Berlin, Dec. 1937
In the grand salon of the Carlton Palace Hotel, mirrored walls multiplied the New Year’s revelers into an army of well-fed couples foxtrotting into eternity. Although at home she avoided scenes such as these, tonight Noelle found herself fascinated by the crowd. From the moment that Cette dropped her sable wrap at the coat-check room, the three of them were immersed in a glittering whirl. It didn’t look like a peacetime gathering and suddenly the rumors of war seemed more real. Some men sported traditional uniforms of grey-blue like Freddy or the grey-green of the regular army, but most wore brown N.S.A. uniforms. Here and there an SS officer punctuated the crowd in their pristine black. Middle-aged men beamed and strutted. Young men were, if anything, even more pleased with themselves. Many had been in dire economic straits not so long ago, and allegiance to Hitler’s agenda offered a direct path to success.
The ladies were less at ease, as if uncomfortable in their formal gowns. To a Parisian eye most came off as hopelessly gaudy, dresses festooned with ribbons, silk flowers, or lace. If uniforms were de rigueur for the men, milk-maid braids were the female equivalent. Woman after woman whirled past on the dance floor wearing some version of the braided coronet popularized by Magda Goebbels. Nearly all were blonde. Noelle had to stifle a laugh at the odd juxtaposition of Rhine maiden plaits and modern formal dress.
Seeing her laughter, Cette managed to frown, smile, roll her eyes, and shake her head, all in a split second before composing her features to greet a flirtatious crowd of Freddy’s fellow officers. Insisting on her right as a married woman to forgo maidenly pastels, Cette had chosen a blood red Schiaperelli design of deceptive simplicity. A tiny ruffle ran between her breasts, drawing the eye as it flared down and across her hips to end in a draped slit at her heels. Both men and women followed her progress across the room with hungry eyes.
Since the Fuhrer frowned on rouge and lipstick, Cette had spent ages applying and then rubbing off various colors of lipstick until her lips retained just the right amount of a pink stain, then repeated the process on her cheeks. She had, however, declared that Noelle should represent Parisian elegance in every way, and insisted on applying a perfect maquillage on her unwilling victim. Brilliant claret on her lips, silver cream on the eyelids, a hint of expensive mascara and Noelle looked at once older and sweeter. Her dress, one of Marcelline’s discards, was a relatively subdued confection of storm-colored organza spangled with bronze and silver. Sure enough, just as Cette had predicted, in addition to their Valkyrie braids, most of the women had bowed to party doctrine and eschewed make up. Noelle was at first embarrassed by her vivid lips, but after a few minutes spent circling beneath the enormous, blood red hakenkreuz flags and party bunting she lifted her chin and decided to wear her lipstick as a mark of patriotism, like the tiny tricoleur tucked in the lapel of French embassy officials.
There was something ominous about the number of men in uniform, although Noelle had to admit that her brother-in-law looked dashing in his uniform. Over six feet, he towered over Cette and the majority of the crowd, his red gold curls tamed for the moment. In a few days Noelle had come to respect him. His courtly manners, his dedication to the men under his command, and the surface gaiety that hid a deeply philosophical nature – these were traits of a dying social class. Once, the old nobility had dominated the officer ranks in the army and navy. Decimated by the war and the troubled times that followed, few were left now to carry on the old traditions of public service, and Hitler both admired and despised those old aristocrats that did serve the Reich.
Now, as he swept her cousin onto the dance floor, it was easy to see his father’s patrician features beneath the surface. On Christmas Eve Noelle had met Freddy’s father again, for the first time since the rush of wedding activities back in the summer. They joined him at a small Lutheran chapel near his apartment downtown. The worries and the social whirl of the trip subsided during the candlelight ceremony, where for once the Nazi paraphanalia was missing. Even familiar hymns sounded strange sung in another tongue. Later, they ate a midnight supper in the elder von Sternau’s apartment, served only by his aging manservant, the rest of the staff having been let off for the holiday. That evening, watching him with his father, Noelle had seen another side of Freddy.
Tall and courtly, Reinhard von Sternau still mourned the loss of his wife five years ago. Now and then he showed a flicker of Freddy’s charm. More than once his narrow, deeply lined face flashed into laughter under Cette’s relentless teasing. Like many of the old aristocratic families, von Sternau distained Hitler’s Third Reich, but unlike many, he had never supported the chancellor, never believed that such a man could lead Germany back to greatness. Early on he had read Mein Kampf, and found the hatred expressed there incompatible with the belief system of his Lutheran upbringing. Now, he was dissuaded from vocal opposition to the regime only by concern for Freddy’s career.
The von Sternaus, father and son, shared a certain rectitude, an ironic shorthand in conversation, a thoughtfulness that went deeper than good manners, displayed equally toward servant, family, and guest. Freddy wore his new Abwehr uniform easily; his father wore his dinner jacket with equal aplomb. Reinhard’s shelves were filled with books on the peoples of the Caucaus and on his desk lay scattered the proofs of his latest book, translating the folk tales of those mountain tribes. Noelle came away from the evening with a better understanding of Cette’s new family, seeing an appeal deeper that ran than Freddy’s notorious charm, recognizing the pull of a life grounded in civic duty, intellectual rigor, and family afftection. It was easy to see why Cette wanted to be a part of it.
While her cousin danced, first with Freddy and then with his companions, Noelle faded towards the wall. In a smaller room off the salon, waiters piled platters of cold shrimp and salmon onto white-clad tables. The older women sat gossiping on gilded chairs on one side of the room and on the other the middle aged men gathered to talk politics until one by one they were commandeered by impatient wives. It was impossible to escape the dancing for long, and soon Freddy found her and led her back on to the dance floor.
“It’s kind of an old fashioned band,” she remarked, watching the crowd over his shoulder.
“Well,” Freddy said carefully, “The Fuhrer prefers these more dignified dances, and we don’t hear much of …the more …degenerate types of music anymore.”
Noelle laughed. “Like swing? Jazz? Big bands?”
He nodded. “Exactly. Of course most young people have a secret stash.”
He smiled. “A few are left.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“No. Dangerous. Really, quite unadvisable. Don’t let Cette talk you into it.”
Noelle rolled her eyes. “You use that word a lot. But I haven’t seen anything remotely dangerous.” Even her assignation had gone off without a hitch. She was feeling invincible.
Freddy’s fingers tightened around her waist. “And I hope you won’t. I don’t want to fish you out of a Gestapo cell.” He smiled again. “Troublesome relatives look bad on my monthly reports.”
“What is the Gestapo anyway? I don’t quite understand how they fit into the military hierarchy.”
“The word is a contraction of Geheime Staatspolizei. Just a national police force in the beginning, but in the last couple of years they’ve become independent of judicial oversight — in order to preserve the state against sabotage, spies, treason, that kind of thing. Basically they answer only to the Fuhrer.”
Noelle found herself lowering her voice, like everyone seemed to do when this subject came up. “And that’s why everyone’s so afraid of them? Because they have carte blanche?”
This time he looked directly into her eyes for the first time since their dance began. “And they run the concentration camps. When people disappear, that’s where you look.” Freddy raised his voice again. “Protective custody, an excellent tool for maintaining the peace and quiet you have observed, cousine.
The music moved seamlessly into three quarter time. “Good thing I remember how to waltz.”
“Do you think Cette seems happy?” His face relaxed into a tenderness that Noelle was happy to see.
Noelle hesitated. “Well, she seems happy with you.”
“I’m not sure what she’ll do with herself, if I’m called away.”
“Maybe that won’t happen.”
“I think it will, and sooner rather than later. I was hoping that . . . you could talk her into taking some courses. German literature or something.”
“Cette? Studying Goethe?” she laughed, despite herself.
He wasn’t laughing. “It won’t be easy for her, here.
“She could come and stay with me in Paris.”
He looked at her, but it was difficult to tell what he might be thinking. “Possibly. Possibly.”
And then one of his friends cut in, and she was drawn away on a current of Strauss. The increasing energy of the music left little time for small talk. The faces, uniforms, and gowns became a fluid wash of color. For a moment she remembered an evening at home when she was small. Her father had arrived bearing bolts of patterned silk from Burma. He’d shaken them out for her mother with the grand gesture of an experienced salesman, so that the cardboard bolt clattered across the floor with a muted pom, pom, pom, and the fabric billowed and sank across his arms. The strange panorama of the ballroom swirled around her as she spun across the floor, rising and sinking with the pressing beat of the waltz, just as the exotic fabric had once loosed itself to rise on the air and settle across the parlor carpet.
As if by agreement she and Cette excused themselves from the next dance and met near the enormous silver punch bowl. “Well, what do you think of the cream of German society?”
“Most impressive.” They grinned at one another.
“I wish you could see Magda Goebbels, but supposedly they are taking in the New Year at Hitler’s private retreat in Austria.”
“I’d like to be a fly on the wall there.”
“Wouldn’t we all.”
“There are a few people here you’ve probably heard of. Let’s see…” Cette proceeded to point out a pale little man in round spectacles, “that’s Himmler, looks like a nobody, but a bad man to cross. And there,” she gestured with a loose glove, “next to the doorway, that’s Baldr von Sirach’s wife, Henriette. Her father is the Fuhrer’s favorite photographer and the chancellor pretty much arranged that marriage for them. They say our Fuhrer loves to play matchmaker, though doesn’t believe in marriage for himself.”
“Too busy saving the volk,” said Noelle.
“I’ll tell you some more about that little group, but not right now. That reminds me…there’s a tea next week, out at Goebbels new mansion on the Bogensee. We’ll definitely go and you can see everyone.” Someone caught Cette’s eye. “Oh my goodness, look who’s here.”
They slid through the crowd, Cette waving blithely at those who tried to detain her. “Here, Noelle, this is the most fascinating person here tonight. Meet my friend Frau Bella.”
Cette gave a quick squeeze to a plump woman swathed in pink velvet, her mouth boldly painted into a dark cupid’s bow. Bella appeared to be a fearless character.
“What are you doing here?” Cette hissed after the introductions.
“Oh, I still get all kinds of invitations,” the woman replied airily.
“You’re crazy, mon vieux. You should be touring Argentina right now.”
“I’m staying a bit longer, just to see what I can see.” The woman’s small hazel eyes crinkled pleasantly. “I’m a Jew,” she said to Noelle, in an exaggerated whisper. “A Jew, a conservative, and a gossip columnist – what could be more fantastic? I may write a book someday.”
Cette leaned in, “I hear it’s getting harder and harder to get out.”
“I still have plenty of contacts, if it comes to that. Anyway, I sent my daughter to the States. I can afford to see how things go. Have you seen the Goebbels recently? Magda’s pregnant again, if you can believe it. Goebbels has been seen taking long drives with that little actress, Lida Baarova, you know, and ..,” she lowered her voice at last. “I just heard this: Baarova’s husband waited for them at the gate of their house, and took a horsewhip to Goebbels, the little demon.” Bella shook her head in despair, “If only I could write about it. But you can’t keep people from talking. Magda’s furious, of course. Wonderful, eh?”
“Shut up, Frau Bella. You’ll be horsewhipped next.” Cette had turned pink with delight.
“I know, I know, perhaps I’ve had a teensy bit too much to drink. I wasn’t going to stay anyway – the Dodd’s are leaving, I’m sure you heard. The American Embassy will be a grim place without them. Anyway, on my way to a party where Martha’s supposed to show, are you going?”
“I know, its so sad. I’d love to know what’s behind that transfer. Hush, now. Tell me later, Bella dear. Go on, you better scoot.”
Cette grabbed Noelle’s arm and the two of them circled the room towards the food.
“Whose Baarova?” Noelle was learning how and when to speak under her breath.
“The most exquisite little actress. Hungarian I think. Herr Dr. Goebbels is said to be quite infatuated with her. Actresses are very popular in high places. Even Hitler likes to dine with La Tschechowa. He used to invite Martha Dodd to dinner too. Maybe I’ll get a turn someday. A tete a tete with the Fuhrer could do wonders for Freddy’s prospects.”
A fit of the giggles overcame Noelle again. It was the relief of having her mission done, and the strangeness of the evening and now gossiping about Herr Hitler’s dinner companions.
“Actresses and Americans. Both notorious for wearing lots of make up, no?”
Cette was giggling too. “Certainment, but so cunningly!” She pulled Noelle into a doorway. “They say that Dr. Goebbels asked Magda recently, when did she begin wearing that frightful lipstick—and she said, ‘Since always, my love.’ My mother says it’s never a good sign when a husband begins to notice his wife’s little tricks. This is the woman’s fourth pregnancy in nearly as many years.”
It was strange, how people in Germany gossiped about the party dignitaries. In France people talked about matinee stars or American movie idols, a kidnapped heiress or the latest shocking revue in Montparnasse. No one cared what Daladier did in his spare time, except perhaps Madame Daladier. Here, where political discussion was outlawed, political gossip remained lively and no one was exempt.
As the evening wound down, Cette gleaned more scraps of gossip, but managed to introduce Noelle to only one party official. Making their way back from the powder room, they spied an immense officer in a cloud-blue uniform standing by Freddy, one arm draped around his neck. He wore an unusual uniform garlanded with gold braid and encrusted with ribbons and medals.
“That’s Hermann Goring. So you will get to meet someone important after all! For God’s sake, Noelle, be serious now. Make a good impression.” Responding to some joke of Freddy’s, Goring threw back his head, laughing aloud. Then, he was clicking his heels and bowing extravagantly over Cette’s hand, beaming and offering congratulations on Freddy’s promotion. Noelle had expected a ridiculous balloon-like figure with tiny feet in black shiny boots, for Hitler’s general was invariably depicted this way in newspaper cartoons at home. In actuality, despite his weight, Goering was more frightening than ridiculous. A small hawkish head sat on broad shoulders as if placed precariously there by a careless workman. The man’s weight made him massive, but not in the least jolly and it was easy to see beneath his ruined face the chiseled profile of the brave young fighter pilot he had once been. Hooded eyes of an electric blue shone out of his dangerously flushed face. Perhaps because of the jowls and the vanishing neck, he reminded her of one of the stern old Assyrian gods in the museum at home. Their hard, flat eyes always gave her a chill, because of the eerie turquoise inlay. Goering’s uniform was of nearly the same shade of blue as her own gown, and yards of gold braid made last year’s spangles seem dim by comparison. She bit her tongue to prevent herself from making a flip comment on the similarities in their choice of color.
“Frederick, my boy. Good to see you doing so well. And your lovely wife.” Despite his girth Goering bent smoothly over Cette’s hand. “Well, if he had to marry a foreigner, I am glad he found such a pretty one. I can’t wait to see the pair of you surrounded by a dozen tow-headed children. What a picture that will make, the Wehrmacht officer, the French wife now dedicated to the Reich, and a crowd of pink cheeked youngsters in their Hitler Youth uniforms.” Goering laughed in delight. Noelle could see this explicit vision of the future sweep across her cousin’s face before the perfect diplomatic mask fell back into place. Only Frederick and Noelle noticed how the pitch of Cette’s laugh had changed, becoming high and jagged, like a broken Wedgewood bell that was no longer able to make its customary low chime.
Freddy slipped an arm around his wife’s waist, “We’re still on our honeymoon, sir. Not quite ready for a dozen babies!”
“The good German life will put some meat on your bones, my child, and then we’ll see.” Goering’s snapping blue eye swept on to Noelle, just as Freddy made the introduction.
“Another Parisian in our midst, this is Noelle de Cassignac, Cette’s cousin.”
“Most happy to make your acquaintance, Fraulein. How do you find Berlin this winter?”
“Lovely, as always.” Noelle wasn’t sure how to address him and made do with what she hoped was a stunning smile. “So very clean, and it’s quite heartwarming to see the young people out in all weather collecting for needy families of your servicemen.”
Here she obviously hit the right note, for Goering dark lips broke into a genuine smile. “I’m very glad that you noticed the dedication of our Fuhrer’s youth corps. There is nothing like it in the world today. Children of all ages pitching in without being asked, only the good of the Fatherland and enthusiasm for our leader in their hearts. Most gratifying. Most gratifying. You have an intelligent eye, dear girl.”
The conversation moved on to talk of the weather and then Goering was moving on, gently prodded by his aides to continue his progress across the room in the general direction of the buffet.
“He’s like a character out of a novel.” Noelle said.
“But which one?” Cette raised a perfectly arched eyebrow.
Instinctively dropping her voice, she said, “Now that, I can’t say. Something chilling.”
New Year’s day brought a dim gloom that didn’t bode well for the year to come. Like an over-wetted watercolor the clouds hung low and cold, washed almost navy and dripping an icy sludge on the city streets. Cette moved about the house turning on electric lamps and insisting that more logs be piled upon the fires she lit on every hearth. Still, morning and afternoon remained so dark that it seemed almost as if day had never dawned, as if three of them moved dimly through some illogically extended night, numbed by too much silk and too many chandeliers, and too much champagne. The heavy woolens sat on Noelle uncomfortably after the breezy garments of the night before, and her faced looked heavy and worn without the scarlet glimmer of Cette’s lip rouge.
Even Freddy was cranky and no one offered to walk the restless dogs, who whined and circled fretfully throughout the afternoon. When they settled at last before the fire, the two sheepdogs heaved long sighs, like patient mothers shaking their head at the antics of ill behaved youngsters who have been on leave from school for too long a holiday. Freddy flipped his book open and shut and sorted carelessly through a briefcase full of papers he’d brought from work.