I was getting ready to leave the city room when Sam Ryan mentioned Harry Houdini. Curious, I dawdled at the pinewood table that served as my desk, fiddled with the ancient Oliver typewriter, and shifted some papers.
“Last time he was in town, some years back, he performed at the Opera House.” The old man, publisher of the Appleton Crescent, leaned back in his chair.
I had no interest in showy carnival antics, too slapdash Circus Maximus for my taste, but Houdini, whose early boyhood had been spent on Appleton streets, always made for good copy. My parents often talked about the escape artist whose father at one time had been rabbi at Zion Congregation.
“The great Houdini.” That was Matthias Boon, the new city editor. “The celebrated handcuff king himself.”
Miss Ivy, Sam’s sister, looked up. “I hear he is staying for a week with David Baum.”
Matthias Boon looked surprised. “Who’s that?” “A childhood friend.”
Boon sneered. “You know, I don’t understand this malarkey he spouts. Tied up, imprisoned, boasting about escaping. What kind of an act is that?”
Byron Beveridge, the beat reporter, broke in, a bit of awe in his voice. “He does this Metamorphosis act with his wife. She ties him up and puts him into a box, and in three seconds he changes places with her.”
Boon grunted. “Impossible. Trickery.”
Bryon shook his head. “Of course it is. So what? Barnum was right.” He beamed. “But a real showman.”
“Foolish, really, such stunts.” Miss Ivy yawned. I kept still, just listened.
Sam skimmed the sheets before him. “You know, suddenly he’s all the rage in Europe. He can extricate himself from the most complicated set of handcuffs. He’s escaped jails in Russian Siberia, in London. He can free himself from a straitjacket…”
Miss Ivy spoke over his words. “My brother is a loyal follower.”
“He can trick innocent souls into forking over hard-earned dollars for some obvious chicanery,” Boon sneered.
“Mr. Boon, you’re new here in old Appleton. You don’t understand the appeal of a man like Houdini in this town.” Sam’s voice rose, excited. “A real home-grown hero.”
Boon frowned. “A grown man strutting around publicly in his BVDs, jumping into nailed boxes, taunting the police.”
Byron Beveridge drummed his fingers on his typewriter. “I’ve seen him perform. In his early days, starting out, when I worked in Chicago. He was with a dime museum, real shabby, with snake charmers and bearded ladies. Then he reinvented himself. Impressive, I must say.”
Boon would have none of it. “Seems to me you small-town folks are easily impressed by circus acts.”
“He’s one of our own. Small-town boy who made it big.” Sam’s spectacles slipped down his nose and he readjusted them. “Just proves that the world is nuts,” Boon concluded. He glanced my way but looked through me. Since he arrived from Milwaukee a few months back, he’d decided that girl reporters shouldn’t exist.
Sam pointed to typed pages on his desk. “Houdini’s provided us with press sheets, including an interview he gave in London. He expects us to publish them verbatim.” He tapped the sheets with his index finger. “With his curiously ungrammatical quotes.”
“What are you saying? We can’t interview him, we small-town hicks?” Boon guffawed. “Now the question of the hour is this: How do we get an interview with the man?”
Sam grinned. “It seems we don’t. He and his brother are here socializing with old buddies, though he’s performing a one-shot benefit for the Children’s Home on Platt. The man may crave publicity, but no one’s seen him around.” He shrugged. “No interviews, I guess.”
“The obnoxious little Jew,” Boon muttered. I sat up, iron-backed. There it was.
Sam glanced at me while Boon refused to look at me. “Maybe our little Jewess can convince him otherwise.”
“Maybe this little Jewess will respect a man’s privacy.” I glared. “I mean no insult, Miss Ferber.” Boon spoke with obvious calculation. “I just assume you people all know each other.” My voice was chilly. “The Weiss family—he was Ehrich
Weiss here, though you probably don’t know that—left before the Ferbers came to town.” I stopped, my throat dry, my head swimming. Appleton was kind to its small Jewish population. Indeed, the popular former mayor, David Hammel, was a Jew and lived across the street from the Ferbers. I’d not felt the sting of discrimination, not since my family had fled bigoted, ugly Ottumwa, Iowa, where I’d been routinely mocked. But now, again—here it was. “His father was the first rabbi of our temple.” The room got cold all of a sudden; glances shifted, eyes averted. “All the more reason.” Boon, the willful baiter, the bigot. Suddenly I wondered how much his undisguised dislike of me stemmed, not from my being a young girl and a reporter, but my being a Jew.
“I mean no harm.” Boon sucked in his cheeks. He was light- ing his pipe and watched me, over the blazing match.
“Then you harm inadvertently.” “Meaning?”
I turned away.
“We have a paper to get out.” Sam stood, stretched his back. “Maybe we should get busy.”
I picked up my notebook—“Always carry it with you,” Sam Ryan often reminded me— and wrapped my blue chiffon wrap around my shoulders, drawing it close around the high-neck lace collar of my dress. I slipped on my kid gloves. I dreaded climbing the five weathered cement steps that led from our subterranean city room up to the street level. After a year as a girl reporter for the Democratic afternoon daily, I’d come to gauge my level of fatigue by my approach to those five steps—from the rare exuberance of a rich, vital day of reporting to the familiar exhaustion after a day of disappointment, false starts, emptiness. Lately, I approached those steps with the reluctance of Sisyphus pushing that dreadful stone up a redundant hill.
As I moved past Matthias Boon, he leaned back in his swivel chair and boasted, “You know, I like a good challenge. I think I’ll interview the great Houdini. It’s all in the manner of approach. What stage performer lacks an ego? And his is overweening, I’ve heard. Self-love makes a man vulnerable.”
Boon was still crowing. “I once convinced a reluctant Tommaso Salvini to talk about his life. ‘I have nothing to say,’ and then he couldn’t shut up. And he was a crowing sort of buffoon.”
“I don’t know…” Sam began.
“Houdini is a vain exhibitionist. He’s mine.” He started to choke on his pipe tobacco.
# # #
Up on College Avenue, I headed to the courthouse, but stopped walking. I didn’t want to do my job. I wanted to stay in motion, strolling aimlessly down the avenue, lost among the stragglers making their late-afternoon purchases. I stared in the window of Schiebler and Schwante. Hmm, Japonette handkerchiefs on sale for three cents. Yes, I’d buy myself a set from the wages of a job I’d soon be losing.
Only recently I’d lingered for hours down in the city room, dreamily staring up at the half-windows, contemplating the lower extremities of Appleton citizens wandering past. Yes, Mamie Tellis’ ample bottom, awash in a pale lavender crepe de chine go-to-tea dress under a Persian lamb coat. Mayor Linsome’s bow-legged waddle. Caroline Tippler, in her perennial crinoline smock, headed to her waitressing job at the Sherman House, her stride lively. Mildred Dunne, the high school librarian, with her shuffling baby steps. Principal Jones, lumbering past, his gait slower since his wife died last year. I knew them all and loved the panorama.
And then—then Matthias Boon arrived from Milwaukee. The splendid human comedy out in the street now metamorphosed into a dark danse macabre, the march of the doomed. Inside my tiny space, under the large shadow of that small man, despair gripped me. I wasn’t happy.
“Edna.” A voice startled me out of my gloom.
“Hello, Mollie.” I nodded to the salesgirl at Pettibone-Peabody’s Department Store in charge of the woolens and long johns aisle— and one of my “informers,” as I termed them, gatherers of gossipy bits and pieces that I typed into my reports. Mr. and Mrs. Boris Leyendecker are in Little Chute for the weekend, visiting Mr. Leyendecker’s sister, who has returned from Rome. Mollie Seagrum, buxom and matronly, a spinster with a light-hearted wit.
Joshua Hutt has returned from a term at the University in Madison to attend to his late father’s estate…
Mrs. John Boyesen will be making her annual pilgrimage to… Yet I’d relished my job, thrived on it, actually. A year back, fresh from Ryan High School, class of 1903, I’d battled my family over my desire to attend the Northwestern School of Elocution in Evanston, Illinois. In my heart I knew it was my circuitous road to ending up on the New York stage and becoming the next Sarah Bernhardt. But my family had vociferously fought me, what with spending money in short supply, my father ailing, my mother imperious, my older sister Fannie spiteful—this excuse, that one, hundreds of them. Innocent girls leaving home, lost in big cities, horribly tempted, gaslight encounters, strangers in the dark rainy alleys, a drain on the pennies needed back home, on and on, wearying me.
So I’d stormed down into Sam Ryan’s Crescent office and pleaded for a job. “I can write.” Said simply, declarative. Sam recalled my high-school essay about Passover at the Appleton synagogue, which he’d printed. He hired me on the spot. Three dollars a week.
It had been a wonderful year, bizarre and at times freakish. I was a novelty: a girl reporter on the streets of little Appleton, population 12,000, give or take a dozen wandering souls on the outskirts, including the shabby, dispirited Oneidas who knocked on back doors selling baskets of huckleberries.
I cared little that the stalwart citizens viewed me as strange, unseemly, perhaps a little maddened. A progressive town, Appleton was, with Lawrence University and an opera house. But still and all…a girl asking untoward questions? And of men? A girl in a sensible straight-boned bodice worn over a black miroir velvet skirt that sometimes got caught in the pinewood planks of the sidewalks as I trudged up and down bustling College Avenue, storming in here or there, dropping in at Kamp’s and Sacksteder’s Department Store, at the Wae Kee Laundry on Oneida, at the Ladies Aid Society on Superior Street.
What have you heard? Do you know if…?
Why? Really? Tell me.
Tell me. I’m here to listen. Really. I…
My mother was horrified when I got the job, though she ran the family novelty store on College and was also subject to disapproving glances. Nice little Jewish girls, with spectacles and a high-school class pin, in decent Midwestern towns, acting like brazen New York City reporters; unsettling, truly. Whispered about. I cared not a whit. I was tackling life head on, albeit a small-time version as bland as thin broth. To me it was the pulse of life. My beat was the nondescript, routine social register, largely women’s doings, society musings, endless teas and church socials. Professor Meyers of Lawrence University will speak on horticulture in the Bible Tuesday at the Masonic Hall. The public is…
I loved it.
I felt important…I, the plumpish, plain girl.
The only time I didn’t feel insecure, homely, awkward—invisible, frankly—was when I marched on College Avenue with my pad and pencil, headed to the courthouse. Heads turned, eyes narrowed.
The old city editor John Meyer had trumpeted my writing, had praised my embellished, adjective-laden prose, my quirky insertion of local-color dialogue into a prosaic piece about the Knights of Pythias spring flower show. Each morning when he handed me the daily assignment, he nudged me to be…creative. “Flower it up,” he advised. “Go for the bedraggled orphans and the weepy widows.”
A student of Dickens melodrama and the bathetic effusions in the romances of the Duchess, I need not have been so encouraged. I’d learned the power of sentimental thrusts, purple prose, the beautiful sweep of sentences that rose like spring flooding on the Fox River.
Sam Ryan, the septuagenarian—or was it octogenarian?— owner, the little old bald man with the jaunty walk, just winked. He knew a good thing when he saw it. For three dollars a week.
When I’d started out I was a chubby, round-faced cherub of a young girl, eyeglasses resting precariously on my high-bridged nose, showing up that first day in a homemade walking dress of dark green broadcloth and wearing an outlandish hat fashioned by sister Fannie—round as a saucer, with papier-mâché red cherries cascading off it, accented with purple-dyed ostrich plumes, and a nun’s veil netting that looked like ocean mist.
Sam Ryan’s eyes had widened with alarm. “The hat has to go. You look like some scary grande dame in a Puccini opera. You look like you’ve been exploded.” The hat came off. “And wear your hair up.”
My hair was unmanageable, a wild thicket of deepest black, wiry impossibility, tumbleweed untrainable with ribbons and stays and seashell clasps and mother-of-pearl barrettes. So the next day I wore my hair up, decorous, with a sensible hat. I was learning. People didn’t take you seriously if you looked like an act in a vaudeville revue. Fannie, told of the slight to her creation, fumed.
My beat included the courthouse at the other end of College Avenue, a mile and a half away, at the Chute. It was hardly an exciting place. All the meaty news happened closer to downtown at the Elks Club, Moriarity’s Pool Hall, the Sherman House, Little’s Drug Store, the jail, the fire station—places where Matthias Boon and Byron Beveridge did their snooping around. But I prowled the marble, echoey hallways, gleaning this tidbit and that. Transfers of property, liens, writs. The rickety streetcar up College cost five cents, too big a dent in my meager budget, so I walked and walked and walked. At the end of the year I’d lost that plumpness, that young girl baby fat; and now, in blissful June, I was slender and tough. Nobody’s fool. The Appleton girl reporter, sleek as a greyhound, and as wily, with smart-aleck vinegar in the blood.
But magnificently unhappy.
Matthias “Matt” Boon, the new man recently arrived from Milwaukee—just why had he left that cosmopolitan city for our little town?—was a tiny rubicund man built like a tree stump, with that beet red face and those bushy Chester Arthur muttonchops.