This was supposed to be a very straightforward project: A book about a ragtime-era trombonist who played with the best musicians of his time. An artist who lived in his famous father’s shadow and whose story has been forgotten. You know how things snowball when you have an old house and think you’re *just* going to change the showerhead? Here I am underneath the house, replacing the entire foundation.
My musician was engaged to a famous florist. The wedding was set and his mother had prepared a room for them at the family home. His mother and brother devised a scheme to pull him away from the fast lifestyle of a professional musician, which worried them both. The brothers would build a theater (dedicated to their father) and the musician would manage it. Instead, the musician learned the florist was cheating on him and called the whole thing off. He secured a letter of introduction from a local orchestra director and left for Los Angeles to play music, leaving his older brother responsible for the theater.
The florist raced to the train station in her night clothes, arriving just as his train was preparing to leave. She pleaded her case but his decision had been made. He left for California and continued his career until about 1940. His only involvement with the family theater was playing in the orchestra from time to time.
So about this florist…
I was hoping to document when and where they met as well as whether or not the other man was merely a fling or something more permanent. She was interviewed many times over the course of nearly five decades in the floral industry and appeared regularly in O. O. McIntyre’s columns. Details about her childhood and early career were published by numerous outlets and for the most part, I can’t verify any of them. What I can verify is a whole bunch of scandalous drama that sure didn’t make it into her New York Times obituary.
Her mother was charged in district court with conducting a house of prostitution. Three years later, the mother’s rooming house was raided by police who suspected she was selling liquor. That’s apparently not all she was selling. Statutory charges were brought against two men aged 50 and 27 in relation to the florist’s 14-year-old sister, who told police the 50-year-old married man had been making monthly visits to her for the past fourteen months. She said he “gave her money and bought her clothing.” The mother told police she thought the man had “a fatherly interest” in the girl. The mother also said her 14-year-old daughter was engaged to the 27-year-old divorced man, who lived in their home. Despite the girl telling police she had met this man only two months prior to his arrest, the judge was told the two “had been engaged for some time.” The same day, the mother signed off on a marriage license between her 14-year-old daughter and this 27-year-old clothing salesman, effectively ending the statutory case.
I looked into the 50-year-old with “fatherly interest” in teenage girls and hoo boy, what a story! He came from a *very* wealthy family and preferred the company of much younger females until the day he died. When he was in his seventies, he shot the husband of a 21-year-old woman he tried to coerce into stripping and dancing for him. This occurred at his home while his wife was in the hospital. He paid the man $8,000 to cover hospital bills but the criminal case was dropped after almost a year of delays. After his wife died, he married a 20-year-old waitress. He was 76 and the young woman divorced him less than five months later, claiming he started drinking at three o’clock in the morning and bragged about affairs with other women.
The florist lied about her marital status on a passport application and was caught by State Department employees who gave her “fatherly advice regarding making an admission of swearing falsely.” In those days, there was a space for female applicants to list the name, address, place of birth, and immigration status of either their father or husband because obviously women needed men to take responsibility for them. So she had declared she was single but was found to be a divorcee. On her corrected application, she listed her spouse’s stage name and wrote “unknown, but I have heard he died” on the address line. Notarized affidavits from people testifying to her identity and her husband’s US citizenship followed. She explained that “she has never seen a divorce decree for the fact that in some Southern State her husband divorced her, but that she never received an official notice from the court.” He remarried and she apparently then heard from friends that he died. Spoiler Alert: He didn’t die until 1954.
I haven’t been able to get my hands on divorce decrees from Husbands One and Two but she was subsequently twice widowed so she must have figured it out somehow. Speaking of figuring things out, the florist’s younger sister couldn’t decide on a husband or which name to use. I thought I would track down relatives to see if anyone has documents, photos, or correspondence tying the florist to the musician. Neither woman had children and both had four husbands. It was a tradition in their family to give children two middle names. The sister used a few variations of her first name on official documents and on her fourth marriage license, skipped her first name altogether in favor of her two middle names along with her maiden name. The state death index, however, shows her given name. Why so shady?
The florist stated in interviews the name of her hometown along with the year she graduated high school and a story about her mother buying her a car to distract her from her obsession with going to Los Angeles to become an actress. I can’t find one record substantiating any of it. She said she used money she unexpectedly inherited from an uncle in England to start her floral business. I’m not finding that either but I do have information about her articles of incorporation and all changes made to the corporate entity until it was dissolved after her death.
The mother’s probate documents and those from her much older second husband are wild. I can’t imagine what his seven children were thinking when they learned he officially made her an heiress and declared his intent to marry her only two months after their own mother died.
For all the primary source documents I have been able to locate, there are still gaping holes in these women’s histories. I’ve spent hundreds of hours searching, reading, calling, and emailing but I am no closer to discovering a single shred of evidence proving the florist and the musician ever met. It makes me wonder if they ever did meet. Maybe he told his family a story to get them off his back and then it ran its course. Maybe it did happen and he destroyed all evidence in a fit of drunken rage. I really have no idea. What I do know is by the time I’m finally ready to write this thing, I will have enough material to fill five books.