Bathing Beauties, Booze and Bullets
By: Ellen Mansoor Collier
Rehearsals for the Miss Universe contest— Galveston’s annual “International Pageant of Pulchritude and Bathing Girl Revue”—were in full swing when Nathan and I arrived at the Grand Opera House. “You’re late!” A plump woman in a snug suit pointed backstage. “Get out of your street clothes and get in line. And you can show your beau the gate!”
Swell—that’s all I needed, to be mistaken for a breathless bathing beauty. “But I’m not…He’s not...”
“No excuses, young lady,” she huffed, hands on her hips, staring me up and down. “Do you know what an honor and a privilege it is to be selected for this pageant? Young women all over the world would love to take your place.”
“I’m a reporter, not a contestant!” I finally got a word in. “My name is Jasmine Cross. We’re doing a story on the pageant for the Galveston Gazette. Nathan’s the staff photographer.” A couple of doe-eyed beauties gave me the once-over and whispered behind cupped hands.
Nathan tipped his hat toward the stage. “Afternoon, ladies. Pleasure to be here.”
A group of girls giggled and waved. “Hi, Nathan!” they sang out.
“I see.” The matron frowned at him. “Take your seats then. Please try to restrain yourselves while we attempt to make it through one dance number without any mistakes. If possible.”
“I just need to interview some contestants for the society section,” I explained. “It’ll only take a few minutes.” Or so I hoped.
“You can wait until after rehearsals.” She turned to face the stage. “Ready, ladies?”
“We’re missing two girls, Mrs. Wembley,” a petite blonde said. “They’re not back from the beach yet.”
“That’s their loss. You all must adhere to a strict schedule or you’ll be kicked out of the show,” she snapped, resuming her drill sergeant stance.
“Yes, ma’am!” a cute brunette saluted, clicking her heels.
Nathan elbowed me with a grin. “Wait till I tell Mack and the guys that you almost got roped into this contest. Consider it a compliment.”
“Says you! Be a pal and don’t mention it, OK?” Sure, I was flattered, but if the Galveston Gazette newshounds ever found out, I’d never live it down.
As we took our seats near the center, I noticed a couple of balding men in suits parked in the front row, admiring the view. Sugar daddies or peeping Toms? Onstage, three dozen or so young gals pranced about in various types of attire—frocks, pinafores, tap pants, shorts and smocks. Tall or short with marcelled tresses or long curls, the sea of blondes, brunettes and redheads of varying shapes and sizes made a zigzag of a chorus line.
Mrs. Wembley attempted to give directions, stomping her feet for attention, her arms flailing in the air like a tipsy conductor. I remembered her as the music and dance teacher from Ball High School, acting as the choreographer or in this case a babysitter. A make-shift orchestra consisting of a grand piano, viola and flute played some old-fashioned tunes I didn’t recognize.
“I think I’m in heaven!” Nathan smiled. “All these gorgeous girls must be angels from above. I could sit here all day and see these visions of loveliness floating about on stage.”
“Angels? Floating?” I suppressed a laugh. “They’re clomping around like Clydesdales!”
“It’s only their first day of rehearsals. They just need more practice.”
“I’ll say!” I nodded. “Practice and a miracle. They’d better work around the clock before the show this weekend.”
Nathan raised an eyebrow. “Jealous, Jasmine?”
“Jealous? Bunk!” OK, maybe a little envious. Not only did I need lots of rouge and lipstick to brighten my pale complexion, I wasn’t as curvy or statuesque as the contestants. Still, I didn’t want to let on that I felt intimidated, not by their looks, but by their confidence and poise.
“Frankly, I feel sorry for these girls. They’re being exploited by men like the Maceos.”
The beauties were performing Friday night at the Hollywood Dinner Club, a swanky hot spot owned by the Maceo brothers and Ollie Quinn, head of the Beach Gang. Rumor was, notorious Galveston gangsters Sam and Rose Maceo were the main pageant sponsors, no doubt trying to lure tourists to the gang’s nightclubs for entertainment, booze, gambling and girls.
“Hogwash!” Nathan said. “These are liberated ladies, thumbing their noses at the Old Guard.” Of course he was defending the beauties! He was a hound dog like all the rest.
“Oh yeah? How is flashing your skivvies in public helping women’s emancipation?”
“What’s wrong with girls capitalizing on their natural assets?” he argued. “The winners get plenty of publicity and opportunities. Plus two-thousand bucks is nothing to sneeze at.”
Opportunities for what, I wondered? “How do you know so much about the contest?” I teased him. “Have you been hanging around the pageants, ogling the gorgeous girls?”
“My cousin Velma was Miss Galveston in 1922,” he bragged. “She didn’t win but she did get a few odd jobs out of it. She cut the ribbons at store openings, posed for a few pictures, even modeled a little for local stores. Nothing fancy, but it was fun for her while it lasted.”
“You don’t say.” I turned to him with interest. “What happened to her?”
“She met an oilman, got married and had kids. The usual.” He shrugged. “But for a small-town girl, it meant the world to her. You should’ve seen their crazy costumes then. Did you ever try to enter?”
“No, thanks,” I sniffed. “I didn’t go to college to parade around in my underwear.”
“Sorry I asked.” Nathan frowned before he rushed off to take photos. I didn’t mean to sound so snooty, but I hated to admit I never finished college. I had to drop out when my dad died to get a job—unfortunately, I wasn’t qualified to do much. I had my heart set on becoming a real journalist, but ended up as a society reporter, only writing fluffy puff pieces about charity balls, dances and debutantes’ weddings. Not exactly front-page news.
Frankly, I blamed the editor-in-chief, Mr. Thomas—this silly story was all his big idea. When he called me into his office — “Jazz, have I got the perfect assignment for you!” —the last thing I wanted to do was interview a bunch of ditzy dames, trade make-up tips and size up their breasts and thighs.
Recently I’d risked my neck to help solve the murder of a prominent banker—and this was my reward? “Why don’t you send Mack to cover it?” I’d protested, imagining our star reporter literally drooling over the idea.
“These girls don’t need an old masher hanging around. A pretty young gal like you will fit right in.” Mr. Thomas waved his cigar in circles. “Atlantic City may have their Miss America pageant, but by God we have Miss Universe! What’s more, this is the first year we’ll crown our own Miss United States! Can you believe it? Two pageants for the price of one!”
He was so excited, why didn’t he volunteer for the assignment? “Why two pageants? Isn’t one contest enough?”.
“Why not? The two lucky winners get to compete for the Miss Universe title. Our city officials think hosting these beauty contests will help promote Galveston as a travel resort.” He gave me a devilish grin. “Bathing beauties are good for business.”
No surprise. Guess who ran the city? A boardroom of lecherous old men.
Mr. Thomas smacked last week’s paper, right on the main headline: YOUNG PROSTITUTE FOUND STRANGLED. “As you know, the mayor wants only good news during Splash Day events, at least on the front page. Tourists don’t like to read stories about dead whores and gang wars while they’re on vacation.”
Since when did the editor-in-chief forfeit real journalism to go along with the mayor’s demands? Clearly, he had a boss like the rest of us worker bees.
“Only happy headlines?” I let out a sigh of defeat. “What’s the angle?”
“Stress the international aspect. Contestants come from as far away as Italy, France, Egypt and Spain to enter our Bathing Girl Revue!” He hit his desk for emphasis. “Find out more about these foreign beauties. What inspired them to travel all the way to Galveston to enter? Give it the personal touch. You know, the feature stories you girls are so good at writing.”
Girls? Mrs. Harper, my stuck-up boss and society editor, was hardly a girl. Chances were, gossiping with a bevy of beauty queen hopefuls wouldn’t land me a Pulitzer.
“Don’t look so glum, Jasmine. You’ll get a byline for every story printed.”
I perked up. My own byline? Usually only the senior staff got bylines.
“What about photos? I know Nathan will be glad to help.” I owed it to Nathan, my best friend and ally at work, who’d helped me through many a crisis, professional and personal.
“Of course.” Mr. Thomas nodded so hard his spectacles almost slipped off. “What good is a story on bathing beauties without pictures? Lots of pictures! But keep him away from the dressing rooms. This is a family newspaper, not a yellow scandal sheet!”
Sure, Nathan acted like a wolf, but he was definitely more howl than growl. When I told him, he’d grinned like a sappy villain in a melodrama. “I don’t even know what ‘pulchritude’ means, but it’s got to be good if it involves beautiful women!”
“That’s exactly what it means,” I explained. “Physical beauty.” Sad to say, looks were the contest’s only criteria, as if women had no other attributes. What about brains, creativity, talent?
By now I was getting bored and restless, and glanced around the majestic theatre. The Grand Opera House certainly lived up to its name. Built in 1894, it retained the dignified air of a Victorian masterpiece with its opulent Rococo carvings, painted ceilings and plush velvet seats.
Nathan returned to sit down, leaving his camera set up in the side aisle.
“I’m going nuts. When will this debacle ever end?” I grumbled.
“Speak for yourself. I’m getting paid to admire lovely ladies. What a dream job!”
“Quiet in the back!” Mrs. Wembley glared at us. “You should be taking notes, not gabbing about the girls.”
How in the world had she heard us over that deafening noise? We sank in our seats, giggling like naughty six-year-olds in class. She stood there, arms folded across her bosomy chest, shooting us the evil eye.
“Let’s take it from the top, ladies!” she commanded. “Think pretty thoughts!”
Pretty thoughts? The orchestra started a new melody and the girls began fluttering about the stage like madcap fairies, reminding me of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Perhaps Mrs. Wembley strived for a poetic, nostalgic look at the past, but to me the girls resembled drunken butterflies, crashing into each other and falling down on stage. I had to admit, watching the girls make fools of themselves was more fun than covering corpses. Some gals started laughing, and I couldn’t help but snicker too.
“It’s not funny,” Nathan whispered. “Give them time.”
“They’ll be old maids by then,” I cracked.
Mrs. Wembley clapped her hands like a kindergarten teacher. “That’s enough frivolity for one day, girls. Let’s get back to the routine.”
“Aw, Mrs. Wembley, we’re not a bunch of boring bluenoses.” The fair-skinned brunette who’d spoken up earlier stepped forward, reminding me of Clara Bow with her short dark hair and bangs. “Can’t we do a more snappy routine, like a tap-dance or the Charleston?”
With that, she broke into a fast patter, her shoes echoing on the wooden stage. A few other girls joined her, strutting around stage doing a crazy mix of dances: the fox-trot, black bottom, jive, rumba and cha-cha. Even the orchestra chimed in, playing a few upbeat jazzy and ragtime tunes, livening up the somber mood. Surprisingly, the impromptu steps weren’t half-bad.
“Girls! Girls! Control yourselves!” Mrs. Wembley shouted, stomping her feet.
Suddenly a couple of contestants froze in place, gaping at the theatre entrance. One by one, the girls stopped dancing, and a few pointed, wide-eyed. The orchestra quit playing and a hush fell over the auditorium.
What was wrong? We turned to see a dapper olive-skinned man walking down the left aisle, wearing a double-breasted navy pin-striped suit, a boater hat shading his face, flanked by two hulking young bodyguards, a nicer word than goons.
“Isn’t that Sam Maceo?” I nudged Nathan. “What’s he doing here?”
Nathan cut me a smile. “Bet he wants to check out the talent, along with their legs.”
It was no secret that “Big Sam” liked dishy dames. Craning my neck to stare, I observed the two thugs, one fair, one dark, both good-looking in a gangster sort of way. Then a gleam caught my eye, and I noticed the Italian hood holding a shiny pistol.
Why was Sam Maceo’s bodyguard flashing his gun at a bathing beauty dance rehearsal?