Happy New Year’s Eve Eve from New York City: A Memory from The Before Times

Queen Esther sits in the library of the Booth Mansion in Grammercy Park, New York City.
Queen Esther sits in the library of the Booth Mansion in Grammercy Park, New York City.
Portrait of the Artist by DM Gillock

This is me a few Decembers ago at a New Year’s Eve Eve event at The Booth Mansion — otherwise known as The Players Club — a private club located in a tony neighborhood in New York City called Gramercy. Because New Year’s Eve is for amateurs.

Prohibition Productions started this “hey, let’s throw a massive party on the 30th” trend amongst the well-heeled vintage set awhile ago, to avoid tourists and the Bridge and Tunnel crowd and anyone else that doesn’t get it. The 31st became a day for sleeping in, to give yourself a chance to recover from the good time that was had by all the night before. And trust me — we had a good time.

I suppose at this point, I should tell you that my idea of a good time might not be anything that would remotely interest you. Because kids today. All that loud bad music, all that disposable department store clothing. All those people drunk and staggering through the streets like lost toddlers and throwing up when they least expect it. Tourists standing around in Times Square with cheap noisemakers, drinking and drugging and bundled up and screaming their heads off and wearing adult diapers. Because there are no toilets. Even if you could push and shove your way through those many thousands of heaving masses to find one, you probably wouldn’t want to use it.

Every weeknight in the Lower East Side, they show me who they really are: a bunch of out of control co-eds at some frat house kegger run amok. And on New Year’s Eve, they really show up and show out. That’s why December 31st is not an option.

I like all kinds of jazz — hot, cool, swing, West Coast, hard bop. I like the kind of dancing that feels like we’re having a conversation. I like well aged mezcal and small delicious plates and speakeasies and soft tones, sotto voce. I love a bartender that makes my cocktail based on my mood or a lingering thought, or the wonderful day I had. I love neo-vaudeville — tap dancers, opera singers, sword swallowers, magicians, burlesque, boylesque. Clowns that are as sexy as they are scary. Circus freaks. Contortionists. I love the storytelling element in all of it.

The truth is, I’m a lady. Sometimes, I’m a Black Victorian. At heart, I am (almost always) a gentleman and a man of my word. Because Daddy raised me to be a man. Something in me is relieved to know that he lived long enough to see this. I’m fairly certain that he had no idea how far I’d take it.

Those New Year’s Eve Eve parties in The Before Times were bombastic sumptuous feasts for the senses. The place was old school and elegant and full of swank, and everyone was all decked out and all over the place. There was burlesque, cocktails, tequila tastings, big bands and small combos and djs, dance lessons and lots of swing dancing, a stride piano player, an opera singer drifting around singing arias, a cigar room, lots of candy and strange things to see, like death masks and portraiture, and so much more. Like Gramercy Park, the little jewel of manicured private lushness under lock and key just across the way, reserved for the residents of the homes that encircle it. A few of us would sneak in there when the party was supposed to be over, laughing and tipsy and falling over each other. We’d disappear into the greenery and all that snowy sugary-looking goodness and play hide and seek and chase each other around like children. All of us, oblivious to the freezing cold, wearing tuxedos and vintage gowns and somebody’s grandma’s well-kept furs (I found mine on ebay), looking for all the world like featured extras from that Marx Brothers film Animal Crackers.

I can remember dancing in that park, in the cold, with a beautiful someone, while singing the theme song from Doctor Zhivago. I absolutely can’t stand being cold but for some reason, I forgot myself. Later, a few of us would find our way to the 24 hour French spot up the street to level off a little before we’d find our way home, to sleep it off the next day while everyone else went out to party, and begin all over again with a new year. Everyone would look at us like we were nuts. Because it wasn’t the 1920s or even the 1930s. But then again, yes it was. We’d find that out soon enough.

And yes, somewhere inside of all this fun there was the me in this picture, in the library with my quintet, singing those illusive dreamy songs that would make strangers fall into each others arms and sway, teary eyed. I will never forget the ladies and gentlemen who crowded into the room as we began and sat on the carpeted floor closest to the stage in their finery, crosslegged and sipping champagne, when all the chairs and the dance floor were filled. It was ethereal and wild in its own way and it never failed to made me feel like some small part of the city belonged to me.

I wore Byron Lars, of course. My hair looked like black cotton candy. I smelled like lavender and love musk. My hands and feet were soft and buttery and I wore cuticle oil that made my fingertips smell like roses. I was really into matte lipstick, so I could kiss everyone and not leave a trace. Not a visible one, anyway.

No matter how much I cut up — and trust me, I cut up a lot — I couldn’t leave until I sneaked all the way upstairs to what was once Edwin Booth’s bedroom, (yes, they’ve left it exactly as it was when he was alive, tiny slippers by the bed and everything) to breathe that rarified air and read the letter the Booth family wrote to the nation, to apologize for Lincoln’s assassination at the hands of their relation, John Wilkes Booth. I wasn’t supposed to be in there. I had to charm somebody. As it turns out, I already did. Whoever stood guard was on my side already because they were listening to me sing all night long. To increase the possibility that I would get in, I went up those stairs alone.

It made it all so real, that little note under all that glass. It was the aftermath of The Civil War, right there, almost at my fingertips. And me in my Byron Lars finery, one degree away from the murderer himself. I had a billion thoughts that imploded in my heart, over and over again, as I read and reread that letter, and hovered over it, as if I were staring into someone’s face. It made me giddy to think that one of my all time heroes General William Tecumseh Sherman was a founding member of The Player’s Club, that he glided through these halls, sat in this room or that one, had his brandy and cigar on the balcony perhaps and sat in Gramercy Park and whatnot. He was the angry redhead who broke the will of the Confederacy with his infamous March to the Sea, literally scorching the earth and leaving a 40 to 60 mile wide swath through the heart of the South, determined to “make Georgia howl”. When he got to Savannah, he decided not to burn it down because it was so beautiful. Instead, he gave it to Lincoln as an early Christmas present.

It was General Sherman who said that war is hell, not Patton. After years of strategizing and fighting Confederate soldiers and all the fire he hand-delivered to Georgia and South Carolina, Sherman would know. He most certainly would have stood in this room, touched this table, looked out this window, read this letter.

Unlike most Americans, I’m not an immigrant. I am two generations removed from slavery. Immigrants may get the job done, but it was my ancestors who were African captives that provided the enormous financial bedrock and first world status for this country. Without us, there would be no America for immigrants to claim as their own. Without us, there would be no America as we know it. Or Europe.

I thought about all the Black folk who were set free and the insurmountable odds they faced. Most of those Black folk left plantations with nothing more than their names and the clothes on their backs. I thought about my aunts and uncles and what I knew of their part in the Great Migration — and although I knew more than I probably should have, none of it was enough. I thought about Daddy. Born in 1917, with twelve brothers and sisters, a father who died of pneumonia when he was twelve and a mother who was determined to provide a better life for her children, he relocated to Brooklyn with his entire family in 1929, at the beginning of The Great Depression. I thought very deeply about what they went through.

I thought about how long it took him to get seven union cards, how much he respected unions and what his life would have been like if he didn’t have someone standing in the gap to make sure he made more than a living wage and that his rights were protected. I thought about how he relented momentarily from his constant tirade of negativity about my life in New York City when I joined Actors Equity and the Screen Actors Guild and became a professional working actor.

If my Black ancestors could build this country and then make it through such impossible odds after the Civil War when everything was against them — when they weren’t considered worthy of citizenship, when they weren’t even thought of as fully human, when all they had was God and each other — I could make it in New York City as an artist. Especially in this day and age.

I came down from that little room slowly, triumphantly, like I just conquered the world. I wore that vibe like a shroud and glided into the new year effortlessly. I had no money. I didn’t care. I had ideas, I had a plan of action. I had my love MPB by my side — the perfect consiglieri. I had my priorities in order. I had absolutely no fear whatsoever.

I knew that I was on a mission from God.

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