Read Jack and Susan in 1913 Online

Authors: Michael McDowell

Jack and Susan in 1913

 

Jack & Susan
in 1913

Michael McDowell

 

 

 

F
ELONY
& M
AYHEM
P
RESS
• N
EW
Y
ORK

The Dramatis Personae of 1913:

JACK, a man of mystery, and a tinkerer who joined a profession that he didn't even know existed—

SUSAN, a beautiful actress who shows the new town of Hollywood a new trick or two—

HOSMER, Susan's other suitor, in work as well as romance a rival to the bumbling Jack—

And then
Tripod
, with three good legs and a wooden one, who “pad, pad, pad, taps” his way into Jack and Susan's hearts…

Part I
SUSAN
CHAPTER ONE
D
AISY.
There are lots and lots of women taking care of themselves—putting up the bluff of being independent and happy who would be glad to live in a little flat and do their own work—just to be the nicest thing in the world to some man.
KEITH.
That kind of a woman is a thing of the past.
DAISY.
Oh no, they're not. They're lying around
thick.
The trouble is—a
woman
can't ask. Even if a man is
—
just at her hand
—
and she knows she could make him happy—she can't
tell
him—she can't open his eyes—she has to hide what might make things right for both of them. Because she's a woman.
KEITH.
Oh—love doesn't cut much ice with a woman.
Women are all
brain
nowadays
.
DAISY.
That's enough to use all the brains a woman's got—to make a home—to bring up children—and to keep
a man's love
.

One of the great difficulties about being an actress was being forced to speak the most appalling inanities. Of course, there were other difficulties:

Little work.

Long hours when there
was
work.

Scant pay.

Public opprobrium or, worse, public neglect.

The lechery of stage managers and the jealousy of sister actresses.

Susan Bright could endure those things. But it positively galled her to have to stand in front of an audience and play Daisy, a mooning nitwit of a female secretary. Daisy's ideas on the subject of female emancipation in the year of 1913 would have seemed conservative in the Garden of Eden.

Yet here was Susan, who had been of an independent nature all of her life, spewing this pabulum in front of several hundred strangers. During this little scene with the cretinous
jeune premier
she was supposed to be sappy in love with, Susan realized that the audience admired her for the very sentiments she despised. Those people on the other side of the footlights thought Daisy was absolutely right in wanting to give up everything for her man. While the play progressed, after her little exchange was over, Susan/Daisy seated herself on a couch far upstage to sew a button on a torn shirt.

She knew she ought to be more excited, for it was the opening performance of
He and She
. The play was a revival of a popular two-year-old domestic drama about a lady sculptor who finds herself in competition with her sculptor husband. There was a great deal of gassing and grousing about the role of the new woman in society, or woman in the new society, and it ended with the wife giving up her chance at artistic fame and fortune.
Of course.
Family came first.

In this tedious dramatic argument, Susan, as the repressed secretary, wore a starched white blouse and a skirt so tight she could scarcely walk across the stage. Susan's sleek black hair was pulled so tightly in a bun at the back of her neck that her eyes ached. Every time she opened her mouth, Daisy erupted into a piece of nonsense about woman's role and goal and reward in life being to take care of some man, no matter how much of an idiot, cad, or murderous ruffian he might be. Susan didn't complain—aloud—because it was work; in another week she would start to be paid for it.

Her last position on the New York stage had been, literally, behind the throne in some strange piece of business about Cleopatra. She'd waved a large palm frond rhythmically through two acts—even when Cleopatra wasn't on the throne. Her only pleasure in that role was in delivering the asp to the leading lady, who deserved a real reptile as much as any actress Susan had ever met.

She had decided that her present role would be worth the two payless weeks of rehearsal, thirteen hours a day—nine to noon, one to six, and eight to midnight—the uncomfortable, unflattering costume; the leading lady's patronizing civility; the stage director's amorous advances; and the inane babblings of her character. It was already worth it, in fact, in Susan's eyes, for her name was on the board at the front of the theater. That had never happened before. People buying tickets might look at the board, see the name “Susan Bright,” and wonder, “What sort of actress is she?” There might even be a mention of her in the papers, for although Susan despised Daisy, Susan meant to make Daisy believable and likable.

The play wound its way toward its tedious, improbable end, and it was a blessing that Susan had so little to do in the last few scenes. She sat in the green room and read the serial adventure in
McClure's Ladies Magazine
while her fellow actors, also awaiting the curtain call, played whist. Audience response was polite but not overly enthusiastic, and the
jeune premier
whispered ruefully, “Ten days.” Susan happily detected an increase in the applause when she stepped forward for her solo curtsy, and in the third row on the aisle was a tall, clean-shaven man who was clapping madly. He would have stood up out of his seat to continue the ovation, but his jacket caught on the arm of the chair and prevented him. Susan would have liked to believe that this gentleman was the dramatic critic for the
Sun
, but she was still too clearheaded for that. Weariness competed with excitement in Susan's system, but on account of the two rehearsals earlier in the day, weariness won out. She dragged herself down the worn wooden steps toward the basement of the theater.

Susan shared a dressing room with one Ida Conquest. This actress had attained a certain notoriety for being the Aeroplane Girl in the
Follies of 1912
, and her photograph in aviatrix costume had sold many thousands of copies. Ida was playing the “forthright” girl in
He and She
, the one who
doesn't
think that a woman should give up everything for her man's satisfaction. Susan would have been much more comfortable in that part, and anyway, Ida didn't appreciate the role. Ida was against women's suffrage because she felt that “girls suffered quite enough already, thank you very much.” She was a young lady who, in general, did her thinking on the installment plan.

The dressing room was about the size of a closet, and Susan's body here and there bore little bruises where she'd come into sudden contact with clothes hooks on the walls. “Not enough room to swing a cat by the tail,” Ida said, at least three times a day, and whenever Susan inadvertently elbowed her.

“I glanced out the window on the way down,” said Susan. “It's still snowing.”

It was the early part of January, and winter's early darkness made Susan blue. She saw little of the daylight. Theaters are always dark, and the few windows built into them are in out-of-the-way corridors and open on to air shafts. The dim light that shines through them always seems grimy. For actors, daylight is like a pleasure vaguely and fondly recalled from a country childhood.

Ida Conquest gazed at herself in the mirror. Even in this dank, dingy hole at the bottom of the New Columbia Theatre, somewhere below West Thirty-eighth Street; even with her powdered countenance lighted by a fitful gas flame; even in a costume that looked quite splendid at a distance of thirty feet, but appeared tawdry and dirty close up—Ida Conquest was a dazzling beauty. She was buxom, with a tiny waist, and well-turned calves. Her dimpled cheeks, tiny mouth and vast blue eyes were framed by yellow curls.

Susan Bright was the physical opposite of Ida Conquest. Whereas Ida was of short stature and a pleasing roundness, Susan Bright was tall and tended toward angularity. As a child, Susan's mother had declared that her daughter had “no end of neck,” and even now Susan tended to wear the sorts of collars that disguised that feature. Whereas Ida's complexion was all creams and blushing pinks, with naturally golden hair and brows nearly invisible, Susan had a complexion that was a uniform, almost marble-white. No matter how uncomfortable Susan was, she didn't blush becomingly—as Ida did. Susan's hair was black, and it shone nearly blue in certain lights. Her eyes were black as well, and in those you could read Susan's soul—which was often more of an inconvenience than not. Susan's soul sometimes had interesting but not very complimentary things to say about other people.

Susan had always suffered in comparison to women like Ida Conquest. But she was about to have her revenge. She had noted of late a change in styles, for women's bodies are just as much subject to fashion as hats or the length and silhouette of skirts. Susan scarcely dared to believe it, but she had noted in magazines devoted to women and their dress a tendency away from the Ida Conquest ideal of beauty, and toward a Susan Bright type of form and coloring. It was no longer de rigueur to be buxom, with a small waist and massive hips; a much slenderer form was splendid for the new tight skirts. Susan had once audibly gasped when she saw a drawing, in
Ladies Home Journal
, of a fashionable woman with a neck
longer
than her own. If the change happened quickly enough, it might be that Susan's beauty would actually eclipse that of Ida Conquest—though nothing, it had to be admitted, would compensate for the advancing years of an unmarried woman. At the age of twenty-seven Susan Bright would have been regarded as a spinster in any but theatrical circles. In theatrical circles, an unmarried woman of twenty-seven was assumed to be kept.

Susan was not kept. If she were, she ruefully admitted to herself, she'd be living in considerably better style than she was now.

Sometimes she wondered just what her future was to be. An endless succession of roles only a little better—if that—than her present one? The same dreary two rooms on West Sixtieth Street? Maybe even union with some aging
jeune premier
, simply because an easy, slipshod marriage was a less unthinkable condition than that of being always alone. But such morose thoughts occurred to Susan only when she was packed in tight with Ida Conquest in their damp unheated closet far below the level of the street. Or when she examined her purse each morning, and found ever less cash inside it—knowing that her scanty inheritance was little by little dwindling away in the bank account down on Wall Street.

That small inheritance and the indifference of distant relatives had allowed Susan to leave her hometown in Connecticut just before her twenty-fourth birthday and take up residence in New York. She had been the “star” of several amateur theatrical productions there in Winter River, and several times she had even been hired by traveling companies for bit parts. The praise of friends and even the managers of these companies was no guarantee of success in the city, and life had been hard for Susan Bright in the last three years. Her success was meager: five plays—about fourteen weeks of work altogether—in all that time. Despite the dismal projections of the
jeune premier
, Susan hoped for good notices and a long run.

Some actresses—such as the actress who had her elbow in Susan's ribs this very moment—had meteoric rises. Ida Conquest hadn't been on the stage for more than six months. Before that she had been a clerk at a ribbon store on Canal Street. Then she was “discovered.” Susan knew in her heart that Ida would go on to an even bigger role in another play just as soon as this one was finished. Ida had that kind of luck. Susan would slog along in her theatrical career, step by wearying step, and perhaps never achieve the success that was undoubtedly going to fall into Ida's lap.

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