The Burning Bride

How Quickly They Do Forget

March 13, 1914


By L. Byron
Special to Mother Earth

How quickly the people forget the transgressions of their overlords. Let us take, for example, one John D. Rockefeller, the richest man on Earth and a scourge among humanity. Fourteen years ago — at the turn of the century — he was rightfully despised for his monopolies and his trusts. His company, Standard Oil, was depicted in the papers as an octopus with its tentacles around the halls of government. Today, he’s seen as a wise old Solomon (with an eye for the ladies), but the leopard’s spots haven’t changed.

His son, the great “philanthropist,” pretends to be a different sort of man, a man who cares about the poor, who gives and gives and yet somehow never gets any less rich. What does this philanthropist care for the coal miners at the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company, living in tents under the cold glare of machine guns as troops rampage through their encampments — all for wanting a decent wage to feed their families? Make no mistake, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., is to blame for the Ludlow Massacre yesterday, when the Colorado militia fired on strikers, killing at least 25 people that we know of, including two women and eleven children!

Yet now we see this younger paragon fawned over by sycophant society writers, and I quote: “Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., hosted a dinner at their newly built nine-story mansion on W. 54th St. to celebrate the family’s donation of one million dollars for research into animal medicine. The home is exquisitely decorated with some of the finest modern art from Europe.” I suppose society writer Louisa Delafield thinks it’s fine that children die, shot down in the streets, as long as hogs get their cholera treatment and Mrs. Rockefeller gets her paintings.

I prefer the sentiments of Mother Mary Jenkins, who said in her testimony today, “The laboring man is tired of working to build up millions so that millionaires’ wives may wear diamonds. It is awful when you think of decorating women with diamonds representing the blood of children.”



Chapter 1


The problem was she didn’t have the right shoes. Louisa had managed to find a splendid lace and chiffon evening gown by French designer Jeanne Hallée at a broker’s shop in the garment district. It had been purchased by a Rothschild who had subsequently decided she didn’t like the color — a pale blue — so she sent it to a discreet dress broker for resale. The dress was a steal, but looking through her wardrobe, Louisa realized she didn’t have shoes to go with it, and the wedding was in an hour. She sank to the floor in despair. The door knocker resounded from downstairs. A moment later she heard footsteps on the stairs followed by a knock on her bedroom door.

“Come in, Ellen,” Louisa said. No one besides her assistant and friend, Ellen Malloy, would show up at the front door and be sent immediately upstairs.

Ellen, windblown, her red hair burnished with the late afternoon sunlight streaming through the window, wore her usual sensible cotton frock and toque. She looked at Louisa on the floor in her silk chemise.

“What’re ya doing on the floor, girleen?” Ellen asked.

“I have no shoes to wear to Hugh Garrett’s wedding,” Louisa said, holding up a worn lace-up boot with a broken sole.

“I should think you’d have more important things to worry about than that scoundrel’s wedding after what he did to my friend Silvia,” Ellen said. Hugh Garrett was Ellen’s previous employer, and she would never forgive him for sending a young servant off to have an abortion that killed her. His wealth and status had insulated him from any repercussions.

“I despise him as much as you do, but that ‘scoundrel’ is still one of the wealthiest men in the city and therefore I have no choice but to attend the wedding,” Louisa said. In spite of her feelings about Hugh Garrett, Louisa’s job was to observe and comment on New York society, a job she took seriously, not least because in some ways she was still one of them. She was a Delafield, after all, no matter how meager her bank account.

“Well, I pity the poor girl who marries him,” Ellen said and dropped a magazine on the floor beside her. “Take a look at this.”

“What is it?”

“An article that slanders you,” Ellen said.

Louisa took up the paper and skimmed the article.

“L. Byron? That’s rich, isn’t it? Does he think this drivel is poetry?” she said. “He calls me a sycophant. That’s a big word from such a little mind. And apparently he’s not an art lover.” She tossed the article aside. “No one reads these anarchist magazines anyway.”

She peered into her wardrobe again as if, magically, the perfect pair of shoes would simply appear like Cinderella’s glass slippers.

“Anarchists read them, and they’re a dangerous lot,” Ellen said. She shooed away the ginger cat curled up on cushioned chair, sat down at Louisa’s vanity, and took off her hat. The wind had pulled strands of hair out of her bun, which stuck out like red wires.

“They aren’t a danger to me,” Louisa objected. “Maybe to Rockefeller. There was that attempt on his life recently.” She rose from the floor and shut the door to her wardrobe before the cat could leap in it and get trapped inside as had already happened several times. She didn’t have time before the wedding to go shopping, and she couldn’t bear the humiliation of not looking perfectly put together for Hugh’s wedding.

“The older or the younger Rockefeller?” Ellen asked, as she unpinned her hair, brushed it out, and then coiled it into a thick red rope, which she neatly fastened on the back of head.

“The younger, which is ridiculous,” Louisa said, taking up the dress she’d laid out on the bed and pulling it over her head.

Ellen came over and buttoned up the back, smoothing the lace overlay so Louisa looked as if she’d just stepped out of a Paris salon. Louisa clasped a pearl necklace around her neck, glad that her mother had held onto it through the days when they struggled so for money. She gazed at herself in the full length mirror and continued, “I can understand why the anarchists hate the elder but Junior is a philanthropist. He’s too busy giving away his father’s money to oppress anyone.”

“Except for the miners,” Ellen said.

“Are you one of them now?” Louisa asked.

“A miner?” Ellen asked.

“An anarchist.”

“I’m not sure,” Ellen said with a shrug. “By the way, I’m guessing that Hester has a pair of shoes she could lend you. Her closet overfloweth. Shoes are her one vice.”

Relief swept over Louisa. “Do you think so? I could go by her place on the way to the church. Would you ring her first?”

“I will indeed.”

“Then we should hurry,” Louisa said. “I can’t be late to the wedding of the century.”

“They’re all weddings of the century among your lot,” Ellen said.


Hester’s shoes were a bit too long, but Louisa stuffed cotton in the toes and decided they would have to do. At least they were fashionable. She left Ellen at Hester’s Central Park apartment and hurried across the park to the newly built St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue. She didn’t understand the friendship that Ellen had with the wealthy heiress. Ellen had once been a lady’s maid. Now she was Louisa’s assistant at The Ledger. Hester was the daughter of a Pittsburgh industrialist and sister to one of New York’s new-money social climbers. Hester herself was a spinster, involved in reform movements, especially women’s suffrage, which might explain their common ground, but most wealthy women, even reformers, stuck to their own class.

Louisa reached the church a few minutes before the service began and slipped upstairs to the balcony to sit with the rest of the press. Society writers from The Times, The Herald, The World, The Sun, and a few lesser known papers all had front row seats. The Ledger didn’t have the circulation that the Big Four had, but it had prestige, and because Louisa now had a syndicated column in addition to her local column, she could claim a spot near the top of the pyramid. Dottie Parsons of The Herald scooted over and patted the seat next to her. Louisa sat down and thanked her.

“Nice dress,” Dottie whispered. “The syndicate must be treating you well.”

“Not that well,” Louisa responded. “I’ll give you the address of a dress broker I know.”

“You’re a sport,” Dottie said. She was a few years older than Louisa — a big-boned blonde with ruddy cheeks. A heavy floral scent wafted from her neck and arms. She wore a rather garish pink dress.

“Anybody interesting here?” Louisa asked, looking down into the sanctuary. The church had only reopened last year after a fire had destroyed the old building in 1905, and the new building in the French High Gothic style was a marvel, reflecting the staggering incomes of the congregation.

“Astors, Vanderbilts, politicians, moguls, and Morgans. The usual,” Dottie said. “Say, didn’t you grow up with Hugh Garrett? Why aren’t you down there among the exalted?”

“Long story,” Louisa said. “Suffice to say I am persona non grata in the Garrett house.” She did not dare a tell a fellow society writer Hugh Garrett’s history, that he had actually bid on the opportunity to deflower a captive young woman. Hugh didn’t know the young woman in question was Louisa herself. If it weren’t for Louisa’s publisher, Forrest Calloway, and Ellen, she would have been violated and quite possibly murdered. The Ledger had published the whole story under her pen name, “Beatrice Milton,” and the article had been a sensation. She could have included Hugh Garrett’s name, but didn’t because his family had too much money and power and would have destroyed the paper — not to mention they had threatened to send Ellen, who was their servant at the time, to prison on trumped up charges of thievery. So Louisa had made a deal with the devils, and now she would write about this wedding and hope Hugh would be a decent husband. They had been friends as children, and she believed there was still good in him. Perhaps this young woman would be able to revive it.

Louisa jotted down names as quickly as she could. She pulled out her opera glasses so she could include descriptions of the more opulent dresses. Then when everyone was seated, she settled back to enjoy the wedding. Wagner’s “Here Comes the Bride” blared from the pipe organ, and Hugh’s bride, a wan-looking Minnesota girl without a noteworthy pedigree but with a fortune to match Hugh’s own, made her stately march down the long white runner. She wore a Worth wedding dress, dripping with beads, trailing silk and satin, and draped with French lace. Hattie, Hugh’s sister, had surreptitiously sent Louisa all the details of the making of the gown. One could feed a small country for a week on what it cost, which is something she would not mention in her story, as she wrote for The Ledger and not some anarchist rag like Mother Earth. The nerve of that lowly worm of a man. A “sycophant?” She had exposed the failings of the upper class more than once since she’d begun writing her features under her pen name, but no one was supposed to know she and Beatrice Milton were one and the same.

While Louisa entertained her readers with stories of the social lives of society’s brightest lights, her alter-ego wrote about things that had more importance. When revelers rang in the year 1914 and the city hummed with the pounding of dancing feet, Beatrice Milton contradicted all the fulsome prognostications of prosperity and progress of the larger newspapers by writing an article about the doubling of New Yorkers without shelter that winter to 30,000 and the growing number of children dying as a result. Some people called it “muckraking” — a term coined by Theodore Roosevelt a scant eight years previous, but writing those articles had given Louisa a sense of deeper purpose. However, after New Year’s, the social season went into high gear and Louisa had been kept so busy with balls, soirées, dinners, charity luncheons, and weddings that she had no time for muckraking.

She admonished herself to concentrate on the doings down below. Hugh and his bride were just then exchanging vows. When he kissed her, every woman in the place — even the ladies in the press — caught their breaths. Some of the women wept outright. Louisa was the only one with dry eyes. She had no desire for any of this wedding brouhaha herself. She was happy enough with her clandestine relationship with her publisher, Forrest Calloway. She had the pleasures of marriage with none of the obligations.

The congregants listened to Mendelssohn’s triumphant “Wedding March,” the traditional exit song, and watched a young woman traipse blithely into the mystery of her future. As Hugh and his bride marched down the aisle together toward the church doors, he raised his eyes and scanned the balcony. Halfway down, his gaze caught on Louisa’s face the way a fingernail will snag on a piece of silk. He let a faint smile drift her way. She frowned in return.

Row by row, the congregants solemnly left the church while Louisa tried to decide if she had to attend the reception at Delmonico’s.

“Are you going to the reception?” she asked Dottie.

“Of course. I haven’t eaten all day. At least with this job we get a good meal once in a while. I wouldn’t mind toasting the happy couple with expensive champagne either,” Dottie said.

Louisa sympathized. The pay for a society writer was abysmal. Thanks to her syndicated column and “Beatrice’s” features, she was no longer relying on social events to get a good meal, but she remembered those lean and hungry days well.

As she and Dottie emerged from the church, Louisa decided she would not go to the reception. Instead, she would spend a quiet night at home re-reading Henry James.  

“Enjoy the reception,” Louisa said to Dottie. “My readers will have to be satisfied with copious descriptions of the new Mrs. Garrett’s dress. They must have worked ten thousand silkworms to death on the train alone.”

As they descended the steps, a woman’s voice called out, “Louisa Delafield!”

Louisa turned to see who had yelled her name in such a bellicose manner. As she did so, her heel slipped out of Hester’s too-large shoe, and she bent down to pull it back on. At that moment, a loud BANG shattered the air, followed by a scream. Then more screams. She stood up and saw Dottie behind her with a bright red bloom spreading across the top of her pink satin dress. Slowly Dottie dropped to her knees.

“She’s been shot!” someone yelled.

Louisa grasped Dottie under her arms and held her as she slid to the ground. Dottie’s expression was one of utter confusion. Louisa laid her down and put a handkerchief on the oozing wound as Dottie whimpered.

“It’s just your shoulder, Dottie. You’ll be all right,” Louisa reassured her, but she wasn’t a doctor, and for all she knew Dottie might bleed to death right in front of her. She glanced around to see if the assailant was still there, but all she saw were the horrified faces of the wedding guests.