Dorothy lit her cigarette with a fluid motion. It was a perfected gesture and she had variations for it. The snap of the lighter and the direction of the exhale communicated mood and attitude. She didn’t glance at the red print that her lips left on the Chesterfield, but she knew it was there. She was walking along Market Street and staring into the windows that had jewelry. Walter Pierce wanted to marry her. She worried that her father might kill him or her or both of them. Then she laughed and told herself that fiction wasn’t healthy.
Walter Pierce was a boxer on the rise. He was lean, compact and had fast hands. Whether or not he had a future was questionable, but he surely had a present. Dorothy wanted it for her own because he was offering and it was so much better than what she had. She made him beg for sex with promises that he would be gentle, but his timidity annoyed her.
In Newark, in 1925, it was controversial for a young woman from the neighborhood to be seen smoking, walking around downtown and looking in expensive shops. Dorothy enjoyed having people gape at her. It made her feel better. She felt tough enough to handle the consequences and Walter was exciting. She didn’t find him handsome but he did provide thrills. He noticed what she wore and paid attention to what she said.
They went to dinner with Jack Dempsey and Tex Rickard. Rickard was Dempsey’s promoter and he was building an undercard. Walter was a bantamweight. People liked it when the little guys mixed it up.
Murray’s Roman Gardens was a lobster palace that Dorothy had read about. It was like something out of a book or a movie and Dorothy knew that she was wide eyed but she couldn’t help it. Lobster palaces had sprung up all around New York and they had the advantage of being able to serve liquor around the clock.
Dempsey wasn’t as big as she expected him to be, but his hands were hard and they excited her. Tex Rickard was a talker. Dorothy listened and smiled and saw that her man was just a prop for a show.
When Rickard suggested that Walter go on a Canadian Boxing Tour and that he take his lovely little doll with him, Dottie liked him better. She grinned her best, red lipped smile and looked into his eyes in a way that she had learned that men adored, “will you be coming along too?’
“I wish that I could, pretty lady, but I’ve got hockey business her in the city. My Rangers are coming to town.”
Dorothy saw sparkle in his eyes. She surmised that he was a man with a dream. She gazed for another instant and then she saw it everywhere on him. He was a man with dreams.
“When you are fighting every couple of weeks, like what you have to, you need to toughen up your skin,” said Dempsey.
“How do you do that?” said Walter.
Dempsey and Rickard exchanged a chuckle. Rickard said, “Ah, go on and tell him. It’s not like the two of you will ever be in the ring together.”
Dempsey leaned in over the table and heldout his hands. “I soak my hands and face in brine, every day.” Dorothy saw a fierce look in his dark eyes. It was a look of savage cruelty. It was dark and yet frighteningly casual.
She didn’t like that and she would tell Walter that he wasn’t getting anywhere close to her stinking of brine all the time. But she would wait until they were alone to tell him that.
They were married at the courthouse in Newark. Dorothy never went home to tell her mother or her father or her sisters. She just left. They went on tour. They travelled through Quebec and Ontario and Montreal and Dorothy felt like she was seeing the world. She felt that what was behind her couldn’t do her any good and that what was in front of her was all that mattered.
She didn’t love him but she loved what he had done for her. He had been an easy way out. Walter fought every couple of weeks, sometimes more. It was usually on a Friday night.
“I would feel better if you were there, Dot.”
“I don’t want to see anyone hurting you.”
“Boxing’s just what I do.” He smiled that impish grin that made her want to smile too.
“I know that it’s been rough. But I beat Sullivan and I beat Mansell and I think that if I know that you’re there, I’ll beat Taboony.”
“Walter, don’t get your blood on me.”
“It ain’t gonna be like that Dottie. I’ll get cleaned up before I see you.”
Dorothy Daniels was born in North Adams, Massachusetts. She had an older brother named William, a big kid who saw his sister as a bit of a toy. He sometimes played with her and then ignored her or threw her across the room or slapped her for fun. Her father just slapped her out of annoyance. He worked for the railroad, but he had been a builder and the building was done.
On Dorothy’s seventh birthday, she was given a baby sister. Her name was Vivian. Her father stood over her. “Your mother is weak and so Vivian is your responsibility.”
It was a fact that she could not dispute. Her mother was weak in so many ways. She was docile and dreamed about God. She had come from a family with a long history in the ministry. Faith was her foundation but she did not aspire to any day to day activities. She preferred to dream about sermons and read the bible and picture the Lord. She was frivolous with household matters and preferred her husband William arrange to have them handled for her. She was impregnated easily and two years later Deborah was born.
The nine year old Dorothy had her added to the list of responsibilities. It was more than she could handle. She brought the toddler and the baby down to a lake in Branch Brook Park. She told them that they were going to walk across the water. When the carriage wouldn’t move in the mud, she said, “Maybe we should teach Deborah how to swim.” She was reaching into the carriage to pluck the infant out when a policeman saw that something was wrong. Why was a baby carriage up to its wheels in the water and what was a fully dressed toddler doing holding onto the carriage and standing there looking up at her nine year old sister with trust and devotion and fear.
When the obviously concerned policeman came after them, Dorothy claimed that she didn’t know how they got there and that probably she had been daydreaming. Her mother sent her eldest child William down to collect them from the police station.
He was polite until they got on the street. Dorothy was pushing the carriage, Vivian holding on to it. Deborah lay wide-eyed at all the people she had seen that day, more than she had ever seen in her life. Some men had hair on their faces. Dorothy’s head snapped forward at the first open palmed smack. “What did you think you were doing?” William snarled. The second smack landed at the center of the back of her head. “You were going to drown them.”
“Billy, I wasn’t.”
He punched her in the middle of her back in a way that made her shoulders spasm up while her mouth and eyes opened in wide pain. “You’re an evil bitch, Dottie. If you ever hurt them again, I’ll do something really bad to you.”
Dorothy stopped pushing the stroller and turned to him. Vivian froze. The defiance in Dorothy’s eyes blotted out the pain. “Maybe you could do something really good and help me with them a little.”
William’s first instinct was to slap her face. He followed it. When her head came back to face him, her eyes were knife-like and steady. “Maybe you should see that I’m nine years old and that I’m your little sister.”
Dorothy noted the look of surprise in his face. She wondered if her brother was perhaps the densest creature on the planet. William said, “Dad is going to kill you.”
That thought frightened Dorothy. Then her mouth hardened. “Is that what you really want him to do, Billy? Do you want to see him kill me?”
“Stop talking crazy.”
“Stop slapping me around.”
“I gotta do the right thing.”
“Go ahead then. Beat me up. Then I’ll hate you too.”
“Dot, you tried to drown Dad’s daughters.”
“Only some of them.” Then Dottie smiled. She smiled into his eyes and William felt that conspiratorial allegiance.
“They are your job. You just gotta do it, Dot.”
“Sometimes your limitations are boring, William.”
He slapped her hard on the side of her face with his open, tight palm.
“Like that,” she said. “That’s why I can’t be around here.”
Walter presented her with an engagement ring and promised that he would always treat her right. That was all that Dottie needed. She rolled the ring in the mud all the way home and then showed it to her parents and told them that she’d found it.
A few months later, she married Walter.
They went on a tour of Canada. Walter fought every week. He began to lose every week. He was fast but he left openings that experienced fighters exploited. They were openings to the head.
Dottie said, “You’re getting your brains knocked out.”
“I’ll be ok. Are you having a good time?”
“No, I’m watching getting your brains beat out.”
Walter turned ugly after his tenth loss in a row. He would drink himself unconscious every night. When Dottie told him to stop, he slapped her around the way that William had slapped her. She left him and went back to New Jersey.
After the 14th consecutive loss, Walter began to lose his vision and retired. He returned to New Jersey and reached out to Dottie, but she said that she couldn’t forgive him and wanted better. And just like that, Dottie got a divorce. Walter agreed that he’d done wrong to her. Since there were no children involved and Dottie requested no alimony, it was a simple case. There was no property to divide.
Dottie’s mother chalked it all up to Voodoo Jazz and the way that Dottie had stopped going to church. Her father decided that it was not to be spoken about ever.
On a very cold day in that January, Dottie was standing outside of the same courthouse in Newark. She was wearing a black and gray tiger striped dress with a matching hat that fit snugly to her head. She wore red lipstick, was smoking a cigarette in a holder and she was covered by a black cloth coat that was not warm enough for the day, She knew that she looked good in heels and didn’t care about the coat, which she left unbuttoned.
A large man got out of a new Dodge. Dottie saw herself catch his eye as he held his coat up to his throat. He was attracted by the brazen way that she ignored the cold. Dottie felt her knees weaken when he walked in her direction.
“My driver can take you where you are going so that you can get out of the cold, Miss.”
“How do you know where I want to go?” said Dottie exhaling a long stream of smoke and tilting her head to show her neck but pretending not to blow the smoke in his face.
“That doesn’t matter. I have some business here and he’ll just be sitting there waiting for me.”
“That’s kind of you. What is your name?”
“Thank you, Mr. Weber, but I’m not sure it would be the right thing to do.”
“Do you worry about that often?” said Charlie with a broad grin that almost took her breath away.
“I should worry about it more,” said Dorothy.
“Too cold to worry about it today,” said Charlie and he turned on his heel, back to his car where he held the door open for her.
The seats were upholstered in black leather. Dorothy caught a glimpse of the hardwood steering wheel. There were two compartments in front of her. One held a full flask of rum and the other housed a gun. She shivered and closed that compartment and looked out at the passing streets. Dottie sipped on a very small glass of rum and thought about what it must be like to live like this. It attracted her. She ran her palms along the leather of the seats, inhaled that scent of tobacco, looked at the capped head of her silent driver and felt like she belonged.
The automobile wasn’t heated. There was a lamb’s wool blanket, but she was timid about spreading it over her thighs. If Charlie had been there, she would have done it with a casual flourish, but alone, she just tried not to shiver.
It took Charlie two weeks and three dresses that were sent to Dorothy’s house, via the same driver who had driven her home that day, before Dorothy told the driver that if Mr. Weber wanted to see her that he should come by himself. As if on cue, the driver removed an envelope from his pocket. It was an undated letter. Dorothy took note of the masculine and yet finely crafted penmanship. It was an invitation to join him and some of his friends that evening for supper at the new Riviera Hotel.
“Did he send one of these with you every time you came here?”
“I’m sorry, Miss. I don’t have a very good memory. I just do what I’m told.”
Dorothy was tempted to tell him that he wasn’t a very good liar either, but she knew when it was better to keep her mouth shut. “Please tell Mr. Weber that he can come by any time after 6 o’clock.”
“Miss, would it be OK with you if Mr. Weber sent me by to pick you up?”
“No, it would not. I’m not someone who gets fetched like a horse and then saddled up for a ride.” There was a look of shock on the driver’s face. Dorothy leaned in and said, “Please tell him that, exactly. Can you remember that?”
“I sure can,” said the driver.
Dorothy dressed carefully. She wore a loose fitting, low waist, balloon sleeved, rust colored dress with a modestly scooped neckline. The bottom of the dress came just below her knees. She added to the ensemble a pair of black leather pumps with a bronze brocaded satin trim. Lastly, she slid on a fitted cloth hat with a trimming of looped felt.
Fashionably prompt at 6:30, Charlie Weber’s car pulled up in front of her house. He wore a gray double breasted overcoat and Dorothy smiled when she saw, as she expected to see, him wearing a three piece suit. She loved a man in a vest.
They road in Charlie’s Dodge. He draped the lamb’s wool blanket over her thighs. They entered the Essex County park system. The trees were bare and the path was winding and icy. Dorothy felt like she was riding among the stars.
The roads were slick and smooth. There were no reasons to think about stopping. Dorothy took his left arm and held it. “This feels really nice Charley.”
“I like your company,” said Charley.
The dinner at the Rivera Hotel was for six. Charlie’s brother Ethan and Abner Zillman joined them. Ethan brought his fiancée, Martha. Longy Zillman brought Jean Harlow. At first, Dorothy was unable to speak. They had drinks that were delivered by one of Longy’s speak easies. They each had a Modern Cocktail. Dorothy smiled. She had taken off her coat but not her hat. She puffed a cigarette that Charlie had lit for her. She gripped his arm and leaned up to whisper in his ear. “Would you order what you want me to eat?” Charlie smiled, nodded and swelled. Harlow smiled often and made sure that she knew nothing about the conversation. Dorothy admired her and learned. She was Dorothy’s age but seemed older and in the know from a worldly perspective.
After they ate, Charlie said, “Longy can help me get to where I am going. Be nice to him.”
Charlie took her to dinner every night. There was a steady stream of dresses and hats and shoes. The variety of people had a commonality of wealth or power that could produce wealth. Ethan was a cool and distant fixture at these meals. He was polite. About half of the time Martha was present, but there was no shred of personal contact between Martha and Dorothy. Neither of them saw it as an advantage or pursued it. After Dorothy found out that Ethan was a younger brother, she stopped worrying.
She liked being with Charlie and she knew that she was falling in love with him. It seemed to her that she was part of his plan. She liked the idea that she fit in and knew that he was not going to abuse her. At least, it felt that way.
Dorothy’s family ate potato onion soup at least twice a week, once with carrots. There was an occasional chicken and once in a great while, beef or pork. With Charlie, she ate lobster and shrimp and steak and anything else that a wide menu offered. Sometimes she secreted portions of her plate and brought them home to her younger sisters. They worshipped her.
She and Charlie ate a steak for him and lobster for her dinner. This was one of the few nights that they were eating alone. It was almost uncomfortable because she had grown so used to eating with a group of his associates and listening and adding small humorous comments that made the men smile and caused envy in the other women.
“I’m not a god-fearing man, Dorothy. I’m not built that way. I don’t worry about heaven or hell or any of that crap.”
Dorothy stared at him thoughtfully. It wasn’t the kind of conversation that they usually had. “I never thought about it too much,” lied Dorothy. She didn’t want to tell him that she used to sneak into Catholic churches because she loved the costumes and the incense. “My mother his religious and it never helped her that much.”
He smiled, extracted a box from his jacket pocket. It was a ring box that was wrapped in white paper and tied with a golden ribbon. “Open it,” he said.
The diamond’s sparkle leapt out at her eyes and she could feel her red lipped mouth open. She took his forearm and felt him tighten muscles in order to appreciate and impress her. “Why do you want to marry me?”
“I think that we can make a life together.” He pinched his Windsor knot and looked down at the linen tablecloth. The only stains of food were on his side. “I think that you have class, and I need class.”
“Will you cheat on me?”
“Why are you asking me that?”
“I want to know the rules, Charlie.”
“I can’t say that I won’t.”
“Will you buy me things?”
“Will you work to make it fun?”
“Yes, Dorothy. I think we both know what fun is.”
“Do you want children?”
“I don’t know. I think so.”
“Will you promise to not rub things in my face?”
“Do you know how to be discreet?”
“Then, I’ll marry you and there will be some things that we just don’t talk about.”
A black lamb’s wool coat almost too heavy to wear, with a finely fitted cloth hat, feather tilted earthbound, gartered nylon toes inside silk shoes, jeweled cigarette holders and whiskey in carved glass…It was sensual. There were elegant outfits and jewels and tastes and smells that dizzied her. She was in the company of important people who ruled the lives of other people and created fortunes and it seduced her to think that she could move among them. She sometimes dared to dream that she could be one of them.
On yachts in Long Island Sound and bright light dinners in Manhattan, Dorothy moved with selfish elegance. She brought trifles to give to her sisters, she no longer spoke to her brother. Charlie was her world. Her dad was gone and her mother was still praying.
The rest of the world might be poor but what did that have to do with her? Her man was on the rise and that meant that she was smart and lucky. He impregnated her in 1932.
Ronald had dark hair. His fingers and mouth were tiny but his eyes were large and Dorothy held him and stared into them. She felt a distance that created a yearning pang. It was as if Ronald was only partially here. She reached out for him, more with her mind than anything else. She searched to make connection. What she felt pained her. It was a presence that was alone and full of life but fleeting. He was like a butterfly. The frantic heartbeat and the tumultuous energy that was being used just to stay alive. He squeezed her finger.
Failure to thrive was how they described it. Dorothy thought that it might be a rejection of her, another of those. Charlie felt that he might be being punished but he didn’t talk about it to anyone.
Ronald Weber succumbed to failure to thrive only 34 days after a routine birth. Charlie didn’t care about the remains. The body was cremated and Dorothy was given a small box, like a shoe box, filled with ashes. Both Dorothy and Charlie blamed her.