Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sante and Kenneth Kimes: A Life of Crime

Rags to Riches

"To tell the truth, I was born above a brothel in New Orleans," the bon vivant of the fashionable East Side of New York often told her new acquaintances. Whether the story was true or not, didn't matter. Irene Silverman was a colorful dynamo who had lived a rich, full life.

She was indeed born in New Orleans, in 1916, the only daughter of an Italian fishmonger and a Greek immigrant seamstress. Her father's last name was Zambelli and the exotic surname was his claim to fame. He was related to the great Carlotta Zambelli, a ballet dancer who, in the first half of the 20th century was a star of the first order, every bit as important as Dame Margot Fonteyn would be to the second half.

Her father thought that dancing was in the family genes, and the little girl who was then known as Irena Zambelli was given ballet lessons several times a week, even though her parents had a tough time scraping up the cash to pay her teacher. "We lived then on the edge of respectability," Irene once recalled.

In 1932, during the depth of the Great Depression, Irene's father deserted the family. Her mother, who still had dreams of producing a prima ballerina, brought her to New York to study under one of the great dance choreographers of the day, Michael Fokine. She paid for the lessons by sewing ballet costumes for him at night after her shift as a button seamstress in the garment district was finished.

Irene was good, no doubt about it, but at a mere 5'0" and weighing just 98 pounds, she was too tiny to dance with a major company, even by ballet standards.

'I had to be employed because it was just my mother and myself," Irene told her friend John Gruen a half-century later. Dance was all she knew. So in 1933, Irene found a position in what was then the corps de ballet of Radio City Music Hall doing four shows a day, seven days a week, for a weekly paycheck of $36. She was the shortest one on stage, the dancer who was always at the end of the line. Her feet often bled through her satin slippers from being en pointe and would hurt so much she sometimes walked home to her apartment barefoot.

Radio City was 75 cents for a matinee in those days, and for that price you not only saw ballet and the more commercial dancers, the Rockettes, but a movie as well. Irene debuted in a production of "Bolero," which was followed by one of the hottest movies of the year, "King Kong."


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