In Your Hat, pt. 6

Here’s Chapter 6 of In Your Hat, the 1933 tell-all memoir by Hat Check Girl to the Stars, Renee Carroll, in which she reflects on her salad days and shares a true-life gangster chronicle, a tale in which she finds herself playing an unexpectedly key role.

WHEN people write of themselves as having been born on the lower East Side of New York, they hope you’ll overlook the fact and think of the place and the occasion as something to forget. But I first saw light on the lowest East Side with a couple of big Jewish mammas doing things to a couple of herrings in the kitchen and a bearded gentleman or two sucking tea through lumps of sugar they held between their teeth. Taking advantage of my birth by sponging on the family for a meal!
     Specifically it was a Friday, the day on which all my troubles subsequently descended, and the street was Madison, in honor of a president. The bawling infact raised a yell in the improvised crib and my father, than as now, an orthodox rabbi, descendant of a line of rabbis, muttered a prayer that his daughter would be a healthy and obedient child who would honor her parents and bring only happiness to Madison Street. Or maybe I’m wrong. I suppose a more sensible translation would be: “So if it can’t be a boy, it can’t be. And she should marry wealthy because where would a rabbi get anything resembling a dowry for his daughter?”
     From early girlhood I learned that life was a serious bowl of cherries. It’s all right for Eddie Cantor to reflect on his East Side upbringing with a great deal of sentimentality. Eddie has lost two million dollars since then—I haven’t saved two hundred. I’m the unique case of a lower New York birth with nothing to show for it but an aversion for dialect stories and a strawberry mark on my hip.
     I attended classes in Public School 62 and soon after I left they tore it down for a new subway. I didn’t exactly hate school, but when I heard that they were ready to tear down the building, I could honestly say that I threw the first stone—right smack through the window of the room where arithmetic gave me nightmares.
     Later when Jews found it fashionable to migrate to outlying districts such as Brownsville, Flatbush and the Bronx, my family found itself doing likewise because trade follows the flag, and the trustees of my father’s synagogue decided that it would be advisable to move to 115th Street.
     Once uptown the flyaway bug began to tell me stories and it occurred to me that there was nothing except the tradition of the home and keeping the family intact and all that sort of clannish business, to keep me from striking out on my own.
     My family wanted me to go to college and become a lawyer, but I figured that Portia had had a tough enough time and that men won’t listen to a women except when her legs are crossed, so I thumbs-downed that idea. Business college had a momentary appeal and I attended a business school and learned how to type. With this equipment I decided to flee the camp.

     One fine morning when Spring was encouraging Bronx housewives to hang their bedsheets out the window once again, I telephoned a girl friend and we both set out on careers. My name at the time was Rebecca Shapiro and my friend had a name something like Fanny Applebaum. Taking a cue from the name of a heroine I had been following in the magazine Snappy Stories, I changed my moniker to Renee Carroll for two reasons: The initials didn’t agree with my old name, and the girl in the story had a big career on Broadway without paying anything for it either way.
     My friend took a classical name like Madeline Curebelow from something out of de Maupassant. You see, we weren’t so awfully dumb, with us both reading the classics and really appreciating them. We had good enough equipment and me with my strong body and Madeline with her more than shapely legs, I figured we’d both go far. Besides, I told myself, we both had brains.
     My first job was working for four lawyers who shared a suite in a lower Madison Avenue address. It’s tough keeping the wolf from the door but try keeping four lawyers from your door when you’re of the type your friends say is “attractive.” I fought for my life and honor thirty times a day and battled my way, dictation notebook in hand, from one office to the next.
     I lied about experience to get the job, but when I got through I could have paid those boys for the experience. You see, they had been out of law school about two years each, and not having enough business to keep a single office going, had clubbed together and chipped in on the expenses. When they discovered that I had had about as much experience in legal work as they had, it was a touch-and-run proposition. They tried to touch me, and I ran!
     If you’ve ever seen Harpo Marx chase that little blonde through the scenes of a picture or across the stage of a musical comedy, you’ll appreciate how nearly like that little blonde I felt. Three of the boys were single and the fourth married, but the fourth seemed to know too much and had the jump on the bachelor boys.
     Since there was no business, the legal work, as far as I was concerned, was a farce. To make each other think they were busy I was the one who was the goat. My buzzer was always ringing and I kept running out of one office into the next where each partner would sit with his legs on the desk, coat unbuttoned, usually asleep. Luckily they had a sense of humor and when the enterprise folded up, they gave me a dinner as the sole customer.
     Dictation would run something like this:
     “Whereas: The party of the first part having partaken of the party of the second part and not found her wanting….”
     “Whereas: And how are you? The part of last night being over … I have a head …”
     This would go on indefinitely. I admit I wouldn’t have known how to draw up a legal paper had I been forced to, but there was no occasion for it.
     It was about this time that I first met Danny, who was a reporter on one of the more dignified morning newspaper. This, of course, doesn’t mean that Danny had any sort of dignity because of his association. He was just a cog in the wheel because nowadays most of the reporters are formula writers. Back in the good old days men used to wander around and pick up news. It’s only Winchell that does it now. He’s really only a staccato relic.
     Danny was Irish, blue-eyed and had a tint of carrot in his hair. He wore battered gray felts, a tweed topcoat with the collar always upturned at the back and walked with a slouch. Danny was handicapped from the start by a Harvard degree. The only other thing he had acquired at Cambridge was a barber who could cut his hair the way he liked it. Because of this he made the trip up to Harvard every three weeks from New York so that his favorite barber might cut his hair. Outside of that he was quite normal.
     Working on a morning sheet has its disadvntages, especially when you’re on the night shift and have to hang around till all hours of the morning.
     Madeline and I met Danny when he almost killed me with a gin bottle. It seems he was attending a third floor party at one of the theatrical hotels in the West Forties and we were passing by. Without any warning there was a sudden smash of glass in the street alondside us, and a red-headed man was grinning out of an upstairs window.
     “I almost got you that time, didn’t I, girls?” It was Danny, as I afterwards learned, and he was so tight he was aiming empties at passersby.
     There was some discussion as to the accuracy of his aim, and we wanted to walk on, but Danny insisted on coming down and escorting us home so that we would be “safe from any other drunks,” as he put it. He seemed so cheerful where a moment before he had been so murderous, that we didn’t mind his company a bit.
     After that the escorting because a regular habit and we did all the Childs restaurants in New York—the entire circuit—during the wee sma’ hours.
     The Childs hostelries of the town are really the places to watch the various strata at work or play. Uptown around 116th Street the college boys throw butter squares to see if they’ll stick on the ceiling. A little lower down on Broadway, the girls who have a beat between 59th and 72nd drop in for a snack. At the 59th Street Childs at any time after midnight you can see the bejeweled and be-ermined citizenry disporting itself in spite of Reuben’s and Sardi’s. The Childs under the Paramount used to be the hangout for the theatrical fraternity and the more squeamish of the uncertain sex. The latter had headquarters for a time in the Fifth Avenue Childs, near 48th Street, until police began warning them.
     There’s a story that goes with that Fifth Avenue restaurant when it was fast becoming famous for the members of the opposite of my and your sex as a late rendezvous. It seems that the cops decided to clean the place of those things and called a raid. The first raid was successful, but after a while the “girls” began to filtering back into the place, makeup and all, just as flagrantly as ever.
     At police headquarters another raid was decided upon and the order given. The cops descended in a torrent from the Black Maria. But when they arrived on the scene, there wasn’t a single “queen” to be found on the premises. Satisfied with the results of the first clean-up, they departed.
     But a few nights later there was a request for another raid, and the same squad was sent out again. This time they stopped the patrol a block from the restaurant and advanced singly and quietly. But when they came into the place, again it was as innocent of the “boys” as the tmie before.
     Puzzled at this turn of affairs, one of the desk sergeants detailed a member of his detective force to investigate. The subsequent investigation showed that the cop on the beat was “sympathetic” with the boys who were in danger of being ousted from their headquarters, and every time he’d hear of an impending raid the purple-hued patrolman would warn his friends in time so that everything was straight when the force arrived. I don’t know yet what “sympathetic” means, but I think that certain copper is now wearing lingerie in another section of the city with the rest of his girl friends. It’s rare, but so are cops who wear spectacles or mustaches, yet you’ll find lots of them.
     Madeline and I were doing pretty well by now. We hit all the high spots in town ranging from night clubs taht were thrown together over garages in the phoney Fifties, to the Lesbian hangouts in the Village where drawn curtains shut out the clang of the city and permit the broadtailed sisterhood to converse in hushed baritones.
     We began to know Broadway as we never dreamed of it before. It wasn’t only the blaze of electric lights and the crowds emerging at theater time that made it a great street. Rather, its widespread fame rested on its underground of activity, an activity composed of hundreds of petty thieveries, small-time rackets, grafts of one sort or another, quick-witted half-wits whose income derived from their adeptness, mink-coated blondes whose sold occupation was to keep healthy by not two-timing their supporting boy friends.
     Madeline got hooked up with one of the big mob. I don’t mean married either, but take it from me, it was better than that. I’ve seen all kinds of nagging husbands, grouches, disgruntled because of business or something petty, but no husband ever offered the respect to a wife that Madeline got from Dutchy.
     Dutchy never had much opportunity to get along in the world because his ears were too big and all his pool-room pals made him the laughing stock of the street by calling him “The Loving Cup”. Being handicapped by a pair of bum ears is no cinch. There are few men I can think of outside of Will Hays whose ears amount anything more than a listening apparatus—but then Mr. Hays looks about the same, front or side view, so it doesn’t much matter.
     But Dutchy! If he thought you were as much as beginning to notice his ears, he’d blush clear around to his collar button and return before you could draw your eyes off. His ears were fit ony for a landscape gardener, and I’ll bet you’d have a time getting one to do the job.
     Like all pretty gals, Madeline took a shine to this egg. I don’t know what it was that made her fall for Dutchy, but maybe the ears give you a feeling that there’s something to hang on to, a sort of dependable asset. Anyway she fell for Dutchy, ears and all, and before I could say “scram,” she was Dutchy’s moll. That meant that as long as Madeline kept her eyes off other fellows, kept her body silken in fancy Nat Lewis lingerie, and talked baby talk to her boy friend, she had a clear title. If she as much as smiled at another guy and Dutchy sensed it, there would be fierce combats in which many a piece of valuable crockery was destroyed. If Madeline didn’t cry and promise never to smile again, at least not at other men, she was liable to have to return to the dress business and wait around that much longer.
     Dutchy had his finger in dozens of the city’s deepest dish pies, and there was always enough cash in the till to cover the walls with orchids every five minutes if Madeline wished. But she wasn’t the selfish kind and only ordered two dozen every other day to “keep the room looking fresh.”
     I admit now that most of my clothes came out of Madeline’s closet, but Dutchy approved because he liked me and wanted me to be Madeline’s escort so that people wouldn’t think anything wrong. He wasn’t home all the time, had to go from one place to another to arrange his business and make his “collections” for his boss.
     The boss was Ralph Carvo, the kind of a racketeer you see in the movies. He dressed like Bond Street on parade, lived in a triplex on Park Avenue and professed to know the difference between a Picasso and Rembrandt, something most of his boys never dreamed existed. But I suspected his upbringing the minute I saw him eat rye bread with soup. There’s a certain breed on the East Side that is taught to eat bread with anything, ice cream included, to make them have full bellies and be satisfied. Ralph came from there, and no matter where he picked up his surface polish, he still was a hunky to me—cruel, smooth and selfish.
     Ralph owned interests in about six night clubs in town but always managed to keep himself on the level of a spectator in each of the places. The six, along with hundreds of small joints, scattered among the thousands of New York’s speakeasies, were part of his distribution system. His network of lieutenants to keep a check on the works ran into a mob of about fifty “workers.” Dutchy was about fourth in command.
     The system wasn’t very complicated—no more so than the telephone company’s methods or those of any other big corporation. The profits were considerably exaggerated in the public accounts, competition being so keen. I knew of instances when “goods” went for less than it cost to bring in, and no cutting either.
     Paradoxically, Ralph’s stomach wasn’t strong and he couldn’t drink. With all the best liquor in the world at his disposal, he wasn’t able to touch a drop. It made him resent other people’s good times and also turned his tastes into another channel—women. Whatever aptitude he lacked for liquor, he made up for with his voracious craving for women and more women. At one time I knew he had three girls kept in apartments in different parts of the city without any of them suspecting the existence of the others. It was a catch-as-catch-can proposition, with nobody standing to lose.
     I don’t know what made Ralph go for me. Maybe it was because he couldn’t have me. Maybe I’m different from other girls. No, I’ve been told that too many times to believe it. Maybe it was a change from spaghetti. Maybe I’m wrong. Anyway, when his throwing a party for me didn’t pan his way and he got the ermine wrap that he said would keep me warm for him, he took another course. He wanted to do right by our Nell. So through Dutchy he gave me honest work in one of his champagne mills. That’s how I started checking hats.
     At about that time Danny lost his job on the conservative paper because he called the managing editor a “little English bastard.” A porter was summoned and Danny was thrown out on his ear. After which he immediately secured a job as a Broadway reporter for one of the afternoon papers. Then I saw a lot of him because he kept dropping in on me for news.
     I was learning fast about people on the Big Street and doing a lot to help Danny along what with news tips and inside straight stuff that was I able to pick up in the club.
     One night Dutchy came in looking depressed and sour.
     “You seen Madeline?” he wanted to know.
     I covered her tracks as best I could, knowing full well that that dizzy dame might be doing anything from riding a horse in Jersey to lying in an alcoholic stupor in the ladies’ retiring room at the Roxy. She did things like that. Once they found her on a merry-go-round in Coney Island. She had been riding four horses without getting off, she was so tight.
     “I got news for the kid,” he said.
     “It doesn’t sound like good news,” I commented after noting his dead pan. He looked as though someone had been feeding him alum.
     “What’s up, Dutchy? Have some best friends come clean and told on you?”
     “Worse than that, kid. They’ve told me off.”
     “I’m being sent to Detroit to look after our interests.”
     “Well,” I said. “See the country without joining the Navy. It’s a free ride—what are you kicking about?”
     “The boss says I’m to take the girl friend with me and establish myself in Detroit.”
     “Madeline’s going to be cur-razy about that. Just wait until she hears about it.”
     “Oh, she’ll go all right. That’s not what I’m sore about.”
     “Maybe you think Detroit has something against you?”
     “No—but maybe Ralph has.”
     “Why—what’s he got against you, Dutch? You haven’t doubled on him?”
     “No-o. It’s what I can’t figure out, kid. You know he thinks I been influencing you against him—and he’s sore about it. He thinks maybe with me in Detroit you’ll be easier pickin’s.”
     That gave me a laugh. Ralph was such a wise business man but so naïve in thinking I was taking hot advice from a second stringer like Dutchy.
     “Well,” I said. “You might as well just stay here for all the difference it’ll make.”
     “I know that, kid. But that ain’t what’s bothering me so much. It’s the other thing I’m thinking of.”
     “What’s that?”
     “The big haul that I’m being dished out of at this time. I think he’s doing it deliberately so as to keep me from having a stake in the biggest pay-off New York has ever seen.”
     I urged Dutchy on and he disclosed to me the plans for one of the boldest bootlegging schemes that was ever thought of but never pulled off because, indiscreetly, I spoke at the wrong time.
     Ralph’s mob planned one of the master strokes of rum running. They had chartered an 8,000 ton tramp steamer. This boat was to be loaded with a million dollars’ worth of liquor in small burlap sacks somewheres near one of the Bahamas. The boat was to be brought into New York harbor in broad daylight, its cargo listed as resins and lumber, and docked on the Jersey side of the North River. The stuff was to be transferred into huge trucks at a private pier. The mob had contracted for a fleet of trucks that had just been turned in by a national grocery company for a new set, and the firm’s name was still painted on the sides of the wagons.
     The local police were all in on the deal, and there were two cops detailed to each truck to see that it got out and beyond the city’s limits in safety. In case of trouble with the only possible source—the Federal men—Ralph was to plant six crews with a machine gun each in the windows of the surrounding warehouses.
     Twelve huge vans would be loaded as fast as they could be filled and rushed into the country to fill orders. Some of the orders went all the way inland to Kansas City while others went south as far as Kentucky.
     To promote the deal Ralph interested a number of smaller dealers in town, each of whom had assumed part of the consignment.
     And Dutchy was being removed from a good percentage split as his share in the deal. I didn’t blame him much for feeling that way. It was his one big chance to be in the money and maybe get away from the racket and settle down with Madeline. I hated to think I was in any way responsible.
     I tried speaking to Ralph about Dutchy getting shoved out in the cold but was told to keep my own nose wiped and let Dutchy’s run where it would. After all, a woman has no part in scheming where millions are concerned; the best she can do is to keep the pot warm and hatch out her brood. Ralph let me know that much.
     Danny sauntered over that night, and without thinking of him in his newspaper capacity, but being filled at the moment with compassion for Dutchy, I related the whole story.
     Then I forgot about the whole business because Madeline wasn’t supposed to leave until the end of the week, and this was Tuesday.
     On Thursday night, just as twelve o’clock struck, Madeline came rushing into the club.
     “Renee!” she cried. “Something terrible has happened!”
     “What is it now?” I demanded.
     “They’ve taken Dutchy out.”
     She was breathless and only half dressed. She began explaining:
     “Dutchy and I were sitting around listening to the readio about half an hour ago. Suddenly the doorbell rand and Dutchy went to answer. There was a messenger boy with a telegram for me. The kid said that an answer was requested and Dutchy asked him to wait while I read the telegram. The kid held the door open and Dutchy came over to me. But a minute later the lock on the door snapped and we turned around and there, instead of the messenger boy, stood three gorillas, all with their hands in their pockets.
     Dutchy asked who they were because he had never seen them before. Just then our phone rang and one of the gorillas looked at his watch and told Dutchy to answer. He did and from what I could make out, it was Ralph on the other end and he told Dutchy to leave at once with the three boys and to make no protest. Dutchy argued and finally Ralph told him the gorillas were on the job because Dutchy had squealed and tipped off the ‘Feds’ on the proposed big haul so that the whole deal was off now—just because Ralph thought Dutchy was getting even for being sent out of the city.
     “I pleaded with the gunmen,” Madeline continued, “but they wouldn’t listen and they took my man off with them!”
     Madeline cried. I knew we’d have to do something darned soon if Dutchy was to see the light of another day. Ralph imported strange faces only when he wanted some special business. Grabbing my hat I hauled Madeline after me and we ran four blocks down Broadway and off into a side street where Ralph had business offices.
     The office was lit up as I expected, and the boy at the door knew me well enough to le me through. When Ralph heard I was outside, he asked me to come in but ordered Madeline to stay out.
     Inside, grouped around a long director’s table sat most of Ralph’s mob. And standing against the wall was Dutchy. He was scared stiff, his hat in his hand trembling like a leaf. He looked appealingly, pathetically, toward me.
     “Well, darling!” Ralph addressed me. “How much more damage do you want to do now?”
     “I want to correct something I’ve already done,” I told him. “Dutchy didn’t squeal, Ralph. I—I think I was responsible for the story getting out.”
     “Yeah, I know about that.”
     “But it didn’t appear in any of the papers and Danny wouldn’t have printed it—and he’s the only one I told—honest, Ralph.”
     “Wouldn’t have printed it? Couldn’t you mean. Your friend Danny wanted to but his boss got cold feet and ordered the story killed. But what does he do but call up the Federal office and they check up and seize our boat just as it gets inside U. S. jurisdiction. And do you know what that means, sister? Just that we’ve dropped enough dough to have kept us rolling in it for the rest of our lives. Now somebody’s got to take the rap for this and it’s gonna be Dutchy here.”
     “But he wasn’t the one who turned the story over to anyone who could use it. It was—me.”
     “Pipe down! There’s only one way of getting satisfaction out of a woman and I don’t think these gentlemen here care for your type. But let this be a lesson against blabbing. We’re taking Dutchy because he was the first to talk and our nearest of kin.”
     With that the three gorillas marched, with Dutchy between them, through the doors and past Madeline, who let out a horrible scream when she saw what was happening. Dutchy turned toward us and spoke. He seemed to have some sort of late minute courage.
     “Don’t either of you two kids spill a word about this to anyone,” he cautioned.
     Then they took him into an elevator and that was the last anyone ever heard of Dutchy.
     A year later Madeline got a postal card from France with some sort of reference to her former life that she couldn’t quite make out. And it was signed “D.” Whether or not Dutchy bought off his would-be slayers on the promise of leaving the country we haven’t been able to find out.
     Not that I believe Madeline would care any more. Friendships on Broadway last with the money. Today Dutchy’s former girl friend rides around in an Isotta which a kind dress manufacturer places at her disposal.
     And as for Danny’s spilling my story to his editor—well, I guess there’s no telling about men when they get ambitious. It soured me on newspapermen for a long time and made me realize the reality of the old Broadway expression that goes something like: “Never ever think of murdering your grandmother for less than a quarter.” What sweet sentiment!

< Read Chapter 5 | Read Chapter 7 >

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