The Minnesota Club was built in 1915 and remains one of the oldest structures in downtown St. Paul. It used to be an exclusive hideaway where rich old men would go to decide the future of the city and state over a snifter of brandy and a good cigar. Rumor had it that in the twenties the members maintained a tunnel that led to the back door of Nina Clifford’s elegant and terribly expensive bordello barely a block away. Personally, I believe the rumor to be true. Especially since a portrait identified as that of the lady in question—a black-haired beauty in a silver-gray dress—hangs prominently on the wall of the club’s main bar. And then there’s the plaque attached to a red-brown brick salvaged from the ruins of Clifford’s brothel that reads, “This brick from Nina Clifford’s house is presented to the Gentlemen of the Minnesota Club for their great interest in historic buildings.”
Things have changed since the second decade of the last century, of course—for better or worse, you tell me—and now the Minnesota Club is available as a banquet hall for meetings, school proms, wedding receptions, and bar mitzvahs. The Northern Lights Entrepreneur’s Club had engaged four full floors of the eighty-seven-year-old building and still the yuppies were wall to wall. People flowed single file through the crowd, moving from floor to floor and ballroom to ballroom like a meandering river, searching for faces they knew and then stopping when they found some, forcing the river to alter course around them. The only comparatively empty space was in the center of the large ballrooms, away from the bars and power corners, an eye of calm surrounded by storm. That’s where Merci and I found ourselves, deposited by the current shortly after presenting my invitation to the tuxedo-clad security guards at the door.
I like big parties, the bigger the better. No one asks personal questions at big parties. If you work it right, you can maintain a high degree of popularity without ever needing to reveal a single detail about yourself simply by trading one group for another whenever you exhaust your twenty minutes of humorous small talk.
I spun slowly around, taking in the room. Every man wore a tuxedo, every woman was dressed in a gown. Compared to what some of the women wore, Merci’s raspberry lace dress looked like a dust rag. Merci remained unimpressed.
“A lot of thousand-dollar-a-night whores here.”
“Want me to introduce you to a few?”
“No, thank you.” I didn’t quite believe her until a comely young woman holding up a strapless gold-lamé gown with her chest approached.
“Moving up in the world, huh, Cole?” Her dark brown hair was cut in cascading curls. She shook it as she brushed past us, hanging onto the arm of a man who was a full head shorter than she was. Merci smiled and nodded in return.
“Love your hair.” When the brunette flowed out of earshot she added, “I have a wig at home that looks just like it.”
I continued to watch until the woman disappeared into the crowd. You can buy anything these days.
“What do we do now?” Merci asked.
“Locate our host.”
“Are you sure he’s here?”
“His ride is.”
We collected a couple of glasses half filled with champagne from a silver tray that was being circulated by a woman who looked way too young to drink, and plunged back into the river. A band played country-western music on the lower floor, but no one danced—the guests all seemed more interested in the strategically placed bars. The huge main floor featured a rock-and-roll band that leaned heavily on golden oldies and everyone seemed to be dancing. The light and airy second-floor ballroom—which used to be the ladies’ dining room back when women were forbidden to eat in public with their men—boasted a Count Basie–style jazz orchestra. There seemed to be more people on the second floor than anywhere else. Charlotte Belloti was among them, grooving to the sound on the edge of the hardwood dance floor, spilling champagne in time to “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing ).”
I found an unoccupied space against the wall and asked Merci to wait for me. “Try not to be conspicuous,” I told her. My fear was that Casselman would see her before we saw him. Several people had already looked long and hard at Merci as we passed through the crowd. I didn’t know if they recognized her as Jamie—looking like Jamie in Jamie’s dress—or as one of the few truly beautiful people at the party. In a previous life, with that gown, with her golden hair piled high, she might have passed for a 1940s movie star, she could have been Jean Harlow. At worst, she would have been a nice addition to Nina Clifford’s stable of elegant “sporting girls.”