Monday, June 18, 2012

Mr. Nicklas Tours the Bramford, Part One - Room 61: Afrodille Corbett

Today we begin the series of guided tours to our lovely Upper West Side home, The Bramford & we thought, who better to help you navigate this luxurious & historically resonant maze of spandrels, niches & balustrades than our long-time building manager, Mr. Nicklas. Due to the disrespect & bullying he received as a young man abandoned to the whims of the Barbary Coast demimonde, he insists upon being called MISTER Nicklas, an affectation so slight in view of the other eccentricities so prevalent in our cozy landmark, that we've all made peace with the fact that we will never know his given name. Mr. Nicklas will now have the post... 

Mr. Nicklas

Room #61 of the Bramford is one of our medium-range units, with enough sprawl to make you feel you've arrived, but without the 14-foot ceilings, rococo trimming & maze of French doors that indicate you've not only arrived, but planted a flag or two. Still, it is hall to kitchen to dumbwaiter a "Bramford Experience".  And, befitting such an experience, the apartment is brimming with lore & legend, much of it gilded with elements of truth. 

In the late 1920s & early 1930s, No. 61 was occupied by quite an eccentric character, a truly unique spiritualist & short-lived vaudeville sensation named Afrodille Corbett, a bastard child conceived by the undisputed queen of fin-de-siecle American magical entertainments, Aimee Desiree. Aimee's husband was the even more popular vaudeville magician G. W. Hunter, the "Father of Pocket Tricks", known for the Hunter Knot, the Acrobatic Matchbox & the G. W. Hunter False Shuffle. While G. W. was a man of honor who devoted his time solely to the competitive art of prestidigitation, his wife was, alas, a flirt & a woman full of schemes with which to bilk wealthy families via phony trances & rigged seances. Her stage performance was quite popular & the March 1933 edition of  the magician's magazine Sphinx certainly makes it seem lively & colorful enough, "She opens with a few bars of a Spanish folk song, then plays her violin which immediately changes into a bouquet of flowers. She follows this with silk and flower productions, one after another. Then a most artistic & clever version of the International Trunk Mystery, the Nixon Pigeon Vanish & the Houdini Needle Trick for a strong finish." But, as all these exploding flowers probably indicate, Aimee was a most fickle & variable woman. While G. W. walled himself off from parties, salons & showy press conferences in order to perfect the magical craft, his wife flashed her garter all along the vaudeville circuit, often to men whose cleverness exceeded her own. It was just such an instance that produced Afrodille. A young man at a lavish party in Lansing, Michigan convinced Aimee that he was the cousin of REO Motor Car Company big-wig, Richard H. Scott & that he would pay the woman $26,000 to concoct a seance in which the deceased father of automobile magnate Ransom E. Olds ordered from the Great Beyond that Olds hand over control of REO to Scott. Aimee expressed her interest, the deal was sealed over an inebriated tryst in the greenhouse & this cousin of Richard H. Scott was never heard from again. 

Ransom Olds
Of course, Aimee fell pregnant & because Hunter spent so much time tweaking his estimable sleight of hand, it would be easily discovered that the child in question was not his own. Aimee designed an elaborate plot by which Hunter's grand-niece would "have" the baby by her impotent & useless husband & the child would be raised by Hunter's sister. The sister found the entire matter distasteful but agreed to go along for the good of the child. Also, Aimee convinced the famous magician's sister that if the great G. W. Hunter learned of the affair, it would kill him. On the contrary, Hunter's close friends say he would have been amused & most likely would have raised the child as his own.

Instead of having the love of a distracted but kindly father, Afrodille was raised as one would raise a pigeon produced willy-nilly from a handkerchief, as a fascinating but altogether inconsequential creation. After all, how little would it take to turn the child back into a folded square of linen? Aimee treated the little girl as a magic trick that had been wildly successful but must never, under any circumstances, be reproduced. She'd shouted her "Ta-Da!" and that was that. The good will she bore the child mimicked the good will a magician would show a flawed but once successful automaton. She gave it a polish now & then (a whirlwind shopping spree in Paris, a trip to Yosemite) & then waited for it to become an integral part of her legend. I guess she hoped the child would one day haunt a corner of the Smithsonian, like a rickety brass & wax Tarot dealer behind the legend, "Produced by Aimee Desiree". But loneliness, discard & the colorful characters that filled her life one minute & were gone the next, produced some quirks in Afrodille no one could have predicted. As it happens, the rise of Afrodille's special talents coincided with the advent of the lovely, art deco, tabletop rotary telephone.

The 1943 Art Deco Bakelite telephone on which Afrodille first contacted the dead 
Those who kept track of Afrodille -- and there weren't many -- noticed she spent hours on the telephone, often sounding quite adult & sympathetic, giving out all manner of mature advice to people whose names the household staff did not recognize. She would console a British World War I poet named Rupert Brooke by assuring him that the world had all but done away with war, in favor of unmitigated wealth & that his blood poisoning had been a kind of poetic martyrdom. She was on the phone for several hours with a young socialite named Dorothy Hale, telling her that Hollywood movies had gone stale, that she was better off out of it all completely. 

The next time a motherly hurricane gusted into Afrodille's life, a maid confided in Aimee that she'd witnessed strange behavior in the child. Both of them stood outside the door of the girl's room & listened in on her conversations. Some were quite short, with Afrodille chiding the caller, "That's not what this machine is for!" or "I couldn't possibly help you with that, I'm 12-years-old!" But then there were the longer calls, with Afrodille bursting into tears upon hearing a sad story told from the after-life, or laughing gaily when she discovered she knew enough of life or the daily newspaper or literature, to help the despondent soul. The maid would have seen the delight & dollar signs in Aimee's eyes as she listened intently, cutting out the dull portions, making the callers more notorious, perhaps adding a microphone of some kind to the phone & allowing the audience to hear the garbled messages of the dear-departed. One look at the young girl's face revealed the main selling point -- whatever was happening to Afrodille seemed actually to be HAPPENING! During these phone calls, her face glowed & suffered simultaneously, like the face of some Catholic stigmatic. Aimee began to spend more time around her daughter, which of course led to Afrodille doing whatever on earth she could to please that exciting, worldly woman. 

There were, of course, several problems with Afrodille's act, from a show business perspective. One, no one ever heard the phone ring. Afrodille simply lifted the receiver & began talking. And two, though some of the dead who called Afrodille were indeed famous, most were ditch-diggers & brick-layers. Of what interest was that to an American theater audience. Despite the apparent & otherworldly sincerity of the girl's phone manners, she proved to be an easy study & had no qualms whatsoever to merging these talents of her with ingenious stagecraft. 

During the initial rehearsals, Afrodille was seated at a small desk in a dimly-lit Victorian parlor, an inordinately large phone with an inordinately distorted shadow placed before her. She was dressed in a frilly porcelain doll dress, with her fiery red hair in bows. The lights would begin to flicker & magic lantern spooks would race past the parlor windows. The girl would fall into a restless trance & become stiff as a board in her little parlor chair. Then, after a few minutes of dramatic string & flute music, the stagy pyrotechnics would come to a halt & the phone would ring, loud & off-key enough to startle even the most stalwart patron. Afrodille would appear to awaken from her frightful daze, twist her fists into her tiny green eyes & oh so reluctantly lift the receiver. 

"This is Afrodille!" Imagine the applause. 

Of course the amplified voices on the other end of the phone were mainly white noise, but the stage technicians added touches here & there, human, though mostly indecipherable, tones amid the static. Of course the audience would lean in, trying with all their bruised credulity to hear the questions from the dead. And then Afrodille would begin a conversation, a conversation so empathetic & honest that the audience would lose track of the gimmick entirely, applying to their own failures & desires the advice of this young girl, wise beyond her years. Embedded in the static they began to hear their own pleas for understanding. This little show was a hit for exactly six months & then people began to feel like fools leaning forward to hear voices coming out of a voiceless amplified hiss & being consoled by a red-haired pre-teen dressed like a doll. By then, Afrodille had her own resources. Like her mother, she flaunted her sexuality with considerable verve. She would come off stage yanking the frills from her body & frantically loosing tides of red hair from those satin bows & she'd feel the eyes slide down her bare, pale unzippered back, marvel at the inferno as she shook that hair from her exquisite little freckled face. Unlike her mother, she was sparing with her natural resources & could easily discern a hustler's promises from a hefty dower. 

Another of Afrodille's Seance Phones
While this Little-Girl-on-the-Parlor-Phone routine had very little life on the show circuit, Afrodille had something far more interesting in mind. In fact, it was no show at all. She would sit by a phone, on a bare stage & wait for the dead to call. The audience would cough, cross & uncross its legs, feel around in its trouser pockets & purses, etc., while Afrodille would stare at them, attaching those brilliant green eyes to theirs, one by one, until they were as uncomfortable watching her sit there as they'd be if she was naked on a highwire, a starving tiger at each end. And then, the phone would ring. And a voice would try to speak, a voice of great suffering from an insurmountable distance. Often the voice would only sigh or begin a word (what word?) & they'd be cut off, the connection lost. Afrodille would patiently hang up the phone & scan the audience again, gazing into their eyes with enmity, a little lust, apologetically, compassionately, eagerly, tenderly, flirtatiously...all without moving her body, without unclasping her hands from between her knees. And then the phone would ring again, startling everyone. Afrodille would apologize with such feeling! And then the dead would begin to speak. Sometimes they'd read a poem behind a wall of static while the beautiful girl listened, indicating how profound & sad it was without seeming to move a muscle in her face. They'd say, "Why is this the way it is?" or "How can it be this way?" & then Afrodille would settle them into a conversation & the conversations -- about how the modern world looked, smelled, felt & seemed -- would hold the audience so still. Then nothing. Afrodille would click on the phone cradle a few times to be polite & then hang up the phone with such grace that even H. L. Mencken alluded to it when describing Anita Loos entering a room. The applause was strange, little smatterings of it arising in the auditorium as if pleading for more from those who were still unconvinced. And gradually the unconvinced would begin clapping & the applause would go in waves like that until the crowd took to its feet as one. 

Those who saw the performance said that it was miraculous, truly inspired, frightening. Artists from the European avant-garde said it was perhaps the greatest theatrical event they'd ever seen, a work of pure, dream-like theater at the end of which the audience was not even sure what they'd witnessed. An hour simply waiting for a phone to ring seemed breathtaking & yet critics could find no reason for it. A writer from Sphinx said, "You're left wondering if you've seen nothing or everything, pondering why you reacted the way you did, why you fell in love with this pale sybil & let her make you complicit in waiting for a phone to ring." 

Picture of Afrodille Corbett in action, 1940

Gradually, of course, audiences grew tired of not knowing why they were mesmerized by the routine & they gave up on Afrodille. It wasn't because they stopped enjoying her show, but because they grew tired of not being able to describe it to others, or tell a friend why on earth they found it so riveting. But Afrodille didn't seem to care. She'd had so many wealthy lovers, made so many wise investments, picked & chosen so wisely, that she was fine with being relegated to waiting for that phone to ring between sets by Frank Phelan's Aristocrats of Rhythm or the comedian known as Squirrell. In her later years, the set would begin with the phone ringing & she'd be talking to Harry Houdini. Right off. Harry Houdini. They'd spar, he'd speak of the cloudy realms of purgatory, congratulate her on her success & then the band would begin to play "Sweet Potato Piper". 

When the shows were over she'd make her way home to No. 61 at the Bramford & to a succession of well-heeled lovers who thought she was the cat's pajamas & said so in innumerable celebrity biographies. Her apartment was filled with the most lovely collection of 1930s & 40s telephones, but no one -- not guests to her infrequent parties, not neighbors -- ever heard one ring. One of her housekeepers did tell a tabloid that Afrodille would still talk on the phone to dead poets, actors & even a few astronauts before her death at the age of 97. Legend has it that she'd been speaking to her mother, Aimee Desiree & that bygones seemed bygones between them. 

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting story. I wish I could have been there in the audience, to see and understand.