A young Russian actress, Natalia Trukhanova, who worked for Charles Aumont at the same time that Frederick Thomas did, left a vivid memoir of her experience with both men.
Trukhanova had originally dreamt of becoming a serious actress at the celebrated Moscow Art Theater, which was famous for its staging of Chekhov’s plays. She was not accepted there, however, and decided to apply for a job at the Aquarium garden. This required a personal interview with its owner.
Aumont was very polite and removed his hat when he invited her to sit down at a table in the garden. But then he began to scrutinize her in a way that made her nervous. Good looking, in his forties, and with a clever smile on his face, he tried to camouflage his penetrating gaze by feigning absent-mindedness. Aumont cheapened his appearance via his flashy dress—loud checked suit, red tie with a pearl stickpin, white spats, diamond rings flashing on his fingers, and a red carnation in his lapel. He dyed his moustache black and curled its ends into little rings. He preferred to speak French despite having lived in Russia for a decade, and the Russian he knew was either badly flawed or consisted of elaborate strings of swear words. (Complex and multileveled cursing happens to be one of the great riches of the Russian language and it is a peculiarity of Aumont’s character that this is what he chose to master.) Because Trukhanova was very pretty, Aumont hired her on the spot to perform in light comedies and offered her a monthly salary that exceeded her wildest dreams. He also urged her to sign a contract right then and there, glossing over some of the fine print, and rushed to seal the deal with glasses of champagne.
Trukhanova’s debut on the Aquarium stage went reasonably well: she had been uncomfortable with the silly role of a young provincial wife she had to play, but she felt that she had managed to pull it off. It was only after she got to her dressing room that she discovered what else her contract obligated her to do. She had finished removing her makeup and was preparing to go home when her co-star ran into her dressing room and began to upbraid her in a harsh and loud tone for planning to leave:
What are you doing? Have you lost your wits? They’re going to start asking for you in the private rooms any second! And you want to relax? You want to earn your bread without working? No, missy! That won’t work here! Please be so kind as to sit and wait in your dressing room until you’re called. One of the maîtres d’hôtel will fetch you. You’ll sit with one or two groups of guests and will entertain the people. There’s nothing special about it. Precisely at 4 A.M., you’ll hear a bell and then you’ll be free.
A few minutes later, one of the maîtres d’hôtel did appear—it was Frederick, or “the negro Thomas” as Trukhanova referred to him. He announced very politely that a party was asking for her in private room 18 and that everyone there was entirely decent and sober. She obediently followed Frederick to the door, and thus began what she called her yearlong “path of sorrow.” Every night after the show, from midnight to four, like a “real geisha,” as she put it, she went from one private room to another, from one group of revelers to the next. The contract she had rashly signed would force her to pay a heavy fine if she tried to break it for any reason before its term was up. It was a great shock for her to discover that her value to Aumont was less as a star on his stage than as a star in his private rooms. (to be continued!)