“Don’t tell me how to shpeak in dat microphone. For crying out loud, wasn’t I not in de show bisserness?” I had offended her and felt sorry. I could tell that she was offended because her English got a lot worse whenever she just about had it with people. Tante Ilse was right, of course. She had been in show business. And she sure knew how to handle a mike. After all, back in the 1940s and early ‘50s, her line of business had been radio. Radio drama, to be exact. An unlikely business for a woman like Ilse Hiss, who had come to New York in the mid-1930s—from Prussia, with no more than seven words of English and an utter disregard for dental fricatives. Anyway. This is her story; hers and Opa Heini’s.
To get that story, I had placed a small recorder under her nose. As you can see from my portrait of her, it was some schnoz. She didn’t mind the sketch, even though she was quick to point out that there was “something wrong” about that left eyebrow. There was something wrong about it, all right. She didn’t have any. Back in the ‘30s, Tante Ilse shaved, waxed or whisked them off to look more like the leading ladies of the day. You know, Harlow, Lombard, Dietrich. Marlene Dietrich was her brother’s favorite. What am I saying? Favorite! Heini was crazy about the “fesche Lola.” Crazy enough, in fact, that, when the star of the Blue Angel left Germany, Opa Heini packed his suitcase and headed for America. It wasn’t a political statement; he was pining. And although he never got to talk to Dietrich personally (he was too shy, I guess, and too busy making a living besides), his romance with America never ended. Unlike his American-born stepson (my louse of a father), Opa Heini was done with Germany, especially since his older sister had come over to join him. They were the best of friends, those two. And more, I sometimes thought.
Anyway. About that left eyebrow. It never grew back, and Tante Ilse pencilled it in every morning, right before breakfast. After half a century, her hand had become pretty shaky, which is why that arch began to resemble some kind of tribal design, a tattoo of a snake slithering desultorily along after a generous helping of mice. Maybe that’s why I made her nose look a little bigger than it actually was. To distract the eye. I had no intention to caricature or ridicule her. Not Tante Ilse.
So, there was that tape recorder with the built-in microphone under her nose now. It wasn’t the kind she had been used to. Tape recorder, listen to me. Gosh, sometimes I feel as ancient as Tante Ilse. This all took place in the early 1990s, the interviews and what followed. We had met for our weekly Kaffeeklatsch in the stuffy, keepsake brimming living room of her Upper East Side apartment, sipping, what else, coffee (with the “real” condensed milk she wouldn’t do without). In those days, Yorkville was still a very German neighborhood. Tante Ilse (“Tante” is German for aunt, even though she was, strictly speaking, my great aunt) was happy to talk about the past. There seemed to be no sad chapter in her entire life story, aside from the loss of her brother. But that would come a little later. And if you think that this serenity made her a boring person to talk to, you are very much mistaken. Tragedy doesn’t make you interesting; it’s how you manage to dodge it.
She had a giant scrapbook in her commodious lap, filled with clippings from newspapers and magazines, chronicling an age now thought of as golden. Come to think of it, it’s the book that gave me the idea. To interview her, I mean. I was going for my Master’s then, in Theater History. After taking a good and long look at that album, I surprised everyone in the department when I declared that, instead of transgender issues in Elizabethan comedy (or some such topic), I would be writing about the “theater of the mind.” That’s radio drama, in plain English. Back then, few people were talking about it, let alone study it in earnest. Maybe I wasn’t in earnest, either. Not about the degree, at least.
“For crying out loud,” she repeated, this time with a chuckle that made the fleshy folds below her chin resemble those of an agitated turkey. “What is it?” I asked, relieved that she had recovered her good humor. “I vas in the bisserness djust for that: for crying out loud!” How true, I thought. After all, Tante Ilse had been a professional “baby crier.” What kind of job is that, you ask? Believe me, it made me wonder, too.
“You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” I prompted her, teasingly, letting the tape run at last. And, after humming a few bars of the Crosby standard, she began telling it all as if I had never heard it before. Sure, I could have told it myself by then. But Tante Ilse told it best. What a phoney, I thought to myself, without the slightest sense of remorse. This wasn’t about research. This wasn’t about getting a degree. Why not admit it: I had come to be told a story . . .