In those days, couples working the shows would go out and get sponsors. The sponsors would pay for their wardrobes and some of their living expenses. Some of the couples were secretly married and the sponsors frowned on that. They wanted the audience to root for lovebirds, not married couples. It was a strange life, but for some the only way they survived the Depression. Daddy arranged for the married couples to come to the hotel a couple of nights a week, to get a break. Otherwise, they were just like the single guys and girls and had to sleep on individual cots, separated by curtains, men on one side and women on the other side, backstage.
“What do ya want to do with the kid?” Daddy would ask my mother. “She staying here or coming with us today?” At six, never thinking I was a kid, I roamed up and down hotel elevators and my playmates were theatrical adults.
Daddy would get out of bed, shower, walk back into the room, his slicked-back hair dripping water over mother as she slept in bed, and say, “I said, what do ya want to do with the kid”? A slender white arm would move from under the covers toward the phone; her index finger dialed three in-house numbers for Henry. “Is Henry here today,” more a mumble than a question, but she got the idea across.
Henry, a 17-year-old bellhop, used to run errands and do favors for Daddy and his band. Henry was a tall, skinny black kid. I never saw him out of his hotel uniform. Crisp white shirt, black pants with a permanent crease down the front, a red jacket and a toothy grin, eager to please. Whatever Daddy wanted, Henry managed to get. Smokes for the band, extra sugar for Mother’s coffee delivered to our room. He would come up to our room, knock ever so quietly on the door, just in case she was still sleeping. I’d open it a crack and there he would be, all crisp and polished, hands outstretched with a tray of coffee, toast and the precious extra packets of sugar. He’d say, “This here’s for your mother,” and I’d roll my eyes. He’d flash that grin and I’d open the door wide so he could see mother sitting up in bed with the morning paper. He’d hand me the tray and give mother a salute and me a wink and off he’d go whistling down the hall. I think Henry had a crush on Mother. And why not; she was really beautiful with the most perfect skin, deep-set double-lashed blue eyes, and the thickest black hair down to her waist.
Henry was my babysitter, and I was trouble, a piece of work. He took good care of me. My parents never worried because “the kid” was taken care of. He would come up to the room again at 11 a.m. “Now listen, Toots, tell me what you ate for breakfast.” Breakfast was downstairs in the hotel cafe, the same every morning, one slice of toast, a bowl of oatmeal, a glass of orange juice, and a pat of butter right smack in the middle of my oatmeal. First, I’d chew on the toast, the grape jelly looking as if a mudslide in purple had assaulted the bread. My butter would be melting away, then I’d sprinkle so much sugar on top of my oatmeal it made a white crust covering it. I’d eat it down to its last speck with the intensity of a Walkathon contestant preparing for 40 hours on the floor. Later I would recall it as my security breakfast. Some kids had blankets they carried to make them feel all’s well with the world. I had my oatmeal and a slab of butter. I was a lonely kid.
Henry, whose punctuality was uncanny, would knock again on my door at noon, “Hey, Toots, are ya okay in there?” I’d open the door a crack and hold out my right hand to feel his warm fingers gripping some cool metal – the keys to the elevator. It was a game we played. He’d slip me the keys and I’d ride the elevator up and down, past the third floor, down to the basement where the laundry and the hotel kitchen were; I’d get out and talk with the cook and dishwasher. Cook usually gave me a piece of fruit and I’d hang out there for a while. If the hotel lobby was empty, I’d sneak over to the baby grand piano and play “Chopsticks” until it made the desk clerk nuts, then back to the elevator. I spent hours in that elevator. And every once in a while, when I felt perverse or extra lonely, I’d deliberately stop the elevator between the floors. Time, precious little of it, would pass. I’d hear a raucous noise – the fire captain shaking the lobby door; loud voices shouting; some thumping above my elevator cage. A tiny part of the elevator roof would open, and some big burly guy with a red sweaty face would haul me up through the top of the elevator to safety.
By 1973, I was a member of the Baha’i Faith. A big conference, my first Baha’i conference, was to be held in St. Louis. I had recently divorced and become a single parent and was looking forward to the trip. It was the first time I would see and hear a Hand of the Cause. Baha’is from around the world came.
When my mail came, along with the confirmation of plane and hotel reservations, dark inked words, The New Plaza Hotel, jumped out at me. It was a new hotel, just erected next to the old Plaza Hotel where I had stayed for so long as a child!
On the second morning of the conference, I walked over to the original, now landmarked, Plaza Hotel. “Excuse me,” I asked the hotel manager, “is there anyone here by the name of Henry. He would have been a bellhop in 1940.”
“Yes, the hotel manager said, barely looking up at me. “Henry is our Captain; he’s in charge of bellhops. Why do you ask?”
“Well, when I was a kid this was my home and Henry was my babysitter when we lived in this hotel.” I told the manager about the Walkathons, about my parents, but mainly how wonderful Henry was!
Later that afternoon, I stood on the gold and purple carpet and watched a tall, dignified and very handsome Henry walk in measured pace toward me in the Plaza lobby. “Hey, Toots, I never forgot you. Boy, you were such a sweet but sad little kid, a piece of work. Still riding in elevators?”
Henry was there at another time in my life. When Daddy returned to St. Louis to develop his music company, Henry was in the Plaza the day Daddy was shot in the bar just across the street. They called it an accidental suicide at the inquest. I was only 19 and came back to St. Louis to take care of things and bury my father. Henry remembered my coming to the hotel to retrieve Daddy’s things. Unfortunately, there was nothing left for reasons I won’t go into here, except for one picture of my mother and me that Henry saved. Henry had taken it when he heard that I was coming to the hotel after the inquest.
“Why didn’t you speak to me that day at the hotel, Henry?” That day I would have given anything for a kind look from one of the kindest men in the world and my childhood angel.
“I thought you needed to be alone, Toots. I wanted to respect your privacy. I saw that you had grown into such a pretty woman, and I knew you’d be okay. That’s why I left the picture of you and your mother on the dresser. You had enough to handle.”
I still have that picture of my mother and me, the picture Henry saved for me. Also with me: the meaning of an old hotel in a city where Walkathons happened and desperate people danced. A small name, the Plaza, but it shaped my life. “What are we going to do with the kid” no longer seemed a problem. The question became, “What’s the kid going to do,” and that’s a story for another time.
Regarding my first name: since my mother and father were in show business they jumped at the chance to be in a show in New Orleans. Six weeks after my birth we were off on a train; when they received my birth certificate, it said baby girl Mullins. They named me after my paternal grandmother and my aunt. Ruie was my mother’s name and she never liked it. When I got my first passport I asked my mother to please let me have her name and she was excited that I would want her name . On my fortieth birthday, I got a passport, a new birth certificate and changed my name to ruie. In deference to my beautiful mother I chose to always write it in lowercase, which came to be a very useful ploy as a publicist working for the studios; it became an icebreaker. My mother always spelled her name with a flourish capital R so it only seemed proper that I would take the lowercase. I understand from my grandmother that she found the name in a story she read about a girl in Romania.
Thanks for asking.
Author’s Comment: I am filled with tales of my family. I wanted to show my children a brief memory of my life and who they came from. We were eccentric and different. My great grandmother began our odyssey when she came to Canada by steamer from Romania, then down the Mississippi. Never able to settle down, I drifted from one place to another; I have been in every state but Hawaii; I traveled the world trying to find roots – as far away as China. My father was Irish and I hope someday to be able to visit Ireland. But my stroke has curtailed my traveling, so I will have to be content with my memories and stories of times gone by.