An Ostrich-Plumed Hat: Chapter Five

Begin with Chapter One ~ Return to Chapter Four

Emma Dumpke, March 1911

March 8, 1911

Dear Hedda,

Gleaming gold.  I never thought anyone but a king could assemble such an ostentatious collection of golden objects in one room, but I have spent the past few days amidst America’s royalty – the foremost brewers of the country. 

Landing such a plum position surely makes me the luckiest nurse in the world. I was aware the Koehlers were wealthy, but I didn’t hold out high hopes for San Antonio, and I had no idea I would have the opportunity to travel across the entire western breadth of this country – the weak excuse I’m extending for not having written sooner. My first two weeks of employment have left me both exhilarated and exhausted.

Affecting my handwriting is the sway of the train carrying us back to San Antonio after a splendid excursion to Pasadena, California, to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of Herr und Frau Adolphus Busch. The St. Louis monarch spared no expense on this event lasting several days. Herr und Frau K seem like paupers next to the Busches’ extravagance.

When Herr K told me his present to the Busches was a golden tankard emblazoned with an “A” and an eagle, I was shocked. I foolishly assumed that such an expensive gift would make Herr K seem to be pandering to the old man who gave Herr K his first job in a brewery. But even this generous offering paled in comparison to many. 

When we first arrived, we were ushered directly to Ivy Hall, Herr und Frau Busches’ Pasadena mansion, so Herr und Frau K could pay their respects to the couple. As soon as Herr und Frau K presented their gift, Frau Busch quickly wheeled Frau K away, leaving me awkwardly standing alone at the back of the large hall overflowing with golden flowers pervasively perfuming the air, almost to the point of unpleasantness.  

The Busches’ Ivy Hall in Pasadena, California

Herr Busch was ensconced below a six-foot long banner – “March 7, 1861-1911” – made completely from flowers, no wildflowers among the lot. Lilies of the valley – his wife’s name is Lilly – and hundreds of rare yellow orchids sacrificed their lives for this banner. 

At first, I could hear little of their conversation. Then, the two men launched into the politics bonding them closely together, despite their competing breweries – the looming threat of prohibition.

Herr Busch, whose health is in a state of decline, was quite animated with talk of Presidents Roosevelt and Taft and the importance of reelecting President Taft despite the “persistent stupidity” he demonstrates by bringing up abstinence. Herr Busch burst into a tirade about legislation regulating military canteens: “Congress is willing to send a man to war, to send a man marching to his death, but will not first offer him so much as a beer.”

His anger made him tremble and brought a woman scurrying in from the other room. I thought her at first his nurse. She gently chided Herr K for permitting Herr Busch to focus on disturbing topics on a day when he needs all his strength. Her presence calmed the old man, and, by the time she turned to leave, he was even chuckling over her concern.

Herr Busch told Herr K he looked tired, which, of course, we were after traveling for so long, and that he should not shoulder brewery worries alone. “Otto,” he advised, “you need a good secretary, like I have, to ease your burdens.” 

“I have a fine secretary in Andy, Adolphus,” and then he lowered his voice to prevent anyone from overhearing their conversation. The pair chortled good-naturedly.

“So all the fine doctors of Chicago, New York and Germany have not been able to help Emma walk again,” Herr Busch observed with a touch of sadness creeping into his voice. 

Frau Busch returned with Frau K, and the contrast in the style of the two women was striking. Jewels sparkled from almost every available body part of Frau Busch, while Frau K could be mistaken for a woman of little wealth. 

The woman who had quieted Herr Busch so easily returned and announced that the delegation from Pasadena’s Board of Trade had arrived. The group’s spokesman was a preacher who was determined to deliver a full sermon – even to the point of repeating wedding vows – although I am not sure how “for richer, for poorer” relates to the lives that couple leads. 

The secretary, Fraulein Alvina Berg, joined me at the back of the room. She appears only a few years younger than Frau Busch, but she still has the figure of a young woman. She whispered “Hypocrites” to me. “Most of the tea-totaling, high-society types who live in this neighborhood will have nothing to do with the Busches.”

The man finally wound down his speech and presented the Busches with a gold loving cup, which the newspaper later reported as valued at $500. Herr Busch ordered the loving cup filled with wine and offered his wife the first sip. Then everyone around the room had to take a sip as a toast to the couple’s health – like communion, except it was in the presence of the king of beer instead of Our Lord. 

Fraulein Berg motioned for me to slip outside with her. “So many flowers make my nose itch,” she said, rubbing her index finger back and forth under the tip of her nose to halt an impending sneeze. “It is worse than a funeral parlor. Every once in a while, I must step outside to breathe.”

The reverend had said Herr Busch magically had transformed a vacant lot into a velvet lawn and a dry arroyo into the Garden of Eden. And indeed he has; except there was nothing magical about the creative process. He just hurled mountains of money at it.

Fraulein Berg, who has been Herr Busch’s personal secretary for a quarter of a century, said Herr Busch brought in a famous Scottish landscape architect to design what is now called Busch Garden. Transforming the first 30 acres of the arroyo into a sunken Eden took three years and more than two-million dollars. I apologize for continually writing so crassly about money, but it is the only way I know to convey to you on paper the grandiose proportions of everything I witnessed in Pasadena.

“This cannot be for me alone; the public must share with me in this,” were the words Fraulein Berg said Herr Busch uttered when he first saw the completed garden. So he opened it to the public, naturally for a fee.

Last year he purchased a second, even larger mansion next door, The Blossoms, for his children and visitors. He more than doubled the size of the gardens. There are swan-filled lakes, an authentic reproduction of some old British mill at Banbury Cross, sculptures of characters from Grimms’ fairytales and 14 miles of meandering sidewalks.

Later, on the way to The Blossoms, the guest house where we would stay, Frau K told us Frau Busch had shown her the anniversary present she had received from her husband – a diamond and pearl encrusted diadem. Frau K said she thought the tiara made Frau Busch look silly, but that it was to be worn at tonight’s banquet. 

Herr K said that Herr Busch had confided in him that he handed the Reverend a check for $50,000 for the Pasadena Hospital and that the tiara had set him back $200,000! He rather casually added that I had been invited to dine with Fraulein Berg in the study at The Blossoms.

Frau K exploded. “That type of behavior is exactly why that fool Adolphus has to spend $200,000 for an outlandish tiara. Lilly said the guest list they had finalized months ago for tonight’s dinner stood at fifty. When she unpacked the souvenirs they had ordered, there were 51. She questioned Adolphus about the extra gift, and he insisted there would be 51 for dinner. Well, Lilly won that argument, and I will not ask my respectable nurse to dine with that, that….”

“Secretary,” Herr K interrupted her before she came up with an appropriate word to describe what she thought of Fraulein Berg. He said he didn’t mean to offend me but hoped I would not mind doing this as a favor to their hosts to ensure that the Busches would remain together long enough to celebrate a 51st anniversary. I dared not speak. Frau K then apologized for both her outburst and for subjecting me to the company of Fraulein Berg. Herr K winked at me, saying that, if not the company, the repast would be regal.

When we disembarked from the carriage at The Blossoms’ porte cochere, we wheeled Frau K across white canvas sheeting. Japanese boys scurried along behind us sweeping to ensure our feet left no tracks. Yellow flowers surrounded us. Herr K said Herr Busch had boasted of spending $10,000 on flowers alone: “Looks like he ransacked California.”

Every room was brimming over with ferns and flowers. Some with all golden flowers, others filled with huge, crimson pink American Beauty roses. Walls were scarcely visible. The music room was filled with Louis Quinze furniture, but the “humble” furnishings in other rooms had been gilded just for the occasion. A special horseshoe-shaped table had been built to accommodate the fifty, not fifty-one, guests, with the curved portion of the arrangement elevated to spotlight the honorees.    

The breathtaking sight, though, was the “treasure room” where the gifts were displayed. Herr K said that the coronation-type atmosphere was beginning to sicken him. He would have preferred to be celebrating with the masses swilling beer in the St. Louis Coliseum instead. He wandered off in search of refreshment, while Frau K had me wheel her on a tour of the gleaming presents – a guard watching our every move. 

The Busches’ children presented them with a dozen solid gold, not gold-plated, dinner plates from Tiffany’s and a rather large golden flower basket said to originally have been commissioned by a German prince. President Taft sent a $20 gold piece encased in an ivory frame, and Kaiser Wilhelm sent them one of three loving cups exhibited on the tables. Frau K said that there must be more than $100,000 worth of gold in that one room. She laughed that Lilly can feel secure that she need never eat from or with anything not made of solid gold.

I did indeed dine with Fraulein Berg in the rose-filled study, and you can’t imagine what a feast we had. We were served exactly what they ate in the main dining room. 

With all the bountiful seafood available in the Pacific, Herr Busch had oysters rushed in from the Chesapeake Bay, along with the chef from his favorite Virginia restaurant. The slippery oysters on the half shell were not to my liking, and I felt guilty leaving all save one untouched. Sautéed trout that had been caught in a Colorado mountain stream was the sweetest fish I have ever tasted. Sweetbreads with mushrooms and imported English pheasant with truffles were both heavenly, but I found the salty Smithfield ham inedible. The menu seemed purposefully designed as a snub to the regional cuisine of the local California “aristocracy,” who do not approve of a fortune built upon beer. 

Our dinner was far from temperate; although we both declined to have our glasses filled more than thrice with wine that pre-dated my arrival on earth. All the while we were eating, operatic themes and waltzes by Straus emanated from the full orchestra stationed in the dining room. At first, we ate almost in silence, but, as the meal progressed, we became more comfortable.  Our conversation grew lively as we talked of books and the possibility of women getting to vote.

The 51st souvenir was delivered to Fraulein Berg along with our desserts. It was a solid gold cup and saucer engraved to commemorate the occasion. Will Lilly and Adolphus celebrate their 51st?

Pages and pages, and I’ve yet to tell you anything about Herr und Frau K and my employment. Their house is quite splendid; at least I considered it so prior to Pasadena. It occupies a whole city block near a beautiful park. Herr K has even purchased several houses nearby for relatives. They have no children of their own, and Frau K has been confined to her wheelchair for at least a year. But there are children and relatives always around. Herr und Frau K are generous and have taken in others; I don’t yet grasp who is related to whom in what way. 

Frau K is not particularly demanding to nurse; she seems hardy and hale aside from her inability to walk. I don’t know the origin of her condition, but Herr K told me he has spared no expense in seeking the advice of the best doctors on two continents to find a cure. 

I’ll be headed back to Germany with Frau K and several of her friends at the beginning of June. She says San Antonio will be too hot, and Herr K will be in foul humor because of the upcoming election about prohibition. Herr K said she need not go to the expense of taking me with her, as her friends could assist her. Frau K snipped back that, if she would not impose upon her husband to tend to her needs, she certainly would not do so upon her friends. 

Frau K says we’ll spend several days in New York City on our return, so we should have time to visit! 

I’m living in a boarding house on Main Avenue. I do not much care for my fellow boarders, including a dim-witted Irish lass who works for Mr. Stevens, one of Herr K’s business associates. Fortunately, the cook at the Koehlers usually offers me dinner in the kitchen before I depart for home in the evening, so I often am spared from enduring the boarding house company and fare.

Books checked out from the Carnegie Library (Yes, they have one here, too.) and a lock on my bedroom door free me from having to engage in too many tedious conversations with the other residents.

I have much more news and time to write but have exhausted the supply of paper I packed.

               Love,

                              Emmy

Footnotes

With great apologies to historians and the Busch family, the Author invited the Koehlers to crash their anniversary dinner. While they knew each other from St. Louis and their political goals required frequent collaboration, Otto Koehler was not included in the dinner for fifty. But the elaborate descriptions of the gilded celebration, menu and presents found in the Pasadena newspaper made it impossible for the Author to resist taking you to the party.

The Author particularly apologizes for inserting her Fraulein Berg as a tool, to serve as a caution light, albeit unheeded, for Otto Koehler. While rumors of Adolphus Busch and a secretary can be found elsewhere in print, perhaps in a family-shunned unauthorized history, the Author is using the possibly unsubstantiated gossip for convenience. This addition to the anniversary celebration should not be misconstrued in any way as verification of those rumors. The fifty-first place setting and souvenir did not exist.

The Author hoped to employ easy-to-read script typefaces for letters in a printed book but fears that would turn into a jumbled mess on the internet – so italics are all you get. There had been no plans for inserting period postcards, but she possesses a drawerful and is getting rather accustomed to their appearance.

Continue to Chapter Six

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