Once a Dancer
By Allegra Kent
Chapter One: 1937-1947: From Iris to Allegra
One day my father introduced my brother and me to a tall stranger wearing a flannel shirt and straw hat. He was lean and lanky and seemed to be Daddy's long-lost friend.
"Iris and Gary, come over here and meet Buddy. He's going to drive you and your mother to Miami Beach, the land of palm trees." As usual, Daddy wasn't coming with us.
Gary and I didn't say hello, but Gary managed to shake hands; we were shy and very young. I was almost three and Gary was four.
Buddy gave us a bright smile. "Hello, kids. Now I don't want you to worry. This trip won't be boring, and it won't take too long."
Buddy didn't lie. We streaked across America without stopping. No overnight rests, just continuous driving by a madman. While Mother leaned over from the front seat to quiet us, from the backseat of our old brown jalopy Gary and I cheered Buddy on, yelling, "Let's go faster!" We weren't afraid of passing a slow car or falling off the side of a mountain. In our family, imagined dangers held more reality. Looking out the window, I had terrible thoughts when it got dark. Daddy wasn't with us. There were unknown perils. Who was going to protect me at night? I tapped my brother's arm. Gary was one and a half years older, my big brother. "Gary, do you think there are tigers out there?"
Gary paused, carefully thinking. He looked concerned. "No. There're no tigers in America. But there could be wolves and bears."
This was not the first time Daddy had hired a stranger to drive us across the country. These drivers usually liked to speed, probably because Daddy had invariably met them at the racetrack over the previous few days. Speed was a family characteristic.
While thousands of little girls were moving in and out of the five dance positions, having their hair fetchingly pinned up, and looking in the mirror while putting on miniature pieces of glitter, ruffles, and tulle for recitals, I was either zooming across America in the backseat of a car, collecting shells on the beach wearing a boy's bathing suit, or roaming through vacant lots. I yearned for a girl's bathing suit, but my pleas were ignored. I hadn't been civilized, and, when I did begin dance lessons, little in my life had prepared me for formal training. My brother and I weren't brought up. We haphazardly grew a little taller and a little older in California, Texas, and Florida.
My mother was a wanderer, and her restlessness and discontent kept us moving. For her, relocation was like a new love affair: it was much better to imagine than to know. We traveled through the South and Southwest in search of what she called "better living conditions." We had very few possessions--no furniture, books, or winter coats. Everything we had could easily be thrown into one footlocker and shipped ahead. We could outdistance the problems of a particular geographic location by getting in an automobile or boarding a train and quickly building up a barrier of miles. Thousands of miles were best. We would exchange one expanse of great ocean for another. A beach became our new living room, the crashing surf our radio, and old problems would be solved--at least for a while. We could buy bathing suits and get library cards anywhere.
Although my parents didn't officially divorce until I was five, they rarely lived together. When we did live near Daddy, or even with him, it never lasted. To Mother, Harry was like one of her journeys--a fresh start and a trap. Soon my maritime mother would decide it was time to leave, usually for another coast and the allure of a new sea.
When we weren't speeding to a new home in a car driven by Daddy or a stranger, we took a train. Once, during World War II when rail reservations were impossible to get, we boarded a train that was ready to split off into a smaller version of itself. Naturally, we were in the wrong half, the part that wouldn't take us to our destination. There was no room in the correct half. Mother started to beg, cry, and plead with the conductor. Couldn't he somehow squeeze us into a little space? He finally did find one upper berth, and Gary, Mother, and I dashed out of the wrong part of the train to wedge ourselves into one cramped upper berth seconds before the train divided. We were on our way to a new home. Mother was convinced that we might latch on to some special happiness if we could only be in the right location at the right moment.
An unfamiliar location might present an unusual challenge, but Mother lived by her wits. One time, as we entered a newly rented apartment, Mother gave us special instructions. The manager did not allow Jews in his building. Being Jewish was our secret, and we must not talk about it. Mother's message was taken to heart. Gary and I knew how to be very, very quiet when necessary, because a place to live was of the utmost importance.
I was born Iris Margo Cohen, the daughter of Harry Herschel Cohen of Texas (who liked to substitute "Cowboy" for Herschel) and Shirley Weissman, originally of the shtetl of Wisznice, Poland. When I was two, after we had been turned away by a landlord yet again, my mother dropped our last name and replaced it with one of her own choosing. Our new name was Kent. I was too young to notice that there had been a change, but when I was a little older I was taught that there was some enormous disgrace attached to my father's last name and we must be silent about it.
Even as children, both of my parents had searched for ways to escape their pasts. Daddy's family had bought land just outside of Dallas, but Dallas fooled them and moved the town the wrong way. They were brokenhearted. At fourteen, Harry ran away from home and began traveling throughout the Southwest transported by fantasies of fortunes and fame. Wearing a wide-brimmed cowboy hat to go with the name "Harry Cowboy Cohen," he wildcatted in the Texas oil fields and dabbled in amateur boxing. By twenty-five, he had formed a business and started to manufacture caps, making nearly a quarter of a million dollars that he then lost in the Crash of '29. But he was certain he would make it back.
Daddy had extraordinary posture. When walking, he pulled himself upward and broadened his shoulders. His gait could be called a swagger. During Prohibition, Harry and his cousin set up a scam with prescriptions, filling them with alcohol. They were caught, and the judge said one of them had to go to jail for eight months. Harry volunteered, for he was the younger. In jail, one of the inmates, a lifer, painted Daddy's portrait as a strikingly handsome man with olive skin and hazel eyes. The painting is still hanging in my brother's San Fernando Valley home. Dearest Daddy would soon get out--the lifer never would. Harry looks proudly out of his picture, but this was a sobering moment for him. Life could very easily go very wrong.
Mother hated her family's first tenement dwelling on New York's Lower East Side. Because her mother and father hadn't learned English, Mother felt neither European nor American; she was ashamed of her parents. At one point, her family moved over a funeral parlor. The sight of tiny padded coffins for children haunted my mother for years. Dreaming of ways to escape, she borrowed a neighbor's working papers and took a job at twelve. By fourteen, she was teaching ballroom dancing at night in someone's private home, mostly to Japanese men. When Philip Leavitt asked her to marry him--and threatened to commit suicide if she refused--she said yes. It was 1927. The marriage faltered from the start. Nevertheless, Shirley had a baby right away, my sister Barbara. After five years, Mother temporarily moved to Chicago, worked six weeks to pay for a divorce, and was introduced to Harry Cohen, my father, at a party.
There was something about my mother that captivated my father, and, soon after their first meeting, Daddy sent Shirley train tickets for her and Barbara. He was waiting for them at the station in Shreveport, Louisiana, with a car full of toys. My sister and mother were entranced and rhapsodic. This man knew how to touch a child's heart, and in a letter to Mother he had written, "U are the most beautiful person in the whole world." At last she was loved and appreciated, she thought--although she didn't like the way Harry spelled "you."
Harry proposed, and Mother agreed. She said it was the most thrillingly wonderful day in her life. It was 1934, and Mother didn't know who Harry really was, but the externals looked perfectly lovely. Harry had a dress business and was living in a large house on the best street in Dallas. There were separate servants' quarters, four hundred fruit trees, and a horse. Now there would be a superabundance of everything, even the nonessentials.
Although one of Harry's relatives told Mother that Harry was "unstable," Mother preferred to disregard this alarming message. At the end of a week, Shirley became Mrs. Cohen and met the real Harry, the restless man who would wake her up in the middle of the night so they could drive to no particular place and back again. He had absolutely no tolerance for everyday frustration even at its lowest level; when life at home became too difficult or boring for him, Harry would leave for the track. Mother became pregnant immediately, and, during the pregnancy, she had to flee with Harry in the middle of the night because of an unpaid gambling debt. She threw up every mile on the way to Corpus Christi. They had to wait for weeks until it was safe to return to Dallas.
The reality of a family was not something Harry could visualize. He had a gambler's soul and a restless nature. After a year of marriage to Harry, Mother was living in an attic apartment in a poor section of town, and her baby was nearly due. Harry said he had an important business meeting in Los Angeles, and to make things easier for Shirley, he would take Barbara with him. What drew him to Los Angeles was the Rose Bowl game of 1936. When he arrived, he deposited her with my mother's relatives and went to the game, picking her up only as he was about to return to Dallas. While he was away, Mother had fallen down the stairs. Nevertheless, Gary arrived on February 7, 1936, and nine months later, another baby was started. After the first missed period Mother took something strong, but it didn't work. I was on my way.
Harry stayed in Texas and sent Mother to her family in California for my birth. I was born on August 11, 1937, on the very day Edith Wharton died, but in a different time zone. Daddy came to see me ten months later. By then, the oil fields had proved to be a complete and total loss, and Harry was deeply in debt. Perhaps the new infant would save the family. However, I wasn't a smiling baby. Mother was profoundly depressed, and I must have sensed that.
As the dislocation and desperation that filled my mother's life quickly filtered down to me, I became very sick. At this time it was the style to teach babies discipline and get them in touch early with a schedule. The theory was that if you held a baby too much, you could spoil her. Mom brought me to Shirley Temple's doctor because I had pus on the kidneys. He said there was nothing he could do; things looked hopeless. As a last resort I could be taken to a clinic where they would experiment. While he was giving this gloomy opinion, Mom started to pat my back. The doctor looked at my mother, startled. "Stop being so nice to that baby. You'll spoil her!" Could you be too nice to a dying baby? Apparently you could.
Through a new friend, Mother heard of Christian Science, and I was saved through the prayer of a Christian Science practitioner. Mother had found our new religion.
In the meantime Harry was still seeking his fortune in the oil fields, and, when a landlord put us out, Mother relocated us with two cribs and a footlocker, pawning what she could and giving the rest away. Travel light, keep nothing, deny the importance of possessions because they have no life, no truth, no substance; they're only matter. She adapted this Christian Science teaching to her packing. As we left one location for another, she discarded the excess, particularly any objects that took up space. A doll had to be given away because there was no room in the trunk; however, the tiny ones could stay, the storybook dolls, the ones that came to life and action in fairy tales and books. These were the ones I really loved.
In 1939, after we had to leave what Mother called "a dump" on a dead-end street in Santa Monica, Harry found an inexpensive hovel way out somewhere in rural California. He was leaving town immediately for a deal in Chicago, so he asked Mother's brother, Ben, to drive us there. The place had a dirt floor, two burners on an egg crate, and almost nothing else. When Ben started to set up the cribs, Mother began to sob. At the insistence of his new wife, Ben dismantled the beds and found us another place near Lake Elsinore, a lake with a high sulfur content and dead fish floating on the surface. We would sneak into a country club to partake of the green grass and pool. Mother wondered what was over the mountains and was told that it was Laguna Beach. The vowels had a magical ring. She loved the sound of it, and eventually we moved out of Elsinore and hitched a ride over the mountains to the seashore. The beach and ocean would sustain us.
The place Mother found in Laguna Beach was a cheap, rat-infested apartment over a grocery store. We had to vacate when the place was sold, and Mother wired Harry, who was in Dallas, to come fetch us. The appointed day arrived, but Harry didn't. Mother finally asked the lifeguard to help disassemble the cribs, and while this was taking place, Harry walked in. He greeted the lifeguard with warmth, appreciation, and no suspicion, and we all piled into a brown jalopy, the vehicle that took us everywhere before it finally failed inspection. This time we were off to Texas, living again on a dead-end street.
Months later, back in California, my family was hoping that its youngest member would become the breadwinner. Daddy had learned there was a search going on for a toddler to play an important role in a film. The irises in Daddy's eyes lit up. I was brought to a casting agent, who approved of my looks, and a screen test was scheduled. The infant was going to be sent to work.
Daddy took me to the studio. Up to this time he had barely been able to acknowledge me, my birth, or my development. But now we were together on a little jaunt. Jubilantly, Daddy realized that his Irish could be an ace in the hole. Once on the set I pursed my lips, looked sullen, and boldly stared everyone down. I was acting, all right, but with overt hostility to the grown-up world. I was frightened to death. And I was mad at my parents. The baby wanted to be a baby. They gave me toys, ice cream, and candy, but I couldn't be bribed. I knew grown-ups gave only when they wanted something back. Dejectedly, my father brought me home. Clearly I was a failure in his eyes, and in Mother's too. Life looked a little bleak.
The next day, Mother took us out for an ice cream, a great treat not often affordable. I refused. I pointed to a crimson bloom in the florist shop next door. I wanted a flower I hadn't seen before, and I cried until my mother bought it for me. I clutched it until it died.
Right from the beginning, there was a conflict of interest about what the family wanted for me and what I wanted for myself.
St. Martin's Press
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