November 8, 2013 6:38 pm

With cake and a song in my heart

‘I had a feeling of distilled happiness, as though I were inside a poem by Keats’

Some people go to Oz to find “a place where there isn’t any trouble”. Some folks make a pilgrimage to the Mayr clinic in Austria and heal themselves digestively (but, if you go, do spare me the details). Some head to Arizona for the dryness of the air and the rigour of the rehab; others hit the Lakes for bracing natural beauty, or get a lift from gazing at the rooftops of Paris – that bleak mosaic of greys from “dove” to Quink-black. But I go to Broadway. They know how to put a song in my heart.

In a theatre district diner, I was eating a Cobb salad and chatting and playing cards with my daughter when a stranger came up to us, completely unprovoked, and said, “Your mom, she’s like the potta gold at the end of the rainbow.” My daughter looked at me suspiciously, as though I might have staged it.

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Susie Boyt

“What?” I stared her down. “What?” Still, it was awfully encouraging.

We got cheap seats for Chicago. My daughter had never seen it on the stage. The actress who played Roxie had a surprising sweetness to her. She had played Belle in Beauty and the Beast; she had even been Mary Poppins. She had an atmosphere of brisk moral energy. If only her lover had done what she said, neatly and promptly, learnt his lesson, taken the spoonful of sugar, she wouldn’t have had to shoot him, would she? She was plausible, likeable with her smiles, her pleasant rationale. It was daring casting.

The highlight was the song “Class” performed by Velma and Mama Morton: “Whatever happened to ‘Please may I’/ And ‘Yes thank you’/ And ‘How charming’?/ Now every son of a bitch/ Is a snake in the grass.”

“Mum, why are you nodding?” my daughter asked.

Afterwards we were joined by an old friend laden with gifts, including an elegant vintage leather holdall for me, embossed with the name of a star who made her Broadway debut in 1938 – June Allyson! “There are several more pieces to the suite,” he said. “I picked them up in a sale, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a rolling case, a garment bag, a beauty trunk, but I did not want to overwhelm.”

The handy bag had beautiful tortoiseshell handles and was exactly the size of my antique laptop, which gives off so much heat I mainly use it as a hot water bottle nowadays. We spoke fondly about June Allyson, neither of us mentioning the elephant in the room, which was her series of advertisements, in age, for incontinence products.

Our next stop was Lady M’s Cake Boutique on the Upper East Side. The cakes were spectacular: the banana millefeuille a good 5in high; the elegant chequerboard chocolate confection and a pale green cake made of 20 very thin pancakes filled with a green tea or pistachio cream. But the staff were severe, grand; the atmosphere within quite daunting. “I cannot seat you as your party is incomplete,” an assistant announced to me. That word – “incomplete” – was pregnant with disapproval.

It never occurred to me that a cake shop could intimidate. I wondered if the super strict staff were anxious that there was something a little sentimental or childish or even camp about cake, and they wanted to show by their behaviour that cake’s a serious business, no laughing matter at all. I agree – up to a point.

But, for perfection, if cake can’t be friendly, it ought at least to be louche ...

I suddenly remembered that the singer Blossom Dearie liked to perform in cabaret bars where no one was allowed drinks because the noise disturbed her. Viewed in this light, the archness at Lady M’s seemed a bit thrilling. These cakes were world class. These cakes deserved to be haughtily dispatched, perhaps.

Afterwards, in the Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle with a glass of champagne and bottomless bowls of crisps and nuts and my oldest daughter and my great friend Marc, I sat bathed in a kind of wonder. The magnificent pianist was playing and singing, “They’re writing songs of love but not for me.” New York had come through for me again. I had a feeling of distilled happiness in my heart, as though I were on the inside of a poem by Keats.

When I am old and on my last legs, don’t get me a nurse, just find me a decent piano player. In fact, I’d like one all the time. It doesn’t have to be Broadway Broadway. It could be Ealing Broadway or, at a pinch, Muswell Hill.

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susie.boyt@ft.com, @SusieBoyt

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