When Jo’s father summoned her to his office, it was the first time she’d heard from him in almost a year.
She was in the upstairs library. It had been the schoolroom, but after the last governess was dismissed and lessons fell slowly by the wayside, only the bookish girls crossed the threshold for pleasure: Doris, Rebecca, Araminta, and Jo.
(“What is there to even look at?” asked Lou, who read plumbing manuals and fashion papers and little else.
Jo said, “The atlas.”)
“Miss Hamilton,” a maid said from the doorway to the library. “Your father’s asking for you.”
Walters always sent a maid up to the girls’ floors rather than go himself; Jo guessed he kept to the old ways of doing these things. This one was a stranger—there were always new maids, it seemed—and couldn’t have been older than Sophie.
A little behind her, Araminta’s and Rebecca’s worried faces appeared in the hall.
Jo stood and smoothed her skirt.
As Jo passed, Rebecca whispered, “Good luck, General.”
Walters was waiting for her on the second-floor landing, and he led the way, as though Jo might not know where the study was.
She might not have. Their father moved his study, sometimes, as rooms took his fancy. He summoned Jo every so often, and she’d sometimes find him in a refurbished parlor or the library downstairs, if he had grown tired of his proper study. The rooms lined the right-hand side of the house, and the girls who lived above those rooms walked on glass even more than the rest. For a year, when Rose and Lily were first learning to dance, Jo had found that his makeshift office was on the second floor just under their room, and they’d had to practice in Jo and Lou’s room to be sure he wouldn’t hear.
Their room was over the high ceilings of the ballroom, which would only have been used for parties; they were always safe.
As they approached the office (his proper office—he must be content with himself these days, to go back to old habits), Walters vanished with a doleful warning look, and Jo was alone.
She wasn’t as frightened as Walters seemed to think she should be. The first time she’d been alone with her father, years ago, she’d realized what he thought of her. After that, the worst was over.
It had been easy enough, after that, for Jo to come downstairs and listen to her father talk about how he was dismissing the governess, how the girls shouldn’t look out the windows so much, as people might ask questions.
She’d come down half a dozen times, carrying an armful of worn-out shoes, to argue for a larger catalog allowance.
Jo knew that her job, after he had spoken, was to be efficient, obedient, and grateful.
(She had tried once, when she was fourteen, to argue with him over something. Her face had stung for three hours.)
It was just as well that her father wanted to see her as rarely as she wanted to be seen.
Mr. van de Maar, her father’s business associate, was on his way out; he carried the briefcase that always made him look as though he was smuggling cash out the front door. Jo wouldn’t have been entirely surprised.
When he saw her, his face went a little pinched at the edges, like he was in an advertisement for starched collars.
That her father allowed him to know about Josephine worried her; it always looked as though it worried him, too.
He nodded without really looking at her and made his exit.
Walters cut ahead of her to open the door for him, and Josephine watched the busy street slice into sight and vanish again, a flash of full loud daylight.
When she paused on the threshold of the office, he was sitting as she always thought of him—behind his desk, upright, glancing disdainfully at a newspaper.
He was a handsome man; even before she’d really seen other men in the world, she’d known he was handsome. (He must have been handsome, for people to excuse her mother marrying him.) When he was lost in concentration he had the air of a head of state, and she dared not interrupt him even to knock. She folded her hands, waited.
At last he looked up.
“Ah,” he said, “Josephine. Come in.”
He had a way of saying her name, a tiny pause between the second and third syllables, as if she needed the reminder that she’d been expected to be a boy.
She stopped well on the far side of his desk. “You called for me, sir.”
“Yes.” He leaned back in his chair and picked up the newspaper. “Something this morning came to my attention. ‘The lawless, repellent gin fever that sweeps our once-fair city has affected not only the low and easily tempted, but the high and well-meaning. The daylight banker spends his nights intoxicated, and the daughters of our storied families are lured in numbers, by immodest music and the demon drink, like princesses into that dark underground which leaves no innocent unsullied.’ ”
Jo’s heart thudded once against her ribs. She tried to keep her face blank, her breathing even.
He folded the newspaper over his hands and looked at her. “What do you think of this, Josephine?”
“Too many adjectives.”
He raised an eyebrow. “I meant, what do you think of this group of girls going out dancing at night?”
She waited just long enough before she said, “It sounds like a lot of trouble, sir.”
“Do you think,” he asked carefully, as if he’d only just now thought of it, “any of your sisters would know something about this?”
“None of them would go out without my knowing, sir.”
He set the newspaper on the table and sighed. “Sit down, Josephine.”
The desk between them seemed fifty feet wide. That suited her fine. She crossed her legs like Miss May, their first governess, had taught her, laced her hands in her lap.
“I’ve been thinking, lately, about how you and your sisters are growing up.”
Jo thought it best not to reply.
“You can’t spend the rest of your days in this house. It’s not the right life for sweet girls. I’ve done my best to keep you away from the worst of the world, as your mother would have wanted, but I see now it can’t go on like this.”
The pause pressed against Jo’s ears. She wondered if the day had come when she and her sisters could walk out.
The first thing she’d do would be to take them to the Metropolitan Museum, and then walk through the park to the opera, and they’d go out to eat at a restaurant that didn’t have a basement door in the alley with a man waiting for a secret knock if you wanted to get in on the dancing.
“And so I believe it’s time you all married,” their father said.
Married. Said like it was a prize for them, like it was a choice.
She thought about her mother, what situation she must have been in that marrying their father would have been the way out. It wasn’t a compelling case.
He frowned. “Josephine?”
“I see,” she managed.
She had, in the years they’d spent in the upper rooms, imagined what would become of them on the day that, one way or another, their father couldn’t hold them any more. It had never stuck; she could get through one day, or two, with all of them in tow, but with twelve of them to care for and no money, no plan had any staying power.
But in all the dreadful things she’d worried over, she’d never imagined this.
(That their father was willing to let them go had never occurred to her at all.)
And now, marriage.
They’d be passed from one house to another, without ever seeing the city in daylight, moved into place like any other heirloom.
The girls could hope that these husbands, wherever her father planned to find them, would be kinder and more liberal men than he was. But the sort of man who wanted a girl who’d never been out in the world was the sort whose wife would stay at home in bed and try to produce heirs until she died from it.
Jo knew that much.
“I thought about having some parties here, but it might worry your sisters to meet strangers. And of course I wouldn’t want to introduce you all suddenly into society—I imagine it would be overwhelming.”
Jo said nothing.
“I thought perhaps I could inquire if there are families with suitable sons, and have a few of them come calling. It’s quieter that way—more civilized.”
He meant that this way, no one would bear witness to the twelve failed heirs of Joseph Hamilton.
She wondered if he planned to marry them off a few at a time, so society might never know how many of them there were—a dozen young men whose wives were unconnected, invisible except for a wedding portrait on the mantel and a ladies’ maid upstairs.
“What would make a man suitable?” she asked, as calmly as she could.
He glanced up at her. “That’s my concern.”
She felt as if the floor was buckling under her. She made fists in her lap.
(If she struck him, they’d all suffer.)
“Naturally,” he said, “I’d like to speak to the girls myself on the matter, as it becomes necessary, and I’ll be asking you for insight about them. You’re the eldest, and know them best, so if they’re too shy to tell me something, you’d know.”
He half-smiled, tapped the paper with his fingertips. “I wish my daughters to be happy.”
“Of course,” said Jo.
• • • • • •
The third floor was silent as Jo climbed the stairs.
The three girls’ rooms on this floor had their doors closed just as Jo had taught them, but no one was behind them, and the library was empty.
The fourth floor was a different hush—the quiet of a waiting crowd.
As she reached the landing, Jo saw Mattie’s dark head disappear from the doorway to Jo and Lou’s room.
Everyone was inside, then, and waiting.
Mattie hissed, “She’s coming!” and before Mattie had finished Ella was already asking, “What’s happened?” like Jo might have another red palm print on her face.
Her bedroom looked like a holding cell. Nine of them were crammed on the beds, a patchwork of blond and brown. Mattie was standing lookout, and Lou was silhouetted in the window, her red hair catching the light, her empty cigarette holder clamped in her teeth.
Against the far wall, twelve pairs of worn-out dance shoes stood in a wobbly line, sleeping and waiting for night.
“What’s happened?” Ella asked, looking straight at Jo.
Jo took a breath. “There’s a line in the paper about groups of girls going out dancing at night.”
Rose and Lily clasped hands.
Rebecca pushed her hair back. “Is it us, for sure?”
“No. But Father’s worried enough about the rumor.”
“Does he suspect us?” asked Doris.
Jo wished there had been more stairs between the office and this room, so she could have planned a better speech. “He might.”
Violet leaned forward. She was young and still worried sometimes about their father, the way one worries about angering the bartender. “What’s he going to do?”
“Father wants us to marry,” Jo said.
There was silence for a moment. Lou let out a whistling breath through her cigarette holder.
“He wants to meet with each of you,” Jo said, “to get to know you, so he can speak to his acquaintances and see which young man he likes best to suit each of you. There will be some dinner parties, to get to know the boys he’s chosen.”
None of the girls laughed—not even Araminta, who had a habit of being romantic and absurd. They had all been sneaking out into the world long enough to know what sort of man wanted a captive bride, a girl that a father was handing out select. Men their father was choosing from among that sort, for reasons of his own.
“Oh God,” Ella said finally, “what will we do?”
Jo had been calculating since the moment her father had spoken the word “married”; all the way across the foyer, up the sets of winding stairs, she had been thinking what was to be done.
Unfortunately, the house wasn’t tall enough, and the cigar box with her savings in it wasn’t full enough, and the world wasn’t welcoming enough.
She had eleven sisters looking to her, and no good news to tell them.
Maybe one or two of the men their father picked would be better men than their father. It was all she could hope at the moment. She could hope that Rose and Lily, who were only sixteen, and Violet, only fourteen, would be allowed to wait a few years. Maybe Ella could stay and look after them, if they were careful about asking permission.
As for the rest, what could be done?
“I’ll think of something,” Jo said.
All of them looked relieved except Lou, who was gnawing on her cigarette holder.
“Let’s go out,” Ella said.
“Too soon,” said Doris. “They put out that article. They’ll be looking for us.”
“Let them,” said Hattie.
“We’ll give them an earful,” finished Mattie.
Rebecca frowned. “And if we end up in jail?”
“Better that than married off,” said Lou.
Rose and Lily turned identical faces to Jo. “General?”
Jo looked at them all, piled like birds on the beds: eleven girls in New York’s most refined prison.
She said, “Cabs leave at midnight.”
By 1927 there were twelve girls who danced all night and never gave names, but by then the men had given up asking and called them all Princess.
“Hey, Princess, dust off your shoes? It’s the Charleston!”
The men would have called them anything they wanted to be called, Dollface or Queenie or Beloved, just to get one girl on the dance floor for a song. But in that flurry of short dresses and spangles and ribbon-tied shoes, Princess was the name that suited; it seemed magical enough, like maybe it was true.
Wild things, these girls; wild for dancing. They could go all night without sitting, grabbing at champagne between songs, running to the throng at the table and saying something that made them all laugh, light and low together like the parts of a chorus.
It wasn’t right, all those women sticking together so close. Something about the wall of bob-haired girls scared the men, though they hardly knew it. They just knew they’d better dance their best with a Princess, and no mistake.
No need to worry, though, as long as a man could dance. The nights were long and drink was cheap, and sometimes the Princesses’ smiles were red-lipped and happy and not sharp white flashing teeth, and there were so many that if one of them turned down a dance, it was easy to wait and try again with another one.
“Princess, pass me a waltz?”
Some men never noticed their full numbers. (It was hardly fair to even ask a man to count; there were two pairs of twins—or three, hard to say—and it was easy to get confused.) They moved in little packs, two and three at a time, and it was tough to keep track. Some men thought there were only ten, or nine. The younger ones, boys just out from under their mothers’ noses, saw only the one they loved in the crowd.
The older men understood how that mistake could happen—one had golden hair, one had bright green eyes, one had a swan’s neck; together they were intoxicating—but there was no point. The girls were wild for dancing, and nothing else. No hearts beat underneath those thin, bright dresses. They laughed like glass.
The coldest one looked like someone had dragged a statue out for the night, as if she would scratch out your eyes if you so much as looked at her sideways.
No man was fool enough to ask her to dance. No reason to die young when there were eleven others.
There were willing sisters who smelled like 4711, or Shalimar, or smoke; always some sweet ones who closed their eyes and revealed dark pencil along their lashes, who laughed when a partner swung them around, who grinned and touched a man’s shoe with her own when they tapped back and forth.
No need to worry about battleaxes when a man had a girl who could light up the floor. No need to worry about loving one when all of them would be back tomorrow night. No need for names at all, so long as when a fellow called her “Princess,” she said, “Yes.”
Turned out it was just as well, not knowing, once the newspapermen came asking.
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club
Jo, the firstborn, "The General" to her eleven sisters, is the only thing the Hamilton girls have in place of a mother. She is the one who taught them how to dance, the one who gives the signal each night, as they slip out of the confines of their father’s townhouse to await the cabs that will take them to the speakeasy. Together they elude their distant and controlling father, until the day he decides to marry them all off.
The girls, meanwhile, continue to dance, from Salon Renaud to the Swan and, finally, the Kingfisher, the club they come to call home. They dance until one night when they are caught in a raid, separated, and Jo is thrust face-to-face with someone from her past: a bootlegger named Tom whom she hasn’t seen in almost ten years. Suddenly Jo must weigh in the balance not only the demands of her father and eleven sisters, but those she must make of herself.
With The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, award-winning writer Genevieve Valentine takes her superb storytelling gifts to new heights, joining the leagues of such Jazz Age depicters as Amor Towles and Paula McClain, and penning a dazzling tale about love, sisterhood, and freedom.
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