Musing on the Duke of Amsterdam

I’m really excited to be able to include the character of Lillian Holland in my new musical. I knew as I was writing “Mrs. Loring” she was going to be a particularly interesting figure, and it was made more so when interpreted in performance by . Lenny is basically the perfect person to play her, so much so that I should have her pose for pictures in costume, and she really stimulated my imagination about the possibilities of the character. Her story really struck me as not being done by the end of “Mrs. Loring.” She was profoundly affected by the events of that story, and it would certainly propel her journey.

I think Lillian thinks about Elizabeth a lot. Elizabeth surprised her at a point where she thought she couldn’t be surprised by anything. This fragile, fainting society woman turning out to have guts and defiance beyond anything Lillian suspected. Lillian is a revolutionary at heart, and in its own way Elizabeth’s plan and actions was one of the most subversive things she’d ever seen. And even though they didn’t know each other long, they shared one of the most intense experiences of their lives, which bonded them. Elizabeth was not the sort of person she would normally have become close to, but extraordinary circumstances create extraordinary friendships.

And then Elizabeth dies. She catches Spanish flu in the epidemic of 1920 and died less than a year after the end of the story of “Mrs. Loring.” I haven’t totally decided whether or not Elizabeth lives long enough to be released from the asylum– Bernie thinks she probably was well enough to get out soon after the end of “Mrs. Loring,” but I’m currently not sure –but what I do know is that the fact that she died right after having made a remarkable personal transformation hit Lillian hard. It made her realize how much time she’d been forced to waste locked up, and that lit a fire under her. And that, in turn, made her light a fire as well. Literally!

I think that’s how she got out. I think she actually set the place on fire. She talked about it for years, mostly only cynically, until she realized she had to get out there NOW. She didn’t manage to completely burn the place to the ground, but she started a real, honest-to-goodness building fire, and in the resulting conflagration she busted out. And she took Amelia Page with her, the little anxiety-ridden girl, and the only other veteran of the “Mrs. Loring” adventure. Amelia was another one who showed shocking guts, and Lillian felt like she couldn’t leave the only other person who fought beside them in that hole.

They took off for Chicago. I think the two of them made it there together and then mostly parted ways. Amelia will always be a fragile person, and one who needs other people. I think she found a boarding house to live in full of other single women with whom she formed the chosen family she needed in order to feel safe and be happy. But she and Lillian check in on each other now and again, and write the occasional letter. I think they feel kind of like war-buddies that way. Where once Lillian dismissed her as an irritating, broken female, and she in turn feared and despised Lillian, now they have a real bond.

Lillian herself, however, follows a very different path. She doesn’t want to be ever found by her blue blood family, so she changes her name from Lillian Holland to Lou Amsterdam. And she immerses herself in as different a world from the one she ran from as possible. She opens up a speakeasy that she calls the Puzzle House, as a wry reference to her time in the institution. She invites jazz musicians to play there, artists, poets, bohemians of all stripes, and makes it a haven for misfits who have been tossed out by society. She’s in charge and noticeably butch– I picture her as wearing men’s tweeds suits and fedoras while smoking a pipe –so she gets the nickname of the Duke of Amsterdam. She meets Rita del Rey, a beautiful jazz crooner, through the performances and the two begin a relationship. And I think she’s really happy for the first time in her life.

This is where she is when the musical I’m writing begins, and a new young girl who needs to find her place and her strength gets to tell her story. I think Lou will serve as the one who encourages Josie, the new protagonist, to believe in her own strength and significance even though the world will try to tell her she’s nothing, that she doesn’t matter. I think that’s something impressed on her by the example of Elizabeth, and so going from one story to the next, it’s a notion she is in a good position to pass on.

The very first exploration of this situation came out when I was writing 31 Plays 31 Days this year. You can see a proto-version of Josie in this piece here. This scene doesn’t have sufficient direction or point to it to be included in the new piece, but there’s some neat ideas for dialogue, so maybe I’ll be able to incorporate it in some form.

I owe a lot of this to Lenny, who came up with much of Lillian’s trajectory in a conversation we had after she read the part in the staged reading. I’m really grateful for her ideas, because when it came time to tell a new story, it was incredibly inspiring.

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