An Ostrich-Plumed Hat: Chapter Sixty-Three

Above, Poster by Joseph C. Leyendecker, Missouri History Collections

an ostrich-plumed hat

Begin with Chapter One ~ Return to Chapter Sixty-Two

Hedda Burgemeister, May 1914

“There is no more impressive and revealing moment with man or woman than when you stand in a room empty of their presence, but having, in every inch of it, the pervasive influences of the absent personality.”

Hedda finally managed to check out the Sir Gilbert Parker novel Emmy had suggested, and this line describes perfectly the way Hedda has felt with Otto out of town. The memory of him swells to fill every corner of her house, even when he is miles away. She can concentrate on nothing but him in his absence, retracing in her mind every magical moment they have shared.

His visits are both infrequent and brief lately, but Hedda invents excuses for his lack of attention. She convinces herself of his continued love for her. Otto need not apologize to her for his gruff behavior; she does so on his behalf.

Knowing he is back in San Antonio, Hedda strains to hear the familiar hoofbeats of his horse and squeak of his carriage wheels.

Laying her book aside, she crosses the room to peer out the window, as though that action will speed his arrival. In preparation for the expected knock, she unlatches the door to spare any precious loss of time.

Watching at the window fails to summon his carriage, so she opens the door to wait on the front porch.

After ten minutes, she gives up and retreats inside to The Judgment House.

Clopping hoofbeats. Hedda rises to greet Otto as he rushes in the door. He scoops her up and carries her straight back to her bedroom.

~     ~     ~

Although Otto was in St. Louis for less than a week, they exchanged less than a dozen words before sinking passionately into bed.

Now, as Hedda nestles her head on the pillow formed by his arm and his chest, tales from his trip spill out non-stop.

“They built a grand stage over a lagoon at the base of a hill. More than 7,000 cast members appear in the spectacle. And the crowds. Immense crowds gathered every night on that hillside. No one in Saint Louis has seen crowds like that since the World’s Fair.

“The pageant glorified everything that occurred in the city during the past 150 years. As you can imagine, the plot proved cumbersome. But the nighttime setting, and the sheer scale of the production, made it amazing. I wish you could’ve come with me.

“I spent the rest of the trip trying to talk some sense into my cousin Ellie. Her husband left her a widow about five years ago, and she’s set her sights on Billy Lemp. He owns one of the largest breweries in St. Louis.

“Uncle Casper’s Tennessee Brewing Company lords over the Mississippi, and, if you were ignorant about the history of the Lemps, you’d think it would be a father’s dream merger of two powerful brewing families–almost equal to the marriage of Hilda Lemp and Gustav Pabst. But instead, it’s my uncle’s worst possible nightmare.”

“Why?” Hedda asks, unnecessarily as Otto plunges ahead with the story.

“Billy’s whole family is insane. Cursed lunatics. Unable to stand the pressure of the family business, his brother literally worked himself to death. His father was distraught over the next several years until finally shooting himself shortly after the death of his closest friend, Frederick Pabst.

“It’s odd. So many prominent Germans take their lives in St. Louis that the police derisively refer to suicide as ‘The Dutch Act.’ A term providing additional evidence of the complete ineptitude of Americans for pronunciation of any German word correctly, even the name of the country itself.

Lemp Mansion in St. Louis

“Billy’s mother died of cancer. All the while, he has comforted himself by spending the family fortune as fast as he can. He has frittered away so much money on art, he actually is adding rooms onto his mansion to store it.

“All of that might be overlooked, but it gets worse. He and his wife–they call her ‘The Lavender Lady’ because she always wears pale purple, I suppose to match her collection of dollar-size amethysts–stubbornly traded barbs over private matters throughout their bitter divorce fight. I cannot imagine anyone parading their personal failings in public the way they did. He should’ve continued to tolerate her to avoid such a scandal.”

Otto is oblivious to the logical comparison between this story and their own relationship. His thoughts are not of her at all. How often are they? He will stay with Emma forever to keep from tarnishing the Koehler family name.

“First, Lillian claimed Billy drank excessively and was untrue. Billy countered that his wife disgraced him by both drinking and smoking in public. Servants divulged details of illicit liaisons. The coachman spoke of disgustingly ferocious chicken and even monkey fights in the stable. The butler related tales of threats at gunpoint. And a neighbor claimed Billy would use cats that ventured onto the grounds as shooting targets. This total public humiliation went on and on for several years, with every detail always chronicled in the Saint Louis Dispatch.

 “This is the prize specimen Ellie plans to claim as her husband. I couldn’t reason with her. Why would any woman want a beast saddled with such a checkered past?”

The portrait Otto painted of Billy Lemp does appear unsavory. But, for Hedda, her anxiety over losing love is more powerful than the fear of scandal could ever be.

Footnotes

The Pageant and Masque of St. Louis actually ran from May 28 through June 1 of 1914. Given the large number of relatives the Koehlers had in St. Louis and the frequency of their visits there, their attendance at the event is only a guess.

All the wealth accumulated through the Lemp Brewery–think Falstaff—only seemed to doom the family to a cursed existence. If Otto had an opportunity to try to dissuade his cousin Ellie Koehler from marrying Billy Lemp, his effort failed. She married him a year later. Ruined by Prohibition, Billy committed the Dutch Act in 1922, and, carrying on what became a macabre family tradition, his brother Charles followed suit in 1949.

Continue to Chapter Sixty-Four

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