Intermission was Ida Lucas’s time to go to work.
The Harry Waller orchestra finished its first set with a rousing version of Count Basie’s “One O’clock Jump” and the musicians, on their feet now, placed their instruments on their chairs and took their bow. The energetic lindy-hoppers crowded in front of the bandstand, still clapping their hands in appreciation – some of them calling out, “One more time.” Others shuffled back to their tables – their spirits lifted but their limbs complaining.
Ida schmoozed her way along the front row of tables here in the Circus Roof lounge. Tonight, she was wearing a fashionable, but low-cut, blue gown that matched the colour of her eyes. Holding her shoulder-length blond hair back from her face with a manicured hand, she leaned down to greet her customers, allowing them a glimpse of her wares – a peck on the cheek for Adam Simpson, Plant Manager at Westinghouse Canada who, she noted with interest, was on his own tonight – a pat on the back for Lorenzo Rizzo, a recently-elected alderman on Hamilton’s city council – and a subtle squeeze for W.J. (Billy) Johnson, president of the Tuckett Tobacco Company and Hamilton, Ontario’s ‘Businessman of the Year’ for l947’. To the women who accompanied them, she offered a polite nod along with a sweet smile.
Her job as a hostess here at the swanky Royal Connaught Hotel allowed Ida the opportunity to mingle with the city’s male elite and, on a good night, to offer them the special attention they might no longer receive at home. For a fair price, of course.
From an early age, Ida believed that her gift-wrapped, sinuous body was her pathway to success in life: money, adoring men, travel to exotic places, parties and to hell with tomorrow. So what if that meant abandoning a family life in the straight world? Just look at what happened to her own mother – married at 16 to a work-weary, loveless husband who laboured on the assembly line at National Steel Car during the week and he also had a week-end job on the cleaning staff at Hamilton General Hospital. Even so, her mother still had to scrimp in order to pay the bills for rent, food, clothing and everything else. Not to mention the burden of raising her three kids almost single-handed; all of them under six years of age, plus another on the way. Just getting enough to eat was a daily struggle during the Depression years and Ida vowed that she’d never, ever endure such misery in her own life.
Her chance to escape from that women’s world of drudgery came at age 13 when one of Ida’s male teachers had kept her after school and showed her how to make some easy money. That event changed the course of her life by revealing the power within her own body to shape a better future for herself than her mother could ever imagine.
She’d made only one big mistake along the way but she managed to put that behind her – now she could no longer become pregnant. And she believed that her young son would learn to make his own way in life just as she had done.
Ida felt good about herself as she glided with confidence among these proud and powerful men at the Connaught: she had what they wanted and she knew what it was worth to them. When her good looks faded, she was determined to have saved enough money to avoid the wretched life that her mother had endured before her early death.
At the centre table, Ida whispered into the right ear of Vincenzo Belcastro, Hamilton’s new Mob boss, “The Chedoke Room after midnight,” she said. “Camille is here from Montreal with a couple of her friends.” Belcastro now filled the shoes of Dominic Tedesco, who’d made an unscheduled departure from that position last Christmas when he dared to defy the big boss in Buffalo. At that time, a local wit began his ‘About Town’ column in The Hamilton Spectator: “True to his reputation, 1947 went out with a bang for Dominic Tedesco.”
After the last of their guests had departed, taking the Montreal visitors with them, Ida and her friend, Trixie, flopped onto a sofa in the Chedoke Room, kicking off their high heels to rest their aching feet on the coffee table. “I think I’m getting too damn old for this stuff,” Trixie said. “My face hurts from smiling and that’s not all – that big guy with Mr. Belcastro was just too rough – I had to set him straight when we were in the other room.”
Ida opened her purse, removed a small bottle of pills, and rattled it toward her. “Here, Trix, try one of these. It’ll relax you.”
Trixie shook her head. “No, thanks. I heard those things can be habit-forming. And I need my money for my kids. Tell you the truth – I’ve been thinking about retiring from this game.”
Ida paused after she’d counted out the bills from the small basket on the table by the bar. “I’d think twice about that, Honey. Where else could you earn half of this $145 that the big boys left behind for the pleasure of our company? Especially when you consider that a labourer at the Steel Company is earning only 50 bucks a week. I’m tellin’ you, Trix, 1948 could be our best year ever.”