"The Incomparable Hildegarde" (1906-2005) was a star for 70 years. At her peak, in the 1940s and '50s, she was the top supper club entertainer in New York. Despite her Wisconsin roots, she had a sophisticated European air about her: She wore long gowns and opera-length gloves. Her ever-present handkerchief served a role comparable to that of Steven Tyler's scarves. She was best known for the song "Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup," which was written by her lover/manager Anna Sosenko.
Why the history lesson? Because Hildegarde plays a supporting role in one of my most hellish Thanksgivings.
The year was 1983. I wouldn't say Hildegarde was at the height of her powers, but at 77 she was still breathing, and for a legend that's enough. For years I'd heard stories about how my well-heeled grandparents would travel from Washington, D.C. to New York in the postwar years to take in some theater and see Hildegarde. My grandmother, known as Mimi, was born the same year as the chanteuse, and Thanksgiving that year was her own 77th birthday.
When my mom and I saw that "The Incomparable Hildegarde" would be performing in Manhattan at the same time that Mimi would be up from Washington for Thanksgiving and her birthday, we decided to surprise her with tickets. We needed something positive because things had gotten somewhat shaky in our family--so much so that Thanksgiving dinner was actually held at my one-bedroom apartment in Queens.
There were six of us comprising three generations: grandmother, mother and four grown and almost-grown children, including the only "man" present, my younger brother. Mimi was selected to carve the turkey, which I recall did not make her happy. To her, a Thanksgiving table without a patriarch was like a Norman Rockwell picture entitled "Failure."
We dragged the kitchen table into the living room, added in both leaves, and threw a sheet over it as a tablecloth. (What can I say? I was young and no one had yet had a reason to throw me a shower.) Needless to say, the dishes were mismatched and whatever I put into service as a turkey platter, I'm sure it had not been designed with that use in mind.
Dinner was tense. Blame was flung and tears shed. The ever-stoic Mimi was able to stay focused on reminding everyone how much better her life had been than ours were shaping up to be. It was a relief to be done with it all. And finally it was the moment to present Mimi with her Hildegarde tickets and give her the good news that tonight we would all be seeing the show together.
Mimi took one look at the tickets and burst into tears. None of us had ever seen her cry before, even when her husband had died. She was more of what you might call a carrier: she caused tears but didn't have much first-hand experience with them. It was quite a shock. She composed herself quickly, though, and explained that even just seeing the name Hildegarde had brought back vivid memories of better times before her disappointing grandchildren had been born. (OK, she didn't say that last part, but it was implied.) She had mixed feelings about going: what if Hildegarde's voice was shot and she was a pale imitation of her former self? And, more importantly, what would we all be wearing? Did we even own decent clothes, because obviously what we were wearing didn't measure up.
Well, to fast forward through the subsequent arguing and transportation issues, we all calmed down and went. Hildegarde sounded great, and everyone had a much-needed brush with elegance. We might not have been the most stylish members of Hildegarde's audience, but I'll always know in my heart that we were the most dysfunctional.
Originally posted Thanksgiving 2010.