I was between shows, walking along Fifth Avenue toward the Park which, of course, meant Central Park. The year was 1956. Women dressed in suits, hats, and wearing white gloves, all carrying rectangular dress boxes or round hat boxes, walked past. Traffic was heavy. Cab drivers honked their horns. Heat rose from a nearby subway grate, sending its odorous vapor into the air. The sky was white hot. This was the neighborhood of Bergdorf’s and Bendel’s, and you were displayed in Bendel’s window. I had never stepped inside of Bendel’s; I had only stopped to peer through the glass. How I longed for you, your shiny black velvet, your dolman sleeves, wide at the underarm, then tapered from elbow to wrist, your scooped neck, your straight skirt and taffeta cummerbund wrapping your wasp waist. Alone in the storefront window, you commanded center stage.
I was a child when my father and mother took me to Radio City Music Hall, a Christmas Day ritual, the Rockettes, then dinner at the Blue Ribbon, my father’s favorite German restaurant where he ordered sauerbraten and red cabbage. I danced down the sidewalk and up to the door. At recess, I gathered friends to form a chorus line. We were the Rockettes. I was in the eighth grade when I fell unconditionally in love with dance—late by dance standards, and by chance, I chose a studio where my teachers prepared promising students for the Rockettes. I had no idea I was a promising student until my teachers asked me to teach classes. I was a high school senior dancing every day. In March, I was rehearsing with the line. After graduation, I wanted to share an apartment in the city with friends or put my name on the list for a bed at The Rehearsal Club, a girls’ theatrical boarding house across the street from the Rockettes’ stage door entrance. Intuitively, I knew I needed to be there.
“No,” my father said.
I lived at home in New Jersey and rode two busses, one from Millburn to Irvington, a second from Irvington to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City; then, I walked three avenues east and thirteen streets north to Fifty-Third Street where I entered the stage door. Between shows, I window shopped along Fifth Avenue, and it was as if I was seeing another world behind glass. I was an Orbach’s girl, a Bamberger’s girl, a Klein’s girl, a Jersey girl. I understood that I should shop for need, not want. My father made that very clear when I asked for a cashmere sweater. Itchy wool was good enough for me.
The door gave way. Inside Bendel’s I breathed scented air. I listened to hushed tones. No crowds pushing or shouting. A saleswoman welcomed me. I pointed to the black velvet dress in the window. “It’s lovely, isn’t it?” she said. “Would you like to try it on?”
I was wearing my stage makeup, and I couldn’t believe she’d let me slip the dress over my head, poke my arms into the sleeves, then smooth velvet down over my hips with all this paint. Perhaps, she understood that once I saw myself in a three-way mirror, I would have to own the dress. Then, my father’s voice played inside my head. What the hell are you doing in Bendel’s? I took a deep breath. “I don’t have time today. Can you tell me the price?
She reached pulled out a tag from under the sleeve. “Fifty dollars.”
A week’s salary.
There was no late-night bus to Millburn, and if there had been, my father would not have allowed me, a girl alone, to ride it, so every night Mom and Dad picked me up, Dad driving and Mom accompanying him. “Why should I drive alone?” my father said.
“Why should he drive alone?” my mother said echoing him.
One night toward the end of August when I climbed into the backseat, my mother noticed my brown and white striped box. “Bendel’s?”
“She went to Bendel’s?” my father said turning and craning his neck.
“I bought a dress.”
“She bought a dress,” my father said to my mother, but, really, he was mocking me. “What right do you have to walk into Bendel’s?”
“I spent my own money.”
“At that rate, you won’t have a pot to piss in,” my father said.
“Leon,” my mother said.
“Who does she think she is Mrs. Rockefeller?” my father said to my mother.
“I’m sure it’s beautiful,” my mother said. She turned to face me, her expression both support and warning. Don’t get him started. Then, to my father. “She’s going to college, Leon. She needs nice clothes.”
Early that summer, a pink slip appeared in my pay envelope. I’d been furloughed. As a Rockette, I belonged to AGVA, American Guild of Variety Artists, and our contract specified thirty-six Rockettes on stage, and I believe it was forty-two on the payroll. The numbers weren’t working, and as a new hire I was one of three girls furloughed for two weeks. I didn’t know what furlough meant, and even though I had a date to return, I dropped down into the deep hole my father had hollowed out inside of me. I’m not good enough. They don’t like me. I’ve lost my job. They won’t take me back. What will I do? Where will I go?
I sobbed and sobbed, and even though my mother tried to tell me I hadn’t been fired, that I was truly a Rockette, I blubbered, “I want to go to college.”
My father swooped like a hawk to its prey. He’d allowed me to audition for the Rockettes only because he knew the odds. He thought I’d never defy them. Turned out, I was one of five chosen out of four hundred. I was not allowed to consider shared apartment or a bed at The Rehearsal Club. He insisted I live at home. He forbade me to spend the night with friends in the City. My father did not want me on the stage; he wanted me in college where I’d find a suitable husband. If that didn’t happen before I graduated, I would become a teacher. “That way,” he said, “you’ll have something to fall back on.” I imagined falling backwards into space. No one to catch me.
Because he was president of the Chamber of Commerce and the Kiwanis Club, because he knew everybody in town, he pulled strings, and late that summer, I received an acceptance letter from Wilson College. Was that why later, I bought the dress, an act of defiance after I’d signed my life away?
The dress hung in my closet. I wore it for the first time at a college dance. Maybe, it was a fraternity party. I was with my high school sweetheart. Perhaps, that was the night he symbolically gave me his big brother’s fraternity pin, a stand in until he had one of his own. He understood my love for dance, and although not a dancer himself, he danced with me, slow dances, then fast. We danced to Fats Domino’s “I’m in Love Again,” and I was in love again or maybe still – with my dress, with my boyfriend. Music spoke to my body and set in motion, and in those moments, the deep hole my father dug inside of me disappeared. My boyfriend spun me out, and I danced back low and slinky, careful of my dress’s narrow skirt. He lifted his arm, and I twirled under. I lifted mine, high and slightly toward my back, and instantly, I heard the sound of something tearing. I touched under my arm. Skin. I’d torn my dress. My beautiful dress.
“I’m sorry,” my boyfriend said.
I was stunned. Couldn’t move.
“What can I do?”
I glanced at his face, then fled. In a bathroom, I raised my arm and stood sideways. The dress was torn from underarm to waist. It was the fault of the dolman sleeve, tight and winged. No seam. No give to the fabric. No give to my father. To this day, I play what if. What if I’d gotten a bed at The Rehearsal Club? Or a room in a friend’s apartment? Had I been able to choose that other life where would it have led me? Those are the key words: had I been able to choose. I was under my father’s thumb. I was young. I did, and I didn’t have the grit. Even then, I think I understood that you, my black velvet dress, were my last tie to the swelling sounds of an orchestra playing as I kicked high, then struck my final pose on the floodlit stage of Radio City Music Hall.
Sandell Morse is the prize-winning author of the memoir, The Spiral Shell, A French Village Reveals Its Secrets of Jewish Resistance in World War II (Schaffner Press, April 2020). Morse’s nonfiction has been noted in The Best American Essaysseries and published in Creative Nonfiction, Ploughshares, the New England Review, Fourth Genre ASCENT, Solstice, and Tiferet among others. The Spiral Shell is a Silver Medal winner in the Story Circle Women’s Book Awards, 2020. Morse has been a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, an Associate Artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, a resident at the Hewnoaks Artists’ Colony, and a Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She holds degrees from Wilson College, the University of New Hampshire, and Dartmouth Col