Sedalia, Missouri, December 1895
By the time the train pulled into Sedalia, it was nearly dark. The traveling minstrel shows that made stops all through the tourist season were long gone. They wouldn’t be back until spring. That was fine by Strap Hill. He wasn’t looking for work, not with a fine engagement just a few weeks off in New York City. Strap didn’t mind telling just about anybody who’d listen how New York was the answer to a poor man’s prayer. With a good ring shout and a little bit of luck, no telling how far you might go. As for him, he was plenty happy to ride on the coattails of Mr. Ben Harney, the young Kentuckian fast making a name for himself as the Originator of Ragtime.
Standing on the platform, Strap took a minute to admire the view, the last rays of sun pouring like golden honey on the rolling hills of central Missouri. It was fine farmland. A man could probably make a half-decent living there, if he was of a mind to get his hands dirty. But that wasn’t the life for Strap. No sir! His sights were set on making it big. Money was the answer to everything, and he was about to get himself a whole bunch of it, just as fast as he could.
He buttoned up his brand new wool frock coat and pushed his bowler down tight on his head so the wind couldn’t take it. Carrying his old leather suitcase, he hurried down the steps and headed straight for town. Back then, Sedalia already had about fifteen thousand people, but still there wasn’t much to it. A beat-up wood sidewalk ran the length of Main Street, and most of the buildings were no better than old blockhouses. He passed by a long row of storefronts—general store, barber shop, feed store, hardware store. They were closed up for the night, the shopkeepers at home with their families or maybe enjoying a little libation at one of the taverns down the street. Exactly where Strap was headed.
“Hey, stranger, lookin’ for a little fun?”
He glanced toward the half-open door but kept walking, chuckling to himself. He had no illusions about being a ladies’ man. He imagined how they might write him up for some Wanted poster back in Memphis: Be on the lookout for Strap Hill, short and wiry, black as pitch, nose wide and flat as a pancake, a big gap between his two front teeth. Not the prettiest picture, but still he figured he’d have plenty of opportunities with the ladies once he got to New York, after he made a name for himself as Ben Harney’s sideman.
By the time Strap hit the center of town, it was like a whole different place. The doors to the pool halls and honkytonks were thrown wide open, lights glowing and sounds of piano music filtering onto the street.
Without too much trouble, he found the Maple Leaf and went inside. The smoke was thick as fog. He headed across the room, past the pool and gaming tables, on his way to the bar stretched along the back wall. The colored bartender was sloshing a wet rag across the counter. He looked up and, seeing Strap, tossed it aside.
“What’ll you have?”
“Whiskey.” Strap settled onto a high stool, unbuttoned his coat and shoved his suitcase under his boots. “Who’s playing tonight?”
“Whoever show up, I reckon.”
“You know Otis Saunders?”
“Otis? Sure, he’s a regular.” The bartender yelled out, “Anybody see Otis?”
“Seen him playing pool little while ago,” somebody answered from the other end of the bar. “There he is, coming this way!”
Strap swung around on the stool and watched as Otis Saunders came toward the bar. His friend was just like Strap remembered him, with the sure step and easy smile of somebody who knows what he’s all about. He couldn’t help being jealous the way all the ladies turned to look as Otis went by.
“Somebody asking for me?”
Strap jumped up and stuck out his hand. “Good to see you, Otis.”
Otis’s eyes lit up. “Why, if it ain’t Strap Hill! I’ll be dogged! What you doing in Sedalia, man?” he said, giving Strap a hearty slap on the back.
“Way you and Joplin was talking about this place, knew someday I have to see it for myself.”
Strap had met Saunders and Scott Joplin during the world’s fair, the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, in the summer of ’93. He and Otis had gotten themselves into a jam with a couple of cops on Colored American Day, the only time the colored musicians who had come to the fair from all over were actually allowed to play there. They were given one day and wouldn’t have had even that but for the insistence of the powerful Negro statesman Frederick Douglass, who then proceeded to cause controversy with a fiery speech about how badly things were going for Negroes in America—no jobs, no respect, no pay-back for all they’d contributed to the country. Afterwards, when everyone was leaving the big hall, it seemed like the cops were just looking to nab a colored man, with or without reason. Strap and Otis were the ones they chose.
Strap noticed how Otis was eyeing him up and down, probably wondering what he’d been up to that he could afford fancy threads like he had on. But it turned out Otis already knew.
“Heard you’re singing with Ben Harney.”
“I sure remember them pipes of yours. When you do that ring shout, not a soul don’t get swept away in the fervor. But Harney—” Otis rubbed his chin, like he was thinking hard. “He ‘fessed up yet to where he learned how to rag, or still claiming to invent it all by himself?”
Otis’s question, not to mention the barb with which it was delivered, put Strap on the defensive. “Don’t matter to me if he invented ragging or not. What’s important is people like it.”
“Don’t get me wrong, Strap.” Otis laid a hand on Strap’s shoulder. “I don’t have nothing against Harney. I hear he’s a good man, almost like one of us. Fact is, don’t know of any other white man touring with a colored band. Unless maybe it’s that he’s got some Negro in him after all. There’s rumors about that, you know. What do you say? You seen him up close.”
“He look plenty white to me. And the way he talk about his family, seem they’s all big shots. Says his grandpa’s in the government, a state senator or something. Somebody else a professor at the university, wrote a book about numbers.” Strap took a swallow of whiskey. “For Kentucky, the Harneys is kind of like blue bloods, I’d say.”
“Sure like to know where Ben Harney learned to rag,” Otis said, shaking his head.
“What difference does it make?”
“It’s just that it ain’t right. Ragging is our invention, Strap. That rhythm come straight from Africa, you know as well as me. Straight from the black man’s soul. Ain’t right for Harney to claim it’s all his idea.”
Strap didn’t say anything. When it came to fancy talking, he figured he was no match for Otis. Besides, maybe his friend was right. But that wasn’t going to stop him from playing Tony Pastor’s vaudeville theater with Ben Harney, billed as the bona fide originator of ragtime. Why, he’d have to be a fool to pass up a chance like that.
Otis looked over his shoulder. “Sorry, buddy, but I got to go. The folks are getting restless. I’m on tonight.” He gave his fingers a good stretch, then rubbed his palms together hard, like he was trying to start a fire. “How long you going to be in Sedalia?”
“I got to head out to New York pretty soon.”
“You’ll stay at my place while you’re here. Long as you like.”
“You sure I won’t be putting you out?”
“Listen, Strap.” Otis leaned in close. “I’m going to introduce you to my sister, Bess. She’s a real looker and sweet as a tub o’ honey.”
“That sound mighty good.”
“You’re going to love it here. Fact is, I could see you getting real comfortable in Sedalia. Settling down with a nice girl? Doing a little singing and shouting on the side?”
Strap couldn’t help laughing. No way he was staying in Sedalia! Not with what he had ahead of him in New York.
Fame, fortune, and everything he thought goes with it.
Mike scrutinized his image in the tall gilt-frame mirror of the gentlemen’s dressing room. He was decked out for evening in a glossy black tailcoat and black trousers. His waistcoat was cut low, amply displaying the finely plaited shirt-front decorated with tiny gold studs. A black necktie, patent leather boots, and white kid gloves completed the outfit.
The ensemble had taken a sizable chunk out of what he’d earned in his several months of employment with the Converys, but by now he was resigned to the fact that investment in one’s appearance is a necessary part of climbing the ladder of success. And there was no doubt that tonight was to be a significant step up. At that very moment, some of the most important people in New York were downstairs, in the ballroom of the Converys’ palatial Manhattan residence on Fifth Avenue. Soon they would be listening to him perform Beethoven, Chopin and Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, a technically difficult selection sure to impress even the least sensitive of listeners.
The initial impression he had made on Mrs. Convery must have been far greater than he’d imagined. She had not seen him or heard him play since his brief audition for the position of piano teacher to the Converys’ two daughters, May and Emily. It was to be a position of short duration, only until their usual teacher, Miss Sidorov, returned from tending to a gravely ill relative back in Russia. At the time of his introduction to Mrs. Convery, Mike presented himself as a budding young pianist in the process of preparing for an East coast concert tour. Fortunately no one had questioned that, three months later, the tour had yet to materialize.
Nearly a year had passed since the completion of his studies at the conservatory in Berlin, and he had made no progress whatsoever. There had been a number of auditions with promoters, every one of them with the same story. He had no name, they said, no following. On top of that, they insisted, Americans believe serious music belongs to the Europeans. Despite his conservatory training, there was no way around the fact that he lacked the Continental mystique.
His mind wandered back, as it often did, to his crowning achievement, the command performance for Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II. It was an invitation extended only to the conservatory’s very best. After such an honor, he had naturally assumed that all of New York would fall at his feet.
But now he understood—New York City is a place where the most important thing isn’t what you can do, but who you know.
That he had been invited to perform at tonight’s birthday celebration could only mean that Mrs. Convery believed him suitable for display to her high society friends. Such a seal of approval meant a great deal to him, not only professionally but personally. He had won Mrs. Convery’s confidence under false pretenses. Not only had he lied about a pending concert tour, he had claimed a life history that bore little resemblance to his own. He had introduced himself as Mike Bernard; that was not his name. His family went by Brown, a name derived from Braun, the change having been made upon his parents’ arrival at Ellis Island from Germany. He really had no choice but to fabricate the story of how he’d been raised by a wealthy uncle in Chicago, owner of a successful music publishing house. How could he possibly have admitted to Mrs. Convery that he grew up in the tenements of New York? That his father was a wallpaper hanger and his mother took in piecework.
That he was only nineteen—and a Jew.
The fear of discovery had plagued him incessantly ever since. Another reason tonight was so important. If he were to win the backing of Mr. Convery, and perhaps others among the Converys’ exclusive set, might it be enough to finally silence those inner demons that had always taunted him? Might he truly become the person he wished to be?
He came closer to the mirror and studied his face. It was thin but no longer had that underfed look. He recognized its flaws—the jaw was narrow, the nose a little too large, eyes deep-set. But when you considered it all together, without separating the parts, maybe it wasn’t so bad.
There was a light knock from the hallway. Mike quickly stepped away from the mirror, striking a pose by a small Louis XIV table. The door swung open.
“There you are! I’ve been searching for you.”
May Convery was stunning in a sky-blue silk voile gown with enormous puffed sleeves and a trumpet bell-shaped skirt, topped by a tiered necklace of sparkling diamonds and sapphires. Mike flashed back to how painfully intimidated he used to feel in her presence, despite that she was not much more than a child—a full two years his junior. But since that morning when she’d first shared her poetry, he’d begun to see her differently. Not as the spoiled daughter of a wealthy financier but as a lonely young woman, insecure, even fragile. She had been as nervous and uncomfortable reading her poems aloud to him as he had been listening to them. At the time, as her piano teacher of only a few weeks, he had never thought to become her confidant, but clearly that was what she wanted of him. In fact, she seemed desperate for it.
Since that first time, after every lesson she would slip him her leather journal, with the red ribbon marking her latest entry. When next he returned, he took great care to say how much he admired what he’d read. This praise was not entirely guile. Unquestionably, she had a facility with words. And he could easily relate to the frustration and anger reflected in her poetry, even if he could not quite bring himself to feel sympathy for the circumstances that, in her case, inspired such emotions. It struck him as ironic that the kind of life she clearly wanted so badly to escape was exactly the life of privilege to which he so ardently aspired.
“Where is the attendant?” May asked, glancing around the room.
“He was called out momentarily—an urgent problem in the hat room, they said.”
“Good.” She stepped inside, closing and bolting the door behind her. “I was hoping for a moment alone with you. Are you all right? You’re not nervous?”
“Nervous? No, not really.” He was, of course, extremely jittery. But admitting it would only have the effect of making him more so.
“I’ve been busy tonight telling everyone how fortunate we are that the start of your East coast concert tour has been delayed. Already many of the guests want to know when you’ll be appearing in New York. They’re quite anxious to hear you play.”
If she intended to put him at ease, her words had just the opposite effect. It was best to avoid the subject of the concert tour now. It could only complicate matters. “My greatest wish is that your mother will be pleased with my performance tonight.”
A slight frown appeared between her brows. “Mother is neither the most astute of your critics nor the most powerful. There are others whose opinions ought to matter more to you.”
“But one must always aim to please the hostess.”
“Mother is seldom pleased with anything,” she said, brushing his remark aside as she walked over to the full length mirror to admire her dress from several different angles. “They showed this gown in Paris, at one of the fashion parades just this fall. Mother thought it would suit me well.”
There was no question that she looked more beautiful than he had ever seen her. The dress perfectly matched the color of her eyes, and the bodice, cut low enough to reveal the slight swell of her breasts, made it difficult to focus his attention on anything else. But he was determined not to give her the slightest reason to doubt the purity of his thoughts.
“Mrs. Convery has impeccable taste.”
May swung around. “I didn’t realize you were such an admirer of my mother. And after only one meeting, too. Well, I suppose she does make an impression. But tell me—I’m truly curious to know—do you really find me so dull by comparison?”
He tried to act amused. “I can’t imagine where you would get an idea like that.”
“You wouldn’t be the first to find her fascinating. And don’t think she isn’t aware of it, too.”
“You’re speaking about your mother, Miss Convery,” Mike chided, finding her attitude rather startling.
“Yes, she’s my mother, but not exactly the motherly type, wouldn’t you say?” She turned back to her reflection in the mirror.
“That’s not for me to say.”
“I could tell you things about my mother that would no doubt change your opinion of her, and not necessarily for the better. But, of course, I won’t.” She twirled around, her eyes flashing. “Unless you want to hear?”
“Good. I would much rather that we spend our time on other things.”
She approached him suddenly, a swirl of rustling silk and rose-petal perfume. Before he could realize what she intended, she had kissed him on the lips. He jumped back as if burned.
“What’s the matter? You don’t like kissing?”
Mike’s heart was racing. “You—your behavior is—is very inappropriate, Miss Convery.”
“And yours, Mr. Bernard, is entirely unacceptable. When a young lady offers a kiss, it is a gentleman’s duty to respond with a certain enthusiasm.”
Undaunted, she came at him again, throwing her arms around his neck, boldly pressing her lips against his, her bosom so tight to his chest it was as if they were joined. He wanted to push her away. He knew he must. But it was only a matter of seconds until his will collapsed completely. Brazenly, his mouth devoured hers, each kiss deeper than the last. It wasn’t his fault. He had been ambushed. All he knew was that, astonishing as it seemed, May Convery wanted him—or at least the person she believed him to be.
He never heard the jiggling of the door handle, not even the knock that followed.
“Hello?” It was a man’s voice. “Open up in there!”
May wrenched herself away from him. “Oh, no! It’s Teddy.”
“We must act as if I only came to inform you of the schedule.”
Hurriedly, she wiped her mouth with the heel of her glove and went to the door. Mike somehow managed to move to the window and part the velvet drapes as if he were looking outside, perhaps waiting for someone’s arrival. Yet he remained in a state of confusion, not sure whether to be elated or horrified by what had just happened.
“May! What are you doing here?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Mike saw that the intruder was a tall, athletic-looking young man, handsome in that well-bred way that he had often envied—wavy blond hair, straight nose, square jaw.
“I was just informing my piano teacher about the schedule for his performance,” May explained, trying to appear calm though her discomposure was obvious. “I don’t suppose you’ve met Mr. Bernard?” she added, no doubt recognizing her obligation to make an introduction.
The young gentleman approached with his hand extended. He rolled back his lips in a mechanical smile. “Livingstone. Teddy Livingstone.”
“My father and Teddy’s are business partners,” said May.
Teddy’s eyes had not left Mike’s face. “I’ve heard all about you. Miss Convery seems to think you’re some kind of genius—or something.”
“She’s far too generous in her praise.”
“You’re right. She does tend to exaggerate. But then, that’s part of her charm.”
“If you both will excuse me, I need to get back to Mother and our guests. It’s nearly twelve.” May tossed Mike a meaningful glance before making her escape into the hallway, leaving the two men to themselves.
“I’ll join you in a few minutes,” Teddy called after her before closing the door and turning to Mike with a look far less congenial than before.