We had to be on board overnight before sailing in the morning’ overwhelmed and with sudden panic, I very nearly came off the boat and went home that night. All the excitement and anticipation, the two years’ struggle and the determination dissipated into dreadful homesickness. I could not imagine now why I had ever said I would go nearly three thousand miles away. However, Louise’s resolution held firmly and she bolstered up my failing courage.
Everyone’s first long voyage is much like everyone else’s, of course, and yet individually one’s own. We were very cautious and kept ourselves much to ourselves. Well-armed with knowledge about “white-slavers” — a great issue in our youth — we knew we were not to talk to any strange men. So we hardly talked to anyone. I can’t think how I managed that for a week.
Finally, on the last night on board, we thought the danger was over and told everyone at the table why we had come to America. This caused a terrific sensation. It is just the kind of mad thing the dear Americans love.
Had we friends in New York? No. Relatives? No. Business? No. Any reason at all for coming other than to hear Galli-Curci sing in opera? No other reason at all.
Then someone remarked that Galli-Curci ought to be told. It was such a wonderful story. “But she knows,” we explained. “She waited while we saved up the money. She is giving us tickets for everything she sings. And she has promised to sing Traviata, because it’s our favourite opera.”
This really was a bombshell from the two quiet, inconspicuous Britishers in their homemade dresses. Amid the laughter and congratulations of the people around us, we became starlets in our own right for a few hours.
The next morning we arrived in New York.
I suppose the first view of Manhattan from the water is still one of the most fantastic and incredible sights to European eyes. But in those days, it was especially fantasy-laden. We had never seen a skyscraper before. At that time, no London building was allowed to rise about twelve storeys. And some of those early skyscrapers were truly beautiful, so unlike the faceless horrors of today (1950). Indeed, it is impossible to describe the sheer beauty of New York during the 1920’s.
We lost our hearts to New York the first day. In spite of its many chances, it still holds a special unchallenged place in our affections.
The very respectable friend and a friend collected us from the boat — Mother, also with white slavers in mind, having stipulated that this precaution at least must be observed. Having satisfied ourselves that he was who he said he was and not a super-subtle white-slaver, we allowed him to escort us off the ship and deposit us at our Washington Square hotel.
It was the afternoon by then, and we decided to go out immediately and find Galli-Curci’s agents. We walked — not daring to get on anything for fear of what it might cost — all the way up Fifth Avenue to Thirty-Ninth Street, along to Broadway — according to the instructions we had memorized from our guide book nearly two years ago — and stood gazing at the outside of the Metropolitan Opera House. The Old Met, of course, Now, alas, no longer is existence.
Later, we sought out the offices of Evans & Slater and, feeling once more rather shy and far from home, timidly asked “Please, could we have Madame Galli-Curci’s telephone number? We have just arrived from England and …”
Before we could get any further, a pleasant American voice called out from an inner office. “Hello! Is that Miss Cook?” And out came Homer Samuels, Galli-Curci’s husband.
Dear Homer! How well he chose the words necessary to make us feel neither oddities nor hysterical fans, but friends and valued admirers. He gave us our tickets for the following evening when Galli-Curci was to sing Traviata, asked us about our journey, satisfied himself that we were comfortably established in New York, and finally reaffirmed that as soon as there were fewer rehearsals, they would get in touch with us and have us to dinner with them in their new Fifth Avenue apartment.
By the time we staggered out of the office, we already knew that our two years’ saving had been worth it. What mattered now the skimpy lunches, the cheese-paring and saving, the day-to-day sacrifices? And we had achieved it ourselves, the happiest state human nature can attain.
In a flow of contentment, we returned to our hotel, admiring the traffic of Fifth Avenue, the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan, and every American face and form that passed us.
The telephone rang as soon as we reached our room, and Louise lifted the receiver gingerly.
“Who is it?” I hissed anxiously.
“The New York Times,” replied Louise succinctly, “wants to know what we look like.”
This was right up my street! I seized the telephone and described us — as I saw us. Other questions followed. What did we think of the Prince of Wales? Of the skyline of New York? Of bobbed hair — a great issues at that time.
No one before had ever wanted to know what we thought of anything. It was marvellous, but only the beginning. The next day, several other newspapers wanted to interview and photograph us, as “the two girls who saved their money to cross the Atlantic”.
That evening e donned our (home-made) evening dresses … I thought I was what was then called the cat’s whiskers. With Louise equally fetchingly attired, off we went to sit in the stalls at the opera for the first time in our lives. Girls of our type generally never sat anywhere but in the gallery, in those days.
From our seats in the fourth row of the stalls on that wonderful night, we looked around, enthralled, at the dazzling scene. It remains with me to this day, and during the darkest days of the war when everything that was gracious, colourful and beautiful hadto go, as one of those shining memories to be cherished and treasured.
Galli-Curci performed La Traviata that night and fulfilled our most eager hopes and anticipations — worth the two years’ wait.
At the end of the performance, something wonderful happened. When Galli-Curci came on to take her applause, she picked us out from where we sat clapping in the stalls, and waved to us. I remember thinking “This is the nearest thing to royalty I shall ever be! I’m being waved at by Galli-Curci across the footlights of the Metropolitan!”
The next day, Galli-Curci asked us to dinner in her apartment on fifth Avenue. She added that she would send a car for us. Again we donned our evening dresses and swept out, we believed, as to the manor born. Our waiting car possessed a chauffeur and a fur rug. We had hardly ever been in even a taxi before in our lives.
Oh Lita! How the years roll back when I recall that evening. I suppose it was later that she became “Lita”to us for those were not th days when every important fan presumed to address stars by their Christian names. But from that first evening, she was a dear, kind, affectionate friend for life.
She apparently needed no more than a few minutes in our company to realize what kind of girls we were, and she asked almost immediately, “Did you mother mind your coming?”
We admitted that she did rather.
“I know exactly what she thought,” Galli-Curci said. “I’ll tell you what we will do. We’ll all write a card to Momma tonight to tell her that you are in a good house and she needn’t worry.”
And she did. In the middle of a busy season, she wrote to Mother, assuring her of our safety and happiness.
We attended Turandot, Falstaff, Tosca, Romeo and Juliet, La Forza del Destino and La Boheme.
Like all good things, our American visit could not last forever, and finally we had to go to say goodbye to Lita and Homer. We went home on the Aquitania, third class this time, which was the nearest thing to steerage that existed in our day. In working out our expenses, we realized that we must travel one way in lowly state, we reasoned that on the return journey there would be no emigrants. This was true, but there were deportees – 22 of them. But it was an experience and we could hardly expect roses all the way. We were spent down to our last shilling.
As we stepped off the Aquitania at Southampton, a man approached us: “Are you the Misses Cook?”
When we replied in chorus that we were, he went on, “Well, I’m from the Daily Mail.”
And a milder version of our New Yorker publicity experience began all over again.