Princess of the Pump Room
By Stanley Paul
May Darling in all her glory.
When people talk about the Pump Room in the 1960s, the first thing they usually ask me is, “Do you remember that old lady with the flashlights who used to come in every Saturday evening?” And then I say, “Do I!” No recollection of the place would be complete without her. May Darling – once dubbed “Princess of the Pump Room” – started coming when she was in her late seventies and continued until her death at the age of 88. She was one of those sights you had to see to believe: long platinum blonde wigs that looked like hand-me-downs from retired streetwalkers, makeup by Earl Scheib Paint & Body, and enough ostrich feathers to denude an entire flock! She looked like she had kidnapped a continent’s worth of birds, dyed each one a different color, and then draped them all around her neck at the same time!
She made all of her own gowns, and they were intensely original creations she’d dream up under the influence of indigestion. While her costumes were an unspoken challenge to the grande lady of camp herself (Mae West), certainly no dress designer in their right mind would ever want to take credit for her bizarre, individualistic results: heavy with spangles, sequins, fake emeralds, and pearls nestled into heavily draped bodices and on long flowing skirts suitable for a duchess attending a minor coronation.
Miss Darling and her beau, George Wriberg, carried everything she wore (or twirled) to the Pump Room and back again each week, and there was a lot to carry. They lived way up in the north side of the city, far from the denizens of Booth One, and would commute to the Pump Room by way of the #36 Bus, alighting at the stop about a block from the hotel and walking the rest of the way. The sight of them schlepping sundry costumes and hat boxes from Mandel Brothers, which had been closed for years, was a sight in itself. (It was rumored she had worked at the store many years before.)
Arriving at the Ambassador West then changing into her costume for the evening.
Each week they came to the Ambassador West entrance, and Miss Darling would change into her creations in the ladies room. George would drape all her paste jewelry around her neck, “diamonds that Woolworth did sell baby!” There were enough bracelets to cover both arms! How she was able to get her arms up to put those flashlights in place, I’ll never know, but then, I’m coming to that.
Anyway, when she was completely outfitted, they marched across the street to the Ambassador East and on to the Pump Room. Once in the room, her not-so-royal highness and Prince Consort would strut down the aisle to their usual table: the one next to the trumpet player. It was the loudest table in the house, and it suited them. Sitting on the balcony adjoining the bandstand – in full-view of the room – May delighted in being the center of attention.
Once seated, the extremely odd couple’s order was always the same: one chicken sandwich, which they’d split and enjoy throughout the evening, and two bourbons, which they nursed all night long.
Miss Darling always brought her photographs with her and they would be spread out on the table, ready to be autographed for anyone with the courage to ask. She offered a dozen different poses of herself (including some which dated back to her days studying under Flo Ziegfeld’s father, who ran a music school in turn-of-the-century Chicago). She loved to tell anyone and everyone that she had once been a part of the Ziegfeld Follies. Whether or not it was true didn’t really matter… no one was still alive who could dispute the story!
“The May and George Show” Pump Room.
“The May & George Show” would start when we struck up “Hello, Dolly!” May’s signature song and her signal to go out onto the dance floor. She’d glance at us and we’d all yell, “You’re on May!” George would stand up and pull her chair out for her, then she’d check her make-up, adjust the flashlights on her bosom so they would provide spotlights for her face, and the two of them would walk grandly down towards the dance floor.
Needless to say, the floor cleared and people made a circle around as she did bumps and grinds with flashlights shining up from each bosom and two more that George had focused on her from different angles. George acted like a bodyguard, keeping people from getting very close. I think he really believed that every man was out to steal her from him.
George was at his most jealous one evening when Frank Sinatra was sitting in Booth One with his friend Jilly Rizzo, a big guy who could be tough when the occasion demanded it. May was so excited about Sinatra being there that she kept walking back and forth in front of his booth. But that wasn’t all. She was winking at him! She even stopped and dropped a handkerchief to get his attention. She was, I must admit, shameless, especially for a woman well into her seventh decade.
Frank was doubled-over with laughter. Every time he’d look up, she’d be strutting in front of him with her hands on her hips, looking like a French tart who’d lost a lamppost to lean on. He’d just stare for a moment, put down his head, and lose it. He was actually hysterical, with tears rolling down his face, laughing so hard he found it difficult to breathe. Slowly he would regain his composure, but every time she’d walk by and give him a wink, he’d lose it again!
George – fuming at this point – was ready to lose it himself. He marched up to the bandstand and said to me, “If that crooner doesn’t stop flirting with my little girl, I’m going to bop him one!”
I’m thinking, “My little girl? When State Street was prairie!”
When I introduced May to Judy Garland in 1967 (a year and a half before the legend’s death), she kept telling Judy how much she had enjoyed one of her “recent” pictures. “Dear, I don’t remember the title, but it was the one in which you sang that song about a trolley!” She was describing “Meet Me in St. Louis”, a movie which was made in 1944. Unfortunately, this was 1967!
One Saturday evening I was sitting with Edith Head, the famous Hollywood costume designer, and I started talking about the character who’d soon be arriving. I described May as best I could, but Edith just kept peering at me through those tinted eyeglasses of hers, giving me a stare that said, “Stanley, I do love your stories… you’ve such a vivid imagination!”
Imagination? At that moment I knew that May would be getting ready for her grand entrance; it was something you could set your watch by. Approaching her just as she was fixing the flashlights on her bosom, I said, “Edith Head is here… you know, the costume designer who wins all the Oscars? You really should meet her!”
As I entered the room with May (George close behind, watching my every move), May cried loud enough for the whole Pump Room to hear: “Oh Miss Head! I get all my inspirations for designs from you!”
Edith simply nodded her head and smiled, slumping progressively into her seat as though she’d like to disappear into the floor. As George was escorting May to their table, Edith followed them all the way there with her eyes, proceeding to sigh and say, “It’s time for me to retire.”
May in one of her creations.
There was only one May Darling.