, stopping at the large double doors that would no longer welcome her each morning. She inhaled the scent of peeling paint, leaned forward, and closed her eyes. The slightest push would not lead to her future, as her mother had said, but to the end of her life. Never again would a teacher commend her smocking and embroidery, her grasp of a Willa Cather novel or an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem. Never again would she jump Double Dutch with friends at recess, or relish her music teacher’s praise for her singing. Like someone stuffing a suitcase before a long journey, she tried to pack inside herself everything she could about her two years there. Et va zoh. This is how it must be, she heard her father say in Hungarian. Not wanting to disappoint him even then, she brushed away tears with her forearm, bit her lip, and walked into the harsh glare of the city’s streets. The time reserved for her growing up had fizzled like chicken fat in a heated fry pan. It was winter, 1929.
Bayla longed for her past to leave her in peace. Instead it bullied and tormented her, as if her life wasn’t made up of new events, but only old ones lining up for another turn. How could she care for and nourish a newborn when her own childhood was as alive as the baby she had not yet held in her arms?
Where was her child? She had heard, “one more push,” barely a squeak, a loud bawl, then, “I’ll give her something to sleep.” What had the doctor pulled out of her? Maybe she had delivered a baby with too many arms and legs, or not enough fingers and toes. She remembered a girl in elementary school who wore a normal shoe on one foot and a monstrous, heavy black one on the other. Perhaps her daughter would end up with the same, or worse.
“Nurse,” Bayla shouted. “Nurse. Nurse.” Bolting upright, everything whirled. She eased back onto the gurney, surrendering to years of hopes and expectations that slipped from her grasp. She had a voice, not measly and high-pitched, but a deep, soulful sound is what she always imagined for herself. And luckily she had grown into a tall young woman whose square jaw and wide cheekbones perfectly fit her expectations. Singing was her prize, her gift, her joy, her self-worth, her burden, her fatal flaw, her promise to herself. After months of rehearsing her debut, perfecting her songs and in its place ─ motherhood. As if she were destined to be as colorless and ordinary as Pittsmill’s forever-cloudy skies. As if that were the best she could be. As if being a mother would help her forget everything that motherhood had caused her to give up.
“A loch in kop. There’s a hole in your head? Go inside, already!” With her mother’s criticisms inside her ears, Bayla didn’t know how long she stood on the sidewalk at Tenth Avenue and 33rd Street. Eight cement steps led to a two-story building, its sign in thick black letters sprawled across the top floor: Goldmacher’s Uniforms. A short hallway, then a large hot room reeking of sweat with girls like herself, maybe a hundred, each hunched over a sewing machine, flexing their feet on the broad, black iron pedal that caused ear piercing, sporadic monotones displacing the air, and any chance to breathe.
A plump middle-aged woman, dark hair pulled tight behind her head, beckoned Bayla into a tiny office. “I’m the Forelady, Mrs. Harmenschtein,” she shouted above the whirring drone. “You’re due eight a.m. sharp. Lunch twenty minutes. No gum chewing. Be late, we dock your pay.” Bayla signed her name and then followed her onto the factory floor up two long aisles of jutting elbows. When a new girl arrived at the Hebrew Technical School for Girls, the teacher would introduce her. But here, not one eye turned in her direction. The discipline, the control made her shiver. Was no one allowed to move? Would she be locked in?
At the last seat in the last row, Mrs. Harmenschtein pointed a finger at a sewing machine, the word “Singer” in peeling gold letters, like the others. “Your place,” she said.
The next morning clutching a meager lunch wrested from meager means, two pieces of bread with jelly, or toast and hard cheese, Bayla walked to her place trying not to count the steps but eventually the monotony engulfed her. One, two, she would begain. Other times it was fifteen or twenty, forty-nine or one hundred until she reached the end, or the beginning of her row, her seat, her destiny, her doom. What did it matter? She had become not a seamstress ─ the fancy word on the “wanted” sign outside Goldmacher’s door ─ but an operator who sewed outfits that turned people into what they did: assembly-line workers, prisoners, zookeepers, garbage men. In less than a month thoughts of school faded then disappeared entirely.
The nation was singing Keep Your Sunny Side Up, and Who’s Aftraid of the Big Bad Wolf to drive away the gloom of the Depression. To lessen her unfulfilled longings beyond the eight cement steps that led to Goldmacher’s factory floor, Bayla would relive memories of her father. Yosef Yosefa was a stocky man with strong hands, an ironworker, who fashioned shiny brass mailboxes for fancy New York City apartment lobbies. “When the wet nurse handed you to me,” he would begin, “A brucha fon himmel, I said. We will call you Bayaleh.” How he used to hug and caress her, his hands covering her body. And if she embellished how she remembered him, people have done worse.
Bayla opened her eyes to a yellow cotton quilt, framed pictures, fresh white towels, her own bathroom. Those who ministered to the ordeals of birthing women had moved her at some mysterious hour. “I prefer the ward,” she had told her husband’s family, but they insisted on a suite. “Remember who you are, living in this town.” The problem was she couldn’t forget. The first day she arrived, twenty-two years old, a newlywed, her husband at her side. Instead of the right words lining up in her mouth at her good fortune, from the place inside her head that spoke to her when she didn’t want it to, she heard the townsfolk whispering. How clumsy and awkward she was as she glanced with suspicion, or was it disdain, at her new surroundings? They mistook her inexperience for shyness, her unworldliness for stupidity. Her lack of education with her not wanting to learn. They described how she shrank from her new surroundings ─ the person who had captured Amory Lane’s most prized bachelor.
“Now you will become part of Amory Lane, and it will become part of you,” her husband had told her as he reached out for her hand. The thought was as magical as it was damning then, but more so now when they would expect her to be a perfect parent.
Two nurses in starched white uniforms bounded into her room. “Here she is, dearie. Support her head. Hold her close to your body. So precious.” They giggled and tiptoed out.
Bayla looked down at the pink package they’d placed ever so delicately into her arms. A tiny hand freed itself and flailed fiercely. Legs, bound tightly, began to thump erratically. Crooked, open-mouthed yawns, high-pitched squeaks, and tight squints melded into broad, wide-eyed stares, frightening and strangely foreign. She reached for the bottle on the nightstand and gently eased the nipple between the child’s tiny lips, hoping not to douse or suffocate the creature. The automatic sucking, tightly-closed eyes, fierce determination so trustful, and she so woefully ignorant.
When the milk disappeared, she withdrew the bottle with quiet concentration, and caressed the soft, blond fuzz on the infant’s head. Drawn by a bond she never knew existed, she inhaled the child’s sweet scent, allowed the warmth of her little body to enter her own. “My daughter,” she whispered, embraced by unfamiliar emotions that pulled her toward the child with its delicious vulnerability. Hush-a-bye, hush-a-bye, go to sleepy little baby. When you wake, you will have cake and all the pretty little horses, she sang.
Drawn as she was to the child, could she forsake the applause? Dare she consider performing and motherhood? How could she avoid this dreadful tug of war? Maybe there was a way to endure the shame, fingers pointing, tongues wagging, mouths whispering that she had no respect for her husband and his family. That she had a child only to neglect it. To follow selfish pursuits. Why not? Why not? Bayla bent her body toward the newborn as if it were a refuge from the shame of her thoughts.
Nurses on the maternity floor had no idea that inside her long silences and blank stares Bayla was weighing her destiny. All the talk was about her, and why shouldn’t it be? She was used to commotion. When she knew what she was about and what she was after, she was paid to be the center of attention.
“Bring ‘dem melons ova’ here!” “Sing it to me, hot mama!” “Gimme your sweet self.”
Such wonderful raves she received on stage. To hear them even in her hospital bed. Back when she knew who she was and what she was about, men lined the streets on Manhattan’s West Side. They packed the place to standing room only. And when she sashayed into the spotlight, the ruckus and shouts, the yearning for her that night, and every night after that, confirmed with the regularity of a downbeat in a four-beat bar, how much she was loved and desired.