Sedalia, Missouri, November 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 booking in New York City only a few weeks off. No, this little side trip to Sedalia was just for old time’s sake.
Lately, he 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 for town.
Sedalia had about fifteen thousand people, but still there wasn’t much to it. A beat-up wooden sidewalk ran the length of Main Street, and most of the buildings were no better than old blockhouses. He passed by a row of storefronts—general store, barber shop, feed store, hardware store. They were already 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 now.
“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 could imagine 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 Club and went inside. The place was packed, the smoke as thick as fog. The crowd was mostly Negroes and a few whites, mingling together as if there was nothing strange about it. 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 back,” 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 just a little bit 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 got into a jam with a couple of cops on Colored American Day, the only time the colored musicians who’d come to the fair from all over were actually allowed to perform there. Negroes were given one day and wouldn’t have had even that but for the insistence of the powerful statesman Frederick Douglass, who took the occasion to make a fiery speech about how badly things were going for his people—no jobs, no respect, no pay-back for all they’d contributed to the country. Afterwards, when everybody 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 unlucky ones.
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.”
Otis rubbed his chin. “He ‘fessed up yet to where he learned how to rag, or still claiming to invent it all by himself?”
Otis’s question 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 any other white man touring with a colored band. Unless maybe it’s that he’s got some black 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. 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?”
“Just 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 fast and hard, like he was trying to start a fire with them. “How long you going to be in Sedalia?”
“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 City.
Fame, fortune, and everything he thought went with it.
New York City, December 1895
May opened the top drawer of her French Serpentine commode, inhaling the scent of lavender as she slipped her hand beneath the soft pile of silk camisoles. She wrapped her fingers around the leather cover of her journal, extracting the book gently, lovingly. By the light of the Tiffany lamp, she took a moment to flip through the pages, stopping here and there to read a few of her favorite lines. It was funny about her writing. Sometimes it came to her so swiftly and easily it was almost like magic. At other times it reminded her of making Christmas taffy, endlessly folding and twisting and pulling at the words until finally they took on the desired consistency and shape. Her latest poem was like that. She’d still not finished it.
This journal was one of several, all of them hidden in places where her mother and father would be unlikely to stumble upon them. She was sure neither would have any tolerance, let alone appreciation, for the verse she composed or the poets and writers she admired—most of them French and famously debauched. But wasn’t it those writers who had taught her most of what she knew about life? Real life, not the kind lived within the sheltered confines of the Converys’ Manhattan mansion or their sprawling country estate in neighboring Connecticut.
A few minutes earlier, she had quietly exited the lively party going on downstairs in the ballroom, feeling a sudden spark of inspiration. It would be wonderful if she could complete the poem she’d been composing for Mr. Bernard and read it to him before his performance tonight. She knew it might shock him that she would lay bare her feelings so shamelessly. But maybe that was the only way she would know for sure whether he felt the same.
There had been subtle signals that he might. A few times during lessons when by accident their hands touched and she’d felt that fluttery sensation in her stomach, he’d quickly moved his hand away as if he, too, sensed the danger. And he often seemed reluctant to look directly at her, a trait she found both annoying and endearing. He was shy around her. That could only mean he cared what she thought of him, perhaps as much as she cared what he thought about her.
She recalled again the afternoon, just over a month ago, when she dared to tell him of her aspirations to become a poet. She’d been afraid he might react the way Teddy had. She’d mentioned her writing to Teddy only once. Casually, as if it didn’t matter all that much, as if it wasn’t the entire reason she lived and breathed. And what had he done? He’d laughed at her! Laughed in that snide, superior way he always had about him. He’d not even been curious enough to want to read a single one of her poems, so he could judge for himself whether or not her writing had merit. No, he merely assumed she had no talent, and even if she did what difference would it make? But then, why had she expected anything else? Teddy Livingstone was far more concerned about the next polo match with his buddies at the club than he was about her poetry. She doubted he’d ever read a single book worthy of being called literature.
But Mike Bernard . . .
She thought she would never tire of watching him at the piano, his fingers caressing the keys, a look of such tenderness on his face as if he would gladly die for each and every note. At those times, it was like she was peering through a tiny window into the most hidden parts of him. And yet everything else remained dark and mysterious. He’d been her piano teacher for nearly three months now, and still she knew so little about him, not nearly as much as he knew about her. Her poetry had given him exclusive access to her secret life, a glimpse into her deepest thoughts, her most cherished hopes and longings. By now, he must know how trapped she felt by the silly conventions of Victorian society, her parents’ expectation that she would settle for the same empty existence that she saw other so-called privileged women endure day after day. How desperately she wanted to be free—like he was free!
To live the life of an artist.
To fall in love.
Lately she’d begun to imagine them together. Strolling down the Rue de Martyrs where her favorite poet, Baudelaire, used to roam. She’d pictured them peeking in the windows of interesting little shops, admiring the old stone walls, listening to the distant bells of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette church, sipping coffee at a quaint café as the conversation turned to music and poetry. After a blissful day of seeing the sights, the moon silver in the sky, they’d slip back to their little hotel on the Left Bank, sit on the balcony drinking champagne until early morning when they’d finally fall into bed amid giddy laughter and kisses and heartfelt promises of forever.
“May! What are you doing?”
May’s younger sister, Emily, stood just inside the bedroom door, dressed in pink chiffon, her hair swept up in a style May had argued was too mature for a fifteen-year-old. But Mother, as usual, had ignored her.
“I just came up to refresh my perfume, that’s all,” May replied, hiding the journal behind the billowy skirt of her silk gown.
“Mother has decided the concert should begin at midnight. She asked me to tell Mr. Bernard, but I can’t find him—and it’s already eleven-thirty. Have you seen him anywhere?”
May knew exactly where he was. After their last lesson, she’d made a point of suggesting that he wait in the gentlemen’s dressing room until just before his performance. “That way, you can make a dramatic entrance,” she’d said, hoping to sound as if she knew all about such things.
“I’ll find him, Emily. Don’t worry. You go back down to ballroom.”
“Don’t tell”—Emily giggled, covering her mouth with her hand—“but I’ve already had two whole glasses of champagne!”
May smiled. It amazed her sometimes to think only two years separated them. Emily was such a child. “Just make sure you don’t get the hiccups, or certainly they’ll figure out what you’ve been up to.”
Emily nodded. Then, still tittering with guilty delight, she turned and quickly disappeared. Reluctantly, May put her journal away, her thoughts again on Mike Bernard. He’d said the dates of his upcoming concert tour were yet to be announced, but surely it couldn’t be too much longer before he’d leave, maybe never to return. The thought of it worried her. There might be little time left.
Little time to convince him of what she already knew—that they were meant to be together.