A fictional take on a forgotten Buffalo Star
by Jack Foran
Words and Pictures
Sweet personality, Full of rascality, That’s Peggy O’Neill.
Some nice surprises in the little novel—novella, novelette—about music hall era leading lady Buffalo-born Peggy O’Neill, written by Margaret Finan, illustrated by Mickey Harmon. You can get a copy—free—at the Hydraulic Hearth eatery/drinkery, 716 Swan Street, in the heart of the new Larkin District.
Surprise that Peggy O’Neill—the subject of the song—was an actual person. I didn’t know that. Much less that she was from Buffalo, originally from the Hydraulics area. She attended St. Patrick’s parochial school in the Ward, but was orphaned early on, and as a teen-ager made her way somehow to Chicago, and from there New York, then the world. London, Paris. Local historian and city planner Chris Hawley’s foreword to the little booklet quotes from one-time Buffalo daily paper the Commercial Advertiser, which reported that despite a lousy play—entitled Paddy the Next Best Thing—and bad theater to boot, Peggy “took England by storm and broke every record for dramatic plays in the history of London.” The paper added that “She is the idol of British music hall audiences, the most critical and caustic in the world.”
But also a surprise—despite the patent clue from the full title of the work, A Pie-eyed Night with Peggy O’Neill—that the story isn’t more saccharine sentimental. Peggy turns out to be not quite the innocent lass who by dint simply of hard work and talent made it to the top of the theatrical profession. Not that there isn’t plenty of sentimental in this fictional tale but somehow related to fact. In particular, the factual incident when her dog was poisoned after getting into a box of chocolates Peggy had received from some mysterious unknown supposed admirer. The poison was meant for her, it seems, a gift possibly from the wife of a man she was having an affair with. But no suspect was ever identified. By now a very cold case.
The rest is apparently fictional but plausible for the most part. Life in the big cities under the bright lights surely had its attractions, but Peggy, we discover, was a home town girl at heart and returned here whenever she could, to visit her much beloved younger sister Kate, now married, as well as the orphanage they once both were inmates in, to which Peggy now made generous regular financial contributions. The trip to the orphanage is on Christmas day, and she gets to watch the kids open the presents she has provided. There weren’t presents in her and her sister’s time in the institution. Just a watery stew Christmas dinner.
The rest of the tale consists of a series of episodes on a single event-packed evening that starts with a meeting at the snooty Buffalo Club with an old-money club member who invited her to join his private party, including his daughter and her sort of boyfriend, who later it turns out is a theatrical producer and interested in Peggy professionally but also—not in a nice way—personally. Peggy arrives alone at the club in her chauffeur-driven limousine but is nonetheless directed by the club doorman to the women’s entrance, around the corner, other side of the building. She takes it in good humor, but the meeting with the group does not go any better for her. Some catty remarks from the daughter, who looks down on Peggy as nouveau riche inasamuch as Peggy has had to work for her fortune, rather than, like herself, having it as inheritance. To the manor born.
That social friction sets the tone for the rest of the evening and sets Peggy off to having—to help her stay polite, which she doesn’t always manage—somewhat more alcoholic beverage than might have been judicious. The group—losing the old guy father figure—sets off to a saloon in the more plebian environment of the Hydraulics district—a place a lot like Hydraulic Hearth from the look and sound of it—and more drinking and related untoward events, but also chance encounter with Danny, an old friend from the neighborhood. In fact, first boyfriend. First kiss. Lucky chance as it turns out.
Not a story or writing that bears comparison with, say, War and Peace. But as Hawley says in the introduction, “Peggy O’Neil could be called Buffalo’s most forgotten celebrity,” but with the publication of this little work of fact/fiction, “she is forgotten no more.”
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