Here at OPOSSUM, we’ve had the honor of bringing a lot of exciting new work our readers, but perhaps this takes the cake: for our Fall 2017 issue, award-winning poet Cyrus Cassells offered us the opportunity to give the world its first glimpse of his ambitious forthcoming novel, My Gingerbread Shakespeare. Now we’re happy to broaden the audience of this important work by sharing it online. What follows is our interview with the writer, followed by the two novel excerpts in full. Call it our belated Valentine – we love you, we do, even though we’re sometimes late with our kisses!
A CONVERSATION WITH CYRUS CASSELLS
ON MY GINGERBREAD SHAKESPEARE
Cyrus Cassell’s forthcoming novel, My Gingerbread Shakespeare, explores the “move-along” life and loves of a fictional Harlem Renaissance poet, Maceo Hartnell Mitchell: his boyhood friend and first crush, Ker-Xavier LaRiviere (Kid LaRiv), a Lincoln Brigade volunteer in the Spanish Civil War; Ilya Varonovsky, a Soviet reporter whom Maceo meets on a goodwill tour of Asiatic Russia, and encounters again in war-torn Spain; Maël and Matthieu-Pierre Patriarche, French Canadian cousins, a fisherman and a mechanic; Cosimo Alessandro Monterosso, an iconoclastic Italian filmmaker, who enlists the poet as a Neorealist screenwriter; and perhaps Maceo’s greatest love, the dashing singer-actor Duncan Thaddeus (D.T. Sweetie) Metcalfe, the “Dark Gable” who astonishes his legion of fans by becoming an impassioned Civil Rights activist.
The novel is also enlivened by the voices of Maceo’s revered actress mother, “Lady Viola,” the subject of his most celebrated poem, “My Mother is a Musical Instrument”; his bossy, bi-racial grandmother “Queen Cascabel” who lords over Maceo’s hometown of Pecora; the poet’s long-lost daughter, Ivich, who grows up in the Far East as a “Shanghai Russian”; Cully Butler, Viola’s bolstering friend and secret acting coach; Maceo’s sister, Delaine, a remarkable sculptor; and his adored nephew, the gifted singer Genoa Graham, who finds romance and authenticity in the early panic years of the AIDS crisis, as he makes a pilgrimage to the “realms and islands” of the North Atlantic that altered Maceo’s life forever.
My Gingerbread Shakespeare is an unusual puzzle-portrait that allows the reader to marvel at the trailblazing poet’s risk-taking loves and adventures.
John Edgar: Can you describe the inception of this ambitious project. When and in what form did the idea for this novel first strike you?
Cyrus Cassells: I was staying on the rue des Rosiers, the Jewish Quarter of Paris in August of 2008, suffering through an enervating cold that dragged on for nearly two weeks; as I recall, I was also dealing with the worst dollar to euro exchange rate in recent history, when the novel more or less “downloaded” inside of me. The characters were very distinct, very vivid, and I could ascertain their main features and situations with ease. One of the strange things was that two chapters of My Gingerbread Shakespeare take place in Genoa, a port city I’d never been, despite living in Rome and Florence from 1991-97. I made a pilgrimage to Genoa in 2013 and met an incredible opera singer who taught me a good deal about the city; the singer, whom I imagined as a friend for life, died from pancreatic cancer a few months after my research visit, so my time in Genoa had a poignant, fated quality to it.
JE: As an accomplished poet and playwright, what led you to the novel as your chosen medium for telling this story?
CC: I have wanted to be a novelist ever since I was in elementary school. I used to peruse the “N” Encyclopedia Britannica as an eager boy just to study the history of the genre. My detouring discovery of poetry as a teenager really took me by surprise. When I first came to teach at Texas State in 1998, I had a sense, after three books of poetry, that there might still be a novelist inside me. I wrote a hundred-plus-page novel-in-verse, which I never published, save for seven poems (which appeared in my last poetry book, The Crossed-Out Swastika), but used as homework, or a kind of writer’s offhand laboratory that allowed me to experiment with fashioning characters, dialogue, and lyrical interior monologues.
JE: One of the things I most love about this work is the oft-poetic period vernacular that you employ so well throughout. What were some of the sources you used as inspiration for these voices?
CC: I was most inspired by documentary footage and reading memoirs, diaries, and letters, particularly those of the volunteers in the Spanish Civil War and in the Civil Rights Movement. I also enjoyed studying the inventive slang of the periods depicted in the novel.
JE: You rotate, chapter by chapter, between (at least) ten points of view. What led you to this narrative structure?
CC: I only settled upon this alternating structure last year while I was working again in France. It was a rainy spring and summer, dreary and full of strikes, so I had plenty of indoor time to tinker with my novel. The original chapters were much longer; what I ended up doing was splitting them up into much shorter chapters and inserting them throughout the novel, which seemed to make the storytelling livelier. This was closer to my original sense of the book’s structure as eccentric, non-chronological and synchronistic.
JE: Was it difficult to switch between characters as you wrote this? How do you manage to keep the voices so distinctive?
CC: My real eureka for this project was when I allowed a character that I had previously thought of as a minor one, Kid LaRiv (Ker-Xavier LaRiviere), to become one of the novel’s key narrators. I just fell in love with his snappy, Jazz Age and Depression era way of speaking. Suddenly the whole project became immensely voice-driven and energized. I had struggled for years with the fact that the novel takes place in several different countries in multiple time periods, and I had tried to assemble the book geographically, but it was slow-going; I composed the fourth and final section of the novel called “Voyage That Ends in Puzzle Pieces” (set in Canada and the North Atlantic) first. But when I started really listening to tough and dynamic Kid LaRiv and genteel, moving Lady Viola, Maceo’s actress mother, the other characters really came alive, too, and demanded their time in the spotlight.
JE: Music plays a prominent role in this work, both in setting and tone. Who are some of your musical inspirations for this project?
CC: Here are a few:
Louis Armstrong’s version of “St. James Infirmary”
“Clarinet Marmalade” (Dixieland jazz standard, performed by Bix Baederbecke)
The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”
“Insufficient Sweetie” (sung by Bricktop or The Harker Sisters)
“Crying for the Carolines” by The Clicquot Club Eskimos
“Ombra Mai Fu” (aria from Handel’s Serse)
“Were You There?” (sung by Mahalia Jackson)
“Pavane for a Dead Princess” by Maurice Ravel
“Papa Was a Rolling Stone” (sung by The Temptations)
“Vedrò con mio Diletto,” from Vivaldi’s Il Giustino
“Grandma’s Hands” (written and sung by Bill Withers)
I also had fun making up some groups and song titles myself in the Maceo chapter you’ve published: Slaughterhouse Slim’s “Rent Party Lothario” and A. Lattimore Hartnell’s Eleven Black and Tans singing “Sugar, This Sunday, Let’s Stroll Along the Seine.”
JE: These two chapters occur about 100 pages into the novel, but I’m very pleased by how nicely they stand alone. Is there anything that you want to say to preface this work? Anything about Maceo and Dark Gable that might add to the reader’s satisfaction in encountering these excerpts as independent pieces?
CC: In creating an experimental novel about the life of a gay Harlem Renaissance poet and playwright, I wanted to do it subtly, elliptically, in a way that mirrors an artist’s protean life and a friend’s passionate assertion that “poets are a gift to a culture.” Maceo is almost as much of “a historical perfume” as he is a cosmopolitan character, so I wanted to convey his enduring literary and human legacy, including the profound ways, throughout his busy lifetime, that “move-along Maceo’s” inimitable words and presence affected the folks around him—both family members and crucial love interests, who didn’t necessarily understand the core of him. Larger-than-life singer and matinee idol Dark Gable is the love of Maceo’s life, and yet their relationship turns out to be an intermittent and turbulent one that delights and bedevils them both, and is re-enacted, in revealing ways, in the tricky dynamics of their subsequent relationships. Each of the individual chapters of My Gingerbread Shakespeare was meant to be concentrated and vibrant, giving the speakers and witnesses to Maceo’s life as much depth as possible.
LOOKING FOR A DO-RIGHT CHILD
(From the Dark Gable narrative of My Gingerbread Shakespeare)
by Cyrus Cassells
Brother, hear me, no warning sign or bothersome stop light will do the trick, when your heedless, feet-first self is faced with real, fascinating love or full-tilt talent; I bet a sage advice columnist or a wise Lenox Avenue palm-reader must have stated it plain (as a spoon of castor oil!) at some key point. “Watch out, Countée, here comes competition,” I teased Mr. Cullen, our amiable Negro Poet Laureate. “This Maceo kid might just give you a pretty decent run for your Harlem money. Man, have you read ‘My Mother is a Musical Instrument’ yet? Talent with a capital T.”
I remember receiving a silly as Sally invite to a social whist party on West 129th, proclaiming “some wear pajamas, some wear pants, what does it matter, just so you can dance. If Sweet Mama is running wild, and you’re looking for a do-right child . . .” Well, at the time, I had no notion I was in a Don Quixote like jazz quest for anything at all (save for a well-deserved vacation from watchful gossips), much less “a do-right child,” but I sure as hell nabbed the Real McCoy in Mr. Maceo, my sweet genius to go, who, as you’re maybe aware, graced me with two choice, undeniably Grade A roles. Looking back on that rather frenetic summer of 1929, I can see, my children, I was definitely at a funky crossroads. Quiet as it’s kept, I’d gotten a little bored and irritated with Keris, my flawless, indispensable wife of seven, going on eight years, whom I actually loved (we were hearts and flowers sweethearts at Howard), and our not so flawless arrangement, which allowed her to pursue, sub rosa, her tan and yellow gal pals (with an occasional look-see or join-in, on hubby’s part) while I, in keeping with my highly sexed nature and “Tan Valentino” reputation, roamed the vast playing field, as needed, keeping my fantasy-wrapped fans, both goose and gander, panting for more of my ardent loverman in a fedora act. But my “terribly unwise” affair with a Inverness-born actress (a delicate, alluring but still soulful Desdemona to my salt-of-the-earth Othello) had scandalized both my uptown and downtown followers, enough so, that even permissive Keris put her usually laissez-faire foot down, making it de rigeur that I dump tender, attentive Penelope, “my sweeting”—whom I admit, I had naïve, sugar-and-spice dreams of maybe marrying. Since only a very select few show biz types were hip to my “eclectic tastes,” Maceo’s fortuitous appearance in my life was the longed-for antidote to the whole flagrant Scotswoman scandal, which had raged, hot as a burning building, until the deluded Moor of Venice breathed his histrionic last, and my leading lady quietly headed back to the Highlands.
Right on the tail of the show’s closing, I managed a presto-chango getaway to Paris, hoping for a tearful but nevertheless downright lusty reunion with my very own dimpled Mary Queen of Scots, when a clipped telegram informed me that our Eiffel Tower tryst was a deflating “no dice.” Putting a hasty bottle cap on my fast-mounting despair, I accepted a last minute invite to some fancy colored soiree, not in “Negro Montmartre” but close to swank Rue de Bac, and that’s where I first laid eyes on my sunny Maceo, in all his glory. Following a few musical numbers, he recited a couple of his megawatt poems, including the famous crowd-pleaser about Mom. After sampling a few too many flutes of champagne and a dollop of cocaine to dispel suddenly turncoat Penelope’s stinging rejection, without thinking, I trailed the evening’s luminous poet-emcee, as if he were a scintillating Harlem version of The Pied Piper, ostensibly to “iron my shoelaces” in the ornately tiled bathroom of Madame Redbone So-and-So. Maceo was discreetly adjusting himself in the mirror, while I shamelessly stood nearby, admiring the view, and blurted out: “Bravo, Mr. Poet, count me among your newfound fans!” I promptly launched into a sonorous, semi-blotto rendition of “The Negro Speaks of the Rivers,” to highlight, god help me, my genuine appreciation of verse.
“I see you’ve read Mr. Hughes. I’m touched, D.T Sweetie, really I am. Having just finished a pretty solid run of Othello, I’m sure you’ve got an ‘every boy does fine’ feeling for verse, but somehow, given your current state, I doubt your soul’s really grown deep as a river. . .”
I winced a little to hear my earliest stage nickname, wielded like the Musketeer d’Artagnan’s brisk barb, in a swift move to disarm “pickled,” foolhardy me.
“Applause for your clear enthusiasm for poetry, most illustrious sir, but I need to head back to Madame de Thuiliers’ salon. I’ve got a job to do: I’m introducing another promising singer, one of my Cousin Latt’s new discoveries.”
“Yes, I’ll let you hurry back to your ‘New Negroes’ and ultra aristo-cats’. Here’s my card, Mr. Poet, in case . . .”
Maceo encounter #2 was in his Cousin Lattimore Hartnell’s tiny club:
“Mr. Mitchell, we meet again. It seems you never made use of my card. Please excuse my previous actions, as I confess, I was quite tight and obviously dazzled by your exceptional verse and charm. Please excuse, also, my impromptu recitation on the rue du Bac. Silly, I know, but how else can an actor impress an accomplished homme des lettres? By the way, I count Mr. Hughes and Mr. Cullen among my circle of friends. I’m serious, Mr. Mitchell. Please accept my apology and say you’ll dine with me at my hotel.”
The poet accepted politely, with an easygoing smile, and so began, our discreet dinners and pleasurable promenades around Paree. It took a fortnight or two before, like a nimble quick-change artist, I let the cat out of the bag that my snowballing interest in Mr. Harlem Boy Wonder was a heck of lot more than just brotherly. Then joy, joy, joy: declaring my true yen for Mr. Maceo was like taking a captivating but cumbersome mask off at heady Carnival time.
“Well, you took me by surprise, Dunc. I guess this explains, Romeo in a fedora, why you followed me into ‘the powder room.”
“Uh huh, I was magnetized, Mr. Poet.”
Ah, Paris (spread before us like a bright damask) and the little bell-peal of Mace’s tickling laugh, his dapper profile on a twilit stroll: yes, siree, you bet I’ll take all that to my grave. Hard to believe, I know, but oh-so-brainy yet still tantalizing Maceo didn’t have much of a clue about his own considerable charms (which I guess, was “lucky as fuck” for me), but let’s just say he was in an eye-catching league with Countée’s longtime buddy, that social butterfly and come-hither boulevardier Harold Jackman, the one a whole bunch of fascinated, ogling colored folks referred to as “The Handsomest Man in Harlem.”
That humid summer I loved to open the casement and coax my sleepyhead poet wide awake in the laggard morning, which in infamous, legendary CPT, might be translated as a low-key Parisian afternoon—just to watch Mace’s long, curly lashes come apart; ah, once upon a whirligig summer, we harmonized, sang old-timey spirituals, jazz, and whatnot. Peculiar to recall, in 20/20 hindsight, our private realm of Gallic hotels and stairwells, our hushed-up love and happiness blossoming, in that breakneck season of sighs and optimism, just one step ahead of The Big Crash, the horror of ruined businessmen leaping from Manhattan’s bright heights.
As it’s widely, not so subtly broadcast, “Dark Gable” is a gentleman, a seigneur of quicksilver moods, yes indeed, a spot-lit chameleon apt to take on his surroundings, but something about Mace invariably calmed me down. You see, Mace was my still-point, my come-home call. A majority of my paramours (quite able partners in crime!) like refined but lusty Penelope, lit a fire in my loins and made me restless as a racehorse. In my own cockamamie way, I vowed to protect my gorgeous, shining, quite principled poet, to make damn sure our very own colored Keats didn’t succumb to killer T.B., or any other of life’s funky or truly dire maladies, but, I tell you, my secret pledge, my angel on the poet’s dreamy shoulder plan sailed right out the window, when Romeo Junior headed first to Commie Russia to make a flick that went bust, then to a remote isle in Canada, and finally, worst of all, got his delectable, do-gooding poet self mixed up in the “toil and trouble” of Republican Spain.
To tell the truth, I wish I’d hauled my dog-and-pony routine to Madrid and environs a hell of a lot more out of airtight conviction and less out of some shaky urge to compete, to keep a big eagle eye on my globetrotting guy, like a hard-bitten gumshoe bent on fingering his footloose lover. I guess you could peg me as that familiar fool, not spun-around Othello exactly (one of my favorite roles), but still a man bedeviled by that gadfly, jealousy. Vain ole me, I figured Mace’s war reporting for the Negro papers was his dramatic, Technicolor way of finally leaving Dark Gable’s fickle, philandering ass. He knew whenever I found his deep, mighty complicated way of feeling and seeing things to be a “stretch,” there was always plenty of eager “tail” waiting in the wings.
I told myself, in my salad days, that battling it out in the political arena just “tweren’t” my bailiwick, so it took time to catch on that my pipe-dreaming poet then surprisingly ballsy war reporter truly did set store in all that hardcore, anti-Fascist stuff. My heart just about burst when Mace and I reunited over there in embattled Spain. “Fancy you being here, Dunc. Now who would have thought, after all your tough daddy jive, you’d turn out to be just as staunch as Dudley Do-Right?” We had all of about twenty-four hours together in a not shabby Valencia hotel, punctuated by predictable air-raid sirens. I don’t think I ever loved my idealistic Harlem bard more. And when he dragged his beautiful ass back stateside from defeated Catalonia, yup, we were full-on together again, and I said a giant-sized yes to starring in his first play (out of a gadabout lover’s guilt, I teased him), a remarkable show inspired by Bizet’s outsized heroine Carmen, and her famous Habanera, with its “l’amour est une oiseaux rebelle.” Later, I got on board for “Harlem Noel,” that Negro holiday staple, the show that proved to be such a happy moneymaker for Maceo.
“My Insufficient Sweetie, I suppose asking you to hold off on all the hot pursuit stuff is like asking the mountaintop to stop loving thin air.”
“Or like insisting a certain poet I have a hankering for to stop hop-footing it around the globe and keep within a certain radius of Harlem.”
Long before there was more “dukes-up” between Dark Gable and his footloose poet than spooning and making up (maybe Hitler and the world-wide War made just about anybody and everybody ornery), on a whim, I took Maceo back with me to my Raleigh homeplace. My father, the Reverend R. A. Metcalfe, had at first been a tall, drying-and-toting tobacco plantation slave then a colossal but still humble Presbyterian minister, and, quite naturally, I grew up being the Sunday prodigy and upstaging star singer in his devoted congregation. Because Daddy Reeve loved freedom and clear skies above most things, as a pastime, he became an offhand, almost sly lover of carefree kites and kite-flying. I was seven when my doting mother Raynelle and my closest brother, Stoddard, suddenly passed away in a Chesapeake ferry disaster, and my grieving sire, in the hope of keeping both our sorrowing blues at bay, gifted little Duncan with a small cloud-bound kite. Well, past the cistern, in an old shed (where Stoddard and I sometimes hid), rummaging around near some stovewood, I found a larger, multi-colored kite I’d patched together in middle school, and Mace and I proceeded to resurrect it. On a fairly warm Ides of March morning, I let Maceo handle the dusted-off kite for a stretch; when he accidentally stumbled on an unseen branch in the meadow grass, to keep the runaway cloth from escaping scot-free and sailing off into old man Maldonado’s woods, I quickly reached my arms around Mr. Poet to catch the wayward tail, and the sudden, no fuss about it joining of our bodies felt so damn good, I kept my long arms, just-so, sweet as pie, around his slender waist for awhile, not caring at all who saw us, as we merged in Jenson’s Meadow and became, oh boy, like joined-at-the-hip Siamese twins—one kite-flying, happy-go-lucky unit. For me, that “taint nobody’s business” embrace (thank you, Bessie, thank you, Fats!) brings to mind the kite-high, up in the air feel of D.T. and Romeo Junior’s best days: cloistered from meddling eyes or pointing fingers, on that clement meadow morning, we were soaring on the clandestine Aladdin’s carpet of our deep-down love for each other.
Some rather jaundiced souls, mostly movie colony cynics and back door johnnies, might have labeled my last and final separation from my handsome Harlem bard as cruel and opportune, since Mace’s troubles with McCarthy and HUAC came fairly fast on the heels of our break-up. First sensitive, frustrated Maceo, my “rebellious bird,” quit me (word has it, for some “Guinea” film director who was wowing folks all over Europe), then indulgent Keris (weary to the bone, I’m sure, after two decades, by all my misadventures) did the same; my darling better half opted for a “Boston marriage” with her longtime girlfriend, Janai, a still slim, bookish beauty from Martha’s Vineyard, that island bastion of the Negro “bluebloods.” So I went back to garish and never-dull Hollywood, to my role as reliable pasha to an adoring harem of women and invert fans, and, holy Moses in a moving basket, broke the trusty heart of one of the best men I’ve ever known.
MACEO REVEALS HIS INSUFFICIENT SWEETIE
(From the Maceo Hartnell Mitchell narrative of My Gingerbread Shakespeare)
by Cyrus Cassells
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 war-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.