Those Kansas City Blues: A Family History
Hometown to the Royals, jazz mecca, land of pioneers and barbeque kings, Kansas City sits at the center of my family’s history and of our national psyche.
The Royals have made it to the World Series. Those true blue underdogs, the down-on-their-luck little guys of the American League, have made it—after what I’m told is one of the longest postseason droughts in all of baseball history, 29 years on the sidelines—to the championship. And two games in, they’re holding steady.
Kansas City natives will say that the Royals are a team that could only have come from their Midwestern mecca, their riverine cattle town, where the stockyards and the packing houses down in the West Bottoms used to move three million cows a year and where the American Royal livestock show and rodeo has taken place every autumn since 1899. My mother used to watch the animals marching down the parade route alongside the Future Farmers of America, all those cornflower boys in bright blue jackets. Kansas City natives will also say that there was a time when the greatest steak joints were located down in the West Bottoms—like the Golden Ox, where a century-old set of steel horns still hangs above the grill and where you can order 12 different cuts of Grade-A beef—and that the stockyards never quite recovered from the great flood of ’51, when the swollen waters of the Missouri crested its banks and eddied over the tops of the slaughterhouses.
Of course, the Royals (and here I mean the baseball team, not the cowhands) came late to the history of Kansas City. Before them, the A’s were the hometown heroes, playing in the old Municipal Stadium down near 18th and Vine. My grandfather used to dress up smartly in a suit and tie and take my dad to watch talents like Roger Maris and Hector Lopez, who were both quickly traded to the Yankees. After Charlie Finley bought the team, he brought all sorts of entertainment to town—including the Beatles, who performed on a stage set up behind second base during their tour of ’64.
My father had no great loyalty to the A’s, though he adored the Royals and the Chiefs, whom he watched every Sunday. After we moved to the Pacific Northwest, he adopted the Seahawks—and so 2014 was shaping up to be a banner year indeed, long before the Royals had aced their wild-card game. My dad needed a heart operation in the spring, but he wouldn’t risk it before the Super Bowl. When the ‘Hawks won big, he danced around the house for days.
This sheer ebullience—his expansive elation that his team had finally triumphed, that the odds turned out in his favor, that his number came up lucky—it was something I would cling to when, two months later, he had the surgery and did not survive it.
And now his Royals are in the World Series. And millions of baseball fans are watching the television cameras pan over the wide boulevards and the Spanish-style Plaza, over the curving fountains and the railroad tracks, and thinking about what a pretty city Kansas City must be. I want to tell you a story about those wide boulevards and those fountains, about the Plaza and the Paseo and about the railroad tracks and what they once led to. I want to tell you how Kansas City sits at the center of my family’s history and of our national psychogeography, the nexus where north meets south in uneasy conflagration, where the east expands onto the grassy vistas of the western prairie, where vices are indulged and industries built. It is the omphalos, this city that straddles two steamboat rivers at the continental crossroads. There, pioneers embarked on their perilous journeys. There, militias fought in feverish abolitionist wars. It’s the place where my parents grew up and where they fell in love. The place where jazz and barbeque and mob bosses and the blues flourished. The place where our past bleeds into the present, where you can and can’t go home again—and where the muddy Missouri flows ever onward, winding slowly toward its distant manifest destiny.
When we talk about Kansas City, what we’re talking about is a certain state of mind, a bricolage of bootstrap can-do-ism and ingrained suspicion of the more lawful authorities. The town’s character is a product of the kind of attitude reflected in favorite Missouri phrases like “The buck stops here” (from native son Harry Truman) and the “Show Me State,” in outposts with names like Independence and Liberty and Agency. It is also a product of generations of vagabonds looking to hide out from the Pinkertons or the Feds, hucksters and scoundrels who could vanish out onto the open plains or into the city’s smoky underbelly. To put it another way: The same city that nurtured all-American sweethearts like Ginger Rogers and Walt Disney also spawned Jesse James, Big Boss Pendergast, and the Mafioso “Willie the Rat.”
The first pioneer to reach the riparian tributary where Kansas City now shimmers was, in fact, on the lam himself. An illegal fur trader by the name of Étienne de Veniard, Sieur de Bourgmont, he was fleeing French authorities after deserting his military post at Fort Detroit. Monseiur le Sieur slunk into the fertile lands of the Sioux and settled down with his Native American wife (he also had a bride back in France) to swap pelts with mountain men, trappers, and local tribes. Later, back in the graces of the French crown, he was appointed commander of the Missouri and built Fort Orleans in 1723. From there, he led groups of Kansa and Osage to scout for Spanish garrisons. After securing the region in the name of the House of Bourbon, he took a few favorite chiefs back to Paris, where they hunted with Louis XV and palled around Versailles. Whether the warriors enjoyed their time in Europe, it is not said, although one version of the story has it that when they returned—without Bourgmont, who had tired of the New World—they slaughtered all the soldiers who remained at his fort.
A century later, Lewis and Clark rowed up the Missouri on the first leg of their journey to find the Northwest Passage and reach the Pacific. Within a few decades, hundreds of thousands of pioneers and gold seekers were flooding into Kansas City—they called themselves, romantically and perhaps fatalistically, “Argonauts”—to stock up on staples at the Pike’s Peak Express Company, which ran the fabled Pony Express. Three trails led out of Independence, just east of town—the California, which trekked up and over the treacherous Sierras; the Oregon, which tracked across the buffalo-rich plains to the Rockies and the thundering Columbia; and the Santa Fe, which wound through Comanche country on its way south to Mexico. For every few wagons that left, another one straggled back—during one Gold Rush bust, the Kansas Historical Society notes, “the roads were strewn with culinary utensils… and oxen, teams and wagons were sold for a song.”
My great-grandmother’s grandparents would have passed through Kansas City en route to farm in Iowa, probably taking the Oregon Trail up the river to Omaha, then turning east along the Platte tributary. By the time my great-grandmother, Katie, was born, railroads raced across the land where wagon ruts still cut deep into the dry earth. It was an era when social reformers like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth toured through the territories and Arabella Mansfield was sworn in as America’s first female lawyer at Mount Pleasant. Meanwhile, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West circus vamped off an idea of the plains that was already fast disappearing. Katie’s family still traveled by covered wagon in the last decade before rail became king, roaming around Nebraska and the Dakotas as her father homesteaded outside of Deadwood and worked on the Burlington line. He never laid the tracks beyond Wyoming; one night, crossing a railroad trestle, he suffered a mortal fall into the Cheyenne River.
With younger siblings to feed, Katie—14, industrious, impossibly shy—was sent to work at a hotel owned by the Lamb family, a clan of backwoods warriors who had migrated down from the dark northern forests around Prairie du Chien and Bad Ax. The patriarch, Josiah, had fought with the 42nd Wisconsin Infantry, marching all the way to Kentucky to battle the Confederates. After the war’s end, he took advantage of the boosterism campaigns to resettle in Nebraska. His youngest son, Orange Scott, was a rough-and-tumble trickster and a terrible tease. When he left to join the Spanish-American War, Katie kept a picture of him on a locket around her neck. After two years in the Philippines, he returned and they married, moving ‘back east’ to Iowa, and then to Kansas City. There, Orange Scott ran the interurban, a turn-of-the-century electric trolley line that connected the boomtown with its exurbs. The cars had plush green upholstery and stained-glass windows and were faster and cheaper than a horse-and-buggy. “It could run 80 miles an hour,” remembered one passenger long after the interurban had vanished. “You could hear the wires sing as it went down the road. They just sang you a song.”
That song would soon morph from the jaunty clip of the light rail to the siren sounds of jazz. Under the protection of political boss Tom Pendergast, who ensured that Prohibition never infiltrated Kansas City, the ’20s and ’30s saw the town christened “The New Storyville,” after New Orleans’ scandalous red-light district. Down in the clubs around 18th and Vine, players like Charlie Parker and Count Basie developed a hard, bluesy style and jam sessions at the Hi Hat, the Hey Hey, and the Chocolate Bar went on late into the night. When police raided the joints (which rarely happened, since the federal prosecutor was in Pendergast’s pocket), “the Boss man would have his bondsmen down at the police station before we got there,” recalled Big Joe Turner, who worked at the time as a ‘singing barman’ at fixtures like the Kingfish Club at The Sunset. “We’d walk in, sign our names and walk right out. Then we would cabaret until morning.”
Thanks to the jazz scene, the city fostered a thriving African-American culture. “Kansas City, I would say, did more for jazz music, black music, than any other influence at all,” the blues musician Jesse Stone once remarked. “Almost all their joints that they had there, they used black bands. Most musicians who amounted to anything, they would flock to Kansas City because that’s the place where jobs were plentiful.” Out at Municipal Stadium, the Kansas City Monarchs showcased Jackie Robinson and the great pitcher Satchel Paige; around the same time, Langston Hughes—raised in Joplin and Lawrence while his mother worked in Kansas City—wrote his first and most famous poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” while studying at Columbia in New York. “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins… I’ve known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers.” He was talking about the golden Mississippi, but he could have easily been describing the Missouri, flowing thickly through the aorta of his childhood home.
This image of Kansas City—the jazz, the booze joints, the levantine nightlife—is the one that Hollywood so loves, as do those of us drawn to noirish decadence and a concupiscent sort of decay. Gatsby and his West Eggers may have been tailored to New York’s Roaring Twenties excess, but Kansas City could hold its own when it came to crime and sin. Pendergast’s political machine ran all sorts of corrupt sidelines—it was no coincidence that the city’s newest buildings were constructed with Pendergast Readi-Mix Concrete—and sewed up elections with bought votes. (Pendergast’s early patronage of Harry Truman would almost cost the Democrat the presidency.) Gangsters with ties to City Hall, like “Pretty Boy” Floyd and Eddie Richetti, littered the streets with bodies, casualties of their underworld wars. When Eddie and Floyd decided to bust the bank robber Frank Nash out of FBI custody, they ended up killing him and four unarmed agents in the 1933 Union Station massacre. Their handler for that gig, “Brother John” Lazia, ran the city’s biggest gambling resorts, as well as illicit nightclubs, loanshark operations and bail bond companies. By 1934, he’d made enough enemies that someone decided to mow him down in the street with a sawed-off shotgun. His last words, or so they say, were woefully self-indulgent: “Why me, Johnny Lazia, who has been the friend of everybody?”
Yes, Kansas City was city of chancers whose luck could turn on a dime—and this is where my father’s side of the family comes in. My grandfather, Horace, arrived in town in the early ‘30s along with a passel of siblings searching for work (and apparently dodging a few warrants). The kids were descendants of Southerners who had fought in the Seminole Wars and founded Baptist parishes high on the Alabama plateau, where they quaked for Jehovah and prayed fervently for deliverance from the North. The family had grown up dirt-poor, sharecropping the 20,000 acres of cotton that stretched out below Sand Mountain. Horace was athletic and clever, known, probably apocryphally, as the fastest cotton picker in Clay County. He won a ticket to college on a basketball scholarship but had to drop out to support his siblings. At some point, the brothers decided to head up to Kansas City and found jobs at Armco, still known locally as Sheffield Steel. At its peak, the mill employed more than 4,500 workers as it churned out ironworks for FDR’s war effort.
At the steel mill, Horace operated the overhead cranes and fell for one of the bookkeepers, the daughter of a small-town sheriff turned Kansas City cop. Margaret was straight-laced and churchgoing but her background was a bit wilder—her ancestors had lived way out on the prairie, in the same remote region where Jesse James fled after robbing the Kansas City fairgrounds and where Bleeding Kansas’s border wars resulted in grisly trading post massacres. Her grandfather had been a physician and healer who—according to family lore—married a descendant of the Osage or Pawnee tribes. This may have accounted for Margaret’s dark eyes and her raven hair, or perhaps her features were from the Sephardic ancestors whose names we have lost but who show up in our DNA. In any case, she was a looker and Horace—with his blue eyes and his sweet-talking ways—won her over.
Old pictures of the couple show Horace decked out in a three-piece suit and diamond rings and Margaret swaddled in furs. My grandfather lived fast and large—he liked his liquor and his tobacco, and he was also an ace gambler. Gin rummy was his big game and he fraternized with high rollers like Minnesota Fats and Dean Chance. Anywhere there was a backroom card game or pool hall, from Los Angeles to Colorado Springs, Horace could be found—he supported the family off his winnings. One morning, when my uncle was in high school, he remembers waking up and seeing a large hearse parked outside the house. Horace had been playing poker with a mortician, who had put the car up as collateral. My grandfather was wickedly funny, with round cheeks and an infectious laugh, which usually indicated he was up to something naughty. Fortune laughed along with him—he won at all sorts of things, not only cards but raffles and games of chance. I guess you could say he was a just a very lucky guy.
For his bride, Horace built a little brick house on Sixth Street, in Kansas City’s Northeast quadrant, and that’s where my father was born. One year later and 10 blocks away, my mother came into the world, the granddaughter of those pioneers who had roamed the prairie. Her mother, Virginia, was wry and hardy, just like her Nebraska ancestors; her father, Carl, was serious and civic; he studied law at Northwestern and the University of Missouri before losing his life savings in the stock market crash—a stroke of ill fate that left him forever cautious. During the Depression, his clients paid him in tea sets and fresh eggs; when he could no longer afford to stay in business, he joined the Chamber of Commerce. He was the type of man upon whom it weighed heavily that he had been too young to join the First World War and too old to join the Second.
Their neighborhood in Northeast was a place where kids played whiffle ball on streets lined with elms so broad they made a canopy over the passing cars, and where milkman dropped daily deliveries on the back porch. It was also strongly Italian—Margaret learned to make meatballs and marinara from her neighbors, who had nicknames like “John-John” and “Uncle Charlie.” No one will tell me if this was one of the corners where the powerful Kansas City mafia took root; the question elicits ellipses. “They were wonderful cooks and had beautiful daughters,” says my uncle. “Everyone was nice,” says my mother, blithely, “and we all felt very safe.”
Maybe the mob wasn’t there, after all. Or maybe it just didn’t fit into the neat narrative that post-war Kansas City liked to tell about itself—one where, in the words of Ernest Hemingway (who worked briefly for the Kansas City Star), the “food [was] good” and people spoke “the purest American.” The best of the good food was barbeque, of course—slow-smoked ribs smothered in a thick tomato and molasses sauce at Arthur Bryant’s, out near the A’s stadium, or the lighter and tangier brisket across town at Gates. My grandfather also favored DiMaggio’s deli, which peddled dishes that smacked of the Deep South, like sow’s ear sandwiches and pickled pig’s feet. Over at the Plaza, the architect J.C. Nichols was busy constructing that “purest American” myth, driven by a belief in the supremacy of leafy subdivisions. It was the age of consumption—TWA, based in Kansas City, made the metropolis a hub for traveling salesmen and women shopped at Harzfeld’s, with its famous Thomas Hart Benton mural, while the men wore Woolf Brothers’ suits. That luxury store had been founded years earlier by Herbert Woolf, a relative of the British writers Leonard and Virginia. Their Kansas City cousin raised prizewinning ponies on 200 acres outside of town, and threw extravagant Jazz Age parties for the likes of Pendergast and Teddy Roosevelt—a lifestyle of excesses and vice, the type of thing that 1950s Kansas City preferred to leave behind.
It was in this buoyant baby boom atmosphere that my parents grew up. While they knew each other distantly as children (my mother remembers my dad as the one trying to kiss all the girls in Sunday school), they didn’t really meet until they attended Northeast High. How do I begin to describe my father to you? Smart, so smart, and darkly handsome; a practical joker, large-hearted and fun. A wide-ranging curiosity. An inventive mind. That huge, voracious lust for life. Of course he would go for my mother—warm, friendly, with her Natalie Wood looks and her glass-half-full optimism. They started out dating each other’s best friends, but soon my dad was driving my mom around in his little red Karmann Ghia. He took her to the Savoy Grill to eat lobster, and to his favorite Mexican joint for hot enchiladas. Occasionally, they’d head out to the Starlight Theatre to catch a show, and to skateboard in the parking lot, my mother standing on my father’s feet as he steered.
My father also had Horace’s sense of flair. He was a fashionable dresser (“Madras was big in those days,” says my mother) and collected unusual jewelry, like black sapphire rings. He was an excellent pool sharp and quick at poker and bridge. That’s not to say he wasn’t industrious—in college, after a full day of biology classes, he would work nights on the railroad or at the labs. But he also indulged in games on the side—he could deal a deck so fast that it would look like he’d cleanly cut the cards, when in fact he’d placed them strategically so. He and his best friend developed a racket where they would pretend to be strangers and clean up with the bets, my dad dealing his pal the winning hand. My father, who had a rich tenor, loved to sing songs from Guys and Dolls, especially “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.” (“I dreamed last night I got on the boat to heaven/And by some chance I had brought my dice along/And there I stood, and I hollered, ‘Someone fade me!’/ But the passengers they knew right from wrong…”). He, too, was a very lucky guy.
One summer, early in their relationship, my parents took jobs as camp counselors with the city. They’d drive around in a large bus, picking up kids from the poorest neighborhoods and taking them to play archery and other sports in the wooded parks. The children teased my parents about their budding romance and my parents, in turn, fell in love with their tiny wards. After they’d drop the children off at home—on blocks where the houses had no doors, where windows were covered with thin sheets to keep out the wind—my parents would go out on a date, then buy ice cream cones to take back to the kids at the end of the evening. Kansas City was still segregated at that point, and the old downtown around 18th and Vine suffered from terrible and endemic poverty. Racial inequalities simmered; in ’68, they exploded. My parents watched the city burn from the roof of their college dormitory; elsewhere on campus, kids were burning their bras and their draft cards. Change was necessary—and when it came, it was violent, and it engulfed Kansas City’s heart in transmutative flames.
By the time the Royals came to town in 1969, my father was growing restless. He wanted to see the world. In many ways, Kansas City is a leaving town, a place for pioneers and rovers with an eye on the distant horizon. And so, in 1972, when he got an offer to do his Ph.D. in New England, my dad and my mother packed up and moved East—truly East, original-colonies East. My father didn’t go back to Kansas City much after that. He said it was because he hated the Midwest humidity, those sticky evenings that smother the lungs and send lightning storms racing across the plains. Now, I think he avoided it because of something that happened a few months after he left. One night, my grandfather Horace was driving home. Maybe he had been at a card game—wherever he was, it was late and he was speeding in the rain. A cop pulled him over; the rookie had his gun cocked; the gun went off. It was a terribly inauspicious accident. My father had to fly back to town to keep his uncles from enacting vigilante justice over the death. Margaret, in the blasted shock of sudden loss, sold most of her possessions and moved to Florida. And just like that, my father no longer had a home to go home to.
Perhaps this was the beginning of the end of my parents’ Kansas City. Horace was gone; my mother’s father soon followed. Her mother moved to the suburbs, her brothers moved to California. The trees that lined the spacious boulevards began dying from Dutch elm disease. Meanwhile, urban blight took over the downtown area. The Mob ran wild, using the local Teamsters to run casinos in Las Vegas and bombing buildings along the River Quay. The FBI’s bid to bust the Kansas City bosses for their involvement in the Tropicana Casino, dubbed Operation Strawman, eventually took down most of the Civella crime family. At the city’s methadone clinics, addicts could run into William Burroughs, the once-great Beat, whose counterculture lifestyle had gone from glamorous to infirmly grim. And the Royals, after a brief run on top—reaching the championships in 1980 and winning the whole shebang in the “Show-Me Series” in ‘85—started their three-decade-long losing streak. The story of Kansas City that my relatives told, when I was growing up and would visit in the summers, was one in which a glorious yesterday had slid, perhaps irrevocably, into blighted decrepitude.
I don’t know if that story is still true. Lately, the city has enjoyed something of a renaissance—the downtown is full of art galleries and food trucks, and even some hipsters; a new concert hall curves across the skyline. What has happened to the families who had to make way for the food trucks and the hipsters, I do not know; their story is not part of the tourism brochures. This new Kansas City, this shiny millennial town, is not my parents’ city. This city belongs to other people, a generation who may not know and may not care about the pioneer tracks that start in Independence, about the crime bosses and the Sunset Lounge, about the kids who used to play whiffle ball on Chelsea and Van Brunt, and the kids who couldn’t afford whiffle balls down on 18th and Vine. Already, these things take on the air of fable. We are already at a degree of remove—it was my father who drove that convertible out to the Starlight, my mother who watched the holiday shoppers on the Plaza, not me, and assuredly I have gotten the details wrong, assuredly there are things that I will never know, already the past is slipping away. The gulf grows wider even as I write this. How many details are needed, after all, before one can say to oneself, “This is what I have lost?”
This inexorable change, time’s riparian flow, is neither good nor bad, in the way that death is neither good nor bad—it just is.
The last time I visited Kansas City, it was the 4th of July. We sat on the grass, in the hot twilight, watching the fireworks burst in patriotic showers of light over Independence. My mother called my father to let him hear the sounds of the cicadas singing their dying songs. A cousin took me to the National Frontier Trail Museum, where I jotted down dutiful notes. (“Before starting on the Oregon Trail, a typical family would need 600 lbs. of flour, 120 lbs. of biscuits, 400 lbs. of bacon, 200 lbs. of sugar…”) I had no idea where we were headed that I would need this information, but maybe I could absorb a bit of where we came from. One thinks of the opening lines from a Hemingway short story: “In those days the distances were all very different, the dirt blew off the hills that now have been cut down, and Kansas City was very like Constantinople. You may not believe this. No one believes this; but it is true.”
Before my father had his surgery, my brother wanted to get down all the stories about his Kansas City childhood. But for reasons that remain obscure, my dad refused. A week later, after so many bad breaks in the hospital, after so many things had gone unthinkably wrong—including a delirium in which my father dreamt the nurses were trying to break his spirit, a delirium that precipitated a heart attack and a Code Blue, a delirium we knew had broken when my dad made feeble jokes through his oxygen mask and tried to talk about Texas Hold’em with the orderlies—my father told me he wanted to record his early memories. “That’s a good idea, Daddy,” I said. Instead, we held hands and I let him rest. I thought there was time. Twenty minutes later, the surgeons told us they needed to start on the 12-hour operation to save his arteries. He fought for two days, and I remember a moment when it seemed our luck was finally turning. Leaving the OR that night, I looked up the clear sky, at the flocks of white seagulls and a sliver of crescent moon. It felt like a new beginning. That was the night my father died.
At the funeral, one of the hospital’s nurses sent us a card. She had been there as my mother and I sat with him around the clock, sleeping by his bedside, anxiously checking his vitals. She said that whenever she came into the room, she had felt the radiation of a vast and unseen force. It was a force, she said, of tremendous love.
I think of this love, of my parents’ love—for each other, for us—when I see the couples kissing in front of Kansas City’s fountains, which now gush the color of Royals’ blue. My father used to swim in these fountains, to cool off from the heat and to make my mother laugh. Always the risk-taker, he would dive through the subterranean tunnels in the fountains in front of the art gallery, the ones with the beggars and the angels. My mother waited up above at the water’s edge. Around them, Kansas City glowed in the midsummer dusk; ahead of them glimmered the future. And my father swam, down into the blue water to impress my mother—and beyond them the Missouri impassively flowed—and my mother stood by the water’s edge, waiting for him to surface.