About a dozen years before James Joyce invented Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, Ada Blom wrote her own soliloquy and published it herself under the odd title, The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub. She offered her 100-some page booklet for sale: “This book will be sent by mail, postpaid, to any address upon receipt of 25 cents in silver.” And she put her proud and somewhat defiant portrait on the front page.
“I was born in Sweden, of Swedish parents,” she begins. It is about the last straight-forward sentence in the book. Ada was quite obviously a self-taught writer as well as publisher, but her voice and outlook have a brilliant daftness and honesty:
When I start in to criticise a person I always begin at the lower, and, firstly, he wore commonplace, soft-leather shoes. I find these new styles abominable. It is something radically wrong about the man who wore them. I’ll climb a little. Then there comes an evening shirt, stiff and stately. Then there is the head to describe, and I commence with the ears. The ears were deceiving, though. I’ll tell you that some other time. Blonde, curly hair, having the latest style of tint. The forehead was innocent and humorous — eyes with a sad longing in them like some little children have when they are out for mischief. A beauty mole on the right cheek, a good nose, a teasing-looking mustache of the right kind and a chin which said: “I am going to have it, but if 1 don’t get it I don’t care.” That was the look of the Echo from the Swedish mountains.
She is born and raised in a small town and taught strict Lutheran morality. When she asks her father, innocently, why God must be so angry and vengeful, he beats her with a rod, and by the time she is fifteen or so, she runs away from home to escape his abuse and harsh Christianity.
A string of jobs gets her first to Denmark, then Germany, where she gets a job singing in a music hall. A series of men try to woo her and she eventually falls for a diamond merchant from Amsterdam. After many rounds of promises and disappointments, she tracks him down in Wiesbaden and discovers that he is both married and confidence man. So she buys a cheap passage to America, landing in New York.
Ada was nothing if not industrious. Though her fortunes rise and fall more than a few times in the course of the story, she always manages to pick herself up, dust herself off, and start all over again. She manages to save enough money to buy own townhouse and set herself up as a landlord. Then she loses it, winds up back on the street, gets a job as a hotel scrub–a situation that lasts all of about two pages, despite the title–and then as a waitress, then as a singer again, and then returns into real estate. There are several rounds of this before the book’s abrupt end.
Her problem, in a nutshell, is a weakness for the wrong type of man. The confidence man is Wiesbaden proves the rule, not the exception. Her first husband, one John Shea, turns out to be a drunk, a thief, and an adulterer who tries to rob and then murder her. She falls for the concertmaster in one of the New York music halls, an affair she recalls in a rambling revery that can’t help but bring Molly Bloom’s to mind:
J–Jealousy. Yes, that is the course of my lady. I was jealous, and maybe I had no reason to be jealous; but K–kalsomine. Not at all. I don’t paint and powder any more. For whom should I bother? L–lament. Yes, but not here in the in park. M–money; money. Yes, the little I have left. What can I do with it alone and in a sore dilemma, sick and sorrowful? N–name and nobody he called me. No one and nobody. That was our last word of parting. Am I nothing at all? No, I suppose not. Well, O—-ordained. Am I ordained to this continued suffering? Yes, I suppose I am. P–Paradise. Yes there is a Paradise at least; that is if one can eat substantial food and drink plenty of water only; then you can work with brain or body and you’ll get tired and youll sleep—-sleep. If I only could sleep. No, I only slumber now and then, and then I am plagued with the nightmare and see hideous sights before my face. Q–yes, that is the question. Where will I go to? R-R-R–R–reminds me of something. R–what was it? I hear a violin around me and I see a sweet severe face, the chin resting on a white silk handkerchief, and both caress the violin through his glasses. I can see two noble, brown eyes watching me on the stage. With his right arm he holds the violin bow and caressingly and very carefully he strokes the violin until he has let me find my B, moll, tune and then we both join in together and tell each other through wonderful music how good, how true, what a happy life we could live together. But no; we both drank beer–could not afford to buy good beer, but had the tin can filled with cheap stuff, and then didn’t we both smoke cigarettes? Yes, we had enjoyed a cigarette before our acquaintance, which is no harm whatsoever, but we overdid it. Between every kiss we had to take a puff–a kiss and a puff, and a kiss and a puff. Then the kiss was too long and the cigarette went out, and striking a match we took no time to let the sulphur burn off and sucked the poison from the burning match into our system. Heavens!
When I spotted The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub on the Internet Archive, I assumed it was the sort of cheap, salacious literature sold in ads in the back of blood-and-guts rags around the turn of the century. And if anyone did send 25 cents in silver to Ada, it was probably in hope of just such lurid accounts of lust and lechery in the bedrooms of New York hotels.
They would have been pretty disappointed. Although there’s plenty of situations that would have caused Ada’s father to reach for his rod, the closest things get to the risque is when Ada finds a welching tenant drunk on his soft with a half-dressed woman asleep next to him.
But for a reader a hundred years later, the attraction of The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub is not the story but the storyteller. Could anyone but Joyce or Beckett have come up with such raw, unfiltered native craziness:
What was in that beer I drank? One good swallow–: only I took to quench my thirst, but anyhow I was paralyzed. I could not move. I produced money and sent for clam juice. The clam juice didn’t come. I produced money and sent for Dr. O’Brian. Dr. O’Brian didn’t come. I sent for the ambulance. The ambulance came and I was haled to the Harlem Dispensary, and there I was received as a helpless drunkard and imbecile and cigarette fiend. What happened to me there I shall cut out, but not long after that I was haled to Bellevue on Twenty-second Street, or Twenty-sixth, and there I was laid on the floor among a heap of misfortunates with empty stomachs, and I suffered the tortures of hell until the following day at about two o’clock in the afternoon, when the doctor came to look after our welfare.
To quote the one and only Ada Blom, Swedish runaway, tenament landlady and precursor to the fictional Molly: “Howl L. Lulua!”
You can purchase print copies of The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub from several different instaprint public domain publishers, or you can just get for free from the Internet Archive: http://www.archive.org/details/biographyanewyo00blomgoog. I would advise, though, to go with the PDF version, as the rest are based on an OCR version of a poor quality copy and essentially unreadable.
The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub, by Ada Blom
New York: Ada Blom, 1909