34 – If these walls could stage whisper

This is Aideen’s letter home from the Hotel Edison in 1937:

Aideen's Hotel Edison

And this is mine:

My Hotel Edison desk

Sitting at this desk, I can see out the window to the lights of the Rodger’s Theatre and the line of yellow cabs waiting to take people away from Scarlett Johansson in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. My room is on the sixth floor. It’s as small as all midtown hotel rooms, with creaking pipes in the bathroom and an old-fashioned American tub that (judging by its reluctance to keep a temperature) is quite possibly here since Aideen’s time. Today, the temperature outside dipped to below -2 but I haven’t seen rain since I arrived and once you’re dressed for it, it’s possible to do things like hang around a stage door waiting to see Laurie Metcalf.

By the time of her arrival with the Abbey Company in the autumn of 1937, Aideen was no longer required to share a room with Frolie Mulhern, as she’d done on earlier tours. They shared a dressing room at the theatre, but had separate bedrooms beside each other at the Edison. That Company was led by the poet and reluctant manager Fred Higgins. He was a tall man with a substantial girth somehow supported by reed-thin legs, with lank black hair that constantly fell into his eyes and a ruddy face. He was entirely overawed by New York city, the rushing people, the sloppily-dressed women and the “amazing numbers of black people”. But, he was impressed with the hotel, telling May

It’s about ten times bigger than the Shelbourne and ten times swankier.

He went on:

The room is twelve storeys up and its number is 1220. The rooms go up to 22 storeys and then out on the roof gardens. Out on the roof, where I was once, when Boss brought me up for a breath of air, you can see all around for miles—you see the river and the sea and the vast towering skyscrapers all about you. … At night they’re all lit up, they look like ladders of light going into Heaven.

I went up to take a photo of Room 1220 but it’s blurry because there were too many chambermaids around.

There are still twenty-two storeys of the Edison Hotel, although the roof garden is no longer accessible. [I asked. This job isn’t easy, you know; I have to do these crazy things.] I’m on the sixth floor. But floating around after dark between Broadway and Times Square, the buildings do indeed look like ladders leading to Heaven.

In writing to her sisters, Aideen comments only on the rain and the cold while Fred had a very different experience.

The weather is awfully hot, the rooms stifling and the people go about their rooms with little or nothing on.

He asked reception for two extra tables to be moved into his room to accommodate the papers, plays and all that he had to attend to. At home, Frank O’Connor was desperately looking for news but Higgins wouldn’t respond to telegrams. Weary and overwrought, he went out as little as possible. He said of the Company:

I only see them in the theatre at night, it’s the same as if they were in a different city as far as I’m concerned.

This arrangement suited them all. Aideen bought an electric hair dryer here for the first time, so that she could do her own hair before going to the nightclubs. Frolie and herself didn’t like American make-up, so they always brought their own. They both had a long run on stage here in The Far Off Hills, playing young sisters with a scene all of their own which frequently brought the house down.

The girls in their beds: Aideen on the left and Frolie on the right.
The girls in their beds: Aideen on the left and Frolie on the right.

(Photo from the Wickes collection.)

Things weren’t so smooth for Ria Mooney. [I haven’t forgotten about her, in case you’re worrying.] Ria, who knew the lower East side so well, having lived close to Greenwich village, was back in NYC on the Abbey’s payroll. But, she got sick in the Hotel Edison. Very sick. Fred told May:

For the past two weeks, Ria Mooney is very sick. Doctors attending here. (Lucky for me she is not in The Far-Off Hills which is now in its third week.) She has gone completely limp and the Doctors cannot make out what is the matter. 

Higgins’s sole reason for taking on the management of the tour had been to impress Yeats with his capabilities, but now he wasn’t coping at all. From room 1220, he confessed only to his wife, ‘My temper is unbearable, my nerves are shattered.’

Oh, so many questions! If you’ve been following, you know that Fred and Ria have been in an adulterous relationship for quite a while. Boss has been taking him out on the roof, or into the bar of the Hotel Edison, to try to calm his nerves and assure him of the Company’s success. Fred can’t cope; Ria is sick in bed. Is Ria sick because Fred has already told them he won’t travel on with them to Chicago? Is Fred losing his mind because Ria is having some kind of overly-emotional response to being back in NYC?

As Aideen dries her hair and puts on her lipstick, practicing the dance moves for The Big Apple that Kay has been helping her with, does she have advice for Ria Mooney? Or sympathy?

Aideen raps on the door of Ria’s room before she leaves, to meet Frolie in the lobby. The elevator is waiting; the Negro looks impatient. She hears voices in the room. Is Fred talking calmly to Ria? Is Ria crying because she misses Eva Le Gallienne and her room on East 13th Street?

I shall never know. Only the walls of the Hotel Edison can know. I wonder if they could stage whisper, if they really won’t talk?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *