Above, The Grand Opera House is on the left of this postcard of Alamo Plaza.
Emma Bentzen Koehler, March 1912
Hands on her hips, Sophie Wahrmund’s tone is stern. “I am afraid I must report, Emma, that Jennie and Hettie entered the Opera House after the third and fourth numbers during the Tuesday Musical Club’s performance. Alessandro Bonci stopped completely and leaned against the piano, glaring at them as they awkwardly tried to crawl inconspicuously over legs to take their seats. Their faces remained scarlet long after the master of del canto resumed.”
Emma wags her finger. “Young ladies, it is uncharacteristic of you to be so rude.”
Jennie Wahrmund clutches her hands together in front of her chest. “We were mortified when Mister Bonci stopped. We will never again enter a concert hall tardy as long as we live.”
“Oh, but Aunt Emma,” sighs Hettie, “we were with Julia Spencer—rather Lady Julia of the House of Spencer, Duchess of Flowerland—for the final fitting of her glorious white satin gown. Her spangled tunic shimmers with silver and gold, and her graceful train is of yellow brocade richly adorned in the same fashion. The staff she’ll carry will be laden with yellow lilies.”
“They let us watch all the duchesses practice their bows,” Jennie chimes in enthusiastically. “I so admire them. The execution of that sweeping curtsy is even much more difficult than it appears. Hettie and I tried and found ourselves face-first in an undignified heap on the floor.”
The Colonel seldom refrains from tossing his two cents into any conversation. “Theirs was not as bad as Jim Jump-Up’s faux pas at the opera. Did you see this morning’s cartoon in the newspaper? Missus Jump-Up believes attending the opera will buy them a ticket into aristocratic society. Jim believed she was taking him to the Ziegfeld Follies. Their masquerade as upper crust went fine, until Jim let out a monstrous snore.”
Undistracted, Hettie sighs once again. “Tonight, yet another beautiful wedding. I felt as though afloat in a vast sea of fragrant pink roses, and the West Point men arching their swords over Claudia and Lieutenant Hodges were quite dashing. Missus Stevens, Eleanor and the other bridesmaids looked positively perfect in the pink brocaded satin.”
Emma clears her throat to try to warn Hettie that Frank Bosshardt is approaching the table.
“The song by Saint Saens is by far one of the most romantic ever penned,” Hettie continues dreamily.
“‘Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix,’” Frank recites, “‘comme s’ouvre les fleurs aux baisers de l’aurore.’ It is one of my favorites, as well, mademoiselle. Good evening, ladies, gentlemen. Might I escort Hettie to view the couple’s presents?”
John extends a hand. “Congratulations are in order, Frank, on your new post as Assistant County Attorney.”
Emma shoos them off with her hands. “You and Hettie run along. Our conversation is far too boring for young folks.”
“Thank you, and I promise to return her shortly,” replies Frank as they depart.
Emma hopes the couple is beyond hearing range when Otto begins grumbling. “The promise I want is that he will not take her out onto the dance floor for a turkey trot or a grizzly bear. When Frank started spouting off that fancy French, I thought Hettie was going to melt into a puddle on the floor. Had to keep her under lock and key for Leap Year. Was afraid she would use the day as an excuse to propose to him. And I still maintain he’s too old for her.”
“She’ll be old enough to marry by the time he summons the nerve to ask you for permission, Otto. This courtship is slower than molasses. Of course, no young man in his right man would want to approach an ogre like you for Hettie’s hand. Your friend Paul Meerscheidt speaks so favorably of Frank’s involvement in the Herrmann Sons, and Frank certainly stepped forward to assume a leadership role in the Committee of Fifty that helped you defeat the Pros.”
Her husband, the grump, harumphs. “I’m not sure whether he shouldered that responsibility because he is Anti-Pro or pro-Hettie. Colonel, don’t you think Frank could put his Washington & Lee degree to better use than at the county? He already has wasted one term as a County Commissioner.”
“An attorney can make good money,” answers the Colonel, “but Frank may be too principled. He took Fortunata Battaglia’s case all the way to the Court of Civil Appeals. He won, but I doubt the widow had more than a pfennig to pay him for his services. Then he took on that vagrancy case of that unemployed negro—King was his name—a case he lost.”
Otto nods. “I must admit, Frank did a good job in trying that case. The detectives charged King with vagrancy just because he loitered around the saloons on East Commerce Street. A man has a right to order a drink, and being in a saloon is no criminal offense. Frank would’ve won that case, save his client was a negro. If King were a white man, he wouldn’t have been arrested nor fined $10.”
He might be praising Frank now, but Emma is reluctant to let his earlier comments escape scolding. “Otto, how could you even mention those shameful dances in polite company?”
Failing to appear innocent, Otto raises his eyebrows. “Are the couples really that much closer than during an allemande?”
Bettie rolls her eyes at Otto. “Yes! Some of the college crowd started dancing the grizzly bear at the Casino Club the other night, until an adult interrupted them. The type of hugging involved in that dance resembles hugging that should only be engaged in by married couples with drawn shades. Tightly drawn shades.”
“The Vatican has denounced those terpsichorean acrobatics as menaces tempting the morals of the young,” proclaims the Colonel.
“Well, Colonel,” crows John, “this is certainly the first time I have heard you defer to the Pope’s judgment in any matter.”
Bettie seizes an opportunity to chide her husband. “John, you yourself have not exactly been following the Vatican’s Lenten prohibitions.”
“But Bettie,” protests Otto, “respectable man that he is, at least John did not fall off the wagon until the first good opportunity presented itself.”
The Colonel rises good-naturedly to John’s defense as well. “He did exhibit enough piousness to wait until the ashes were no longer visible on his forehead. Normally, John, I would not bring up your esteemed leader, but I thought it’d be better for Otto’s health to reference the Pope’s opinion rather than that of Reverend Bob Jones.”
Otto places his hands together in mock prayer. “Amen.”
The Colonel does not stop there. “Although, I read some of Reverend Jones’ sermon at Travis Park Methodist Church in the newspaper and found one concept on target.”
Sophie groans. “Despite the source, he was so pleased with his find that he insisted on reading it aloud to us over breakfast.”
“Please, Papa,” pleads Jennie, “no more.”
The Colonel remains undeterred. “The evangelist wisely observed that the percentage of good women in the world is declining, while the percentage of good men is rising.”
Emma signals for him to stop with her hand. “Colonel, that is absurd!”
“How is that so?” The Colonel answers his own query, “Why, because we men shoulder the tremendous burden of financing the stylish clothes and accessories demanded by the womenfolk of our households. And, of course, they do not deign to be seen at any of the Toda se Vá sales. Alas, the god worshipped by the modern woman is none other than Style herself. Today’s woman abandons her domestic duties for the theater, dancing and even, horrors, playing cards.”
Sophie appears tempted to throw a glass of water in the Colonel’s face. “As someone who sees you are well-fed every morning and evening, this modern woman will not stand for one more word of your ridiculous sermonizing. I think you’ve circled the punch bowl one too many times this evening.”
John chuckles. “The stylish models perched upon the balcony of my Post Office certainly were turning heads this afternoon. There were probably 5,000 gawkers, more if you include the protesting clergy and members of the Purity League, filling Alamo Plaza.”
“John!” Bettie appears horrified. “Whatever were you thinking when you approved that, that, that….”
“Art?” John completes her question. “The sculptor told me he was bringing classical art to the public. ‘Uneducated hordes,’ he termed them. And were they ever impressed. Perhaps it was more a biology class than an art lesson.”
The Colonel offers a lascivious wink. “About the only thing covering the muscular archer, gladiator, avengers and the victim were coats of bronze paint.”
“And what business took you to the plaza?” demands Sophie.
Otto spreads both arms out wide. “Like everyone else, myself included, the Colonel was there to express his appreciation of the great classical masterpieces of Europe. The models were frozen—well, actually, they were shivering in the stout breeze as cold as the breath of old Boreas—in poses of some of the finest examples of statuary housed in the museum galleries of Paris, Rome and Cologne.”
The Colonel nods in agreement. “San Antonio is greatly lacking in cultural amenities, and the sculptor, Brengk, who arranged the stunt to try to drum up commissions, hails from Hamburg.”
Pleased at his own cleverness, Otto bites back a smile. “It appears this rough and tumble frontier town has a larger appetite for art than many thought.”
Emma decides to put a stop to this foolishness. “You cannot hide behind that fig leaf of an excuse, Otto. If Herr Brengk installed marble statues instead of posing naked men and women, hardly a soul would bat an eye.”
“Ah, dearest Emma,” Otto kisses her hand with feigned gallantry. “Of course you know that I, I only have eyes for you. Will you swoon like Hettie if I speak French, mon petit choufleur?”
The persons interrupting Conductor Bonci were unnamed. The Author arbitrarily assigned blame to Jennie and Hettie.
The referenced deep curtsies probably were not part of the coronation ceremonies as early as 1912, but the absurdly challenging dips are now and have been for many years.
Fear the Author is making Frank Bosshardt’s courtship of Hettie a little too sugary, which is why it is so convenient to have the menfolk break up the conversation.
The true story of the nude models perched on the post office seems more boldly outrageous than the Author thought the times allowed.