The Levinges came to live nearby,
bothering daddy. He was
a poor torment-seeking man who counted himself a liberal,
a socialist, a brother of the brotherly race.
Yet thought every Israelite should pay rent
for arriving late, by serving apprentice time as an Angle-Saxon.
Maybe by being allowed to run a cheap store
in a Black neighborhood.
Mr. Levinge said “crap”. He was a master builder,
put up rich men’s villas, and wasn’t Jewish.
Mrs. Levinge had gypsy looks. One of the daughters
flaunted red hair, taught tap dancing.
They were like New York City, loud,
with— you’ll understand me, —neither humility nor class.
Gloria, the youngest, was, God knows, his only friend.
“She was born a lady; she doesn’t have to try”,
said Mama. With furious eyes like a bird,
she could pass for a Cherokee child.
Also was fearless, insolent, daring their downhill Running Path.
She climbed hills, told stories–fiercely moved about.
They shared their local slopes and terrible thickets
together, learnt to grasp
anything truly worth the doing
isn’t of any use to this world.
He’d taken all that in, just as
things collapsed, and here came Depression Time.
The world, like a braked locomotive, shrieked to a deadly stop.
Houses weren’t built, people got hungry.
The Levinges moved out.
It began to rain, endlessly.
The trees skimmed black and slick,
the skies streamed down like distressed faces.
Gloria disappeared, the one who’d helped him jimmy open
the crack welded shut like battleship plates
In a world generous with gifts,
the one he needed most was washed away
with neither thank you nor goodbye,
leaving only one crack, —that face
like a lonely truth, that dancer’s form and shape.
Which made him a downhill runner
the rest of his days.
© Andrew Glaze 2022. This is a previously unpublished poem.
At a very young age, my father considered Gloria Nell Levinge to be his first girlfriend. She may have actually lived next door and, although one source says she was his age, others indicate she was 26 months older. Meanwhile, Mr. Levinge’s name was originally Levigne and had been altered by immigration officials when he arrived here from France. He had a degree in Engineering from the Sorbonne, and specialized in tall buildings.
My father studied Latin, and, roughly translated, “Gloria Mundi” means glory of the world. He once commented that he’d “never met anyone like her”, and I can easily believe that. He’d had a conventional Southern upbringing among the genteel country club set, with girls who were trained to never steal the spotlight. He once told me about a girl he knew whose mother would periodically reprimand her with, “Burgess, your brain is showing!” Now he suddenly had neighbors from New York, with seven children who really didn’t care about the nuances of future debutante cotillions. They had wider interests. Their mother had enrolled them in dancing and acting classes early-on and they all thrived in that arena.
Born in February sometime between 1918-1920, Gloria was the baby of her family. She and her three sisters soon became known for their performances in theater pageants and plays, often as a group. As adults, the three older sisters opened dance academies in and around Birmingham.
Gloria had self-confidence from an early age, didn’t care much about what anybody else thought, and when my father would take her for “a date”, they’d get all dressed up, but she would still wear sneakers to be comfortable. He was a shy boy, dress codes for girls in the South were typically de rigueur, and yet she was introducing concepts he’d never considered possible.
I don’t know where Mr. Levinge relocated his family when they moved, but clearly it was still within the city limits. In reality, the departure may have been because he suffered an early death from a burst appendix near the start of the Great Depression. Lacking his income, his wife had to sell her nicest belongings, and their children supported her for the rest of her life.
The Depression began when my father was nine in 1929, and ended when he was thirteen. At some point my father’s family also moved out of the neighborhood, but into a larger Tudor style mansion that overlooked the city. His father was a doctor who deftly managed to sidestep the pitfalls of the Depression by using barter and other options of free trade to keep afloat. I currently own a ladies Elgin watch that he bartered for his dermatologic services and brought home for my grandmother.
As for Gloria, by 1936, she’d been groomed by her entire family to compete in the Miss Birmingham Beauty Pageant and won! The title qualified her to enter the 10th Miss America Pageant on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey. She competed using her dancing talent and was one of three contestants to win the “Talent Award”. In the end, she was fourth runner-up for the crown, losing to Miss Philadelphia. She also managed to become Miss Daytona Beach during this time period.
In 1937, she left for New York City and joined the Ensemble of a Broadway musical titled, “Marching Song”. It opened in February and closed in April after 61 performances. Next, she decided to head for better weather and a potential movie career in California. She did indeed dance and act in films. My uncle remembers going to see Best Foot Forward with my grandmother in 1943. She pointed out, “There’s Gloria”, in a segment where Gloria had a small speaking role. Her niece says she was in at least one Abbott and Costello film.
On July 28th, 1942, she married Gene Lester, a pioneering West Coast news correspondent and photographer for The Saturday Evening Post. He covered events with celebrities from the Golden Age of Hollywood, but particularly became known for his photos of Marilyn Monroe. His one regret was that when Cary Grant invited him and his wife to visit for a weekend, he turned him down, because he and Gloria, who were early in their marriage, had just had a major blow-up argument. Later he learned that Grant had been planning to give him an exclusive for his secret wedding to heiress Betty Hutton that weekend. From that story alone, it seems likely that Gloria had an interesting life and career. They had two daughters. Her husband died in 1993, and she died four years later still living in California.
Gloria never realized it, but by being “the one who’d helped him jimmy open the crack welded shut like battleship plates” she forever addicted my father to a love of surrounding himself with interesting people. Debutante balls were all fine and dandy, but nothing compared to surrounding himself with artists, dancers, composers, musicians, and other poets and writers. And that is exactly what he proceeded to do, initially in Birmingham, then for 30 years in New York City, later in Miami, and finally back in Birmingham, until he peacefully died, satisfied with his life, at the ripe old age of 95.
Gloria Levinge with her mother. Photo courtesy of her family.