Inspired by true events, Claudette on the Keys (Crossfield Publishing) is a novel that tells the story of Ida Fernley, whose stage name is Claudette, and her husband Harry, a Toronto-based duo-piano team called the Black and White Spotters. At the height of the Great Depression, the pair are hanging onto their livelihoods by their fingernails. It is the winter of 1936, with the unemployment rate at 17 percent, when they find out that they are being laid off from their live weekly radio program on CKCL due to a pullout by the sponsor, Shirriff’s Marmalade. After their home is repossessed, they and their two young sons move into Harry’s parent’s home where they try to figure out their next steps. When Ida plays free of charge for a charity concert at Shea’s Hippodrome, she happens to meet a British talent agent who is impressed by her virtuosic rendition of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” He invites her and Harry to come to London to work, where Ida experiences firsthand the rise of fascism and becomes embroiled in pre-war intrigue. Whenever she finds herself in a tough spot, she draws inspiration from her movie-star hero Claudette Colbert. A gripping read for fans of Letters across the Sea by Genevieve Graham and The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff.
Joanne Culley received her MA in English Literature from the University of Toronto and her Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing from the Humber School for Writers. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Peterborough Examiner, Local Parent, Kawartha Cottage, Legion Magazine, Our Canada, on CBC, Bravo Network, Rogers Television, TVOntario, and in several anthologies. Her books are Claudette on the Keys and Love in the Air: Second World War Letters. She received the “In Celebration of Women” media award for her documentary “Be My Baby.” She grew up in Toronto and now lives in Peterborough, Ontario.
How did you get started writing?
I’ve been writing most of my career, writing scripts for documentaries and writing articles for newspapers and magazines. In 2015 I discovered over 600 letters my parents wrote during the Second World War – my father was a musician in the RCAF and my mother worked at the TTC in a job that would normally have been done by a man. I wrote my first book, Love in the Air: Second World War Letters, combining excerpts from their letters, imagined scenes and historical background. It was well received and got a lot of media attention, as it was released on the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. After that, I decided to go back another generation to write about my grandparents, who were a duo piano team, also drawing on what they left behind – show programs, sheet music, photos, newspaper clippings, to create a fictionalized account of their lives.
Tell us about your previous book, Love in the Air: Second World War Letters.
After my father’s death, while clearing out a closet, I found an old Eaton’s box with over 600 airmail letters that my parents wrote to each other during the Second World War. My father, Harry Culley Jr. played clarinet in the RCAF No. 3 concert band, as well as playing saxophone in the smaller 12-piece dance band. They played dances for the Army and Air Force officers, for troops on the bases, at the legions, at special events and as a backup for travelling entertainers. They accompanied popular songwriter and musician Irving Berlin when he came to the Pavilion Theatre in Bournemouth, England in 1944. My mother worked at jobs that would have previously been done by men, at the Department of Munitions and Supply in Ottawa and at the Toronto Transportation Commission as it was then known. In the book, I have blended excerpts from the letters with a narrative inspired by the correspondence and historical background to bring to life a unique story of enduring love amidst global turmoil, providing a glimpse into what was going on on both sides of the Atlantic. It came out on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war to much media attention.
What inspired you to write Claudette on the Keys?
Claudette on the Keys is inspired by the real lives of my grandparents who were a popular piano duo from the 1930s to the 1950s. They played on two pianos with four hands, and had shows on many Toronto radio stations such as CKCL and CFRB as well as playing live at theatres such as Shea’s Hippodrome. They were described at the time as “Toronto’s Premier Two-Piano Artists.” When they lost their radio work and their home in Toronto during the Depression, they travelled to London at the invitation of an agent and orchestra leader who arranged work for them on Radio Luxembourg and in touring to music hall theatres in the British Isles. I’ve taken the germ of their story to create a fictionalized account of their time overseas.
In the novel, Ida has problems travelling with her marital passport – she doesn’t have her own, but rather is listed on her husband’s passport. What aspects of independence do women have now that perhaps we take for granted?
During the pandemic, while sorting through a box of my grandparents’ possessions, I came across their passport from 1936. Yes, their passport, not passports, as at that time, married women were listed on their husband’s passport – they didn’t have their own document. Inside, their photos were placed side by side, and on the opposing page, my grandfather’s information took up two-thirds of the page and he was listed as “musician,” while my grandmother’s details took up just a third of the page, and didn’t list her profession, even though she was as famous or even more famous than my grandfather.
We take individual passports for granted now, being issued them in our own names as women, but there was a time when women didn’t have their own. Even though women could vote in Canada in 1918 and officially became persons in 1929, the concept of their being independent entities while travelling took a lot longer.
Sometimes married women were not able to travel on their own even though their husbands could do so freely. In the book, Ida/Claudette encounters numerous difficulties as a woman travelling on her own with a marital passport in pre-war continental Europe and meets face to face with Nazi officials who detain her on suspicion of espionage. She attracts attention by the mere fact of travelling without her husband.
In 1947 in Canada, married women were finally allowed to have their own passports, when the Canadian Citizenship Act came into effect.
The book takes place in 1936 and 1937 when fascism is rising not only in Germany but in England. How does Ida become aware of this?
When Ida is asked to play at a fancy men’s club in London, she meets Sir Oswald Mosely, leader of the British Union of Fascists, and hears about his close ties with Hitler in Germany. She becomes aware of the Cable Street uprising in London, where Mosely organized an anti-Jewish, anti-Irish march through that impoverished East End neighbourhood. Once she arrives in Berlin, she sees the blatant signs of anti-Semitism through the shuttering of Jewish businesses, the imprisonment of Jews and the detention of political prisoners at Sachsenhausen, the prototype concentration camp that was used as a model for the other concentration camps during the Second World War.
What was vaudeville or music hall?
Vaudeville shows were popular in the early 1900s. They were live performances in theatres where a variety of performers appeared one after another, often with only the master of ceremonies to tie them together – quite a hodgepodge of acts, including jugglers, comedians, magicians, clairvoyants. The Ed Sullivan show on TV in the 1960s and 1970s was a modern version of this vaudeville form.
Harry and Ida were a novelty act, on two-pianos, four-hands, playing music specially composed for that genre, by contemporary composers such as American pianist and singer Olive Dungan created songs especially for this genre, including “White Jasmine” and “Enchantment.” Another American pianist, Morton Gould, created two-piano arrangements of well-known songs, including “Bolero Moderne” and “Rumbolero.” The piano duo appeared on the same stage as comedian Red Skelton and singer Kate Smith.
In the book, Ida/Claudette struggles to make her way in a largely male-dominated society. Discuss how the lives of women were different in the 1930s.
In the 1930s music was a field dominated by men, and women, if they were performers or composers, were underappreciated and lesser-known, or their sex appeal was highlighted instead of their talent. In the book, when Ida tries to negotiate business dealings with her and her husband’s musical career, often the person will ask to speak to her husband. Throughout the story, we see her becoming more confident in her own abilities and in how she continues to wend her way through the new world she finds herself in without losing her sense of self.
Describe the two pianos-four hands genre.
In the 1930s and 40s, there was music specially composed and arranged for playing on two pianos, with two pianists. Sometimes they’d play the same notes, other times, they had completely different parts, but the important thing was to present a unified front, starting and ending at the same time. We may remember the popular musical that came to Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre a while back, called “2 Pianos 4 Hands,” by Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt which was a funny and comprehensive look at this art form. In fact, Harry was the musical director at the Royal Alexandra during the 1940s and 1950s. I think he would have approved of that musical.
How you did settle on the title?
Claudette is the stage name that Ida takes to add mystery and allure to their act. Ida’s heroine is Claudette Colbert, who was one of the most well-known and best-paid actors at that time, asserting herself in productions, insisting that she only be filmed from her left side. In the book, whenever Ida finds herself in a tight spot, she draws on the strength and assertiveness of Claudette Colbert to get her through the difficulty.
In the book and in real life, one of Ida’s favourite tunes is “Kitten on the Keys,” a short, snappy song by Zez Comfrey that was popular at that time and that becomes her signature piece. It uses a lot of the black notes, and many of the riffs are meant to emulate a kitten walking over the piano keys. A technically difficult piece, Ida gives it a lot of flourishes, including palm plants and glissandos up and down the keys to show off her talent.