Our Lady of Court Street

A quiet but eloquent presence among downtowners, designers, and old-line fashionistas, the late Bobbie Corbean showed everyone she met what’s so amazing about grace.

“I’ve always pictured myself playing the guitar,” Bobbie Corbean said to me one morning the summer before last when we met on the corner of Court and Vine streets. “And I think you’re just the person to teach me.”

I choked on my cappuccino and prepared to run from the prospect of correcting yet one more chord progression played by one more struggling novice (“Let’s just try a C there instead of a B…”). But I hadn’t reckoned on Bobbie’s determination. Which is how I happened to find myself climbing three flights of stairs on a hot afternoon in June in the graceful old building where she lived, armed with a package of guitar strings I’d just bought at a pawn shop in Over-the-Rhine.

My friendship with Bobbie wasn’t new. We’d known each other since the 1980s, when we were always turning up for the same awards or grants. I remember the meetings, the photo shoots, the wonderful camaraderie with other artists and community activists, even though I don’t remember who won or what the awards were. But I never really got to know Bobbie until the last few years of her life, which ended last October.

When I moved from Main Street to West Ninth—what I jokingly call “Midtown”—I was delighted to find that Bobbie lived across Vine Street and one block up from me on Court, in the Court Vu apartments. The Court Vu, like the legendary Dakota in Manhattan, was one of those buildings coveted by artists, actors, and musicians, who longed to live in the high-ceilinged rooms with Rookwood tiled fireplaces and marble in the baths and in the hallways. Outside, pin-tucked brick patterns accented the facade, and large shade trees protected the building from hot Cincinnati summers.

The drawback was that the Court Vu had no elevator. Bobbie, who was 81, dismissed the three flights of stairs she climbed every day as “good exercise.” To me it felt like climbing Mt. Rushmore. When she reached the top, she was as serene and untouched as a yoga master, and I was panting like a second-rate nag at River Downs.

Photograph courtesy of Steve Bolia

Going in her front door made it all worthwhile, though. It felt like happening on an ancient souk in Marrakech. The thick, smooth walls of her foyer were hung with zebra skins, and every available space had been filled with art, plants (she had gorgeous orchids), pictures lovingly framed, and interesting pieces she had collected from friends and lovers from all over the world. “Good” art hung beside paintings she’d kept for sentimental reasons, incense burned, and gauze diffused the light that poured through the windows. The effect was exotic. If Sidney Greenstreet had walked into the room wearing a fez and offered us Turkish coffee, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

“Now I have to tell you,” she apologized when she opened the door to me for the first time, “this is a no-shoes environment. Shoes bring in the outside world.”

“Good point,” I said and started unlacing. (Jazz pianist Ed Moss later told me he always checked to make sure he didn’t have a hole in his socks before visiting Bobbie.)

The strings I’d picked up at the pawn shop for her guitar were the wrong kind: they were for a flat-top guitar like my own; she had a folk guitar instead. I tried to explain it to Bobbie, but she was disappointed. “Well, damn!” she said, as if she had intended to learn to play the guitar that very afternoon. Bobbie did not like being thwarted. She didn’t pout long though, and after awhile we had a glass of wine and promised ourselves to try the guitar lesson another day. While we drank, she talked a little about her long and interesting life. “I was born over in the West End, honey,” she told me. “But I had my heart set on Paris.”

I could picture her there, like Josephine Baker on the Left Bank, framed by feathers and diaphanous chiffons. But Paris had to wait. Before she could light out for the City of Light, Bobbie had responsibilities to a husband, Walter Corbean, and two daughters. She knew she was creative, and she operated within that skill-set to earn a living for her family. She worked in retail and in the 1950s opened a “charm school”—the kind of place where she could help girls, specifically African-American girls, learn manners and modeling skills and develop the self-esteem that would help them navigate social and professional settings. She became the buyer and fashion coordinator for the Lane Bryant store downtown—the first time a black woman had held that sort of position in Cincinnati.

By the 1970s, Bobbie’s children were grown. And although she would forever call Walter Corbean the love of her life, her marriage had ended. She was ready to spread her wings, and the opportunity came through another bold Cincinnatian. Doug Crutchfield, the son of a Baptist pastor who had defied his family by going to New York to study dance, had moved to Copenhagen to perform and teach. When Crutchfield suggested Bobbie visit him there, she did.

Copenhagen was a revelation to her; it set her free. She admired Scandinavian fashion—the subtlety of design, the lightweight fabrics, the clean lines. In Copenhagen, that tiny, twinkling city, she honed her sense of style and launched into the kind of life she’d only dreamed of, in a place unlike any she’d ever seen. She began modeling almost immediately (the Danish took to her brown skin and curly hair and lithe figure—traits that weren’t “selling in the United States at the time,” she told me drily, but without rancor) and eventually landed a job with a government department created to promote the fashion industry. “I was the first American director of the Scandinavian Fashion Center,” she said. She managed press relations, launched shows, and kicked-off seasons. It was an era when companies such as Dansk and Marimekko were setting the style, and she was in the middle of it. She’d gone from Lane Bryant in Cincinnati to working with the great fashion houses of Europe. She made herself at home.

Photograph courtesy of Steve Bolia

Once she established herself in Copenhagen, she was finally able to travel, and she did it as she did everything, with great flair. She walked the banks of the Seine in Paris, saw the fashion centers in Milan and Rome, and eventually found her heart in Africa. Her Court Vu apartment was filled with the mementos of those trips: Kenyan weavings and jewelry, an antique ivory broach, a necklace of what looked like tiger’s teeth, and copper ankle bracelets to ward off “Old Arthur,” as she called her arthritis.

Traveling changed her, or perhaps it accented who she already was. She learned to love the ocean and exotic islands. The sea, that giver of life, was part of her vision of herself, and as she got older and traveled less she still managed to walk the beaches once a year in Cancun. “Taste the salt from the ocean and be healed,” she’d say.

One morning, I saw her standing on the corner of Court and Vine, looking as willowy as a girl, dressed in tan pants and a brown T-shirt, a kerchief tied just-so around her neck. She was wearing large, dark glasses, like Greta Garbo. She kept one hand in her pocket, because she didn’t carry a purse.

“Have you ever had a shot of wheat grass?” she asked me when I caught up with her.

“No,” I said, “but it sounds like something I’d like to try.” So Bobbie and I walked up Vine to Total Juice Plus, where Bobbie insisted on paying. “The first shot is on me,” she said, laughing like a crafty drug pusher. “You can buy the next.”

The green liquid came in small pleated paper containers, like pill holders, with a choice of orange or lemon slices offered like salt and lime after tequila. The juice tasted like the essence of life—or maybe that was just Bobbie. She had a way of making ordinary things seem memorable.

After that first shot of wheat grass (which did make me feel strangely energetic) we saw each other every few days on Court Street, swam at the YWCA on Walnut, or ran into each other at the bus stop on the east side of Vine Street. She was such a buoyant person she lifted the atmosphere just by standing on the corner talking.

Her closest friends were Rob Dorgan and Steve Bolia, a pair of designers she had met when they owned the Left Handed Moon, a quirky gift shop just down Court Street from where she had opened her own place, Ms. B’s Marketplace, in 1990. Rob, now a partner in the Over-the-Rhine design firm Studio Vertu, remembers her as an artist. “She loved the process more than the finished product,” he says. “Even a dinner party, for her, began days before the event. Shopping for the food was part of the process. She’d go to Findlay Market and pick just the right ingredients. After dinner, when we offered to help with the dishes, she’d insist that we leave them until the next day. ‘Tomorrow when I do the dishes I’ll re-live everything and visit with all of you again,’ she’d say.”

On a crisp day last winter, Bobbie and I met outside the Court Vu by chance, and she told me that her doctor had found a mass in her lung. She was scheduled for a biopsy.

“Are you afraid?” I asked, and she dropped her eyes. The good news came back later that week that the tumor was benign. “Good,” I said. “We’ll still have time for those guitar lessons.”

Meanwhile, I had my own medical situation to attend to: back surgery. I had been diagnosed with a lot of fancy names like “stenosis,” “scoliosis,” and “degenerative disc disease,” but Bobbie simplified things. “Honey,” she said, “it all means arthritis, and it’s a misery.”

Not long after, she started complaining of pain in her chest. She said she thought the anesthesiologist had nicked her lung when the biopsy was performed. But that wasn’t it, of course. The tumor turned out to be malignant. “I’m not going to have chemo or radiation,” she said. “It might kill those bad cells, but it will also kill the good cells. I need to concentrate on keeping those good cells healthy.”

She began packing her fine art and having it photographed and appraised. She wanted to sell it and use the proceeds to establish a foundation for young girls. She donated a classy dress and hat to the Cincinnati Art Museum. Like a guest who had stayed too long at the party, she was getting ready to leave.

It was Ed Moss who reminded me that Bobbie was a great jazz fan. In the 1980s, after she returned from Europe, she ran a contemporary version of the Cotton Club, an old West End nightclub, newly envisioned by Bobbie to inhabit a space by the Convention Center. Ed was the music director. The new Cotton Club was short-lived; what endured was her relationship with Ed, which went back many years to the days when they had worked at Babe Baker’s, the city’s premier jazz joint before the Blue Wisp. In the 1960s, everybody stopped in Cincinnati and played at Babe’s, according to Ed, who led the house trio along with tenor saxophonist Jimmy McGary. Bobbie was Babe’s right hand. Ed’s impression was that she was a partner in the business and a facilitator. Or, as he put it, “She was the cat that poured the oil on troubled waters, you know?”

In those days, with race issues coming to a boil all across the country, the NAACP was leaning on Babe to put a black trio in his club. “Biggest black club anywhere, and they had a white trio,” Ed said. “We had to stay in the kitchen during our breaks, because the place was packed every night.”

According to Ed, Bobbie persuaded Babe to keep Ed’s trio in spite of the fact that they were white. “I would not deny myself the privilege,” she famously said, “of knowing someone just because they’re different.”

Ed still laughs at the memory. “Bobbie never drank anybody’s Kool-Aid,” he said. “I’m going to miss her. I never had a bad time with her.”

Michelle, one of Bobbie’s daughters, developed multiple sclerosis, which is what brought Bobbie home from Copenhagen in the early 1980s. She worked at the elegant Gidding-Jenny department store for a while, did fashion shows for Shillito’s, even put out a quarterly high-style magazine called Mode. In the 1990s, she opened Ms. B’s, her charming consignment shop on Court Street. The Court Street area was a lively neighborhood back then, with the Left Handed Moon, Avril-Bleh & Sons Meat Market, Tony Sparta’s Italian grocery store, and open-air market stalls a couple days a week. Bobbie’s store was stocked with the kind of “gently used” merchandise—vintage coats, dresses, hats—that only Bobbie could have put together.

Photograph courtesy of Steve Bolia

The hats she’d collected—some of them with elaborate, starched veils—would have been a boon for the costume department of Mad Men. They were small, fitted to Styrofoam head forms, a feather going this way, the tilt of the hat fixed with pins at clever angles. I remember seeing a lovely, buttery cashmere cardigan in that shop, too, alongside Bakelite jewelry you might have expected to see at the flea markets along the Seine in Bobbie’s beloved Paris.

There was never a trace of disappointment that life had circled back to Cincinnati, separating her from the excitement of Europe and the rich pleasures of the world’s fashion capitals. It was as if there wasn’t a place in her vocabulary for a word like regret. Rob Dorgan likes to quote her mantra, that “life is what you make it.” “She’d say, ‘If you get stuck in the fact that you are black or gay or whatever, that’s your decision,’” he recalls. “‘But Honey, be sure not to blame the world or wait for it to change. It won’t.’”

Bobbie eventually hung up her own hat and retired, but she never lost her discipline, her passion, her love of life. She always had some kind of project going on, and she always wrote—diaries, notebooks, and journals overflowing with her stylish script lined the shelves in her apartment. As a child in grade school in the West End, a teacher had told Bobbie she had beautiful penmanship. “Nobody had ever told me anything about me was beautiful,” she told me once, matter-of-factly. So, for the rest of her life, she wrote to express herself with the one trait she’d been complimented on.

She never drove a car, but it didn’t hold her back. Ed Moss told me she kept right on visiting his club at Schwartz’s Point until a couple of months before her death. “Omar brought Bobbie down whenever she could make the scene,” Ed said.

“Who was Omar?”

“I don’t know,” he said, smiling. “He was part of Bobbie’s world.”

Bobbie died in October and was buried at Spring Grove Cemetery. I didn’t know how to feel. I had lost the sound of her voice, lost the memories, the small fantasies that make life bearable. So one day I put on all the make-up I could find in the dusty drawer where I keep it for “special occasions.” I used a tiny bit of silken eye cream, dabbing it on gently with my little finger. I followed it with concealer, then just the tiniest bit of powder to set it. I blushed, bronzed, fluffed, and buffed and put on my best outfit and went to Saks Fifth Avenue.

It was the perfect thing to do. The sales personnel at Saks knew Bobbie and were sorry to hear of her death. They put blush on “the apples of my cheeks,” as they called them, and slipped tiny gift packages in my shopping bag.

I realized I’d stumbled into Bobbie’s milieu. It felt like her. At the perfume counter I sprayed myself with a touch of Chanel No. 5, and I seemed to see Bobbie smiling that magic smile of hers, as if a genie had materialized out of the bottle. She pushed me up the escalator to the second floor, where I saw stacks of cashmere sweaters in bright blues and yellows. “This is more like it, girl,” Bobbie whispered in my ear, admiring a turtleneck on our way to the Italian designers. “Look at this,” she said, showing me the certificate of authenticity attached to the Armani jacket I was reaching for. She draped me in plum-colored scarves of silk so light they seemed to have no weight at all, then topped it all off with a large-brimmed hat, looking at me mysteriously from under its brim.

“Don’t be so serious, girl,” she seemed to say, as she used to do back on Court Street. “Forget that arthritis. Strut down the runway like you are somebody. Remember: Get up, dress up, show up!”

What fun she was. For the life of me, I’ve never figured out why she wanted to take guitar lessons.

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