“I had a man-stopping body and a personality to go with it!” is what the 81-year old Adeline Schneider told me in an interview, shortly after she had been admitted to the nursing home where I once toiled as a social worker.
Even with her many health problems, some of them of a terminal nature, Adeline had a lean, wiry body and a definite spark still in her eyes as regaled me with stories about her youth and adventures during the Great Depression and beyond. So much did they mesmerize me that some twenty years later, when I began fishing around for an idea for a novel series, Adeline’s story naturally came floating back to me. Gingerly I took it in hand and began sculpting it, obviously changing some things and inventing others until my heroine, Henrietta Von Harmon, was born, very much resembling a girl like Adeline.
For the more curious reader, listed below are some of the highlights of Adeline’s life which bear an unmistakable similarity to that of the fictitious Henrietta. Most surprising is the fact that the more outlandish parts of the novel are actually the true bits!
*Family history: Adeline’s father, Lester Von Freudenthal, was originally from Alscace-Lorraine where he (like Henrietta’s father, Leslie Von Harmon) claimed the family had been aristocratic barons, thus the “Von” in their name. Also true: Adeline’s great-grandfather eloped to Chicago with his bride and settled in Logan Square.
*Great Depression: Adeline was fifteen when the Great Depression hit, so she quit school to find work. Like Henrietta, it fell to her to go down to the armory where free government food was being handed out because her mother was too proud to go.
*Jobs: From age fifteen to sixty-eight, Adeline worked such a large variety of jobs that she can’t remember them all. Sometimes she worked two or even three at a time, many of which feature in the novel, including: floor scrubber, waitress, radio welder in a factory, hair curler demonstrator in department stores, Dutch Girl at the Chicago world’s fair, 26-girl, bookie’s girl, taxi-dancer and usherette at a burlesque theater. Adeline’s extreme beauty got her many jobs, but it also got her fired for slapping owners who constantly tried to feel her up – often in the long dark passageways or closets where supplies were kept.
*Neighborhood Boys: Like Henrietta, who is dogged throughout the novel by the love-struck Stanley Dubowski, Adeline said that a little rag-tag band of neighborhood boys who knew that she was a “nice girl” often waited by the El station for her to get off from her late-night jobs and would follow her home at a distance so that no harm would befall her.
*Burlesque: At nineteen years old, Adeline saw an ad in the paper for an usherette at a burlesque theater on Monroe and went to audition, where the line of eager women wrapped around the block. Many of the novel’s details about Henrietta’s audition are taken exactly from Adeline’s experience, including having to show off her legs and bottom on stage in order to get the job. As in the novel, the theater maintained a strict “no touching” policy between the girls and the crowd, with burly ushers doubling as bouncers to throw out any man that crossed the line. Girls were required to go to the bathroom in pairs for safety’s sake.
*Lesbians: Adeline soon discovered that most of the usherettes or dancers at the theater were lesbians. Though she did not share their sexual orientation and warded off their initial advances, she was eventually befriended by them. One of them, Didi, became her best friend and protector and tried to shield her from some of the more risqué situations that were occurring at the “lesbian parties” Adeline was subsequently invited to, which, she said, were boring because “everyone just sat around and made out.”
Though much of Henrietta’s story was taken from Adeline’s, the two tales eventually begin to diverge at some point, with Henrietta’s taking on a life of its own. For example, while I’m sure that Adeline was exposed to her share of crimes and murders as a working girl in the city, to my knowledge she was never involved with one, nor did she probably ever come across an aloof, but oddly charming, detective inspector of the Chicago police. But who knows? Maybe, like Henrietta, they once shared a dance…