• Trish MacEnulty

The Blue Hour -- Chapter One

Chapter 1 

On her way out of the house that evening, Louisa stopped at the hallway mirror. She had on a blue satin dress that she’d worn to a ball given by the Astors last year. The skirt was slightly out of style, but Suzi had added a lace coverlet in an effort to smarten it up. Louisa examined her mop of hair, which she had twisted and turned and piled on top of her head. The Grecian style was all the rage, and with luck the rhinestone bandeau would keep errant strands in place. She had more to worry about than the misbehavior of her hair, however. Her new editor, one Virgil Thorn, wanted her to dig up dirt on Manhattan’s socialites and publish it in her column — as if she were nothing more than a hack, writing gossip for Town Topics.

“Suzi!” she called out. “Have you seen my new gloves?”

“I wish I could go to the opening,” her mother said with an aggrieved air as she sat in her invalid chair in the doorway to the parlor. “I am still one of the four hundred.”

“They’re much more than four hundred now, Mother,” Louisa said. “The industrialists have too much money to be shut out as they were in your day. Now it’s considered crass to even refer to ‘the four hundred’.”

“If your father were still alive, I could go,” Anna complained. She rolled the chair back and forth on its large walnut wheels as she always did when she was agitated. A small ginger cat leaped onto her lap.

“Suzi?” Louisa called out again.

“How much did these cost?” Suzi demanded, bustling toward her with a long black glove box.

“Not as much as a new dress,” Louisa said. She took the box from Suzi’s hand and immediately regretted her tone of voice. “I’m sorry. I try to avoid extravagance, but you know I have to play my role. And now I’m late. The trains cannot leave without The Ledger there to witness.”

“You only care about the party,” Anna said, petulantly. The cat meowed and glared at Louisa as if echoing her mother’s pique. “Will Alva Vanderbilt be there? We were such good friends. I remember when she built Marble House. What a stunning work of architecture. Oh, we danced till dawn in the Gold Room.”

For Louisa’s mother the past decade and a half had never happened. She probably didn’t even remember that Queen Victoria was dead or that Alva Vanderbilt was a widowed divorcée now known as Alva Belmont, the ardent suffragist.

Louisa bent down to kiss her mother on the cheek, looked up at Suzi’s smooth, dark face, and said, “Don’t wait up.”

Outside, Louisa shivered in her old mink jacket, another relic from her mother’s once-extravagant wardrobe, as she looked down the street for a cab. Her breath drifted in clouds in the frigid air. More and more touring cars and racing cars and all sorts of motors crowded the streets of New York these days. Horses weren’t even allowed to pull streetcars anymore except in the poorest neighborhoods — and instead of the handsome beasts you could once find in the stable of any mansion, soon there would only be a few old swayback nags standing on the streets, the forlorn relics of a previous century.

She waved down a yellow cab at the corner and hopped inside where it was still chilly, but at least she was out of February’s bitter wind. The driver flicked the meter on.

“Where to, Miss?”

“Grand Central Terminal at 42nd Street!” she said.

“On the double,” the driver responded and the automobile rumbled forward.

She thought of the irritating conversation she’d had with her new boss earlier that day. Louisa had been wearing one of her nicer day dresses — violet with a white lace collar and deep cuffs — when she went into his office to introduce herself. A pearl brooch, a gift to her mother from her father, which she’d refused to sell, adorned the collar.

“You’re rather fancy for a secretary,” Thorn said, giving her the once over. His British accent had been a surprise but it was reinforced by his attire, which was much more formal than the American men were wearing these days.

“I’m not a secretary. I’m the society writer,” she informed him.

“I see,” he said, lifting a newspaper from his desk. “I’ve been reading over your columns, Miss Delafield. Says here that Miss Hattie Garrett wore a yellow chiffon ‘Poiret’, whatever that is, to a tea given in her honor. Mrs. Gertrude Whitney attended in a clingy sheath dress by ‘the fashionable Fortuny.’ For the love of Mike, does anybody really care what these toffs wear?”

Louisa’s mouth dropped open. Was he daft?

“Of course, everyone wants to know,” she said. “The designers want their names in the paper, the ladies want everyone to know they have only the best, and women all over the world are curious as to what the socialites of Manhattan wear!”

“We’re not publishing a paper to aggrandize a bunch of French designers…” Thorn began.

“Fortuny is Italian,” Louisa corrected.

“Forgive me. European designers. You do know we’ve got American readers, don’t you? How many ordinary Americans do you think can actually afford to dress like these ‘socialites’?” he asked.

She’d tried to explain. “People want to know about the upper crust, what they do, what they eat, and most of all, what they wear.”

“Oh, readers are curious about them, all right,” he retorted. “I’m just not sure it matters to them what Missus Ladybritches wore to the cotillion.”

“You are aware that New York did not invent the idea of ‘society,’ aren’t you? It’s all borrowed from your obscene class system with your dukes looking down their noses at your earls and your earls looking down on the sirs. I didn’t make the rules, but I know how to play by them,” Louisa replied stiffly.

Thorn gazed at her with eyes as impenetrable as steel and cleared his throat.

“Well, milady, there are some new rules. While we Brits might have instigated this human comedy of elevating some people to the realm of minor gods, we also know how to bring them down a notch or two. Our society writers don’t just fawn over the aristocracy. They expose them. They give the readers what they really want — dirt.”

Sitting in the chilly backseat of the cab, Louisa wondered if her job was doomed. She couldn’t dish out dirt on New York’s elite society. Those women with their iron fists inside their kidskin gloves would crush her. She’d be cut, shunned, banned from every society event from Saratoga to Palm Beach.

“Close as I can get, Miss,” the driver said. Louisa looked out at the masses gathering in front of the magnificent new building and felt a welling of anticipation.

After she paid the driver, she observed the throngs, surging toward the building. The Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Fricks, and the Whitneys would already be ensconced inside, but the common folk, the riffraff — and the wealthy latecomers — would have to wait outside for the great doors to be flung open at midnight. Just a decade ago, this was a dirty, chaotic train yard filled with smoke and steam and crisscrossing tracks that divided the city. And now engineer William Wilgus’s miracle stood before her: a magnificent edifice covering a subterranean network of tracks, all made possible by the advent of electric trains.

She heard the chugging of a motorcar and turned to see a red Rolls Royce with big yellow-spoked wheels rolling next to her. A woman’s gloved hand knocked on the window.

Louisa peered into the car and saw Hattie Garrett seated next to Dorothy Bloodgood, whose perfect face could surely launch as many ships as the fabled Helen’s. On the other side of Dorothy sat Hattie’s older brother, Hugh. Perfect timing, Louisa thought. She didn’t have a formal invitation to the party, but no one would raise an eyebrow when she entered with her childhood friends.

The car stopped, and in the next moment, out poured Hattie in a full-length sable fur coat, then Dorothy looking resplendent in an Eastern-inspired gown of dark crimson with a hand-beaded overtop. A ruby coronet in her shining dark hair glowed, and a white fox stole hung over her shoulders. Hugh emerged last in tails and white tie, a cowlick sprouting from his otherwise neatly combed hair. He was only a couple of years older than Louisa, but already he was running the largest shipping company in the country.

“Louisa,” Hattie gushed. “What do you think of my dress? It’s a Lucile! I’m so glad she didn’t drown when the Titanic went down.”

Hattie opened her coat so that Louisa could see the green chiffon.

“I’m sure nothing could kill Lady Duff Gordon,” Louisa said, making it clear she knew exactly who “Lucile” was. If you weren’t in the know with this bunch, you could find yourself totally alone in a crowd of thousands.

“No talk of the dreadful Titanic,” Dorothy insisted. She tucked her arm in Louisa’s and whispered, “I’m sure all of New York is dying to know that Hattie’s wearing a Lucile.”

Louisa hid a smile. “All of New York” wasn’t interested in Hattie Garrett or her dress. At 22, Dorothy had managed to seize the imagination of the city, and she would occupy the center of Louisa’s story as she nearly always did.

“Dorothy, is your coronet a Cartier?” Louisa asked.

“It is. The design is a lover’s knot,” Dorothy said, then cheekily added, “I’ve always wondered how lovers get into a knot.”

“I’m sure I don’t know,” Louisa said.

“Hugh, are you coming?” Dorothy called. Hugh was leaning into the front window of the car, deep in conversation with the chauffeur. He turned to face them with a smile. His face was already a bit jowly with large lips. He was not what most women would call good-looking but he did have the bluest eyes of any man Louisa had ever known. She’d always felt warmly toward him for the many adventures they’d had in their childhood Newport summers. He’d been a bit like an older brother.

“You look splendid, Louisa,” Hugh said as he approached.

“You’re too kind,” Louisa said, afraid that she did not look especially splendid, and hopeful that she didn’t look noticeably stuck in the wrong year.

“Look,” Hattie said and pointed at the clock. It struck twelve, and there was a collective roar as the doors opened and the crowds entered. The fashionable quartet hung back as the hoi polloi pushed their way inside. As soon as it was possible to enter with a modicum of dignity, they did so.

Grand Central Terminal was as stunning a marvel as had ever been built in New York City. Marble floors gleamed as the crowds pushed through the long sloping hallway. The loud excited chatter around her ceased as soon as they entered the Grand Concourse, the thousands of milling people awed and humbled by the enormity of the place.

Louisa’s head swiveled: Botticini marble, the opal faces of the clock — heaven only knew how much that was worth! — the enormous arching ceiling, encompassing the entire zodiac with 2,500 stars. And the electric lights! It was a secular cathedral to progress and capitalism.

“You mustn’t gawk, Louisa,” Dorothy said, her expensive perfume wafting across Louisa’s cheeks in a sweet and smoky composition of frankincense, almond, and vanilla.

“But it’s spectacular,” Louisa said, unable to contain her enthusiasm. “Look at all the lights!”

“I’m told there are four thousand electric light bulbs,” Hugh said, gazing up at the twinkling lights.

“The train!” someone shouted. They followed the crowd and heard, rather than saw, the Boston Express pulling out of the station.

“Let’s find the party,” Dorothy said, unimpressed by the departing train. “I’m desperate for champagne.”

Louisa followed them back to the main concourse, knowing that her readers would be eager to learn how the elite celebrated the momentous event. She glanced once more at the magnificent room — the ticket windows along each side and the arched doorways down into the bowels of the building where trains waited like subterranean beasts. Then she entered a large room with a tiled, vaulted ceiling.

“Notice the Guastavino tiles,” William Vanderbilt declaimed in his sonorous voice as he pointed to the terra-cotta tiles covering the great arched ceiling. He was surrounded by his cronies as well as the building’s architects and engineers, including the designer of the tiles.

“Those men. So boring and old,” Dorothy said with distaste. “You’d think architects would be dashing.”

“Mr. Warren is acceptable,” Louisa said, referring to the portly man with the sparkling eyes at Vanderbilt’s elbow. Whitney Warren was a well-known charmer, not to mention the genius behind all this beauty.

“The exception proves the rule,” Dorothy said. “The rest of them are like a chorus of toads in the bog.”

“You have such a way with words, Dorothy,” Hattie said, eagerly plucking a glass of champagne from the tray of a passing waiter. Hugh had wandered off in search of something stronger to drink.

“That’s why I’m a writer,” Dorothy said.

Louisa turned to Dorothy in surprise.

“You’re writing?”

“Oh, not like you, Louisa. Not for money,” Dorothy smiled over her fluted champagne glass. “I’m writing literature. Like Edith Wharton.” Louisa held her tongue. Dorothy could not conceive of having to work for a living.

“I’ve sent out several stories already,” Dorothy continued.

“I’d love to read them sometime,” Louisa suggested.

“You will,” Dorothy said. “As soon as they’re published.”

At that moment, Carolyn Anderson joined them. Carolyn wasn’t glamorous, but she was sweet and rich, a good match for Hugh Garrett. For several years he had been Manhattan’s most eligible bachelor. He had already established himself as a philanthropist with the founding of the Garrett Family Fund for the Unfortunate, a charity to help poor women in distress.

“Oh, look,” Hattie said, surprised and excited. “Uncle George is here. He’s back from Italy.”

The electricity powering the lights suddenly found a conduit in Dorothy, and Louisa was struck by her friend’s radiance as a smile lifted her slightly rouged cheeks and she strode across the room toward George Aldrich. George was tall with unfashionably long, tawny hair as if he were some romantic poet. Unlike his nephew, Hugh Garrett, he would never dirty his hands with commerce. He was also wickedly charming, but he was at least forty, and what’s worse, married, and known to be a womanizer.

“I forgot that Dorothy and my uncle were such good friends,” Hattie said. She turned to Louisa and changed the subject. “Do you know I have a lady’s maid now? Not just a governess.”

“Of course you do,” Louisa said, thinking how much simpler life would be if she had a lady’s maid to help with her thick hair, which roamed over her head like an animal with a mind of its own.

“She’s Irish,” Hattie prattled on. “Mother says that foreigners make the best servants. American girls are too impertinent. And, of course, no one of any stature has colored servants.”

“Your mother is right, as usual,” Louisa said and turned to see Amelia Garrett herself bearing down on them. When she saw Louisa, Amelia smiled a false and brittle smile that went no further than the lips.

“Louisa, how nice to see you, and you’re wearing that lovely satin dress,” Amelia said. “How is your dear mother?”

“She’s fine,” Louisa said, perfunctorily. Her mother had never cared much for Amelia.

“Hattie, will you find Carolyn? She needs to take the Captain home, I’m afraid. He’s a bit in his cups,” Amelia said.

“I’ll find her,” Hattie said. “By the way, did you see Uncle George, Mama?”

“George is here?” Amelia asked and turned to scan the room to look for her brother. Then she saw him on the other side of the room, conversing with Dorothy. Like Dorothy, she seemed to light up from within. “Wonderful. I’m sure he’ll liven up the soirée next week. He can entertain the princess with his stories about the Italians.”

Hattie looked eagerly at Louisa. “We will see you at Mama’s party for the Portuguese princess, won’t we?”

“Hattie!” Amelia said sharply. “The soirée is a private affair.”

Hattie looked chagrined, and Louisa felt the color rise to her face.

“I don’t mean to offend, Louisa,” Amelia said. “I know your family is quite distinguished, but you are also a member of the press.”

“That I am, Mrs. Garrett,” Louisa said. “And I should get to work.”

She turned away abruptly and meandered through the crowd. Diamonds, emeralds, and sapphires dangled from women’s necks, earlobes, and wrists. Glasses clinked on silver trays.

Tonight was Louisa’s chance to write about something other than whether skirts would be wider this year, or whether Miss Rothschild carried orange blossoms or tea roses at her debutante party, or what kind of china cups were used for coffee at the charity luncheon for orphans. She would prove to the obnoxious new editor that her column could be substantial. Maybe that would make him change his tune though he only seemed interested in the lurid details of people’s private lives.

She wound through the drinking, flirting, and gossiping crowd to make her way to William Vanderbilt and his cronies. He had emerged from his chateau in France and come to New York to see to the continuation of his grandfather’s railroad legacy.

“I don’t care how much money the income tax will supposedly raise. It’s unconstitutional and you know it,” Vanderbilt said, waving a cigar at one of his listeners. Then he noticed Louisa. “And you can put that on the record, Miss Delafield.”

Louisa smiled, pleased that he knew who she was. The women of the “elect” often courted Louisa’s attention. Somehow having their names in the paper validated their existence in a way that mere human intercourse did not. But the old captains of industry like William Vanderbilt could not care less whether or not their names were in the society section. They were more concerned with staying out of the news.

“Thank you, Mr. Vanderbilt. I may just do that,” she said, smiling at him, not averse to using feminine wiles. “Our readers, of course, want to know how you feel about this mammoth achievement.” She indicated the building.

“Twice the size of Penn Station,” Vanderbilt crowed. “My grandfather Cornelius built the first depot on this spot more than forty years ago. If he could see it now! We have systemized every activity with which it will henceforth be astir.”

“And tell me about the ‘kissing galleries,’” Louisa said, pen poised. The men who had been listening to this exchange burst into laughter.

“Leave it to a woman,” one of them said.

“Whitney thought it only right that passengers and their loved ones should have a space outside of the mainstream of the concourse to say their good-byes,” Vanderbilt said, pounding the handsome man on the shoulder.

Louisa left the men to their boasts and self-congratulations. She couldn’t blame them. This building might not last as long as the pyramids but it would certainly outlive everyone in the room and their descendants for generations to come. She stopped by a table piled with trays of shucked Blue Points, Rockaways, Cape Cods, Buzzard Bays, Cotuits, and Shrewsburys — oysters from everywhere except the polluted New York harbor — and relished a few of the salty morsels.

The briny taste still tantalized her mouth when she noticed Carolyn’s father, Captain Anderson, glowering across the room. His face glowed a bright red. Hugh seemed to be trying to mollify him, but the old man would have none of it. Amelia had said he was “in his cups.” The old man lifted a glass full of amber liquid, gulped it down quickly, and slammed the empty glass on a nearby table before storming away.

After a few more minutes, Louisa slipped away from the party. She wandered among the clusters of gawkers on the grand concourse and inspected the various nooks and crannies. She came across a tipsy young woman and her friend standing in two separate corners of one of the halls, speaking toward the walls in whispers.

“What are you doing?” she asked the one closest to her.

“It’s the whisper room,” the girl said, giggling. “If you whisper in one corner, the person in the other corner can hear you plain as day.”

This novelty would probably suit her new editor’s purposes: gossip gleaned in granite corners. She continued her explorations. Eventually, she found herself drawn to the great clock in the main terminal with its four stunning faces made of opal. Tempus may fugit, she thought, but it was also precious so why shouldn’t the clock reflect its value?

As she lowered her gaze, a flash of crimson disappeared behind the clock tower. Dorothy Bloodgood had darted past. What on earth was Dorothy Bloodgood doing down here? Louisa ventured toward the clock and, to her surprise, saw George Aldrich, following close behind. They stopped for a moment and appeared to be conspiring. Louisa pondered the situation. She knew it would be an embarrassment if she interrupted this secret tête-à-tête, but Dorothy was exhibiting terrible judgment. They were in the public eye. Perhaps if Louisa spoke to her, she might save Dorothy from scandal. Louisa hated to think of the Bloodgood name being sullied by impetuosity.

Before she could make her move, a rotund man crossed in front of her, momentarily blocking her view of the wayward heiress. Then a group of giggling girls swarmed around her. She finally pushed free from the crowd and strode toward the clock. But when she got there, Dorothy and George were nowhere to be seen. Louisa spun around, looking in every direction. The pair had completely vanished.

Louisa had seen enough for one night, and if she drank any more champagne she’d have a skull-splitting headache in the morning. She thought about what Virgil Thorn had told her: “Give the readers what they really want — dirt.” Well, she certainly had the seeds of a scandal now, but did she dare to print it? She wasn’t worried about injuring George’s reputation, but Dorothy was another matter. They had known each other since they were children, and like everyone else, Louisa felt a little more alive in Dorothy’s presence. It wasn’t just her captivating beauty. Dorothy had a warm, easy laugh and a way of making those around her feel they were important, as if they were in on some private joke.

Louisa retrieved her fur from the coat check room, unable to resolve her dilemma. If she wrote about Dorothy and George, she would lose access to the people who made it so she could do her job. If she didn’t come up with something juicy, she might not have a job at all.

Distracted, she left the terminal and found the exit to Lexington. She stepped outside into the bitter cold. A smattering of snowflakes drifted down from the sky. Louisa halted in surprise. Carolyn Anderson was arguing vehemently with her father. The Captain was shouting at his daughter.

“No! No! No!” he yelled, his top hat tumbling off his head to reveal a full head of white hair.

He waved a cane in the air. “I tell you I won’t allow it.”

“You can’t stop it!” Carolyn yelled. Louisa stared in shock. Sweet, soft-spoken Carolyn Anderson — making such a scene? The old man turned away and waved for a cab. Tears streamed down Carolyn’s face.

The cab pulled up to the old man. But Captain Anderson didn’t get in. Instead he doubled over. For a moment the scene froze in front of Louisa like a photograph — everything still except for the small white snowflakes, quietly descending like a veil. Carolyn screamed as the old man dropped to the ground and rolled onto his back, his cane skittering across the sidewalk. Louisa rushed over and knelt beside him. His eyes were wide open above pink cheeks, staring up at the sky as his body convulsed. Slowly the jerking ceased, and white foam collected in the corners of his mouth as the light faded from his eyes.

“Daddy?” Carolyn asked in a weak voice. A few moments later she began to wail. Hugh appeared out of nowhere and wrapped his arms around his intended.

A police officer ran over to see what the commotion was all about.

“What’s happened?”

Louisa wrinkled her nose. A bitter almond aroma drifted off Captain Anderson’s breath. Louisa cocked her head and said to no one in particular, “I think he’s been poisoned.”

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