‘Write me the low down, the high up and the sideways,’ Kay Swift would urge her best friend when she was stranded on the ranch in Oregon, mucking out stables layered in clothes and trying to live without running water. Recovering from the frantic pace and emotional battles of NYC, she still longed to hear all the news.
It may seem that I’m going off topic here, delving into the friendship between Mary and Kay, but it’s essential context for setting up the arrival of Aideen in New York and the adventures that are to come …
In an audio file on the Columbia University website, you can listen to Mary Woodward Reinhardt Lasker (Lamb to Kay Swift) describe her life in New York in the 1930s and read the lengthy transcript of that interview. After a few minutes, I found myself turning off the husky voice of the sixty-something-year-old. Reading the transcript, it’s so easy to hear her young, vibrant self.
After their joint trip to Reno in 1934, where they tossed their wedding rings into the water, Kay and Mary launched themselves into the city as professional single women. Mary had her own business called Hollywood Patterns, selling inexpensive cloth with the photographed faces of movie stars all over it. (Image copyright wasn’t a problem, it seems.) Kay had her post as staff composer at Radio City Music Hall, before being made a Director of Light Music at the World’s Fair. When they weren’t dining out or dancing at Club 21, the girls hosted their own parties, which quickly became legendary.
The party that Kay remembered as “the whirlwind of all time” was held in June 1939, shortly after Aideen left Cobh to be reunited with Arthur Shields in New York …
It’s cloudy but sultry hot that June night in New York (Actual weather conditions can be found online – I do love the Internet). After dinner downtown, the gals invite the crowd back to Mary’s penthouse apartment on East 52nd street. The guest list is always expanded in the summer, when people can mill out on the terrace and still hear Kay playing the baby grand piano. Mary’s widowed mother, who shares the apartment, has been dispatched to the country for the weekend but Porgy (Kay’s beloved pooch) is racing in circles around the kitchen. As well as the bevy of the pretty girls, there are a few gentlemen that draw the attention, smoking on the terrace, discussing politics and events in Europe, casting an appreciative eye now and again at the ladies.
Kay Swift dashes from conversation to conversation like a contented bee, and hovering around her are: Eddie Byron, dashing actor and long-term friend of the Abbey Players. Until recently, they’ve been dating, but after a spate of 4am arguments they have parted ways. She was mad about him but the rows drove her nuts and now another man proffering “undying loff” has turned up. He’s the journalist and writer she has taken up with, Charles W. Already Kay has her doubts about him – his tangled involvement with his ex-wife Nancy Hale casts a “shadow” over their affair. Nancy, author and regular contributor to The New Yorker, is simply “pestiferous” but has to be suffered.
And winking now and then at Mary Lasker:
The married politician J.S. is there; he has sent his wife out of the city for the week to spend some quality time with his mistress. Mary spends much of the night observing him from afar, intervening when Kay is anywhere close to him. Kay calls him ‘Fiend’. While she does her best to understand Mary’s affair with him, there’s always the chance Kay will put him on the spot. As dawn comes closer, J.S. will promise Mary ardently to leave his wife for her. In the cold light of day, there’s always another excuse. Her ex-husband Paul Reinhardt has also turned up and demanded entry. (This is imaginary; indulge me.) Once a wealthy, sophisticated art gallery owner, he was bankrupted by the depression and now drinks all day and all night. Mary converted to AA to try to help him, and is now a vociferous supporter of sobriety. Albert Lasker is perhaps the quietest man in the room. Small and stout, with a shock of silver hair and heavy dark eyebrows, he has the kindest eyes of any man Mary has ever met. That he is a millionaire doesn’t concern her; she has been earning her own money since she decided as a girl that she wanted a fur coat and her father refused to buy her one. (His name is Lasker, remember…)
Aideen watches all this, still recovering from the change in time zones and adjusting to the heat after the breezy few weeks she has spent in Cork. Arthur, still weak, stayed at home but insisted she meet up with her friends. Her dress feels plain against the stylish mode of the other women, but it’s a relief to have a cocktail in her hand after her weeks of playing nursemaid in the house of her pioneer relatives in Cobh. And Mary and Kay are always so warm and kind, never letting her feel out of place. As she listens to Mary talk about how women everywhere should be allowed birth control, she touches the miraculous medal at her throat. Mary is always talking about her Irish relatives, and when Kay pulls back the rugs to dance she takes Aideen by the hand. The dancing is her favourite part. She listens intently to the conversations, although it can be difficult to join in when everyone seems to know so much more about politics and literature.
There will be a row before the end of the night; there always is. A drink will be thrown, somebody slapped, somebody pinched. Two men will come to fisticuffs over the latest election polls. Or Nancy will throw a strop over somebody flirting with her ex-husband. Mary will have to have words with Kay about her drinking, who yet again makes a disgrace of herself. Or J.S. will reduce Mary to tears, calling Kay in for her protection. Some of it will scandalise Aideen – Some of it will simply amuse her. She’ll store it all away, fodder for her letters home to her sisters or to Frolie. For whatever happens, whoever gets tipsy or smacked or drowned in martini for going too far, it will all happen again next weekend … Nobody throws a party like Mary and Kay.