Mary left the farm in Bass Lake and went to Chicago to look for work when she was 16 years old. It was Depression then, 1934, and she charged right into the wind day after day to look for a job. Mary didn’t eat for days at a time. One day, on the point of passing out from hunger, Mary found a nickel on the street, and she went right to a candy store and bought five penny candies and ate them down. These candies gave her a boost of energy, and she was young and strong like an ox, and so she renewed her search for a job.
“You don’t have no experience, you don’t get no work, girlie,” says the owner of a diner, and Mary stands up taller when she hears this; she hears this time and again, but she won’t let it get her down. “I’m gonna get something outta life,” Mary says, as she turns a corner and sees a blind man howling, “Please! Please!” He is holding a tin cup. Mary moves quickly away from him, as if she might catch a disease. There are men on soapboxes shouting about workers and rights, and she pays them no mind whatsoever.
Broke and half-starved, Mary has one key consolation: her music is everywhere. Radios were playing her music, and someday she would have enough money to buy formal gowns and go to the famous Aragon Ballroom on Lawrence Avenue. “The most beautiful ballroom in the world” was how it was advertised. Back on the farm, Mary had listened to radio broadcasts from the Aragon every night except Monday, from 10:05 until 11 o’clock.
Mary had seen pictures of the Aragon in the paper, and it said that the ballroom had cost two million dollars to build. Two million dollars! It was decorated in Spanish style, and named after a town in Spain. A pleasure palace…the men were required to wear suits and ties. She might meet someone at the Aragon, dressed up in his best clothes. Someone who wouldn’t talk too much. Someone who would listen to her body.
Mary loved her body and what it could do. Mary just wanted to meet some good dancers. In her daydreams, she imagined just passing from boy to boy all night long on the floor, one after another, feeling the specific dancing style of every one of them in turn. That way, she could have a taste of every boy without getting in trouble. “I just want to be let alone,” Mary sighs, as she tries to forget how much her feet hurt. Her feet are swelling in her shoes. “If I can make money and be alone, then I’ll be just dandy.”
Mary finally gets work waiting on table, and it was hard work, but Mary doesn’t mind because she eventually saves up enough money to go to her dream place, the Aragon Ballroom, the most beautiful ballroom in the world.
“Are you excited, Mary?” asks her friend Dolores, a fellow waitress, much older, in her forties.
“And how!” Mary cries. Her forehead drips with perspiration. She whips her apron off and the dumb little hat they make her wear. “This is it! Finally!”
Dolores grins at Mary’s youthful pep. “Now, be careful of the men,” she says. “Some of them don’t come to the Aragon just to dance.”
“I’ll be fine,” Mary says confidently. “Nothing will ever happen to me. Not like that. I’m tough.”
She waves goodbye to the bus boys. Everybody in the restaurant knows that Mary is finally going to get to go to the Aragon Ballroom tonight in full fancy dress. Unescorted, too. Dolores and some of the other waitresses have tried to fix her up with boys they know, but Mary keeps saying, “I want to go by myself, just by myself.”
Mary rushes out into the street. It is a soft, gentle spring night, a very un-Chicago-like night. She takes the elevated train home to her apartment. Luckily, when Mary gets inside, she sees that she has the place all to herself. Her roommate Helen must be out somewhere. Mary has her suspicions about Helen and where she gets her money. Making her living off her hind end! “Well, it’s Depression,” Mary says to herself.
Mary quickly showers, carefully fixes her hair, and puts on some fresh lipstick. Then she goes to the closet she shares with Helen and takes out the garment bag that protects her treasured first formal gown. With due reverence, she takes the dress out of the bag, and then she slowly smiles and just stares at the formal gown in the light.
It is a long gown with a black satin finish, low-cut. Mary puts on her slip and then slowly pours her body into the dress. She looks about five years older than she really is in this magic dress. Transfixed, Mary stares at herself in Helen’s full-length mirror. She walks back and forth, as slowly as possible, and then comes to a full stop. “That’s me,” she murmurs. “Look at her…look at the way she walks…look at her figure. Look at it.”
Mary walks back outside as if she is walking down the aisle of a church, about to get married. She takes a cab to the Aragon (“Do it in style,” Dolores had said, pressing some money into her hand before she left the restaurant). The cab driver gets out and opens the door for Mary… it just seems like the thing to do for her. As Mary walks to the front of the Aragon Ballroom, everyone stops and stares at her. Men and women. Who was she? Somebody important? Who was she?
Mary sits in the mezzanine Tea Room of the Aragon Ballroom smoking a cigarette and watching the couples dance to the smooth rhythms of the band. She sits there at her table, her body formidable in her tasteful black evening gown, her face impassive. There is something profoundly serious about the way she smokes; she takes slow, concentrated drags and worries each one down to almost nothing (cigarettes were expensive, and some waitresses were still pocketing some of her tips). Mary’s hair is set and crinkled in a marcel wave, and she wears a small corsage of gardenias on the right shoulder strap of her gown. When older men stare at her, she looks back at them proudly and directly as if to say, “Go ahead and have a look…I would, too, if I were you.”
Mary finds a young partner and is in her full-on dancing dream mode by now. She is just a body that dances to music. She doesn’t wait on table anymore, and her apartment isn’t shabby, and the other waitresses don’t steal her tips, and the managers don’t make crude passes at her, and the male customers don’t pinch her behind, and the wives don’t give her dirty looks, and she doesn’t have to deal with half-eaten, rotten food and help people make messes and clean up their messes, and leave her body, so that the girl waiting on table is someone else. No. No. No, sir. Right now, Mary is just a graceful young body moving to music, her music. On clouds. Far from home and dirt. It’s the other thing. She thinks of it as the other thing, the come-on, the hope. It’s her secret. It’s where she is going afterwards, hopefully.
Mary sits contentedly in a plush single seat right by the staircase of the Aragon Ballroom’s Grand Lounge. She smokes her cigarette and stares at the grandeur of the room’s architecture, which is supposed to be redolent of Old Spain. Mary shakes her pageboy back and forth over her shoulders and smiles. This is class, she thinks. I’m so lucky to be here. This can never change. “This should never change,” she says.
Mary keeps her eye out for partners. There are so many partners, so many possibilities, and Mary doesn’t want to miss out on one of them. She feels she has all the time in the world. She can just pass from one to another, feeling and judging every little difference in each boy. The way he holds his arm around her waist. If his breathing is heavy, or quick. If his body reacts viscerally to the music, or if he has to make an effort. What he smells like when they first start dancing, what he smells like when they finish. The corny dancers who dip you to the floor. The serious dancers who have perfect technique but hold no surprises. The sexy dancers who get a hold of you and have their way with you completely, without once copping a feel. There is the born dancer, and the made dancer. Mary feels that she is a little bit of both.
Artie Shaw leads his band in “Begin the Beguine,” like a randy professor with his eye on the co-eds. Mary stares at him as he starts his clarinet solo. For one brief, hot second, Mary falls head over heels in love with Artie Shaw. She recovers.
Mary and her friend Stella, a fellow waitress, sit on the outskirts of the dance floor at the Trianon Ballroom. They don’t have official escorts, but both of them wanted to hear Artie Shaw, so they decided to go it alone. They feel daring and independent at first, but they wilt almost instantly when they see all the other lone girls.
“Ya look beautiful tonight, Mary,” Stella says. Stella is a meek type. She follows Mary around sometimes as if she were her fan, or lady in waiting. “Real beautiful.”
“Thanks, Stell,” Mary says, raising her arms up to look at her pale pink, shoulder-length gloves. “But this is an old dress. I’m not going to be able to wear it too much longer.”
“You wear it real well,” Stella says. “Real well.”
Mary scans the room restlessly. “Aren’t there any men here tonight at all?” she asks.
“Nope, it’s all women here to see Artie,” Stella says.
“Well, I’m tired of lookin’ and listening,” Mary says, getting up and smoothing the front of her dress. “I came here to dance, and that’s what I plan on doing.”
Mary walks in an extremely dignified, almost haughty manner around the floor, searching for a partner. She looks sensational. She is 22. A new assurance has burnished her looks and her manner. She walks round and round the floor, but there are almost no available men. Men on the dance floor cast longing glances in Mary’s direction. Mary takes these glances in cumulatively, and they add to the coffers of her tough-centered American girl confidence.
For weeks when she first came to Chicago, Mary had walked around her tiny apartment with a book on her head (a Bible). This work paid off: her posture was perfect, her carriage extraordinary. And still she walked round and round the Trianon dance floor looking for a partner.
“Begin the Beguine” finishes. Mary hums it for a few moments. She stares up at the bandstand and makes eye contact with Artie Shaw. He seems flustered by her direct, ambiguous gaze, but he stares right back at her, as if she is a challenge he can’t resist. The dancers look up at him restlessly to begin a new number, but Shaw just keeps right on looking at Mary as the crowd murmurs in disapproval. Neither blinks. Finally, Mary smiles, turns on her heel, and walks back to her friend.
“Let’s go to the Aragon, Stell,” she says.
“I had the best time tonight,” Mary says, and she means it. She wasn’t one to gush, but this had been an exceptional evening with an exceptional dancing partner. He has a perfect little face, almost like a doll; when Mary first saw him, she thought he was far too pretty to be a boy. Like someone from the movies, like Tyrone Power. A fantasy boy.
“When did you start teaching dancing at the Aragon?” asks the boy.
“About a year ago,” Mary says. “The management likes me. I practically live at the Aragon. I never want to leave it, I would live there under the clouds if they’d let me, and maybe they would!” Mary has never felt this high on life and unguarded and expansive before, but then she warily brings herself back down to earth for a moment. “I teach dance at the Trianon, too. And I wait on table,” she admits.
“You do?” the fantasy boy asks. He seems surprised.
“I been doin’ that since I was 16 years old,” Mary says.
“What nationality are you?” the boy asks.
“Slovak,” she says.
The boy laughs. Mary feels stupid suddenly, and she puts her big hands behind her back. This boy makes her want to be something she’s not. This boy makes her want to be…like someone in the movies, even. Why not?
“I bet you’re a good cook,” the boy says.
“I’m just fair,” Mary admits. Boldly, she halts them both dead in their tracks, putting her hand on his arm, and she feels a small, hard muscle there, which gives her pause and makes her more nervous. “Every time I open my mouth with you I put my foot in it,” she says. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry,” the boy says gently. They sort of rock back and forth on the sidewalk. Mary takes her hand away from his arm.
“Do you think any other ballrooms are open now?” she asks. Her voice sounds scared, but excited, too.
“No, I think they’re all closed for the night,” the boy says.
They walk slowly together down the street. A fight is breaking out on the corner, and a man crowns another on the head with a beer bottle. Mary is used to such scenes, but the pretty boy looks frightened or offended, and he hurries her away from the fracas, putting his arm under hers and keeping it there.
“Were you afraid?” Mary asks, smiling at him. The boy is unsettled by the change in her manner and tone of voice, as if she has revealed herself to be a gun moll, or even a gangster herself. This girl has that kind of authority.
“I don’t like fighting,” the boy says, drawing himself up stiffly.
“Well, neither do I, but you have to fight, sometimes,” Mary says. “That’s the way the world works.”
“Not my world,” the boy says.
Mary draws in a deep breath as they walk arm in arm. Something is happening to her. If she had been asked to describe what was happening, she would have said that her stomach felt filled with… gold?…but that wasn’t quite it. It was like her stomach had been dropped down a well by the farm in Bass Lake. Something was happening to her mind, too. It felt like she was being led slowly into some dark, immense, deserted place. It was a thrill…deep down…and she found she could take it and play with it, even, and master it.
“You’re a tremendous dancer,” the boy says. “I’ve been watching you for a while now.”
“You have?” Mary asks, as if to say, “Of course.”
“I’ve had to work up the nerve to ask you to dance,” he says. He smiles, and Mary is dumbfounded at the tiny, even, dazzling white rows of his teeth. Mary’s own teeth had been so uncared for that she had had to have most of them out in front; she wore a bridge.
“I’m glad you worked up the nerve,” Mary says. The boy stares at her for a moment and when he sees the serenity of her closed-mouth smile he feels like he is falling in love with a conqueror, with Catherine the Great.
“You think we’re going to get into the war?” he asks.
“No,” she says. “But I don’t really care.”
“You don’t?” he asks. He seems stricken.
“Not really. Do you?”
“I don’t like fighting, but like you said, sometimes you have to fight.” He pauses, deliberately, and looks at her. “I think we’re going to have to fight.”
Mary shakes her head. “I don’t see why men have to go off and be killed just so a lot of other men can make some money.”
“That’s not what this is about, Mary.”
“No? Well, you tell me what it’s about.”
The pretty boy with the dark hair talks earnestly about the threat posed by Hitler and Mussolini, and he uses a lot of five-dollar words in this talk, but the effect is endearing, not arrogant. Mary listens to him and tries to keep up, but after a while she stops struggling to follow what he’s telling her and concentrates instead on his raven dark curly hair, his high cheekbones, and his red bow mouth. He cares about something, this boy. He makes Mary want to care about something, too.
The dark-haired boy with the pretty face takes Mary to the Art Institute, and the Field Museum, and the Museum of Science and Industry. He tells her about the Impressionists, and about the books he loves. He tries to get her to read Hemingway and John O’Hara and Fitzgerald, but she only makes it through a few short stories. He takes her to see the Lunts on stage, and she is suitably impressed by their studied naturalism. But whenever he goes off on one of his cultural monologues, she musses his dark doll’s hair and says, “It must be wonderful to be a college boy. I never made it past the eighth grade.” He buys her presents, but she never accepts them. “Take them back,” she would say, with a smile. “What do you think I am?”
At the Aragon one night, they dance a slow, lingering waltz as Tommy Dorsey plays “All the Things You Are.” They look into each other’s eyes without blinking; he lets her stare him down. He loves her intensity, and the mystery of her hidden, blunted feelings. She loves looking at his unreal surface, and would sometimes wonder if he actually existed or if she had just made him up. Then she would reach out and touch his cheek, put her arm around his tiny waist. She could feel him, but she still couldn’t believe he was real.
“That’s the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard,” he says, with ardor, as the song finishes. They walk towards the lobby.
“Yeah, it is pretty good,” Mary says. “That Tommy Dorsey sure knows his romance.”
“That song was written by Jerome Kern, Mary,” he says. He lights a cigarette. Mary can tell that he’s angry with her for some reason. Usually, she would have presented an angry boy with a calculated show of indifference. But this boy is different.
“You’re too sensitive,” Mary says, as she smokes her cigarette and stares at the boy she loves.
“No such thing, baby,” the boy says, and smiles. They walk towards the Aragon entrance. Mary still won’t let him see where she works.
When they get inside, they stroll to the dance floor, and the band is playing a rumba, and they unselfconsciously fall into its sensual rhythms. “I love you,” she whispers in his ear. “You don’t mind if I keep saying it, do you?”
“Course not,” he says, grinning from ear to ear.
“I should just keep my mouth shut,” she says.
“Talk as much as you want. Do whatever you like,” he says, reassuringly. He always smells like baby powder.
They dance every dance together. They waltz, and cha-cha, and rumba again. They do a tango to the tune of “Adios Muchachos.” The crowd even parts to look at them when they tango. It’s like a movie, Mary thinks. This can’t be real. But it is! And there are clouds scudding across the domed Aragon Ballroom ceiling. The clouds are beamed by projectors, but they seem so real, to everyone.
They dance for hours. They look at each other a lot. They laugh to themselves, on each other’s shoulders. Sometimes, he even lets her lead. When the orchestra plays “Harbor Lights,” the boy kisses Mary on the mouth right in the middle of the floor. Her knees buckle when he kisses her; he feels her give way and he holds her upright and steady with his one slender arm around her waist. Finally, they go to the Tea Room on the mezzanine for a smoke.
They go back out onto the floor and dance a waltz, to the tune of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” The boy even sings a little of this old song in Mary’s ear. She closes her eyes and listens, just listens, storing it up, this light feeling that seems to go on and on. But she can stand it! She can stand being this happy, at intervals, for as long as it takes.
It is 4 AM, and Mary is drunk from dancing, and she is also drunk from a few gin and tonics the boy bought for her (“That’s a drink for a lady,” he had said). They walk and walk all over the Loop, and they walk by Buckingham Fountain, and the pretty boy with the dark hair has to stop Mary from jumping into it. He loves the sound of her laughter, and he tickles her every so often so that he can hear her uninhibited, roaring, very unladylike laugh.
“I’m going to write about you, Mary!” he promises. “I’m going to call my novel The Queen of the Aragon Ballroom! You think I can write a novel?” he asks. “My Dad knows John O’Hara.” He is very drunk, but charmingly so.
“I think you can do anything you put your mind to,” Mary says, as soberly as she can. They stop flailing around and look at each other. “I believe in you,” she says.
He rests his head on her shoulder. “You still want to be alone?” he asks. She had confided in him.
“No,” she whispers, as if it is a secret. “No. I did before.” She puts her hands on his face, framing it. “Will you teach me everything you know?”
“You want knowledge?” he asks.
“Yes,” she says. “I want to know things.”
“Do you want to get married?” he asks her.
Mary takes in a deep breath. This is it! “Yes…I’ll marry you…of course I will,” she says lightly, not wanting to scare it all away. Now she rests her head on his shoulder, and they don’t speak for a long time.
He is so lovable and beguiling at this moment. Mary considers things for a few seconds. She tries to look tough, but she can’t seem to find that particular mask.
“I’m scared,” she says.
“It’s right,” he says. “Trust me.”
“Can I trust you?” she asks.
“With your life,” he says.
The boy’s highfalutin mother didn’t like Mary. There were hurt feelings. Just who the hell did this woman think she was? Just because you’ve had an easy life and probably never had to work? Mary told the mother off, using language a lady wasn’t supposed to know, and the boy was caught in the middle. Mary heard he went off to fight in the war. She never thinks of him. She has that kind of stubborn will power. But her heart is broken, and her life is ruined, and for good. Nothing can ever really matter so much for her again.
The war was never going to end. At the ballrooms now, Mary kept running into people from her past, people she first met in the thirties. All the former girls are women with children, and they’re all waiting, their hair piled high, their war paint on, as if they are holding their breath. Mary hated them. Mary missed the thirties. She even missed being hungry. These girls have let her down. They’ve turned the Aragon and the Trianon into waiting rooms, and did I show you the new picture of my kids? Did I show you the letter he sent? He’s in the Pacific. That’s the biggest ocean there is.
Gradually, Mary began to notice that the men didn’t look at her as they had when she was 22. She didn’t look any older, not really, but they could sense that she wasn’t quite new anymore. “Mary from the Aragon?” they said. “She’s been around for years and years.” She was beginning to get a shady reputation. Well, she’d been around for years and years, hadn’t she? What had she been doing all that time, anyway? Dancing?
“The war is never going to end,” said Mary. She sat in the lobby of the Trianon, smoking with her friend Stella.
“It’ll end sometime,” Stella said, but she didn’t seem to believe it. Their hair is higher, their shoulders look wider, their make-up is heavier.
“You know what else I’ve been noticing?” Mary asked. “They let the couples neck all they want on the dance floor!”
“That’s wartime,” Stella said, lighting another cigarette. “Morals get lowered. What ya gonna do?”
“Well, I don’t think it’s right,” Mary said. Stella laughed. “What?” Mary asked. “What’s so funny?”
“You’re starting to sound like….”
“What?” Mary asked.
“Never mind,” Stella said. She knew better than to test Mary’s autocratic temper.
Mary got up and stubbed out her cigarette, and she smoothed out her dress, which was old but clean, 1941, but timeless. She walked aimlessly around the ballroom floor, keeping an eye out for a partner. Mary felt she had exhausted all the old men and 4-F’s, and she didn’t feel like tussling with a soldier on leave.
Mary went back to the lobby and plopped into a soft chair by the door. She was tired. Working the three shifts at Douglas Aircraft was starting to wear her down. She couldn’t go without sleep anymore without feeling it the next day. That meant less dancing. Mary was very unhappy, and she let her face sag down into the dumps.
Stella tapped Mary on the shoulder. “Mary, I want to introduce you to a friend of mine, Charlie.”
“One of those 4-F fellows,” Charlie said, an eager grin on his face.
Mary woke up at 6 AM. When you’re old, you don’t sleep much. She got up out of bed, took a shower, and fixed her hair. Then she made herself a cup of coffee and some toast. She sat down to chew the toast and drink the coffee. There were no thoughts in her head. Not yet. It was as if she were always waking up in a foreign country where no one spoke her language. She was in permanent exile. The loneliness was unbelievable, annihilating. Charlie tried to have our marriage annulled so he could marry that woman in the church, but I wouldn’t let him, she thought. I’m a fighter. Been fighting all my life! But I lost my house. We were losing our houses then.
Mary turned on her television set and sat down in her easy chair. The cars slowly whizzed by back and forth outside. Another day. Like the last one. It didn’t matter. There was silence, even with the noise from the TV. It was silence, a deadening of the senses. Her legs ached. She got up to get some Ben-Gay in her medicine cabinet and then sat back down in front of the TV set, pulled up her pajama bottoms, and rubbed some of the ointment where it hurt. It didn’t help, really, but it was something to do.
Her lady friend Marie, who still walked all over the neighborhood, had left her some magazines to read. Mary had never been a big reader. She had read Lust for Life in the fifties. And she read a little bit of Gone with The Wind when she was young, but not much of it. Who had time for that? The boy had tried to get her to read, but she fooled him. She didn’t read what he suggested. Maybe I should have, she thought…I only read some of the short ones.
Mary’s apartment was a waiting room. There were even magazines now, as there are in a waiting room, well thumbed, glanced at many times. There was not much to look at on television. Mary didn’t like soap operas particularly, and that’s all they played in the afternoon. Sometimes, Channel 11 would have a movie on. But she’d seen it. Or it stunk.
She flipped to Channel 11, public television. They were playing a program about Artie Shaw. Mary started forward in her chair. Before she could change the channel, she saw an elderly Artie Shaw talking about his musical ideas. Mary got up fast and turned off the television, but she couldn’t get the picture of the aged Artie Shaw out of her mind. That was all so long ago. That was all so long ago! It was humiliating, a broken promise.
Mary walked back to her bedroom. She lay down on her bed and closed her eyes. But she couldn’t sleep. She can’t ever sleep now. She got up and went back to her chair by the window and turned the television back on. Sometimes there would be something funny on TV at night that would make her laugh. That would make it a good day. The old women made her laugh. And the young people who were friends.
Mary the queen in exile is so mad right now that she would destroy anything unlucky enough to get in her way. But she’s just an old woman alone in an empty apartment in the mainly Polish section of the southside of Chicago by Midway airport on an empty Tuesday afternoon. Tomorrow, she will set her hair. Because it’s Wednesday. You set your hair on Wednesday, and the girl will come with groceries on Friday. I don’t need much, she thinks. My daughter has such good taste. Her home! It’s so beautiful. Thinking about the beauty of the interior of her daughter’s home makes Mary feel proud, almost triumphant. I never made it past the eighth grade, and my daughter teaches in a school! I bet he would like that.
“You know, you were born in the wrong time,” Mary told her grandson Danny. “You would have enjoyed yourself in my day. When I went to the Aragon Ballroom, oh! I’ll never forget it. There were clouds going across the ceiling,” she said, reaching her hands up and painting the clouds in the air. “There were clouds going across the ceiling. It was like heaven. It was like walking into heaven….”
“Really?” Danny asked, like he had never heard this before. They are friends, Danny and his grandmother. He is a subject in her drastically reduced court, attentive to her whims, her lion laugh, her rage, her constantly repeated longing for death, her strangely exhilarating self-pity, the twinkle in her black eyes, the life in her still-black hair, her ruined yet somehow still formidable body.
“I taught dancing at the Aragon,” Mary told Danny. “I had my fun…you’ve got to have your fun.”
“Oh!” she cried, as if she’d remembered something. Grandma used her walker to get into her bedroom and returned with a small, laminated piece of paper that she pressed in Danny’s hand. It was her instructor’s pass to teach dancing at the Aragon Ballroom, and there was a small photograph of her on it wearing her pageboy and that bright and heavy 1940s lipstick.
“I want you to have that,” Grandma said, like she was hurriedly exiting a sinking ship. “I give everything away, but I saved that for you.”
Dan Callahan is the author of Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman (2012), Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave (2014), The Art of American Screen Acting (2 volumes, 2018-19), The Camera Lies: Acting for Hitchcock (2020), and the novel That Was Something (2018).