Alexander Woollcott settled back on the old wood-slatted folding chair, wrapped his arms around his tremendous stomach, and groaned so loudly that folks sitting at the end of our long table suddenly jumped, swiveled to stare at him. Oblivious, Aleck ran a plump finger across his gravy-smeared lips, licked the moist fingertip, and grinned at me, his small, round eyes magnified and alive with pleasure behind his Coke-bottle eyeglasses. He struck me as a night owl suddenly blinded by the headlights of a passing car.
“Edna, dear, I’ve come to an important decision about my life.”
This ungainly man twisted on the rickety chair—it creaked and moaned as though trying to escape the heavy load it bore— and waited for me to say something. When I didn’t, he flicked a finger against my forearm, impatient.
In turn, I twisted away from him. “Aleck, your decisions usually result in our feuding for months on end.”
He smirked as he suppressed a minor belch. “Ah, dear Edna, you really do believe I loom gigantically in the affairs of your humdrum but lavish life.”
“A sentence I am tempted to parse, but dare not.”
He spoke over my words, one fleshy hip sliding into the woman on his left. I watched her growl and leave the table. He blinked his eyes wildly. “There is so little that you understand about the workings of a complex man.”
“When I finally meet one, I’ll wire you my thoughts.”
He chuckled and pointed at his half-finished plate of food. “Listen, my dear. I may have to convert to—tell me, what is the religion of these wonderful folks here?”
“Methodist, according to the sign on the church above us.” “Well, well. Followers of that delirious John Wesley. Doubt- less a well-fed man. But Methodists are puritans at heart, no? They believe in fasting. Or do they?” A deliberate pause as he glanced around the shadowy basement with the long institutional tables covered in much-washed but severely ironed white tablecloths, its faded gingham lace curtains shrouding the tiny windows up by the ceiling blocked the weak noontime winter sunlight streaming in. A drab room, the hint of moldy basement about the place. Freshly painted white wainscoting along the walls, checkerboard tiles dotting the floor. “And I may have to move here.” He stressed the word, shuddered as though he were Napoleon facing imminent exile. “To Flemington?”
“A hick town, sure. Quaint, to use the redundant word popping up in all the news accounts. But”—he surveyed the food before him—“such exile is worth it, to dine daily in this pedestrian church basement. Succulent pot roast and rosemary- slathered potatoes, and feathery onions so transparent that…” He sighed, closed his eyes, a thin smile gracing his lips.
“But Aleck, you were born in New Jersey, no? Red Bank? Some notorious commune of free-spirit folks.”
He grumbled, his voice even whinier than usual. “A house of eighty-five rooms and dozens of folks in everyone else’s business. The Phalanx. A father with incurable wanderlust and a love of poverty. My youthful eyes looked to Hamilton College, then to Manhattan, that blessed city. Like any celebrated raconteur, I refuse to cross the Hudson into Jersey swamp land.”
“Yet here you are, settling in, salivating over a luncheon pro- duced by church ladies in hairnets and sensible shoes.”
Aleck glanced up from his dish, his fork still suspended in air. He rolled gloriously in his seat, his triple chins shimmying. His vaudeville sliver of a moustache quivered under his beak nose. His eyes took in the line of prim and proper women, ladies of the Women’s Council, standing behind a counter, ladles in hand, star- ing in bafflement at the avaricious and chatty folks before them. Aleck nodded toward them. “Frankly, given the hidden delights of such frontier cuisine, perhaps I should encourage a few more crimes of the century. One is not enough, though
Colonel Lindbergh might take issue with me.”
“How crass.” I turned away but looked back at him and grimaced. “Aleck, you fit right in with the snickering, snobbish crowd out there.”
I pointed toward the small windows fronting Main Street.
There clusters of visitors gossiped and yelled.
“Ah, Miss Ferber isn’t happy with the way the murder trial is shaping up?”
I rolled my tongue into the corner of my mouth. “Miss Ferber is unhappy with a lot of things, and this…this spectacle is the stuff of horrible satire—if it wasn’t so sad and dangerous.”
“What are you yammering about, Ferber? This spectacle is a journalist’s dream. All the elements of one of your melodramatic novels—the blond American hero who conquered the heavens, soloing across the Atlantic to Paris with five sandwiches. Vive l’Américain! The ah-shucks country boy pitted against a villainous illegal German monster, an ice-cold megalomaniac with a burglarious history and a consuming jealousy of the world’s hero. Lindbergh versus Hauptmann. The power of light against the power of darkness.”
“A street brawl, this trial.”
“Nor inappropriately—a sporting event.”
“And a nightmare for America. Really. Somewhere in Ger- many a buffoon with a toothbrush moustache is chortling— See. Look. See how juvenile—how barbaric!—the American civilization is.”
“I repeat, Ferb dear, you’re speaking nonsense.” He sneered. “And this Bruno Hauptmann has a lot in common with Hitler, both products of the German surrender of 1918.”
“The crime of the century, indeed.”
The “biggest event since the Resurrection,” H. L. Mencken’s sardonic and nasty label of the trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, the sole criminal—the lone vulture—accused in the kidnapping of Little Lindy, Charles A. Lindbergh’s twenty- month-year-old son, snatched from his cradle in Hopewell, New Jersey, on a windy March night, while his parents sat talking downstairs. A national search that lasted nearly three years, until a German carpenter from the Bronx, an illegal to our shores, passed a marked ransom bill, and the world swooped down on the thirty-five-year-old man. The nation breathed in, thankful that our greatest hero might find resolution.
Now, starting on January 3, 1935, the murder trial in Flemington, New Jersey, a place no one willingly traveled to, especially in the dead of an icy winter, attracted the world’s attention. Hundreds of thousands of curious souls, fired up by incendiary Hearst presses and the rabid radio commentators like Walter Winchell, who blathered every Sunday night on WABC about the kraut bastard who took away an angel from America’s legitimate hero—the man who flew the Atlantic solo and came home to parades and fame he didn’t want. Bruno Hauptmann, assumed guilty until announced guilty.
Even Aleck Woollcott, sitting next to me now, his finger gripping a generous portion of Brown Betty, had his Sunday radio program, “The Town Crier,” introduced by a clanging bell. “Hear ye! Hear ye!” Then: “This is Woollcott speaking”—even Aleck told the world that Bruno should be burned in the chair. His grim radio broadcast was followed by the inanity of Burns and Allen and Eddie Cantor. The Lux Radio Theater.
“So here we wait,” I went on in a low voice. “Madame Defarge knitting the days away.”
Aleck dismissed my comments with a shrug. “Our lives for the next few weeks paid for by the august New York Times, which covers its daily front page with all the minutia of the trial—and our take on it, the celebrity commentators, mine, yours, and even novelist Kathleen Norris and her daily diary. Look at her.”
I faced the doorway. Kathleen Norris had, in fact, just walked in and stood in the entrance, her small frame lost in an oversized wool coat, her head encased in a blue felt cap. The novelist wore a surprised look, her chin tilted upward, as though she’d just smelled something offensive. She nodded at Aleck, then at me, as Aleck waved her over. “I adore her, of course,” Aleck began, “but never read her prose. I have enough indigestion.”
Kathleen Norris turned to leave, probably choosing to dine at the Union Hotel Café across from the courthouse. The Union Hotel, the one hotel in town, the residence of everyone, including the jurors housed on the fourth floor. As she moved, she bumped into Damon Runyon who lolled against a door-frame, cigarette bobbing in the corner of his mouth, his fedora tucked under an armpit. He glanced back over his shoulder at the departing novelist and shook his head, an amused smile on his face.
A tall, lanky man, with his wiry frame and blue-black beard stubble, a weathered leathery face, and dark shadows under his eyes, he squinted into the large basement, his eyes sliding off my face and landing on the cherubic Aleck Woollcott. His eyes danced as Aleck, an old acquaintance, grunted at him. But Runyon mouthed one word, which he repeated: “Circus.” With that, he shrugged his shoulders and swiveled away, disappearing out the door, headed up the wooden steps leading to the street.
I frowned at Aleck. “Our fellow scribbler Runyon is having no fun at this crucifixion.”
“What makes you say that?”
“I can read lips. He thinks this…this spectacle—this whole trial, in fact—is a circus. A mockery of American law.”
Aleck harrumphed. “He said no such thing. Lord, you are fanciful, dear Ferb.”
I leaned in. “I also heard him earlier in the lobby of the Union Hotel as he watched a gaggle of Hearst reporters scurrying about, their voices filled with glee, some of them humming that street chant. ‘Kill Bruno!’ He said quite clearly, though to no one in particular, ‘Why don’t we give the man a fair trial? I’m watching the end of American civilization.’ A position, dear Aleck, I’m beginning to agree with.”
Aleck held up his hand in front of my face. “Prattle on what you will, but this trial has all the markings of a Greek tragedy— the war-ruined, aloof Hun pitted against the down-home blond Greek god. It’s positively…well, riveting.”
“It is that, I grant you. But we seem to be forgetting a dead child and another life on the line. If we believe in American justice—”
But Aleck broke in, looking around him, taking in the festive diners. “I have to get on. Walk me to the depot, Ferb. Manhattan is still two hours away from this snow-crusted burg.”
“You’re coming back tonight?”
“Of course. I don’t want to miss a second of this drama.” “You dropping off your copy at the Times?”
“And yours as well. Your faithful messenger.”
I smiled. “An Olympic runner, that’s what you are, dear Aleck.” He grunted. “I never run anywhere.”
“That’s why Ford perfected the car and Bell the phone.” “And Carnegie Deli the pastrami and rye.”
Like it was a contented pet, he tapped his Buddha belly under the buttoned sports jacket. “Another blessing from a god who believes in taste buds.”
I stood and waited for Aleck to shift his body, draping the long black Chesterfield coat over his shoulders like the stupen- dous cape he favored at Broadway openings, positioning the huge black hat with the wide brim on his head, checking to see whether the ivory cigarette-holder he so favored was in his breast pocket. He tapped an ivory-head cane on the floor.
Outside, we paused on the sidewalk, a wisp of ice crystals swirling in the cold air, clinging to the newly erected telegraph poles. “More snow coming,” Aleck whispered, glancing up into the white sky. I pulled my fur collar tight around my neck, shivered, and moved through the folks lingering on the sidewalk. Madness, all of it. Shuffling swarms of excited people, oblivious of the chill in the air, leaned into one another, gossiping, chat- ting, glancing toward the Hunterdon County Courthouse that dominated the small-town street. Stolid, impervious, that courthouse with its four Doric columns and its colonial cupola, with its seven ancient stone steps, struck me as a humble place to settle picayune disputes among local farmers—yes, his cow did wander into my hayfield—and not the focus of international attention. Surrounded by hundreds of telegraph wires—the Postal Telegraph and Cable Company had fifty operators for its thirty-six wires—messages sent out into the world, three million words a day, I was told—the building seemed to glow from the sleet that pelted it.
Main Street and Court Street swelled with people who moved back and forth, shrouded in winter coats and scarves and furs. Reporters shuttled back and forth out of Hewitt’s Cut-Rate Drug Store, many of them groggy from sleeping overnight in their cars because no rooms were available at any price now. Lines of cars, bumper to bumper, idling, puffing smoke into the frozen air, reporters leaning against doors, pads at the ready. Overhead wires were strung from rooftop to rooftop, telegraph and telephone, snaked like the head of Medusa into the upper room of the courthouse where pine boards held operators, shoulder to shoulder, tap tap tap night and day. A constant hum in the street, a tremor of excitement that seemed on the edge of erupting into full-blown hysteria. Applause—why?—unbridled laughter, recognition—hey, Joe, you seen the killer?
A Rolls-Royce the color of apple cider assumed a place before the Union Hotel and a sleek, expensive woman, her face lost in furs and veils, sauntered out, looked around—expecting what? confession, gunfire, screaming?—and then slid again into the backseat, the uniformed chauffeur holding the door and seemingly wondering what to do next. Mrs. Ogden Livingston Mills from New York, holding a tiny Peke. She must have barked an order at the driver because he hurled himself into the driver’s seat and pulled away from the curb. Every day she arrived, a phony subpoena allowing her access to the courtroom.
Aleck and I shuffled past the crowds, with Aleck huffing and puffing. “Lord, it’s only juror selection. Not,” he stressed, “the big event.”
I’d been in Flemington for two days now, ensconced in a tiny room in the Union Hotel, fifty jam-packed rooms, in a room adjacent to that of Aleck, down the hall from Kathleen Norris, in shouting distance of journalists Walter Winchell and Sheila Graham. And so many others, like Raoul de Roussy de Sales from Paris-Soir. Lionel Shortt from the London Daily Mail. Others were forced to find housing in Trenton, twenty miles away. Hearst’s darling, Adela Rogers St. Johns, had secured rooms in a nearby house. Above me were the six rooms where the twelve jurors, eight men and four women, would sleep, though cer- tainly they could hear the beer-woozy blast of journalists and rabble-rousers throughout the night in the tavern below them. They’d eat in the dining room, a curtain separating them from the rowdy press.
Already I balked at the dismal assignment. The New York Times scoffed at the frenzy the Lindbergh kidnapping engendered in tabloids like the New York Mirror, yet, oddly, planned a daily transcription of the trial. They ran a front-page section called “The Kidnapping Situation,” a chronicle of all the kidnap- pings in America, the so-called “snatch game” that plagued the rich and influential. And, of course, the Times commissioned literate commentary from the likes of Aleck Woollcott, Kathleen Norris and—well, me. “Your eye for detail,” the editor had wooed me. “The human touch. Stories from the sidewalk.”
Well, the human touch these days was, I feared, a little heavy-handed, given the opening days of the trial. This was Circus Maximus, this was Chinese water torture, this was—and I refuse hyperbole here—a paralysis of integrity. At night the poolroom of the Union Hotel, converted into Nellie’s Taproom, became a tavern where the rum and local applejack flowed, with the boisterous celebrations of the hundreds of reporters drinking until they passed out. And always—from somewhere in the street—the drunken slobber of a midnight reveler’s vaulted scream, “Kill Hauptmann. Die.”
A Roman orgy of utter sensation.
Not that Aleck, a man who relished the cruel barb or the sentimental hymn to a dead child, agreed with me.
I’d already told myself I’d stay a few days, perhaps listen to the initial testimony of Colonel Lindbergh, hear what Bruno Hauptmann said in his own defense, and then leave, head back into Manhattan. My editors balked at that, to be sure, but I was not going to be a part of such a travesty. Isn’t this trial so divine, my dear? Positively riveting. Divine, yes, divine! Is that a new mink, darling? No—not for me, such twaddle. Guilty or not, Bruno Richard Hauptmann was paraded about like a drugged circus animal, the oily specimen in the jar, this startlingly handsome man in the charcoal-gray double-breasted suit, immaculate, his Windsor tie neatly knotted.
At the livery office attached to the local post office—a closet-sized room where drivers drank coffee, did crossword puzzles, dozed, and spat into spittoons—Aleck signaled to a man sitting just inside the door, who immediately scurried toward him. As with other newspapers and radio stations, the Times had hired drivers and automobiles to shuttle its writers and editors back and forth to the city—and, as well, to assist writers doing local color research in the provinces, perhaps day-trips to nearby Hopewell, where the baby was snatched, to the Next Day Hill mansion in Englewood, where Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s family lived. To anywhere that might yield a gold nugget of throwaway information that would titillate the readership. Long, sleek cars at the ready, with drivers ready to do our bidding.
“Sir.” An old man with sloppy Burnside whiskers and a bald- ing red head nodded at Aleck as he buttoned his coat.
“Ah, Willie,” Aleck acknowledged him. “Ready to wing my chariot northward?”
Willie grimaced, tilted his head to the side. “Don’t know about no chariot, but the time in Manhattan is two hours from now, sure as I’m driving.” Willie Nolan—“William, my name, but my mother called me Willie”—was one of two full-time drivers provided to us, neither of whom pleased me, although Willie was decidedly more offensive than the other, a slick but taciturn young man named Marcus Wood, largely because Willie was a garrulous, crusty man, hopelessly opinionated and certain his shared ignorance need not be questioned. A tiny, twig-like man, perhaps sixty, maybe older, sun-baked sagging leathery skin despite the deep of winter, Willie looked like someone more at home in faded dungarees, with pitchfork and a sprig of alfalfa lodged between his two front teeth, both of which were sadly buck and cliffhanger prominent.
Dressed now in an oversized livery uniform, shiny gold but- tons against a navy-blue blazer, a look doubtless mandated by whatever firm the Times employed for us, Willie had told us when we first met him that he was a local—“Spent years at a chicken farm a stone’s throw away”—hired for the duration of the trial and happy with the ready salary. “Still a depression on the land, you know.” But he was bothered by the multitude of ungracious visitors who clogged the back roads and spilled out of the rooming houses and spare bedrooms of the townspeople. “Everything in town filled up, five bucks a night to sleep on a pool table.” Then he added, “For me, money for tobacco.” A cloud of smoke from a stub of a Camel lodged in his mouth circled his pale face.
Aleck tucked himself into the backseat of the Buick town car. Willie spread a blanket over Aleck’s lap, an unnecessary act although Aleck’s eyes brightened as though he’d been named prince regent for the Jersey shore.
“I’ll be back later tonight,” he told me as Willie slipped into the driver’s seat. A sickly grin. “Don’t wait up for me.”
“I’m certain the angry crowd with torches will alert me to your return.”
Willie switched on the ignition but glanced back at me, winked. Something I ignored, of course, the foolish old geezer. The other day, rounding us up in Manhattan, he’d informed us that he’d been instructed to keep his mouth shut, not to discuss the upcoming trial, simply to chauffeur us as needed—and immediately he delivered an oration on injustice and American heroism and the fate of an America that allowed such miscreants as Bruno Richard Hauptmann to sneak into our country illegally—and then snatch blond, curly-haired Lindy Jr. from his nighttime cradle. Aleck encouraged him, though I frowned my disapproval—ignored, to be sure. Worse, as we approached Flemington, he sang the radio hit that was popular right after the baby was taken:
Who stole the Lindbergh baby? Was it you? Was it you?
After he crossed the ocean wide,
Was that the way to show your pride? Was it you? Was it you? Was it you?
Then he glanced at us in the rearview mirror. “Sometimes I fall asleep with that melody beating in my head.”
“Touching,” Aleck had commented.
“Perhaps you should see someone,” I’d jibed, and Aleck shot me a look.
So Aleck would be hearing his unending spiel for two hours, I guessed, and I smiled as I headed back to the Union Hotel. Aleck, himself a gossipy chatterbox, lived to break into any conversation and introduce his own topic and then exhaust it. Filling the entire backseat of that expensive car, he would be beet-red and tongue-tied in his efforts to shush the driver who luckily and expertly never took his eyes off the road.
As I turned away, I mumbled to myself, “Let the hanging begin.”
At that moment, strutting past the livery depot, his face tilted into the neck of his assistant, Walter Winchell paused. “What?”
“I wasn’t talking to you,” I told him.
Winchell scrunched his eyes in his small bony face. “Be careful what you say, Miss Ferber. Words can boomerang back and hurt you.”
“I know how to use words, Mr. Winchell.” His face flushed. “As do I.”
“But my words don’t set people on fire.”
He paused for a second, glared at me, and turned away. But he muttered something to his assistant who did look back, eyes hard and cold, and I knew I’d added my name to Winchell’s celebrated blacklist.