July 3, 1973
Tom and I were alone in his apartment while Miyako was holding down the fort at the hospital.
“Have the two of you come close to selecting a name?” Tom asked.
“Not really. I had been thinking of the name June if it was a girl and if she was born last month. I really like the name Samantha, but that’s already taken,” I smiled. “I definitely don’t want my son to be a Junior. I’m not crazy about the name Hamilton, and I think it’s too egotistical to be a Junior, anyway.”
“Did Sam tell you her preferences?”
“She has some names she’s partial to, but we never got enough time together to have an extended conversation. We talked a little today, but didn’t come to any definite conclusions.”
“I guess you know my daughter can be stubborn when she wants to be.”
“So I’ve discovered,” I replied, “but it’s not over until the fat lady sings.”
“Funny you should use that expression,” Tom remarked. “Do you know where that originated?”
“No,” I answered. I suspected I was about to find out.
Tom got up from his chair and walked over to the stereo console. He flipped through the LP records that were stacked vertically in the compartment on the left side of the cabinet, and found what he was looking for. He held the album reverently, and carefully handed it to me. There was a black-and-white photograph on the cover, a head shot of an overweight lady.
“Do you know who this is?” he asked, gently retrieving the album.
“No,” I answered, “I don’t think so. Wait a minute… is that Kate Smith?”
“Very good. Not many people your age recognize her.”
“ I remember my mom used to watch her show on television when I was a kid.”
“She had a television show in the 50s. But she had a radio show in the thirties. Back then I was in college in New York,” Tom said.
“What school?” I interrupted.
“Cooper Union. There was no tuition cost. Everyone there was on a scholarship. I didn’t have much money at the time. It was during the depression. I was barely able to eat on the salary I made driving a hack.”
Tom smiled when he saw the shocked look on my face. For some reason, I had pictured him as always having been wealthy. And certainly not a taxi driver.
“When I had time off, for entertainment, I would stand outside the WABC studios to see if I could get in to see the Kate Smith Hour for free. It was a great show. Henny Youngman, Abbott and Costello, lots of great guests. Plus Kate, who could really belt out a song.”
“Anyway,” he continued, “I had the day off on Armistice Day, 1938. That was twenty years to the day after World War I ended. You know, The War To End All Wars.” He gave a wry smile. “There were no classes, and the cab company didn’t have any work for me. I got dressed up in my one and only suit and stood outside the studio entrance. It was a cold day, and a long wait. I guess because of the way I was dressed, I was the first one they let in. I sat right in the front row of the audience.”
As he was speaking, Tom was carefully placing the record onto the turntable. He turned on the stereo and gently lowered the needle onto the record. Then he grabbed a box of tissues and sat down next to me.
“This was the first time she ever sang this song,” he said, as the as the scratching sound ended and the music began.
After a brief introduction with a reference to the storm clouds forming over Europe, Kate sang God Bless America. I was transfixed.
When the song ended, Tom grabbed a tissue and handed the box to me.
“I think I got a speck of dust in my eye,” he smiled.
“Me too,” I answered, as I grabbed a tissue.
“Kate Smith was nothing to look at. Nothing compared to Marilyn Monroe and the other stars. But she was on radio, so her looks didn’t matter. After that performance, that song became her trademark. She started and ended every show with it. It became hers.”
“And that,” Tom said, “is where the expression ‘It’s not over until the fat lady sings’ came from. Like Paul Harvey says, ‘now you know the rest of the story’.”
“In 1960,” he continued, “after I was pretty well established, I was in New York on business. I was having lunch at the Four Seasons, and looked over and there was Kate Smith, a few tables away.”
“You know, I’ve met a lot of big shots, and I am not what you would call star-struck. But I went over to her table and, for a minute, I was a young college kid again. And I told her that I had been in her audience that Armistice Day. And how I often thought of that performance when I was overseas, during the war. She confided to me that, right after she sang it, she called Irving Berlin and told him he had written the next national anthem. She was so gracious. A real lady.”
Tom turned over the record sleeve, and showed me where she had autographed the album: To Tom Marcos. Thank you for your service. God bless America!
Tom dabbed at his eyes again and put his arm around me and gave me a squeeze.
And we sat in silence.