October 11, 2009: As anybody who spends time muckraking can tell you, pursuing stories about political corruption can take you to some passing strange places. Particularly in New Jersey... |
In July the FBI bagged a passel of Jersey pols on corruption charges. Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini was among the indicted. An intriguing rumor about Beldini surfaced in comments posted in response to various regional news articles about the roundup. The poster (or posters) claimed Beldini was a burlesque queen in the 1950s and '60s. Performing as Hope Diamond. Aka “The Gem of Exotics”. Hope Diamond was medium famous. Not Gypsy Rose Lee or Blaze Starr, but definitely on the scene. Enough so to be referenced by legendary night life columnists Earl Wilson and Walter Winchell. The interest factor in the here and now was the idea of Deputy Mayor Hope Diamond. How Jersey is that?
The rumor turned lead when I found extensive exposition in a non-local chat group focused on bicycling, with a regular poster going off topic to say “WOW, I just saw my relative* get busted on the news”. (The Jersey corruption sweep received national coverage.) The poster went on to identify Leona as Hope, calling her “one of the last stronghold Burlesque Gals” and describing her past life and later career in Jersey City in some detail. The story was picked up at
Burlesque Babes Blog Shop, a memorabilia site devoted to the glory days of glamor stripping-- as opposed to the gynecological days of pole dancing. Burlesque Babes fleshed out the story with interesting but inconclusive background material.
More conclusive was a 1965 article** in The Harvard Crimson, in which a reporter interviews Hope Diamond backstage at a Boston Theater. Hope's non-stage name is given as Leona Bonaccolti. The reporter observes that Hope/Leona seems “as much an efficient businesswoman as a performer”; contrasting her with other “burlies” for whom the spotlight was “the very breath of life”. He describes Hope/Leona as “more of a respectable madame figure than a temptress” and notes her expensive jewelry and minks, and the quality champagne she imbibes while being interviewed.
In the interview Hope/Leona mentions her Princeton, New Jersey origins and her residence in Edgewater, in Bergen County. Bergen abuts Hudson County, parent entity of Jersey City. According to an earlier (1961) Walter Winchell column Hope Diamond (Leona Bonaccolti) was married to crooner Bobby Colt but was in the process of separation. Hope/Leona's web-chatty relative mentions a later marriage to noted jazz drummer Al Beldini. Eugene Chadbourne's entry on Beldini (sometimes spelled Baldini or Baldiny) at the Verve Music website states his appearances on jazz records “come to a halt in the mid-'70s”.
By the 1980s, Leona Beldini was a prominent Jersey City real estate broker. By 2009, she was on the board of the Jersey City Economic Development Corporation (JCEDC) and deputy mayor in the administration of Mayor Jerramiah Healy. Mayor Healy, an ex-judge and cog in Hudson County's Democratic machine (the gem of corruption) calls Beldini “a good friend”. Saying he's known her for years. The Feds allege that Beldini, while Healy's campaign treasurer, was also a bag woman. Ferrying bribes disguised as campaign contributions to grease development deals. Beldini got a piece of the real estate action. To date, Mayor Healey hasn't been indicted. He claims to know nothing. (His detractors believe him.) Several other officials have pleaded
guilty in the case, including Jersey City Housing Authority commissioner Edward Cheatam (!) who was simultaneously Hudson County's Affirmative Action Officer. (Double dipping is a Jersey special.) Cheatam claims to have funneled bribes from several sources through former Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini. She maintains her innocence.
While digging into Beldini-as-Diamond I came across contact info for burlesque queen April Daye at one of the many sites that celebrate the ecdysiasts who made burlesque such sexy glam fun. (Not all these sites are memory lanes; a neo-burlesque movement is going great gams.) April Daye worked during the same period as Hope Diamond so I emailed her and asked for her thoughts on Hope/Leona. April's reply email (hot pink background, purple text) while not directly confirming Leona as Hope, expressed sympathy for her situation “this publicity you don't need at 74” and admiration for Hope Diamond as a performer. Saying she and Hope had sometimes appeared on the same bill. April described Hope as one of the “classy acts”.
I continued to correspond with April. April was (is) articulate, savvy, and often funny about her burlesque days. And her life has many colorful chapters besides her experience as the “Miss Behaving” April Daye. To go into those chapters would be beyond the scope of this article. But for a glimpse of one of the many faces (and names) of April, google “Gypsy Eden”. April sings! And unlike a lot strippers, she knew how to dance...
For April, performing was the breath of life. As a little girl she spent a lot of time wrapped in fabric swaths, dancing in homemade shows. She acquired some dance training, worked for Arthur Murray in St. Louis, Missouri and “wanted to be on the stage more than anything”. She linked up with another girl who wanted to be a model and headed for NYC. But April's training wasn't sufficient for Broadway. While in New York, she worked at the Latin Quarter and Copa Cabana as a hat check and camera girl. April was curvy and beautifully proportioned. She did some chorus work and figure modeling (she sent me a killer pin-up) and back in St. Louis, was tapped for burlesque by a major agent. She was still in her teens. Thanks to her youth, good looks and dance skills, April soon became a feature act making feature money. She was surprised to be paid “so much for showing so little”. As April puts it “it was the mid 1950s and the laws were most strict”. At the finale of her strip she'd be wearing what in 2009, would be “more than they wear at the beach”.
One of the things that made classic burlesque so entertaining (and at times adorably wacky) were its theme routines. As the experienced strippers in the musical “Gypsy” tell young Gypsy Rose Lee “you gotta have a gimmick”. Some strippers took fake bubble baths in tubs filled by bubble machines, or did ethnic themed strips in sarongs or peasant dirndl. Some had their clothes blown off by wind machines or snatched by invisible wires. Burlesque costumes involved special tech; no stripper wanted to struggle with a stuck zipper or become entangled in shucked-off garments. The ideal was “instant-off”.
April Daye had several routines. She danced to pop standards such as Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, St. Louis Blues, Night Train, and naturally-- I'll Remember April. Sometimes she wore translucent silk panel skirts that gave her spins “a twirling mystical floating appearance”. She did a bull fight routine “with authentic cape work”. She's particularly proud of her “soft southern belle” routine; in which she wore a hoop skirt and carried a dainty parasol. Underneath her skirt was a pair of “instant-off ruffled pantaloons, snaps down the side”. April would bend over, back to the audience, and give them a smile over her shoulder. “Whoosh!” Off came the pantaloons. The audience would gasp in surprised delight.
If Scarlett O'Hara had worked the southern belle thing as well as April Daye she wouldn't have had to run that nasty old lumber mill.
As said, April admired Hope Diamond's classy act. April herself made a point of cultivating an aloofness that kept sleaze at bay and enhanced her routines. In April's words “mystery always pays when it comes to seduction”. Other strippers got down and dirty. Despite its charm and color, burlesque was still a sex industry with plenty of sordid. April met her share of “the johns, the cons, the crooked, the mob, the jerks.” There were venues where dancers were expected to hustle drinks and/or themselves. One “bust out joint” in Kentucky had a sign-in sheet in the dressing room. April, still new to burlesque, assumed it was an attendance sheet and signed every night. Later she learned it was a tally sheet-- so the owner of the joint could keep track of his cut from dancers turning tricks. The latter didn't have to leave the premises; there was a brothel upstairs.
In the 1950s burlesque was in decline. By the '60s and '70s it was running on memory. April says this upped the sleaze factor. Theaters were “dirty, worn and cold”. Some did double duty as porn palaces, catering to the raincoat brigades. Eventually April focused on nightclubs, where strippers were still in demand and respected as entertainers. April danced till she was in her 40s. She appeared with, or worked the same venues as, some of the best strip acts in the business. Including Blaze Starr, Tempest Storm, and Tura Satana, star of Russ Meyer's cult classic Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! April also worked with, or knew, performers such as Johnny Mathis, Jerry Vale, Tubby Boots (the one man vaudevillian sexual revolution), flamboyant wrestler/showman Gorgeous George, mega bosom babes Busty Russell and Chesty Morgan, and more top notch musicians than I can list. In her years on stage April was surrounded by some of the most talented and/or most outre members of mid 20th century American nightlife.
In the here and now, April Daye is a tad annoyed. Apparently some stripper cum comedian in Canada is performing under a very similar name. And she isn't a classy act. More gynecological than glam. Still, April has a Zen influenced attitude toward life. She rises above the bad. As befits a lady of Burlesque...
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
*The poster identified the specific family relationship. The posted material was soon edited from the bicycling chat-room, but was available for several days afterwards via Google cache. All quotes by Leona Beldini's relative are from a hard copy of the original posts.
**Memoirs of a Stage Door Johnny. Or: "The Hope Diamond I knew", A. Douglas Matthews, Harvard Crimson, 12/14/65
Read & See April Daye
Hear Al Beldini on Drums
Nightlife Hot Spots:
Burlesque Hall of Fame; Java's Bachelor Pad
Send comments or confidential tips to: