It was after ten on a frigid Saturday night in January when Mike Bernard checked his overcoat at the Ziegfeld Moulin Rouge Theatre on Broadway and 44th. He was decked out in an expensive new suit, black patent shoes, his shirt embellished with monogrammed French cuffs. But, as far as he was concerned, it was his flashy new diamond ring that made the outfit. Fourth finger, right hand. Five carats in an engraved white-gold setting.
Mike had waited for Waterson’s check to clear before taking him up on his offer to sell the diamond. The publisher drove a hard bargain but, in the end, Mike cut a sweet enough deal for his latest two rags to justify the extravagance. Granted, the gem was perhaps bigger than he otherwise might have selected, but at this stage of his career he was allowed to be slightly ostentatious. In fact, people expected it.
“Good evening, Mr. Bernard. Always nice to see you.”
Walter ushered him to a seat near the front, on the aisle, and received a customarily generous tip. If there was one thing Mike had learned during his decade as The Ragtime King, it was how to grease a palm to his advantage.
He had been looking forward to tonight, to indulging what had increasingly become his habit — trolling for young beauties at the Follies. He relied heavily on Mr. Ziegfeld’s reconnaissance. Why waste time scouring the city for nubile girls of extraordinary endowment when someone else already had done the work? There was no harm in it. In fact, any young woman in the theatrical profession would consider it a feather in her cap to be seen about town with a celebrity as big as Mike Bernard. For his part, such affairs were a pleasant enough diversion. He had assiduously circumvented any kind of serious involvement over the years. It wasn’t difficult. The seeds of his detachment had been planted long ago. All he wanted now was to enjoy the fruit before it spoiled.
“Mike Bernard, is that you?”
Mike felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned to see Charles Lennon, a well-heeled patron of Tony Pastor’s Theater, leaning forward from the seat behind. “Why, it is! Good to see you, old man. What do you think of the show? Times are changing, wouldn’t you say?”
It was 1913, and Florenz Ziegfeld had created a stir in some circles by hiring Bert Williams, a black man, as a headliner, along with the Australian-born comic Leon Errol. His daring had paid off. The duo was bringing down the house every night.
“Excellent, excellent. Great to see you,” he said, quickly turning back. He couldn’t care less about Williams and Errol. He had come to see the chorus line finale, sixty hand-picked specimens of the all-American girl.
And he was just in time.
Bedecked in pink feathers, pearls and little else, the girls made their entrance down a long, curved flight of stairs that shimmered like silver against an azure sky. On either side of the staircase were massive pillars wrapped in pink chiffon and lighted from inside to give them the look of iridescent cotton candy. Mike quickly fell into a state of rapt attention as the dancers glided down the stairs like graceful birds in flight, their dazzling smiles never wavering. The music swelled as they assembled in formation. Each would have her moment to bathe in the spotlight, the audience feasting their eyes, before turning to ascend the staircase and, like a mirage, disappearing into the painted clouds.
“Mr. Bernard.” Walter, standing in the aisle to his left, bent down to speak in a confidential whisper. “After the show, there’s a girl you might want to meet. She’s brand new. A real looker.”
“Third from the left.”
Mike zeroed in. She wasn’t as tall as some of the others. She had nice legs. Bobbed chestnut hair with a little curl at each ear. Face like a Kewpie doll.
He gave Walter a smile and a nod, and then shoved another five dollars into his ready palm.
Thirty minutes later he was eyeing his prize up close.
“So you’re the famous Mike Bernard.”
Tossing her feather boa over one shoulder, she leaned against the bar at just the right angle, so her clingy silk charmeuse accentuated the smooth curve of her hip. Her stance was bold, her smile tentative.
“Arthur said you wanted to meet me?”
Mike looked her over with a practiced eye. She was even prettier up close. And young. Very young.
“I told him I wanted to meet the new star of the Ziegfeld Follies.”
She laughed. “Well then, I’m afraid that wouldn’t be me.”
“That’s a matter of opinion.”
“Well, thank you.” Demurely, she offered him her hand. “Dolly Zuckerman. Pleasure to meet you.”
He lifted her hand, brushing it lightly with his lips. “What do you drink, Miss Zuckerman?”
She shrugged. “Whatever you’re having.”
He motioned to the bartender. “Couple of gins, rocks with olives,” he said, “at the table.”
Gently, Mike took her arm, guiding her through the maze of candlelit tables, his ears alert for the inevitable curious whispers, “Isn’t that Mike Bernard? Who is that with him?” He selected a spot against the wall, beneath a gold and crystal sconce that spread like glowing antlers above their heads. After Dolly was comfortably settled in her chair, he took the seat opposite her. The waiter deposited their drinks.
It began with the usual small talk. He asked the questions, she answered them. She was originally from Syracuse, she said. Her mother died young. Her father remarried. A couple of years ago, after his furniture business went under, they moved to Queens. Her aunt owned a two-story there. Now her father ran a candy store downstairs, the family lived above.
Dolly took a sip of her drink, crinkling her nose as it went down. “When I auditioned, I didn’t give myself much chance of becoming a Ziegfeld girl. I mean, they’re all so beautiful. And I was just — well –” She caught herself. “I mean, I’d never been to New York City before. I didn’t know much of anything.”
“You knew how to go up and down stairs, right?” He meant it as a joke, but she seemed offended.
“That’s not all I can do, I assure you. Actually, I’m a singer — and a dancer.”
“A singer.” Mike had heard it so many times before. “And what do you sing?”
“Popular songs. Irving Berlin — that kind of thing.”
“And where have you sung?”
The color rose up Dolly’s neck. “Well, I’ve not had the opportunity yet to show what I can do.”
She played for a second with the little curl in front of her ear. “I love being a Ziegfeld girl, but I do aspire to greater things. As a matter of fact, tomorrow I’m auditioning for a singing part in a Broadway show.”
“Is that so.” Mike stifled a yawn.
“If only I could get it, I would be so thrilled. Papa would be, too. He thinks the costumes Mr. Ziegfeld has us wear are way too skimpy. I told him, he’s just so old-fashioned.”
An unwelcome thought popped into Mike’s mind. He and Dolly’s father could easily be close to the same age. After all, he was thirty-six now. Observing her up close, he guessed she wasn’t any older than eighteen.
“So, I’m curious,” Dolly said, taking another sip of her drink from a tiny straw. “Why, out of all the girls, was I the one you wanted to meet?”
Mike pretended to think carefully about his answer. “How does one explain such things? Just a feeling, I guess.”
“What kind of a feeling?”
“I don’t know,” he said, not caring too much what he said. “I liked your hair? I thought you had a pretty smile?”
Dolly pushed away her drink. “Look, I know what some men expect of a Ziegfeld girl, especially one who’s a little green. Just so you know, I’m not looking for a sugar daddy or anything like that. I’m very serious about my career. My goal is to someday be as huge a star as Fanny Brice.”
Mike perked up, amused by her sudden declaration. As unsophisticated as she might be, there was something quaint about her candor. And she liked to dream big.
“Of anyone who’s made it in show business, Fanny Brice is the one I admire the most,” Dolly went on. “I feel like she and I have a lot in common.”
“Oh, really? And what would that be?”
“Well –” She hesitated. “For one thing, we’re both Jewish.”
Mike picked up his drink, took a swallow. Her face was really quite pleasant. “Maybe you’ll sing for me sometime.”
Her eyes grew wide. “You really want to hear me sing?”
“Of course I do. Maybe I can even help you. I know a lot of people in the business.”
Dolly was suddenly breathless. “That would be wonderful.”
“Of course, I can’t promise anything.”
“No, of course not.”
“In the end, it all depends on you.”
“I’m sure you already know, this is a tough business. You have to be willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. Are you?”
She gave him a wary look. “If you mean hard work –”
“Miss Zuckerman,” he interrupted, assuming his most innocent expression, “would I be suggesting anything else?”
“I’m quite sure you wouldn’t.” Her cheeks were flushed. She looked away, then back. “Please forgive me, but I’ve heard some of the girls talk about such awful things. It seems there are those in the business who would try to take advantage of inexperience.”
“Despicable as it is, I’m afraid you’re right.” He smiled. “But let’s not worry about that now. Not while the night is young.” He rose from his chair, reaching for his hat.
She looked up at him, appearing confused. “Where are you going?”
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said, coming around to pull back her chair. “We are.”