Emma Bentzen Koehler, November 1911
“Why, Bettie, you must be exhausted.” Emma greets Bettie Stevens as she approaches their table in the ballroom of the St. Anthony Hotel. “Everyone in the city was wearing little white tags. And not a day passes without your name in Mattie Walthall’s column. You flit from hosting a breakfast on the Medina River to an elegant reception for Missus French. You attend a Library Board meeting, deliver a paper on the Cavaliers for the Daughters of the American Revolution and then chaperone the girls at the Thanksgiving game and ball in Austin.”
Sophie Wahrmund stands and welcomes Bettie with a hug. “And all in the midst of debutante season. Please sit down and join us. We banished Otto and Otto temporarily to the bar for their inappropriate remarks.”
Bettie pulls out the chair between the two women. “There’s a crush of events this season, but the girls’ enthusiasm invigorates me. Oklahoma beat Texas, but the girls scarcely noticed. They were focused on the dance. The frequent newspaper mentions are the result of trying to support our respective husbands’ dislike of all things Brackenridge. I promised the society writer I’d keep her posted on everything happening in town if she promised none of our names would ever appear in print below Eleanor Brackenridge’s.”
Sophie uses both hands to mimic birds chattering. “The girls are all atwitter, waiting on pins and needles for invitations from Missus Herff to the Merry Wives Dance. That invitation is almost a royal certificate of debutanteship.”
“When Hettie and I were at Joske Brothers last week, Madame Greenough was beside herself. Scurrying from parlor to parlor to ensure her dressmakers repeated no designs or fabrics for young ladies who would be attending the same events. She said she felt as besieged as the defenders of the Alamo.”
Sophie gushes. “Ottie and I so enjoyed the tea last week. The cheese straws and salad on ice were the perfect touch on such an unseasonably warm day. The heavenly sounds of the harpist elevated everyone out of the heat. And pouring tea, Julia Spencer shimmered like ice itself in that pale green satin dress whispering through a sheer white overlay.”
The Colonel clears his throat and leans down between Bettie and Sophie’s chairs. “Ottie’s description of the tea table sounded about as exciting as a reunion of old Texas Rangers at the Confederate Women’s Home.”
Sophie flutters her napkin across his face. “That was unfair and uncalled for.”
Otto stands out of reach behind Emma’s wheelchair. “Ah, but Colonel, the responsibility of selecting fabrics can be overwhelming. Then, oh my, the shoes, gloves, handbags and stylish hats to match. It requires several months of labor.”
“Otto…,” warns Emma.
The Colonel heeds no warnings. “Oh, and hats pose particularly difficult dilemmas. Women believe the sole reason the ostrich was placed on earth was to furnish plumes to sprout from their heads.”
Otto chuckles. “While I’ll concede the ostrich might be of little other value, the luxury of ostrich plumes alone no longer suffices. Nowadays, the wings of no species of birds are safe from being plucked off to fulfill a milliner’s nightmarish fantasies.”
His face now well above Sohpie’s napkin range, the Colonel holds his stomach. “I felt queasy in church last week. There was an old biddy in front of me with small owls’ heads peering out of each side of her hat.”
“You’ve had your fun, boys,” cautions Emma.
The Colonel outlines a woman’s body with his hands. “But what of flattering lampshade gowns? Whatever would one perch upon a head on top of that silhouette?”
Joining the group, John Stevens picks up the men’s banter. “And when is it proper to wear Turkish slippers?”
“Never,” answers the Colonel emphatically. “In a decade or two, American women will have only four toes. They’ll have pinched the poor little fifth ones right out of existence.”
John grimaces. “I suppose we should count our blessings. The ladies in our lives are frugal next to Anna Held. Please, I pray, do not permit our daughters a glimpse of her $30,000 diamond-encrusted costume while she is in town.”
Emma backs her chair up slightly to better glare at the men. “The diamonds are part of the price Mister Ziegfeld must pay for his wandering eye. But I would not dream of permitting Hettie to view such rubbish. Miss Innocence indeed. How foolish to have Madame Ziegfeld attempt to portray a naïve young schoolgirl. Her coy little French accent should do little to help make that plotline convincing.”
Undeterred, the Colonel smirks. “I do not believe there is supposed to be much room for a plot to creep onto the stage. The play is merely a showcase for lavish gowns, and, more precisely, Florenz Ziegfeld’s long-legged showgirls.”
Emma scowls. “The photograph in the newspaper this morning showing Anna contentedly darning stockings in their fancy apartment in the Ansonia Hotel was an insult to all women. How gullible does she think we are? ‘I want to leeve like other people.’ If she wants to ‘leeve’ like a housewife, she is going to have to leave those Parisian-made gowns in the trunk.”
Otto offers a contented sigh. “This is certainly the season I most appreciate my wife. Instead of diamonds, our kitchen is filled with crystallized fruit from France, figs from Smyrna, raisins from Malaga, dates from the Orient and Emma’s mysterious spices from Ceylon and Sumatra. She and the cook start baking the fruitcakes tomorrow.”
The Colonel raises his glass toward Emma. “Brandy. Lots of good brandy is what makes Emma’s cakes so delectable.”
Sophie shakes her head. “I fail to understand why Missus Taft is requesting a fruitcake from Hattie Brandenberger for Christmas dinner at the White House. Everyone knows Emma’s is the best in town.”
“Why, Sophie, that is so kind of you. In the next week or two, we also will make plum pudding, mincemeat and hickory nut cakes. The smells will fill the house day and night.”
Otto licks his lips. “The thought of which is reawakening my appetite. The pastry cook here, Germain Torres, can fashion cake and sugar into almost anything. Asked him to replicate Harvey Page’s design for the Travis Club. They should be wheeling his monumental creation out to Travis Park for the ceremonies just about now. Colonel, I do believe it is time for you to join Governor Colquitt on stage. Ladies….”
~ ~ ~
Nat Washer takes over the podium. “Thank you, Governor Colquitt. The laying of this cornerstone today is a reflection of progress. Where modest houses once stood, we will soon find skyscrapers. I agree with the Governor. The people who joined together to build the Travis Club are the people who make this state great. I have to particularly thank the head of our building committee, Otto Koehler. The floor recreating a German village was his idea.”
Emma joins the crowd in applause.
“When the Travis Club is finished, men of all shades, men of all beliefs will be able to mingle here without friction. But not you ladies. You will not be able to enjoy the pleasure of clubs until the Suffragette movement takes hold here as it has in California.”
Emma claps, but only half the audience seems in agreement. Otto tugs uncomfortably at his collar.
“As a rule, I believe a married man’s place is at home.”
Otto glares at Nat.
“But this quasi-public institution will aid in building up San Antonio. It will be a place of solace for the summer widower, a haven for poor lonely bachelors in need of camaraderie. And some day in the future, it will be a club welcoming you ladies as well.”
The ladies applaud, as the ceremonies end.
Otto grouses, “That Nat Washer can’t read a speech placed right under his nose. What is he thinking? This is a celebration, not a Suffragette rally.”
“His wife beamed with pride,” says Emma.
The Colonel rejoins them, handing Sophie and Emma plates with slices from the cake. “His wife must beat him with a rolling pin.” He offers Otto a cigar. “Henry Finck launched a new blend for the occasion, the Travis Club Cigar. The only place you’ll find it is in our club.”
Emma dabs the corner of her mouth after taking a bite of the cake. “They say 62,000 women have registered to vote in the upcoming election in Los Angeles. I look forward to the day when I can do the same.”
“A bunch of socialists,” huffs the Colonel.
“Even worse,” grunts Otto. “Prohibitionists.”
Relied on the society columns and coverage of the opening of the Travis Club for this chapter.
Confession. Another nepotism-type of leap made here. Julia Radcliffe Spencer (Westerveldt) was the Mister’s great aunt on the paternal side. Mosty cousins confirmed she was indeed involved in duchess and debutante activities in San Antonio.