Title: Almost Famous
Author: Jim Elledge
Publisher: NineStar Press
Release Date: 04/18/2023
Heat Level: 3 – Some Sex
Pairing: No Romance, Male/Male
Genre: Historical, historical, crime, ménage, gay, performance arts, blue collar, criminals, cross-dressing, humorous, law enforcement, lawyers, musicians, religion, sex industry
One steamy June night in 1925, a woman shot an insurance exec to death. After ten women were arrested and, ultimately, released, a late-night tip led police to Norma West. Although she didn’t look like the shooter, the exec’s widow swore Norma was the murderer—just as she had sworn all ten of the other women were her husband’s killer. Police charged her with the crime after her jailor noticed her five o’clock shadow. The DA banked on the jury convicting a “third-sexer,” whether guilty or not.
Missing her gig as a local cabaret chanteuse, Norma acted outrageously, flirting and camping it up with the reporters who stampeded her cell hoping for a scoop. One, Paul Sammy, a straight tabloid hack, decided to write her biography full of lies and half truths, hoping its popularity would give him a leg up at his paper. Drop-dead gorgeous Victor Winchester, who was tired of defending prostitutes for mafia-supported pimps, offered to defend her for the free publicity her clowning—and notoriety—provoked. Norma became a cause célèbre among Chicago’s fairies, flappers, and sheiks; her trial a circus trigged by her antics; and her fate as much a product of Sammy’s fantastical biography as Victor Winchester’s legal hocus-pocus.
Jim Elledge © 2023
All Rights Reserved
Norma’s first set had gone swell. The audiences at the Cat’s Pajamas liked the jazzier numbers, nothing by Rudy Vallée or any of the sentimental boys. They wanted songs with a bit of oomph and a generous splash of blue.
“I’m a Jazz Vampire” had become her signature number, and she knocked them out earlier tonight when she let down her hair and growled:
It’s easy to see.
Try as they might to fight it,
the men swarm after me.
I never leave them unkissed
’cause none can resist
aaaaaa jazz vampire.
She swung her hips. Her bosoms followed all on their own. Caught by the spotlight, the silver beads on the black fabric of her dress glittered like the Milky Way.
But now, in the tiny room the women performers used, one after another, as a dressing room, she took a breather between sets. Dressing room. What a laugh. A broom closet came closer to describing it. She hung her dresses on one of the nails in the wall to her left. Two sawhorses with a board across them and a scrap of mirror leaning against the wall served as a vanity. A naked light bulb with a pull chain dangled from the ceiling over the board. Class. Real class.
At least she had a stage and an audience.
The P.J. Orchestra blared as another woman belted out a number. Orchestra. That’s about as funny as dressing room. But that’s what they called themselves, an orchestra. Norma thought a four-piece band was too skimpy for such a grandiose word. Still, they were as good as it got in a joint like the Cat’s Pajamas. The boys kept up with all the hits, too, and had all of Marion Harris’s numbers down pat. She covered the star’s biggest hits, like “I’m Nobody’s Baby” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” and a few by other recording artists in her first set. She liked to strut to Mamie Smith’s “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down,” adding “but I can sure keep him up” here and there to Smith’s lyrics. Norma always made a song her own.
Her favorite songs told the same story with minor differences: a woman aches for her man, but he’s not around, and she suspects he’s romancing another woman. Sometimes she kills the other woman. Sometimes she kills the man. She’s always caught, tried, convicted, and sings about her sorry state while locked up on death row.
But her audiences—all men with, sometimes, a handful of women—wanted the rawer songs that lent themselves to all sorts of boob-and-butt twists. They ate it up in healthy portions, with a spoon.
Norma adored all the women who sang their hearts out on the radio and on records, all jazz-filled, jazz-lived. Except for one. She hated everything that bitch Fanny Brice sang. Fanny! Why not call yourself Assy Brice or Butty Brice? That would make as much goddamned sense as Fanny!
Norma sang two sets each of the nights that she worked, Wednesdays and Thursdays, from nine o’clock to ten and again eleven to midnight. Bigger names than hers took over the stage on Fridays and Saturdays. Between her sets, other acts kept the customers entertained. They were all singers too, of course. Solos, duets, trios—all accompanied by the orchestra: a piano, trumpet, clarinet, and drums. After finishing her last set, she and the other legit acts scrammed, and strippers took over the stage until closing at four o’clock. She always tried to leave shortly after midnight. Bernie, the stage manager, never even tries to hide his leer when he tells her good night. What would she want with small fry like him? When she goes fishing, she trawls for the big boys with the big jobs and the bigger bank accounts. A real three-course meal, that’s what she called them, not a snack like Bernie.
Besides, she needed to hurry home. She had Frank to take care of.
A pitiful excuse for a man, Frank didn’t know how to take a piss on his own. He called himself an automobile mechanic but hadn’t worked in ten years. Maybe longer. Jenny wasn’t much better. Helpless, the both of them. Like babes in the woods. That’s the real reason they were with her. Norma had no illusions about relationships. You had to get something out of being with someone, or why bother? She paid the rent, fed them, clothed them, and got them out of the apartment for fresh air once in a while. If she wasn’t in their lives, God knows where they would be. Frank in a grave. Jenny knocked up, more than once by now, diseased, and on her way to the grave too.
Frank was knee-deep in the grave already. Junkies don’t last long. Their skin goes ashen and weird to the touch. Their eyes get dull and blind-like unless the junkie drops heroin in them. That makes them glisten, as vivid as the hallucinations lurking behind them, eager to get out once the needle goes in. Frank would skip a week’s worth of grub without a second thought for half a hypo of the stuff. The morgues were full of junkies. Constellations of track marks covered the obvious, and all-too-often not-so-obvious, places on their bodies. Frank hid his between his balls and asshole.
She saved Frank from dying on the streets years ago. Lucky Frank.
Cute, petite Jenny was a whole other matter, but she got to the point where she took a liking to the stuff, too, and couldn’t resist a needle. Still, you had to hand it to the kid. She kicked the habit cold turkey, even if she almost died in the process. Frank would never be as brave—or as stubborn.
Jenny had a schoolgirl’s charm, even if she hadn’t seen the inside of a classroom for years. Her porcelain skin subtracted a decade off the date on her birth certificate, and she became popular with the type of man who turned into a slobbering pig when she walked into a room wearing a little girl’s ruffled pinafore and a big pink bow in her hair. Plenty of houses would offer a girl with her looks and talent a large cut of what she brought in, not the trifle most girls got, to make sure she didn’t stray to another house, but Jenny didn’t work for any of them anymore.
Not long after they met, Norma took charge, arranging everything for her. Jenny worked the occasional party with big shots from out of town or with city hall’s bigwigs with a penchant for the underage. French. That’s all Norma allowed now. She didn’t want a brat in the apartment, its screams and shitty diapers all over the place, or for Jenny to bleed to death from a botched fix-it. Norma had already invested too much money in her to let that happen. Besides, men paid big bucks for French, as rare in the bedrooms of Chicago’s happily married as a real French whore in its bordellos. Jenny’s ticket these days was French from a schoolgirl. She made a killing. Norma’s cut wasn’t half bad.
Most girls, even the ones in the best houses—those with thick carpets on the floors, a piano in the drawing room, servants in livery—don’t last long either. Junkies and whores: lives that burn bright for a few years, then pft! Despite the legends that ran rampant among the working girls, none had a snowball’s chance in hell of meeting the man of their dreams who would sweep them off their feet, turn a blind eye to their sordid history, and flip the quickie they were having into a honeymoon.
Norma gave Frank and Jenny stability in their lives and a chance to survive in one fashion or another. Sure, she bought Frank his stuff and even experimented once herself. She tried a drop or two in her eyes. The high it gave her with one hand stole her self-control with the other, and that made her vulnerable, an easy target for the cops and the wise guys who were always trying to muscle in on a good thing when they found it. She fought its allure for months.
So what if Jenny still worked? She worked for Norma once a week, maybe twice, and none of that crazy stuff like at other houses. Norma kept her safe. Norma kept all her girls safe.
Norma made all the difference in the world to both of them, but they never showed her an ounce of gratitude. Never a thank-you or a surprise bauble in return, just take, take, take. That’s what you get from a junkie and a whore, a whole truckload of nothing!
And Lord, they fought! They argued day in, day out. One would leave a pair of shoes in the hall, the other would stumble on them and blow up. Or one would snatch up the last slice of cake or pie, and angry words would turn into slaps and tears into bruises. They burned with jealousy when Norma paid the least bit more attention to one than the other. The one who smarted over being ignored would explode into threats and obscenities, and the two were at each other’s throats, fangs and claws bared, fists swinging.
Norma stepped in and reminded each of them about the many times she put him or her into the center of her heart and promised to love and to take care of them, body and soul. She did, too, didn’t she? She never broke a promise. Not to them. Not to anybody.
When either was under the weather, who sat by their bed day and night and, one spoonful of chicken soup after another, nursed them to health?
Her, that’s who.
When she moved from one apartment to another, who let them tag along, never asking either of them to chip in on the rent?
Norma. That’s who.
When she found she had a little extra cash after paying off the utility and grocery bills, the girls’ percentages, and even the cops on the beat, who took them out on the town, one swanky joint after another, and paid for everything?
Norma. Norma. Norma. Nobody else would have bothered.
Meet the Author
Jim Elledge has received two Lambda Literary Awards, one for his book-length poem A History of My Tattoo, the other for Who’s Yer Daddy? Gay Writers Celebrate Their Mentors and Forerunners, co-edited with David Groff. His most recent books are Bonfire of the Sodomites, poems about the arson of the UpStairs Lounge; a biography, Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy; and The Boys of Fairy Town: Sodomites, Female Impersonators, Third-Sexers, Pansies, Queers, and Sex Morons in Chicago’s First Century, a history. Almost Famous is his debut novel.
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