ST. PETERSBURG — Julia May grew up before households had telephones or electricity. Before the actors in movies could speak.
Through her talent, she would see a modern world come to her doorstep. As part of the Paul Sisters duo with her sister, Ruth, Mrs. May sang favorites of the 1920s and 1930s, her soprano blending with her sister's contralto voice.
Mrs. May died Aug. 7 at Westminster Suncoast Manor. She was 103.
The sisters grew up in Chicago. Their mother urged them to use their singing talent after their father, a dentist, died in a 1922 flu pandemic. Their mother designed their costumes, the tiered organdy dresses they wore onstage with shoulder pads, flapper hats and lots of beads.
Through an agent, the sisters recorded at NBC Radio in New York, where they met composer Irving Berlin and once shared an elevator with the Three Stooges.
"She said they were just as funny in real life," said her daughter, Judye Talbot, 61.
Sometimes, "Mr. Berlin" asked the sisters to try his songs. "When he would write a new song, they would sing it for him," said Talbot. "They were always excited when his office would call."
The sisters spent five years in New York with orchestra leader Paul Whiteman, known to some as the "King of Jazz." At a mid 1930s performance at a fair in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, she met daredevil stunt driver Robert May, who flew cars over buses and through walls of fire.
"He was very dashing," Talbot said. "He had beautiful brown eyes. A great smile."
He vowed to marry Julia.
Then orchestras gave way to a broader, big-band sound. The public got caught up in the war. Mrs. May moved back to Chicago and got a factory job.
In 1946 she married May, who had returned from the Army, and moved to St. Petersburg. May worked for an auto dealership. His wife sold cosmetics at Webb's City and Eckerd Drugs.
Mrs. May never performed again, and only sang with the congregation in church. "After she got out of show business, she was almost reticent to sing in public," Talbot said. "I think she thought that she had had her good time, and now was into her new life."
Her sister Ruth died in 1971.
After Robert May's death in 1988, she moved to Hawaii with Talbot and her husband, then to Westminster Suncoast Manor in St. Petersburg. She read the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post until her late 90s.
Sometimes she looked through scrapbooks containing photos, newspaper clippings, old programs and fan letters. And this: a black crocheted flapper hat, with beaded jet fringe.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248.