Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, Ch. 20

In Chapter 20 of his 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy Vallée recalls his lonely youth when gals didn’t always appreciate what he had to offer them and explores the impact that fame can have in the arena of romance.

Chapter XX

“That’s My Weakness Now”

I WAS born with an extraordinary amount of feeling. By feeling I mean something that has many sides and may be expressed in many ways. A person who has this intensity of emotion within, may find an outlet for it through passion and anger, or through artistic work such as painting, sculpture and writing, whether literary or musical. Some of its greatest mediums of expression are instruments of a musical nature, including that most beautiful of all instruments, the human voice. The majority of human beings rarely experience great passion or feelings. If I explain what I mean by “great passion or feelings,” I think it will be seen that I am quite correct.
In speaking of that passion or feeling known as anger or temper, I have found that nearly everyone seems to take a certain foolish pride in saying that they have quite a temper when once aroused. And yet, I find these people unusually docile, easy to get along with, and very tractable. It is true that, sufficiently aroused, they are provoked to anger. But in my mind, the person who really has a temper is one who, on he slightest provocation, or on no provocation at all, flies into an ungovernable rage. In the same spontaneous way does this same feeling or passion manifest itself through music and the sex impulse.
I know so many musicians who play well, who play mechanically correctly, and with a certain amount of feeling withal. That is, the listener is aware of the fact that there is some emotion expressed in the person’s tone, whether through an instrument or the voice. But the degree of feeling in the majority of musicians is very small, simply due to the fact that the majority of persons are not tremendously emotional by nature. So it is obviously quite impossible for them to express something they do not feel through their voices or instruments. The actor or orator who can sway his audience is merely using his voice and mind as a medium for the expression of this elusive feeling. I do not claim to know from what part of the body this phenomenon comes; I do know that it manifests itself differently in different people. I experience it very often through music. Martial tones give me that very commonplace run of shivers up and down my spine. Sad music, or extremely beautiful music combined with beautiful poetry, brings tears very easily to my eyes, beautiful music with a love story or love picture brings an emptiness, a yearning, and an ache into my heart. All my life I have always felt these emotions when I have been confronted by these expressions of the emotions of others. Thus it is that certain people have within them a well of emotion and passion or a certain quality of personality. We call that personality “IT” or sex appeal. A person of this temperament reacts upon one whose system is likewise constructed, in such a way that each is tremendously aware of the other’s feelings. Ever since I was a child I have been aware of the tremendous attraction that certain types of people who are generally alike in type have for me.
Clearly everyone has a weakness for something. By that I do not mean a weakness that becomes an obsession that ends with the person going to an asylum, or, in the case of a drunkard or a gambler, “to the dogs.” Rather is this weakness a sort of a cross between a hobby and a complex. For some men the week is not complete and they have not had their greatest happiness unless they have attended some kind of a sport event; for another man it is a business convention; for another in the nature of a gathering of old cronies either at cards, pool, or a fishing trip; and for still others it is a drinking bout, or a gambling fest, or a smoker. While I enjoy some of these things, I find none of them absolutely essential to my happiness. We have among our great paintings a simple that is called “End of Day” which depicts a farmer going home with the setting sun. I remember the painting only vaguely but I do know that the idea it conveyed to me was that the reward which awaited the farmer was his cottage, which all its homely comforts, his children, and lastly that complement that must have been created as a necessary half of the total, his wife.
Likewise to me, the reward for all my strivings, schemings, labors and hopes, is the comfort that I will receive from the company of the girl who brings happiness to me. Perhaps it will be just her company, just her presence by my side; maybe it will be the pressure of her hand, or the feel of her in my arms as we dance, or if alone, in embrace; and then that acme of all happiness and delight, the touch of her lips, that gives me this joy. I know that the majority of men are not so dependent on the companionship of women as I am and are perhaps happier for their independence, as I have often been very lonely.

I suppose my classmates at Yale often wondered why, on the few night that I did not play. I did not loll on the campus, gossip on the fence, or go down to the theatre with a crowd of them. They could not put themselves in my place. If they had, they would have understood why, on the night when I was not out playing my saxophone to earn the wherewithal to remain in college, I would go to Hartford, New York, or even further, for the company of some girl. Consider that all day in the classrooms and on the campus I was associated with men, men and more men. In the evening when I played I was still among men. During the long hours of travel to the places at which we played, which were usually two or three hours distant from New Haven, I was with men; and as I sat among the men in the band, I had to watch other men with beautiful women in their arms, dancing to our music. I had to sit there and see beautiful women returning the ardor of the men with whom they were dancing, nestling close with eyes closed, cheek to cheek, wrapped in bliss and happiness, waltzing to the strains of our music; women with beautiful forms, in beautiful gowns well calculated to show these forms to their best advantage; women whose lips, artificially colored, stood out like vivid wounds or like tremulous petals, moist, warm and full of life, inviting the lips of the man whom they found appealing.
I had been perfectly happy at the University of Maine where the co-eds were attractive but not in so alluring as the girls that Yale men had down to their fraternity dances. At Maine my saxophone had given me, even in my first year, a bit of popularity so that the fellows were anxious to have me dance with the girls they brought to the dances. There was no drinking at Maine; very few, if any, girls smoked. The whole atmosphere was one of simplicity. Yet everyone was happy. “Cutting in” was unknown, and the boy who possessed a fur coat or even a medium priced coat, was to be envied indeed.
To be suddenly transplanted to a college in which were enrolled boys accustomed to having everything they wanted, and to see the beautiful women whom they brought to the dances was a very disturbing experience. I was never so miserable as at the first Yale fraternity dance at which I played. I did not expect prominence, I knew that I might go through Yale and never experience the admiration for my musical ability that I had known at the University of Maine, but the contrast was too great and I have never been so unhappy as that first night that I sat in the background and played from ten o’clock in the evening until five in the morning with almost no stop, while good-looking, well-groomed and well-dressed young men, feeling very gay, danced by me holding in their arms the most beautiful creatures that my eyes had ever seen; and when we went outside for a breath of air, I had to watch them walking arm in arm under the lantern lights, or sitting and driving in the beautiful specially built foreign cars that these boys owned. I had to right be envious and unhappy, or to expect anything else but what was my lot, but after all I had tasted of the spotlight, and had been a big frog in a small puddle. I was young and human, intensely so; I was trying to play music that had feeling, passion, and it was so hard to feel that I was so unhappy. Neither did I try to forget or drown my gloom with the refreshments that were served to us every two hours, which to the men where necessary stimulants to help weather the long hard stretches of continuous playing.
I have always had a fierce pride in my musical work; I have always liked to feel that I could give my best cold sober, and it was almost extraordinary in the eyes of the men for whom I played while at Yale that I was just as ready and eager to play the last hour in the morning as I was when we began in the early evening. I have known certain musicians who could only give their best when properly “ginned up.” I am so thankful that in my own case I can give my very best with no alcoholic “shot in the arm.”
Therefore it was no wonder that when I did get a night of I did not stay in and study, do extra reading or go to a lecture that might be presented by some visiting celebrity, much as I wanted to do these things (for I always loved to study, never failed a course and kept my studies high). But I felt the absolute need of the company and companionship of someone of the opposite sex, since morning, noon and night I was under the strain of work always among men. Girls are comparatively scarce in New Haven, and those that are attractive are at a premium. Reflect that each New Haven girl of the type and age that a young collegian would like to know was sought for and could make her choice from three thousand boys, most of whom were the pick of the land! The high school girls had their own sweethearts with whom they had grown up, and of course the natives of New Haven, or of any college town, are somewhat suspicious and loath to allow their daughters to go out with college men who, though they may tarry in that town for four years are somewhat comparable in their way to traveling salesmen; and I think that most girls in college have the feeling that they will be forgotten when the boys graduate, and left with the stigma of a college widow, that is, a girl who goes on year after year going out with the most popular boys in the college but never receives an offer of marriage from any of them, and only loses the chance of finding a real husband among the boys she has known all her life. The most attractive daughters of the élite in the college towns are themselves are usually away at college, or finishing school, or are abroad.
I was extremely fortunate in meeting the two men with whom I played several nights before Yale opened. These two men, Yale graduates themselves still living New Haven, practicing their professional occupations by day and playing by night, introduced me to people in the city that otherwise I probably never would have been fortunate enough to meet in my whole four years there. But even at that I found that most of the eligible girls in New Haven were spoken for, and as time went on I met girls in New York, Hartford, and various other places, and though I could ill afford it, bother financially and from a standpoint of health, I went to see these girls with my eyes aching from lack of sleep; though I might have the pleasure of an evening which, for me, amply rewarded all my efforts.
There are those who tell me that I have an attractive personality. That may or may not be, but it has often been my ironic fate to see women who I knew were trying to find a man who could give them affection and warmth, and say sweet things, but who looked at me and failed to see promise of any of these things in my physical exterior. It is nothing unusual for a girl dancing by the band stand to ask me “When will Mr. Vallée be here?” never dreaming for a moment that mine might be the voice that seemed so romantic and tender to them. In fact in meeting most of of the girls whom I have ever known, I was the aggressor. That is, they might have seen me dozens of times but never had any desire to know me. I usually asked for the introduction, and had to awaken an interest in these women. In other words I have no illusions about myself, and for a time I dreaded personal appearances moth on the stage and in the movies, since I realized that there was nothing intriguing or magnetic in my looks. However, I did realize that make-up could do a great deal for me and that a personality, if I had one, could make itself felt both on the stage and on the screen.
You will say that it is man’s place to ask for the introduction but I cite the following example to show what women will do if sufficiently intrigued by a handsome man. At the University of Maine, I knew the wonderful love and companionship of a chum, the only one I have ever had in my life. We were fraternity brothers, shared everything, and played sax together on engagements. This boy was strikingly good-looking. He had been voted the most handsome man in college and had already captured the hearts of all the co-eds. His good looks had a masculinity about them that the men admired, and yet he was a very modest and unassuming chap. We were inseparable. It was he who suggested that we transfer from Maine to Yale for financial as well as academic reasons, but after persuading me to transfer he found that he had failed in one course at Maine and could not transfer. I had become so enthused over the idea that I went through with it. At Christmas vacation my sophomore year at Yale, he came down to visit me in New Haven, and I saw to it that he was engaged to play with me at the various engagements we had through Connecticut. We went to those élite country clubs and golf clubs where the wealthy manufacturing society of Connecticut gives dances for its youth at vacation time, and at these very places, where I had played always unnoticed, this boy, as he sat playing next to me, created an immediate furore. The very girls who probably never knew that I had been there before, forced their partners to dance in front of him; they knocked his music over purposely; they even asked the leader who he was, and I remember two who asked for an introduction. it only goes to show that if a woman has enough interest, or to say it the other way, if the man is physically attractive enough, she will stop at nothing to meet him. Of course there is this compensation. Very often, as in the case of the woman characterized as “beautiful but dumb,” many a good looking man turns out to be very disappointing in mentality or in personality, despite his attractive appearance. My chum, however, was very fortunate in being extremely intelligent, likable and lovable, and the girls usually liked him all the more after they met him. But there are many men who fail to hold the interest after the introduction has been performed. In my own particular case, I can truthfully say that it has been quite the opposite. My difficulty has been that, not having striking looks, I lacked the gateway and key to meeting the girl, and where a sponsor or an introduction was lacking, I was at a complete loss, because obviously I could not force myself upon a girl. I have been miserable several times in my life, when I have seen unattached girls that I felt, as I saw them talking and dancing with others, would make me very happy if I could know them, but have failed to attract them or even—lacking an introduction—to meet them. I could only watch them from a distance when I might possibly have been able to give them some of the romance that I believe most women want. Still I am happy. Fate was very kind to me, and it would be absolutely ungrateful to be anything but thankful for what I have and am.
The name Sleepy Hall is probably well known throughout the United States. I will never forget my first experience with real adulation which occurred the first time I played with Sleepy Hall. The town orchestra with which I decided to cast my lot while at Yale secured his services exclusively for the same college year, and on every engagement that this orchestra played Sleepy was with us. At Amherst the crowd stopped dancing many times throughout the evening and stood in breathless admiration of his wizardry when he played such difficult compositions as “Kitten on the Keys” on the banjo. When I saw the crowd, I should really qualify the statement and say rather, most of the boys and a few of the girls who were present at the dances. Very rarely do women notice such things as banjo technique in a dance orchestra. I do not mean to infer that women are stupid and unobservant, but I have watched too many dance crowds not to know that women are not interested in the musical excellence of individual men in he orchestra, and generally only those boys who themselves have attempted to play certain instruments, appreciate and admire the faultless precision of some of the players. Such men as Red Nichols, Miff Mole, and Eddie Lang in a dance orchestra do not mean anything to the average crowd although they are the greatest artists on their respective instruments. But boys who have listened to their records and who themselves have played at the instruments that these men have mastered, boys would rather stand and watch their idols than dance. Such as the situation at Amherst parties, Yale parties, country clubs and golf clubs wherever Sleepy Hall played.
Nearly every college student has attempted the banjo, ukelele or guitar at one time or another, and the wizardry of Sleepy Hall could not help but appeal to them. These boys, in a worshipful voice, pointed out Sleepy as they danced with their girls, and the girls, partly from a desire to see what could intrigue the men so, and partly, I suppose, from an odd desire to affect a critical interest in such things, would stop with the boy and watch Sleepy’s long, lean fingers as they jumped over the frets. Then of course, each girl, imbued with this new wisdom, would inquire of the next man who “cut in” if he realized that he was listening to the great Sleepy Hall, thereby spreading Sleepy’s fame. At nearly every dance, some time during the evening, Sleepy would get up on a chair and go through a routine of banjos solo while the crowd stood in breathless silence. He deserved this attention because I have never yet heard anyone who could do the things on a banjo that he did. At the University of Maine I had known in a smaller way this same adulation.
I do note desire the spotlight. In fact, at the University of Maine, being the musical college lion embarrassed me tremendously, but there was no avoiding it; at Yale I was rather glad that I was not Sleepy Hall. But anyone who knows of the career of Johnny Mack Brown, one of our newest movies stars, will realize that what he says is only too true. Johnny was the football star and hero of his college, and was welcomed home with a brass band and the keys of the city. When he entered upon an ordinary business career, he missed the spotlight, and is frank enough to admit that he felt lost without the cheers and applause of the crowd. He therefore went to Hollywood and has become one of America’s great film stars whom it gave me a great deal of pleasure to meet this summer.
Naturally at times I felt a peculiar sensation as I saw this great admiration everywhere we went with Sleepy. It is hard to be the center of all attraction and then to suddenly be relegated to the background, to become, as it were, one of the designs on the wall paper, some one to be heard but not seen. Yet I had a feeling that I was not always destined to remain in obscurity, and sure enough, my junior year the boys with whom I went to classes daily began to feel that I should meet and dance with their girls, and, as in the case of Sleepy, brought their girls to me for an introduction, as I sat there playing, and sooner or later I usually had the pleasure of a dance, as the orchestra leader I played for was a Yale man himself, and knew that it was to his advantage to have one or more boys in his band who were not only eligible to dance with the guests but were asked by the ones for whom they were playing. I was very, very happy in my junior and senior years at Yale, and the breath-taking girls that I had once admired from a distance were now mine to know and to meet. That was how I first met Mary Brian. She has just made her first big picture, “The Little French Girl,” and a boy at Yale, who was Betty Bronson‘s cousin and who had met Mary through Betty, had her down to Yale as his guest. I had not heard of her and wondered why he was so proud and insistent that I dance with the girl he had brought. After I had been playing several hours he introduced me to her. We danced a few steps before I was “cut in” on by someone, but in those few steps, I felt the urge to tell her that she had beautiful eyes, to which I added that she knew it only too well. About an hour later, two girls asked me if that was Mary Brian that I had been dancing with. I was not sure of her name, but I recalled that it was something like that. When they told me that I had been dancing with a picture star, I nearly collapsed, especially since I felt that I had given an impression of “throwing a line” by my compliment.
Mary and I met again this last summer while was on the Coast, and enjoyed many luncheons and evenings of dancing together. Her acquaintance is one of the sweetest things in my life.

*     *     *     *     *

My first vivid realization of just how overwhelmingly an individual may be admired came with Valentino‘s tour into Connecticut. Rather than fulfill the terms of his paramount contract Valentino had decided to go on tour as a dancer and judge of local beauty contests, using the armories in every city of importance. His tour in Connecticut included Bridgeport, Waterbury, and Meriden. Although he had his own orchestra to play his tangoes, his managers engaged another to play for the public dancing which followed his act.
Bolton and Cipriano, the two men with whom I was playing while at Yale, were engaged to play for the dancing in these three cities. I had no idea of Valentino’s tremendous popularity, but when we drove up to the armory in Bridgeport, the big crowd that was waiting outside the armory mistook our car for Valentino’s, and it was with difficulty that we succeeded in getting into the armory. After that, every time the door slammed, there was a general mob rush for that door, and I pitied Valentino if it really was he coming through the door. They spirited him away in some way, and I will never forget the faces of everyone who saw him. There were admiration, worship and an agonized look of interest upon that I had never seen before; and so it was at all three places, and each time the crowd could be held back only by strong ropes and burly policemen. In each case he received as much worship as any human being could receive. Peculiarly enough, I, too, admired him greatly. The more I watched his calm, gentlemanly behavior, the more I realized that he deserved this great adulation. Before this I had admired his acting, and I now saw that he was so genuinely human and so appealing that any woman was justified in the intense admiration that she might have for him.

*     *     *     *     *

Now that I, too, have many friends, I often remember my first impressions of New York City in the summer of 1923, when I, with a bunch of Yale boys, played for Gilda Gray at the Rendezvous in New York City. We all stayed in a group of fraternity houses which were empty during the vacation at Columbia University. We did not play Sunday nights, and will never forget the extreme loneliness that all of us experienced during that summer in New York. None of us knew anyone and somehow we failed to meet anyone, and on Sundays we wandered around Riverside Drive just as lonely as the sailors from the ships that happened to be at anchor in the Hudson. That summer made me hate New York; it was a summer of unhappiness that I will never forget.

Read Chapter 21

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