by Cyrus Cassells
Novel Excerpt, from Fall 2017
As a worshipful son, I’d say my first music was the music of my mother’s voice, instilling and lily-sweet. Oh how I relished the Easter-like moment Mama would hum an abetting lullaby or open my stubborn hand—to fill it with a woodland leaf, a scuppernong petal, or a slender pencil. Even stolid, tough as whitleather store clerks, often deferred to Mama as “Lady Viola,” so I gleaned early on that my McKay Street neighbors, indeed, most everyone in colored Pecora, revered Mama, who insisted the root of my trademark infatuation with words was her habit of reciting to me her treasured Negro poets, Wheatley and Dunbar, even in the womb. When I became a shiny apple in the public eye, I was mighty partial to that story (Oh Mama, the behavioral scientist, the Carolina Pavlov!) and took a firstborn son’s predictable pride in sharing it with the delighted Negro press.
Marveling at Mama in Romeo and Juliet, I must confess, despite my joy at her success, I had quite the embarrassing flashback. One marvelous blue Sunday morning in May, when I was about eight, my thespian mother enlisted me as a mute walk-on in her church recitation of “The Mother of the Gracchi,” meant to celebrate President Wilson’s declaration of the first official Mother’s Day. For some reason, I was jealous of the willowy boy who played her other son (I can’t for the life of me remember why!), so as the younger of the famous, reforming Roman brothers, Gaius and Tiberius Gracchus, in my little makeshift tunic (half a sheet!), in full bad sheep mode, I mugged and rolled my eyes so emphatically during Mama’s earnest “these boys are my jewels” speech as Cornelia, the exemplary Roman mother, that it provoked hearty laughter from Grandpa Elden’s tickled pink congregation, wholly confusing Mama and fairly ruining the somber majesty of her classical recitation.
The memory of my upstaging antics, mixed with my pride in “Lady Viola’s” clear triumph, made me ponder my own theatrical hopes. About a year before Mama’s uptown debut, I had happily resettled in Harlem, following an eventful, rough-and-ready stint as a correspondent in Madrid, Valencia, and Barcelona. After the roiling spectacle of the dispiriting Spanish Civil War, it’s no wonder I became enamored with the stage again; inspired, in part, by the innovative Group Theater and Bizet’s Carmen, I set my sights on writing a decent, hopefully hard-hitting show. Perhaps my post-battlefield aim to fashion something bold and arresting for the boards blossomed from an earnest desire to make heads and tails of the swirling drama I witnessed in wart-torn Spain.
Still longing, more or less, for the hardy music of Spanish, I fashioned, after several drafts, my first play, Chili and Chocolate, about a Negro bronco buster and adventurer who joins the Mexican revolution and promptly loses his head over Rosebud Ugarte de la Peña, nicknamed “Chili and Chocolate” in the scandalized village where she’s raised, never knowing the name or whereabouts of the “the black Carib sailor who sired her.” Falsely accused in east Texas of stealing horses, a capital offence, James de la Perriere escapes to Mexico, where he rides with Pancho Villa, works on the railroad, changes his name to Jed Sessions, and woos and wins indelible Rosebud. The Texas fugitive’s appearance in Rosebud’s village, as rebellious Villa’s ally, ignites a wildfire of hope, clashes, and unanticipated passion. As I honed the script, it was clear that for colored folks way out West, the words border and Mexico meant unchained freedom from Jim Crow as well as blazing opportunity. It also became obvious that the roles of Jed and Rosebud were meaty, tempestuous ones only Duncan Metcalfe and that dazzling Harlem diva, Lena Marie Laurent, could handle. So I prayed more than just a little to the fostering Muse of the Theater that “Dark Gable” and his former co-star would step into these fiery characters’ boots and bandoliers, and much to my joy, Dunc gave me a hearty yes: “Lucky for you, Mace, I’m plum ‘simpatico’ with this part, and the lead girl’s got some serious moxie, so I’m sure I can coax the Divine Lena Marie to get onboard. She owes me one! Buddy, I’m in!”
“Saddled” with a surprise pregnancy, Lena Marie, my striking prima donna and perennial handful (a haute couture match for Duncan, with her hallmark veiled hats) had to bow out only four months into Chili and Chocolate’s initial run. Dunc teased her, “It’s not my child, is it, compañera, born of our revolutionary ardor?” And glowing Lena Marie, who was then on handsome husband number three, smirked, and countered, “Don’t you wish!” So, in the wake of Lena’s departure, Fawn Bradshaw, Mama’s acting cohort, the riveting lead from Hale Smith’s hot ticket production, gallantly stepped into the part. Hale’s jaw-dropping Romeo and Juliet had finally closed, providing an ideal opportunity for Fawn to segue from her triumph as a riveting, high yellow Juliet to beautiful, brazen Chili and Chocolate: “You know, Maceo, I’m crazy about Lady Viola, so I’d be pleased as punch to help. Juliet was a filly, but Rosebud’s a real woman’s part, and I’m just the woman to fill her rebel boots!” I had some reservations at first, but Fawn’s vigorous, sexy embodiment of Rosebud surpassed everyone’s expectations, bringing an impressive depth and unbarred passion to the brash role that became legendary in Harlem, and then for a while on Broadway. Chili and Chocolate became Fawn’s absolute zenith as an actress, her topmost stage triumph. Sad that, after WWII and the steady run of Chili and Chocolate, Fawn took to booze and barbiturates, some say, after failing to land the lead role in “Alabama Camellia,” a controversial, “high yellow” film part that “Lena Horne’s lovely cousin” was determined to play, come hell or high water. “Light, bright, damn near white” as she was, did the stunning Miss Bradshaw really believe they’d let a colored actress bat her eyes at an ofay leading man? To no one’s surprise but Fawn’s, a raven-haired white actress (who didn’t have half of Fawn’s on-tap fire and sex appeal) garnered the role and a coveted Oscar nomination. Did dreamy Fawn forget? Even bombshell Josephine Baker’s film, “Princess Tam-Tam” (in which she played an African shepherdess disguised as royalty!) was banned in the good ole U.S.A. because of banana-dancing La Baker’s infatuation with a down-on-his-luck Caucasian novelist.
Ah, Mexico, with its dramatic, Christ-is-coming skies, full of ever-shifting colors and attention-grabbing clouds: it’s like a bold, shameless theater up there! “Script-work” was the handy code word selected for a certain playwright and his drop-dead handsome lead to make an across the border late night getaway from Tinsel Town to a modest Mexican seaside hamlet that shall remain nameless.
“This is heaven, Mace. I was getting bone-tired of movie sets and fan chatter. Amigo, I see a hammock with my name on it. How, pray tell, did my favorite poet settle on this under the radar place?”
“I have my ways, Dunc. I simply let it be known I was looking for a spot that was both honeymoon lovely and incognito, some Baja locale Miss Greta Garbo might feel at home in.”
“Sugar, you amaze me. If Romeo and Juliet had survived, had really nixed the nasty poison and had a child, he’d be as romantic as you, Mr. Maceo.”
“That’s me, Romeo Junior! Let’s just say I wanted peace, glorious peace: the exact opposite of our scary hotel experience in Valencia during the war.”
“Yes, that Spanish all-nighter gave new meaning to the words of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’: ‘the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air.’”
“Jesus H. Christ, we might have died there, Dunc.”
“I would have died happy!”
“That’s about the sweetest thing you’ve ever said to me, Dark Gable!”
Dunc? He was glamorous to a fault, in a time of fedoras—a gaudy butterfly disguised as a dashing crooner and come-hither lead: “D.T. Sweetie” they dubbed young Mr. Duncan Thaddeus Metcalfe in the first flush of his stage career, then “The Tan Valentino” and finally the “basket name” that really stuck with bedazzled audiences: “Dark Gable.” I can’t think of his first tickling nickname, though, without hearing in my head cigar-chomping Bricktop’s sassy rendition of that old Harkins Sisters hit “Insufficient Sweetie”: “The man I love must be a real world beater, / with a kiss that kicks like a colt’s repeater!” Sometimes, when Dunc got my dander up, I’d sing a few bars: “I’m not going to use restraint / while I’m making my complaint. / Insufficient Sweetie, / your sweetie’s too sufficient for you!”
Considering those first heady days of getting to know Dunc in Paris, not long before the big October Crash and the whole lickety-split demise of the bull market, what comes back to me, in droves, is jazz, glorious jazz: Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians singing “Hello Baby,” Albert Brunies’ Halfway House Orchestra’s “If I Didn’t Have You,” Slaughterhouse Slim’s “Rent Party Lothario” and of course, my cousin A. Lattimore Hartnell’s Eleven Black and Tans warbling “Sunday, Sugar, Let’s Stroll Along the Seine.” On subdued, God-must-have-forgotten-the-word-sunshine days in Monmartre, sulking in my mansard room in the narrow Rue Saint Rustique, a stone’s throw away from “the great white swan of the Sacre Coeur,” if I became just the least bit homesick for Pecora, in a snap, I’d assuage the longing by listening to the Clicquot Club Eskimos (an “ofay” band with gimmicky banjos, got up in crazy Greenland gear!) singing “Crying for the Carolines”: “Where is the song I had in my heart / that harmonized with the pines? / Anyone can see / what’s troubling me: I’m crying for the Carolines!”
Fresh from Fisk, I was relishing my first weeks in tantalizing Negro Central (“do you speak sparkling Harlemese?), with its “juice joints” jammed with “safari after sundown” whites, its ubiquitous bid whist and Saturday night rent parties, and for the lucky, the heady license of buffet flats, offering artful flirts, tasty gumbo, and quenching milk pitchers of gin, when my cousin Lattimore Hartnell, the erstwhile drummer and Paris nightclub entrepreneur, cabled me, like a veritable bolt out of the blue: “As a grad present, cuz, how about the City of Lights for a summer? Need your smarts and pep on the hill (and I don’t mean the siditty one in Pecora!) Chop, chop, summa cum laude boy! Time to put your textbook French to the test!” Cousin Latt, courtesy of a gleeful stint in Jim Reese Europe’s revered Clef Club band, had ended up remaining abroad in the roaring 20s as a stouthearted drumming ambassador, spreading the “jazz germ” and the catchy gospel of syncopation to France. No wonder he settled in Paris, with its broad avenues oh-so-right for strolling—a siren city of snug houseboats nestled along the sparkling river, and land sake’s alive, cafes where a hungry colored man didn’t have to risk the crushing humiliation of being turned away! In his customary playful fashion, Latt reminded me when I got myself to France that in grade school, I once purchased, on my own acquired-by-small-chores dime, a miniature French dictionary, then begged Mama and Daddy for language lessons; my blood brother Kid LaRiv’s generous mom, Sabine LaRiviere, kindly agreed, despite her big brood, to help wheedle a little fluency out of me before I was old enough to enroll in a language class. Yes, from the start, I took to French, as Latt enjoyed saying, like a bright-feathered Negro duck to rippling water.
Up on Paris’ most popular hill that bubbly as champagne summer, I served as a kind of jack-of-all-trades, or as the Brits say, general factotum for my fat cat cousin’s new club: keeping the mostly untidy books in order but also sweeping up, hosting at times, and occasionally lending a helping hand in the kitchen. This second of Lattimore’s ventures, hardly more than a hole in the wall, was a boite as the French call it, a “box” dinky enough that it reduced his newly recruited colored chanteuse, Bethany Laine, a honey of a girl from Buffalo, to a sudden flood of tears in the club’s postage stamp of a kitchen—right in front of the sympathetic chef. Nevertheless, misty-eyed Miss Buffalo rallied in time, and “marvelous, marcelled” Bethany’s signature gift for sly innuendo, her seductive alto and shapely, expressive limbs soon made Latt’s sophomore effort a bona fide success, and I happily stayed on, way past my originally scheduled summer tenure.
1928, to borrow from my languishing high school Latin, was the annus mirabilis, the watershed year of my first major success, when my poem, “My Mother is a Musical Instrument,” published in Dr. Dubois’ The Crisis, skyrocketed a certain stargazing Pecora kid to fame; indeed, my verse portrait of my very own “Mother, May I,” was making some rather serious waves back in the States and word got out, even in glamorous Paris, so Cousin Latt started parading me before a whole gallery of curious, cultured folks passing through “Black Montmartre,” and occasionally had me read a few selected poems, mostly on off nights in Latt’s Club Cosmopolitan on the Rue Lamarck, billing me as “our own Negro Sage and leading light of Harlem-sur-La Seine.”
At a swank, “syncopated soiree” on the elegant rue de Bac, given by a certain “Negro-Indian” heiress, who had christened herself Madame de Thuliere (though the Harlem-in-Monmartre gossip insinuated that she started life as humble Gladys Beatty from Chickasaw County, Oklahoma), I was part of the evening’s “edifying” jazz and entertainment; at one pause in my poetry recitation, I was startled to see, among the upper-crust attendees, the notorious “D.T. Sweetie Metcalfe,” the electric Broadway singer and actor. Imagine my surprise when we crossed paths in one of Madame Imposter’s vast toilettes, and the matinee idol, a tad inebriated at the time, sent a little, impromptu garland of praise my way, then launched into Lang Hughes’ most famous piece—to impress me, I guess. Since I was one of the evening’s emcees, I had to dash back to finish my duties, but I did pocket his gilt-embossed card in the bargain.
My second run-in with this “theatrical storm” and fabled cock-of-the-walk occurred at my cousin’s Club Cosmopolitan, and this time, the fabulous D.T. Sweetie apologized, with convincing savoir-faire, and insisted, in firm but courteous fashion, on supper with me. Given his well-known rep as a lady-killer, I was indeed curious as the proverbial cat for a closer inspection.
Only a few months prior to the scandalous Mr. Metcalfe’s supper invitation, I had dumped my Norman lover, an auburn-haired alto sax player named Jean-Yves, he of the one bewitching brown eye and the solemn blue left one; I suppose his striking, rather freakish handsomeness should have been the tip-off to the Janus-like nature of his drug habit. Likewise, on an amiable walk near the Pre Catalan in the Bois du Bologne, I learned from Monsieur Metcalfe that the Scottish actress (the lovely one Dunc had caused such an uproar with on Broadway) had given him the metaphorical bum’s rush, so both of us were new-minted members of the Gallic branch of the broken hearts club. During our first friendly meetings, it was a cinch to admire his galvanizing good looks and sartorial flair, an ongoing delight to chic Parisians, (any amie of Madamoiselle Josephine Baker was definitely their own new pal as well!). I enjoyed savoring the actor’s baritone, expounding, inter alia, on his assiduous preparation for his roles; how Dunc couldn’t get a full handle on Othello’s fury at his blameless wife until he finally understood the Moorish general as a reflexive “killing machine.” I was inclined, in the beginning, to dismiss Mr. Show Biz, with his massive shoulders and leonine mien, as just another stage peacock but that was not the nuanced, thoughtful, yet festive man I discovered amid the captivating whirl of the capital. My growing feeling for D.T. seemed a doomed thing initially, but then, lucky for me, despite Dunc’s winsome voice on the gramophone, his preening face and fedora on the marquee, his famous penchant for les femmes; despite the teasing Seine, the insouciant city, promising delectable champagne bubbles but never genuine heart; despite Dunc’s lady-loving wife back in Harlem; despite my LeHavre sax player’s quasi-convincing plea for another chance, just when I thought his love was dead as the sweet, laid-out girl in Satchmo’s “St. James Infirmary”; despite having shut down all my teenage hope and trust when my first love, LaRiv, assaulted me near the river; despite our shortcomings, fastened then clearly slipping masks, A-1 professional reps, epic hesitations, and seesaw episodes: in one good-as-gold surprise, ah applesauce, Insufficient Sweetie and Romeo Junior became an item.