Recommended Age, Grade, and Reading Levels
- Age: 14 to 16
- Grade: 9 to 11
Claudette on the Keys is about a female pianist who follows fortune but instead finds fascism on the rise in this tale of intrigue in pre-war times. Inspired by true events, it’s the story of Ida, whose stage name is Claudette, and her husband Harry, a Toronto-based duo-piano team, who are struggling to find employment in 1936 after being laid off from their radio show. Following a solo performance at Shea’s Theatre, where Ida performs a stellar rendition of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” she is invited by a British talent agent to work overseas where she becomes embroiled in a scheme to get Jewish musicians out of Germany, passport problems and imprisonment. With a mixture of real and imagined characters, Culley provides a glimpse into the show business world of pre-war Europe through the eyes of a spunky heroine. A must-read for fans of Letters Across the Sea by Genevieve Graham and The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff.
About the author
Joanne Culley is an award—winning writer and documentary producer whose previous book Love in the Air: Second World War Letters was published in 2015. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Peterborough Examiner, Legion Magazine, Our Canada, as well as on CBC and Bravo Network. She has an MA in English from the University of Toronto and a Certificate in Creative Writing from Humber College. She grew up in Toronto and now lives in Peterborough, Ontario.
Excerpt: Claudette On The Keys (by (author) Joanne Culley)
Toronto, Canada, January 1936 Ida glanced in the hall mirror to make sure she had her face on: cheeks rouged, eyebrows plucked and pencilled, lashes curled, nose powdered and lips gleaming red. Looking down at the long fingers that were her bread and butter, she saw that her nail polish was chipped even though she’d just applied it the day before. It must have happened while she was scrubbing the floor, although she was sure she’d put on rubber gloves. She always did to protect her hands. But they’d have to do for now, there wasn’t time for them to dry. She couldn’t afford the more expensive polish anymore. Harry said she fretted too much about her appearance. After all, it was just radio and the listeners couldn’t see her. But Ida knew that if she looked dazzling, she could concentrate better on her playing. After her thirtieth birthday in a couple of months, she would have to double up her beautification efforts. Yes, she was vain, but she’d become that way from being told since she was three years old sitting on the piano stool how adorable she was when she smiled and turned to the applauding audience. She looked over at the publicity photo of them both on the piano top, taken five years ago. She thought she looked so much younger then. Her lips were closed to hide the prominent gap between her two front teeth, and her large round pearl earrings reflected the light in her eyes. She held her head high, one hand clenched, the other tucked under Harry’s suited arm – together, but apart – so full of hope. Ida’s hands trembled from the cold as she pulled a scarf over her head and tied it under her chin. It wouldn’t do much to protect her from the bitter wind, but a wool hat would flatten her hair too much, finger waves that she’d painstakingly secured with bobby pins the night before. Reaching for the bannister, she sat down on the oak step to put on her rubber galoshes over the old shoes that Harry did his best to polish. At least in the winter no one could see how scuffed the leather was. Glancing at the wooden clock on the mantel in the living room, she realized she’d better get moving if she was going to make it on time. She and Harry were to be on CKCL live at 3 p.m. – one hour from now. The St. Clair streetcar was pretty regular at this time of day, but transferring to the Bathurst car might take awhile. Harry would likely be a half-hour early. Her husband was always punctual. She wondered if he’d had any success in getting them more work at CFRB where he’d gone that morning. Buttoning up her threadbare coat, Ida reached for her black cotton gloves on the top shelf of the closet. One fell down on the floor, and she remembered the old superstition that dropping a glove meant something terrible would happen unless someone else picked it up. As there was no one else around at the moment, she immediately threw the other one down, hoping that would cancel the bad luck. Bracing for the onslaught of frigid air, she opened the door and went out. She was always cold. They only had enough money to put coal in the kitchen stove. Frost formed on the windows in the rest of the house, causing the piano to be so out of tune that she got little pleasure from practising anymore. But she had to keep at it. If only they could get more airtime, they could afford to heat the whole house. And hold their heads high. It had been humiliating when Harry had come home last Christmas Eve with a tree he’d stealthily taken from the lot on Dupont. At least the boys didn’t know he hadn’t paid for it, but there was precious little under it the following morning – a couple of pairs of socks she had knitted, some handkerchiefs passed down from their grandfather Teck, and fudge she’d made in a big batch with her mother-in-law Kate the previous week. She was fifteen minutes early when she arrived at CKCL. Pulling the heavy oak door open against the wind, she made her way up the creaky wooden stairs to the second floor. She wondered at the station not putting carpet runners down – wouldn’t the squeaky sound carry through the microphone? She almost turned her ankle on the steps that were worn in the middle, owing to the many feet that had trodden over them through the years. Harry was waiting for her outside the studio. “Oh good, I’m glad you didn’t get held up,” he said. Standing on her tippy toes, she gave him a peck on his cheek. At nearly six feet, he was eight inches taller than she was, with receding brown hair that accentuated his thin, chiselled face. She looked up to him literally and figuratively, as he was two years older than she was. He could still send shivers up her spine after fourteen years of marriage. “The connections were fine today, but it’s cold out there. My hands are freezing,” Ida said, reaching out to him. “Yikes – you aren’t kidding.” Harry brought her hands near his mouth to blow on them. “Your delicate ivory fingers need warming up before they can tickle the ivories in there.” Then, looking through the studio window, Harry continued, “Maurice has the two pianos in place. I’ve got the music for the Confrey piece, and we’ll play ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ in F.” “Good. How did it go at CFRB?” “They said they don’t have any money for musicians. They seem worse off than CKCL.” Ida’s heart sank at this disappointing news. CFRB had been one of their last hopes. She and Harry needed more work to supplement the meagre income from their once-a-week show if they weren’t to go completely under. She shuddered, thinking of their bank account, which kept going down, with expenses for the house and their two young sons. Their show was called the Black and White Spotters, after the black and white keys on the piano and the “spots” or short pieces that they played. It was quite popular, even though it didn’t pay much, and had been going strong for five years now. Over that time, they’d built up a loyal following of listeners who sent in music requests and fan letters every week. It helped that they were featured regularly in Jim Hunter’s “Tuning In” column in the Telegram, which listed their program ahead of time. Remembering those program lists reminded her that she needed to focus on what they were about to play. She hummed the first few bars of “The Way You Look Tonight” in her head, loving the gentle way the melody began. Through the glass they could see and hear that Maurice Rapkin, the station manager, was part way through the news. Without looking up, he motioned for them to come in. Ida noted that he wasn’t greeting them with his usual friendly smile. Fumbling through the pages, he seemed to be looking for something just out of reach, while being careful not to make any noise that would carry through the microphone. Ida and Harry sat down quietly, back-to-back at their respective upright pianos. She didn’t like that positioning as well as when they performed onstage at Shea’s Hippodrome. There they faced each other with their kidney-shaped grand pianos fitting into each other perfectly, similar to the black and white watercolours of yin and yang she’d seen when she visited the Oriental wing at the Royal Ontario Museum as a child. It was easy to look up and see Harry’s face and his nodded cues. Here, she felt cramped in the tiny studio. But at least she could hear Harry counting them in. The music always flowed more easily when they started and ended at the same time, she smiled to herself. As Maurice read the news, Ida tried not to make any noise. “The unemployment rate in Toronto continues to rise and is now at 17 percent, causing the breadlines to get longer by the day. . . Millionaire aviator Howard Hughes set a new record yesterday when he flew from Los Angeles to Newark, New Jersey in nine hours, twenty-seven minutes and ten seconds. I hope it was warmer down there than it is here. The high today will be thirteen degrees, with the low tonight zero. And now, back for their weekly show with more of your favourites, here is the duo piano team, the Black and White Spotters, brought to you by Shirriff’s High Class Orange Marmalade. Are you mad for marmalade? Try Shirriff’s mixture of lemon, orange and grapefruit, which tastes delicious on toast, cake or pudding. Harry Fernley, what do you and your lovely wife Claudette have in store for us this afternoon?” Ida always loved the sound of her stage name. “We’ll be playing ‘Dizzy Fingers,’ a novelty piece by Zez Confrey, then ‘The Way You Look Tonight,’ from the new movie Swing Time, followed by a medley of our past favourites.” “Wonderful! We’re in for a real treat today,” Maurice boomed into the microphone. Ida sensed a forced enthusiasm in his voice. “Dizzy Fingers” was a fast number with two distinct parts – Harry had the more difficult treble section, with long runs on the melody line, while Ida played the thumping bass accompaniment. With other pieces, she sometimes had the more difficult sections, but, more often than not, Harry took them, liking to demonstrate his prowess on the piano. “The Way You Look Tonight” was slower – Harry had written out a duplicate part for her to play in unison with him, so she had to match his rhythms, tempo and notes exactly. If one of them flubbed up, the other could cover. She didn’t find it as satisfying as having her own part, thinking if they were playing exactly the same thing there was no need for one of them. Occasionally, at the end of a long phrase while he held the whole note, she’d sneak in a descending chromatic scale, playing all the notes, or an ascending three-octave arpeggio in an added flourish across the keys, just to let people know she was there. He’d frown at her in frustration. To promote the latest hit songs, music publishers often sent them complimentary review copies to play on air, but with only one part for piano. The sheet music that was written out for two pianos and four hands had to be ordered directly from the publisher, and they hadn’t been able to afford any new songs during the last year. Thus, many nights, Harry sat at the dining room table laboriously transcribing duplicate notes from the original for her copy. As they played, Ida drew heat and energy from Harry’s back, the first time she had felt warm all day. It helped her to relax, and the time flew by. “Thank you, Harry and Claudette, for those lovely pieces,” said Maurice. In a flash of irritation, Ida realized that Maurice forgot to ask for requests from the listeners and for them to tune in next week, same day, same time. It must have slipped his mind. She and Harry quietly packed up their music and left the studio. Maurice carefully placed the phonograph needle on “Cheek to Cheek” to play on air, then followed them out, closing the door quietly. “Maurice, when you go back in, can you ask if there are any requests for next week’s show?” Ida reminded him. “I’m afraid there won’t be a next week. We just got word that Shirriff’s has pulled out – their marmalade sales are in the tank, and with them and Lux gone, well, we just can’t afford to pay you anymore.” Ida felt for Harry’s hand. “Are you sure? Maybe we could continue on for a few weeks, and see if things improve?” Ida asked. “The listeners look forward to hearing us every week.” “I’m afraid there’s no chance of that. So sorry. Here’s your payment for this week, $60, and I wish you both all the best.” He shook their hands, then turned on his heels and returned to the studio quickly before the song ended. Ida fought back tears while Harry looked down at the cheque. “Well, this is a fine start to the New Year,” he said. She nodded. “There was no warning – what a shock.” She felt sick to her stomach and started to cry. She reached for the bannister to stabilize her as they walked slowly down the stairs and out the door to face the bitter wind again. Reaching into her purse for a handkerchief, she dried her eyes so the tears wouldn’t freeze on her face. “Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse,” Harry said as they found their seats on the streetcar. “If only we could have gotten work permits when we went down to the United States two years ago, we wouldn’t be in this goddamned situation.” Ida sobbed. “Or if I’d gone down there when my brothers Fred and George went, back in 1925, we’d be rolling in dough now.” “Look, you’re crying to the wrong crowd,” said Ida, recovering herself. “Your brothers were lucky. Let’s talk about what we’re going to do right now, not what we could have done. Maybe you could take on some more pupils.” “Are you kidding? The ones I have now are in arrears. Nobody can afford lessons these days.” “Or we could ask Grace for a loan to tide us over. Art has a good job as a salesman.” “Out of the question,” Harry countered. “I won’t be indebted to my younger sister or her husband.” “Maybe I could try to get work as a single act. I used to demonstrate pianos in the showrooms, maybe there’d be something available if they just have to pay one person.” “No wife of mine is going to strike out on her own!” Harry said. “I just can’t believe it, with all the talent we have, and now we’re out of work like those other poor guys on the breadline.” Ida looked around at the other passengers and wondered how many of them were in the same predicament. If unemployment really was at seventeen percent, as Maurice had said on the news, then at least ten out of the sixty odd people on the streetcar were out of work. There seemed to be no end in sight to these bad times: unemployed men riding on boxcars, prairie farmers in dire straits, men in relief camps. Maybe their new Prime Minister Mackenzie King would bring an end to their misery. “This month’s mortgage payment is due Friday, and we haven’t even paid last month’s yet,” Harry said. “You could go down to the bank tomorrow to deposit the CKCL cheque and see if you can work out a deal for an extension. It’s worth a try,” said Ida. “What do you know about it?” Ida hated it when he undermined her suggestions – sure she was younger and less experienced than he was in the world of finance, but she had been earning money from the time she was seven years old. She deserved a say in the matter. They sat in silence for the remainder of the trip. Ida looked out the window at the dreary greyness, in the sky, in the slush on the road and in the piles of snow at the side. So different from the snow that had fallen gently at Christmas, like in the small globe her sister-in-law Grace had on display, which, when you shook it, evoked a magical world as fluffy white flakes swirled around a quaint miniature village. The snow outside now was just a shadow of its former pristine state now that it had been trampled on and muddied with coal and horse droppings. Kind of like her. Ever since she had been making her living by playing the piano, her main worry had been that she would slip on the ice and break her wrist, jeopardizing her livelihood. Now her career had ended, not from an injury but by a lack of advertisers – who could have predicted that a few years ago? If they had to abandon their house, where would they go? Her parents’ two-bedroom row house on Fennings Street was too tiny. His parents had more space, but they’d have to boot out a couple of boarders to make room. She didn’t like to do that to anyone, remembering when her grandmother had descended on them all of a sudden. As a child, she hadn’t understood how or why you could be turfed out of your home at a moment’s notice in the dead of winter without so much as a how-do-you-do. Now she did, but she still wouldn’t wish it on anyone. “We won’t tell the boys just yet,” Ida said as the streetcar pulled up to their stop.
“Joanne Culley weaves a fascinating tale of a brave young Canadian pianist who leaves everything she knows and crosses the Atlantic to find her way in the show business world of pre-war Europe. Claudette is a wonderfully plucky heroine who is willing to risk it all to provide for her young family. Culley brings the musical world of Toronto, London and Berlin to life with keenly observed detail and an intriguing mixture of real-life and fictional characters.” Dan Needles, author and playwright of the Wingfield series
“With a mixture of real and imagined characters, Joanne Culley provides a glimpse into the show business world of pre-war Europe through the eyes of a spunky heroine in her debut novel Claudette on the Keys.”
Kerry Clare of 49th Shelf posted this article: "Music and hope navigate the treacherous waters of the pre-war period in this detailed, well-researched novel about perseverance and the power of self-discovery," writes bestseller @gengrahamauthor about Claudette on the Keys, the debut novel by Joanne Culley (@joanne.c.culley)
In her recommended reading list (read it at the link in our profile!), Culley recommends her own favourites by Genevieve Graham, along with other historical fiction gems.
About CLAUDETTE ON THE KEYS: Claudette on the Keys is about a female pianist who follows fortune but instead finds fascism on the rise in this tale of intrigue in pre-war times. Inspired by true events, it’s the story of Ida, whose stage name is Claudette, and her husband Harry, a Toronto-based duo-piano team, who are struggling to find employment in 1936 after being laid off from their radio show. Following a solo performance at Shea’s Theatre, where Ida performs a stellar rendition of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” she is invited by a British talent agent to work overseas where she becomes embroiled in a scheme to get Jewish musicians out of Germany, passport problems and imprisonment. With a mixture of real and imagined characters, Culley provides a glimpse into the show business world of pre-war Europe through the eyes of a spunky heroine. A must-read for fans of Letters Across the Sea by Genevieve Graham and The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff.