Well, I’m not sure if I’ve already talked about my passion for writing. Anyhow, next to watching films, it’s possibly my biggest hobbie. I’ve been trying to write a short story called “I’ve Heard That Song Before” for over two weeks, and I finally finished it. The idea came to me out of nowhere, one night while I was listening to Harry James and Helen Forrest in my room. I began to imagine the life of a big band era female singer named Hildy and her relationship with Tony, a pianist, with New York City as the background. You see, when I write something, anything, I always choose an actor to play each one of my characters, as if I were creating a motion picture. In this case, I picked two of the most obvious choices: the 1940’s Ava Gardner and the 1950’s Tony Curtis. This isn’t the best thing I’ve written, but I thought it would be nice to share it here, so don’t expect F. Scott Fitzgerald. Anyway, I won’t keep on bothering you with my ramblings, here you have a few photos to get in the mood and, below, the story.
I’ve Heard That Song Before
Well, you see, back then it was all very different from now. If you said you were a singer or a performer, people often had bad thoughts about you, but it was rather the opposite with me. People respected me, both men and women. I can assure you I went through a couple of rough situations, but I’m proud to say I led quite a fantastic life.
I sang hundreds of songs, but, naturally, I had my favourite; it was Harry James’s “I’ve Heard That Song Before”. I used to play it various times with the band, it always remained in my repertoire. There was this one man who loathed the song: Tony Banks, the piano player, my piano player. You know, it’s rather funny, everytime I try to describe Tony I find it terribly hard to accomplish. Tony, Tony, Tony, he was a cheeky, womanizing, charming, talented, egocentric and chance-taker bastard. Boy, how I hated him, in fact, he was the man I loved to hate. Alright, we did fancy each other too, but at times we would bite each other’s head off. He seemed an absolute jerk, but he truly was a good person, he had a heart of gold and he lived to the fullest, always with a smile on his face and a set of words to make your spirits fly. I never saw him cry, you know, sometimes he did get unbelievebly angry, but never sad nor melancholic. He was the joy of every party.
Tony had worked with me since my early days at The Staircase, down in the Village. That’s what I’d like to talk about now. The Staircase was a bar with a good reputation and a fairly big bunch of clients. It opened only during the night time, ready to open its doors to the ladies and gentlemen who wished to hear a few tunes, have drinks, meet people and chat. The owner was a nice Italian called Vicente, he was loud and volatile, but he treated me and the band nicely. That’s where it all started, my career, my greatest friendships and adventures, it all came from that place.
When I got hired, I was introduced to Tony Banks, who already worked there. During the first few days I thought he was very good looking and funny, but when I discovered his cheap tricks with girls and the way he tried to use them with me, I lost that romanticized idea and began to treat him differently, even arguing with him over silly little subjects, only to prove him I wasn’t one of those school girls and debutants he often brought to The Staircase. It was thanks to that, and my work, that I became known to many as a strong and independent woman. I earned good money, enough to make a decent living, besides, I’ve always been swell when it comes to saving money. Tony was the absolute opposite, buying drinks for everyone, losing poker games, lending “a few” dollars now and then.
I had a ball while working at The Staircase, boy, I sure did. Just imagine, I was a young girl from Conneticut who decided to go on singing instead of marrying somebody or studying. Well, not really studying, my parents only wanted me to get married, have children and all that old picture. What I find hilarious is the fact that I never did get married, I never had any kids. So, I stopped having contact with my father and mother after I moved to New York City, which did not sadden me very much, luckily.
I could tell you a thousand stories, detailed ones that is. But I’ll stick to something more general, since it is quite easier for me to do.
Now I’d be glad to emphatize a little on my relationship with Tony, our friendship. I remember one night, during the winter of 1950, my apartment burned down. I’ll never know if it was an arscenist or not, the police said it was an accident, though. Anyhow, I’ve never been able to ask for help, I simply don’t like it, so after the fire, I just sat down on the pavement, wheeping. When I least expected it, Tony appeared through the misty air of the city. He hugged me and took me to his house, gave me food and a bed, all this for a month, while I searched for a new place to stay.
“Gee, Tony, how can I thank you for this? I don’t know what you expect to get from it, but I will pay you,” I told him one afternoon.
“Don’t be silly, Hildy. I’m just doing a good old-fashioned favour for a friend, you don’t owe me anything, honey,” he answered.
Those moments were the ones that proved what a kind person he was. Secretly, I’ve always thought his whole egocentric and womanizing persona was nothing but an act. He was a kind, honest and hard-working guy from Brooklyn. That was him, deep down inside.
Our friendship was rather…irregular. There were days when we couldn’t stop fighting or wittingly attacking each other, but there were also weeks when we would spend the entire time together, laughing.
By 1951, I had begun to work at the Copacabana and I was a rising star in the music business and the New York scene. I had various offers now and then, but I wasn’t interested at all. I simply wanted to sing and dance in clubs and theaters, entertaining the audiences and making them happy by giving them the most precious gift I have: My voice. Movies never meant anything to me. Don’t get me wrong, I loved watching films, I still do, but that’s about all, you see.
It was quite a glorious time to be alive. Through the years I had made many friends, some of them were even famous. Of course, Tony was still there, he kept on working with me at the Copa. Most nights, after work, I’d stay at the club and practice with the piano, try to learn how to play it by myself. Although, naturally, I used to go out with my pallies once in a while! Tony absolutely loved the Stork Club, but don’t kid yourselves, he wasn’t a bit fancy, he just enjoyed feeling important and rich.
Around those years, I lived at the Plaza Hotel. I know what you must be thinking, but I never ever let the show business change me, I always remained Hildy Cooper. Perhaps my surroundings did change, but I sure did not, fellows.
Now, if you wish to talk about love, well…I don’t want to brag, but I had hundreds of opportunities and proposals, though a bunch of them were interested in money and a fair status. Some of them were not for me at all, but there were a couple of nice gentlemen, too nice maybe. You know, Tony was on my mind quite often, one way or another. I guess you could say he was the love of my life, if you feel like putting it that way; and I strongly believe I was his as well. Our friends used to tell us we were a golden couple, an item, because –apparently- we both had a big amount of charm, talent and good looks, that’s what they used to say. He certainly carried all those virtues with him, wherever he went.
As you can tell, I adopt the word “friendship” when I talk about Tony and I, but we were romantically involved. We never considered marriage, and honestly, I’m not completely sure why. I suppose we simply didn’t have the sort of relationship normal copules have, we just didn’t. We never told each other everything we felt, we did say “I love you” and sticky phrases of that kind, but we never fully confessed to one another.
I recall this New Year’s party at the Copa. Neither of us worked that night, we were there to enjoy the celebration and have fun. Tony and I –along with other people- were dancing and swaying to the rythym of the tunes played by the band performing on stage. Everytime Tony and I danced together, we whispered and talked during the whole time, opining about other persons and joking. Well, during that party, we were dancing “I’m Begginning To See The Light”, when suddenly a blonde girl appeared in the middle of the crowd, waving and calling Tony with a tremendously high-pitched and loud voice. He inmediately hid behind me, as I chuckled, but she quickly found him.
“Tony Banks! Believe you me, I didn’t expect to see you here, hunkie. Let’s dance, shall we?,” she grinned at both of us, excited. I knew Tony well, and I was absolutely sure he didn’t even remeber her name.
“Oh, I’m sorry, baby, but I’m dancing with…,” he started to say, thinking he would save himself with his aliby.
“Oh, but we’ve been dancing the entire evening, Tony darling,” I interrupted him, holding a few laughs. “Dance with him, honey. By the way, what’s your name?”
“Gloria Gilbert, pleased,” she responded, still with the same huge grin across her face. I simply left the two of them there and sat on the bar.
Throughout the night, I could feel his eyes on my back. I turned back to verify, and there he was, holding Gloria in his arms, but staring at me. I wasn’t sure whether he wanted to kill me or kiss me, I just winked at him and turned around. I was drinking a glass of gin, when Dan sat next to me. He was an amiable clarinetist from another band called The Blue Notes. I’ve known him since we were children, he was my neighbor. In fact, he’s one of the people who inspired me to come to the city to perform, though we had grown apart by then, but we still got along nicely.
“Why, Hildy, I don’t see you waltzing!,” he exclaimed, surreptitiously pointing his finger at Tony Banks.
“Yeah, well. That poor kid wanted to be with him a little, you know,” I shrugged.
“I’ll never understand why you treat those girls so good. They are nothing compared to you, Hildy. Besides, they’re always clinging to Tony,” he nodded.
“Oh, they’re not that bad, Dan! They are just girls, they don’t know better, they are bewitched by Tony, and they like it. I don’t mind. Louie, could you serve me another gin, and one for my friend here,” I ordered to the waiter.
“I guess so, I guess so. I’d take you dancing, but you know what a terrible dancer I am. And I don’t have the nerve to dance with the most beautiful woman in the place in front of everyone,” he gently smiled at me, taking a sip from his glass.
“Oh,” I chortled. “Dan, I think you’ve had a few drinks already, honey.”
“Maybe, maybe not. Boy, do you remember how much your mother hated me? Jesus, she sure did! I bet she still believes I’m guilty for your choices,” he laughed, with his green eyes full of nostalgia and a bit of alcohol.
A lovely waitress, Katrina, asked Dan if he wished to dance. At first, he wouldn’t accept, but I eventually persuated him. They ended up getting married a year later.
“Oh, Hildy, why don’t you sing something for us?,” Greta tried to convince me. She was the wife of the Copa’s owner.
“I rather not, Greta, darling. Besides, it’s my night off, and none of these persons came to hear me today. I’m sorry,” I refused, politely.
“Alrighty, ladies and gentlemen. It’s five to midnight, so grab your lover real tight and sway to the rythym of the last song of1952,”the singer shouted, with joy.
I began to hear a woman yelling, in fact, we all did. It was Gloria Gilbert screaming at Tony! He pushed her away from him, and walked right towards me and quickly grabbed my arm.
“What in God’s name are you doing, Tony?,” I whispered, frowning. By this time, Gloria had left, crying like a baby, with her freckled face wet and red.
“Look, I’m not going to miss this dance, and I sure as hell ain’t going to lose this kiss, do you understand? You may have pulled that dirty trick earlier tonight, but now it’s over, Hildy. No more childish baloney for tonight,” he said to me, looking straight into my eyes, holding me. I sighed, and started to dance.
“You’re absolutely crazy. I didn’t pull any sort of dirty trick! That poor kid was dying to boogie with you, you big fool,” I complained.
“Well, too bad for her, because I want to boogie with you,” he replied, more calmed. “Do you know how she called Django Reinhardt? Bingo Rainheart.”
“God,” I chuckled, covering my mouth. The countdown for New Year had begun, there was excitement all around. “Happy New Year, Tony.”
“Happy New Year, sweetheart,” he kissed me on the lips, caressing my cheek. Afterwards, we decided to leave the party and go somewhere else. I longed for that night to last forever, to never end. It is the most precious memory I have of Tony and I.
We kept working together until 1964, when rock and roll was reigning the world. We carried on seeing each other over the years, although we did have a couple of relationships during that time. Tony Banks died in 1970 of a heart attack, when he was only forty-eight years old. As you can imagine, his death broke my heart in a thousand pieces. To this day, I consider it the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, because I never felt so terribly sad in my life as when Tony passed away and vanished.
Hundreds of people came to his funeral, mourning. I sang in the funeral, an a capella version of his favourite tune, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, as tears ran through my face, smudging my soft make up. He left everything he had to his younger sister Sarah, to his best friend Rudy and to me. His epitaph reads:
Anthony Clark Banks (1922 – 1970)
“What is life without a little bit of fun, pallie?”
In loving memory of a great, jovial and loyal friend and artist.
Every time I tell these stories to the young people, they get excited and become interested, but still, they don’t understand the value and the effect all these events and people had in my life. Only I know, these are only my memories and no one will ever be able to take them away from me. I never stop wishing Tony was here, making my life sweeter and funnier, but I know he’s been there watching for me since the first day he went away. How? I can still feel his blue eyes staring at me, with love and hate.