It’s easy to think this recession is unique. We may indeed be the first generation to lose our houses to banks bailed out by our own pre-layoff tax dollars. But of course economic misery isn’t new, and every time I’m tempted to think it is I am reminded of Byrne Miller.
She came of age in the Great Depression and had to marry her husband twice because of it. The first time in secret, because leaving her father’s household to start her own would mean the family would lose the meager income she contributed. The second wedding was a few years later, when her father found work again. Only then could she declare her love for Duncan Miller in public, at the Manhattan City Hall. Still, money was tight. So she answered an ad in the paper for dancing girls and a career of fifty years began.
“I wasn’t one of the great ones,” Byrne once told me. I had thought her modest, knowing that she had danced in New York, St. Thomas, Santa Fe, Mexico and Ireland before she landed in Beaufort, South Carolina in the late 1960s. It turned out she was anything but modest.
“No darling,” she said. “It was these bosoms that got me noticed. That and legs that wouldn’t quit. It was the Great Depression, remember, men needed a lift.” The troupe, she later told reporters, was called the Sara Mildred Strauss Company. Eighteen or nineteen scantily clad women, many of whom had been prostitutes, made up the ranks. Her job was to stand on a pedestal, wearing two inches of cloth, and waggle her hips.
“Let’s face it,” she told me. “The legs have to be worth the ticket price.” As thousands of Byrne Miller Dance Theatre audience members over the years can attest, those she brought to Beaufort always were.