Monday, April 29, 2013

My Country 'Tis of Thee

When I was in first grade Miss Charlton (whom we called Charlie because of her mustache) marched us into the auditorium to learn “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” She sat down at the piano and led us through the song word by word, playing the piano with one hand and directing us with the other. When we came to the phrase “Land where my father died,” I couldn't figure out how they all knew. At home my father’s death was this big secret. There wasn't even a photograph of him anywhere, as if a picture could suddenly whisper the truth. Since all the other kids had fathers I reasoned it must be my father who died on the land they were singing about.
              He vanished without a trace of the ordinary clutter and details of a life, leaving not a shadow nor footprint. There were no letters or insurance papers or tax receipts to find. Not a watch or drivers’ license or birth certificate or deed to a house. No marriage license or diploma. No fading photograph that he had carried, maybe of me. Not a wedding portrait or snapshot at the beach. It was as if during the 29 years of his life on earth he was already a ghost.
             I was two years old when my bootlegging father-- and innocent uncle who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time-- were murdered, and don’t remember him. But my older brother, Kenny, told me of his charm, violent temper and generosity.  I found two pictures of him among my mother’s possessions after she died.  In one, my father is a dark-eyed child on a tricycle. The other shows a muscular youth standing with his brother, Marvin, in front of a horse and delivery wagon from the family bakery. The picture is slightly out of focus, his grin blurred, but you can see his physical strength and his readiness to use it. In the other he stands serenely in a handsome tan suit looking for all the world like a gentleman of banking or the law. His lips are thick and sensual, his brown eyes deep set. He is a beautiful young man frozen in his youth by death, silence and myth. He is a stranger and a daddy who didn't love us enough to stay alive.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Reluctant Model

After my mother pulled me out of 12th grade, we made the rounds of department stores and shops and photographers. To my surprise, I was hired by Halle’s to model in the tearoom at lunchtime; by Higbee’s and May’s for their fashion shows; photographer Harry Cole for his fashion shoots and catalogues and Quinn-Maas, an expensive specialty shop. I strutted on runways, stretched my legs and pointed my toes for the photographer, and in fashion’s convoluted calendar, posed in fur coats and rivers of sweat in July and bathing suits and goosebumps in January. I demonstrated vacuum cleaners at conventions, sprayed cologne at ladies in department stores, paced runways in my new hip-swinging stride, all the while feeling an immense sorrow. I had become my mother’s creation, her idea of me, a no-brainer not even fit to finish high school, a moving, speaking walking size 8, her windup girl-toy, an early pioneering Barbie, pushed down the road of her vicarious fantasies. With no idea of who I was or wanted to be, I went along, riveted by her will as she sat in the dark corner of the photographer’s studio, the front row of the style shows, the table in the tearoom.
Backstage I changed outfits in 50 seconds. Or rather the two dressers did, one of them stripping the clothes off my back while the other pulled the next change over my head. They grabbed the shoes from my feet, thrusting my toes into another pair (you hold onto the dresser’s back for balance) hung my neck with jewelry, patted down my hair and there I was, out on the runway again. 50 seconds flat. If it was a swimsuit show you were stripped naked but no one looked at you, not even the male buyers and merchandisers who were milling around backstage. They’d watch the audience through a part in the curtain or appraise the clothes hanging on racks, or ask someone why numbers 26, 14 and 43 weren't in the show.
            Every day from twelve until two I modeled in Halle’s tearoom. In the dressing room, staring at my reflection at the stranger in the mirror with the breasts and shimmering silver gown and silver sandals, I seemed to have emerged overnight willed into being by my mother.

Read more of Lost & Found by author and model, Babette Rosen Hughes
OR read her novel, The Hat, a story of a bootlegger's wife.
Sequel, The Red Scarf, to be release in July 2013

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Gun Molls

Special Prosecutor Thomas Dewey relied heavily on the testimony of gun molls of the 1930’s. When arrested and interrogated, the women had to choose between jail or cooperating with the prosecutors. If they choose cooperating they were given no protection and were either murdered by their ex-lovers or forced into hiding for the rest of their lives.
            Meanwhile, she was a worker bee. Performing the housework of crime, gun molls packed the loot and ammunition—sometimes in the frantic moments of a police shootout-- purchased cars, rented apartments to be used as hideouts, opened safe deposit boxes for the loot, and acted as go-between between gang members scattered by the police.
           Billie Frechette, John Dillinger’s lover, cooked, cleaned and ran his errands. She was born Evelyn “Billie” Frechette in 1907 in Neopit, Wisconsin to a French father and a Native American mother. She lived on the Menominee Reservation and attended school there until the age of 13 when she moved to a government boarding school for Native Americans.

            When she was 26, in 1933, after struggling to make ends meet cleaning and waitressing, she met the 30-year old John Dillinger at a dance hall in Chicago, and fell in love. Unlike Bonnie Parker she never participated in Dillinger’s crimes but was arrested anyway by the Department of Investigation Special Agents on April 9, 1934 for harboring a criminal. Dillinger drove around the block several times after her arrest unable to rescue her. She served 2 years.
            Tipped off to the FBI by a girlfriend, Dillinger was shot down on July 22, 1934, as he left a movie theater in Chicago.
            Bonnie Parker, gun moll to Clyde Barrow, was born Oct. 1, 1910. She was the middle child and oldest daughter of Henry and Emma Parker. An honor student and poet she worked as a waitress at Marco’s cafĂ© where she became friends with Ted Hinton (who would ironically take part in gunning her down.)
            She met Clyde Barrow in 1930. When he was arrested, she smuggled a gun into the prison, helping him escape. Then, two years after he was arrested again and released, she joined him on a crime spree of robbery and murder until gunned down by the police on May 23, 1934, in Bienville Parish, Louisiana..