Her mother always said, “She came out kicking,” and at 86, Caroline May Hartwig Lynch can still muster the dance routine of Radio City’s Rockettes of 1939. Pretty, lithe, trim, and beaming, she recalls that magical year when, just 15, she was plucked from a group of 30 girls to tap dance across New York City’s most famous stage.
A scrapbook full of photos, ticket stubs, programs and clippings tells the tale of this dancer’s path to stardom, and on a recent cold and blustery afternoon in a tiny town in upstate New York, she shared her story. She was just three years old when she took her first tap lesson. In 1928, at five years old, “Baby Mae and Rose Marie” (Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show) were starring in Atlantic City. Evelyn Nesbit (left), the Gibson beauty and former lover of Stanford White, wrote Baby Mae’s mom to ask her daughter to perform. Nesbit’s scrawled note, on yellowed paper, is a prominent part of Lynch’s trove.
Years later, while dancing in Washington, D.C., Lynch (now known as May) received an invitation to come to New York, boarding at “Lady Ann” Shannahan’s, a well-chaperoned quarters for young ladies of the time. Shannahan suggested that May audition for the Rockettes and then proceeded to accompany her backstage, where the stage doorman told them the auditions for that year were to be held the upcoming Tuesday.
With a memory still sharp as a tack, Lynch recounts as though it were yesterday the turning point of that Tuesday’s elevator ride up to Rehearsal Hall. One of 30 hopefuls in the line up, she stood out in her white seersucker dress with a bright red bow, toting a wide-brimmed hat. Tying on her tap shoes, and hoofing double-time to the tune of “Melancholy Baby,” she was one of just six girls selected to “follow behind” that season’s cast of 30 tapping Rockettes and 30 ballerinas. Of the original six, May was one of only two who made it into the line that year, after a second routine at the barre proved her prowess for high kicks. A photo of May Hartwig outside the entrance to Radio City, sporting high heels and her trademark picture hat, confirms it.
The rigor, she recalls, was grueling. Four shows a day plus rehearsals, working six to seven weeks before earning a week off, and then three of THOSE days were spent rehearsing, all for just $42 a week. The Radio City Music Hall Theatre at that time premiered important movies with features four times a day. The Rockettes entertained for an hour in between each movie. Their “Stars at Midnight” number, performed during “Winter Carnaval” sported a beautiful blue costume complete with white hat and gold trim. With her right arm over the next girl’s left, and her left arm under the opposite girl’s right, they tapped under the tutelage of “General” Emilie Sherman, choreographer and strict madam boss. A missed rehearsal merited mere understudy status; two, and you were out, recalls Lynch. She still winces at the memory of a torn ligament, requiring icepacks and rest in the infirmary every day between shows for weeks, but nothing stopped those feet at show time.
They had fun, too, and May, (affectionately called ‘Mamie’ by the girls), the youngest of the group, was the butt of some harmless tricks. Naïve, she was told to go ask the stage manager for the key to the curtain, and quickly on cue obeyed to the accompaniment of peals of laughter from the “kids.” Another time, admonished to be sure to iron the apron, she started backstage seeking both before getting the joke. Blonde and cute, it’s no wonder the elevator operator kept a crush on her all year, saving her a seat at every feature’s first show. And even Cary Grant came to call while starring with Carole Lombard in In Name Only. His autograph, “Hello May,” is a marvelous memento and maintains a prominent spot in Lynch’s tattered but carefully maintained portfolio.
All life’s footsteps are part of a journey, and May’s tapping with the Rockettes gave her a leg up (pardon the pun) to her next gig, where she was cast as the understudy for the ingénue lead in Louisiana Purchase, a clipping of which notes May Hartwig’s eventual star billing in the Broadway hit set to Irving Berlin’s music. She also worked with Irene Bordoni, George Balanchine’s wife, and, later, with Betsy Blair, married to Gene Kelly. Then it was on to The Latin Quarter, a club owned by Lou Walters (Barbara’s dad), followed by yet another crowning achievement, captain of “The Ice Show,” Don Arden’s extravaganza at the Hotel New Yorker, where she craftily negotiated a $100 a week salary, a stellar sum for a single girl in 1943’s war time economy.
The war ended, and May married a returning soldier named Ray Lynch, who’d fallen in love with her photo that his best buddy carried throughout their service in Europe. They married in 1946, and he whisked her off to his hometown Albany, where she taught dance to other young hopefuls while raising three boys, until her fourth child, Caroline, was born.
A Rockette Alumni member, she danced at the 75th Rockettes Reunion at Radio City in 2001 with that year’s crop of girls. Eighth row, first on the left, she still beams as she states, “I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Being a Rockette was my crowning glory.” And today, with a twinkle in her eyes and that gentle smile, what a gal! A true Woman Around Town!