Strange Moments Abroad (plus, the latest on the Window-sill Wars: Diplomacy and Mobilization)

map detail of Tiergarten in Berlin

The Tiergarten in Berlin, 1933

Every book I write brings strange moments of serendipity, when the past seems to call out to me to affirm that I’m on the right track. Undoubtedly such moments can be explained simply by the fact that if you immerse yourself in a subject deeply enough and long enough, peculiar coincidences and confluences will occur. But invariably at such times I’m always reminded of that closing scene in Miracle on 34th Street, which features Santa’s cane resting against the fireplace in a house for sale on Long Island.

When I worked on Thunderstruck, I stayed in a small hotel in the Bloomsbury neighborhood of London that I picked for no other reason than that the city was in the grip of a rare heat wave and this hotel, The Academy, happened to have air conditioning and was a short walk from University College, London, where I knew I’d be doing a lot of reading. (If you plan to stay at The Academy, ask for a “luxury double” in the back.) I was on the trail of the killer who is central to Thunderstruck, Hawley Harvey Crippen, the second most famous murderer in British history. (Okay, do I really have to identify the most famous one?) I had a list of addresses I needed to find, and made that my first day’s mission. I was so jet-lagged there was little else I could do but walk, stunned, around London, like the Simon Pegg character in Shaun of the Dead. The hotel gave me a room that overlooked a quiet garden and an adjacent street.

I set out early the next morning after dosing myself with a gallon of truly excellent coffee, and began checking off addresses. By day’s end I found myself mysteriously back in Bloomsbury, tracking streets in my London A-Z, the indispensable guide to the labyrinthine streetscape of the city. And there, adjacent to my hotel, within full view of my little room, was one of the most important addresses of all, where the killer and his mistress had met secretly for, well, tea and crumpets, of course. But how strange. It was as if some invisible hand had guided me to that hotel, to that room. This called for a drink, so I headed to the nearest pub. One thing led to another, and again I was staggering the streets of London.

In my research for In the Garden of Beasts, to be published May 10, a similar moment occurred—the serendipitous kind, not the staggering kind. I traveled to Berlin in February, on the theory that hotel rates and flights would be less expensive than, say, in June or July. I checked into the spankingly new Ritz-Carlton on Potsdammer Platz, not because I’m spoiled and need the Ritz, but because the Ritz at that moment needed me, and was offering amazingly low come-hither prices. I received a gorgeous corner room with views over the city’s central park, the Tiergarten (literally, the garden of beasts), for the price of a room at the O’Hare Hilton.

Once again I hoped to find key locations in the saga, though this time I was acutely aware that the challenge was likely to be much greater than in London. A significant portion of central Berlin was obliterated during the Russian assault on the city in 1945 and by debris-removal efforts later, and by the Soviets in clearing ground for the Berlin Wall and its associated “death zone.” I set out happily, amid horizontal snow, and headed for the Tiergarten, since I knew that most of the action I hoped to capture occurred in and around the park.

One key address I hoped to find was the Hotel Esplanade, where William Dodd and his family—the key protagonists in the book—lived during their first months in Berlin. As I ambled north toward the park, I passed on my left the massive Sony Center, with its vast sheltered interior courtyard. Soon I came to a glass wall that rose five stories above the ground, behind which stood a bullet-pocked facade. Curious, I staggered—this time because of the frigid wind—to the nearest historical marker, and discovered that the facade had belonged….to the Hotel Esplanade. There it was. Preserved behind glass, as if just for me, literally across the street from my own hotel. And for just the briefest instant I could see Dodd striding toward the park for a secret meeting with his friend, Sir Eric Phipps, the British ambassador, and Martha, racing south toward Prinz Albrechtstrasse 8, the most-feared address in Berlin, for an assignation with Rudolf Diels, chief of the Gestapo.

This was cause for celebration, so I ducked into the Sony Center to find coffee, and there stumbled upon the new incarnation of the Cafe Josty, which once also had stood in this vicinity and where once upon a long ago time Martha and her friends sipped coffee and smoked and watched the traffic go by.


The Window-Sill Wars III: The Diplomat and the Red Rose Army

The New York Public Library Lion book-end has agreed to step in and try to mediate the conflict caused by the sudden appearance of a wind-up Triceratops pencil sharpener on my office window sill.  NYPL-Lion’s first stop was at the Nunzilla camp, where his efforts had no effect, given that none of the parties could actually talk.

A book-end in form of NYPL lion parlays with nunzillas

The diplomat arrives

Lion later indicated through a text message that he and the Nunzillas had in fact had a full and frank conversation, though a later Wiki-leak quotes Lion as texting his superiors that Nunzilla was “even crankier than usual” and that “all she gave me was a face full of green sparks.”

There are disturbing reports that the secret Red Rose Army, based in the kitchen, has mobilized. (Red Rose tea drinkers—you know what I’m talking about.)

Red Rose tea box with figurine

A new recruit resides within

No one knows where the army’s allegiance truly lies.  Happily, the army moves very slowly.

Little figurines from Red Rose Tea marching across tabletop

The Secret Red Rose Army on the move

And still Severed-head Ken retains his splendid equanimity, at peace amid the turmoil, smiling bemusedly as if at some private joke. Utterly annoying, actually.

Head of a Ken doll which I keep on my window sill

What is he thinking?

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Erik Larson is the author of six New York Times bestsellers, most recently The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, which examines how Winston Churchill and his “Secret Circle” went about surviving the German air campaign of 1940-41. Erik’s The Devil in the White City is set to be a Hulu limited series; his In the Garden of Beasts is under option by Tom Hanks, for a feature film. He recently published an audio-original ghost story, No One Goes Alone, which has been optioned by Netflix. Erik lives in Manhattan with his wife, who is a writer and retired neonatologist; they have three grown daughters.

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