Belinda now staggered against the piano, ran her fingers up the keys, seemed delighted at the invention of music, and started to warble some unintelligible lyrics, some garbled take on "Night and Day." Moss Hart, staring out the windows at the night river, swung around, caught my eye, and covered his ears in a deadpan Buster Keaton parody. Noel raised his voice as he tilted his long head. "Not now, dear Belinda."
She ignored him.
Dougie pulled at her arm, but she sloughed him off. "It's a party. A birthday." She pouted, "People know me now."
Of course, people did know her now. A year ago no one had heard of Belinda Ross. That was before her meteoric rise on Broadway, a trajectory dizzying to observe. September to now—a few months, and much attention. Her origins were admittedly obscure—especially given the press machinery of Broadway chroniclers who liked to cloak simple stories in Baroque legend and mystical rites-of-passage. F.P.A.'s "The Conning Tower" column described her as "the damsel in the gold dress." Walter Winchell offered her a ride in his Srucz-Bearcat convertible.
She'd been an anonymous performer in her brother's hole in-the-wall theater somewhere in the hinterlands of Eleventh Avenue, so west of Broadway it could be Jersey, a shadowy old vaudeville house lost among the Chelsea Pier longshoremen and stevedores in Hell's Kitchen. Yes, a few long blocks from Times Square, but geography no one had heard of. The beautiful girl with a wonderful singing voice, equal parts thunder and whispered cooing, she sang and danced for the piddling crowd that somehow found its way onto that dark landscape. She could be a coy Mary Pickford, a vampish Theda Bara, even a smart mouthed Fanny Brice, but she played to nearly empty houses. Discovered there by Cyrus Meerdom, the powerhouse producer with the lascivious eye—rumor had it her greedy brother somehow orchestrated the serendipitous meeting—she quickly departed the ragtag company of actors and appeared in Meerdam's Colleens revue at the Mendes Theatre on Forty-third, an anemic show of half-baked numbers, except for Belinda's singing. Suddenly, the critics and audiences paid attention to the new star. For many, she epitomized the post-Crash femininity—gone the boyish, bobbed-hair flappers, the stick-figure mannequins. With her curvaceous body and hourglass figure that reminded some old-timers of an elegant Lillian Russell, Belinda captured a lot of fluttering hearts. She became a sensation.
But the revue wasn't. For one month, Cyrus was seen everywhere with Belinda on his arm. Dancing at El Morocco. At 21. Eating caviar au blini with Jimmy Durance at Les Ambassadeurs. Sipping Cel-Ray tonics at Hudnut's basement café. She clung to Cyrus' arm as though to let go would be to watch her treasure boat sail away. Rumors were everywhere. Supposedly someone overheard Cyrus whisper suggestions of Paris trips, a penthouse apartment at the Sherry Netherland, a yacht in the Hudson, talking too much so that his wife learned of the indiscretion. He didn't care.
Neither did Belinda. But the revue closed after four weeks. A flop. Two weeks later, Belinda found a new home. The success of George White's Scandals had ignited Broadway, with Rudy Vallee singing "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries." Leggy beauties danced in syncopation. Imitating the revue, Tommy Stuyvesant, financed by an eager Dougie Maddox, opened his spectacular Tommy's Temptations at the New Beaton. Belinda Ross starred. The show was an instant smash—witty, sardonic sketches, yes, but mainly Belinda, showcased. Belinda's grinning face appeared on the cover of Stage and Broadway Lights. The Daily News featured her in a photogravure spread. Winchell's "On Broadway" in the Mirror wept with hyperbole. Her smiling face adorned on calendars in gas stations across Brooklyn and Queens. Stage door Johnnies left roses and phone numbers. George Kaufman, giddy, sent candy.
Cyrus Meerdom was a thing of the past.
Suddenly, Belinda was on the arm of Tommy Stuyvesant at Leon and Eddie's Famous Door, listening to the cool jazz of Wingy Mannone. A loudmouth with family millions, Tommy flaunted the vivacious Belinda, though he always wore a bemused look on his face, as though he understood the vagaries of such transitory romance. A bachelor who was also a notorious skinflint, he simply shrugged his shoulders when Belinda suddenly disappeared into the arms of his chief financial investor, the hapless Dougie Maddox. After all, she was still his moneymaker on Broadway.
When Dougie and Belinda arrived at the parry, Tommy had been pontificating about the dire state of theater in these depressed years—"Those goddamn Hollywood movies suck the life outta Broadway"—but stopped when Belinda spotted him and threw a friendly half-wave in his direction. A tall, beefy man with a gleaming bald head and small dull eyes, and who always looked uncomfortable in a suit, Tommy laughed out loud. Of course, everyone in that room who had followed the picayune melodrama of Belinda and her suitors shot glances at one another, but Tommy, shaking his head, turned away, indifferent. Belinda noisily gave Dougie a peck on the cheek.