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.

Early Days

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 of here."

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.

Hard Times

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 the day-time.


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 and suit.

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."

Selected Discography

"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 Bell, 1921

"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)

AllMusic.com http://www.allmusic.com/ (Accessed 12/23/07)

The writer's lurid imagination.

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