33 – Oh, Kay, Can’t you girls leave me alone for one evening?

Yesterday, I rode the number 1 subway from Columbia University down to Times Square and I sobbed quietly to myself the whole way (about 9 stops). I hate and fear subways more than anything else in the world, but it had to be done. I’d also had a major revelation: if you don’t go out and make friends with a city, it won’t happen.

I went to queue at the TKTS booth in Times Square  and, on discovering that every ticket for Once had been bought up by Irish visitors, bought one for Nice Work If You Can Get It instead. It’s the new musical full of Gershwin music, but because I hadn’t done any proper research (I’d blame my PA, if I had one) I didn’t know that it took its plot from a show called Oh, Kay! that Gershwin wrote in 1926.

You see where this is headed right?

Nice Work Playbill

Oh, Kay was a massive hit on Broadway. It was a flimsy, prohibition comedy about a sassy female bootlegger called Kay. At that time, Kay Swift was happily married to millionaire businessman James Warburg, with three young daughters. She and Jimmy moved with a fast theatrical and literary crowd: the Algonquin set, centred around the luxurious hotel.

The bumbling hero of both Oh, Kay and of Nice Work is a bumbling millionaire called James Winter.

[Matthew Broderick proved he’s far from the bumbling idiot he was playing when he stepped out of character to ask a girl in the front row to put away her camera.]

Ridiculous plot and silly antics aside, there is much of the glamour  and rhythm of the late 1920s in Nice Work. But I was probably the only one surveying the set and wondering if it was any way close to the Warburg’s family town house on East Seventieth Street. Opulent surroundings, many servants and limitless (inherited) funds: all of the things Kay had given up by the time Aideen arrived in 1939. Then, she was working three jobs, composing music for different organisations. But if the rest of the week was nothing but work, Sundays were the day she kept to spend with her friends.

The Warburg family townhouse - All that Kay Swift gave up.
The Warburg family townhouse – All that Kay Swift gave up.

She later called them “our good Sabbath gab fests, settling our lives [and] we’ve really made more progress at that on Sundays than any other days.”

I can see her in the spring of 1939, flitting about her Beekman Place apartment, in the new silk house coat she has had specially shortened. As she leisurely prepares for Aideen and Mary’s visit, she now and then goes back to the piano to try something out. Earlier in the week, she had been at an early reading of Kindred, the play Arthur Shields and Aideen have come to New York with Visas to perform in. [Much depends on its success; every penny Arthur has is invested in it.]

Eddie Choate, the producer, was clearly buttering her up, hoping to raise some cash. Kay hadn’t the heart to tell him that she can’t imagine ever again having the “monya” to finance a show, even when she thinks the play is great. Aideen looked so lonely, so unsure of herself, at the reading in the offices of the Maxine Elliott theatre that Kay decided the girl had to cheered up and invited her along to the Sabbath gab fest.

They’ll have their hair done first. Kay says:

I have made up my mind to support the hair-dressing industry as long as I live. No doing of own hair by this hand. 

Then they’ll go to a movie, or for lunch. They’ll pool their money and do their best to find a bar where some charming men might shout them a cocktail. As she goes to dress, Kay wonders if she has anything that might fit Aideen–cheer her up and make her feel more in vogue.

Kay fills Sundays so that she doesn’t think of her three children, still with their father in Connecticut. She is currently between beaus (more of them soon) and wants only to relax and enjoy herself today. Aideen will do the same; Kay will insist on it. If Aideen hasn’t been out to make friends with the city yet, then Kay will make darn sure they are  properly introduced.

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