ambrose bierce devil's dictionary

An Ostrich-Plumed Hat: Chapter Sixteen

Begin with Chapter One ~ Return to Chapter Fifteen

Hedda Burgemeister, December 1911

My dearest Emmy,

True confession: I had not the patience to wait for Madame Toselli’s book from the library. I splurged and purchased it immediately. I am sure “her own story” will soon be forgotten, for her writing has little merit. However, the glimpse inside the life of royals proved irresistible. I opened a can of Campbell’s oxtail soup – giving in to the Campbell’s habit, sometimes asparagus or pepperpot, into which I lazily slip all too often – and read it cover to cover.

It is easy to understand how her book angered the upper crust of Saxony, whom she describes as so old-fashioned that antediluvian is the adjective most appropriate. She writes, “The Court circle at Dresden… was composed of the most narrow-minded, evil-speaking and conceited collection of human beings it is possible to imagine.”

Her father-in-law told the poor woman there was no longer a need for her, as she had produced numerous princes. He said he planned to have her declared insane. The threat of confinement in the “maison de santé” at Sonnenstein inspired her to flee. Disgraced and divorced does sound better than being locked up in a madhouse like Carlotta. Although there are reports poor Charlotte is regaining the sanity lost following Emperor Maximilian’s execution in your backyard more than 40 years ago.

Mr. Stokes’ Ansonia is the home of the Ziegfelds, and its size dwarfs an ocean liner. The eccentric man supposedly treats the rooftop of the otherwise elegant hotel as a barnyard, home to hundreds of chickens and ducks and even numerous pigs and cows. And, yes, the reporters are wallowing in the details. The shameless cad penned his “billets d’amour” to the showgirl only a few weeks after his wedding to a new wife barely half his age. 

The most distasteful part of the story is the two women, regarded prior to the shooting as possessing little talent, were bailed out of jail by Willie Hammerstein. He installed them at The Victoria as “The Shooting Stars,” and New Yorkers clamor for tickets to see them. If you ever desire to abandon nursing for the glamour of the stage, you only need to shoot a man.

I have read of the squalor of the “corrales” of San Antonio, where “contented” Mexicans build fragile dwellings from flattened tomato and oil cans gleaned from others’ trash. The newspaper here says mashed cracker boxes serve as a poor man’s wallpaper.  The conditions seem so distressing, yet how noble they are to endure it all.

How could anyone be so insensitive as to term them cockroaches? And to place no value on libraries?

I found myself lingering in Brentano’s yesterday, longingly fingering the embossed Moroccan leather binding of the volumes comprising Ambrose Bierce’s new collection of works. This attraction was not as much for the 100,000 biting words in each volume, as their sheer sensual beauty. While the author strives to slay hypocrisy with his pen, the books exude luxury, their covers lined with moiré silk and pages gilded all around the edges.

My letter has a theme wandering through it, but I am hesitant to arrive at its final destination.

Please forgive me for expressing concern for you, but your recent letter was “Mr. K, Mr. K, Mr. K.” What of your patient? And why does this besmircher of books seem to dominate your every thought?

In “The Devil’s Dictionary,” Mr. Bierce defines advice as “the smallest current coin.” As my existence is so sheltered from the ways of the world, I will draw my unsolicited and, hopefully, unnecessary advice from his dictionary as well. “Intimacy, n.  A relation into which fools are providentially drawn for their mutual destruction.”

I so fear you are like a moth tantalized by a flame. Please be careful.

Merry Christmas!




If reading about scandals protected one from them there would be few.

The Author was surprised to find the corrales of San Antonio described in detail in an issue of The New York Times.

Continue to Chapter Seventeen

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