Aurora’s first winter in New York, W.H. Vanderbilt died, and the capitalists went on pilgrimage. The entrance to the financier’s Fifth Avenue house was adorned with black streamers, under which visitors could enter to pay their respects: Rockefeller, Hall, Morgan, Sloan, Weiss, Field. If you only owned a railroad and not a bank to boot, you were among the poor of this crowd.
Always the planner, Mr. Vanderbilt had built himself a mausoleum, and following an elaborate service, his body was laid to rest on Staten Island. The Post chronicled the funeral under the headline: “Wall Street Not Seriously Affected by His Unexpected Death.”
This was America. The European ear was attuned to subtle differences in your accent, in how you held your spoon, in who your father had been. But not America. Oh, sweet, naïve, dirty America! The land that never stopped, not even for a Vanderbilt.
As far as America was concerned, Aurora was just another twenty-two-year-old Englishman looking for work. If the payoff was clear, Aurora would still play the part of a woman, but she preferred men’s attire, especially their hats.
Bowler, Derby, Trebor. Alpine Soft, Western Fedora. Dunlap, Knox, Youman. Her favorite was the Deadman, a.k.a. the John Bull topper, with its flat side bow that held a feather just so. She liked how its shorter pipe made her face look wider, but what really tickled her was the fact that its design was born of a compromise between the quick and the dead. Want to bury your father in style but short on cash for the coffin? Save six inches of wood with a Deadman topper from Montgomery Ward.
Aurora had always liked actors—they were at least honest about their pretending—and quickly fell in with a rotating cast of characters at a Broadway boardinghouse who knew her as “Alfred.” These thespians never tired of bragging about their latest triumphs, on or off the stage. Over drinks one night, Aurora learned that her neighbor, Zander, a whisker-less young man who had recently played Ophelia, also kited checks to keep himself in skirts and petticoats. For a small cut, Zander would be happy to show Alfred how to put on a dress and make some dough.
“Try this on,” Zander said, tossing Aurora a maid’s uniform followed by a dingy brown wig. As Aurora changed behind a screen, Zander continued, “I can get you placed at one of the mansions on Park Avenue. You’ll be a lowly maid, but just for a few days. Only until you find out where they keep the checkbook.”
Aurora stepped into the room. “I look like a drowned cat.”
“You do!” Zander rummaged through a wardrobe overflowing with silk robes and fake furs. He flung another wig at her. “The color still says meow, but the curls have some spring left in them.”
Zander pinned a headband to Aurora’s coif and patted her butt. “Let’s see you walk, little maid.” Aurora walked. “Straighter back. Shoulders slumped. These people like their servants upright, but still under heel.” Aurora didn’t need directions, but she appreciated Zander’s precision.
“Did you go to the Ladies’ Mile?” Zander asked, as he held different dresses under Aurora’s chin. Yes, Aurora had wandered through the glass-domed rotundas of New York’s fanciest department stores. She had even ridden a carpeted elevator.
“You’ll need to look stylish, but not too stylish. You want to be dressed well enough to be given credit, but not well enough to be remembered. I think aubergine is your color.” As Aurora changed into a purple dress and adjusted her bustle, Zander pinned a plum hat into place. “Let’s see your society walk.”
Aurora glided gracefully across the room to Zander’s delight. “Bravo. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were a real lady.” Aurora winked and blew Zander a kiss. Zander winked back.
Within a week, Aurora was cleaning the mansion of a Mrs. Brown, who kept her checkbook locked in a desk drawer. Luckily Zander’s skills included picking locks. He taught Aurora the basics, and after removing six checks, Aurora finished her last shift.
Zander answered his door wearing an olive dress, his high cheekbones framed by golden ringlets. He seemed to prefer women’s clothes the way Aurora preferred men’s.
“It’s time to go shopping!”
Aurora changed, and the pair set out for the Ladies’ Mile. At B. Altman and Company, Aurora watched Zander, now posing as Mrs. Brown, order flatware and drapes. At Gorham Silver, it was trays and trivets, and at Lord & Taylor, two hats and a rug. Zander wrote checks for the goods, which were to be delivered the next day to the real Mrs. Brown’s house.
As each clerk added up the total, Zander would say, “I’m supposed to meet my husband for lunch in ten minutes, and I was supposed to have gone to the bank.”
The clerk, seeing the Park Avenue address on the delivery, would quickly extend the offer of credit. Zander would write each check for fifty dollars above the total, and as the clerk counted out the money, Zander would gush, “You’ve saved me from such embarrassment. I wouldn’t want my husband to think I forgot to go to the bank. Can you imagine!”
As they made their way home, Aurora asked, “What happens tomorrow when they deliver the goods?”
“Mrs. Brown will say there must have been some mistake and the store will take it all back. Although I hope she at least looks at the hats. The one with the feathers was a real keeper.”
“Why send her anything? Why not take the cash and the goods? Sell them.”
“Because this way is less suspicious. And because it’s fun to mess with rich people.”
Aurora and Zander went shopping three more times before he left for Europe, having accepted the role of Lady Psyche in Princess Ida. Aurora had appreciated his wigs and wit, but after Madame Rose and the Cannibal Club, she only thought of people as useful, dangerous, or both. Zander had been useful. Now he was gone.
* * *
Without Zander, Aurora quickly tired of the check writing scheme but needed the money. Everyday expenses were killing her. Room and board was $35 a month. She could have saved by sharing a room, but she and her whiskers needed the privacy. Transportation, foodstuffs, suits, skirts, whiskers, wigs—even with all the borrowing she did from the theaters, there wasn’t much left.
When she wasn’t working, Aurora took refuge on the second floor of the Jackson Square library, hunched over titles such as Bulls and Bears of New York and The Plain Truth about Stock Speculation. Every time she flipped through one of these heavy books with a long index, she thought of the medical tomes Sister Charlotte had made her study. At the orphanage, Aurora had slept in the big room, but she had been allowed to read in Sister Charlotte’s room. Sometimes Sister Charlotte would join her, and they would read together, in silence. Those were Aurora’s favorite hours.
The Jackson Square librarians shushed their patrons with the same authority as nuns on Good Friday. Aurora appreciated the imposed quiet as she read about stocks, commercial mortgages, and how to buy on margin. She particularly enjoyed the “How to Obtain Wealth” tables. Over ten years, investing only two dollars a day at eight percent, would yield $9,320.54. The chart made obtaining wealth look easy; it was the finding the extra two dollars to save that was proving more difficult.
After her landlady raised her rent again, Aurora decided she would go big with one last check scheme, then figure out her next step. She found a position at the house of a banker, but after cleaning for over a month, she still hadn’t found the checkbook. Instead, she discovered something much more valuable: information.
Her employer was a partner at a merchant bank. Basically, he ensured rich people kept getting richer. While dusting and scrubbing, Aurora would find notes or overhear conversations with clients: which rail lines would benefit from the Interstate Commerce Act; how traders thought the sugar markets would respond to Cuba’s abolition of slavery; how the recent theater fires from gas lamps would affect lighting stocks.
After putting away her broom, Aurora would board the elevated train on Third Avenue heading south. Gliding above the dirty streets, sandwiched between servants in scuffed heels and men in top hats, Aurora liked to watch the third floor lives of New Yorkers as they whooshed by: ladies trying on enormous hats at Henry Wogel Clothiers; the torso of a tuner, his head under the lid of a baby grand at the Piano Factory on 48th; the mother in her kitchen, forever cutting vegetables while half a dozen children grabbed at carrots and onions; the boarding house at 39th, where women in robes, hair mussed and lips painted, leaned out the windows, smoking, watching the passengers, as they watched them back.
Aurora knew her stop was next when she saw the sign for the undertakers at 31st. Only the living seemed to work on the upper floors—men at desks full of papers. Without the sign, one might mistake them for accountants.
After a quick stop at her boarding house, Aurora would emerge in her suit and whiskers, feeling like a new man. She would usually find dinner, maybe take in a show, unless she had a stock tip. On those days, she would continue down Sixth Avenue towards the financial district.
Wanting to be as anonymous as possible in her business dealings, Aurora had created Mr. Charles Brown, a young man with a forgettable, and more importantly, extremely common name. The 1886 New York City Directory listed seventy-two of them, including three brokers, six carpenters, a piano maker, and an underwear factory owner.
Merchant banks and the Stock Exchange were only for the wealthy, so Aurora, with the rest of the betting poor, had to use bucket shops. Men and boys “speculated” in tiny offices in the tangle of narrow alleys around Wall Street, while the rich “invested” on the trading room floor.
“Mr. Brown! Come for your winnings?” asked a red-eyed man, cigarette ash falling onto a pile of papers. “You made a tidy profit on that lighting stock. Can I interest you in a cordage company? Maybe a railroad?”
“Not today. Just cash,” Aurora said in an accent Zander had called “the voice of nowhere in America.”
“Fuck Consolidated Gas. Forty-two and a quarter!” yelled a bald man. He was looking at the ticker tape that was pooling on the floor of the cramped office. “You play cards Mr. Brown? I bet you do. Join us tonight?”
Over the past nine months, these brokers had come to recognize Mr. Brown as someone whose stocks almost always paid off. One had even taken to betting on Aurora’s picks with his own money. This invitation was a sign they considered her to be like them. A little crooked.
While Aurora found these men to be obnoxious optimists—gamblers always are—they also knew the soft underbelly of New York. And so she accepted.
* * *
The red-eyed man was dealing cards in a dimly lit bar across from the Produce Exchange. The place smelled of smoke and cabbage. “If you want to make real money, gotta buy land. That’s all I’m saying.”
A man with a mutton chops the size of New Jersey jumped in: “Fuckers at City Hall aren’t going to let you buy their land. They’re too busy selling it back to the city.”
“With our tax dollars,” said the red-eyed man. Baldy gave him a raised eyebrow. “Well, maybe not my tax dollars, but somebody’s.”
“Did you see the paper last week?” asked Muttonchops before biting into his meat sandwich. “The mayor’s cousin charged the city double for a piece of land. Said they needed it for a power station. When the reporter asked him about it, you know what he says? ‘How was I supposed to know the land would be worth so much?’ Because your cousin is the fucking mayor, that’s how.”
“If I were a younger man, I tell you what I’d do,” the bald man slurred. “I’d get myself a job on the planning committee.” The others rolled their eyes, but Baldy had a new audience in Aurora. He launched into a monologue about how the committee decided where the city built every amenity from train tracks to trash dumps.
Aurora laid down two pair, and the others threw down their cards. She went home two dollars richer, but for her, the real win was finding a new long game: real estate and the city planning committee.
Aurora set her sights on getting as close to the planning committee as she could, which meant City Hall. Through the bucket shop boys, she found out where the city employees drank. After two nights of letting drunk clerks beat her at poker, Aurora learned that the Excise Commissioners needed someone who spoke French.
“What kind of job is it?” Aurora asked a clerk.
Sporting a dark mustache and beard, coupled with a gently worn cap and jacket, Aurora found her way to City Hall the next day.
“Alfred, that’s your name, right?” asked the commissioner. “You’re not a fucking anarchist, are you?” He took a bite of sausage from a plate sitting atop the mounds of paper littering his desk.
“Because these cocksuckers in Paris aren’t fucking around. Blowing up a prosecutor’s house. You live in the French quarter?”
“Well I need you to make sure we don’t have any anarchist fuckers on this side of the goddamn Atlantic. These cunts publish papers in French. Talk about their ‘re-vo-lu-shee-own.’ Well, you’re in America now, fuckers.” The commissioner handed her a pile of newspapers and pamphlets. “Go poke around south of Washington Park. The YMCA, that Catholic Church. You got a gun kid?”
“Yes sir,” Aurora lied.
“Good. Want some sausage?” Aurora politely declined and left.
That afternoon, Aurora visited a costumer who was famous for outfitting soldiers on the stage. Luckily for Aurora, he also dealt in small arms and real bullets. For $3 and a bottle of whiskey, she bought herself a pistol, an ankle holster, and a lesson in how to shoot.
* * *
The French quarter was mostly filled with bakeries, butchers, and tenements. The only stirrings of anything vaguely political happened at the restaurants around Bleeker Street where professors and music teachers discussed literature over their prix fixe meals.
The commissioner didn’t care about shabbily-dressed philosophers. He just wanted to know where they drank so his office could collect; wide men who couldn’t help but knock over tables in tiny restaurants would collect “fees.” These bribes allowed the establishments to remain open on Sundays and violate other city regulations.
Aurora proved herself an efficient informant, especially amongst groups where the wide men were too wide. The commissioner’s latest “problem” involved a doctor who owned property around Bellevue Hospital. Another commissioner wanted to buy the land; the doctor said it wasn’t for sale. Aurora’s job was to find something that would help him reconsider.
Aurora befriended the doctor’s son and learned he had gambling debts. Wanting to see if the kid would talk about his father—more was always better when it came to leverage—Aurora found herself at an uptown brothel. A little slow from three shots of vodka, Aurora was lulled into the bosom of an incredibly tall Russian. Distracted by the smell of face powder and sex, Aurora didn’t catch the woman’s hand before it stroked her crotch.
“Oh my,” the woman purred.
Thrown by a wave of desire, Aurora mumbled something about feeling ill and bolted. She couldn’t risk the doctor’s son finding out she was a woman, but she wasn’t finished for the night.
Still dressed as a young man looking for a good time, Aurora joined a group of actors at a bar near the Bijou Theater. She still frequented the establishments where the actors drank, finding temporary friendship amongst them, some of whom knew her as a man and others as a woman, some intimately, some less so. They were entertaining, and they were safe, seeing as they were always leaving town.
Aurora listened to Joellen, or maybe it was Joceyln, talk about the merits of different stocking clips; she was a kick-girl in the musical Ships Ahoy! and was setting sail for London the next day. As the woman prattled on, Aurora calculated the risk; she was horny and this girl was definitely interested, but what would she do when Aurora took off her whiskers? Judging from past experience, if Aurora pleasured her first, she likely wouldn’t object to Aurora’s nether parts. And if she was wrong? This girl would be on a boat by morning.
Aurora leaned over and whispered into the girl’s ear. She giggled, and they went back to Aurora’s room. After delicately undressing her, Aurora took the woman’s hand and slid it down her pants. When the woman felt the wet folds of another woman, she registered a quiet “Oh!” and then set about undressing Aurora. When both were almost naked, Aurora went to peel off her whiskers, but the woman stopped her. “No, leave those on.”
* * *
Aurora was making enough as an unofficial city employee to pay her rent and save a little. Her goal was to be ready to buy land when the time was right. After a year, an opportunity finally presented itself.
“Alfred, you want a sausage?” The commissioner looked around for a napkin before wiping his greasy hands on an invoice. “A friend on the planning committee needs your services.”
Aurora listened, containing her excitement at the prospect of getting inside the planning commission.
“His wife. She’s a whore. He wants to know who the other man is.”
“I see,” Aurora said, hiding her disappointment.
“I don’t give a shit about the cunt. Find out who the guy is, but what I’m really interested in is Hoboken. You ever been?”
“The place smells like hairy balls. But the city is going to build the new power exchanges over there. And I want to know where.”
Aurora paused and then decided it was worth asking, “Sir, if I find out where, can I have a piece?”
The commissioner pulled a chunk of gristle out of a back molar. “You got the money kid?”
“For a small lot.”
“Then why the fuck not.”
Within a week, Aurora was back with information on the wife and the land.
“His own brother! Incestuous little fuckers aren’t they?” The commissioner put down his fork. “And the power exchanges?”
Aurora handed him a map of properties the city was planning to buy in Hoboken. The commissioner stood up and kissed the paper. “Alfred, get your ducks in a row. This one is yours,” he said, pointing to a corner lot. “I won’t even ask how you got this, but good work.”
If he had asked, Aurora would have had to admit it was dumb luck. When she went to the man’s house to interview him about his wife’s indiscretions, they met in his study. As Aurora was trying to think of a way to distract him, he was called away for a few minutes. The list was in his top desk drawer. She didn’t even have to pick a lock.
The corner lot was small, but at $2000, more expensive than Aurora had expected. The bank would give Aurora’s Mr. Brown an $800 loan, and she had saved $200. For the remaining $1000, she would need the financial services of a rather infamous Norseman, Erik the Auburn. The other commissioners used him for short term loans. When Aurora asked why they didn’t use him for longer ones, a man explained, “The Norwegian is not known for cutting men slack. He prefers their throats.”
* * *
Two weeks after Aurora signed the mortgage on the Hoboken lot, she arrived at City Hall to find a crowd outside the commissioner’s office. Everyone could hear the swearing and pounding, and then all of a sudden something came flying through the door’s frosted glass window. Aurora picked up the object, a small bust of Ulysses S. Grant. When the commissioner saw her through the broken glass, he yelled, “Alfred! In here! Now!”
Aurora opened the office door, tiptoeing through the broken glass that made the marble floor slippery.
“That slimy motherfucker.” The commissioner wiped spittle from his mustache as Aurora placed the statue of Grant on the corner of his desk. In a lower voice, the commissioner explained that the power exchange would be built a mile south of the original proposal, on a piece of land the mayor owned. “Your information was correct. But the motherfucker intervened at the last minute. You’re going to need to unload your lot and fast.”
“How much time do I have?”
“A week. Tops. People don’t want to live near power exchanges. Our lots will be worthless.” The commissioner grabbed Grant’s bust and threw it out the window facing the street. “Motherfucker!”
Aurora looked at the clock above the door. Two-thirty. Half an hour until the banks closed. She needed to get to Bowery Savings. They held the deed to her land and now to her future.
Aurora ran down the back stairs, calculating. She could take the elevated streetcar up Bowery. Ten minutes to the bank. But what if it stopped. She’d be trapped. Better on foot. Twenty minutes if she hustled.
As she dashed north on Centre Street, Aurora looked down at her brown jacket and loose trousers. No time to change into her black suit. Luckily she was wearing the same whiskers she wore as Mr. Brown, the name on the deed. It was a busy bank. She’d have to risk it.
Her progress was slowed at the Tombs, as prisoners in ankle and wrist chains came streaming out of the Egyptian columns. Police began corralling pedestrians on the other side of the street, and Aurora got caught in the mass of bodies. She hadn’t seen a crowd like this since they stopped hanging prisoners in the central courtyard.
Finally breaking through, having lost only her hat, Aurora cut down Canal, cursing as she passed Citizens and Occidental banks—why couldn’t she have taken out a loan there or there! Crossing Grand, Aurora barely missed being pinned between two carriages as she ducked under the belly of an agitated horse.
Panting, she slipped into the bank, a guard locking the door behind her. She had made it. She’d lose her down payment, but she could sell her land for enough to cover the bank loan and the Norwegian. That would have to be good enough.
Aurora wrote down her account number and patted her forehead with a kerchief while the teller retrieved her documents.
“I’m sorry Mr. Brown, but there’s a hold on your account,” the teller said. “One moment.”
As he went to retrieve his manager, Aurora thought about running. What could they know? Except for the fake name, her accounts were legitimate. No. She would wait. She was sure it was just a mistake.
The manager apologized before explaining that every account in New York under the name “Charles Brown” had been frozen. Apparently, another Charles Brown had been accused of cooking the books of his employer, along with a building on 54th in which said books were kept. Until the authorities could determine who was who, the bank’s hands were tied for a week. Maybe two.
Aurora’s guarantee of anonymity, her not-even-a-middle-initial, most-common-name-in-every-directory-in-America, was now useless. Worse, if she tried to withdraw cash or transfer funds, the police might want to ask her Charles some questions, maybe require some documentation that didn’t exist.
The guard unlocked the door and let her out. Aurora stood on the top step, listening as the door closed behind her, and the guard turned his key, locking her out of her money.
The commissioner. Maybe he’d loan her the thousand to pay the Norwegian. Maybe she could work it off. Aurora jumped on the Bowery streetcar, hoping he’d still be in his office.
Pushing her way through the crowd on the stairs of the elevated train station, Aurora’s legs trembled. As she traversed the park in front of City Hall, she saw children chasing one another around a fountain. Their innocent glee tore at her anxious brain like nails. Her head pounded as she pulled open the tall doors and climbed the marble stairs of the rotunda.
Someone had nailed a board over the broken window of the commissioner’s door. Before she could knock, the door opened, and she was hit by the hulking mass of a man storming out. As she fell back, she saw a flash of pale eyes and blond hair. He looked familiar. His face was soft, handsome even, but as he walked away, Aurora could see one of his ears was missing its top half.
She regained her footing and went into the office. The commissioner was wiping his sweaty neck, a plate of untouched sausages on his desk.
Yes, he had also borrowed from the Norwegian for the deal in Hoboken. Yes, the Norwegian now knew the land would be worthless in a week.
And yes, Aurora definitely needed to leave New York.
Aurora needed cash and a plan she could pull off in a week. She had avoided outright larceny and tried to build capital through honest graft. But that was before a murderous Norwegian knew where she worked.
After leaving the commissioner’s office, Aurora sat down on a stone bench in the hall outside the comptroller’s office. She was trying to steady her shaking hands when she heard a man yelling, “Well, when he gets back. Tell him I’ll be back!”
Aurora recognized the furious fellow storming out. It was Richard Wanamaker, president of Keystone Bank. He had a less than sterling reputation amongst bankers, which was why the politicians loved him.
Aurora had discovered that if one opened the mirrored cabinet in the toilet adjacent to the comptroller’s office, it was as if one were in the room. Having no other leads, Aurora decided to plant herself in the water closet and wait. After two hours of leaning her face against the cold marble wall, Aurora heard the comptroller greet the mayor.
She already knew the comptroller funneled the mayor’s political funds through city accounts, but the mayor was worried about Richard Wanamaker’s next “donation.”
“Two thousand,” the mayor said.
“His usual is one thousand,” said the comptroller.
“If he wants his bank to stay open, it’s two this time. And I want it done this week.”
Aurora heard the door slam as the mayor left. Then she heard the comptroller on the telephone.
“Mr. Wanameker, please.” Pause. “Richard, I wasn’t here.” Pause. “Monday, one o’clock.” A longer pause. “Two thousand. The Union League Club.” Pause. “No, it has to be Monday.”
Aurora had three days to figure out how to come between Mr. Wanamaker and his money. She needed more information.
Posing as the wife of a French doctor, Aurora stopped by Wanamaker’s house, explaining to Mrs. Wanamaker that she and her husband were moving to New York. She was wondering if Mrs. Wanamaker had a moment to talk. Of course she had a moment. A French professor of medicine! What a lovely addition to the neighborhood.
An hour later, Aurora was thanking Mrs. Wanamaker for her “ospitality,” and the tour of her beautiful “ome.” What an “onor” it would be to live so near to a war “ero.” Aurora had admired Mr. Wanamaker’s Civil War medal, so proudly displayed on the mantel in a lovely inlaid box. It had fit quite nicely in Aurora’s handbag.
After leaving Wanamaker’s house with his medal, Aurora sent him a note on fake Vanderbilt stationary. She requested a lunch to discuss opening an account and signed it, “Miss V.” With so many Vanderbilt offspring floating around New York, it would be worth his while to at least take the meeting.
In the letter, Miss V. suggested the Murray-Hill Restaurant. Monday, 12:30. The restaurant was only two blocks from the Union League Club where Wanamaker was scheduled to drop his $2,000 payment at 1:00. Seeing as his bank was twenty blocks south of the club, Aurora was betting he would have no time to go back. He would have to bring the money with him to lunch.
Now all Aurora needed was a supporting cast. Due to her lack of cash, she couldn’t afford muscle, and for the most part, she had avoided hiring it; those in the violence business tended to be, well, violent. She didn’t mind using force when provoked, but she preferred a clever ruse to a raised fist—especially when dealing with men from downtown. They tended to have rather large hands.
In her work as an informant, Aurora often hired actors to play minor roles, but her usual go-tos were all out of town. A production of The Cobbler and the King, a burlesque opera in two acts, was at the Fifth Avenue Theater. After the Saturday matinee, Aurora went to the restaurant where the cast ate. Dressed in her most stylish hat—a deep blue number with a periwinkle feather—she approached three burly actors and a woman with springy blond curls.
Aurora introduced herself as the assistant of Mr. W., a big time producer. “He just saw the show. Loved it. He’s always looking for talent and he thinks you four have it. Would you be interested in auditioning?”
The red-haired man who had played a slave dealer slammed his glass on the table and in a low bass, sang, “Here the damsels are ap-pear-ing, Ready for the auction-neer-ing, Quite distraught and paaaaale. A sale, ho, a saaaaaaale.”
Then he put his thick hands on the arms of his chair and began raising himself from his seat. When he was finally standing, all six and half feet of him, he began chugging his arms and walking around the table: “With mor-bid cu-ri-osi-ty, We come. We come—” By the last “ho, a saaaale,” the man’s arms were in a raised V, his hair slick with sweat.
The woman whispered to Aurora, “This is where they offer two hundred drachmas for me.”
Then another actor, as wide as the first, stood up and pounded his chest, “Let none lay hand on her while I am heeeeere. ’Tis Sergius, The favorite chariot-eeeeer.”
The third actor, whose ears seemed too small for his enormous head, applauded, “That part should have been yours. Digby Bell has nothing on you, except a better voice.” They all sat down and took a drink, the would-be charioteer looking rather cross.
“Yes, well, like I said, I saw the show and—” Aurora began.
“Which was your favorite song?” interrupted the charioteer in a high pitched voice that Aurora was not expecting to come out of this barrel chested man.
“‘Life is Such a Stupid Bore,”’ Aurora said.
“That’s my favorite too.”
“Shhh, I want to hear what she has to say,” said the woman.
“We’re looking to cast The Wedding Day. We’re in need of a few army men, and a young bride.”
“I don’t know this Wedding Day,” said the red-headed man. “Do you have the music?”
“Don’t need it yet. My producer, he’s a little eccentric. He doesn’t listen to people sing until he’s seen them out in the world, moving about.”
“Is he European? This sounds French,” said the woman.
“He is. Just returned from London.”
“Has he ever thought about doing Ibsen’s Dollhouse?” asked the man with the high-pitched voice. “I’ve always wanted to play Torvald. And you,” he grabbed the woman’s arm, “you could be my Nora.”
“Who would I play?” asked the tiny-eared man.
“The porter,” said the would-be-Torvald.
“The porter, he brings the Christmas tree to the house in the first act.”
The small-eared man rolled his eyes.
“You were saying,” the woman said to Aurora.
“I give you a script, you encounter my producer out in the world in character, and you go on your way.”
“So there’s a script?”
“Of sorts. On Monday, Mr. W. will be eating at the Murray-Hill.” Aurora continued to explain the “script.” The woman would be playing a wealthy heiress. “You introduce yourself as Miss V. In your handbag, you will have a small box.”
“What’s in it?”
“A broach. From Mr. W’s wife. He has given it to your sister—”
“Cheater!” the woman yelled and gleefully clapped her hands.
“Yes, he has been leading your sister on. Your meeting is to make it clear that he must never see her again. Now, this is where the three of you come in. The army men.”
“I don’t have a uniform,” tiny ears said.
“No uniforms needed, just jackets,” Aurora said, “you’ll be standing outside, at an angle where Mr. W. can get a good look at you. The cut of your jaws, the width of your shoulders, the flash of your guns.”
“Oooo. This is exciting. I bought a revolver for The Little Corporal, but then St. Louis cancelled.”
“Good. Now when she gives Mr. W. the box, he’ll look out at you three. All you have to do is look intimidating. You’ve been in war—”
The red-headed man stood up, “‘O war! Thou son of hell, Whom angry heavens do make their minister—”
“Yes, good, but without the words,” Aurora said as the man sat down. “You want to glance at Mr. W. You two, show your pistols. And you, I’ll give you a pin for your lapel, he needs to see it. You aren’t common thugs, you’re heroes. Just a glimpse.”
“Naturalism. Like Zola. I’ve been reading about this,” the woman said and tossed her head back. “This hair-ess, this Miss V. She will be natural.”
“Your ‘heiress’ needs less ‘hair,’ my dear,” said tiny-ears.
“What’s wrong with my hair?”
“Nothing, you look wonderful,” said Aurora. “Now, Mr. W. is a busy man, so you won’t be staying long. Just introduce yourself and don’t let him say too much.”
“What if he starts talking?”
“You’re rich and beautiful,” Aurora said. “Shush him.”
“Like this?” The actress put her finger to her lips while shaking her head slightly.
“Perfect, and if he—” but before Aurora could finish, the actress had put her finger on Aurora’s lips to silence her.
“Too much?” the actress asked, removing her finger.
“Too much. If he won’t stop talking, just slide the box over to him. Tell him to open it. After he looks inside, he will look out the window.”
“And we show him our pistols.”
“Perfect. I knew you were professionals. Now, Mr. W. will produce an envelope and give it to Miss V. This part is very important. Don’t look in the envelope. Simply place it in your handbag. I’ll give you the bag when we meet on Monday.”
“Do you think we should have cigarettes?” asked the red headed man.
“I’ll let you decide. Once you have the envelope, leave and go to the Devonshire Hotel. You three follow. I’ll meet you there.”
“Do we go back and talk to Mr. W.?” asked the woman, “I mean, out of character, to see if he liked the audition?”
“Not if you want to be considered. He likes to keep a distance between his actors and himself. We’ll be in touch. You have my card.”
They all nodded, and the woman held up the aforementioned card: Miss Lotta Maki. Assistant Producer.
On Monday morning, Aurora met with her cast, handing the woman a handbag large enough to accommodate an envelope, and pinning Wanamaker’s war medal on the lapel of the tiny-eared actor. She also stopped by the Bijou Theatre to borrow a padded body-suit. She had to wear more beard so that her face matched the body, but she liked the padding. It kept her warm in the December cold.
Wanamaker was right on time and ordered a whisky, not noticing the plump man sitting at the table to his right. When Miss V. arrived, Wanamaker fumbled as he stood up to greet her. Aurora had to admit, Miss V. looked stunning, and rich; her deep purple coat was lined with spotted fur and above her perfect ringlets perched a hat whose feathers had been arranged so as to look like two birds were diving towards her face, only to be stopped at the last minute by the hat’s rim.
Mr. Wanamaker was a bit tongue tied, and so quite quickly, Miss V. was sliding the box across the table. Upon seeing the two-tone inlaid pattern that normally resided on his mantle, the man’s giddiness disappeared. When he opened it, where he expected to see his war medal, he instead found a note: “Look outside. Give Miss V. the $2,000. Wait five minutes before leaving. Do not follow.”
When he looked, the three actors glanced back, two smoking, and one wearing his medal. Wanamaker produced an envelope and slid it to Miss V., who was overdoing it a bit with the eye flutters. Or at least, that was Aurora’s assessment from her vantage point, sipping tea under her mustache, at the table to Mr. Wanamaker’s right.
Miss V. placed the envelope in her handbag and stood up. At the same moment, Aurora also stood, knocking Miss V.’s handbag to the floor.
“Forgive me, Madame,” Aurora said in a German accent. She handed Miss V. her handbag and left.
Aurora watched from a safe distance as the actress walked toward the Devonshire Hotel, followed by her three colleagues. While they would not find Aurora waiting for them, she had left a note with the hotel clerk: “Had to return to London. Best of luck!” She had also included five dollars for each of them. They had been entertaining.
On her way to Grand Central Station, Aurora stopped at her hotel to change out of the padded suit and pick up her suitcase. She secured the $2,000 from the envelope in various pockets she had sewn into her jacket, vest and boots—she’d be traveling to Chicago as a man—and went downstairs to check out.
“Can someone return this to the Bijou Theater?” Aurora handed the clerk a bag containing the padded suit.
“Of course, sir. And I’ll get a plaster for that,” the clerk said, pointing to Auroras’ hand, which was bleeding.
Aurora examined a small cut on her right palm. She hadn’t had time to smooth all the edges on the hinged bottom of Miss V.’s handbag. She must have caught her hand when she unhooked the bottom and grabbed the envelope of money. A reminder to smooth corners if you’re going to cut them.
Only five hours outside New York, Aurora had already decided Chicago was not going to be her kind of town. With the World’s Exhibition starting in only a few months, Chicago was attracting every country bumpkin looking for work and a good time, which also meant that every schemer and con in America was on the make. The train to Chicago was already full of hopes and dreams and those who sold them; Aurora didn’t like the odds.
Besides, she was tired of being cold. At first she thought about going to California, but after eating in the dining car next to two marvelously full-mouthed bankers from Portland, Aurora had decided on Oregon.
The daughter of one of the men was studying at the New York Medical College for Women. As he described his visit with her, his tone toggled between a proud father and a dismissive man. The other banker asked how she had become infected with the idea of becoming a doctor. One name: Doctor Bethenia Owens.
Bethenia had been a doctor in Portland for years—both men’s wives had been her patient. But then wouldn’t you know it, this man’s daughter became her patient and all of sudden, she wants to be a doctor herself. From the men’s stories, this Bethenia sounded like a real character. Did she still live in Portland? No, moved to the coast. Astoria. One man ventured it was probably for the best; fewer young women to corrupt in a town full of fishermen.
Aurora had tinkered with an idea for an insurance scheme—doctors performed the exams for workers compensation claims. Claim a man can’t work, split the payout fifty-fifty. She had even taken a medical degree off the wall of a doctor in the French quarter.
This Bethenia could be a good place to start. It sounded like she liked helping women who wanted to be doctors. Aurora knew enough from her days of catching babies to pass herself off as an eager young physician.
She didn’t yet have a plan‚ but whatever she came up with, she would need an entrée into the world of men like these bankers. And while they may have disapproved of Bethenia’s professional goals, from how they talked about her, she was still one of their kind.
When Aurora arrived in Chicago, the next train west didn’t leave until the following day. She rented a room near the station, and while taking inventory of her whiskers and wigs, she found the medical degree: Doctor Alix Laurent. Alix. Boy. Girl. Either. Or. Her choice.
As much as she would have rather continued as a Mister, she knew the circumstances called for a Miss. The payoff was clear, and so Aurora spent her day in Chicago, the “Paris of the Prairie,” acquiring a leather doctor’s bag, two textbooks, and a new coif befitting a French doctoress.
She planned to perfect her backstory and accent on the eight-day train ride to Oregon, but just outside of Joliet, Illinois, she met two young women in the dining car. Would she like to join them? How thoughtful, she would love to. And where were they headed. Portland! And one of their husbands owns a hotel in Astoria. How lovely.
When this husband joined them, his wife introduced their new companion: “Darling, I want you to meet Doctor Alix Laurent.”