Minerva Rose "Minny" Staedtler Quigley
A performer who traipsed in front of the curtains of nightclubs and
Vaudeville alike, Minny, as everyone affectionately called her, lived for the
attention and glitter of the stage. Nearly from her beginning in show-business,
however, her impeccable taste and dry wit were far ahead of their time. Her
insistence on singing popular songs of the time tended to bore sophisticated
audiences as much as her erudite banter isolated her from the common theater-goer.
Born on January 18, 1895 in Hoboken, New Jersey to a dance teacher and a
dressmaker, Minerva Staedtler's life seemed destined for show business. She was
only six months old when her mother, Mary, resumed giving tap and ballroom
dance lessons, and brought the youngster with her. Minnie's father earned very
little money because of the hideous designs he'd create and display in his dress
shop's window. Nobody dared tell Helmut Staedtler how awful his "fashions" were,
however, because not only was a a notoriously sensitive person, but he was a
mean drunk who measured six feet four inches and weighed nearly three hundred
pounds, none of it flab.
Forty years before Scarlett O'Hara's maid cried out "Miss Scarlett, the drapes!" in
"Gone With The Wind" Helmut Staedtler crafted skirts and coats out
of brocade window-dressing material, complete with belts made from silken cord with
tasseled ends. He got the idea when he was given the opportunity to buy hundreds
of yards of drapery material — mill ends — at a deep discount. He tried to
profit from his opportunity by calling the awkward outfits "the dressing for the
window into a woman's soul."
Many years later one of Staedtler's actual designs would appear on The Carol
Burnett Show. The dress was created by famed Hollywood designer Bob Mackie
for a Gone With The Wind spoof.
The happy little family lived in a cold-water flat above Helmut's dress shop
for the first ten years of young Minerva's life. By three years of age, her
regular attendance at her mother's dance classes had made a lasting effect on
her; she danced before she could walk. In fact, until she was four, she'd tap
dance everywhere she'd go. If she tried to walk, she'd just fall down and
passers-by would have to pick her up.
By the time Minerva was ten, she and her mother were regularly taking the
train into New York City to line up for auditions for Broadway shows,
dance-hall revues, and even night-club gigs. At age 12, she was waiting in line
patiently for her audition in Marvin Vellum's Cavalcade of Talent, when
an assistant of the director's looked Minerva up and down. "What in Heaven's
name is that child wearing?" Sheepishly, Mary Staedtler explained, "why,
my little girl's father made her a snow-ball costume for Christmastime." Minerva
and Mary waited with bated breath as the assistant approached the producer. They
spoke for half a minute and the assistant came back. She pressed a $5 bill into
Mary Staedtler's hand and told her, "the girl looks like she's wearing the
insides of a mattress. Go get the poor thing a proper dress to wear. Now get out
Strapped for cash, indeed, Helmut Staedtler had taken the insides out of a
discarded mattress, bleached them, and glued them onto the bottom part of a
cardboard snow-man display that had been thrown away by a local department
store. With cut-outs for Minerva's head, arms and legs, it was indeed a snowball
costume. The experience of rejection had added, also, to Minerva's snowballing
lack of self-esteem.
By the time Minerva was fourteen, her father had lost the dress shop (the
brocade frocks became the curtains for a cheap hotel across the street) and
spent his days and nights drinking. The family would've starved had Mary
Staedtler not developed a loyal clientele, all by now wanting to learn the new
dances which would become fads in the approaching decade.
Minerva ran away from
home in April, 1909 and eloped with an elevator operator. They left the gloom
that was Hoboken at the turn of the century and headed for the big city:
Trenton, New Jersey. She married Sherward Fenewinkle Quigley on May 3, 1909 in
a civil ceremony. The couple found a one-room apartment in a tenement building,
but it was home; their very own!
Both of them got jobs at Trenton's fashionable
Vendome Hotel, he whisking guests to the building's 22 stories, she singing at
night in the lounge for tips which she shared with the piano player. (Actually,
it was a player piano; she'd put the nickels and dimes the customers would
throw in her bowl into the piano to keep the music rolling.) During busy times, Minny would supplement her income by working in the hotel's other departments in
One evening, Minny was singing and telling stories to a sparse crowd in the
Vendome Lounge when she spotted a familiar face sitting at the bar. At the end
of her show, Minny looked around but the man she'd seen at the bar was gone. The
bartender called her over and said, "here, honey, a fella left this for you." It
was Al Jolson's card. On the back, Jolson had written, "see me at
this address in New York next Thursday at two o'clock."
She went, Jolson and his friends watched as she sang "When the Moon Comes
O'er The Mountain." They were sold. Minny started out earning the then-princely
sum of $3.00 a day singing popular tunes in-between shows at the popular Pink
Fedora ballroom on 34th Street in New York. Sherward soon followed, hitting new
heights going to work operating an elevator car for an office building in lower
Manhattan that was thirty floors high.
Anti-German sentiments were high around this time in the United States.
Jolson suggested that "Minerva Staedtler" was too Germanic-sounding, so she
changed her name to "Minny Fenewinkle." Husband Sherward was ecstatic that she
finally shared his name (well, in a way).
On Record - The Darling of the Bohemians
A talent manager for the brand-new Vitaphone record label heard Minny's
particularly tender version of "I Found Myself A Million Dollar Baby (In A
Five-And-Ten-Cent Store)" and signed her on the spot. Record sales were brisk. Minny's live performances were booked with greater frequency as the 1920s came
along with its distinctive, difficult dances. Minny longed not just to dance and
sing; she idolized Fanny Brice. She wanted to tell stories, not just be a
marionette to be rolled out and then tucked away. It was at a speakeasy in New
York's Greenwich Village that she got her first chance. In between rousing
renditions of "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "When Irish Eyes Are Smilin'" the
stagelights would dim to a single spotlight and Minny would read from the great
literature; Poe, Milton, and newcomer Edith
Wharton would be in her repertoire.
This nouveau, rather peculiar mixture of popular song and intellectual banter
didn't do much for Minny's reputation as an entertainer. However, for the owners
of the speakeasies where she worked, she was a veritable goldmine. Typically,
the crowd would enjoy a gleeful tune or two, and then, upon seeing her wield an
enormous book onto her podium, they'd head right for the bar, empty teacups in
hand, ready for more bathtub gin. Occasionally Sherward, who would accompany her
whenever he could, would hear comments from the audience like "let's get high,
baby, that bitch's gonna read poetry again."
On the other side of the coin were the intellectuals, the bohemians
who were often also denizens of the Greenwich Village bars. They'd invite Minny
and Sherward to house parties where despite Prohibition, they'd drink
marvelous Champagne and exotic whiskeys, smoke marijuana, opium and sniff
cocaine. Then the gathering would clamor for Minny to read from her books. The
chic groups at these parties would be mesmerized by her readings from
translations of French poetry, the Philosophy of Plato and the like. But Minny
always insisted on finishing her act with a big smile, a tap dance and yet
another tune that tin pan alley had churned out for the masses. This would
have the effect of casting a pall of consternation on the party (the modern-day
equivalent would be "ruining the buzz" for all in attendance).
One by one, her once-hosts overlooked her for other newfound talent. A
popular upper-east-side Society hostess who'd have Minny perform at many of her
parties changed her strategy; new-comer to Cafe Society, Truman Capote, would
recline upon his hostess's chaise lounge wearing silk pajamas and read from
Whitman's Leaves of Grass.
By the 1930s, the couple had a lovely high-rise apartment on New York's
Riverside Drive and seemed to have everything going for them. But slowly Minny's
gigs dried up. Friends in showbiz tried to get her to dabble in the new music
called jazz, but she wanted to stick to the hackneyed favorites of her younger
days. The couple couldn't keep their expensive apartment on Sherward's wages
alone, so they had to move. They relied for a while on the kindness of friends
but ended up living with Minny's mother, Mary. Her father had passed away in
1920, after taking a drunken stroll through the darkened streets of Hoboken and
being hit by a trolley car. Helmut Staedtler was found dead at the scene. It was
kept from the press, but the coroner's office leaked out the fact that Mr.
Staedtler was wearing a bra and black fishnet panty-hose underneath his shirt
One More Chance at Fame and Fortune
Minny and Sherward returned to their jobs at the Hotel Vendome in Trenton and
drove to work together every day. Just when Minny thought that her fame had
completely waned, she found that she had a cult following who'd formed a fan
club and made regular trips from their base in New York City to the Vendome to
hear Minny sing. Finally, they got her to record again. Minny finally gave in
and was coaxed into recording a jazz tune based on nonsense; "Frim Fram Sauce."
The song became a big hit, charting on the top 40 at number 7 at its highest.
Sherward stayed at the Vendome while Minny made weekly excursions into New York
City to record. Her recordings again became so popular, she didn't have to work
but for her occasional trip to the City to record.
With this new success came comfort yet again. Minny, Sherward, and Mary
Staedtler were given a suite at Trenton's Hotel Vendome in exchange for regular
performances by Minny, who by now was accompanied on the piano by Helle Hall, an
accomplished pianist, and, on weekends, a drummer and bass player. These
fabulous days were all too few. Minny's recordings started sliding on the
charts; she couldn't even break in above 40 (so dated was her material). You
see, the listening public wanted the swing, the sizzle of post-Pearl Harbor big bands. By late 1942 the Vendome Lounge was sparsely
attended and word had it that management wanted the singer, her spouse and her
mother to vacate the suite.
Never a big drinker, one Wednesday afternoon Minny came to the bar and told
the bartender to "give her a double." He didn't know what kind of liquor she
wanted, and when he asked, she mumbled "oh, lemme try a double of
everything." She'd had about six cocktails and was pretty much inebriated.
Sherward took her up to their floor in the elevator. It was the last time he'd
see her alive. Instead of entering their apartment, she walked to the end of the
hall where a window opened, twenty floors up from street level. Minny Staedtler
Quigley jumped to her death on November 8, 1942.
It's funny how a performer can survive in relative obscurity but in death
earn the accolades and fame that life never brought. Hundreds of mourners
attended the funeral at Trenton's First Episcopal Church. Frank Sinatra said
"she was a happy gal; she taught me a lot about how to phrase a tune." Benny
Goodman commented that "in a world of ever-changing musical fads she stuck to
her guns; her delivery and diction were excellent."
"Oh Promise Me," (b) "Mr. Dooley" Vitaphone, 1915
"Please, Mr. Conductor, Don't Put Me Off The Train," (b) "My Little
Darling Daffodil", Vitaphone, 1915
"Meet Me In St. Louis," (b) "Nearer, My God, to Thee", Vitaphone, 1915
"I Found A Million Dollar Baby (In A Five-And-Ten-Cent Store)," (b)
"Hickory Bill", Vitaphone, 1916
"Oh Promise Me," (b) "Dill Pickles," Blue Bell, 1920
"Dew-ee-Dew," (b) "Farther into the Forest," Blue Bell, 1920
"A Cluster of Posies Does Not A Garden Make," (b) "Sing With Me," Blue
"Frim Fram Sauce," (b) "Live For You", Decca 1942
"Bill Bailey," (b) "My Buddy," Decca 1942
"A Brief Timeline of American History"
http://www.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/1900m.html (Accessed 12/23/07)
The writer's lurid imagination.