December 1939–February 1940
Who would have guessed it
was my lucky day?
I dressed, I ate, I made my bed the way
I always do, kissed Mama good-bye, and squeezed
onto the subway. A young man looked pleased
to offer me his seat, so I accepted
with a grateful smile—Mama expected
me to embody her own friendly grace
as the best balance to a pretty face.
I settled in to read the Daily News
from the Bronx to midtown, first the “Who’s
Who” of high society and all
their preparations for the Beaux Arts Ball.
What dazzling costumes, custom-made to stun!
What gorgeous photos! What could be more fun
than to wear a pearl-encrusted crown
or shine in beauty in a splendid gown
like “Golden Grapes” designed by Ladislas Czettel
for the debutante Miss Natalie Merril
or “Gainsborough” for Mrs. Fergus Reid?
That had a snug black velvet bodice he’d
joined to a skirt of airy marquisette
in pastel panels with a rivulet
of ruching running down at every seam.
Their colors played on the Ball’s diamond theme
as did the ostrich feathers dyed to match,
enveloping a velvet brim to catch
the light, riskily atilt, almost wings—
a hat the size of Saturn and its rings!
Diamonds, aquamarines, and moonstones were
set into a necklace made for her.
59th! I jumped up at my
and had a little time to window shop
as I walked to Lamston’s, the five-and-dime
at Fifty-Seventh and Sixth. That’s where I’m
in “Pots and Pans”—luckily, I can cook
and know the merchandise like a book.
For a few minutes in the afternoon
I spelled the clerk in “Stationery.” Soon,
I’d made a sale of pencils, pens, and paper
to a customer so beautifully dapper,
who said he’d like his purchase to be sent.
“May I have your name?” I asked, intent
on filling out the form. That’s when he said,
“Ladislas Czettel,” and I lost my head.
“Oh, it’s my dream to go to a Beaux Arts Ball!”
I blurted out and blushed. Could I appall
myself more, speaking with no manners, none?!
“How would you like to go to this one?”
he asked after searching my face a second—
so generous with what he hadn’t reckoned
on, as if that weren’t make-believe
and he could see my heart worn on my sleeve.
I hesitated, knowing the ticket price,
besides which, I knew I had nothing nice
to wear. “Wouldn’t you?” he asked again. I sighed.
“I wouldn’t have a costume,” I replied
reluctantly. Were his eyes really twinkling?
“Don’t worry about that. I have an inkling
what we can do. Come with me,” he said.
I signaled a friend to work in my stead.
In “Notions,” we walked up and down the aisles,
looking at everything, exchanging smiles.
“Just as I guessed,” he said, “there’s plenty here
for me to make you something gay to wear.”
I couldn’t believe his kindness or my luck.
I swung between nonplussed and wonderstruck.
I couldn’t imagine what on earth he’d do
with twenty artificial flowers—you
might put one on a hat or your lapel—
or thirty chiffon scarves! All I could tell
was that he thought it as much fun as me.
He added strands of beaded jewelry.
It seemed half a vision and half a game.
With ribbon and yardage the grand total came
to seven dollars and twenty-eight cents.
“And now,” he said, “I need your measurements.
“Exactly!” I said. I don’t think that I’ve
ever been looked at with such precision!
“And five-foot-one?” he asked with X-ray vision.
“Of course!” I said, delighting in his skill.
He chuckled, too. “Now, for your fitting, will
you kindly bring the shoes you’ll wear that night?”
A fitting—the same as for a socialite!
His studio was on East
I rang the bell. His smile was incandescent.
And there on a dress form was my gown!
Circling the skirt, the chiffon scarves draped down
in alternating colors on their bias,
each sewn into the waistline—oh, so stylish
and so inspired! How had he known they’d reach
the floor? The gown itself was a lustrous peach
with a blue belt to dramatize the bodice.
Then he showed me the headdress for a goddess!
A pyramid of all those flowers soared
with leaves between them while, behind, a broad
mantilla trimmed with ribbons cascaded down.
Oh, it was more exotic than a crown!
“You’ve dreamed my dream more deeply than I could.
I feel so grateful and so understood.”
“My dear, I’m glad. The costume committee, too,
approved and asked me to provide a few
preview photos. Would you mind if I
called a photographer to stop by?”
Would I? Could a prospect be more inviting?
I didn’t think this could get more exciting!
Thank goodness that I had
to work the day
of the Ball—anything to allay
my jitters! The subway had them, too. I grasped
the strap above me, braced myself, and gasped:
there was my photo in the Daily News!—
just as lovely as any ingenue’s
with the tower of flowers on my head
and beads galore for jewels. The story said
I would attend the Ball tonight as guest
of Ladislas Czettel and would be dressed
in a costume that he’d fashioned from
merchandise in Lamston’s emporium
costing just seven dollars twenty-eight cents—
a drop in the bucket of affluence!—
and that I was a salesgirl at that store.
Was this a welcome to a visitor?
Was this the world of high society
saying there really was a place for me
for this one night? When I arrived at work
all my friends were going a bit berserk!
“Teddy, did you see the News?” “Teddy,
did you?” The Ball was making us all feel heady!
Mr. Czettel had arranged
to get off early. He picked me up at three.
We entered a grand beauty parlor where
they “glamorized” me. First, my long dark hair:
shampooed, cut, set, and styled like a star’s!
They pampered me like one of their regulars.
Then my first manicure at twenty! Best
of all, they did my make-up—was I blessed!
They had a feather touch that seemed to know
the way the sky at sunset starts to glow.
My face became entrancing in their hands.
I didn’t look a bit like “Pots and Pans.”
With the Ball approaching
that very night
I completely lost my appetite,
but Mr. Czettel took me out to dinner.
“Theodora, if you’re an iota thinner,
your gown won’t fit you right!” Once we were seated,
the waiter came and Mr. Czettel greeted
him warmly in Hungarian. I could see
this was his special place for harmony.
“My father is a waiter,“ I said, “though now
he’s working in Miami to see how
he might do better there in tourist season.”
“I was just there in May!—though my real reason
was a trip to Cuba. Do you know the name
of his restaurant?” “La Fiamma. The Flame.
It’s Italian. That’s what we speak at home.”
“Oh, lucky you! All my Italian’s from
the opera, so I can only sing it.
With music, it’s so astonishing it
can break your heart. Do you happen to know
the opera Le Nozze di Figaro?”
“A little. That’s Susanna to be wed?”
“Yes! The music keeps running through my head.
I just designed the costumes for the Met’s
new staging. The music and the silhouettes
inspired my costume for tonight. Do you
want to guess who I’ll be?” “I need a clue!”
“The clue is love.” “Oh, are you going as
Figaro, who loves Susanna?” “Alas,
his clothes identify his type but not
the man. Another kind of love is what
I have in mind.” “Oh, not the Count who flits
from woman to woman and wants her too?” “No, it’s
my own love. Shall I tell you?” “Let me guess.
You love the music. . . . Maybe . . . Mozart?” “Yes!
A portrait shows him in a red silk coat
with a jabot of white lace at his throat.
I know the rest: red waistcoat and knee breeches
with a fine edge of gold embroidered stitches,
plus white silk stockings and black shoes, a big
square buckle on them . . . and a powdered wig!”
“How splendid! What a double joy to go
as your guest and as his! In Figaro,
Susanna and the Countess switch clothes,
don’t they?” “Indeed! And what imbroglios!
The clothes are taken for the women in
the darkness of the garden . . . to much chagrin.”
“Clothes make the man!” “And the woman!” We clinked
glasses, and when we left our arms were linked.
My brother, Merton, had
arranged to meet
us at Mr. Czettel’s studio, a sweet
idea to wish me well. We got there first
to change into our costumes and immersed
ourselves in metamorphosis before
he rang the bell. On opening the door,
Mr. Czettel greeted him, “Buona sera.”
Merton paused, not wanting to make an error
if this was genius dressed in red and white
stepping out of history for the night.
“Si, signore, benvenuto!”
“Sono il Signor Caruso . . . Enrico!”
We laughed, and I could not have been more proud
that he had guessed and dared to guess out loud.
“Merton, how did you know that? You’re a jewel!”
“I saw a picture in a book at school.
Look at you, Theodora! You were born
to look like this, a striking gown adorn-
ing you and a headdress blooming with each petal—
thanks to the magic touch of Mr. Czettel!”
We both delighted in his dual praise,
which linked his heart directly to his gaze.
“Mama wishes that she could be here, too.
You can’t imagine the hullabaloo
when she saw your picture in the paper.
She fainted! What revived her was the vapor
from witch hazel that Mrs. Fisher had.
Then we bought extra copies. That’s how glad
and proud we were to see you look so pretty
in the eyes of all of New York City!”
“Poor Mama and dear you! I almost fainted
too! Look at what Mr. Czettel has painted,”
I said in walking to the wall to show
the costume sketches hung there in a row.
“How lovely and how lively! Such results!
You’re like an artist who both paints and sculpts.”
“How keen of you, Merton! My clay is cloth.
In draping, I can mold it into both
the grandest structure and the simplest shape
with endless textures from brocade to crèpe.”
“How do you find such constant inspiration?”
“It’s a mixture of wearer and occasion.
For Theodora, who is so petite,
I wished to add some height from head to feet.
Her headdress gives some, while its fantasy
is an extra expression of esprit.
I think the scarves will flutter when she dances,
and I’m sure that she will have many chances!”
Merton agreed, and I could only pray
the night would be as special as the day.
The Ritz-Carlton beckoned
with a blaze of lights,
a palace pulsing on this night of nights!
Mr. Czettel ushered me through the streams
of guests arriving dressed up in their dreams.
As we checked our coats, a photographer
snapped a picture of us right where we were.
A woman passed in a black velvet gown
with the Milky Way in brilliants running down
its back and train. Another woman, sleek
in silver satin, made her tall physique
yet taller with a headdress rising higher
in the shape of the Chrysler Building spire.
I recognized Mrs. Fergus Reid
in a group of New York’s most pedigreed
elite but never dreamed that I would meet her.
But no sooner did Mr. Czettel greet her
than he had introduced me as his friend.
She was so kind and didn’t condescend.
Right next to her was Mrs. Vincent Astor,
who clasped my hands—my heart was beating faster!
Then Mr. and Mrs. A. Musgrave Hyde
dressed as a maharaja and his bride
(he headed the executive committee
and was the Ball’s emcee, assured and witty)
welcomed me by name, “Ah, Miss Caruso!”
as if expecting they’d have the chance to do so.
Everyone seemed to know who I was;
it almost seemed as if there was some buzz!
Mr. and Mrs. Richard Delano
(who I knew married just three months ago—
relatives of FDR!) both smiled
warmly, but I’m the one who was beguiled!
They were the King and
Queen of Diamonds come
to life! I think the scintillating sum
of diamonds in her headdress and broad collar
was worth several hundred thousand dollars!
His tabard’s stiff extended shoulders braced
a cloth descending down his back and faced
with white so that he looked just like a card.
They celebrated their union by the yard:
his red wool tabard, her ivory satin gown,
his ivory breeches, the large red diamond on
her ivory skirt confirming them a couple.
We chatted as a drumroll sent a ripple
through the room—their signal to take position
in a line that soon became an apparition:
the King and Queen of Diamonds, then two by two,
the whole suit of cards as their retinue!
“Let’s make our way to the
grand ballroom so
we can enjoy the grand march in all its show,”
Mr. Czettel said, and we wriggled through
the crowd to come upon a dazzling view.
The ballroom was the jewel box for a giant:
white satin walls and a ceiling so high it
seemed scarcely possible it, too, was satin,
and yet it was—quilted with plushest batting
and tufted with brilliants! “Look over there,”
he said, “to the right of the chandelier.
The guest of honor’s in the balcony.”
The French ambassador with a fleur-de-lis
sparkling on his sash observed on high.
The Ball was raising money to supply
the volunteer American Field Service
operating ambulances in its urgent
support of the French Army. A fête with heart!
A bar of music told the march to start.
The suit of diamonds was
the first to enter
to exclamations of wonderment or
cheers. Then the executive committee
comprising the eminent of the city:
the maharaja and the maharani,
a pair of Scottish Highlanders, both bonny,
in sporran and kilts of Mackenzie tartan.
Following them, a manly ancient Spartan
walked side by side with Poseidon, who
wore just a chlamys (Mr. Czettel knew
the word) over beige tights and top akin
to a ballet dancer’s second skin.
Though it was simple, it pleased Mr. Czettel
as did his beard and trident made of metal.
Next, taking up an entire
like an infanta of Spain from long ago
whose gown was shaped by an immense pannier,
a woman costumed in gunmetal gray
glided by us as a battleship
measuring six feet from hip to hip.
Her skirt was fitted out in needlework:
its top left corner spelled the name DUNKERQUE;
its bottom featured rows of waves in blue;
and in between were guns, including two
quadruple turrets, and a single swag.
Her headdress was topped by a small French flag.
I kept my eyes on her as others passed,
reluctant to lose her in the vast
and crowded room. The march continued up
the grand staircase, disappearing at the top.
Delighted with a series of
especially the do-or-die exertions
of acrobats mid-air—I was taken aback
to realize that somehow I’d lost track
of Mr. Czettel! We’d discussed that chance,
and he’d given his vote of confidence
that I’d be fine if we got separated.
And now we had! As I contemplated
what next to do, a man came up and said,
“I love your headdress and your lovely head.
May I take your picture in that pose?”
“You may.” “And may I ask about your clothes?”
I think he just wanted to be sure
that I was the girl from the ten-cent store!
An orchestra was swinging
in the distance—
that became my goal. It took persistence
to get there through the crowd. As I passed by,
some people smiled and a few said, “Hi,”
doing a double take as if they knew me,
while others were so busy making whoopee
they scarcely noticed. What a thrilling band—
winds, brass, bass, and drums driving from the stand
plus the piano’s propulsive beat
really made me want to tap my feet.
Couples in crazy costume combinations—
Amazon/sheik and Venus/clown flirtations—
were spinning in a lindy with speed and spirit.
When the next song began, they joined to cheer it.
Would I be a wallflower? That thought
evaporated when a sultan caught
my eye and asked me, “Would you care to dance?”
“Oh, yes!” I answered with exuberance.
He took my hand and we began to rhumba.
After that, I think I danced every number!
So many partners! From what I could tell,
I was as popular as any belle
and found myself at ease exchanging banter
as if I were a regular enchanter.
Though it was now the
middle of the night,
the dancing had revived my appetite.
A gallant Elizabethan cavalier
suggested that the Oval Room was where
we could have supper and watch the fashion show.
And there was Mr. Czettel! I don’t know
which one of us was more relieved to find
the other! Three costumes he’d designed
were in the show, competing to be named
“Most Beautiful.” As Mr. Hyde proclaimed,
“Miss Natalie Merrill,” she emerged
in sumptuous splendor for having splurged
nine hundred thousand dollars on her gown
(which was common knowledge all over town!).
She was a vision in lapis lazuli velvet
with gold lamé accents to embellish
it—the long sleeves beneath extended shoulders,
a peek of underskirt, and seven golden
grape clusters strewn diagonally across
the bodice and enormous skirt. The gloss
of diamonds glittered from among the grapes.
Descending from her headdress was a cape’s
length of blue velvet lined with gold lamé.
Her necklace-topaz, which was said to weigh
four hundred carats, the largest ever mined,
balanced the lavish cloth in crystal kind.
I thought she was the dazzler of the show
along with Mrs. Richard Delano . . .
who took the prize! When I congratulated
her later on, she thanked me and then stated,
“Your gown is lovely and you should have won.”
I knew that there was no comparison,
but it made me feel like I did belong.
The night was ending on the sweetest song.
The Ball was now my dream
come true, but as
I talked about the swells and jewels and jazz
with Mama, it seemed even more a dream.
Then the newspapers took it as a theme!
The Daily News ran half a dozen pictures . . .
and I was one! Merton said the mixture
of beauty, chance, and magic made a tale
that all could love, and beauty tipped the scale.
Still more amazing, then the story spread
across the country, and even Papa read
it in Miami! Some newspapers placed
me next to Mrs. Adolph Spreckels graced
with a diamond necklace worth half a million
and four black orchids to offset its brilliance.
Then we were mentioned in Time magazine
as two extremes of the Beaux Arts Diamond scene!
All the photo captions made sure to state
my costume cost just seven twenty-eight.
And in every photo I am radiant,
having lived that night on a gradient
of joy, rejoicing in what I’d been dreaming.
Look, here’s my favorite in which I’m beaming
between Columbus and Queen Isabella
as “New York City’s Own Cinderella”!
The 45 repeats in
as it does on the
charts at No. 1,
the Everly Brothers
singing “Cathy’s Clown,”
a summer’s song the
girl will have heard
more than any other
in her life,
eights across the lawn,
rehearsing the bond
of body and baton
as the competition
nears with its big what-if.
Now the two voices
fuse, the snare drum snaps.
She flings the
baton sky-high with the same
hurls herself awhirl, each limb
blurred in a
cartwheel, feet down as the baton drops
into her hand and
there’s just time
for a stag leap
before the music stops.