“. . . just born to do it”: A Baby Crier’s Audition

“Ziss is mine shtory, ja? Zo, bleeze, vill you be stumm and let me finish,” Tante Ilse burst out in her inimitable take on the English language. When she got that way, she’d assault her adopted tongue like an ill-tempered schnauzer tears at a bunch of newly arrived letters. If you were quick enough, you could just gather the pieces and make out the message intended. Tante Ilse was becoming a little impatient with me. Okay, so I was the impatient one. My finger kept hovering over the red button, and I was anxious to get the tape rolling again. Recording her story was a project that had been going on for several weeks already, ever since I found out that Ilse Hiss, my dear old, bratwurst and sauerkraut-loving great-aunt had a past in show business. Strictly speaking, it was the no-show business. Yes, Tante Ilse had once been a voice on the radio, even though hers wasn’t much of a speaking part. She had been a professional baby crier. A baby crier! Who among those of us not old enough to remember tuning in to the Barbours of One Man’s Family had ever heard of such a bewildering offspring of the dramatic arts!

I just had to ask; and even though I didn’t have to twist her arm to get the whole story, Tante Ilse refused to reminisce about her radio days in any way straightforward or logical; least of all, chronological. I still didn’t quite understand how she had gotten into radio in the first place. “And by crying!” I marveled, “How did you even know there was a market for it?”

“Ach, der market. Dat vas just a little Hungarian delicatessen, a block away. Right over there, where zey built zat, zat shkyshcratcher. Pfui! I did most of my grocery shopping zere. When it vas a market, of course. You would have loffed dat shtore!” As exasperating as such detours could be, attempting to get Tante Ilse back on track by explaining just what I meant by “market” would have been the worst thing to do at that moment. Besides, in a roundabout fashion, Tante Ilse appeared to have gotten to the beginning at last, when, to my great surprise and still greater relief, she added: “And dat’s where it all shtarted.”

It was back in the mid-1940s, shortly after the end of the war. Tante Ilse had long found out that the sidewalks of Manhattan were not paved with precious metal; she had been pounding them long enough. Her brother Heini (my grandfather) had disappeared somewhere, leaving her to fend for herself, sowing, cleaning, taking whatever job she could find. Yorkville was a German enclave then; but Tante Ilse did not want to be reminded of the Heimat and was suspicious of those among her neighbors still proud to be the sprout of a Kraut. Her pride and her principles kept her from borrowing as much as a cup of sugar.

Things might have been worse if it hadn’t been for the housing shortage and the My-Sister-Eileen deal she had going on with a typist who moved into the room vacated by Opa Heini; except that this particular Eileen was no relation and paid handsomely for her share of Tante Ilse’s place. Incidentally, that share eventually became my room when I arrived in New York in the 1980s, when I followed the “Auswanderer,” the expatriates in my family.

Unfortunately, the typist also took work home; and the noise she made on that old Adler of hers often drove Tante Ilse to distraction—and straight out of her quarters. Now, before you say I’m getting to be even worse than my periphrastic relative, let me point out that, on that fateful evening, the noises produced on the old Adler precipitated my great-aunt right to the spot where it all began. The Hungarian market, where Tante Ilse had come to splurge on a bunch of grapes. “Craips. And zour ones, too!” she chuckled. So I pressed the red button and off she went.

She must have been pretty cranky when she got down to Németh’s deli, what with the crowded walk-up, the summer heat, and the noisy typewriter. A bawling tyke was all she needed as she waited in line to pay for her purchase (and to hear whether there was any news about Mrs. Németh’s boy, a Private First Class not yet returned from Europe). Sure enough, there was just such a noisemaker in store for her. It was Mrs. Webber’s youngest, rather too young, some whispered, to make recently discharged Mr. Webber a proud father. Apparently, even the issue was beginning to cry foul.

Matters weren’t helped any when Tante Ilse tried to restore serenity by offering Webber (or not) Junior one of those sour berries. “You never heard zuch bawling,” she insisted, covering her ears as if, nearly half a century on, there still lingered the threat of a reverb in the old neighborhood.

So, what did Tante Ilse do? She leaned over the baby carriage, grinned none too endearingly, and hollered right back. To the surprise of everyone in the store, including her own, she aped the little imp so perfectly that even the mocked one shut up and listened in awe. “Den, der whole shtore was shtill. Nobody could belieff it. Vair vas dat zound coming vrom? Den, dey all looked at me. Vas I a freak or a hero? Dat I don’t know.”

“Move over Baby Snooks,” I added, “The world’s oldest toddler was born.” I had hoped that the radio reference would encourage her to tell me just how that audition led to a career in broadcasting. “I had a talent, alleright; but vat vas I going to do viz it?” I knew my cue and stopped the recording. I had to wait for the next installment; and Tante Ilse, unlike network radio, followed a most erratic schedule . . .

If you visch, I mean, wish, you may listen to my own reading of Tante Ilse’s story here.

Related writings
The Baby Crier, part one
”The Black Sheep and the Baby: A Kind of Christmas Story”

The Black Sheep and the Baby: A Kind of Christmas Story

I was not the last person to see Ilse Hiss alive; but I would like to think that I was the last one she had wanted to see. Shortly before Thanksgiving, Tante Ilse had been hospitalized with pneumonia. I knew then that she would not come out of that room alive. She knew it, too. During the last few years of her life, I had gotten very close to my great-aunt. I have no other relatives in America, and none elsewhere that would speak to me. Call me a black sheep, if you like. I’m sure my family calls me many other things besides. Anyway, this isn’t about me. This isn’t even about Tante Ilse; but I had no idea what is was all about when the nurse handed me that small parcel. My inheritance, I thought.

Tante Ilse had already left me plenty. Memories, mostly. Hours of impressions and recollections I had preserved on tape. Her ‘recording angel’ she once called me in what I assumed to be a rare moment of sentimentality. Then she winked at me, chuckled, and, in that year-round Octoberfest of an accent she had kept after nearly six decades of life in America, she added: “Aindshell? I brobaply don’t know der haff of it.”

Tante Ilse, as I said before, had been a baby crier; she had a talent for bawling that was very much in demand during the days before television, when radio was the nation’s home theater. “Vrom me, dey wanted only babies,” Tante Ilse summed up her unlikely—and largely undocumented—history in show business. “Alleright, babies I gave dem. Och, how dey endjoyed to hear me gurkle and coo. Only during Christmas I vas still. Den, de holy invent dook over; and he was not allowed to make much noiss.” So, when the nurse handed me that audiotape, I expected it to contain a sampling of her cries.

To my disappointment, there wasn’t as much as a whimper on it. Just talk and music, and a rather dismal poetry recital: an old radio program from one of New York’s small, independent stations. As tuned-in as I was to old-time radio back then, having made it the subject of my Master’s thesis, I did not recognize any of the voices. Why had my aunt given me this recording? And why had she not shared it with me before? I could not help thinking that Tante Ilse, prim and Protestant in spite of herself, was sending me a message she could only deliver from the grave.

Aside from Walt Whitman, whose poetry was haltingly recited, the only name mentioned on the program was that of the announcer, one frightfully British sounding Cecil Bridgewater, whom I had never heard of. I was none the wiser after my aunt’s funeral. The friends she made during her radio days had long passed on, and no one present could recall much of her early life, her leaving Germany after the Nazis had come into power, her struggle to earn a living in New York City, and her unlikely foray into broadcasting after she was overheard imitating a toddler at her neighborhood market. “You call this grying?” she had scoffed; and when she screamed back, a radio executive in line took note.

I had her account of all that on tape. I never got to ask, though, never dared to ask, just what had prompted her to leave her home town, accompanied by her brother, Heini, a miserable failure of a man about whom I knew nothing other than that he had deserted his wife and unborn child for a new life in New York. My father never spoke of Opa Heini, who died in apparent shame and obscurity before reaching the age of sixty, other than referring to him as the “Deserteur.”

Anyway, I followed Tante Ilse’s example more than half a century later, for very personal reasons of my own; and as thorough as I was in my research of her odd career as a baby crier, I never insisted on getting her life story, assuming that, like an infant, she would speak when she was ready. What a lousy excuse for a historian I had been; and how I regretted not to have asked while I still had the chance.

But, back to the tape. This was a few years before we all got on the Internet, mind; and, having checked every book on the subject of broadcasting available to me, all I could think of was to consult the Manhattan telephone directory. Would you believe, there was a listing for C. Bridgewater.

So, shortly before Christmas Eve, I found myself in the Upper East Side apartment of one Cecil V. Bridgewater, aged 94. A dapper chap he was, with a keen memory, for the gift of which I very much envied him. I played the recording. Not only did he recognize his voice, he recalled the program, Poetry for Everyone, which he announced during the early 1940s. He had never heard of my aunt, though; and, as we listened, he kept eyeing me, as if wondering what I had really come to find out.

I was about to leave when he turned to me and said: “You know, about that fellow who read Whitman.” “Yes?” I asked, encouragingly.

“He was not much of an orator, was he?”

“No,” I agreed.

“He wasn’t a professional, either, just a college kid from Columbia who had volunteered to recite. The station had little money for voice talent. He was never asked back.”

“I’m not surprised,” I retorted, flippantly.

“The thing was, he wasn’t really reading for Everyone,” at which point the old man performed a little dance with his finger to put the last word in quotation marks.

“No?” I urged on.

“I think I can tell you,” he responded, confidentially. “He was reading it to someone in particular. Like a code, you know.”

Tante Ilse, I thought.

“And he got hold of the transcription, as well. You know, a recording of the broadcast. I can think of only one person, besides him, who could have kept it all those years.”

I sensed he was not referring to my aunt.

“When I walked out of the studio that night, I saw him again,” Mr. Bridgewater continued. “He was in the company of another young fellow and, well, they looked very much . . . absorbed in each other’s company.”

He looked at me, and gave me a knowing smile. “I remember it well because I was very suspicious.”

“Because they were both men?” I asked.

“No,” he said, rather irritated by the question, “because the other one was German.”

At that moment, for the first time, I felt a kinship with that other black sheep beyond the fold, for mine was a story that my grandfather had lived. And I was grateful to his sister for giving me a chance to find him out at last by sharing what she could be sure would stir me to research. How brave of Tante Ilse to leave behind all she knew for the sake and safety of the likes of me, sheltering him in a cloak of silence, even as she cried like a newborn child:

Do you see O my brothers and sisters?
It is not chaos or death. . . It is form and union and plan. . . . it is eternal life. . . . it is happiness.

The Baby Crier

“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 . . .