Elizabeth Searle is the author of three books of fiction: My Body to You, which is forthcoming in a new paperback edition; A Four-Sided Bed, a novel nominated for an American Library Association Book Award and Celebrities in Disgrace, which is forthcoming from Bravo Sierra Productions as a short film. Her most recent work is Tonya & Nancy: A Rock Opera, a musical based on the Kerrigan/Harding skating scandal. The show has drawn national media attention on Good Morning America, CNN, Fox, NPR and in a new documentary film. New rock opera productions are in the works. Elizabeth teaches at Stonecoast MFA.
A bumblebee at the Yard Sale buzzed round these letters, the 1935 stationary scented with a faint amazing trace of 70-year-old lavender perfume. The bee made me see them: the letters Miss Minnie Walsh had saved, intimate and (to her) important letters displayed on a tilting card table atop a slip-slidey stack of 1950's magazines, mostly yellowed LIFEs. Letters in a stiff fusty brown-paper packet, bound by a not-quite-decayed rubber band. Bought for two dollars; opened with care. The paper pages brittle but intact; Minnie's signature faded to palest violet blue, matching that equally faded, maybe half-imagined, lavender scent.
Though pale, Miss Minnie Walsh's inked name is strikingly neat, each curve perfect. No one these days takes so much time and care—and for what, in the end? Earl Senior's handwriting is penciled onto tiny 1935-sized pages of hotel stationary. Earl's seemingly casual words slash across each page so they look extra large. This surely suited Earl's own view of himself as a—to Minnie at least, for one long-gone stretch of 1935—star.
Minnie Walsh's first letter to Earl is typed. It survives on a ghostly tissue-thin carbon copy. The typeface is almost illegibly faded, more so than Minnie's violet-ink signature. For she, like a well-trained and overly conscientious secretary, signed both the original and the carbon. This was the first mini-mystery I pondered. Why did Minnie make such a painstakingly perfect signature on this carbon copy that she must have believed no one else would ever see?
March 10, 1935
From: Miss Minnie Walsh
telephone: Lexington, 0510
To: Mr. Earl McCoy Sr.
c/o Earl McCoy Jr. & His Hill-Billie Clan, Incorporated
PO Box 6 Springfield, Mass.
Dear Earl McCoy Sr.—or might I call you "Pa"?
Please let me introduce myself, first, as your BIGGEST little ol' fan. I like your "hill-billie" music and your yodelling so TREMENDOUSLY much! I don't think anything adds such color and interest to Boston as seeing genuine "hillbillies" carry on. I had a grand time watching you, your son and your "clan" broadcast live last week from WNEX. Though Earl Jr. is a handsome goldenhaired fellow, I confess that it was his "Pa" with his foot-stomping dances and his big ol' WINK and his most haunting of yodels who stole my heart that night.
If you only knew what 1 DID to gain your address! I don't know if I dare confess! I "crashed" admittance to your Boston studios—which in our "Eastern" slang means, no admittance was allowed but by hook or crook I got in.
"I'm sorry, miss," the blue-coat guarding your elevators told me as I stood crowded with so many others in the lobby after your show.
"I must get upstairs," I answered. "I want to see someone at WNEX."
I didn't lie once, you see!
"I'm sorry, but I have my orders not to let anyone up." (All the time, the
crowd behind me listened to what was going on).
"Isn't there any way I can talk to Earl Sr.? I'm writing an article on him!"
This part is true too—though I didn't say it is only for the Boy Scouts of Lexington. But my youthful face and figure must have convinced friend policeman for he rang the elevator himself. "Are you Earl's girl-friend?"
I blushed! Why would he say such a thing, what with Ma McCoy right there on stage beside you? "Oh no!"
"I suppose it won't be long before wedding bells ring. Right?
I realized he must have thought I'd asked for Earl Jr., but as I protested he only laughed harder. Then the elevator came and I got in. When the door closed on all those other faces, some of them none too pleased, I laughed until I thought I would die. But as I stepped into the hall of WNEX, I wondered: what shall I say, if I am stopped? You may remember that night too.
You and the clan turned out to be heading down to the lobby to sign photos just as I was on my way up! Poor ol' lost me, I finally did nab your Stage Manager, who gave me your address and confided—lucky me, since YOU were the one I most wanted to reach!—that YOU answer all the clan's correspondence, that you are (perhaps I shouldn't print this part) the "brain" of your family.
(I've been called that myself, ever since my own "Pa" died and my "Ma" turned a bit daft, retreating to her Queen Anne's Rose garden.)
As you can see by my next page, I truly AM writing an article about your act. This article I, as the EDITOR of our local Boy Scouts "News-Letter," have most humbly enclosed for your perusal. If you should find time to answer me, I shall save your replies in my Hope Chest, under lock and key. NOT that I expect you to confide anything of a personal nature. NOT that I expect you to answer at all. But here it is: my small offering to the Earl of the Hills:
HILL-BILLIES IN OUR MIDST
One of the most captivating programs broadcast over the WNEX and WBZ (Boston and Springfield, Mass.) stations has been "Earl McCoy Jr. and His Hill-Billie Clan." Earl McCoy,Jr., the 20 year-old blond radio mountaineer, sings in his most soothing, baritone-tenor the romantic ballads of the South and West. He plays the guitar, accordian, 'cello and jewsharp. Electrical transcriptions of his music are heard on stations in many parts of our country!
Earl Jr. was born in Kentucky. He has been leading an orchestra since the age of ten when he led a Sunday School band which his father, Earl Sr., organized. When he was twelve, Earl Jr. faced the microphone in Louisville as the young Paderewski of those parts. In his teens, Earl Jr. and his father toured the Southeast as the vaudeville-circuit act, "Earl McCoy and His Hill-Billie Boy."
These days, young Earl travels with his entire family or "Clan." Of no less importance to the program than Earl Jr. himself are the other "hill-billies," led by Earl's parents. Martha McCoy ("Ma") adds the feminine touch so pleasing to the program, with her infectious laugh, tambourine, and yipping.
She always seems one step ahead of the lovable "clan" head, Earl Sr. or "Pa," whose onstage antics make him a favorite of this young fan. Pa McCoy plays guitar and harmonica, whoops, incessantly chews gum, and loves bright yellow shoes. He is the best and most stirring of yodellers. Uncle Elmo, Ma's brother, adds further local color with his fiddle.
The McCoys, when rarely they are home, live in an old Colonial house in Springfield, Mass. One has to hear them but once to realize that these musicians are the friendliest and most captivating "hill-billies" ever to come East.
PS to Earl Sr.:Just a few questions off the record, sir, from this ever-more-brash correspondent: Do you wear your yellow shoes offstage too? Do you know your sox don't match? Is Uncle Elmo really so odd as he seems? Do you need to hire any new youthful ticket-takers or such when you perform your week-long tent show in Lexington this coming spring of '35?
Finally: is "Pa" your nickname offstage as well? MY nickname is "little black elephant" as I, with my pale skin and dark eyes, often wear black in honor of my dear dead father and as I have a tendency toward BIGNESS, though in a pleasing way—or so I am told by my Dance Lesson instructor, who praises the graceful movements of my (I must brag) ever-so-small feet and hands.
Even if you do not answer this "magnum opus" o' mine, will you PRETTY-PLEASE sing any of the following songs SOON as "ah reckon ah'Il be sittin' by mah radio listenin"'?—When the Moon Shines Down Upon the Mountain—Old Rattler—I'll Be All Smiles Tonight—and (my favorite for "Pa's" most plaintive and lonesome of yodelling choruses), Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.
Forget Me Not—for, as I often remind those closest to my heart: AN ELEPHANT NEVER FORGETS kindnesses nor injuries.
YOURS truly, Miss Minnie Walsh
March 30, 1935
From: Mr. Earl McCoy Sr.
c/o Fostor Hotel. Suite 14
My Dear Miss Minnie Walsh,
My, my, my. I must tell you straight off: I most commonly answer all our correspondence with posted cards, but your letter, Miss Minnie, deserves a letter in return. Young Earl receives packs of mail, yet only you, of late, be-thought yourself to write directly to the "Lord and Earl" of our Clan. The cock—as it were, though my son may say me nay—of our barnyard.
As such, I request one addition to your fine "write up." Earl Jr. may think it quaint, but please make it known that we provide a wholesome show, not a "carnival" or "rodeo" type of affair. This is strictly a high-class radio revue. It has been sponsored by many Christian churches, to their entire satisfaction.
Which may be why, despite the hard times we see all around us, Lady Luck continues to smile upon our clan. My son, practically raised onstage, does not believe it is Luck that keeps us up there, capering about like "kids" and getting paid to boot. But "Ma" and I, one thing we still share is remembering our harder life back in the Hills of Kentucky. At the end of each show, when I send that big ol' wink out into the crowd, that's who I am winking at: Lady Luck.
Now, in addition to our home we own two Rolls Royces, one Reo-Royal and two big GMC trucks, all of which travel with our show, making an impressive outfit. To answer you "off the record": no, I certainly do not wear bright yellow shoes offstage; yes, I am aware that "Pa's" sox don't match; yes, Elmo truly is dumb, though offstage he, like Earl Jr., comes up with his share of "wise crax," more than a few directed at Yours Truly, but keep that under your hat.
As for your desire to become a ticket-taker for our spring week in Lexington: I will be most happy to have our Road Manager contact you by telephone then possibly meet with you "face to face," to report to me on your personal qualities. "Most pleasing," you say?
Dear me. It is raining tonight in dreary Schenectady—11:45 PM—I have been standing all day for fittings (we are knee-deep in silks for new costumes) and I have answered much correspondence, so I will cut this short and retire to my little "trundle" bed. Though before I do, may I ask yau a few questions?
Do you still believe in Santa Claus? Is that how "youthful" you are? What sort of Dance Lessons are you taking? Do you wear tights? If the movement of your hands and feet have significance then—how about the "body"?
Yes; you may call me "Pa" if you like, but I'd prefer plain ol' "Earl"—no stuffy "Senior" attached, neither. By the way, you should address any answer to me "c/o" Earl Jr. and our clan, though I guarantee that—since Earl Jr. is all too busy; since my Martha has trouble with her reading, as she does with other offstage activities—no one but me will see your words.
Well, be a good girl and don't take any lead money—Your New Pal,
April 13, 1935
From: Mr. Earl McCoy Sr.
c/o: Hotel Claridge, Suite 10
My Dear Miss Minnie Soon-to-be-Trusted-Employee Walsh:
Speaking for the clan, as I alone can do, we invite you to join our spring tent show for one (1) week as ticket-taker: April 20 through 30. We have received a fine recommendation of your personal qualities from our Man in Massachusetts. We also enjoyed your homemade cookies (sweet—very).
Sixty here in Rochester and sunny, though "smoggy"—that means dirt and smoke. This is the dirtiest town in the world. Chicago is spotless in comparison.
Oh, my throat! Nothing but smoke, dust and mist. No place for a yodeler to live.
Though my yodelling is not nearly as much in demand—except to you—as young Earl's singing. "Soothing," you write though you've never heard the boy holler at everyone in sight before and after a show. "His" show, he tends to call it these days. Wouldn't you say his head is getting a wee bit swelled?
Cannot tell you how much I personally look forward to the green grass of Lexington in only weeks—with a local belle on hand to greet Earl "Senior" in person after our opening night? You will be surprised by how much less a scarecrow I appear offstage. Would you believe my "gray" hair is mostly a wig; that my real hair, though thinning a bit, is nearly as blond as Earl Jr's celebrated locks? A "Pass to the Backstage" awaits you at the ticket stand.
Consider yourself honoured by this invitation, my dear. And if your personal qualities are all they are reported to be, you may well find your name mentioned over The Air in a song dedication one fine summer night. Just the sort of thing that you, little black elephant, might never forget?
Yours, this coming Weak (Week) End,
April 21, 1935
From: Earl McCoy Sr.
c/o Battle Green Inn, Room 17
To the Editor of the "No-No-a-1000-Times-No" News-Letter,
Just a hand-written missive to let you "no" how much I enjoyed our little
meeting in the Mezaninine (oops; too many 'in's). How becoming, Minnie, are your maidenly blushes and those protestations I am convinced might soon have shifted to sighs had your dear Eagle Eye mother not happened upon us with her request to "do" the flowers for our week of shows.
Did I detect your blush deepening when I, Earl of our Manor, granted Ma Walsh's wish?
I am sipping a glass of orange juice laced with "Gordon's Gunga Din Gin"; maybe that's why I am so expressive. Lest you fear—as you murmured in that conveniently deserted "mez," a small haven for us from the crowd backstage—that I might find your "little black elephant" charms too abundant, let me assure you that I like a "femme" with some flesh upon her.
As you cannot help but notice since we're "made up" as a pair o' scarecrows onstage, my Martha has tended toward the scrawny, of late. Some have noted that she resembles the much-beloved chickens she continues to raise, though "the Hills" of Kentucky are far behind her. (Martha and Elmo, as you might have surmised from their awkward offstage manners, are the true "hill-billies" amongst us. I was raised in "civ'lized" Ohio and Earl Jr., of course, "on the road" with me, which might account for the jumpiness of his demeanor. Did you hear him berating his own "Ma" and Uncle before you and I made our all-too-brief escape?)
Until tonight, then, when I hope to get to "no" you better—
May 1, 1935
From: Mr. Earl McCoy Sr.
c/o: Fort Pitt Hotel, Room 4
My Dear Lady of Lexington,
(For what is the consort-to-be of the Earl if not his Lady?)
A pitcher this morning of orange juice avec Gordon's Gin. My Martha's off a-visiting her chicken flock in Springfield and Earl Jr. is off on a solo stint (not that his "Ma" and I approve) so I have this big room, bath, etc., all to my lonesome. Naturally one gets to thinking.
Thanks for the photos, which are not as good-looking as the subject but of course a reminder, and which I advise you I hide in my own personal album.
Are the Boy Scouts keeping you busy? Wish we were more so; our next date is not till next month, the Butler Theater in Hartford, Connecticut. I just answered half a dozen letters from "Phans" (down from twice that number per week last year) and I am finishing up with a "business letter" to my favorite former employee, the Brunette Boston correspondent most on my mind.
Perhaps we could "rendezvous" in Hartford? To take care of "unfinished business." (Be careful how you speak of this in your written reply, m'lady). Speaking of "business," do not think, Little Miss, I have forgotten your request that I talk my much-distracted son into viewing the little dance you have prepared. But perhaps I need to "investigate" your talents a bit further myself before diverting all-mighty Earl Jr. from his suddenly oh-so-busy schedule. So I will sign off by "sayin"' "When I Hold Your Hand," Etc.—This is Earl McCoy Sr. and His Hill-Billie Clan sayin' good nite every body—Your Lord, King and—Earl
PS: I enclose a clipping on the clan (well, they only mention Young Earl but in fact our entire act performed) from the Pittsburgh Times:
RADIO IN SHORT
Myron Niesley sings the final "o" in that Jack Benny sign-off and collects $25 for every note, which makes him the highest-priced tenor in radio; Lovely Joan Bennet leaves Hollywood for New York to be the Radio Theater star a week from tonight; Locally, more radio-talent is added to the Auto Show next month. Noy Gorodinsky's Gypsy Ensemble will co-star with young Earl McCoy Jr. of the Hill-Billie circuit; from further west, rising Rodeo sensation Duke Dewey and his Cowboy Chorus will storm onto the Farm & Home Hour this afternoon at noon, WJAR. Perhaps the rodeo craze of the West will spread now to the East.
PPS to Lady L.: Not a bad bunch o' Names to rub elbows with, eh what? Not a bad business we are in: we may "slump" a bit these days but that other "Lady L." stays on our side. At least—as Earls wrote in times of olde—"for the nonce."
July 2, 1935
From: Mr. Earl McCoy Sr.
c/o: Earl McCoy Jr. and His Hill-Billie Clan, Incorporated
PO Box 6 Springfield, Mass.
My Dear Miss Walsh,
I am far out-of-sorts today for far too many reasons, among them: the most recent correspondence from my "little black elephant," who seems more than a bit out-of-sorts herself. True, you did offer me "all that I wanted" in Heart (Hart)ford last month. But because I—as you were less-than-a-lady to state in your note—was "not able to" fully partake, I do not feel I "owe" you. In fact, I do not recall having "promised" you a "dance audition" for my erstwhile son, who has been much caught up with his own Plans-in-Which-l-Play-No-Part.
Let us say that my clan's summer has not "gone off' quite as hoped. After a disappointing last leg of our tent-tour (so-so business in June, as the same-color paper was accidentally used for flyers for all our Return Dates, two concerts cancelled altogether and hot sapping weather all month to boot), Young Earl insisted on scotching most of our regular summer schedule.
It seems he wishes to "fly Solo" this summer like Lucky—these days not-so-lucky—Lindy. But just between you and me and my Gordon's Orange Delight, my "hill-billie" boy cannot read or reason much better than his "Ma." He altogether lacks the know-how to organize any sort of band himself, as he is—judging from his curses through our walls—rapidly discovering.
(Incidentally, my dear little "elephant," the very "bigness" I have so praised in private with regards to your person would not, I fear, strike Earl Jr.'s fancy. He prefers the plucked-chicken "Hollywood" type and fancies himself the next beau for Greta Garbo, if only he can finagle himself a "screen test." Another pipe dream, if you ask me, not that he does).
Worst of all: Earl Jr. talks of forcing my "retirement" though I am not yet fifty; though my grey hair is only a wig; though these skinny strong legs o' mine yearn to stomp across stage; though this yodel o' mine that you so dote upon—do you, still?—longs to cut loose, full-throated as a cock's crow.
And "Ma"? She devotes herself to a gift from the Rhode Island Red Fiddlers, who shared our bill that long-lost week in Lexington: a prize pheasant hen, new ruler of Martha's roost. For additional distraction from her worries, "Ma" hath taken to dipping into 'Pa"s supply of Gordon's Gin, only she leaves off the orange juice. A few stiff gins and you'd think (but alas, you'd be wrong) the old gal'd be ready for anything. (Which may give you a hint why I, from what we musicians call Lack of Practice, wasn't "ready" either, in our H. hotel).
All of which leaves Yours Truly alone to note the sudden ascendancy of Duke Dewey & his Cowboy Chorus. They are already sweeping through our circuit with the latest Rodeo "kraze," threatening to take over altogether this summer if Young Earl cannot be brought back into the fold.
Finally, making it all the harder for me to maintain harmony in my home: my Brunette in Boston forgets to address her last letter, as instructed, to EARL McCOY JR AND HIS HILL-BILLIE CLAN. Though Martha cannot read, her ever watchful brother Elmo can, and—unattuned to the nasty nuances of your note, which in fact absolve me—has threatened to "come aftah" yours truly with the Olde Family Shotgun if he suspects my Heart (ford) hath been untrue.
My, my, my. I am writing too much, going quite "knutz" in this smothering Springfield heat. When all I truly mean to say to my little elephant is: surely we can best mend our differences "face to face"; surely you who "never forgets" have not forgotten our dinner in the heart of Hartford. Our "lead-in" to what still-could-be new heights of pleasure. Remember me singing into your comely ear that cowboy song Earl Jr. favors, the oldest of all pleas:
"Bury Me Not . . ."
Earl McCoy Sr. (remember that name, my BIGGEST little ol' fan?)
Auust 31, 1935
From: Mr. Earl McCoy Sr.
c/o: Earl McCoy Jr. and His Hill-Billie Clan, Incorporated
PO Box 6
Dearest Lady L.,
I must scrawl this note (I am packing for a most urgent trip to New York
state, to save our hastily reconstituted clan from "taking a fall" this fall) to express bewilderment at the tone of your last—your final, you say—letter. Allegedly, I "took advantage" of you (who approached whom, little elephant? Who actually did what, to what lack of effect, in our H. hotel? Who disrobed and who, though unbuttoned, remained clothed?) and now you—who so proudly proclaim you "never forget" an insult—will "do the same" to me? If you mean you plan to "confess all" to my Martha, you ought to know that—between her doses of gin and nerve medicine—"Ma" possesses, these days, barely the sense of her chickens.
So what power have you, Miss Minnie, over me? Who are you supposing yourself to be?
September 10, 1935
From: Mr. Earl McCoy Sr.
c/o: Rochester South-End Hotel, Room 2
Just a few lines from a filthy city you would never deign to grace with your whiter-than-white skin. How long has it been, Lady L., since our last heated exchange of notes? Lifetimes have passed for me. This week I am cast back to the old days, playing the sootiest mining towns in Kentucky. I drag "home" to my hotel on the outskirts of town ready to do a Blackface Act.
Maybe we ought to try that next; maybe that would make the crowds forget Duke Dewey and the other new "Rodeo" rowdies.
Still, I plod on, seeking out old contacts and patching together a fall schedule for the clan and our sullen "star." Earl Jr.'s feckless summer dream to form his own "Western" band fell through. No surprise in that, surely, but imagine my shock when—in a foolhardy effort to regain m'lady's favor—I approached my son and heir with the prospect of you "auditioning" for him only to find that (in more ways than I care to imagine?) you already have.
Or at least you two have recently met, for what purpose my son—as silent as his half-wit Uncle Elmo when he cares to be—will not divulge. He will only say, with a smirk, that you've "slimmed down" some since spring. That he thinks—his smirk's unspoken message—he's proven who's cock of our yard. Then he tugged low the brim of the cowboy hat he has taken to sporting.
Elmo, by the way, is down for the count with a tumorous growth in his groin; all that silent spitefulness eating away at his insides. Poor ol' Elmo, like yours truly, hasn't passed—and now won't—fifty. Martha can't bestir herself from his sorry side. Loyal, is our Martha; I grant her that. One of those qualities one comes to appreciate (the wife would say) "too late." (And the wife's right about something else: this Gordon's Gin sans the orange juice).
At any rate, it is left to Earl Sr. alone to keep "at bay" the tide of Hard Times that I alone always understood—or said I did; now I truly do—might hit us, too. I, who had the foresight to create our "clan" in the first place.
But how quickly they—my heir with his empty head of golden hair; my most phantom of "phans," the elephant who claims never to—forget. How unforgivably (did you tell Earl Jr. the details of our "unfinished business" in H.?) they turn against you once you're down.
Please do "forgive" the soot smudges on this hotel's less-than-satisfactory stationary. My wig rests on my desk like a permanently dirtied feather-duster. My yodel would sound more lonesome than ever, if there were someone besides me and Gunga Din Gordon here to hear. My, my. I sip my last snifter. All my life I have wondered what she looks like, Lady Luck. Here in this dimmest of rooms, gazing out this narrowest of windows, I know she looks like no one special. A plump front-row small-town girl: smiling upon our show one minute then shifting her greedy beady eyes to the next new thing the next.
Are my letters locked in your Hope Chest? Mine, then the next, then the next? Your Hope Chest must be as full these days as mine is empty.
Are you truly taking leave of your Earl, m'lady most fickle, without so much as a fare-thee-well?
Mr. Earl McCoy Sr.
Here, chronologically, is where the letters end. His letters to her and her own initial typed letter to him. All the letters so neatly folded in their original neatly slit envelopes (clearly Minnie Walsh used a well-sharpened letter opener, one of those mini-knives designed to cut paper, not meat).
Did Minnie run off with Earl Junior? Did she go 'daft' like her mother, retreating into her home for good, her carefully preserved letters from Earl Senior forgotten, passed from hand to hand by a string of strangers, ending with me?
A sprawling 'multi-family' Yard Sale on a humid Lexington Sunday. Does the fact that the letters remained in Lexington, Massachusetts mean that Minnie herself remained here? Or that she vanished, leaving her life and letters behind? Finding a way, perhaps, to 'crash' into show business, 'by hook or by crook'?
I imagine Minnie taking feckless Earl Jr. in hand, becoming his Personal Secretary, managing his new career in the 'Rodea Kraze.' I imagine, alternately, Minnie sitting front row center at a Duke Dewey show, playing Lady L., sending a 'big ol' wink' to Duke; capturing, 'for the nonce,' his fancy.
(Earl Senior's and Minnie's voices prattle on inside my head, at least while the faintly greasy lavender-scented micro-dust from their letters still coats my fingertips).
One funny thing. The violet ink of Minnie Walsh's perfect signature on the first letter to Earl is nearly faded away. But Earl Sr.'s pencilled words, so 'casually' slashed, remain surprisingly firm and dark. Pencil is, in the end, more permanent than ink. It is more fully absorbed. It becomes, in time, a part of the paper.