Sheila Weller’s autobiographical reminiscence Dancing at Ciro’s begins by introducing a mystery drawn from the end of the story. Weller’s climax occurs on January 8, 1958, when Herman Hover, owner of the famed Sunset Strip nightclub Ciro’s, attacked and nearly killed his brother-in-law, the author’s father, Daniel Weller, a prominent Los Angeles neurosurgeon. In tracing the events that led to this tragedy and the resulting losses suffered by nearly every member of her family, Weller explores the history of her parents, discovering in them a cautionary tale of American high society in the twentieth century. The glamour and material success of the Hover and Weller families masked a private turmoil that seemed to encompass both the best and the worst tendencies of their age.
Both the Hovers and the Wellers were immigrant Jewish families struggling to reach the “next level of respectability” in New York during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Isidore and Celia Zlotchover, the author’s grandparents, had moved to the United States from Austria, and truncated their last name to Hover during a wave of anti-German sentiment accompanying World War I. They soon had four children. The eldest daughter, Shirley (called “Sadie” by the family), died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Impressions left by this early family tragedy—the hushed household, light seeping under closed doors into darkened hallways, whispered and anguished conversations—would haunt the surviving Hover children throughout the rest of their lives. The author’s mother, Helen, developed a lasting aversion to light seen at night under doorways. To her, that sliver of light always remained a symbol of death.
Soon after this tragedy, Helen’s older brother, Herman, began a career in vaudeville. Mimicking the dance routines he saw in Broadway shows, learning to juggle whatever lay at hand, and studying dance with a variety of teachers, Herman was finally cast in Half Moon Inn, a Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart variety show. In 1926, Herman successfully auditioned for the chorus line in Vanities, Earl Carroll’s rival to the more famous Follies of Florenz Ziegfeld. Quickly moving from dancer to assistant stage manager to stage manager, Herman also assumed a second job, training dancers for the Silver Slipper, the most glamorous speakeasy of its day. As the Roaring Twenties devolved into the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Herman’s show-business career helped keep his family afloat, both financially and by providing a much-needed touch of excitement and glamour in difficult times.
In 1932, while still in her junior year at New York University, Helen Hover applied for a job at theBrooklyn Daily Times Standard-Union and was assigned the task of writing a twice-weekly column called “Nancy Goes Shopping.” Intended as a thinly veiled advertisement that would hawk products the paper’s advertisers wished to promote, the column gave Helen an opportunity to develop the rudiments of her mature writing style and to begin learning the essentials of journalism. Through Herman’s connections, Helen also wrote stories about celebrities, offering them to such magazines as Radio Stars. With this introduction to the world of professional entertainment, Helen gradually began her life’s work as a gossip columnist and eventually gained a byline in many popular publications.
As the Hover family was beginning to benefit from these few small triumphs, the Weller family was overcoming obstacles of its own. Originally from a German city that is now part of Lithuania, Louis Weller journeyed to the United States during the 1880’s as part of that decade’s huge influx of Eastern European immigrants. Of the five children who were born to Louis and his wife, Lena, in the United States, three grew up to be doctors, one a businessman, and their sole daughter a schoolteacher.
Daniel Weller, the author’s father, would be one of the family’s doctors but not before experiencing his own early brush with mortality. At nine years of age, he developed a severe case of rheumatic fever that left him with a damaged heart and a sense that his life would be short. He grew up believing that all opportunities must be seized as soon as they arose. Daniel’s eventual specialty of neurosurgery was in such infancy at the start of his career that only a small fraction of any surgeon’s patients were expected to survive. Nevertheless, because of the work of such pioneers as Harvey Cushing, Walter Dandy, and James Poppen, the success rate of neurosurgeons improved dramatically over the course of Daniel Weller’s career, and neurosurgery became a...
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