New Orleans, Louisiana
March 6, 1924
There was a letter in the mailbox that morning. A handwritten letter in a script Gwen didn’t recognise. And it was addressed to her. As she carefully opened the envelope, she found herself biting her lip. Reading the words tentatively she let out a little squeal as the contents unfolded before her eyes.
She slammed the mailbox door shut and ran back to apartment. Another squeal escaped as the door closed behind her. Jo came hurrying out of the bedroom, hair half in, half out of the hairnet.
“What? What’s goin’ on?”
“It’s him! It’s him Jo! He wrote to me!”
“Who did, honey?”
There was a moment of silence as Jo’s eyes widened and her jaw dropped.
“No. Way! Lemme look at that,” she gasped, snatching the letter out of Gwens’ hands.
Dear Miss Lane,
It was a pleasure meeting you the other night. And I would like to repeat the experience.
If you’re not busy, I would like to meet you for lunch at the Roosevelt on Barrone Street.
I’ll be there at 1pm. I look forward to seeing you once again.
“Oh my God,” Jo blurted. She looked Gwen up and down, stood in the doorway in an oversized nightgown and bed hair.
“Get yo’ ass in that room right now,” she demanded, her voice filled with the strong Texan accent that often came out when she was in charge, pointing at the bedroom door.
Gwen let out a quiet laugh and hurried into the bedroom. They didn’t have a great deal of time.
Everyone in New Orleans knew of the Roosevelt Hotel. Legends stayed there and played there and many careers had been made there, but Gwen had never stepped foot that deep into downtown before, and the prospect of doing to now was daunting.
Straight away Jo leapt into action. She grabbed the curlers and a comb, as well as a can of hairspray.
“Okay, so what’s he like?” she asked.
“Well, he’s quite tall, looked like a football player. He had that broad, muscular physique. Oh, Jo. He was hot.
Jo nodded with understanding. She began brushing Gwens hair back off her face and affixing it in waves across her head. Once the foundations were done, she hurried over to her wardrobe and began rummaging around. She quickly extracted a silky red dress and a short black one covered in sequins.
“Jo! This is a lunch. Probably business! Not a social date!” Gwen cried in horror as she saw what Jo had planned for her.
“Oh! Come on, Gwen. You said it yourself, he was hot. Why not use some of that to your advantage?”
“’Cause I don’t wanna do anything that’s gonna jeopardise my future!”
Jo threw herself dramatically onto the bed.
“Future?” she repeated.
“You mean as a -”
Gwen nodded again.
“Singer,” she sighed.
There was a prolonged, slightly uncomfortable pause between them. Eventually Jo got back up off the bed and walked over to Gwen, fiddling with her hair.
“Wow,” Jo murmured, “… You kept that quiet.”
“I didn’t want to make anything of it. You know? Get my hopes up or anything. Nothing may come of it. I might cock it all up at the last minute and then – well, you know.”
“I totally get it. Okay! Let’s give you a confidence makeover!” Jo grinned, suddenly becoming really excited all over again.
“Oh, God. Do we have to?” Gwen moaned.
“Yes. Surely you wanna get in his underwear, and not just his company?”
Gwen laughed it was so typical of Jo.
* * *
As the cab turned off onto Barrone Street, Gwen suddenly felt very intimidated and out of place. No amount of Jo’s confidence makeover could have prepared her for this. She knew Downtown was classy, but this was ridiculous. Gwen had never ventured anywhere out of Midtown and a few of the more northern suburbs. Downtown was reserved specifically for the hotshots and high flyers. This was not where she belonged.
Pulling up outside the Roosevelt was enough to take her breath away. It was a magnificent marble building with revolving push doors.
“$22.70, please, dawlin’,” the cab driver informed her, turning round to face her over the seat.
“Here,” she replied, handing over the cash.
Stepping out the cab, the hot air stifled her. It was a particularly warm day for March. There was some traffic in the area, a couple of Fords were parked nearby, but they didn’t look out of place with the Studebaker’s that were also parked down the street.
As the cab pulled away, she noticed a middle aged man come out of another building down the street. He was dressed in a tailored suit while the woman who followed him was in a chocolate brown, skin tight full-length dress with a slight train that swept the ground at her feet. Gwens jaw dropped in awe, but quickly pulled herself together and hurried inside before she was seen.
The hotel wasn’t busy, but wasn’t dead either. There was the odd couple dressed up to the nines strolling around the lobby. She had to stop for a moment to take it all in. It was a magnificent room, with marble tiles across the floor. A piano tinkled away in the background playing some classical music. Gwen made her way over to the reception desk, but quickly became conscious that her heels were making what seemed like an awful racket on the flooring. Behind the desk was a cute young man, of about 23 with a pleasant smile on his face.
“Welcome to the Roosevelt Hotel, New Orleans,” he announced, “How can I be of service?”
Gwen was stunned, no one had ever addressed her like that before. She composed herself before replying.
“I’m here to see Jimmy Wilde,” she replied in hushed tones as though it were something secret that she didn’t want too many people to know. The mans eyes, however, lit up. Evidently, he had been expecting her.
“Ah! So you’re the lady with the lovely voice?” he exclaimed. Gwen blushed.
“Um, yeah, I s’pose so?” she mumbled. The man just grinned at her.
“Right this way, madam.” He gestured with his hands to follow him and Gwen did so accordingly. Gwen noticed that the young man had a strong English accent. She had never heard one before, and found it rather amusing. She had to try her utmost to stifle a laugh.
The man led her through the lobby, down a corridor that had elegant and expensive paintings on the walls either side. He opened a door at the end of the corridor that stretched several feet above them. The room behind it was a magnificent room with royal blue carpet wall to wall. There was a huge crystal chandelier hanging from the centre of the room, and below it, were seating for about 200. Steps led down into the lower level of the room where many of the tables were full. Gwen’s instinctively assumed that she had been brought to the wrong room and hesitated before stepping any further. But then she saw him. Sat in the very centre of the room underneath the chandelier sat Jimmy with a huge smile plastered across his face. But it was what was behind Jimmy, that caught Gwens’ eye. Behind Jimmy was a magnificent stage, set up with a piano and microphone. Gwens’ face fell. She walked over to him, still unsure of what to feel about the situation, so we went for a look of displeasure. As Gwen approached him, Jimmy stood up.
“Thank you for coming,” he said in a low and gentle voice.
“What’s going on?” Gwen demanded.
“Did I not mention?” Jimmy asked, playfully. Gwen stared at him blankly.
“We’re having lunch,” he announced, gesturing to the room of people, “You’re the lunchtime entertainment.”
“You’re kiddin’ me with this, right?”
“Well, about the fact that you’re just the entertainment, yes. But you are performing here.”
“Na ah. I can’t Jimmy! I can’t perform here!”
“Because I’m just a little poor girl from Harlem who lives in a run down flat in Midtown New Orleans, I’m not dressed right, and I just can’t!”
Jimmy looked at her and raised an eyebrow.
“Bullshit,” he denounced, “You’re an amazingly talented young woman with an outstandingly mature voice and you’re going to show the rest of the people in this room that.”
Gwen looked at him, shaking her head in disbelief.
“So food first, or music?”
“I’ll take that as music. C’mon then!”
As Jimmy took her hand and led her towards the stage in the Blue Room, a gentle applause began to rise from the audience.
“Wait here,” Jimmy instructed as they stood in the wings.
As he took centre stage, the whole room fell silent. He took the microphone in his hand and leaned into it. As he did so, the introduction to the song she had finished the set with the night they had first met began to ring out across the stage.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Jimmy began with his soft enticing voice, “May I please introduce, Miss Gwen Lane.”
He beckoned her forwards, she stepped out timidly onto the stage and walked over to Jimmy. She had done hundreds of shows before this one, but something about the surroundings and the thought of who she was performing to, brought back all the first night nerves that she had long since managed to control. Keeping her eyes focused on him, they soon melted away. Just looking at him made it all feel all alright. The softness of his green eyes contrasting with his sharp, angular jaw gave a sense of security and comfort. She couldn’t help but smile at him as she took the mike just in time for the song to start.
* * *
Gwen couldn’t quite believe the number of people that had come up to her afterwards and complimented her on the performance, asked her where she was next playing, which she was a little hesitant to tell them the answer to, and a stream of other questions that were all very much along the same lines.
Once the ‘interviews’, as Gwen had begun to call them, had died down and everyone had returned to their seats, it was almost two thirty by the time the waiters came out with today’s menu and take everyone’s lunch orders. Gwen couldn’t even pronounce half the items that were on the menu, let alone know what they were. She looked at Jimmy in a “help me!” fashion. He couldn’t help but smile and suggested the Green Salad, Crawfish Etouffee and Fudge Brownie. She went with it, simply because she couldn’t be bothered to fuss with anything else. And, if it was good enough, for him, it was certainly good enough for her. As it turned out, it was delicious, and she particularly enjoyed the extremely gooey Fudge Brownie, which she had no trouble fitting in.
They talked all through lunch. Questions about her past, childhood, moving to Louisiana, the bar. Whenever the subject shifted from he to Jimmy, however, the conversation quickly fizzled out, as though he didn’t want to tell anything about himself. And when he did answer a few of her more basic questions, he took a moment to respond, as though he were editing out bits in his head before speaking.
To Gwens surprise, she found it more intriguing and mysterious than annoying, which she almost certainly would have done had it been anything else. She found herself clinging to his every word, but she couldn’t help it. There was just something about him…
He had been struck by her voice from the moment he had first heard it. And yes, she was pretty, but she wasn’t really his type. Jimmy knew she liked him though, and maybe he could use this to his advantage, but it was her voice he was interested in. That was what he was in love with.
“Tell you what. I want you to come over to Columbia Records in Friday and have a meeting with some of the Blacksuit’s, see if we can’t see about getting you a contract drawn up,” Jimmy announced over the second round of drinks. Gwens jaw dropped into her lap. She couldn’t believe it. Jimmy grinned at her, letting her know he was deadly serious.
“You’re kidding me?!” she cried. Jimmy shook his head, no. Gwen let out a little squeal and launched herself at Jimmy in a hug so strong, he thought it might break his ribs.
“Whoa! Okay, kid, you’re gonna kill me here!” Gwen let go immediately and Jimmy took a gasp of breath.
“Sorry,” Gwen murmured. Jimmy just smiled at her; that’s okay.
“So you’ll come?” he asked.
“Of course,” she snorted, like the answer would be anything different.
“Great, see you then!”