Above, Statue of Liberty, Detroit Publishing Company, Library of Congress
Hedda Burgemeister, October 1913
Shivering, Hedda pulls her wrap closely around her as the ship steams toward the harbor. On deck before dawn waiting to spy the welcoming torch held aloft by the Statue of Liberty, she secures a spot by the railing. As the sun rises, people crowd onto the deck, all peering toward the west.
She remembers the trembling excitement she felt the first time she saw Lady Liberty and her own first passage through the long, long lines on Ellis Island. Her sense of anticipation is greater now. Instead of the jittery uncertainty of venturing into an unknown new life, she feels waves of relief flooding over her at the thought of returning. Her emotions upon arriving in Germany two weeks ago pale by comparison.
With her father gone, Germany no longer feels homelike. She enjoyed reminiscing with her German friends from nursing school, but she found herself disconnected this trip. She is American now.
Her romantic dreams for the journey did not come true. Despite Otto’s professed plans to escape with her for four nights, he only managed to rendezvous with her for two nights in Hamburg. Even then, his days there were consumed by meetings and tours in Altona at the Holsten Brewery. Hedda made the mistake of displaying her disappointment, which, in turn, made him irritable.
Traveling on separate liners frustrated her. But Otto arrives in New York tomorrow and pledges to have his wife bound on a train for St. Louis in two days.
Then, he will be Hedda’s for three days. Three days with no need to disguise their acquaintance with each other. Three luxurious days to walk arm-in-arm down the sidewalk, dine in the finest restaurants the city has to offer and window-shop along Fifth Avenue, with Otto impulsively darting in to buy her some outrageously exorbitant and impractical gift as a souvenir.
Otto says there is no way they can stay at the Waldorf Astoria because every doorman and waiter there knows his wife. He puffed his cheeks out in disgust, grumbling they would have to settle for the new Plaza Hotel. Hedda thinks she will have no trouble adjusting at all.
“Dort ist sie! Ich sehe sie!” cries a young boy perched on an upper deck. The “huddled masses” surge forward, pressing her against the railing. Everyone echoes the boy’s exclamation, in many different tongues, all at once. Children laugh, jump up and down and scramble up to their fathers’ shoulders to view the beacon of hope. Tears stream down their fathers’ faces. Hedda’s as well.
~ ~ ~
Hedda paces around her quarters. From her window on the seventeenth floor, the people scurrying below seem like ants. The room is amazing, but she is on pins and needles.
Otto is late. Again. Four hours now. Please do not cancel.
She must escape the room. Leaving Otto a note, she locks the door behind her.
“Good afternoon, Missus Koehler.”
She reddens, fearful the concierge for the floor knows she is not. He leaves his station to lead her to the elevator. He presses the button to summon it for her as though even that small a task is too great to expect a guest of the Plaza Hotel to perform unassisted.
“What floor, Madame?”
“The lobby, please.”
Her stomach trails the elevator’s descent, catching up with the rest of her with a lurch as the operator stops to collect additional passengers on the way down.
Gleaming crystal chandeliers shimmer in every direction she turns. The bellman this morning told her there are more than 1,500 in the Plaza. She cannot imagine any castle more opulent than her surroundings.
The maître d’ escorts her to a linen-covered table nestled among ceiling-high palms under a stained-glass dome. He pulls out her chair and tucks her in with a flourish of the tablecloth-size napkin.
Afternoon tea in the Palm Court. Gold encrusts the china. She sips her tea, treats herself to an extra cube of sugar and glances at the well-dressed gentlemen and ladies around her. The bejeweled clientele wear only the latest fashions. How many birds did milliners pluck naked to crest their colorful hats?
Life cannot get much better than this.
Except to have Otto sitting across from her.
A waiter delivers an elegant tiered plate of petite topless sandwiches and desserts as beautiful as gems in the windows of Tiffany’s. He waits, silver tongs poised mid-air. Hedda skips straight to the sweets, selecting a miniature orange and chocolate eclair, a dark chocolate black forest tart and a hazelnut and orange truffle. The waiter departs, leaving the entire triple-layered stand on the table should she desire more during his absence.
She takes a nibble of the truffle, letting the chocolate dissolve on her tongue. So content, she no longer watches the door for Otto. She takes a delicate bite of the éclair, releasing a spurt of the rich cream secreted inside.
“Otto,” a man bellows. The man rises to his feet to intercept Otto not two tables away.
Impossible. Someone he knows. Hedda struggles to swallow.
The men embrace. Then Otto kisses the hand of the woman at the table. “And Eleanor. What a surprise. I thought you two rarely ventured out of the Ritz-Carlton.”
“We actually returned from San Antonio yesterday. We stayed with the Stevens and were sorry to have missed you there. We had no idea you were in New York yet,” says the man. He must be the partner in the brewery who moved to New York several years ago, Oscar Bergstrom.
“Where’s Emma?” asks Mrs. Bergstrom.
“Emma is chugging out of the station,” says Otto. “She wanted to visit family in St. Louis before heading back to San Antonio.”
“But tea, Otto?” asks Mr. Bergstrom. “That certainly is out of character. Are you ill?”
“No, no, not at all,” answers Otto. “I promised Emma I would see if the Palm Court merits a detour on our next stopover. It is elegant indeed. But is there such a thing as fortified tea on the menu?”
“The emphasis,” says Mr. Bergstrom “clearly appears to be on the tea. I believe they encourage those desiring stronger beverages to adjourn to the Rose Club. But, as Eleanor is not leaving without amply sampling the desserts, I’m sure our waiter would deliver two glasses of brandy to respectable gentlemen such as ourselves.”
The magical spell of the Palm Court is broken. Not only can Otto not share teatime with her; he cannot even look her way.
Her appetite gone, Hedda signals her waiter.
“Are things not to your liking, Madame?”
“No, everything is perfect. I suddenly feel a little woozy.”
“Would you care for this to be delivered to your room?”
“No, thank you,” she says rising from the table.
She turns back. “Yes, please do.”
Deserted again, she might as well try to savor the desserts.
The timing of these voyages is moved around for the Author’s convenience. The rendezvous and encounters abroad and at the Plaza Hotel represent ongoing attempts to fill in details never revealed during Hedda’s later trial.