On the Road Again: Notes from the Tour de Beasts

May 21, 2011

The menu board at Southern Star, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The menu board at Southern Star

So I just got back from the first leg of my book tour for In the Garden of Beasts, and I’ve got lots of intel about hotels, diners and other joints that I really liked. From time to time I’ll pass along descriptions of places I stumbled upon that for one reason or another seem worthy of praise. Please note that no one’s paying me for these recommendations. These are just some nice places that I came across while on the road:

–Nashville: The Hutton Hotel is one of the most cordial and well-appointed hotels I’ve stayed at in the U.S. The exterior doesn’t look like much, frankly, but inside it’s all smart decor and nice people, and some killer wines served at the complementary five o’clock wine reception, a trademark event at Kimpton hotels. It is also the first hotel I’ve come across in America to adopt a system that is commonplace in Europe: A room-key operated power switch. To turn on the electricity in your room, you have to stick your plastic key in a little receptacle by the entry door. When you leave and take your key, you literally shut the room off—and save huge amounts of energy.

Lovely mailbox at the side of a street, in the shape of a catfish

Catfish mailbox, Nashville

–Also Nashville: At lunchtime on May 10, the day Beasts launched, my publicist and friend, Penny, raised the matter of lunch. We had no idea where to go. We could have gone back to our hotel, the Hutton, which has an excellent restaurant, but it suddenly occurred to me that I had an inside line on Nashville: My daughter in Italy, who has a friend who grew up in Nashville. So, thanks to the wonders of technology, I texted her, she consulted her friend, and he came back with the recommendation to go to Rotier’s, on Elliston, and order a cheeseburger, a shake, and any fried vegetable that looked appealing. So, we did, and loved it. I learned later that if you tell people in Nashville that you had lunch at Rotier’s, you suddenly gain a notch in their appraisal. If I lived in Nashville, I’d be there every day, which also means that if I lived in Nashville I would weigh 275 pounds.

–Chattanooga: Here too lunch was the issue, so we did a u-turn on a busy street and pulled up next to a pedestrian, and asked him where we should go for a classic lunch. He thought a moment, and asked, “You want the southern thing, meat and three sides? That kind of place?”

We nodded enthusiastically.

“Well try Southern Star. You make a left up here at Broad, and go another few blocks. It’s on the left.”

Just talking to the guy made us fatter, so we hit the gas and roared on down Broad—well, we were in our rental Hyundai Sonata, so really, we weren’t exactly moonshiners racing along the backroads of Tennessee, but just go with it for now, okay?

We came to a commercial district full of low office buildings, not the kind of locale where I’d expect to find a good lunch joint, but there it was. The restaurant is bright and airy, with menu boards on the wall, and polished concrete floors. I had meatloaf, carrot salad, fried zucchini, potatoes, and iced tea, a perfect lunch. One note about iced tea: In the south you need to decide, do you want your iced tea sweet or unsweetened? I chose sweet, and I have to say—as we told our waiter—it was probably the best iced tea I’d had in my life.

We skipped dessert because we were already making impact vibrations in the surfaces of people’s drinks with every step we took.

We headed on south, toward Atlanta, me idly wondering whether William Tecumseh Sherman—the still-much-reviled Gen. Sherman—traveled this path or not, and wondering whether I should reveal that Gen. Sherman was in fact my great great grandfather. He’s not, of course, but I enjoyed imagining the ruckus that such a disclosure might cause in Atlanta, where I was to speak that night to an auditorium full of history buffs. I certainly would have made headlines if I’d ended up hung from a stanchion in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, though such an outcome, while garnering attention, certainly would have further complicated the life of my publicist, since it’s been at least a year since an author in her charge has been lynched.


After the Window-Sill Wars: Rehabilitation of the Red Rose Army

There is new evidence that elements of the Secret Red Rose Army have dispersed to all parts of the country, doubtless because they fear prosecution by the World Court for their role in the recent unpleasantness on Erik’s window sill, in particular that grotesque incident involving the apple-corer. Surveillance photos have captured what appear to be Army members hiding out in far-flung locales. If you happen to encounter one of these fugitives, please send it to Erik’s agent, and mark the envelope, Att: World Court.

Here’s one of the exiles, photographed on the campus of Vanderbilt University in Nashville. His timing was poor, for he happened to choose a city that of late has been experiencing a plague of cicadas, which emerge every 13 years and spend their days flying into people’s mouths and hair.

A Secret Army figurine spotted in Nashville


Note: Approach these army members carefully. They are desperate and cranky and given to unpredictable behavior. The best technique is to distract them by throwing something in front of them, like a pebble or laptop, and then grab them quickly from behind and drop them into a burlap bag. Then spin around three times and shout, “Monongahela.”

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Now and Then (Plus–Can it Really be True–the End of the Window-Sill Wars?)

May 9, 2011

Rudolf Diels, first chief of the Gestapo

Rudolf Diels

I’m fascinated to learn from early readers of my new book, In the Garden of Beasts, that there is an intensity to the narrative that frankly goes beyond what I had thought readers would experience. Though I have a question, why ARE there any early readers, considering the book comes out May 10?

Well, anyway, these readers tell me that the tension in the book is amplified to an acute degree simply by the fact that all of us today, unless we’ve been living under a rock, know how things turned out, while those in the book, obviously, did not. Of course, I knew there’d be an element of this, but I had not expected the tension between now and then to be quite so intense. These first readers react the way I do when I’m watching a horror movie and some clueless character walks down into the basement alone to investigate the source of that strange growling noise. We in the audience know what’s causing the noise, and therein lies the tension: what we know, versus what the characters know. And when I say “characters,” I do have to emphasize my book is a work of nonfiction, and these were real people—my two main protagonists being William E. Dodd, America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany, and his rather wild daughter, Martha.

We all know what ultimately happened—the war, the Holocaust. But the Dodds lived in a world before all that, when nothing was certain, and no one knew the true horrors that lay ahead. So, for example, we see Martha Dodd having an affair with Rudolf Diels, the first chief of the brand-new Gestapo, and this seems shocking to us, because we know how Hitler ultimately used the Gestapo. 

And yet Diels was a very complicated, highly nuanced character. He was strikingly handsome, albeit in a disturbing way. His face was badly scarred from engaging in bare-blade dueling when he was a student, something many young men of his generation did as a test of manhood. He had a kind of integrity that caused diplomats, including Dodd, to think well of him. He lasted in the job only a year, after which the real monsters, Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich, took over. And by the way, during the post-war Nuremberg Trials he testified on behalf of the prosecution.

In my research I found many moments like this, where these early realities contrast sharply with what we believe to be true. We have Dodd meeting with Hitler and coming away believing Hitler’s declarations that all he wanted was peace. We learn, too, that Dodd exhibited his own brand of anti-Semitism, at one time complaining to the State Department that he had too many Jews on his staff. We learn of a letter Martha Dodd wrote to her friend, Thornton Wilder, in which she describes her father as being “slightly pro-German.” She adds, “We sort of don’t like the Jews anyway.”

From the vantage point of today, this seems extraordinary and shocking. Happily, Dodd underwent a transformation caused in large part by the events of a single horrific weekend in June of 1934, which forms the climax of my book; eventually he began a one-man campaign to warn the world about Hitler. On June 10, 1938, well before the first transports of Jews to the death camps, Dodd told an audience at the Harvard Club in Boston that Hitler hated Jews and that his true intent was “to kill them all.”

The Window-Sill Wars XI: The Silence of the Toys


Forces on Erik's window sill engage in...what?

The armies engage

Suddenly, with no warning at all, the forces arrayed against one another on Erik’s office window sill fell upon one another, and in a fierce clatter of porcelain and wood—not unlike the sound of chessmen being swept from a board—battle was begun. But as elements of the Red Rose Secret Army found themselves underneath the bellies of some of the Swedish Horses, and as the Nunzillas and Triceratops and Serpent Pen found themselves surrounded by small porcelain figurines and pretty horses, a confusion settled over the gathered forces, and with it came a great hush.

Severed-head Ken on a red pencil

Ken rising

A silent figure rose above the fray—Severed-Head Ken, perched atop a red editing pencil (a not very good pencil, as it happens: the lead too easily broken, and too light in color). There was something in his vapid smile, in the sweet emptiness of his gaze, that instantly had a calming effect.

A Nunzilla is surrounded by little toys

Nun surrounded

Like a first blade of morning sunlight, reason descended upon the battlefield, and just as suddenly all present recognized the futility of war. But not in the way one might think. War was futile because they realized they could not fight–not because they did not want to, but because with fused porcelain limbs and carved-wood torsos they physically could not engage in battle. Porcelain and carved wood do not lend themselves readily to warfare.

And thus, as abruptly as it had begun, the battle was over. All the misunderstandings, the hurt feelings, the torture and lost honor—all of it seemed something from a distant time. Just as quickly, Erik’s office window sill settled back into its old peaceful ways, and an umistakeable sense of rebirth filled the scene.

Peace returns to the sill

The sill, restored

And outside, spring embraced the world, and all was right once again, though a question remained: Why on earth would a writer like Erik choose to spend so much time with little porcelain figures and painted wooden horses and cranky plastic nuns?

Ken knows. Ken knows all.

Closeup of Ken's eyes

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Berlin at Dusk (And Part X of the Window-Sill Wars: First Skirmish!)

April 26, 2011

Image of Martha Dodd, looking quite glamorous

Martha Dodd

In my new book, which goes on sale May 10, I set out to try to capture a sense of what it must have been like to live in Berlin in 1933-34, during Hitler’s first year or so in power. Most of us tend, I think, to view the whole Nazi epoch, 1933-1945, as if it were one homogeneous block of destruction and genocide, when in fact the war in Europe did not begin until September 1939, and America did not become formally involved until December 1941.

In the summer of 1933, when my two main protagonists—William E. Dodd and his daughter Martha–arrived in Berlin, they, like other visitors from America, found a city that did not at first live up to the horror stories reported by newspapers back home.  The city was alive with energy and color. Its giant movie theaters, seating 1,500 people or more, were packed—King Kong was immensely popular. Well-dressed men and women filled its cafes and restaurants. You could sit at an outdoor table at the Cafe Josty on Potsdammer Platz and watch the entrancing flow of people and traffic all day—the pretty trams, the glamorous touring cars, and the five-way traffic light at the center of the plaza that kept everything moving in orderly fashion.


A lovely spring day was a lovely spring day. You could walk into the city’s main park, the Tiergarten—literally, the garden of beasts—and see children at play and men and women walking their well-fed dogs, as other Berliners rode the park’s trails on horseback. There was dancing every night at the city’s famous clubs, like Ciro’s, the rooftop of the Eden Hotel, and the Palm Court of the Hotel Esplanade, said to be the place where Germans first experienced the Jitterbug. You could grab a drink at the bar of the Hotel Adlon at Unter den Linden 1, adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate, and contemplate a lovely dinner somewhere, maybe at Haus Vaterland, a five-story nightclub capable of serving six thousand diners in twelve restaurant milieus, including a wild-west bar, with waiters in immense cowboy hats, and the Rhineland Wine Terrace, where each hour guests experienced a brief indoor thunder storm complete with lightning and a sprinkling of rain.

Casual visitors left Berlin with a sense that Nazi Germany was not so evil after all, and often praised Hitler and his ability to restore order. But if you spent any significant amount of time in Berlin, you soon came to see a different sort of reality, and to sense a gathering darkness.

–When you drank at the Adlon, you knew to be careful, because the bar was known to be frequented by Gestapo agents listening for anti-government talk.

–You saw a growing adoration for Hitler among ordinary Germans. Women wept when he passed. On May Day the city seemed engulfed by a strange hysteria, as vast crowds gathered to hear Hitler speak.   

–As you sat at the tables of the Cafe Josty, you knew that the handsome young men at the next table, in jet black uniforms, were members of Hitler’s SS, known for their fanaticism and brutality.

–Your German friends adopted the strangest habits, like dragging you into a bathroom to whisper some recent bit of troubling news, because bathrooms were thought to be harder to wire with listening devices.

–Your Jewish friends were quietly losing their jobs and telling you of a growing number of suicides.

–You quickly learned to leave an opera or theatrical event early, before the crowd rose to sing the German national anthem and the Horst Wessel Song—because you knew that you would have to offer the Nazi salute as well, and that if you failed to do so, your life might be in danger.

It was this other Berlin that increasingly intruded on the lives of the Dodds, as the city grew ever more tense, until, at the end of their first year, a horrific event occurred that dispelled forever any last illusions they harbored about the true nature of Hitler.


The Window-Sill Wars X: First Skirmish

The Swedish Horse Army advances on desk

From the east, the pretty horses

The armies are converging. According to new intelligence reports, both the Secret Red Rose Army and the Swedish Horse Army have arrived at Erik’s desktop, one emerging from behind a pencil sharpener, the other at the opposite end, from a stack of files.

The porcelain figurines of the Secret Red Rose Army advance from the east

From the west, the Secret Red Rose Army

Even mother nature appears to know that something dark is in the offing. Wildlife along the marching routes has grown skittish and begun to cower in strange groupings not ordinarily found in the wild.

Stuffed raccoon and sheep, huddled in fear

War makes strange bedfellows

And, there are reports, confirmed by satellite imagery, that the first skirmish between the Nunzillas and the forces allied with Triceratops has occurred. The outcome is not yet clear, but first blood appears to have been shed. Or at least a few plastic shavings. Or something.

Nuns taking on Triceratops; agonized grimaces on nuns

The fighting nuns

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