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Authors: Larry Karp

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The King of Ragtime

BOOK: The King of Ragtime
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The King of Ragtime

The King of Ragtime

Larry Karp

Poisoned Pen Press

Copyright © 2008 by Larry Karp

First Edition 2008

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 2008923142

ISBN: 978-1-59058-526-9 Hardcover

ISBN: 9781615951062 ePub

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.

Poisoned Pen Press

6962 E. First Ave., Ste. 103

Scottsdale, AZ 85251

[email protected]


This one's for
Who has enchanted ragtimers for a half-century
by bringing their legends to life
Gee, Kid, But I Like You.
I'll follow you to Coney any time.


Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown

—King Henry IV, Shakespeare

I want to thank Edward A. Berlin for permitting me to quote from his excellent biography,
King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era
, Oxford University Press, New York, 1994, pp. 211-212.


Many kind people helped me construct the historical framework for
The King of Ragtime
; without their contributions, I doubt I could have written the book. I take full credit, however, for any errors.

Genealogists Mark Forster, Pat Lowery, and Gerry Lowery guided me through the Internet’s maze of family histories, census records, and vital statistics, such that I was able to flesh out many of the real-life characters. G. Miki Hayden not only took me on a private walking tour of Harlem, she also tracked down ancient photographs that helped me visualize New York in 1916. Betty Singer made it possible for me to imagine summertime St. Louis, and sent information regarding train travel between St. Louis and New York. Dan (of Spokane) Brown was always available to consult on dress, customs, personalities, music, and behavior of the time. Dale Lorang told me what I needed to know about Catholic theology. Gwillim Law, Frank Ruffino, Mark J. Cuccia, and Robert Crowe answered questions about telephones and their use in 1916. Serita Stevens sent information regarding the state of handgun-related forensics in 1916. Reference staffs at the New York City Library, City Hall Library, and the New York Historical Society dug up important regulations and laws of early-twentieth-century New York.

Patricia Lamb Conn talked to me at length about her father, Joe Lamb, and responded promptly and pleasantly to endless written questions and requests for photographs. Anyone interested in ragtime history will enjoy David Sager’s interview of Pat at the Smithsonian; the URL is listed in the bibliography.

A big hug for my love, Myra, finder of typos, mender of loose threads, tolerant hostess to the people I pluck from history or thin air, and bring to live with us for extended periods.

I’m deeply grateful to the many gifted ragtime performers, composers, and historians who patiently answered my many questions, and went out of their way to make me feel welcome in their world. Particular thanks to Ed Berlin, Nan Bostick, Rich Egan, Sue Keller, John Petley, David Reffkin, Jack Rummel, and Washboard Kitty Wilson (who loves mystery novels almost as much as she loves ragtime).

Chapter One

Manhattan, New York City
Monday, August 21, 1916

The short, dark-skinned man standing in front of the Strand Theatre Building shaded his eyes with a hand, and looked up past the marquee to the gold letters on the third-story windows.
. That wife of his, she wouldn’t let him out of the apartment till she wrote out the address for him. He told her he was almost ten years in New York now, he didn’t need any numbers on a piece of paper to find his way to Broadway and Forty-seventh Street, but she wrote it down anyway, and pushed it into his pocket. Women are like that. If they don’t have a real baby, they find a man to treat like one.

Heat rose from the pavement, made the building and the people look wavy. Made
look wavy. Damn, he didn’t like that. He was nervous enough, just coming down here with his music, which of course he never would be doing if Martin hadn’t convinced him he should. Question was, could he really trust Martin? Could he trust
anymore, after all he’d been lied to, ignored, pushed aside, even by people every bit as black as himself, those fancy Negroes with their three names. Will Marion Cook. J. Rosamund Johnson. James Reese Europe. None of them would give him the time of day any more. Lester Walton once had been partial to him, wrote a bunch of nice words in the newspaper about his music, but not since Cook, Johnson and Europe got hold of Walton’s ear. Scott Joplin was low-class, him and his ragtime music. Low-class and old hat. An embarrassment to the race.

He pulled a well-used handkerchief from his pocket, mopped water from his forehead, glanced at the sheaf of papers in his left hand.
there anybody he could trust? Well, sure, his wife. Lottie was always square at his side. And Nell—of course. Never mind her father, he could trust Nell with his life. He sighed. And yeah, he really did think Martin was okay. Nice kid, wanted to play piano just like Scott Joplin, came up every week for his lesson. He kept the books at Irving Berlin’s, and he got himself some inside information. Berlin was doing musical shows now, not just writing popular songs. “Let him see your music,” Martin had said. “What can you lose? I’ll go along with you, and I’ll make good and goddamn sure he doesn’t steal anything off you again.”

Joplin had his doubts, but decided to give it a try. With no contacts of his own any more, little money, and less time, he really didn’t have all that much to lose, did he? But he was not about to take Martin along with him, no need to do that. Scott Joplin was the King of Ragtime. Go walking into Irving Berlin’s office with a baby-sitter? Uh-uh.

Besides, his head had felt pretty good earlier this morning. It wasn’t till he got outside and started off downtown that he commenced getting nervous and shaky in his mind. All this heat and humidity, all that noise, gasoline motorcars with their backfires, all the people, pushing, yelling, waving their arms. He tried to will calm, blew out a deep breath, then moved, a little unsteadily, toward the door.

A white couple, old people, passed by; he heard the woman say, “Just look at that—drunk on the street, and in broad daylight.” Joplin tried not to react, but in his anger, he caught his foot on the step, stumbled, finally managed to hold his balance. Damn! Lottie had fixed him up right to go downtown, shaved him close, got him into his best dark suit and tie, but as far as that old woman was concerned, Scott Joplin was just another drunk nigger. But what was he supposed to tell her? No, he wasn’t drunk, just that his brain didn’t work right anymore because he once upon a time lay down in bed with the wrong woman?

He turned to go back home, but pulled himself up short. No, that wouldn’t serve. He had to leave Lottie some money.
to. And besides. A man sees he’s got no future, he wants to leave something of himself in the world, and what did Scott Joplin have to leave? No children. No paintings, no books, no buildings. Nature had filled his head so full of music there never was a moment’s time for anything else, his blessing, his curse. If all his music disappeared along with him, better his mother would have gone to the old woman down the road and gotten something to put up inside her, so next day she’d have passed a mess of blood, and Scott Joplin never would’ve seen light of day.

He wheeled about, then walked carefully up the steps to the door, pulled it open and went inside, past the elevator, up the staircase. The third floor hallway was stifling. He felt dizzy, afraid he might pass out. Guiding himself with his free hand against the wall, he made his way down the corridor and into the Waterson, Berlin, and Snyder Reception Room.

Nobody there. He looked right, left, right again. A receptionist’s desk sat between the take-off points of two hallways; two other passages ran back from the opposite wall. Joplin felt like he was standing at the hub of a wagon wheel. The wheel started to spin, sending the composer staggering toward one of the cheap wooden chairs against the wall opposite the receptionist’s desk, He dropped his manuscript to the floor, fell into the chair, lowered his head into his hands.

The wheel slowed, stopped. Joplin raised his head by degrees. Still no one in the room, nobody waiting to show a tune to a buyer, or hoping to bag a tune for a vaudeville act. No receptionist at the desk. The composer picked up his music, stepped cautiously across the room, peered down the corridor to the right of the desk. No luck. He walked a few steps past the desk to check the second corridor. Again, no one in sight…but then he heard a loud, phlegmy cough. He gripped his papers, started walking.

The door to the fourth office on his left sat open. Joplin saw a man sitting at a desk, his back to the door. The composer paused. This nervousness was going to be the death of him. Even when he sat alone at his piano these days, trying to put a tune together, he felt ants crawling up his legs, butterflies sailing around inside his stomach. “I’m Scott Joplin,” he muttered. “The King of Ragtime. I don’t need to give any apology—least of all not to
.” He stepped into the room, cleared his throat.

The white man at the desk swiveled to face him. Joplin recognized him instantly. “Good day, Mr. Berlin,” the colored man said.

The white man smiled. “Why, Scott Joplin—how are you? I haven’t seen you since forever.”

Not since 1911, Joplin thought. Not since “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” He worked to keep his attention on his business. “Well, I guess that’s so. I know I haven’t been by since you moved up to here from Thirty-eighth Street—when was that again?”

“1914, two years ago. What brings you down?”

The stale smell of old cigar smoke burned Joplin’s eyes. He held out his offering. The pile of papers shook; he was afraid he might drop the whole stack onto the floor. “I’ve got some music I want to talk to you about.”

The white man stood, pushed a hardbacked wooden chair toward his visitor. “Sit down, Scott, huh? Take a load off, catch your breath. You say you want me look at your music?”

Joplin nodded. Lottie had warned him. “Take it slow, Scott, nice and easy. You get to talkin’ fast, your tongue gets all tied up in knots, and even I can’t follow you. An’ if
can’t, Mr. Berlin sure won’t.”

“Sorry, Mr. Berlin.” Joplin could hear the difference, much better now. Slow and easy. He lowered himself into the seat. “I said I want to talk to you about some new music I’ve got. Theater music.”

He saw the publisher’s eyes go glittery as they lit on the pile of paper. Like a buzzard spotting a chunk of meat in the gutter. The colored man’s hand moved to cover his manuscript, but he told himself, don’t go getting mad now. What’s done is done. And Martin’ll be right in the office, he can keep watch. He won’t let Berlin swipe it.

The publisher extended a white, well-manicured hand. “You gonna let me see it, Scott? Or you just want to keep me guessing?”

Joplin laid his music, slow-motion, on the desk. The white man craned his neck to read; his eyebrows went up. “
, huh? A musical drama in two acts.”

“That’s right.”

“Looks pretty long.”

“Not too long. Not any longer than
.” The colored man jabbed a finger toward the manuscript. Shaking even worse now. Thinking about
right there in front of Irving Berlin couldn’t help but make him nervous. He fought to go on talking. “Why don’t you look at it, Mr. Berlin? See what you think.”

Instead, the white man leaned back in his chair and took a moment to study his visitor. “Who did the book?”

“I did. Just like for
. I do my own work, all of it. Only Scott Joplin can put the right words to Scott Joplin’s music.”

“Okay. But listen, I got to ask you. How is it you’re bringing it here? To me?”

Anger hit the colored man like a wild animal released from a cage to pounce on his chest. For what felt like an hour, he couldn’t get out a word. Lottie spoke to him in his mind, gentle but firm. “Scott, now don’t you forget, you ain’t goin’ down to pick no fight with Mr. Berlin. What you want is to get him to take on your music.”

The composer struggled to slow his breathing, finally managed to set a firm gaze into the white man’s eyes. “You know, after you published ‘Alexander,’ I swore I’d never have anything else to do with you. But I’m sick, Mr. Berlin, which you probably know already. I wrote this musical, and I’m working on my
Symphony Number One
, and before I go, I want to see them both on their way. My piano pupil, Martin, he works in your office, he said I ought to let you take a look at it.”

The white man scratched at his head. “That’s Martin Niederhoffer? Our bookkeeper?”

“The same. I can never remember that last name, but he’s the one. Why don’t you call him in here? Ask him if I’m not telling you the truth.”

The white man’s face split into a huge smile; he waved the idea away. “No need for that, Scott. I believe you. Anyway, it’s half-past twelve. Martin’s out to lunch right now.”

“He said he was going to keep a good eye on my music for me. That boy is a fine piano student, Mr. Berlin. And he knows every note of

A lie, and it threw Joplin off track. For the better part of a year now, he’d kept all his music locked in his piano room, and when he went in to compose, he even locked the door behind him. No one was ever going to steal another piece of music from Scott Joplin, then use it to make his own career. “Alexander’s Ragtime Band!” Those three words never failed to set his mind into a whirl. He jumped from his chair, arms waving. “Six years it’s been now, I left my opera with you,
, and you gave it back, told me you couldn’t use it. But you kept a part of the “Real Slow Drag” tune, and it earned you a fortune. I tell you, Mr. Berlin, that’s not going to happen again. Not ever.”

The white man pushed back in his chair to keep clear of the flailing arms.

“You steal one note out of
, just one single note, and I’ll take you to court, you hear?” The furious colored man pounded a fist on his manuscript, once, twice; a letter opener jumped off the desk and clattered to the floor. “My play is going to be a landmark in musical theater—it’ll make anything by Cole or Johnson or Cook seem tawdry and cheap. I want to see it on stage before…”

He was out of breath, been talking so fast, all out of control. He wondered vaguely whether the white man had understood what he was saying. “Slow down,” he heard Lottie croon. “Slow and easy, now, Scott.” But words kept pouring out of his mouth, loud, insistent, rude. “Mr. Berlin, I’m telling you, you steal
of this, and we won’t
a court hearing…because I swear I will kill you.”

The white man raised a hand. Joplin ducked away, but as he straightened back up, his head whacked against the edge of the open door. He staggered, then settled to his knees. He felt blood pour down his face from his forehead, saw it splatter onto his white shirt, coat and trousers. He had to do something. But what?

He saw the white man jump to his feet, and take a handkerchief from his pocket. “Come on, Scott.” The publisher pressed the cloth to the composer’s wound, pulled him up, guided him back to his chair. “Scott, take it easy, now, huh? Quit worrying. I ain’t gonna steal your music.”

As if in a dream, the colored man saw a second white man come at a run into the room. “What the hell’s going on here,” the newcomer shouted.

Joplin saw the first white man wave the other one quiet. “Scott Joplin’s got a new musical drama he wants us to have a look at. He, uh, tripped and hit his head on the door there.”

Joplin’s eyes followed the publisher’s finger, saw the blood splattered on the door, splashed on the floor. The second white man whistled. “Nasty cut.”

“He’ll be all right.” The voice seemed to come from a great distance. “We’re going to give your work every consideration, Scott, don’t you worry.” The colored man saw the white man smile at the newcomer, who replied with a grin.


The Pennsylvania Railroad, like any rail company those days, was run by pious men who believed the last should be first, so they put the colored cars in their trains in front of the white cars. That way, the colored passengers were privileged to receive the lion’s share of soot that blew back from the smoke stack of the steam engine. Even in the third colored car, a fine layer of black dust nearly obscured the curlicue pattern on the threadbare carpeting. The horsehair stuffing in the seat cushions had long since deteriorated into powder, such that passengers sat on petrified lumps that assaulted their hindquarters with every bump of the train on the tracks. The dingy, worn seat covers were pocked by cigar and cigarette burns; many armrests were gone. The railroad company used the condition of the colored cars as evidence of how reasonable their policy was. Why, if they let those people just sit anywhere, the whole damn train would look like that, and then how many decent people would want to take a train trip?

Halfway back in that third colored car, a man in his mid-thirties, with a thin, stylish mustache and a forehead extending all the way to the crown of his head, sat hunched over lined music paper. He hummed short passages, changed a note here, a chord there. Occasionally, he smiled, or said, “Yeah, that’s right.”

BOOK: The King of Ragtime
11.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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