This story written for National Novel Writing Month is inspired by the song “Black Betty” by Leadbelly & Ram Jam. Here is part 1. Part 2 can be found here.
A simple sales call was scheduled to keep me in town for a weekend, after I met Black Betty I stayed for three months.
I remember the night as clear as gin. As soon as my foot hit the cobblestone street outside the cab I could feel the excitement. The clay covered earth rattled with the music spewing from The Black Hat. The smell of fresh-rolled cigarettes, whiskey and desperation pulled on my nostrils and dragged me in.
Williams had warned me about The Black Hat. Warning isn’t quite right, Williams nearly dared me not to go. I believe his words were, “For the New Orleans calls, make sure you stay away from The Black Hat, the girls there will put their voodoo on you.”
Never one to step down from a dare from a fellow salesman, I made sure to make an appearance at The Black Hat.
On a side-street off the French Quarter was the red brick building with darkened windows and a red awning with only the image of a black hat on the fabric. No name or address listed on the building; however, every cab driver seemed to know the place before you uttered the address. The line outside the front was littered with a mix of the town drunkards, business men and locals, all anxiously waiting to get inside.
A few phone calls to important contacts in the area and all I had to do was nod to the doorman and I was in. It was far too easy.
Inside was a sea of people, shoulder to shoulder. Long fingers of men and woman seemed to be touching, grasping and groping everyone and everything. The room bled sex.
As I made my way through the crowd I could see the stage. I could see my future. The rest of the room faded away. Black Betty was on the stage. Her strong chocolate legs glistened with sweat, white feathers held together by white and black rhinestones covered her bottom, a strategically placed black hat allowed her chest to play peek-a-book with the crowd. Her frame was long and lean, muscular in all the right areas. Her dark eyes lured you in. One look at her and you wanted her. If you were lucky enough to get a glance back, you were a dead man. Like a spider drawing in her prey, she wouldn’t let you go until she had all your money and admiration.
It was clear I wasn’t the only one who wanted her. Finely-dressed men where enticing her with hundred dollar bills, women mimicked her moves trying to absorb some of her allure to bring back to their own bedroom. I wanted her, that’s for sure, but I wanted her for something more. Perhaps something that no one else at the club that night could offer her.
It was the hot sultry summer of 1965 when I snuck back stage. Among the half-naked women, feathers and scattered lingerie, sat a dark-skinned boy about the age of 6.
“Who’s kid is that?” I asked the topless red-head lacing her boots.
“That’s Betty’s son.”
“Where’s his father?” I asked.
The red-head opened her mouth to answer but was quickly cut off.
“You askin’ about my kin?” said Betty. Her thick Southern drawl was a smooth as velvet.
I wasn’t sure if she was challenging me or asking a direct question. I knew I had one chance to impress her or she’d dismiss me as fast as a shot of Jack Daniels. “My name is Joseph Paris, I know people in New York that can get you on the cover of magazines and in fashion shows. You and your kid deserve the best life.”
Betty checked me up and down. Her fingers reached for a cigarette. I lit it for her. Her smile sealed the deal.
I wasn’t completely lying to her. I did have friends in New York tied to Vogue and Harper’s Bazzar. Working for General Cigar Company had its perks. With our ties to Cuba and the Dominican Republic we were a must have for the social elite. At the right party, with the right dress, I knew I could make Betty a star.
We left three months later for New York on the company’s dime. One picture of her smoking our new cigar and they’d wouldn’t question any expenses. Her image would sell more than I could schlepping across the country in three months talking to vendors.
I put her and her son up in the Chelsea Hotel. I wanted her to make an impression on the artists and designers who made the hotel their home. An impression she did. Within the week I got calls that she was doing impromptu burlesque shows in the lobby and roaming the halls naked reciting poetry.
It wasn’t hard to get her on the cover of Tobacco Magazine. The ad men had a taboo love of dark-skinned women. Betty was eager to full-fill their desires. Soon there were calls from Vogue, Warhol, Paris and couture New York designers all asking for Betty. I quit my job working for General Cigar Company and managed Betty full-time.
It was clear that Betty had a drinking problem when I met her. She had an obsession with pink champagne. Soon any spirit that was pink she’s drink faster than water. When she started hanging out with Warhol and fashion designer Charles James she quickly got hooked on pills and powder. Most people including myself, ignored the problem. She was making us money hand over fist. We were flying around the world and being privy to the best of the best.
One night after an art gallery opening, I got the call that Betty’s son was rushed to the hospital. Betty refused to leave the party, she was afraid she would offend her fans, so she sent me.
PART TWO LINK