Back at the house, at seven AM, and the table was set for breakfast, as always, in the Florida room. Greg woke us children and supervised the washing of hands and faces, tooth brushing and dressing for school, then ushered us downstairs. As always, we seated ourselves and Roseanne, the maid, took orders for breakfast. Cereal, eggs, toast and juice for us, coffee and danish for her. All was relaxed. Mom and dad were still asleep, as the Florida sun rose over the wet coral rock patio which steamed with the moisture from an early morning rain. The lake in the distance held an early haze as the day began.
I was eight, Debbie is six, and Carolyn sat in her high chair, still too young to go with us to school. After breakfast, the captain arrived up from the boat to drive Debbie and me to Mrs. Fletcher’s Progressive School for the day. Carolyn would stay home with Greg to walk the lake trail and convene with whatever governesses and their charges may find each other there.
My mother rose around nine or ten, emerging from the bedroom suite in full makeup, jewelry and appropriate dress and heels for her cup of Lipton tea and her L&M cigarettes. As always, she began the day without my father, who slept until noon or so every day. She sat at the table perusing photographs in a magazine, or the Shiny Sheet, checking her horoscope or calling friends and family to catch up on the latest news and waiting for my father to come to the table.
Her undisputed role was lady of the house. A position she came by as a prize hard won, after years of difficulties both familial and personal. As a child born in 1922 into an immigrant Italian family, she had seen it all before she’d arrived here.
My grandmother Domenica Bono and her older sister Theresa had been married off by family arrangement to two brothers in America. Theresa and her 15 year old sister were shipped over from Sicily to meet and marry men who were virtual strangers. My grandmother told a story about how, having just arrived the year before and now pregnant, she made the acquaintance of a woman on the rooftop of her building as they were hanging their laundry to dry. She asked the woman a little shyly, how it was that the baby would come out of her stomach when it was time to be born. The woman replied, much to my grandmother’s horror, “The way it went in honey, it comes out”.
All told, there were four girls, Aida was the eldest, Josie, Theresa (named after her Aunt Theresa) and Claudia, my mother, the youngest. There had also been a boy, Angelo, but he died as a toddler from a brain aneurism.
My grandfather Charles, had been a rough and abusive man. When Claudia was four years old, he had broken a meat platter over her head for placing her elbows on the table at dinner. He cheated regularly on my grandmother and worked as a con artist and as an extra in the opera in New York City. My mother described how he stood in the background during crowd scenes in costume and holding a spear, while Caruso sang in the footlights. He had managed to get the job somehow through Caruso himself, as immigrant Italians often gave breaks to their own in whatever ways they could. He and his brother had arrived from Sicily only a few years before then with little more than the clothing they wore. Early in the marriage to my grandmother, he had come home accompanied by a blonde to ask if the new woman could come and live with them. My grandmother sent him packing and never looked back, finding work in a Mafia owned shirt factory where she sewed buttons, cuffs and collars, enlisting the girls to help when she brought work home each night.
She worked on the premises in abject fear, watching as girls disappeared as rumors of white slavery abounded. Domenica made sure she wore her dowdiest clothing to work, left her hair a mess and pretending to be stupid, swept up at the end of the day around tables of mobsters while they made their plans. During one conversation, as she swept nearby, she heard one of them ask, “What about that one?”, to which one of the men replied, “Oh, her- she’s deaf and dumb, don’t worry about her.”
Times were tough, and she did what she had to do to survive. Grandma also made root beer in the basement of their rented home in Nyack to make a little extra money. She sold the bottles on the street for a few cents apiece. By all accounts it was terrible stuff and had a habit of exploding from the bottles all over the basement floor, depending on the weather conditions and other more mysterious factors never quite understood.
Back then, dinner often consisted of a single potato or a little soup, while at Christmas, an orange in each girls stocking was an exotic and expensive treat. There was an outhouse in the back yard as there was no indoor plumbing and the Sears Roebuck catalog was the source of all toilet paper. On cold nights, the girls placed newspaper sheets between the blankets to make themselves warmer. It was a hard life then, but Claudia, being the baby, was indulged with tap dancing lessons for a little while, Lord only knows how.
Claudia never may never have finished high school. It is certain she did not attend college. The little bit of dance training became her ticket out. Still in her teens, she found work at a mob owned club in Manhattan. She worked there with her sisters. Aida and Josie worked as “dime a dance” girls, Theresa was the cigarette girl and Claudia managed to become one of the headliners as a burlesque dancer, going by the stage name “Body Beautiful”. She had dark brown eyes, and a cherubic face which was pretty in a girlish kind of way. She wore her medium length dark hair in the classic forties style with a pompadour and the sides pinned upward. She was five foot five, with long slender legs and the physique to match her stage name. Some family members who knew her then say she was more than just a dancer. It is said that she was a call girl as well, although there is no certain proof of it. The club was owned by Vito Genovese. It was there she met and fell in love with Vito’s nephew. My mother recalled how impressed she and Aida were when they’d had a double date with him and another mobster. The boys arrived on their doorstep in a huge black limousine, dressed to the nines and looking like any poor girl’s dream. They told the girls they had to stop somewhere along the way for an errand and left the girls alone in the car for a few minutes. While they were gone, Aida and Claudia excited by such opulence were randomly pressing buttons to see what they all did, when a panel in the floor opened up to reveal an arsenal of guns! They were frantic to close it again, but weren’t sure which button had opened it to begin with. So, they began to press all of them wildly in an attempt to close the panel, finding the right one just before the boys arrived back. By then their nerves were so shaken that they asked to go home straightaway, saying they didn’t feel well. Still, love being blind, Claudia eventually married the nephew. and as predictably, marriage was an unhappy one. My mother was told she had to stay home, in an unpleasant little flat, while she watched him strap on his pistol every morning and leave in the limo for “work” looking glamorous and full of himself. The honeymoon was over in short order. He kept long hours, was physically abusive, and it was not more than a year before my mother kissed him goodbye one morning and packed all she had in one suitcase and carefully left town without a word.
She went for a while to live with Theresa, who had moved with her new husband to a military base in Virginia, but soon moved to Baltimore and to the burlesque scene there. She stayed gone from New York for two years, but eventually contacted Vito Genovese, as she wanted to return to New York where most of her family still resided. She told him of her trials with his nephew and asked for protection, which he granted. He was fond of Claudia and knew his own nephew for the brute she described. He assured her she would hear nothing from him and not to worry, so she moved back to town. By her account it was only a few weeks after she had arrived back that she ran into her husband on the street. She wasn’t sure why- whether he’d replaced her with another girl, or whether his uncle had but the fear into him- but he stepped out of the way and left her alone. Not long after their encounter, he was found floating face down in the East River.
Who knows how much of this past followed in her thoughts to the breakfast table there in Palm Beach, lifting the teacup to her red lips, with long elegant fingers. The immaculate manicured nails, heavy gold bracelets and earrings- all badges for this station in life a world away from whence she’d come.