New York City, 1914. Suzanne and Jada. Entwined as sisters. Talented and resourceful. Black and white. Wealthy employer and devoted maid. Together, they realize Suzanne’s dream to see her name in lights on Broadway as she becomes the dazzling Ziegfeld Follies’ rising new star. But Jada’s superb voice and dance skills give her an unexpected shot at her own success—and her own life. And when a jealous Suzanne reveals a shattering secret, their friendship becomes a bitter rivalry. Floundering without Jada, Suzanne consoles herself with dashing suitors and champagne nights. Jada transforms into Harlem’s hottest nightclub sensation, complete with financial security and a promising new beau. But when Suzanne is plagued with increasingly dangerous “accidents,” and both women receive threatening notes, they discover just how cold and hard staying on top can be. Now in the face of relentless racism and vicious obsession, Suzanne and Jada make an uneasy alliance to find out the truth. And with the Follies’ lavish world in peril and their careers on the line, their pursuit of love, success, and equality could cost more than they ever dreamed. Set against a glittering background of vintage glamour, famous figures of the time and high-stakes, Ziegfeld Girls is an unforgettable novel of two extraordinary women seizing their own fates in a pivotal era. Praise for Sarah Barthel’s House of Silence “Barthel debuts with an original take on historical events and personages. Suspense blends with history. . . . Haunting and thought-provoking.” -- RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars “An engaging, fast-paced blend of historical fiction and suspense.” – Shelf Awareness
Release date: December 26, 2017
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 304
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This was not how opening night should feel.
The Dancing Duchess had been in rehearsal for a few weeks, but the production was nowhere near ready. Jada had relearned so many moves she had to write down the latest changes just to be sure she was teaching Suzanne the right routine.
Just that morning the composer added a new song with complicated choreography. But, through it all, Jada was truly proud of Suzanne. Despite all the missteps and bruises, Suzanne hadn’t complained once. Both of them knew the consequences of a flop. They couldn’t return to Richmond, and vaudeville didn’t pay them enough to continue there. They had to make Suzanne a star.
In the small dressing room, Jada clapped out a beat while Suzanne went through the new moves.
Tap. Tap. Spin. Lunge. Tap. Spin. Stop.
“Damnit!” Suzanne cried. She rubbed her face in frustration and turned her back on Jada while trying to calm down.
Jada’s stomach lurched. Two hours to curtain and Suzanne kept messing up these simple moves. She needed to tap twice after the lunge. If only there were more time to work with Suzanne, it might be easier, but they were out of time.
Jada forced a smile. “You are overthinking this. Take a break and drink some of Mr. Buxton’s tonic.” She gestured toward the glass on the vanity.
Suzanne wrinkled her nose at the cloudy concoction. “It smells.”
“He promised that it’ll help with nerves.” She held the glass out. “Seltzer water, ginger, and . . . other ingredients. All the stars drink it.”
Suzanne grimaced, but Jada knew if all the stars drank it, she would too. Suzanne closed her eyes and downed the liquid in one gulp.
“Oh! It’s fizzy!” Suzanne exclaimed with a nervous grimace. She leaned against the wall and looked up at the ceiling. “I’m not sure if it’ll help.”
“Close your eyes and count to one hundred,” Jada suggested.
It was the same before every opening they’d ever had. At some point, Suzanne’s nerves got the better of her and she couldn’t perform accurately. The last time they opened a new routine, Jada stood on the side of the stage feeding her moves when she stumbled or forgot. The Chicago theater had threatened to terminate their contract, but changed its mind when Suzanne performed the routine flawlessly at the second show. And yet, despite all that, they’d made it to Broadway.
Suzanne mouthed the numbers as she counted. Jada grabbed a pile of clothes and shoved them into the hamper. Then she shined the powder jars. Just those small actions made the room feel calmer and less chaotic.
“One hundred.” Suzanne spoke the last number aloud. She rolled her shoulders and shook out her arms. Jada tried not to get her hopes up, but Suzanne looked like she might be ready.
A coy smile spread across Suzanne’s face as she walked to the mirror. She tapped her foot to count the last beats before starting the move again.
Tap. Tap. Spin. Lunge. Tap. Tap. Spin. STOP.
When the sequence was done, Suzanne looked to Jada hopefully. It wasn’t perfect, but Jada wasn’t sure she should tell her that. Not so close to the opening performance. And yet she had an obligation to make Suzanne the best actress and dancer possible.
“Beautiful, but you are missing a step,” she offered. “After the spin, you sidestep and meet Friedrich for the brief tango before you sing.”
Moving through the steps slowly again, Suzanne said, “The side step. Of course. Leave it to me to forget the easiest move in the number.” She pinched her own forearm in frustration.
“Want me to show you?” Jada asked.
Their eyes met and Suzanne nodded. Today was not the day to turn away help.
Tap left. Spin. Lunge. Tap right. Spin. Sidestep. Stop.
Jada moved through the dance effortlessly. She could feel the beat and could hear the music in her mind. It was all she could do to stop moving once she’d completed the steps. Suzanne watched as she always did with her legs crossed and head tilted as if Jada’s ease threw her off-kilter. Neither could help what came naturally to them. Neither doubted that Suzanne’s beauty booked most of their venues, but Jada’s fluency with both choreography and music made the most of Suzanne’s talent.
“When you come out of the spin, be sure you are on your right foot so that you and Friedrich will be in unison once you start dancing together,” Jada explained. “Let me show you again.”
Jada did the sequence again, but this time she grabbed Suzanne at the end. They stepped toward the vanity and burst into giggles when they caught their serious expressions in the mirror. Suzanne’s blond ringlets bounced, and Jada’s white smile contrasted against her dark caramel skin.
The door opened and a red-haired man popped inside. “Miss Haskins, this is your thirty-minute call,” the stage manager announced.
Jada’s smile dropped. “Thanks, Alex.”
“I’ll be onstage soon,” Suzanne promised before shutting the door in his face. “Time to get dressed.”
“Are you ready? We could go over the steps again.” There was still so much to do.
Suzanne shook her head. “None of that will matter if I’m not dressed.”
“What a headline that would make—‘New Star Performs in Bloomers.’” Suzanne pretended to gasp in horror as Jada took the gown from the hanger. “Let’s lace you up.” She took the loose laces and began pulling them tight while Suzanne stood as still as possible.
“Another pull,” Suzanne demanded. “I need the audience to admire my figure.” She sucked in her stomach as the corset constricted her torso.
“There you are.” Jada finished the laces and stepped back.
Slowly, Suzanne walked to the mirror. Turning from side to side, she smiled.
“You are a gem, Jada.”
In a few moments her waist had gone from a slim, boyish washboard to a round and curvy woman’s frame. The audience wouldn’t know what hit them. Jada could see the reviews now: “Great beauty steals the show!”
Jada collected Suzanne’s dressing gown and hung it up while Suzanne stepped into her costume. The bright blue flowered gown was monstrously large, but that was what Louis XIV’s court wore. Jada turned back to lace up the dress.
“Jada?” Suzanne’s voice was soft. “How bad is the show? Honestly?”
Jada looked up in surprise. Suzanne hadn’t ever asked for her opinion about the show before. “Accepting this role was the right move for us. It gives you experience to land a role in a bigger and better production.”
“Oh.” Suzanne nearly swallowed the word.
Jada knew where Suzanne’s mind was racing, and an insult wasn’t what Jada intended. She put a hand on Suzanne’s shoulder.
“It is a good show,” Jada insisted. “And you are wonderful in it. That is what matters.”
“Yes, that’s true.” Suzanne’s voice was full of hope. “Has any news come from London?”
“No,” Jada said in as level a voice as she could find. Every few months Suzanne asked after her former fiancé, and the answer was always the same. “Elton hasn’t replied to your last letter.”
“Nor any of them,” Suzanne muttered. She shook her curls and laid her hand on her stomach. “Just as well, really.”
“Do you think he’ll ever return home?” Jada shifted the lace cloth on top of the vanity so it lay perpendicular to the table’s edges.
Suzanne met Jada’s eyes in the mirror. “I really didn’t think he was that ill. And he’s been gone so long. I don’t know.” She sniffed and examined herself in the mirror. “If he could see me now, he’d be sorry he left.”
The past eighteen months of living on her own had been good for Suzanne. Working in vaudeville was a necessity neither woman anticipated. While some women looked gaunt when they lost weight, Suzanne’s cheeks became rosy and her eyes sparkled. When the times were rough, Suzanne would accept a dinner out with one suitor or another just to obtain a well-plated meal and let Jada eat her share of their food at the hotel. Jada never forgot the horrible men Suzanne forced herself to spend time with just to help them out. Many wouldn’t worry about their servant’s diet, but Suzanne was different. She treated Jada like family, and that made all the difference.
News of Elton’s departure reached them quickly after they started performing in Philadelphia. When he started courting Suzanne, people made quite a fuss. The oldest banking family merging with one of the oldest plantation owners—it was exciting to think of the possibilities. But not too long after Suzanne accepted his hand, Elton became ill. It was never explained with what, but once Suzanne had left, he quickly retreated to London to spend time in a clinic. Jada couldn’t help but think Suzanne’s betrayal was the thing that pushed him over the edge to seek treatment. Perhaps if he had remained healthy, Suzanne wouldn’t have been so keen to run away with Jada.
Suzanne appraised her figure again in the mirror. She fiddled with the top of her gown a bit, adjusting her breasts.
“You’re better than this,” Suzanne hissed to herself. “You have to look your best.”
Something in her tone affected Jada and she motioned for Suzanne to raise her hands up in the air. Without saying a word, Jada grabbed the sides of the corset and, with one try, lifted it higher up her sides. When Suzanne turned around, she stared miraculously at the cleavage that appeared.
“How did you . . . ?” Suzanne trailed off as she examined herself.
“There are some tricks even Houdini doesn’t know.” Jada winked at her. “You should go upstairs if you want to get a stretch in before the curtain opens.”
Suzanne opened the door and nearly walked over Alex, who was pacing in the hallway outside her room.
“Am I late?”
“No, early in fact. I just—I’m not sure if I should tell you this.” Alex fidgeted with his clipboard and tried to make eye contact with Suzanne.
Alex’s nerves were contagious. Jada’s heart beat quicker just watching him fidget. Alex rarely looked out of sorts. What had happened? Not another song change! Jada stood behind Suzanne, her shaky breath shifting a loose strand of Suzanne’s hair over her shoulder.
“Tell me,” Suzanne demanded.
“I’ve been trying to get him to watch you for weeks and now, oh my.” Alex swallowed. “Mr. Ziegfeld is in the audience. Why did he have to come opening night?”
“Florenz Ziegfeld? The Ziegfeld?” Jada’s voice carried down the hall. She nudged her friend, but Suzanne didn’t move. It was too much to think through. Ziegfeld, the star maker, was here.
Alex nodded. “Apparently some of the dancers left the company last year and he has been looking for new talent. I thought it would be a great boost for your career.” He turned slightly red as he added, “I mean, you are prettier than any other girl on Broadway.”
“Yes, thank you, Alex.” Suzanne fidgeted with her skirt.
“Well, see you onstage.” Alex gave her an odd look and rushed off to complete the rest of his preshow duties.
Jada’s heart raced. Florenz Ziegfeld didn’t visit just any woman. Alex must have begged for him to see Suzanne. She ignored the seed of jealousy that pinched her heart.
“This is good news. Just the break we wanted. I just knew this show would pay off.”
Suzanne stepped away from Jada’s excitement. She met Jada’s gaze and frowned.
“I wish Alex hadn’t said anything,” she admitted. “Now it’s even more important that I get every note and dance step right. Some of the numbers we ran through only a handful of times. How impressive can I be while I’m falling over the steps?”
“Calm down,” Jada directed. She waited for Suzanne to follow her suggestion before she explained. “Ziegfeld doesn’t care about the production or the music or the lyrics. He is after beautiful women. And you, Suzanne, are breathtaking.”
Suzanne looked up and down the hallway, where various actors were coming out of their dressing rooms and heading for the stage. “I just—I can’t be a joke. Not to such a respected producer.”
The fear was plain on Suzanne’s face. “You are good in the show. That is all that matters. Shake this from your mind and have fun on that stage.”
With a gentle squeeze of Jada’s hand, Suzanne rushed to wait in the wings for the show to begin. Jada followed an appropriate distance behind.
Even from the wings the hum of the audience pulsated through the air. Jada adjusted one last ringlet of Suzanne’s hair so that it lay against her back perfectly. Suzanne’s whole body shook. Jada didn’t blame her friend for being nervous. On the other side of that beautiful green curtain sat hundreds of people, all here to be entertained by Suzanne and the rest of the cast. And now they knew one very important person was also there, waiting to possibly change the course of Suzanne’s career.
The audience erupted in applause and Jada’s heart leapt. She couldn’t help but bounce on her toes to keep from shrieking with excitement.
“This is it!” she exclaimed.
The overture began and the hair on Jada’s arms rose.
“You are about to become a Broadway star!” Jada squeezed Suzanne’s hand. “Your dream is about to come true.”
“Our dream,” Suzanne corrected her. “I wouldn’t be here without your help.”
The music stopped and the audience’s applause roared in their ears.
From the opposite wing, Friedrich entered the stage and took his place among the silk-upholstered furniture. Suzanne rolled her head to stretch her neck. Friedrich started his first solo and Suzanne bounced on her toes. Jada stepped back. Suzanne’s excitement was almost too much for her. Right on cue, Suzanne stepped onto the stage into seventeenth-century France and out of reality.
Jada’s stomach lurched as she heard the audience’s reaction. Of course they were impressed. The director chose that shade of blue to draw attention to Suzanne’s pale skin and beautiful face. Her stardom had been well designed, and yet Jada had to remind herself to smile as she stood in the wing as promised until Suzanne finished her first song.
Jada stayed in the shadows but couldn’t help mouthing along the dialogue. Suzanne broke into a short song and Jada glanced at the corner of the audience so she could see their reactions. It was a river of faces. Most likely Alex had exaggerated the chances of the “star maker” seeing the show. Suzanne’s voice climbed to the height of her register and the clarity pulsated through the audience. The audience seemed to hold their breath as her voice rose to the back rows of the balcony. Perhaps the modern rhythm didn’t match the seventeenth-century setting, but no one would forget hearing Suzanne’s singing. The song ended and the audience applauded. Jada took her cue early and retreated to their dressing room.
The audience seemed to love Suzanne, even in this mediocre show. It was too much for Jada. Too many conflicting emotions. When her parents died, Jada knew she had to run away to avoid their fate, but never once imagined Suzanne would join her. But she did. The pair found a career in theater, fulfilling Suzanne’s dream to be an actress. There never was room for any goal other than Suzanne’s. And while Suzanne could sing well, her acting and dancing were more graceful movements than actual talent. Stardom was a pipedream, one she never really expected to find for them.
And yet, after eighteen months of eking out a living in vaudeville, Suzanne had managed an audition for a Broadway lead and then, amazingly, she got the part! Jada was happy for Suzanne’s success. And as unrealistic as the dream was, Jada longed that it were she onstage instead of Suzanne. As a black woman, her options were limited to vaudeville, blackface, or the church. Not one of those options appeased Jada’s dream. Either they paid too little or didn’t offer the right sort of class for her taste. Jada wanted to dance across a large stage and belt out bold melodies written just for her. But that was virtually impossible. Instead, she would make that dream come true for Suzanne, which was the least she could do as thanks. Suzanne left her fiancé and family behind to help save Jada’s life. She had sacrificed everything for Jada. There was no conversation in which Jada could confess her own hopes. And now, the chance to be a Ziegfeld girl . . . Jada would never be able to speak up.
Jada gripped the vanity table and glared at her reflection. Her dark brown eyes and tightly wound hair met her gaze. She looked tired. No producer in their right mind would audition such a dull, tired woman. It wouldn’t matter what her voice sounded like or what her tired limbs could do.
“Pull it together. Grandma would laugh at this little problem. At least you are in a theater! Be happy.” But even as she tried to convince herself, her mother’s mocking tone filled her ears: Filling that white girls’ dream instead of your own. You deserve more, child. Tears fell down Jada’s cheeks.
Abruptly she stood up and shook the thoughts from her head. She would not wallow in this jealousy or self-pity. Instead, she went to work. All the little jobs that kept the room looking spotless wouldn’t do themselves: rubbing the spots off the mirror, folding all the clothing so they looked perfect inside the wardrobe, even refilling the powder container. By the time everything was done, it was intermission and the hallways were once again abuzz with performers.
Suzanne burst into the room and dropped onto the chaise, dramatically perching a hand to her forehead. Both girls quickly giggled at her forced pose.
“Oh, Jada,” Suzanne swooned. “I’ve never had such fun.”
“I’m glad for you,” Jada replied. She hesitated, unsure if she should ask. “Did you see—”
“Ziegfeld?” Suzanne finished for her. A bit of the joy drained from her face. “I didn’t see him. But I’m not sure I’d know him if I saw him. I mean, it isn’t like I could walk out into the audience and gaze at each face.” She laughed at the thought. “If it is meant to be, he will call.” The yearning in her voice was palpable.
Jada handed her a glass of water and sat beside her. “That is true.”
Suzanne leaned her head on Jada’s shoulder for a moment. Jada closed her eyes, imagining they were back in Richmond with the warm summer breeze filtering in through the windows.
Abruptly, Suzanne stood up and started unfastening the laces to her costume. “Enough, I need to get dressed for act two.”
The silk violet gown hung on the dress form across the room. Jada slipped it off the figure while Suzanne stepped out of her current gown. As Jada slid the new dress over her head, Suzanne bit her lip.
“Do we have to go to the party tonight?” Suzanne asked.
The dress nearly fell out of Jada’s hands. “But it’s opening night! Surely you want to celebrate with everyone.”
Suzanne slid her arms through the sleeves of the dress. “Jada, the audience isn’t laughing where they should laugh, and Friedrich has flubbed more lines than he has gotten right.”
“But you just said you were having such a good time.”
“Well, they are laughing at my lines. I just can’t see everyone’s faces if the reviews are bad.”
It was Jada’s turn to hesitate. “You should go for a little bit and celebrate the opening. Once you’ve made an appearance, you can claim a headache or nerves or something and come home. I’ll corroborate whatever story you choose to use.”
Suzanne nodded. “Thank you, Jada.”
A knock came at the door.
The women looked at each other and Jada quickly finished tying the dress. She gave Suzanne a brush to start on her hair as she opened the door.
“May I help you?” she asked the stranger on the other side.
The man was tall and thin. His light brown hair was perfectly combed over and his suit tailored too well for him to be just anyone.
“Good evening. I am here to speak with Suzanne Haskins.”
Suzanne turned from her vanity and pulled the brush through her perfectly curled hair. “I am Suzanne.”
The man nodded. “Florenz Ziegfeld requests your presence at his office tomorrow morning. The meeting should last no longer than half an hour. You will make it?”
Suzanne’s mouth dropped open and her hand froze, her brush halfway through her hair. Quickly she regained her composure and flashed the man a dazzling smile in the mirror.
“I believe I can accommodate him. What time?”
He handed a card to Jada.
Suzanne nodded again. “I will be there.”
The gentleman nodded his head in a half bow before saying, “Mr. Ziegfeld will be pleased.”
“And, if I may be so bold—who do we have the pleasure of meeting now?” Suzanne asked. Jada turned in surprise at the question and saw Suzanne’s demure smile and coy expression. Was it possible she found this thin man attractive?
“Jonathon Franks, miss. I am Mr. Ziegfeld’s personal assistant. It has been an honor watching you tonight. We both think you are a bright light in an otherwise bleak production.”
Before Suzanne could defend her costars, Jada held the door farther open and insisted, “The second act will be starting soon. We really must get ready.”
“Oh, yes, of course. Until tomorrow, Miss Haskins.” He walked down the hall, his long legs making short work of the space.
The moment Jada shut the door, Suzanne’s nerves rose to the surface.
“Can you believe it? During intermission? A meeting with Ziegfeld himself . . . I don’t know what to make of that.”
Jada pressed down on her friend’s shoulders, grounding her and regaining control at the same time. “We will find out tomorrow. Right now, you need to get back onstage.”
In a matter of moments, they had tucked all of Suzanne’s beautiful hair under a wrap and placed the foot-high white wig on top of her head that was supposed to indicate the rise of her character’s station from one act to the next.
“Never mind what that man said. You are talented and wonderful and this show is good. Go enjoy yourself.” Jada kissed Suzanne’s cheek and pushed her toward the door.
The intro started and Jada stood in the center of the small room. She danced along the steps she’d worked so hard to perfect in Suzanne. She knew them all by heart and no one would ever know. Jada grimaced and stopped before the applause trickled through the walls.
She knew the applause was not for her.
New York provided a unique solitude. Here everything grew as if it longed to touch the sky. It was so different from Richmond’s quiet calmness. Walking beneath these buildings, Suzanne felt small, yet empowered. Men in suits bustled to and fro, ignoring everyone but themselves as they hustled down t. . .
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