When I asked Madame du Pont--through a moderately skilled interpreter--why after all those years in France she moved to America, ostensibly to live out the rest of her days, she said this to me: I don't give two hoots what country I die in. She said this in French. My interpreter knew only a little German, so I had to take a tape recording I made of her speaking to a friend who works at the library across the street from where I live to decipher it.
"And do you find it difficult to get along, day-to-day I mean, not being able to speak the language?" I asked.
"I understand what people are saying most of the time. And I can point, no?" Again in French.
Standing in the lobby of the library, where I happened to be when I read the written transcription my trilingual librarian friend had prepared for me, I said out loud, "Yes. You can point."
Mme. du Pont lives across the hall from me in an apartment building in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She was eighteen in 1940, seventy-six now. I plan to gain the confidence of the old lady and, once done, ask her what she knows about Adolf Hitler, the late German chancellor. I've reason to believe that the Madame knew Hitler and several others of the Reichstag's elite. And perhaps I'll find that she knew them intimately. That is to say that I think my neighbor here in Pittsburgh slept with der Fuhrer. Wouldn't that be something?
In fact, I did ask the lady once already, many months ago. I had been introduced to her only the day before by my incompetent interpreter, a little man named Henry Himmler. Henry is a 52 year-old grocery stocker who wears striped shirts and a floppy baseball cap every day. Henry was researching the Paris nightlife of the late 1930s and early 40s in order to establish a familial connection between he and Heinrich Himmler, Hitler's chief of German Police. In so doing, he had come across pictures and society page clippings from the Parisian newspapers and journals in which he recognized our withering neighbor. When I took Henry and his obsession as my hobby, he set up a meeting between he, French and German-speaking Mme. du Pont, and myself. It was slow going, for Henry's German could not keep up even with Mme. du Pont's.
We knocked on the woman's door, and not a few seconds passed before she threw the door open wide and bade us come in. "Tell her she should be more careful about who she lets into her home," I whispered to Henry. Henry spoke in what sounded like broken Russian but must have been broken German. I was told later by Henry's and my library friend that Mme. Du Pont's conversational German was actually quite good, though it was not her native language (It wasn't Henry's, either, having been born and raised in the United States). However, that day she only vaguely acknowledged my little friend Henry when he warned her, and she moved quickly into her living room with both of us--hesitant now--in tow.
Mme. du Pont's room was, how shall I say, probably not uncommon for a French-speaking former ingenue living in industrial America. This is to say that her Parisian aristocratic sensibilities had crossed with Pittsburghian middle-to-lower class, and were indeed worse for the wear, somewhat gaudier for the journey. This was not really as funny as I sometimes make it sound. There was a miniature gargoyle set; hollowed, plaster-cast replicas of something much more magnificent I'm sure. Each one in the set had a little gold but faded sticker on the bottom. As Henry listened and I recorded what the lady was saying to be deciphered properly later, I wondered to myself why the little stickers had been worn away. After a while, it made sense; free time will make many normal people do strange things such as move and re-move their decorations.
There was other strangeness in her apartment. Almost all of her furniture was white plastic. It was like lawn furniture except that it was shaped like very elaborate renaissance love-seats, thrones, and sofas. Very intricate, too. I noticed something else, too, that made less and less sense the more thought I gave it: there were bathroom cleansers spaced all over the room; on plastic end-tables, on coffee tables, and several on the mantle. They each had very old-looking packaging. Moreover, each one I looked at closely had more dust on it than the previous one. I surmised that the good lady's memory had begun to fail her.
The authenticity of the rest of her fancy-looking trinkets and knickknacks was as questionable as her gargoyles. Except for an refurnished Black Hawk radio she had placed upon a specially-built pedestal. The radio, I would later find, had a very intriguing past.
Until I learned the radio's secret, however, I made a joke about it nearly twice a week. Mme. du Pont would talk about the old days or tell some old story or little Henry would report to me some old fact he had dug up about 1940s Paris, and I would say: "You must be listening to that old Black Hawk again, because that's old news." Mme. du Pont came to recognize this even when spoken in English. And she would laugh every time, God bless her.
So Henry and I sat down on a plastic wicker bench and were served soda pop. An RC Cola for Henry, a Sprite for me. The Madame told Henry, in German, that she kept on hand anywhere from five to ten different kinds of soda pop at one time. Her American guests, she said, were sure to feel comfortable there because of it. How many American guests did she receive? I never asked, but would guess it's just a handful. Salesmen, probably. Possibly too the building's superintendent, whom she has since said is madly in love with her.
I didn't ask her about her guests that day because I opted instead to open my fat mouth and ask her this: "Is it true what little Henry and I have heard? Did Hitler and his friends spend a lot of time in Paris even during the war, and did you know him, and what was the nature of your relationship?"
Mme. du Pont didn' t kick us out like she probably should have, and was in fact very understanding. But she was quite resolved when she reported back to me through Henry that that was the kind of story to be told at the end of a relationship, not the beginning. Did that mean I would have to wait until the good lady was almost dead to hear that story? That's what it sounded like to me.
Henry and I asked only a few more questions that day, none having to do with der Fuhrer, and none having to do with Henry's possible heritage, and not even the one about why she moved to Pittsburgh, America. Mme. du Pont walked us to the door and said something to us on our way out that neither of us understood. So we went to the library across the street and tried to work with our library friend to find out exactly what the lady had said. He told us that we didn't understand because it wasn't in German or French. It was Latin, for Christ's sake.
Mme. du Pont had said this to us: "A woman takes off her claim to respect along with her garments." Why did she say that? I think I may know why she said it, but I don't know why it was in Latin.
I took a trip to the library several weeks ago. I was supposed to meet little Henry there. He had phoned me and told me that he'd found something really exciting during the course of his rooting around. This time, he said, what he found was about me, Thackery Binghold Hotz. It was about my grandparents, too, who were from Germany. Munich.
What he found was an October 18th, 1928 magazine article in a magazine written for rich people by rich people. The subject was the vast richness of my grandfather, Arthur and his second wife Renst Hotz. Arthur Hotz was born in Cologne but made huge amounts of money in Munich after the first World War. He made that money in--what else?--building construction. He married a little girl of eighteen nicknamed Renst. I can only imagine it was short for something. I never knew her real name, if you can believe that. I told Madame du Pont this and she said not to worry, that she had been told her own middle name only once and had since forgotten it. It's especially hard to believe this since my grandparents became my parents when they moved first to Quebec in 1929, and then to America later that same year. My own parents suggested the idea. They said they wanted to give me opportunity. They said opportunity was rampant in the United States of America. My grandparents, however, were actually planning on settling in French-speaking Canada. When they told my parents that, my parents said (in German), "Close enough."
Did my parents want me in a different country--any different country? That's the impression I get (Years later, of course. I was very young when the deal was struck that sent me first to Quebec for ten months and then to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Opportunity U.S.A.).
It was these grandparents to whom little Henry found the magazine devoted. The magazine was called Die Zeitschriften Der Geld. It was running a special series that concerned itself with how various wealthy people lived in and around Munich. It had no photos or pictures. The writer of the article, one Georgy Pescara, instead of writing a straight report about how Arthur and Renst lived, wrote the following narrative:
"Arthur Hotz walks down Schillerstraude with an awkward but dignified grace. A white-faced, light-haired, wide-eyed man of forty-one years, Hotz has just completed, in this the twenty-eighth year of the twentieth century, one of the most spectacular and remarkable business transactions in the history of this great city of Munich. The result is a fortune worth well over fifteen million reichsmarks, and a place ground in granite among the elite 20th century European businessmen.
"However, Hotz stunned even his closest circle of friends (including, among others, Franz Fils, the great German military marksman; German Maschinen Franz Einrucker, and social dandy Amon Pute), by announcing that he will immediately and permanently abscond Mother Germany and rest away his remaining days among the extravagant vastness of the Canadian plains.
"It is this latter move, treason to most all of the German citizenry, that will leave on the lapel of Hotz's fabulously white [single-breasted suit] a gruesome spot of red blood.
"Herr Hotz enters a popular Munich restaurant a little after noon on this fine October twelfth. He had requested of this author, in advance and aforethought of his great financial triumph, an exclusive interview. By this time, news of his plans to uproot with his wealth to French Canada has spread through the downtown business community like wild licks of flame, heating the seats of his fellow Germans.
"Hotz casually sits down for this interview at a corner table. His hair sparkles like a halo, his manners speak gently but surely. Several society ladies (including one Frau Eisbrechen, wife of universally respected German publisher and owner of this fine jounal, Herr Harver Eisbrechen) ask to approach Hotz's table, do, and return to their seats with earsfull of charm and wit. Hotz eats with force and dignity, enjoying the food and drink like a hungry man. Hotz is not a hungry man. His fortune, even before this latest financial coup, had reached an already-formidable eight million reichsmarks.
"Once he finishes, two large and decidedly uncouth gentlemen take their turn and approach Hotz. They stand silently while Hotz dabs the corners of his moustache, folds his napkin, and sets it down gently over his plate.
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